There was, if not exactly a clearing, then a less dense patch of vegetation, more open to the sky, to one side of the track. Between slender trees he could see low walls—the broken outline of some long-collapsed dwelling. It was around noon, and it seemed that it might be a fine thing to sit on a tumbled wall in the autumn sunshine while he ate his lunch.
An old folk song ran through his head as he contentedly shaved fuzz from his cheese. He was setting down his trusty pocket knife on the mossy stones beside him when he noticed that he was not alone. Sitting on the wall a small distance away, dangling her legs, was a little girl in a peculiar dress, brightly coloured and tied at the waist in a charmingly unskilled bow. She was looking at his hands—or perhaps his food—intently.
He nodded at her.
She jumped. “Oh! I didn’t think you’d see me.” She spoke the dialect of the North, which he himself had grown up with.
“Sure I see you. Though you were being very quiet. Hi.”
“I’m Ben.” He chose his childhood name.
“Do you live around here?” He had been told there were no inhabited villages left this side of the river.
“Of course I live here. With Mummy and Daddy and my little brother. They should be back soon.”
Perhaps there was a shack or two back under the canopy of the woods. “How old are you?”
“Five. I didn’t have a birthday for a long time, though.”
“You must be nearly six, then.”
She looked a little unhappy. “I suppose so.” There was a pause. “I’m not sure how you tell.”
It’s amazing what you end up explaining to children. He thought for a moment. “Well, every year the winter comes, I guess, and your age goes up.”
She nodded solemnly, and seemed to think some more. Then, abruptly, her mood shifted. “Hey, are you going to eat?”
“Yes.” He hesitated for a moment. Customs differ, but a hungry child is a hungry child. “Would you like some?“
For a moment, her eyes brightened. “What is it?”
“It’s cheese. From goats’ milk, I’m pretty sure.”
“I don’t think I can eat that.” She looked even sadder than before.
He looked in his bag. “I don’t have much else. This fruit? I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re juicy and they taste pretty good.” He held up a spiky red thing he had helped himself to when passing an orchard a few days ago.
She just shook her head.
“Well, okay then. You say your parents will be back soon?”
She grimaced, nodded, and changed the subject. “Do you like cats?” she enquired.
“Cats?” He had had a problem with a leopard once, and had learned a great deal of respect for them in the process, but that probably wasn’t quite what she meant. Did people keep domestic cats around here? “Little cats, house cats, yard cats?”
Her eyes lit up, her gestures become animated. “Mm-hm. I had a kitten once. My own kitten! There was a mummy cat that came into the house to have its babies. Lots of little babies, small like this! I had to stay very quiet and then they would come out so I could watch them. My kitten was a bit floppy and didn’t eat enough. It fell asleep for a long time. I think it died. But after that it was much happier. It stopped crying, and it used to play with me in the sunny patch by the back door. It had to leave in the end, though. I hope it came back as someone happy.”
He found superstitious talk unsettling. He’d known a guy once, though, who seemed to know absolutely everything about different religions, and would have been quite at home in this conversation.
But then another thought crossed her mind, casting a shadow on her face like a cloud casts a shadow on a field. “Um, you’re not a stranger, are you? I’m not allowed to let strangers into the house. I don’t know if sitting on the wall counts. Probably it does. But I think you’re okay because you’re talking properly to me.
“The people I know are all gone. The people now are definitely strangers. They talk funny so you mostly can’t understand what they’re saying. Usually they don’t look at me, even if I go right up to them. Sometimes they’re very rude and walk through me. Or they just stand and scream.”
He was definitely beginning to wish that guy were here.
“So, uh, where are your parents?”
“They had to go out. Everyone said there was fighting, it was pretty bad. Daddy had to go and see about that, and Mummy went to help Granny Bea pack up her stuff. I’m supposed to stay here until they get back. It’s been a while now.”
“A long while?”
“A very long while. It snowed a bunch of times. Once it was higher than the house! That was the time the wall fell down.” She looked at him. “Maybe I am six by now, I just didn’t get a birthday because Mummy and Daddy are out.”
“How do you survive? What do you eat?”
“I … I don’t eat much, really. I did get very hungry one time. Mummy and Daddy didn’t come back when they promised. So I tried to cook the supper. I was being very careful! But I had an accident with the fire. It was pretty bad. That was when the roof burned down and fell on me. I hope Mummy won’t be angry with me for too long when she finds out.”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. The question he wanted to ask was … delicate. “Did … do you think you might …” he lost his nerve. “You seem to be ok now.”
“I do? I thought I was probably a ghost now, like my kitty. I got pretty burned and it wasn’t very nice to look at when I saw me lying there.” She shuddered.
“Well, that might be right. You seem like a nice ghost, though.”
“It’s just bones now. Do you want to see?’
“Well … I just came here to sit and eat my lunch. Now I’m finished I really should start walking again.”
“There are other interesting things I can show you! I know where there’s a really pretty lizard.”
“I’m really sorry, I do have to go and meet my friends.”
“I wish you could stay and play with me. I get lonely waiting for Mummy and Daddy to come back. But I think you’d have to be dead, too, like me and kitty.”
“I don’t want to be dead, though.” In fact, a lot of his life had been dedicated to that ideal, in one way or another.
“I know. I can tell. But it’s sad. You’re nice, and I really like that tune you’re thinking about. Mummy sings that one all the time, when she’s here.”
He stood up from the wall. The girl was gone.
He walked back to the forest track, sadly, thoughtfully, and careful not to step on any of the weathered stone remains of habitation.