A thorn will lie buried beneath ash and rust, life hidden below decay. I am that thorn. Awake I sit, eyes open wide. But I’m not alone – my brother Markus is beside me. Two thorns in the pale light, not ready to die yet.
A group of soldiers walk by and we watch from our hiding place under a rusty car wreck. When they pass I emerge, sliding out and pushing myself to my feet.
Markus grabs my ankle, whispers, “Not yet, Bandi. Wait.”
I hug the ground, press my fingers onto the tarmac.
“Count to ten,” Markus says.
I begin counting in my head, look up at the muddy sky. It’s almost dark but we have just enough time. Ten seconds pass and Markus slips out from under the car. He nods, and side by side we creep over to the carcass in the middle of the road, squat down beside it. I avoid looking into the dead horse’s eyes. Its chestnut tail is matted with dark red. Markus sets down his back-pack as we both pull small knives from our belts. There is a large saddle bag beside it and we search that first. There are a couple of flares and some matches, a knife and a bag of cornmeal but not much else, not worth taking anyway. We pack the few useful items away and turn our attention to the horse. The carcass has been carved bare but we take what we can, slicing off strips of bloody horse meat and wrapping them in cloth, before placing them into the back-pack. Flies buzz, they won’t leave us alone and I feel itchy, sticky.
We cut quickly so we can move on as soon as possible, shredding the flesh, our hands and wrists wet. Footsteps sound out just ahead and we freeze, lay low to the ground. A soldier appears from around the corner and spots us. He watches us from the roadside ahead for a few minutes, standing there holding his rifle down at his side. There’s a large blade on his back and he’s smoking, his gas mask pushed up onto his forehead. The cherry glows in the fading light. After a few minutes he moves on and I sigh. Markus has finished stripping the carcass and stands up, putting his bag on his shoulders. It’s still not full enough, still light.
“We need to keep looking,” he says.
“But it’s almost dark.”
“I know. But it’s been days since we found anything good.”
I glance around, I know he’s right.
“We came all this way. We need to make it worthwhile.”
“Down this road here. Use the cars for cover. Come on.”
Markus starts walking quickly in the direction we’d seen the soldier. I run to catch up and carry on past him, quietly hopping onto the hood of a car and climbing onto its roof. I squint and search the road ahead with my eyes. There’s smoke rising in the distance but there always is. The sky is brooding, as if ready for a storm but I know it won’t rain. It hasn’t in almost a year.
Everything is dry and hot, everything is dying. Most of the buildings are ruins; walls missing, windows shattered, bullet holes strewn over the concrete. It’s quiet other than the sound of the wind that comes charging down from the desert hills just outside the city. It roars between the buildings, whistling ominously. Markus moves forwards, down the road into my view and I watch him walk carefully, his wavy hair blowing this way and that. There are dark shapes straight ahead, small mounds lying limp in the road.
I hiss, two sharp bursts. Markus looks up at me as I point towards the shapes. He nods and readies himself to approach, while I leap down off the car. I run forwards to catch up with him once more. Then together we run, keeping low and quiet. As we near what I had thought were animal carcasses we both stop dead. What I’d seen as a couple of dogs or cats is a human, a soldier, lying unmasked, torn in two, his body half devoured. I have to look away, hold a hand to my mouth until the ill feeling fades. Markus stands beside me, puts his hand on my back.
“Bandi, you alright?”
I’ve turned away but can still see the soldier’s eyes, open, piercing blue but completely dead, pale. My stomach turns un-easy again and my heart beats faster and faster.
“Come on,” says Markus, “let’s go back.”
I nod and he puts his arm around my shoulder. “Wait here,” he says, “I want to see if he has anything useful on him first.”
Markus goes over to the soldier’s body. I walk in the opposite direction, back the way we came, sit down on the kerb and pull out my sling shot, search the sky for any pigeons. I’ve never been great around blood and guts. It’s the one thing I’ve not been able to get used to. So I hunt instead but the air is empty, still. I sit staring down a long wide road that leads all the way to the edge of the city in a straight line. Barren sands open out beyond, where the ground rises into hills and I wonder what’s beyond that. We’ve never left the city—as far back as I can remember.
The soldier’s dead blue eyes stare at me wherever I look, sealed inside my skull. I feel weak, anxious for Markus to hurry.
My gaze drifts to the hills in the east and that’s when I see it, far away, barely visible. It stays low to the ground, stalking forwards at the roads end. I stand up and run forwards a few steps, stare hard in its direction, can’t believe my eyes.
It’s a black panther, I’m sure it is. The skulking form moves like a cat but it’s much bigger. It stops, turns its head towards me. I can feel it looking right at me. Its fur shimmers, and a burning rises inside me; a hot flame that charges, as the soldier’s dead blue eyes seem to melt away. They’re replaced by bright green, eyes that blaze like copper and fire, and I can feel them flooding all the way inside.
I take a step back, overwhelmed, and I look to see where Markus is. He’s still bent low over the body and I want to shout out to him, but I resist, don’t want to alert anyone. I look back towards the panther, a huge smile on my face, but it quickly fades. The panther is gone.
Only a few seconds have passed but there’s no sign of it. The flames inside me sink away. It’s as if I’d imagined it, and for a second I think that maybe I have. But I shake it off, the thought. Those fiery eyes, they were too far to see yet I saw them clearly, inside my head. I felt them. How could I have felt something that wasn’t really there?
A hand grabs me from behind and I jump away. Turning, I draw my knife. But it’s only Markus, holding out a hand.
“What is it?” he asks.
His blue eyes are greyer than mine, wet from the wind. I’m about to tell him, but something stops me. I decide to keep it to myself, at least for now.
“Nothing… just waiting for you.”
“Well, I’m ready.”
“Did you find anything?”
“No. Let’s go, it’ll be long past dark by the time we make it back.”
I look into my big brother’s eyes and I know he’s lying. I know he’s found something. But I let it go. He would tell me if he wanted to, and right now I don’t care. I’ve seen a black panther. It was like magic, the feeling. I want it to mean something. I’m certain it does. It has to. After all it’s a black panther, and I’d thought there were none left.
Soon it‘s completely dark so we stick together. I don’t run ahead like I usually do. We keep quiet, not talking at all, and before long we find a sewer opening. I climb down first; then Markus follows. It doesn’t matter where we emerge from below, the nearest drain or sewer is always our way back down. It’s safest this way. Once in the sewers we make our way back to the metro station through the tunnels. We used to get lost but we know our way around very well now. We’ve marked arrows on the walls that point the way home, using chalk. It’s a very good system and we almost always make it back faster than the others. Our parents are always very proud, especially when we return with horse or even dog and cat meat. They try to hide the disappointment if we return with rats or pigeons.
We youngsters go out because the soldiers don’t bother us. They don’t see us as a threat. But they would kill our parents. They kill the adults for territory and even for meat sometimes. The soldiers are dangerous, and although they normally leave us alone, we still have to be extremely careful. They’re killers and they’re ruthless, heartless. We can’t let them see us go below ground because we can’t ever let them find our home at the metro station. That would surely be the end of everything, so it’s up to us to keep low, keep hidden – not ever be followed.
Our job is to search for useful items and carcasses, animals to feed our families. Most carcasses we bring home are grim, the meat tough and barely edible. If we’re lucky we find a horse which feeds almost everyone for a couple of days. This doesn’t happen often though, and usually we have to settle for less. There used to be hundreds of horses, all over the city, left behind from the wars. Soldiers used them when fuel became scarce. At least that’s what my father says. There are few left now, so for the last few weeks we’ve had only pigeons, rats when things got really tough. My mother tries her best to disguise the meat but the smell is strong, it wreaks sour, and I can always tell.
We salvage in groups of two’s or three’s. More than three would is too big a group, might bother the soldiers. Being alone is too dangerous so we always stick with at least one other. I always go with Markus. He’s older than me and has been going above ground for over five years now, since well before the drought had begun. I only started going with him around three years ago, when I turned eleven, and I even had to beg my mother to let me go then. My father persuaded her, telling her that I would be safe; my big brother would take care of me. Of course I know that I’m the brave one, and even though he’s been going above ground longer, it’s me that takes care of him. Unless it involves dead things. I’ve always struggled with that. But I try and deal with it because I have to. When it comes to real danger, that’s when I’m the one that gets us through it.
Markus is the smart one, the one who would have done well in the old world. I’m made for this world. I’m small for my age which helps when it comes to sneaking and being stealthy. I can spot salvage materials and carcasses miles away. That’s why I always run ahead, trying to keep a high vantage, usually using the cars or fallen debris from the ruined buildings. We have a good system. My brother and I are a great team. I’m proud of how well we salvage. Plus we have our family call, the hissing sound – two sharp bursts. If we whistled or shouted all the soldiers would hear but a hiss goes un-noticed. It blends with the wind. When we’re above ground only Markus knows what to listen for, and if you know what to listen for a hiss can cut through the air and travel a long way.
Sometimes I wonder what I would’ve done in the old world. Salvaging, hunting for supplies, it’s all I know, all I can imagine doing. Maybe I would have been a soldier. They weren’t all bad men once. Maybe I could have been a good soldier. Maybe I could have stopped everything. If only everything had happened later, when I was older. But I guess none of that matters now.
I don’t remember anything of the old world. I was only two when it all ended and that was more than twelve years ago. The only things I know are the things I’m told or things that have been left behind. My brother was four when things changed and he remembers some stuff. He says he remembers going swimming in the sea, playing in the waves. I know we were all there, as a family. My mother still carries a photo of the four of us standing by a small fishing boat, crinkled water rolling out behind us. We’re all smiling. It seems pointless to hold onto it, I don’t think those things matter anymore. But my mother says it’s important to hold on to the past, even if it is things we’ll never see again. Markus always talks about returning to the sea, once we can live above ground for good, when the soldiers are gone. But my father says the sea isn’t there anymore. He says it’s nothing but dust and flame. Markus is determined to go there because his name means ‘of the sea’; he thinks it’s his destiny to return to it. Maybe he’s just being dramatic. My parents always think he is. He reads too much, they tell him. Real life isn’t like stories. He just tells them it’s impossible to read too much. But he says a lot of things. He also says he can remember the taste of ice cream. I’m pretty sure he’s lying. The taste of things doesn’t last long in the memory; except the rat meat. That taste will haunt me forever and I know I’ll have to eat it again.
My name, Bandi, means ‘man, warrior’. But the war is over and I’m only fourteen. But maybe one day Markus will finally find the sea, and maybe I’ll be a warrior, somehow. It’s all one giant war we fight in here, every time we rise up from beneath the ground and hit the devastated streets. So I guess in a sense we’re all warriors, every one of us. But something bigger is coming. Everything transforms eventually. The dead soldier we found is an indication of that. And the panther. I don’t know what that means. It’s the kind of thing Markus would go crazy about—get all dramatic. ‘It must be an omen’, he’d say, ‘we need to act on this’. But it’s me who saw it. The panther appeared for me, not him. So maybe it’s time for me to believe in something that seems more like a story than real life.