The Gatherers came in the dead of night.
They don’t need touch, they don’t need sight.
Button your lip and make no sound
For the Gatherers have come to town.
It’s hard for us to piece it all together. Where we are now. What we’ve lost. But as hard as it is, it’s vital that we do, because every story is one of a finite number we have left.
The Gatherers came. You woke up and this was the world. And say all you want about the one left behind – with its complacency, detachment, its increasing isolation – but say it knowing that without those faults you wouldn’t be saying anything. Because you have to admit it’s ironic; that those with their heads up their arses are the ones who have lasted the longest, and those who fought to reverse those trends – who raged against our annihilation – they were the first to fall. Ironic that such compassion would be their undoing.
I didn’t love her, the girl I was with. This isn’t one of those stories. I would have liked to have gotten to know her enough for that, but that’s a different world. I was there because she had dragged me there and she was hot enough to do it without me complaining.
Sometimes I’m glad she did. If she hadn’t I might have been with friends, or would have called my family and tried to rendezvous. And sometimes I wish I could. In my darkest moments, sometimes I wish I could just run to someone, anyone, and embrace them and end it all. In my darkest moments… I’ve been so close to that…
‘Would you rather,’ she said, her face warping into shadows beyond the fire between us, ‘lose your arms from the elbows or lose your cock and balls?’
The males gasped and the females laughed. One of the guys nailed the conundrum.
‘You can’t do that! They go hand in hand!’
Everyone laughed. I did too, but a little bit less, knowing they were going to want my answer.
And here it is. My moment. The story I tell whenever it’s safe to tell. The answer to anyone’s query, “When was your first?” This was where I was when it began. I was sitting there trying to decide between keeping my hands or balls. I would have happily offered up both to avoid what followed.
The laughter died. Attention fell to hear my answer. I never offered it.
A scream sounded out from beyond our camp. That cry… it made every grin and face around our fire fall, and there was no mirth left in any of us. That sound was final. It marked the death of something.
No one stirred until someone near me breathed: ‘What the fuck was that?’
I turned to them. To someone. It kills me I didn’t have time to learn their names. I shared smiles and glances with them, and that was all.
Notice the change in my tone right there. How I softened. That’s the kind of thing that will get us both killed. Because you know if you dwell on that you’d have to pause and weep over every stray wallet. Every child’s toy. Every homeless set of keys. But you can’t. None of us can. I write this so you’ll know. You can’t afford emotion the way things are. Not in the open. You don’t know it, but they’re watching. Anything can be misconstrued. It’s safer to just keep on walking. Never dwell. Hide your emotions until you’re locked in a room with a wall at your back and your gaze on the only door. That’s how it is. That’s how you live.
‘That was someone,’ one of us said. Everyone turned to her. With a fast glance around the circle she repeated the last thing said: ‘What the fuck was that?’
I know this tactic. This is someone realising they’re in danger of volunteering. Of stepping out of line. This is someone stepping back, so as not to signal themself as a leader.
‘Should we look?’ someone else asked. No one replied. We all sat quiet, stiff, ears and attention trained to our surrounds, but each of us knew no sound would follow. Right there was the last moment of certainty any of us was privy to.
This is how it’s done. The piecing together of how we all got here; moment by moment, memory by memory and loss by loss. Counting them each, one by one. Because the very next moment marked the arrival of my first.
It came with no more than a rustling of the bushes. I’m sure a number of us presumed it the emitter of the cry, a wayward hiker who had gotten lost, twisted his ankle, seen our fire, and made his limping way. But the mind does amazing things sometimes. It can see the most extraordinary things when met with something ordinary, and the most commonplace when met with the inexplicable.
It staggered out, and even as I looked from its tall naked form to its face I found myself overwhelmed with sympathy, thinking, That poor man! What the hell happened to that poor man? As it lumbered forward, lifting its arm too large to be human, even then I thought, His arm’s hurt. He’s waving hello. He wants to ask a question.
A nameless girl near it grabbed her friend by the shoulder and pulled her close as she snapped in a whisper, ‘Fuck, move away.’
The newcomer’s gaze fell heavily upon her, and in the next instant its arm swung back and down and then up across her face. And she flew right over my head. Her arse lifted right off the log and she soared, breathless and floating, and she didn’t stop until no one could see her and there was only the distant sound of a body landing in the bushes.
I turned to the newcomer, its arm in swing again. This time, though, in that short moment before our next death, the mind offered no delusions, nor pretence of softening the situation. My mind was screaming, ‘What the fuck?’ as if I might have an answer. For as I looked at the newcomer’s face, now fully bathed in the light of our flames, I realised it wasn’t any form of man at all.
Its fist collided with the girl’s friend, the one she’d grabbed the shoulder of. She fell, rather then flew. The impact landed on top of her head with a sickening sound, cracking her skull, splintering her spine, and she wobbled forward with the recoil and landed, I hope, dead into the fire.
The circle broke in what seemed a single scream as every one fled. I don’t consider myself brave, but I like to think had I been with someone I was close to I would have grabbed them, pulled them into the trees and ran. As it was I watched everyone else scatter. I don’t know. Maybe it was cowardice. I’m not a hero in this tale. I maybe should have mentioned that earlier. I’m just a survivor. Arrogant enough to have lived to tell the tale. Whatever the reason, I froze. I couldn’t move for all the activity around me, as if everyone else in their eagerness was draining my ability to act.
I looked ahead at the newcomer: what I’ve since gleaned we call a Gatherer. Once, maybe, it might have been a man, but now as it stood, a mass of bulging lesions and welts, I was certain it wasn’t anything from this earth. It was monstrous. If it ever had skin, it was now cooked and scolded and its hair dissolved. Every sinew and muscle and vein of its body had been boiled to the point of splitting, as if its flesh had been turned inside out.
The foliage behind it exploded with a massive thumping, and the firelight was thrown on a thing more of nightmare than I’d ever seen or imagined. This new thing – this huge and featherless thing – it pounded the air, holding its heavy mass aloft with forceful, beating, leathered wings, then landed on the Gatherer’s shoulder, its sharp talons piercing flesh and drawing bile and blood. I saw the Gatherer flinch just slightly and knew it could feel pain, but the expression of that pain was so slight I knew its threshold for agony was larger than this world.
The new creature settled, drawing its massive wings to its chest, and stared down at me with a face almost feline, but with piercing scavenger’s eyes above a twisted, malformed beak and a mass of fangs and teeth that jutted in every direction with no uniformity. And in the shadows behind it was the whipping of a tail, spindled with barbs to a scorpion’s end.
Their gazes settled on me, the Gatherer’ and scavenger’s, and I prepared myself for death. There’s a part of every man, woman and child and anything conscious in this world that waits for that embrace. There are moments when we inwardly nod. We resign to the fact we’ve been here too long and done too little, and, yes, it’s time the struggle was ended. I think we all have it at least once in our lives, and that was mine. I wasn’t willing as much as ready. It was time. The moment was overdue. And yet it never came.
The Gatherer stared back with a vacant, indifferent stare then shrugged its shoulder. The scavenger leapt and flew and vanished into the night. Then the Gatherer sat. It just sat down with me at the fire.
If you’ve ever had this happen, a stranger join you at a fire, you know the urge to start a conversation is huge. I’m not being flippant or making light of the story, but for a brief moment I really did just want to look this monster in the eye and ask it how its day was, what it did for a living. That urge was promptly broken when it leaned forward, dragged the girlout of the fire and snapped her arm. Not just broke it, but twisted it the way we would a chicken wing until it was torn clear of sinews, muscles and shoulder, and then held it over the fire. For a moment I thought it was going to roast it before I looked up and caught its gaze trained to mine. It was showing me the limb, perhaps offering it.
I lowered my gaze to the flames and was overwhelmed with a nauseous wave. The vomit rose but I was paralysed, as if to move would mean death, and so I let it flow, just let it rise and trickle out and down my top. I suddenly worried this might anger the thing, and the fear and consequence of that were too much to bear, and no longer caring I turned and leant back and spewed everything I had into the dirt behind me. I turned back wiping spit from my chin and found the Gatherer gnawing at the arm, flesh stretching from the bone to its mouth.
I felt the world sway as the blood drained from my head.