I stopped moving when the terrain signaled me to, instincts engaged. I’d walked into a clearing, not freshly cleared but having the strangeness created by line after receding line of cleanly severed trunks. The track had obviously been unused for a season, bitter cress growing in the deep tyre furrows from the removal of the lumber. The upper edge of this field was intruded by a beech stand, mixing and moving the sunlight to create contained spaces where I thought I might settle. I chose one with an even circle of tall trees around a flattish saucer of dry leaves and began to systematically drag a stick through them, unearthing bramble tendrils and cutting them back to the perimeter. Rocks that straddled the threshold were brought into the middle to make a hearth. It was a compromise: the risk of the fire’s heat exploding the damp rock, outweighed by the aesthetic requirements of the site. I knew that I needed to satisfy much more than practicality if I was going to survive, and a fireplace like the one I’d constructed was at the core of this satisfaction. By the time the light dropped I had a decent wood pile and enough cooked food and water to see me good till morning, and so I nestled inside my hammock, drawing the cover over until only my head was open to the night. How nice that it was dry.
The next day, as I tried to identify my options, my mind wandered unhelpfully. I needed a task to focus myself, and settled on cordage-making; it would keep me in one place and always made me feel at home, like spinning or knitting does. I began stripping the pulpy nettle skin to dry at the fire, but all the while my mind sought out its unbidden work. I was presented with snippets, four years’ old, still ready to make words for me to voice and still forging arguments against a generic opposition. So whilst my eyes and fingers nimbly extracted the usable strands from the nettle stems, twisting and tensioning them into cord, my voice was busy trying to locate the threads that had tangled around every memory and knotted me up so painfully. I would have tried to stop the intrusion if I’d noticed it happening, but at first it hadn’t really needed my participation: the words came reflexively:
“No it isn’t like that” was followed by a long pause in which the definitive statement mingled with the sound of the fleshy sheath splitting from the stem’s woody interior. Although I heard my words, I had no idea what wasn’t like what, and my hands took the next stem to repeat the process. I’d wanted to stop and stoke the fire for a while, but was seduced by the repetitive compulsion of stripping the nettles. This allowed my mind more latitude: “They’ve no idea. But why should that excuse anything? Anyhow, why didn’t he get at least some of the blame?” So my personal outrage was still crying out, even through the barely audible voice in my head, and it was picking out those universal injustices of gender. It was because of my sex that I was suspected, I knew that. My intentions were impugned when it was Phil, her boyfriend for God’s sake, who had made the calculated betrayal of Becky, not me. I kept saying, and still protested, even half a decade later, out there making the cordage, that anyhow it was a party; it was dark, I was drunk – end of! Why didn’t they understand that? I had no idea it was him. I had told them as much the very next day. Yes, when I’d finally had enough of defending what was clearly to my critics the indefensible, I admit I did provoke myself, and them, with comments that even if I had known it was Phil, I didn’t see what was so wrong about what we’d done. What they saw beyond and underneath that stupid night was not mine to answer to anyhow, whatever their grubby hateful minds thought.
I noticed that my hands had stopped working the nettles so I got up and made for the fire, setting my store of fibres very carefully on a rock so as not to provide chances for them to tangle. The fire was ready for the largest logs with deep embers keeping it strong. I wasn’t sure that I really needed the ferocious heat right then, or at least I knew that the weather conditions didn’t warrant the extravagance, but the compulsion to build it up had begun. I’d tried to teach myself to be more measured, so it became obvious to me that I was more anxious than I thought, and once I’d seen that, I kicked the log off again. I often had to remind myself to be more careful.
The strands I’d made wouldn’t have been any good as they were. They needed to dry before their rehydrated incarnations could be trusted to hold their wiry twists, and unify into the strands and loops that could bind and hold prey. I had the luxury of another week or two, settling down, taking stock of the situation, before I’d need any meat to eat. It would give me chance to collect a store of goods anyhow. The foraging was really good and I didn’t want to waste any of the abundance available. Since trying to take it all was impossible, let alone maniacal, I settled on variety: greens, roots, berries, even mushrooms. The sun was so intense, in fact hotter than it had been all summer, that I got most of it pulped and dried on stones in the sun.
It had taken me a long time in my preparations before I was willing to catch animals for food. It hadn’t helped that until this point it had been just for practice. Although I always did use the meat from a successful hunt, I knew the outcome was of choice more than necessity, since I’d had enough food available without killing anything. In fact I hated the act of killing an animal so much that, out of guilt most likely, I couldn’t throw any of it away. I taught myself how to tan the skins. Quite difficult to keep that from everyone, especially when it was a large deer skin. There were rabbits in abundance on that hill, which would be a start. They were so lean, though, that they wouldn’t keep me fed for very long.
When I’d first set a snare, a year or so before, I sat on my hands and fretted over it. I almost hoped it would fail and I’d have divine reason to attempt the impossible and live in the wild without meat. I had no wish, though, to die in the wild from no nerve, so not for the first time my feelings had to be bent towards the world as it is, indeed towards myself as I am: animal.
As I worked, my hard-wired memories replayed over and over like jolting reflexes, constantly looking for the answers, the lessons, the resolutions. I wondered what would have happened if Rose hadn’t apologised, and if I had done. “I can’t believe that she did that. What sense at all was there in it? I don’t believe she took the pictures of Phil and me anyhow. Without the conspiracy that dear Beccs cooked up why on earth would Rose do such a mindless thing? Yes Rose is pretty mindless now, but that’s the direct aftermath, the fallout, from saying sorry.”
The thoughts and questions were so persistent that I might as well have had my old diary with me. This was yet another version of the same impotent protest. It was clearer to me out here though, waiting quietly in the woods, how much Rose’s losses felt personal. She’d hurt me too by losing hope and taking to everything perverse and destructive. The drink and drugs were only the public side of it. I thought again my well-worn thought that Mum had wanted me to apologise because she couldn’t see beyond it. It was instant gratification. “Say sorry and everything will be alright, or liveable at least.” No, it wouldn’t. I fooled around with him. That’s it. And not even deliberately. They wanted to purge the considerably bigger mess with my tears. I think dad understood, and GF certainly did. He wouldn’t have apologised. Saying sorry should mean something after all, and it should certainly mean more than self-denial.
As I released the rabbit from the taught ligature, covering its head with my scarf, I thought about Rose and whether mum had connected Rosie’s disintegration with her apology, but it was just as likely that she’d have made the same deduction as everyone else: that it was warranted in retrospect, made necessary, by Rose’s flaws; character flaws that were now so plain to see. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, worthy about apologising for living. I swiftly took up the rabbit’s hind legs, drew a steadying breath, and brought the stick in my right hand down hard on its neck. I held it on my knee for a long time before slowly binding the legs, standing and letting it hang heavily as prey on the nettle bandolier. The fibres were still dark and wiry, without the whitened softness worked into them through use; so I needed to pad my shoulder with my hat, feeling it’s chestnut red deer hairs brush against my neck.
It was a pungent morning, the comfort smell of earth invigorated with piney shards. As I strolled, watchful of the ground, picking out bitter cress, wood sorrel and fiddle-heads, I could now consider my circumstances more clearly. I had to decide whether to stay beyond the next few days or strike camp and keep on. My plan was to move, by degrees, deeper into wooded country, not because the land would be richer but because protection would be better. It was my prerogative to leave and not return, but in this country it was nobody’s right to live off the land; it was mumbo-jumbo to make a stand for one’s animal rights.
The speckled grey fur of the rabbit was exquisite, making me want to conserve it. After stroking it down I squeezed out the pee from the creature’s belly, then took out my knife. As I cut through to the flesh, yellow, fatty milk ran out onto my fingers, the mammary glands peeling with the skin as I pulled it away from rabbit’s body. Once cleaned of guts and skin the animal had been transformed into meat. I would cook it slowly in my pot and console myself about the kill, and the fur, reminding myself that out in the woods there is no such thing as digestible waste; nature would apportion it out correctly.