AGE 4. HOME.
The women were always on watch.
"What are you looking for?" I asked one day.
I was very small. Mama was getting ready for her shift. I should have been sleeping, but the biggest fire had not yet died down to coals and the women talked and clucked and laughed and passed great cups of tea around the circle. I wished that I was big, so I could join the fun. Instead I was curled up on my side in my bedroll, watching Mama dip into the grease pot, drag dark fingers across her skin. You can't go on watch pale. Everyone knows that.
Mama glanced at me. I don't think I had ever asked her this before. "Raiders," she said briefly.
Raiders were a legend here, a bedtime story. While the women gardened, we would dart between them, playing raider. It was the raider's job to tag everyone before they got to home base. Once they tagged you, you were a raider too. Sometimes the bigger children made me raider because they thought I'd never catch them. My legs were shorter than theirs.
Sometimes I caught them anyway.
I had never seen a real raider, unless you count the fat snails that oozed into our gardens to try and steal the food we'd grown. Mother Emme used to squish them with her bootheels, until Mother Lolly admonished her one day. "There is a use for all things," she said, plucking a brown shell from a fat leaf. "Even these." Their shells popped when we roasted them over the fire. Their little bodies tasted salty, like my thumb. We had to chew and chew and chew them. "Raider rashers," Mother Lolly called them, winking as she passed the dish.
But I knew Mama didn't grease up and walk out into the darkness to look for snails. We collected those, in buckets. She was looking for something you didn't find in the gardens.
She was looking for the bad guys.
Sometimes we played Hide and Seek, too. That was a game the Mothers played right along with us. We could be doing anything; the sun could be low in the sky, or high. Suddenly the call would sound: clear, urgent, like a very pretty bird falling from the sky. When the call came, we hid. There were a few really good places - the hollow of a tree, the dark soil of a hole in the earth Mother Hazel dug one day a little beyond the firepit - but the rule was, wherever you hid, it couldn't be more than fifteen paces from where you had started. You had to hide quickly. "Become an artifact," Mother Hazel told us. "It's the most important part. Become frozen in time. Become rusted in your hiding place. Become the Volkswagon."
The Volkswagon was the only vehicle we had with nothing left on it to salvage. It sat in a thicket, jacketed in climbing vines and nettles the mothers sometimes cut for tea. Once upon a time, maybe it had been shiny like the hubcap Mama and I washed up in. But now it was so rusted and covered in moss that if you weren't looking for it, you didn't even see it. And that was what we were supposed to be. We were supposed to hide so well that we became the dirt, the trees, the refuse pile. We were supposed to hide so hard we disappeared - every time we heard that call.
The mothers took turns. Some of them hid with us. Some of them played the raiders. They stalked into camp, thumping their boots too hard into the dirt, and they looked high and low for each of the children. If they found you, you lost. After hide and seek, we always celebrated. The mothers uncapped the hose of the water tank and we all danced under it, washing off the dirt or debris or whatever we'd been hiding in. It was the cleanest we ever got. As the red dirt rolled off in rivulets, the whites and tans and browns of our bodies shimmered in the sun, or sparked in the firelight, and afterwards mama dried me off and held me close. Hide and seek days were my favorite.
"Is it like hide and seek?" I asked Mama now.
She'd finished with the grease and was easing an old brown pack onto her shoulders. Women on watch were out there for awhile. She'd step onto the rusted red motorbike and ride out into the night with her supplies, and it would be days before I saw her again. All the women did this, in turns, once their children were weaned. This was her fourth watch that I could remember. I knew because I was keeping track with a little bag of stripped screws. Every time she went out, I put one in my pocket. There would be four, after tonight.
She smiled at me. "Well, a little. It's more about the signal. We go out on watch to tell the mothers when to make it. That way if the raiders come, you'll all be snug as a worm in soil, and they'll go on their way."
"But the mothers play the raiders," I said.
She cinched up the straps on her pack. "Someday, the mothers won't be playing raider. Some day, real raiders may come."
"It's what raiders do."
"But why, mama?"
She stopped what she was doing to kneel down next to me on our home tarp. People tell me that I was too young, when she died, to remember what she looked like, but they're wrong. She had a light brown stone face and eyes like green pieces of glass. Sometimes, in the daytime, if I looked closely I could see my own reflection in there; but tonight, there was only a gleam from the fire. She did a funny thing then. Pack, boots and all, she lay down next to me on my bedroll. She scooted her face right up close to mine, and her breath warmed my cheeks and nose. Her eyes were crinkled like leaves at the edges.
"Little worm," she said.
"I'm not little worm anymore. I'm a grasshopper, I've decided," I told her.
"The raiders will come." She looked directly into my eyes.
"I don't know. But when they do, you will have time to hide. That is why we watch." She folded her lips and blew a stray hair off my forehead. "You're good at hiding, worm."
She grinned. "You are good at hiding, grasshopper." Then she grew serious again. "But if you hear the signal, and it's not mothers who come looking for you - if you hear the signal, and see raiders - you must do something else."
Her eyes were fierce. "Hide well, baby, but watch them close. The minute their backs are turned, you run."
This was a new part of the game. "Run? Run where?"
"You run away from the raiders. Run in the opposite direction. Run as fast as you can."
"When do I stop running?"
She pulled me close. "Stop running when you see me, love. Stop running when you've run right up to me." She kissed my forehead and rose swiftly to her feet, the pack shifting as she righted herself. "Now sleep, little worm. Mother Lolly will give you breakfast when you wake up."
I wanted to tell her I was a grasshopper, but she was moving towards the darkness, and my eyelids were heavyheavy with the promise of sleep. I would tell her when she got back.
I didn't know it then, but the next time I saw mama, she'd be surrounded by real raiders - and playing raider herself, better than any of the mothers ever had.
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