Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: I See Angry People (Part 18)
I always found it interesting to see people eat nothing but nuts, berries, and what they fondly referred to as weeds. As the five of us made our way eastward, into the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, the four women had their first experience of eating what was available. Of living on what the land provided.
They weren’t too happy about that.
We didn’t talk much, what was there to talk about? I couldn’t really understand the nightmare they’d lived in. And I was pretty certain they couldn’t remember how long, how many days, weeks, months, or even years, they’d been kept in that nightmare.
At first, they didn’t tell me their names.
The first day they joined me on my walk, I didn’t have anything to feed them. It’s not like I was expecting to feed anyone but myself. I shared what little water I had, shared what pine nuts and berries I had. Until they were gone.
I carried the weakest one most of the day. She was light, maybe 90 pounds. Too light for a full grown woman. There were scars on her. I didn’t ask where they came from. I carried her in silence.
After a couple of hours, we took a break, to give them a chance to rest, to catch their breath, and to let them care for the one I carried. While they rested, I hunted. I searched for anything we could eat. Any source of water.
I found nothing nearby.
We couldn’t stay where we were. That’s always the way it is when you’re walking in nowhere. You have to walk until you find a place you feel safe for the night. Trees were sparse, but you could tell they wouldn’t stay that way. Saplings, and small trees dotted the landscape. Another ten years, and they’re be a large forest that covered everything.
Bushes, and briars where everywhere. “I hope you all like whatever berries we find on the briars. ‘Cause that’s lunch.” That was the thing with the briar patches. They meant food. Not the best food. But when you have nothing, you’ll take what you can get. Wild blackberries and raspberries, chokeberries, and were everywhere.
It amazed me how the thorn laden runners of the briars always had edible berries. As long as I could find briar patches, I could find something to eat.
I let the four women eat all the berries they wanted, and I watched them help their weak friend.
It was four days before they said anything to me. Four days before the weakest one put her hand on my cheek, “Thank you.”
I made nothing of it. “They were evil men.”
I never touched them. Not once. It would have been wrong. They were wounded souls, I could see that.
As we walked, I scanned the countryside for trees. When I found them, I checked for nuts. Walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts. Hell, even acorns. Anything we could break open, and eat. I gathered what I could, and shared what I could.
When we came to a creek or river, we walked along it for a while. It gave them a chance to bathe. And yes, I had to wander off, and let them bathe in peace. They deserved privacy, after all. They thought about fish as a meal. So, I tried my hand at fishing. It took time, but we had a small fish dinner, and spent the night by the lake. Yes, I did make a fire, and I did cook the fish. It made them happy. And it let them rest for a few extra hours.
As we walked along the waterway on the fifth day, she declared she wanted to try to walk. I helped her to her feet, the other three gathered around her, and helped hold her up. We went slower that day. Took more breaks. Drank plenty of water.
That night, she spoke, “I’m holding you back.”
There was nothing I could say, so I shrugged. “You’re getting better.”
“You could leave us behind.”
“That wouldn’t be right.”
She thought for a while, and stared at the stars overhead. “I wondered if I’d ever see the stars again.” She was silent for a while. And she cried. I watched her tears, and felt that familiar ache I’d felt so many times. She tried to speak again. “You know what they did?”
“I know what that place was.” I nodded. “I know you weren’t free there.”
I sat on the ground, and looked at the stars. She sat too. I made started to move a bit further away from her, so she could feel safe, like I wasn’t a threat, but she stopped me. “We were objects to them. Things. Possessions.”
I could have told her to stop, that I knew what happened in that place. But I’d learned sometimes, you have to let a person say what they need to say.
“They did what they wanted.” She crossed her arms, pulled her knees toward her chin, made herself small. And her tears became an ocean.
I said nothing. What was there to say? Another man might have held her, let her cry on his shoulder. Maybe that would have been the right thing to do. Maybe it would have been the wrong thing to do. I let her cry. I listened to her, tried to hear the screams of anguish I knew her soul let loose.
With time, her tears slowly faded. She looked up, at me, with the most wounded eyes I’d ever seen. Eyes that relived all the nightmares she’d been through every time she slept. Every time she closed them. “Thank you.”
We sat in silence, and watched the stars for a time. “I’ll get you to Jessica’s town. You’ll be safe there.” I nodded, and tried not to look at her. “There are others there. They’ve been through what you’ve been through. They know.” I looked back to the stars, “They understand. And they can help.”
When she was ready to sleep, I watched her make her way to where her three friends were. Then, I found a plot of ground, and slept beneath the stars.
The sixth morning, everything changed. I woke to find an eagle standing next to me, staring at me. When I opened my eyes, it screamed. It was a friend of Jessica’s. The eagle had been searching for me.
“Yes. I’m Frank.” I nodded at the eagle. “Tell her. Tell her I’m alive.”
The eagle spread its wings, slammed them against the air, lifted from the ground, and was gone. But we all heard its cries as it flew. And I knew it was spreading the word. I’d been found.
The four women wondered what had happened. “That eagle was a friend of Jessica’s. Jessica’s asked them to look for me. To let her know if they find me.”
We continued east. As the day continued, one by one, the women approached me. They told me their names. Susan, Linda, Tasha, and Ellie. They each said thank you. I told them it would take a while, maybe another week. Maybe longer, until we reached Jessica’s place. But they’d be safe there.
Ellie was the weak one. She tried so hard to be strong. To walk on her own. Susan, Linda, and Tasha helped her as much as they could. But, when Ellie grew too tired to walk, the four of them decided the best way to keep going was to let me carry her.
It was a simple thing, a little thing, but I knew it was a big step, a big risk for them. I was, after all, a man. And it was men who’d done unspeakable things to them, who’d caused so much damage to their hearts, and minds, and souls.
For some reason, Ellie talked to me while I carried her. “My parents came here from Ireland, when I was a little girl.” She tried to smile. “I don’t remember much about the trip. We came in a plane, I remember that.” She seemed to enjoy riding piggyback, her arms around my neck, over my shoulders. Her head next to mine. “I remember seeing Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty. It was beautiful.” Her story paused for a while, like she was thinking, or maybe remembering. “Mom and Dad were full of hope. We were coming to America, the land of opportunity.”
She was quiet once more. But I felt the dampness on her cheek when it brushed mine as we walked. I felt the silent raggedness of her breath, as her tears fell. And I knew enough to keep walking, and let her cry all she wanted.
A lot of dreams had died when the world went insane.
When Ellie’s tears fell no more, I finally spoke. “I’m glad you’re still in this world.”
I thought a moment as we walked. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why haven’t you four left?”
She looked puzzled.
“You’re free to leave anytime.” I glanced at her. “You’re not possessions. You’re people. And after what you’ve been through, I have to wonder why you haven’t left.”
Tasha heard my question, “Because you aren’t like them.”
Susan was next, “You haven’t touched us. You’ve made sure we have something to eat. You’ve take care of us. And you didn’t have to.”
“You could have left us behind,” Linda continued. “You could have set a pace we couldn’t have kept up with, and left us behind.”
“Or, you could have slipped away during the night,” Tasha pointed out. “You could have abandoned us. Left us to fend for ourselves. But you didn’t. Instead, you made sure we were safe.”
I listened to their words, “But. I’m a man.” I paused, “I’m one of them. The same gender that did all those things to you.”
Ellie’s cheek brushed mine again as we walked, “But, you’re not like them.”
Susan summed it up. “You’re different.” She almost smiled, “You’re not evil.”
Ellie said it best, “You won’t hurt us. We can feel that. We know that.”
We walked another while. I’m not good at time. There are no watches anymore. Just the sun, and sunrise, and sunset. When I played out, we found a place to settle for the night.
It was the first night the four of them asked me to stay nearby. Where they could see me. Susan spoke the words, “We’d feel safer if we know where you are. If we can see you.”
That sixth night, I stayed on the far side of the same clearing they were in, as far as I could get from them without being beyond their sight. They slept huddled together. Sisters in their plight. Sisters who understood each other. Who understood their wounds. Who knew the hurt each of them felt.
I slept lightly that night, ready to wake at the slightest sound. And as I slept I wondered how long it would take to reach Jessica’s town.
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Mark woke up in 2010, and has been exploring life since then. All his doctors agree. He needs to write.