by Eleanor Matthews
'Gently!’ cautions Brother Oak. ‘You’ll uproot the whole island, tugging like that.’
For some minutes, Alfie has been pulling with mindless ferocity at his fork. It is attached to the dust by pale sinews of plastic, swinging like a dislocated shoulder. On the exposed peninsula where they stand, the topsoil is wearing thin. But Alfie’s eyes are not on the ground. Instead they trace the fine line of black smoke that stitches the Thames to the lead-bellied sky of the estuary. Frowning with thick red brows, Oak stops and leans on his shovel. He places his heavy hands carefully, one on top of the other, before speaking.
‘I know it seems brutal, to the uninitiated. But it’s a necessary sacrifice, if we are to keep our way of life intact. You’ll come to know this, in time. We cannot give second chances, because beyond these shores are millions of hungry individuals. And they all wish to reap – some by force – what we sow.’
Alfie chews his thoughts. Nodding, he kneels to unwind the bleached blue shopping bag that swaddles the fork’s prongs. Down here, the close leaves of the runner beans screen him from the scent of burning meat. Watching his hands, he thinks of later, when he will scrub the palms clean with animal fat, ash and water. How Karis will interlace her fingers with his, the pink tips barely reaching past his knuckles.
‘Do you think it hurts?’ Alfie asks, finally disentangling the fork.
‘Hurts?’ A laugh rumbles up from Oak’s belly. ‘Brother Ash is mingling with the soil, joining with the air. It’s an end to pain and pleasure. He’s re-entering the carbon cycle, and in a year’s time he’ll be helping feed the Community. That’s redemption.'
Alfie looks out across the water, marbled with oily waste and clotted with islets of scrap. Here and there, a sunken hulk raises an accusatory mast to the sky. Beyond, the burnt-out shores of Kent and Essex curve round like pincers. He thinks of the grandfather Karis describes, tattooed muscles too wasted to lift himself from a chair. Then Alfie shakes his head, thinks instead of the mercenaries and looters. Gangs of wire-sprung youths who will cut your throat for a bag of potatoes.
‘So if someone betrays the Community, but with good intentions, you still think it’s right to punish them?’
The furrows of Oak’s brow deepen and he looks at Alfie hard before replying.
‘Alfie, it’s not about right or wrong – or even punishment. If you’re ever to become a Brother, that’s something you need to understand. It’s about belief. If someone does not believe in our way of life, it puts everyone’s faith at risk.'
Alfie almost wakes Karis to tell her, but clodded words stick to his tongue and muddy his resolve. He watches instead for the jolt as Karis relaxes further into sleep, then softly brushes the hair back from her face. Dark curls that fall like shavings from a plane. Beneath, her ears are delicate, soft as sage. Alfie sometimes thinks he can love her best like this, when she sleeps. He can pay full attention. Without words, she is a newborn lamb.
As if sensing his gaze, her eyelids flutter a moment and she nuzzles closer to his nape. Her feet brace in sleep against the rough pine that panels the cot. What use would it be to wake her, when a dream is making her damp lips open like evening primrose? They’ll come for her tomorrow, regardless. Karis couldn’t escape, even if she knew.
It is better this way – she gets to sleep, and he gets to hold her. One more night.
Alfie watches from amid the crescent crowd that encircles the silver birch sapling. He stands close to Brother Oak, sheltering in his solid shade. Karis is wrapped in a thin dress the colour of soil and cinder. She does not speak as Sisters arrange her over the collection bowl, a vessel hollowed from one solid slice of beech. Alfie has never seen a living tree with such girth, although there are said to be some left in the far north.
Karis’ eyes seek him out and she gives an autumn smile, but says nothing. The Sisters are busy adjusting her ties – lengthening the strips that bind her arms, tightening the knot that secures her ankles to the trunk. The angle is important. Karis must plough forward like a ship’s bowhead.
A slender woman in a white floor-length robe parts the crowd and steps forward. Alfie recognises her as Sister Meadowsweet, but there is something in the tilt of her hips and the blankness of her face that tells him she is Mother now. She looks like a deity – or at least inhuman. Standing tall in front of the birch, she addresses Karis.
‘Sister Willowherb. I put it to you, that you have wilfully stolen the Community’s produce and transported it off Brock Island. You have taken essential nutrients, and cast them out onto arid soil. You have fed the bodies of our dead to strangers. To these crimes, how do you plead?’
Alfie thinks how delicate Karis looks, suspended there with her skin pale like hawthorn spray. She is so silent and still, she could almost be sleeping.
‘Fuck you,’ says Karis, with quiet exactitude. Alfie jumps, but she is speaking to Mother. ‘Get it over with. Yes, I smuggled out some food. Yes, I gave it to people off the island. Starving people, relatives of mine. But you won’t appreciate that nuance, so just finish this already.’
Alfie reels. He was sure Karis would recognise the weakness of her actions. That she would beg forgiveness, thank the Community for the chance to repay them honourably. She is a flowerhead pulled down by the weight of her own sweetness. Surely she can see that? He did not expect this... this coarseness.
Mother has heard enough. She steps forward on the pale, hard-packed earth and draws out a long knife. As Mother presses the point into the soft dimple below Karis’ voice box, Alfie turns. Karis makes no sound, but as Alfie leaves he hears the splash of blood on bowl and the lullaby of Mother’s words.
‘Bounteous and fruitful earth, please accept the sacrifice of Sister Willowherb, who today gives her life to nourish the Community. Let us give up her spirit to the sun, and return her body to the island. In death, let her faith be restored. As she returns now to the bosom of Mother, let our own belief be fortified. Blood bloom, body burn, soul soar.’
Alfie’s eyes scour the sky as he walks back to his hut, but the horizon is an even grey, unmarked by smoke trails. It will be two days before Karis’ body is cut down and piled on a pyre. By then she’ll already be ashen, drained and pure. Alfie opens the door to his sparse cell, leaning in to counter the swelled jamb. Exhaling onto his cot, he sees a note squared with his pillow. It is scratched in charcoal on a slip of paper no bigger than a woman's upturned palm.
Reading her words, Alfie finally feels the blade that has sliced him neck to navel.
‘I forgive you.’
Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.