15. Home Sweet Someone Else's Home
Sometime in the late afternoon Jay reached the end of the valley. The riverbed widened out into a shallow pool, a small puddle surrounded by a larger dry area. The pool sat under a cliff that climbed straight up a distance, thin and bare trees and shrubs growing out of it here and there.
To the left was a thicket of shrubs and bushes, a few small trees sticking out above it. To the right, a narrow path wound along the base of the cliff. Jay turned towards it.
He followed the path for a while, skirting around the odd clump of shrubbery, and occasionally passing through small groves of trees, when the path reached what appeared to be a dead end in a small clearing, surrounded by thick bush on two sides, the cliff rising up on the third.
Jay looked around a moment, then pushed forward. Bare branches scratched his arms and face, and nettles stung his ankles as he pushed through the brush. He ducked under a branch that lay right across his path, then stepped over a dead tree trunk lying amidst the grass. He pushed between a couple of tall flax bushes and found himself in another clearing.
This clearing was surrounded on all sides – the cliff at its back, scrub elsewhere around. Standing against the cliff was a small lean-to, thatched with flax and grass, with walls of old planks, the gaps and joins only partially filled and covered with dried clay. It looked about the size of one decent room, and a very thin plume of smoke rose out of a small hole in an end wall. A gap in the front, Jay thought, was probably the doorway.
“Hello?” he called out. “Anyone there?”
There was a clatter inside, and a moment of muttering, followed by silence. Then a man stepped out of the shack. He was old and thin. Long white hair flowed around a wizened face with eyes too large for the rest of the features, giving the man a bug-eyed look. A long, dirty brown beard grew out in all direction – this man obviously hadn't seen a razor in many years.
Jay was suddenly conscious that he wasn't looking much better – unshaven, bruised, barefoot, wearing only shirt and pants, and he was brown-skinned with face tattoos.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?” the man asked, obviously not pleased to have a visitor.
“Uh… I have a message for you. I'm a courier.” The other man looked at him suspiciously. “Sorry about my appearance, it's been a rough few days. But here's the message, anyway.” Jay took the tube from his pocket and held it out to the man.
The man, clearly wary, reached out slowly, then snatched it from Jay's hand. He pulled it open and unrolled the note, eyes darting up every few moments to watch Jay.
It took him a few moments to examine the note; he kept losing his place trying to keep an eye on Jay at the same time. Eventually he held the note up in front of him, so as to keep Jay in sight behind it, and managed to read it properly.
He relaxed a little, and looked back at Jay.
“Why do you look like that? I thought you messengers were professionals.”
“I'm not sure you'd believe me,” said Jay. “The short version is that my plane crashed and I was abducted and imprisoned for the last couple of days. The long version is, well, a little stranger.”
“How'd you crash? They don't make messengers of amateur pilots, last I heard.”
“We were shot down, actually,” said Jay, “by the same people who captured me.”
The man looked at him, his earlier suspicion back. “I assume you're aware of how stupid that sounds? We're not in the dark ages anymore.”
Tread carefully, thought Jay. I need this man.
“I know it sounds stupid, but what would you believe? That I lost my boots and jacket in a plane crash, and still managed to find my way up here? They dumped me in this valley to die, after shooting me out of the sky with a missile launcher, and I still don't know what started this whole thing.”
“Okay,” said the man. “You're obviously a messenger, that's solid enough. And I guess the rest of your story is too stupid to be made up. Come in, I'll make you a cup of coffee.”
Jay followed the man through the doorway. The hut was lit only by the light through the door – and small cracks in the walls – and by a small fire, burning in an old cast-iron pot-bellied stove standing in one corner of the single room. The man checked a small kettle sitting on a crate beside the stove, then placed it on the heat. “Water'll take a few minutes to boil. How do you have yours?”
“Black, one sugar, thanks.”
“Hope you don't mind brown sugar; I'm out of white. I don't go shopping very often, as I'm sure you can appreciate.”
“I don't imagine it'd just be a matter of popping out to the shops,” Jay said. “How do you get food up here?”
The man looked for a long moment, his old suspicions flashing across his face, then he remembered himself. “Try to be as self-sufficient as I can – small game, rabbits, possums, grow kumara and potatoes. Good years I get some carrots too. Rest of the stuff – ” the man shrugged. “I hike down to the town every six months or so, sell skins and furs, buy coffee, sugar, powdered milk, salt, matches.”
“What happens if you get sick?” Jay asked.
“I get better, or I die,” the man said. “No room for mucking around. It takes me a week to get down to the town when I'm healthy. Sick? No chance.”
“Obviously you think it's worth the risk?”
“I wouldn't be here otherwise, would I?”
Jay didn't have anything to say to that. It wasn't the life for him – he needed peope around – but he guessed he could see the appeal. Freedom, that's what it was. Flying, for him. Living alone, dependent on nobody but himself, free to roam the hills – that was this man's freedom.
And really, he thought, it could be that this man's freedom was a sight better than his. Sure, he could fly, but it required so much else – he had to buy hangar space, fuel, licenses, so much that he had to fly to be able to continue to fly. But that was the paradox of freedom, really, wasn't it? Stop using it and it disappears. And this man had it the same; if he stopped using his freedom to roam the hill farming veggies and catching game, he'd lose his ability to do so, and then he'd have lost his freedom too.
“You don't ever miss town?” Jay asked, “People?”
“My kids, I guess,” the old man said. “Town? Not really. Noisy, smelly, a bunch of people scurrying around like rabbits, pretending that they're doing it cos they want to. Nah, not for me.”
The kettle started whistling. The old man poured water into the tin cups and stirred the coffee and sugar in, then handed one to Jay. Jay sipped. It was hot, and it was bitter and burnt and possibly the worst coffee he'd ever tasted, but it was coffee. It almost felt like civilisation again.
The man started tipping some rice and dried beans in the leftover water in the kettle; he looked at Jay and, without a word, added some more. He put the kettle back on the stove.
“Sorry, I… I don't have any way to repay you,” Jay said.
“Shut up,” the man said. “You delivered the message. And let's be honest, you wouldn't survive another night. You think I'm just going to tell you to wander off and die? No, you can do that tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks,” said Jay, meaning it.
They chatted for a while, small talk about where the best game could be found locally, and what seemed to be happening at the lake, and the best way to get to the town, and then their meal was ready. They ate, and the man indicated a spot on the floor for Jay to sleep, then lay down on his own mat and pulled tussock bundles over himself. A soft snoring soon signalled his sleeping, and Jay shortly followed suit, drifting off next to the warmth of the pot-bellied stove beside him.
The morning, when they woke early, was frosty and clear, the air still, their breath hovering in small clouds that took an unusually long time to dissipate. They stood just outside the doorway, enjoying the early-morning sun on their faces.
“Follow the cliff around,” said the man. “When you go. It's the best way; there's a good path right along the base. I'd offer to let you stay a while, but I don't have the food for two. Better you take your chance than we both starve.”
Jay thought the reasoning was, well, flawed would be a charitable description. But he mostly understood; the man didn't want someone hanging around.
“Thanks again for your hospitality,” he said. “Saved my life.”
“Yeah, well, you do what you gotta,” the man said gruffly.
“Alright, I'm going to start moving then. No sense wasting the light.”
“Sure. All the best.” The man nodded, then went back inside his hut. Just like that, Jay was alone again. He started off down the sheep track below the cliff.