by Alanna Duffield
‘Are you sure it’s not too steep?’ I call out, not looking at him.
‘It’s fine. We did it earlier.’
I can mostly detect when he is fibbing. I briefly take my eyes from my handlebars to confirm what I suspect. He is standing diagonally across from me, out of my crash zone, I notice. As ever, his dark eyes sparkle, his lips struggle against a desire to curve.
He is fibbing, of course. No one can make this slope. No sane person would even try. The front wheel of my mountain bike rests precariously at the edge of a concave landslide of gravel, left abandoned on the farm that is our playground.
The only possible solution is try. Brace for impact. I have long since forgotten the concept of saying ‘No’. I am a girl, you see, and two whole years younger. I have much more to prove. And I will prove it, I always do.
I sit my soft bottom down on the hard seat, lift a muddied trainer to the stirrup and tighten my hands on the pocked rubber.
I take a deep breath, then push off the edge.
I’m on the ground, of course. Two sets of hands are pulling me upright, brushing me down of evidence. For a moment I sit in blank shock. I did it. I hear the click click clicking of chains as my brother wheels my bike away, checking for injuries – a bike is harder to mend than a little sister. I take inventory of myself, raising my hands between us.
They are filled with gravel. For a second I can’t understand what I’m looking at. Then with grim understanding, I see that the skin on my palms has sliced broken, and like a coat pocket, has filled up with dense black grit. I feel hot, then cold on my forehead.
‘Don’t look at it,’ says Josh, his voice firm. On unsteady feet, he leads me to the hosepipe, struggles against the stiff brass tap, then dowses my palms in cool water.
‘I can’t believe you did it,’ he says, gently adding pressure to my palms, easing out the muck. ‘I didn’t think you would.’
I don’t say anything. I can’t. I’m holding in too much at once: sickness, the desire to faint at his feet, and other desires, ones I have no description for yet.
‘You might need a plaster,’ Josh says, as my brother George comes over to join us. ‘Will you tell your mum?’
I shake my head defiantly. We never tell. We three are most protective of our feral little lives. Any confession might result in restrictions and we are young wild things. We have not been raised with rules.
Our farm is not like any other that I’ve seen. It’s arable – the only animals we see are wild. It is also sliced apart by woodland. You never have to walk far before you enter a deep thicket. By eight years old, I already know the land better than the man who owns it, better than the men that plough the earth and fill their tractors up with oil.
“We three are most protective of our feral little lives. Any confession might result in restrictions and we are young wild things. We have not been raised with rules.”
The farm is our friend. We know this because it houses numerous treasures that only a child could access. The low-hanging branches work better than any ‘Keep Out’ sign pinned to a bedroom door, and the narrow pathways we share with the badgers and foxes welcome us as part of the ecosystem.
Our favourite is the abandoned fox den. I’m not sure what prompted the vixen to leave such a palace, but we are most happy to keep it warm for her. Only those with enough patience to scramble through the crawl-space get to reap the rewards of this place. As the brambles twist away, the ground becomes completely smooth, like sand or wood-dust. A bizarre, pale tree has grown at a complete right-angle, forming the perfect bench for three.
It is here that I spend most hours of my weekends, living this other life.
My imagination is boundless. It’s an edge I have over George and Josh. My longer hair and skinny arms certainly put me at the bottom of the food chain, the runt of our litter, but they rely on me for the magic. I don’t dare play families with Josh. Playing any part has the potential to mortify. I can’t play his sister. Even braless in boy’s clothes, I know I can never be his sister. But if I have to play his wife, I think that might be the most gutting of all.
Instead, we play armies, and I let them shoot me over and over again.
I have grown up with guns.
Like anything that you are raised with, that you see around the house among the wellington boots and tea towels, they begin to lose their menace.
The three of us all know how to shoot targets and get them right in the middle. George and Josh have graduated to shooting rabbits. I never will.
Dead animals have similarly lost their macabre effect. Where the children at school crowd and shriek around the sight of a dead blackbird, I frequently stroll around my father’s workshop where strung-up pheasants hang from the rafters at eye level. It is the only time one gets to touch their plumage of metallic greens and ambers, and their holly-red heads. I don’t even like pheasant to eat. More often than not my milk teeth crunch down on shrapnel and the blood bleeds into the meat, leaving a bitter taste. It seems a waste to me, as they dangle lifeless like Christmas baubles, but I don’t linger on it.
I know they shoot on the farm. It’s a noise that humans become better accustomed to than animals. Crack-echo. Always the initial crack, then the valley’s soft response. I suppose when you are top of the food chain, you needn’t always be in fight or flight. Crack-echo.
We are playing a game which requires us to hide from George. Just past the old tractor shed which to me has always resembled a giant rusted pig-sty half coated in ivy, the valley begins to curve steeply upward, lined by woods.
‘What about in the tractor shed?’ I huff after Josh, hurrying to keep up.
‘Too obvious.’ He stops briefly to take stock of the land. ‘Up here, in these woods.’
We scale the incline easily, the product of always being on-the-move, our small bodies fighting fit. It’s not a typical stomping ground of ours, but it would be foolish to hide in one of our usual bases. Too obvious, like he says.
Any time we are just the two of us, it is both strained and delicious. I am unable to relax. I have to rehearse every sentence in my head before verbalising it in case I say something stupid. But when it is just us two he is softer with me, somehow. Without George’s alpha presence, he is a guest on my land. Without George’s presence, I could be a friend, not a little sister.
‘Deer!’ I point, suddenly. ‘Up there on the stubble, do you see?’
We watch in silence as a beautiful Roe deer picks light toes over the shorn, brassy crop and heads into the thicket.
‘Let’s follow her,’ says Josh.
We stalk her, the game with George long-forgotten. As we follow her deeper into the trees, Josh looks around at me, grinning and beckoning me with his hands. I get closer to him, quiet as falling feather-down, eyes no longer on the deer but on his outstretched fingers, reaching listlessly back for me.
I reach out, feet avoiding a stump which wears lime-green moss like a dinner jacket, our fingers nearly meeting in the space between us.
‘Shit.’ Josh freezes on the spot. The deer darts out of sight.
‘That was close by,’ I breathe. ‘Really close by.’
We don’t dare move. We are used to gunmen. But gunmen aren’t used to children that play deep in the dark with the deer. The wonderful smile has been wiped clean from Josh’s face. We stay rooted to the spot, our saucer eyes gazing at each other in horror.
‘Maybe we should move deeper in? Get further away?’ I suggest.
‘If he sees us moving, he might think we’re deer. He might shoot.’
I crane my neck to try and find the source of the shot, but we are in too deep. In the distance, I can see the golden flecks of the stubble field through the branches, but it’s too far to run.
‘What do we do?’ My voice wobbles audibly. Even now, I am still gripped by the need to seem stronger than I feel. One of the boys. One of the pack.
Josh seems to be thinking quickly. ‘We’ll creep over to that tree and hide behind it until he goes away.’ Gesturing over my shoulder, I turn to see a thick, furry trunk about five yards away. I begin to manoeuvre myself to face the other way.
‘Alanna,’ he calls quietly – he never calls me by my full name – ‘Tread careful.’
I get there before him and as he rounds the final step he budges up close to me, our backs pressed to the moss. I let out a long, jagged breath.
‘We’ll be alright here,’ he says, trying to reassure me. I anchor myself to his words, holding onto the two years of wisdom he has over me. We’ll be alright here. We’ll be alright.
Minutes roll by as we stay flattened against the trunk. Quivering bark. I think of how often I have wished to be in a scenario like this, our heartbeats this close, our grubby nails touching. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to die here, like so many animals before us.
But my mind goes to George, weary of our playing, eventually finding us, our hair still dancing on a breeze our skin would no longer feel.
‘Oh god. Oh god.’
I’m not sure when our hands seize together. Fear eclipses our shyness. I think of my mother, only a few hundred yards away, preparing a meal we will never eat…
‘Hey!’ The sound of Josh’s yell so close to my ear makes me spook like a horse. I stare up at him, aghast. ‘There are children in here!’
Logic washing over me, I join in, my voice cracking: ‘Don’t shoot us! We’re playing in the woods!’
We keep on yelling, and as we yell Josh pulls me out from behind the trunk. Like rabbits, we make a break for it. Screaming as we run, hands still clasped together. We stumble over burrows and scratch our faces against thorns, but eventually, we break through into the dazzling light of the stubble field.
We don’t stop. Don’t look back to see who had nearly stolen us from this place. We plummet as hard and fast as our legs can endure down into the valley and onto the wide stretch of grass that leads home.
We break hands as we reach the barn where George, knowing nothing of how we have just cheated death, locked in fleshy understanding, has barely begun to look for us.
Almost two decades in the future, in my childhood bedroom I will come across a wooden box of treasures hidden down the side of my bed.
I will come across a locket, oval-shaped and rose gold, smaller than a thumbnail. Though I will not have lifted the locket from its hiding place in as many years, I will know exactly what lies between its hinges.
Some things you never forget.
How to shoot straight. How to find the hidden den from the lane. Your first love, unspoiled by life. Undeterred by manners yet to be learned, unshadowed by sexuality yet to be understood. A moment afforded to us only once by nature.
I will smile down upon their faces. The ones who raised me. My pack.
Alanna Duffield is a London-based writer and poet with a MA and BA Hons in English and American literature. Alanna’s writing, which frequently explores themes of nature, womanhood, grief and sex, has been published by the BBC, Dear Damsels, Candiid Magazine, t’ART Press and features on Spotify.