He couldn’t remember, but he felt there was a name for the flecks of light that the sun cast upon the forest floor through the foliage above. These flecks of light had appeared in front of his house, but lightning had struck the oak and destroyed the old tree, wrenching it apart from within. The next day, he had taken the chainsaw and salvaged the wood. He had taken his little one into his arms and said „The tree will live on; it will be here with us on the terrace. Forever. It’ll be beautiful: you’ll see.“
The little girl had nodded, holding a plush hare by the ear, and watched on as he set about sawing up the old tree, piece by piece. The hare will have to be washed, he thought. But they always had trouble getting her away from the thing. Like a dog with its blanket.
He’d had enough by Sunday evening. „Let’s go and get mummy.“ The girl set the hare down on the swing.
For one short moment, he felt as if he’d returned to his life. This moment, he thought, this one here, I’ve lived it hundreds of times, over and over. The moment when he was sitting on the swing with his wife and daughter and saw the flecks of light on the ground. The moment of eternity.
His daughter had survived for a little more than four years. Every day and every night from spring to late autumn, he made sure she wore long-sleeved dresses and put the hat with the net on her head. He impressed upon her that the mosquitoes had killed mummy. He called it killing. He never spoke about mummy now being asleep with angels.
„And when it starts getting colder, will the mosquitoes be nice again?“ she asked.
„No, by then the mosquitoes will be dead.“
„Why do they come back?“
„That’s nature. It always brings new things: not just mosquitoes.“
„And why do these new mosquitoes kill?“
„Because they carry a disease.”
„Will they ever get better?”
Later on, she built a small mound of pebbles and wanted to know how many people were gone now. „Give me ten of your stones,“ he said. They put them in a row. „Now take six of them away.“ The girl counted and was amazed.
„Was there enough of everything before?“
One day, he went out to the front of the house, looking for his daughter. A man was standing in front of her, a book in one hand. „It’s from God,“ he told the little girl, who looked up at the man in curiosity. Gun at the ready, he charged towards the man.
„Get away from my daughter!“ he shouted. The man stumbled backwards, away from him and said, „It’s God’s will, it’s a test!“
He fired three shots at the ground in front of the man’s feet before he ran away.
„Who is God?“ asked the girl.
„No one is God.“
After six years, the continent was sealed off from the rest of the world. And of the ten stones, nine would have to be taken away.
He set off, making his way along the old country road. In the past, he had a shopping trolley like other people, but now the streets were bursting open, and bushes and small trees were forcing their way through the broken grey concrete. A fox crossed his path, but he did not lift his rifle. „Well, go on boy, scram.“
He had become an animal himself, had taken up a new position in the food chain: hunter and hunted. He found a house overgrown with ivy, which made it almost impossible to see from the road. He forced the door open and couldn’t help but laugh when he entered the kitchen. The blackberry bushes had grown through the broken window, right up to the kitchen table. There was a fireplace too.
He then secured the house. He hadn’t seen anybody for three days and as the house was far enough from the road, he built a fire. Rabbit was on the menu. He had cut the tail off a mauled horse a few weeks back. The best thread for sewing, though it would also serve as dental floss. He used the rabbit fur to mend his coat. There were plenty of clothes lying around actually – the houses were full of them – but he felt less visible when dressed in fur. Outside, there was a noise from the terrace.
„What do you want?“ The fox looked at him, and he gave the animal the scraps. „Taste good?“ He always found it strange, hearing his own voice. Five years and three days had passed since he started to carve slits into his body, legs first, then arms, so as not to lose himself to the swamp of time that no longer knew any purpose. 1,828 slits since being on his own.
Street by street, city by city. Initially, he had walked south because it had been autumn. Then he went west, then north for about half a year. Some things did not change. Hunting and being hunted, sometimes by animals, sometimes by people. Rules were a thing of the past. Survival of the fittest. He had met a group of people who had set something up. Labour had been divided: some took care of hunting, others farming, cooking or defence. There was no freedom there. Rules instead of agreements.
He’d always slink off in the night. From that moment on, he observed the groups he encountered first. Sometimes he gave them a chance. But he’d always leave. He threw the last of the gnawed bones to the fox and went to sleep. The animal stayed with him all night, returning to the forest early the next morning. He set off and followed another road. He thought it a pity that he was alone once again. Seven hundred and twenty-eight days ago, he had been joined by a dog, but it had been ripped to pieces. He wore the wolf responsible as a cloak now and called it justice.
He crossed a river and, as he was jumping over the stones, spotted a fish in the water. He pulled his fishing line out of his pocket and cast the bait. Fish sounds good, he thought.
He’d always packed well, useful things deeper in his pockets, weapons never too far. Even though he could build many things, he didn’t want to lose anything. He had his training to thank for that. He had been a soldier, and that, he believed, was what had saved him from the brutality that gripped some nowadays. He did not steal, nor did he kill people to steal their supplies – this was common practice among many others.
Power often came first, before survival, even. He survived without resorting to barbarism because he could fight alone, he knew the wilderness and made do without comforts. The fish bit the line, but he didn’t pull it out. He waited for the shadows behind the tree to move. Shadows at five o’clock, the soldier inside had control of him now.
He could be patient. The fish struggled, fighting itself to death; the sun changed position by twenty-one degrees. It moved fifteen degrees per hour – he had time, as the days knew no end. Then one of the shadows moved. It moved on soles it believed were quiet, along the edge of the forest from tree to tree, from five o’clock to half past seven.
If the shadows had wanted to kill him, they would have done so long ago, but as he didn’t have much with him, they weren’t interested in killing him. He could be an asset for those he called „group people“, people who, after the collapse of civilization, had tried to live a decent life with others. People who had stayed away from the brutality. Sometimes he thought these people were dreamers who dreamt a life out of the night. For him, life was a swing hanging from an old tree, but he couldn’t go back there.
The shadows were uncertain; they remained behind the trees, unsure of what to do now. He pulled the fish out of the water and walked along a path. The shadows followed him and stayed with their own kind until dusk fell, when he made a fire and impaled the fish on a stick.
Two of the shadows were young: easy prey in this world. The shadow that had walked along the edge of the forest was a little older, it was quieter than the others. But it was as inexperienced too. Height: one hundred sixty-five to one hundred seventy-five centimetres, weight: about sixty kilos. Sporty build.
He didn’t want any form of contact: he hadn’t looked for it and wouldn’t accept it if he happened to meet someone by chance. He didn’t want to lose any more, so he didn’t take anybody on and refused any form of connection. The undergrowth cracked, two of the shadows had moved; they had become restless, and they felt pulled towards him, the fire and the fish. He waited. The smell of fried fish hung seductively in the air, and the fire was like a magnet as the night was cold. The two shadows resisted, sniffed, resisted again. Then they came out and joined him by the fire. Something in him stirred as he looked into the face of a little girl. A girl, about fifteen or so, stood beside her.
„This little girl is incredibly hungry.“
„The fish is big enough, help yourselves,“ he answered, suppressing the memory that wanted to burst out of him. The older one took a piece of fish from the fire and gave it to the little one.
„Thank you very much“, she said, turning around indecisively, but then they left. Just before they disappeared into the forest once more, he stopped them.
„You’re far too loud. This world is dangerous. I could have easily killed you.“
„But you didn’t,“ said the older one. „You are a good man.“
His memories became clear images, and that was the last thing he wanted.
„Sit down,“ he said. „Get something to eat, it’ll do the little one no good if you faint from hunger and can’t look after her. And tell your friend to come out.“
The girl paused.
„There’s only two of us,“ she said.
„Boy, I know you’re there,“ he shouted to the third shadow behind the trees. A young man came out sheepishly and stepped into the light of the fire.
He was wearing red shoes, which had been the height of fashion before everything ended.
„Are you traveling alone?“
„We are looking for our group. We were separated from our people during a raid,“ said the young man. „Are you travelling alone?“
“You can keep the fish” he said, as he got up and left.
Two days later, he spotted a deer in a clearing. It looked at him and did nothing else. It just stood there, looking at him and then carried on grazing. He sat on a stone and got an apple out of his pocket. Even the sound of him biting the apple did not startle the animal. He held it out to the deer. It walked towards him, calm and curious. Flecks of light on the ground, on the deer’s back, a moment of peace.
Then the shot. He threw himself into cover and paused. Steps approached, and he heard the deer being grabbed and pulled across the ground. He followed the trail of blood and hid in the undergrowth as the deer was put under a tree not far from a house. A man, bald, in a soldier’s uniform and bull-like in his movements and stature, tied a rope around the hind legs of the deer and hoisted it over a branch.
Then he placed a bucket under it and cut it open. His hands moved in a calm, well-practiced way, but they still seemed tense. He watched on incredulously as the bull man cranked a gramophone standing on a table with a bloodstained hand and the sounds of a requiem spread across the clearing. Then there was a pause.
„Soldier, I know you’re there,“ he shouted and continued to cut the deer. „I’ll share with you, come out.“
He came out from his hiding place, oscillating between two feelings. Here, stood before him, was someone who was his equal. A soldier like him. One who had surrendered to the madness of these times though, because, as he approached the bull man, he spotted a corpse beside the tree, cut up like the deer. He recognized the young man by his red shoes. „I suppose you didn’t share with this one.“
„He tried to kill me yesterday, but I got there first. „His blood is weak.“
„Blood, soldier, blood makes us strong. The blood of our enemies. We absorb the strength of our enemies.“ The bull man took a bowl, dipped it in the bucket under the deer and drank the blood of the animal. Then, he dipped his thumb in it and drew a trail of blood from his hairline to the point between his eyes. „A person’s tastes different,“ he said.
„But the deer wasn’t your enemy.“
„No, but the deer cleanses me of sin.“
„Killing him, was that a sin?“ He pointed to the young man’s body.
„Isn’t everything a sin today? Isn’t this world a sin? We are a sin, soldier. You cannot know what purity truly means until you have sinned.“ The bull man put the bowl next to the gramophone. „Do you want to see something that is really pure?“
He knew what the bull man would show him, so he was prepared. He also knew that his opponent was only armed with a knife, so he set down his guns. He wanted to be fair.
As he entered the house and saw the girls sitting there, both with chains around their ankles, he reacted at once. The bull man was quick, however, and plunged the knife into his shoulder and thigh, but nothing important was cut.
Whilst the knife was caught in his thigh, he pulled his other leg up and broke his opponent’s arm. Pulling the knife from his thigh, he flipped it around and set on his opponent with two knives. He lunged at him and brought him to the ground. He sat on him and held one of the knives to his throat. His opponent pushed against it – for minutes, it seemed to him.
They did not move away from each other, neither one conceding defeat. Suddenly his opponent smiled. „You are my salvation,“ he whispered and let go.
As the knife slid into his throat, he looked down at the bull man and thought of the deer. The bull man grabbed his throat slowly. He knew what his opponent was about to do, but there was nothing he could do to stop him. He looked down at him, saw sweat dripping from his face and let the bull man draw a trail of blood across his forehead, from his hairline to the point between his eyes.
He collapsed on the dead body and wept. Then he ran. It didn’t matter where, he just wanted to get away. He washed the blood off his face in a river, but he could feel it all over his body so jumped in. He rolled over the stones, grabbing handfuls of sand and gravel and scratched his body with them. He stopped, only after seeing the two girls standing on the bank. The older one held the little one behind her protectively. Slowly she went to his clothes, picked them up and held them out to him.
That evening, he dug a grave.
„His name was Tom,“ the little girl said, so he put a cross on it. The slit he carved into his arm that evening by the fire was deep.
It would take two and a half days. He knew where he had to take the girls, as he’d already passed their camp. He carried the little girl on his back for long stretches of time. He put her on top of his backpack so that she was wrapped around the nape of his neck. She put her arms around his head and her hands on his forehead. Sometimes, she would fall asleep with her little head on top of his.
„Stay with us, just for tonight,“ the leader of the group said, as he set the children down. „At the very least, eat with us.“ That evening, they built a fire in the middle of their houses.
„Have you had the fever?“ he was asked.
„Yes. I am immune.“
„How long have you been travelling alone?“
He didn’t like that question. And because he hadn’t answered, someone from the group jumped up and passed around some alcohol.
He slept restlessly that night. He didn’t want anybody around him anymore, had forgotten how to string more than three sentences together. The next day, he packed his things and set off. He had reached the forest when he heard the little girl behind him.
„Are you leaving?“
„What’s your name?“
When was the last time he had heard his name? He’d heard many names here in this group. These people have names, he thought. Where is my name? Do I still have one?
„I forgot,“ he said.
„No, you haven’t,“ said the girl. „My name is Anna, and you have a name, too. No one forgets their name!“
„I have,“ he grumbled and then said, „My name is Oliver.“
The girl looked at him curiously and smiled. Then his expression changed, and he heard a whisper, „Oliver!“ He turned around. A pack of wolves were stood in the woods, looking at him and the girl.
One of the wolves moved towards them, getting so close that he could have touched it. Then the big animal turned around and the wolves disappeared into the trees.
He took the girl by the hand, who looked at Oliver’s arm and ran her finger carefully over the slits before looking up at him.
Flecks of Light
Copyright © 2018 Iris Antonia Kogler
All rights reserved. The work may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.
Translator: Joshua Horwood
German version read here: