By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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Shelter in the woods

I bring Maria food every day after morning prayers. Easy to sneak off since Aunt Rake’el’s old – falls asleep on the kitchen chair during chores. Ada comes, too. When Maria talks, she stops sucking on her rag bunny.   

Maria’s got a green and brown tarp, same like her pack. She’s put it over the ark. With more branches over that, you can’t see it until you’re right on top. The ground under the roof never dries, but now it doesn’t get any more wet. She’s got a pile of soft pine branches in the corner like a bed, a sleeping bag on top of that. We sit on it while she teaches me to read.

A is for apple. (We have orchards inside the fence. Here, have another. They won’t be missed.)

B is for ball. (The men play in summer. We watch but can’t join.)

C is for cat. (We had a cat. But Father got infected. Fists and fear and yelling. Mother couldn’t find the cat when we ran away to here. We had to leave it behind. That was before Ada.)

D is for dog. (I don’t like the dogs here. Only teeth. No wagging tails. Never go near Front Gate.)

Maria’s got a book with empty pages, not like Father Noah’s book. She keeps it in plastic bag with this top that can open and close like new every time. If we used to have bags like that, we don’t any more. Maria and me use a pencil to practice my letters. She keeps the pencil sharp with her small knife, and I can erase my mistakes. Sometimes it’s too dark in the corner of the ark. Then she puts a funny little light around her head so we can see the pages.

E is for elephant (Too many animals.) E is for egg. (That’s better. Ada and me like to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. The hens are funny, but the roosters are mean.)

 F is for flower. (Lilacs are my favorite. Lots of them near North Fence in spring.)

G is for girl. (Names tell who we belong to. I belong to Father Noah. When I’m old enough, he says if I marry him or one of the others. Brother Japeth’s got Ada. And Sede will go to Brother Shem soon – after The Wives say it’s time. No one belongs to Brother Ham. They made him leave a long time ago. If you’re infected, they make you leave too. No, I don’t want to talk about it.)

 H is for home. (That’s where Father Noah says my mother went after she got infected. But I don’t think it’s true. She never would’ve gone back there.)

Maria’s curious about how we live. Says it’s different than her people. They’re worried about infection just like us. The whole world is. Says she helps fight the infection, too. But when I ask how, she just tells me to focus on my reading.

I is for ice cream. (I definitely remember that!)

J is for jam. (Ugh! Sweaty summer weeks in the kitchen with berries and jars and big boiling pots of water. But Aunt Rake’el says we’re almost out of sugar and there’s no more coming. Can’t make jam without sugar!)

K is for kite.  (I’d like to fly one! Would the men approve?)

L is for lemon. (Those don’t grow here. Too rainy.)

M is for mother. (When Ada was three, Mother wanted us to leave the compound. She made us put on all our clothes and told us to be quiet. But Ada cried. Barking dogs and bright lights. Father Noah says she left us here. But it’s not true. She would’ve said goodbye.)

 After a week, I tell Maria that we can’t come the next day. It’s Sede’s wedding, and all the girls and wives have to go. Maria looks a little green in her face. Gets me worrying about infection. But Father Noah’s book doesn’t say anything about green faces.

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Stephanie A. Hunter currently teaches English at Skagit Valley College, which sits at the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not working or writing, she can be found traveling the world or taking her mother camping. This is her second published story. Her first, "Expecting" appeared in Eclectica Magazine.