It has been a long, long drought. Some say it has been as long as they can remember, but I know better. Because I remember the day I first saw that dry earth burn. It was the night of my nineteenth birthday and that fire burned forever on the horizon, until it faded into the sunrise and they became one. The wind gathered the ashes and choked us until we couldn’t breathe and some never did again. Now, on this evening and this sunset, I am six and twenty. My name is Tulie and the earth is still burning.
“Shh,” I whisper to Graham, my brown bull steer. He lazily looks up as I stroke his smooth coat then bows his head again. Some people say he is no use, just a bag of old bones. But he is my one companion. We are standing in the field outside my house, where the dry grass has learned to live another way. With seven years of no rain, everything has learned to live another way. The sun breaks through the clouds one last time and lights the grass with a hot amber hue. Graham flicks away a stubborn fly with his tail and the wind whips the grass around him. Now the sun has almost completely set and the long night will start. And they begin to appear, there on the mountain crests.
I have come to call them “shadow creatures” or “dark people,” but truly I have no idea what they are. They started one night in the darkness, as I slept peacefully in my house alone. I was awoken by Graham, baying loudly from his field. The doors of my house rattled and a great wind slammed the front door open. It was then I saw them, dark silhouettes against a black, burning sky. Figures that looked human, yet not. Voices that sounded real, yet unreal. I screamed and they fled but they came back, night after night, only to leave at the break of every dawn.
I barely remember sleep. I know I sleep at times, but not enough to register or make a difference. No one in town knows what these creatures are nor are they interested in helping me. The world has become a place where everyone is on their own; surviving is hard enough without helping another to survive as well. So we continue on, casting strange glances. As I said, Graham is my only companion. And my house hasn’t burned down yet, so we will fight to stay, night after night.
Try as I might, Graham will not leave his field. I can tell the time of day by the way the shadows cast against his body, like a living sundial. Luckily, the dark people seem to have no interest in him. So I bid him goodnight as I always do, with a hug around the neck. In his eyes I see the only softness in my world and I ask him to live just one more night, every time.
I have become braver as the months have gone by. I used to lock myself in my house hours before actual darkness fell. But that became miserable. Then I would wait until sunset and watch the dark people from the safety of my kitchen window. I observed them and realized they were slow and methodical. Finally, I am able to stay outside until night has completely taken over and those dark people are only steps away, inching closer and closer. One day, I may try to reach out and touch them. But not tonight, so I wave one last goodbye to Graham and lock myself inside. Then the attacks start.
Tonight, the bangs seem more aggressive than usual. Funny how I am classifying the aggressiveness of bangs, yet it has come to that. First, they started out as little taps. Trying it out, seeing if I would react. Now, the bangs are like anvils being dropped from the heavens. I cover my ears but my teeth rattle at each drop. The dark people’s garbled voices make my stomach tie in knots, shrieks in the night that drive my imagination wild. I sit down on the ground with my back against the front door in case I need to flee, my arms wrapped around my knees. My long skirts are filthy from the ashy dirt covering the wood floors. Try as I might to sweep it up, the dust never goes away.
Yes, tonight is different. The bangs that usually ring through the night have stopped. I lift my head from where I had buried it between my arms. Silence. It is so silent I think I can hear Graham’s steady chewing of dry grass out in the field. I wait for a long time, breathing heavily through my mouth until it grows dry. I begin to feel safe in the quiet of my house and dream of the tea that I used to drink to calm myself to sleep. I crave that normalcy more than I realized and begin to crawl into the kitchen, my skirts picking up more and more dirt along the way.
Unfortunately, the one window I left unboarded was the one over the kitchen sink. I couldn’t bear to cover it, I had too many dreamy memories of dishes in the milky sink and the afternoon view out that window, light gleaming off the clean glasses. But now, that window was my terror as I imagined dark faces on the other side, waiting for me to see them. But that tea called to me and I stood quickly at the sink, pumping water furiously into my tea kettle, refusing to look up.
I had become expert at starting a fire safely and cleanly in my little stove. I was respectful of fire. I knew I needed it, though it was burning all around me, destroying everything in its wake. Slightly less tense now that I was away from the window, I start my small fire and let it heat the tea kettle. Before long, it begins to whistle and I slide into the kitchen for my tea and strainer.
Instinctively, I gather my apron over my face as the kitchen window glass shatters in front of me. Graham begins to bay loudly, now very audible through the open window. I drop to the ground and slide up against the counters, fumbling for anything in the darkness. Loud thumping begins again on the roof, a dozen scattered footsteps. I shriek as dirty water dumps down my chimney, extinguishing my small fire and knocking over my tea kettle. A cloud of damp ash floats into the air and for a quick moment, I see their figures darting around the room.
“Leave!” I scream louder than I ever had before. My hot tears wash the ashes from my stinging eyes as I struggle to see.
With a furious rush, the house is still again. I leap to my feet and quickly throw a blanket over the broken window, not really believing it will help but at least its something. Graham laments for me outside, helpless in his field of straw. I am drenched with dirty water, my skirts and petticoats heavier than they already were. But I won’t dare move from this place until sunrise and the dark people leave again.
I am not sure if I fall asleep or if time truly moved that strangely. But slowly, a warm glow begins to fill the living room, exemplified by the yellow blanket hanging across the kitchen window. For a moment my stomach drops, fearing it is the fires that have finally reached me. But then I hear Graham’s morning song, his signal to me that light is on the horizon. Telling me that night is almost gone. I reach for my teapot and hold it against my chest. Someday I will make that cup of tea. Someday, they won’t stop me.
Cautiously, I open the front door. I know it is safe because small slivers of light begin to stretch beneath the wooden door and touch my fingertips. The warm air blasts me in the face but I don’t care. I watch the dark people retreat into the horizon, strange flickerings of shapes that go in and out of focus. And for a moment, I think one turns back and looks at me. And I wonder what I look like to them and if I am their dark creature in the night.
“I can’t figure this place out. For the life of me, I can’t,” John admits, shaking his head as he lights up a cigarette. He stops and stares at the abandoned house they have been hired to disassemble for scrap.
“Really? C’mon,” Ed chides, grabbing the cigarette and dousing it in the grass. “Haven’t we put out enough fires today?”
John continues to stare at the empty house, outlined against the setting sun. The overgrown field surrounding it is dry and bare, scattered only with trash and the parched bones of old farm animals. The rest of his crew have left for the day, complaining of the heat and strange sounds coming from inside that ruin of a house.
“Maybe the stories are true,” Ed sighs, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat away. The day truly had been especially hot and he was grateful for the thought of his air conditioning back in his car, parked only footsteps away.
“Ah, now you c’mon,” John chortles, but pauses. “You say a girl burned here? For real?”
“Oh yeah, on her birthday of all days,” Ed sighed. “It was a dry summer and the fire caught all around these fields here, killed a bunch of livestock that were trapped. The fire burned for days but that damn house survived, though.”
“Hmm,” John lit another cigarette. He squinted his eyes into the setting sun. “It did at that.”