Out of the Badlands: Part 9:
You remember your Dickens, right? I’d quote it accurately, except the people who owned the house before didn’t seem to have been big on reading, and there were only modern paperbacks of the ‘tawdry romance’ and ‘dime mysteries’ type to be found. So, in the Christmas Carol, in one of Scrooge’s dream-lessons, one of the Christmas ghosts shows him a pair of emaciated feral children, whom he names ‘Want’ and ‘Ignorance’. I bet you can see where I’m going with that.
One morning, when I went out into the downpour to check on the sheep, I found two new creatures huddled at the back of the stall, burrowed into the hay for warmth. The stall reeked of sheep, of course, but there was another smell, too. Humans smell awful if they’re not bathed often enough.
By their faces, they looked twelve to fourteen. The boy and girl, cadaverous and dressed in shreds that hardly covered them and offered no protection from cold, rain, insects, or—as they were barefooted—snakes, woke when they heard me approaching. The boy hissed, taking up a defensive crouch, pulling a knife from somewhere and slashing it through the air between himself and me. The girl pressed herself back further into the hay with a whimper that broke my heart.
“Gawa!” the boy warned me, as if wielding a very sharp piece of metal weren’t message enough.
I couldn’t deal with it. What was I supposed to do? Talk soothingly to the kid until he put the knife down? I said, carefully, “Don’t hurt me, and I won’t hurt you,” and I backed out of the stall, turned, and hurried—running wasn’t an option on the muddy, slippery ground—until I got to the workshop where Faustus was spending his rainy days.
He turned to me, chisel in hand.
“There are kids in with the sheep. Children.”
“How do I know? They’re starving, and they’re dangerous.”
“They didn’t kill any of the sheep, did they?”
“Not yet. That boy would kill us as soon as look at us, though. I just came to find you. I didn’t try to get closer.”
He looked at me. He didn’t put the chisel down. “Before we go back over there, what do you want to do with them? Keep them? That means feeding them. Do we have enough food for four?”
“I understand that. Can we help them without hurting ourselves?”
I didn’t want to hear that kind of question. “Are you suggesting we shove them out and just let them die? They’re the only other humans we’ve seen since—“
He cut across me sharply. “How do you know they’re human?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How do you know they’re still human?”
I boggled at him. The boy had spoken, hadn’t he? Or had he? I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times.
Faustus laid down his chisel and picked up an axe-handle, imported hickory. He said, “Let’s go talk to them,” and he led the way out of the workshop and into relentless downpour.
I didn’t follow straight away, but detoured to the front porch of the house to get my baseball bat. The kids hadn’t looked strong, but the boy at least had been startlingly swift in his threat, and a blade was a danger no matter who held it. I had flashbacks to the mobs.
The two kids were still huddled back in the hay. We studied them from the door, while the sheep milled and grumbled.
I saw something I hadn’t seen before. “Faustus,” I whispered, “The girl is pregnant.”
“Oh, geez,” he said, and some of the fight went out of him. He didn’t let down his guard, though. More loudly, he said, “What are your names?”
They stared at us, uncomprehending. Feral. The girl was more afraid of Faustus than she was of me.
I tried. “I’m Tanya.” I touched my chest. I watched the boy shift defensively. He was the smaller of the two¬—her brother, I thought. Not the father of the baby. No wonder he was so protective of her.
Faustus said, “Are you hungry? Do you want some food?”
The girl’s eyes lit up. Whatever had happened to her, she was still sentient. She peered out from behind the boy, a little braver since someone had said the magic word. She said quietly, “Food?”
“Food,” Faustus confirmed, casting a sideways glance at me. “Tell him to put down the knife.”
The girl didn’t talk to the boy, but she patted his arm, and then reached and took it from him. He resisted a little, but when she saw she was trying to maneuver her swollen belly and get to her feet, he relented and gave her a pull. They showed us their hands were empty before we let them out of the stall.
I’ve heard that a starving person can literally eat himself to death if he’s given all the food he wants. Something about the gut not being able to handle the food, or something. I suppose it was a good thing we didn’t have enough food—unless you counted meat on the hoof—for them to have as much as they wanted.
We dished up the food, which was a grain-based gruel, equally into four bowls. The servings looked woefully small to me, but I suppose the kids thought it was a feast. While they were eating, something only the girl seemed to know how to use a utensil to do, Faustus went back out into the rain and came back shortly with a small cup of something sheltered under the palm of his hand.
He put it in front of the girl. “Milk,” he said. “You need it.”
“Where did you get milk?” I asked.
“The ewes are good for more than wool. She didn’t like being milked, but I think this girl needs it a lot more than the lamb does.”
The girl in question picked up the cup, peered into it, and broke down in tears.
“Go ahead, girl. Drink up. Then I suppose we’ll have to get you washed up. It isn’t like we don’t’ have enough water at the moment.”
The girl gave him a watery smile, albeit one that was still a little wary, and drank half the milk before giving the rest to the boy, who gulped it greedily.
“Guess you can’t stop ‘em,” Faustus muttered. “Tanya, will you get the girl washed up? I’ll see what I can do with the boy.”
I tried, but the boy refused to be separated from his sister. I finally decided that, considering how they had survived since the Terrible Day, they’d probably seen each other naked. We had no hot water ready for bathing, but I stoked up the hobo stove and began heating a potful. When it was warm, I had them strip on the front porch and wash there, brooming the dirty water off into the dooryard when they were done. We found clean clothes for them in the closets, and that was us. I was at a loss what to do next.
Faustus muttered in my ear, “I’m going back out to the shop. Don’t turn your back on them for a moment. Keep a weapon in reach. And holler if you need help.” And on that cheerful note, he left me alone with them.