I never seed a woman like her. Fuh one thing, she tall. Moves thru the mark with her head up, wrapped in old tatty furs, strapped up with leather and webbing for water bottle, knives. She got a hard face, a bony face. Brown hair like coiled rope. She come my way, where I hunch in the corner by the scrap xchange.
‘Kid.’ She look down with clear eyes. Colour of dust. There’s scarring on her knuckles, a white line crossing the corner of her thin lips. She’s crook-nose too, just a little. Enough to see it once broke. ‘Are you fit, kid? Are you fit and healthy?’
‘Do you want to earn some barta?’
‘’pends. Fuh what?’
‘A bit of carrying, spotting, gathering. I’m going into the jungle. I need an extra pair of hands.’
I laugh. ‘Nobody goes into the jungle. Nobody witted. It’s dangerous.’
Her eyes wrinkle up, bird feet at the corners, as she smiles. ‘Yeah, it’s dangerous. You afraid?’
‘Course I’m ‘fraid. Think I’m witless?’
‘No, I think you’re hungry.’ She looks me up and down to push the point. Feel a prickle in my skinny arms, bare and bony knees; she sees all of me. Not much to look at.
‘What’s the barta?’ Important question. She reaches into her furs, pulls out a handful of scrap metal. Not much rust, a good packet in my reckoning. Some steel. A week of eats fuh that.
‘You get a bag of this. Similar quality. Plus, you get to keep anything you salvage for yourself in the jungle.’
I swallow. I can almost taste porridge. Bread. I could get snails, every day, for a week or so. Still, a coupla week’s food is no good to a dead boy.
‘C’mon kid. I haven’t got all day.’
‘How long? Your trip to the jungle, fuh how long you going?’
‘Six days, there and back, if all goes to plan.’ She waits, her long fingers tapping at her hip.
‘Alright. I’m yours, mam. When d’we go? Can I get some of that barta now?’
She reaches down and I let her pull me to my feet. I grin, to show I’ve got most of me teeth. She starts to walk off, a hand waving to draw me after her. ‘Come on. I’ll feed you first and clad your little bones.’
‘Outta my barta?’
‘Out of mine, kid.’
Joyous! That’s what I wanted to hear.
I beg in the mark, making a crust every other day. The tatty stands are bunched up on the gravel, snugged in the curve of the river. The water goes by sluggily, brown on cloudy days and pale steel under blue sky. There’s a stunt-willow ‘cross the water, like a bent woman with her hair in the shallows. Beyond that are the tumbledowns, and they go as far as looking goes, until they smudge at skysmeet.
They’re empty, the tumbledowns. I tell the woman this, while she hands over good barta to get me garbed, pig leather and dog leather and good shoes. The tumbledowns on this side of the river are lived in, roofed over with sheeting. Bricks hold warmth better than cracked boards.
‘Where’s the furthest out from here you’ve been?’ she asks. I slurp down brown stew, panting and puffing to cool my mouth between sucks.
‘’cross the river?’ She shrugs, I go on. ‘Well, I never gone out of sight of home, not ‘cross the river. There’s nothing to be found in them tumbledowns. And the jungle is that way. I’ve done miles the other way. West. There’s country, some woods, then more tumbledowns for a way, then country for as far as looking goes.’
She nods, gesturing for Gordy to fill me bowl again. He scowls at me. I grin back. Gordy don’t like me, but I don’t hold him hatred; I wouldn’t like me neither, if I was Gordy.
We’re walking East, toward the river when she sez, ‘How many people live here, kid?’
‘Oakpark used to be bigger.’ I gesture around me, big hand sweep. ‘Twice as big, mebbe.’
I nod. ‘That and raids. Big one three years ago. Big black chief and his gang from over Lagrange way, took slaves, gals and women, killed thirty odd men, most slow-dead from hurts, but still.
She frowns, stopping short of the slat bridge over the water. ‘That sounds like Jaims Williams. Did they have horses?’
‘Yup. Don’t know the name though, mam.’
‘Did they have a tag?’ She started us walking again, slow over the bridge.
‘Yeah, their tag was a wheel. Rubber wheel, with a spear through it.’
‘Then it was Williams. I ran in to him before he came East. I Kept my ear out for news about him, after that.’
‘His gang likely to come Oakpark again?’ I sez, nervy. I bin matterafact about the killing and the slaving, but I think I only got left alone back then cos I was little. Mebbe cos I’m brownskin, and the chief weren’t pink either, so I got lucky. I dunno.
‘No, Jaims Williams is dead. The Wheelers are broken up, some dead, some split.’ She said it like it was no big news. Big news for me though, big for Oakpark.
‘Fuckyes! Joyous!’ I grin, all teeth. Never been so happy to hear of a death.
‘Don’t be so cheered,’ the woman sez. ‘When a monster dies, it pays to know how.’
‘Because the Wheelers didn’t get sick, and Jaims Williams didn’t fall off his horse. They were beaten and broken up.’
‘By another monster,’ I worked it, sudden. She smirks, pleased.
‘You are witted after all. Yes. Somebody beat the first monster, and they did it by being cleverer, or stronger, or fiercer. Better.’
‘I ain’t cheered now, mam.’ I sound it bright, but truth is I’m fearing now.
‘Good.’ She looks down at me, wind whipping her ropey hair. We both look back at Oakpark, before the rubble and the tumbledowns around us get in the way of that view.
‘Don’t be cheered, be sharp. We’re going into the jungle.’
I turn and look that way. The sky is coming down, black and glossy and heavy. Sunlight slides underneath them clouds, lighting the land up all yellow, all the way to a distant silver mirror on the skysmeet. But the light doesn’t properly catch on the great, heaping, snaggletooth smudge that gets in the way of it.
She puts a hand on me shoulder, shoves me on. ‘Long way yet to go, kid.’
The Chicago jungle makes me shudder, but still I put foot in front of foot, and off we go.