© Rodney Bolt 2011

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Rodney Bolt


The deaf girls waited until their mother was not looking, then continued their argument, signing furiously. The taller of the two turned her back on the market square, hunching over her sister to keep their squabble private. Their mother chatted on with the man at the fruit stall. If she knew what was going on behind her, she pretended not to notice but gave them their time. The girls shot glances to one of the café tables set out under the trees on the square.


There was something animal about the boy at the table. He was slight, bony. Large ears, too big for his head ““ their flat upper blades almost translucent, with a rough cartilage frill on the curve like an ape’s. His movements were nervy, fitful ““ little flicks of activity. Eyes darting this way and that: to his plate, into the distance, up to the branches. Never quite looking at anyone, but still taking all in, as if expecting a pounce. His fingers shot about like little geckoes ““ to pick up a single piece of shredded cabbage, a curl of leaf from a salad. Clearly he was hungry, ravenous even, but he ate with minute care, licking a pitted olive, slicing it into slivers then nibbling them one by one; forking a wedge of tomato and pecking off a piece at a time, chewing slowly, swallowing, waiting before the next bite. It was as if the lick of an olive, an eighth of a tomato had been at times all he’d had to eat. Accustomed to drawing out a meal as long as it could possibly last, he couldn’t gobble, but was turning the piled plate in front of him into a feast of paradisiacal proportions.


The boy’s fingers flicked up, brushed his chin, then appeared to perform a little dance in the air, to the side of his cheekbone. The tall girl stopped in mid argument, and burst into tears. Her mother turned from the fruiterer, drawing her daughters back into her focus, and patted the crying girl’s shoulder. She frowned slightly, but didn’t enquire, instead handing them the bags of artichokes, plums and apricots to help carry. The boy continued to stare, and gave a little pointy-toothed grin. It was a smile to send a shiver down your spine.


That night the soldiers came and took their mother away. The men smashed the kitchen and spilt out all the fruit she had bought at the market. They ripped at the paper bag that had held the plums, the one she had so carefully folded and used to line the cutlery drawer. “What have we here?” one soldier shouted, forming the words big on his lips and exaggerating his movements like a comic character in an opera. Written on the inside of the thick brown paper was a letter. From their father. The father who had gone so suddenly some months before. Their mother had never told them how she got the messages of love and longing she would sign to them again and again before they went to sleep each night.

“So you were going to join him. Nice little surprise he’s going to get!” said the soldier who read the letter, quietly to the woman, and he hit her across her cheek with the back of his fist.


The men took the girls too, pushed them into the back of a lorry with their mother. Two women they recognised from the market were also huddled under the canvas cover. “They’re children, children!” the women cried. And besides (their mother pleaded) they knew nothing. She always made sure her back was turned at the market, so they could not lip-read. They were innocent of her whispered conversations with the man at the fruit stall.


Perhaps the women’s cries began to irritate the soldier who was guarding them. Maybe he had a heart after all. Because, after a while, he banged on the cab and shouted to the driver, and the lorry stopped, beyond the village where the road took a curve around the furthermost field and dipped down into the forest. The guard pushed the girls out on to the verge, and the lorry lurched back into motion. They could see their mother trying to sign something, but the soldier hit her with his gun. The lorry sunk into the forest, and the girls were left alone under a blank night sky.


Anna and Maria ““ for those were their names, and Anna was the eldest ““ stood holding each other in their night dresses, their bare feet (like little rodents) feeling for patches of earth in between the hard, spiky clumps of grass. It was late April, and the nights were still cold. A section of dull cloud overhead moved aside, as if a hand were parting heavy hedge-leaf, and their pale skins and white cotton smocks were suddenly washed with moonlight. They could smell goats somewhere nearby. But, of course, they could not hear the hoarse yells of foxes, nor the haunting wah hoo hoo of tawny owls. And when the three gunshots, then a fourth, thudded into the night air, muffled by the forest, they could not hear those either.


For a time the girls stood dead still, as if they had been frozen by the icy blue light. And when they stirred, it was whimpering, uncertain ““ a faint movement in the direction the lorry had gone. Shrinking back. A step towards the upper forest, where a path cut back to the village. But not a breath further. Finally, still clinging to each other and with neither a sound nor a gesture passing between them, they turned up the road and started to walk home the long way round.


Normally, around this time of year, they would be giggling about ‘winter feet’. On those first days that the warmth of the sun meant business. On those days that it offered a foretaste of its summer ferocity in place of hibernal taunting, when you could see it but not feel it. Then the girls shed their shoes and thick hand-knitted socks and ventured tentatively outdoors, on soles that by the end of the summer would be toughened against thorns and pebbles yet which, on these first forays, tickled and pricked on even the softest sprigs of spring grass. But this night, on the sharp cold stones of the road, ‘winter feet’ were no laughing matter.


The girls hopped, stumbled, stopped to press one raw sole to a soft cool calf. It was only then that the tears came. Accompanied by a hollow wailing ““ loud and flat to anyone who could hear, a sound as natural, as animal, as the calls of the foxes and owls. Owls whose whoops the wails momentarily stifled. The soft forest floor beckoned them, with its yielding mulch of fallen leaves mouldering gently into damp soil. The memory of moss, of squeezing earth between their toes. So that when again they came upon a path that led back to the village through the upper forest, Anna and Maria left the road.


Maria tugged on her sister’s arm and wrinkled her nose. She could smell the goats again. The girls grimaced at the thought of treading barefoot in droppings, and broke into preposterous giggles ““ misplaced mirth that dissolved immediately into a whimper. The clouds were parting a little now, the metalled moonlight irradiating their hair, glinting on dark leaves as they followed the path into the forest.


If only the could have heard. Heard the silence. The sudden draining of sound as foxes paused mid-step, as the squeaks and rustles in the foliage stopped, as the forest itself seemed to hold its breath. But the girls could not know that the rest of the world had just joined them in their small realm of silence. Anna hunched a little and looked about, gazing into the blackness as if it held a still deeper, darker spot that she could somehow penetrate, pierce right through to the light again. She had always been the more sensitive of the two. The odd one. A knot of unease tightened on her brow. A short way back from the path, to one side, just out of the corner of the girls’ vision, a hand parted the undergrowth; a boy’s hand, but for the hair that ran down its upper edge and on to the little finger. Dark eyes, pebbles of sheen blacker than the night around them, followed their progress, and the moonlight caught the movement of a large, almost translucent ear with a rough cartilage frill on the curve, like an ape’s.