Chapter One: Beside the Road
We pushed aside the curtain of bare branches that shielded the cave entrance and stepped out into the winter morning, my brother and I, carrying our father’s body. The bitter wind sliced through our fur-lined jackets as we padded over the carpet of pine needles shed by the overhanging trees. The sun, its watery beams barely visible through the gray clouds, hung above the hills around us, and the cold, clear air sparkled with falling snow. We scrambled up the rocky hillside to where we would lay our father’s body, wrapped in its tattered, brown blanket, beside the broken chunks of road. When someone dies, we sprinkle the body with water and roll the blanket around them.
Some pine needles clung to my parka, and I brushed them off as we climbed up the hill. I glanced at the Dog—Rufus, I’d named him, for his red coat—who waited on the other side of the road. My father told me that in the Old Time, before the Collapse, dogs were merely animals. Now Dogs and Wolves are nearly as intelligent as we are. Dogs are Man’s friends. We live in harmony with the Dog clan; we help them, and they help us.
Rufus stared at us. The black circles around his eyes gave him a sinister look. His pointed ears lay back against his head, and his plumed tail was still. He squatted beside a black heap: a blanket-wrapped corpse, one of the Dogs. As we approached, he grabbed the burden in his teeth. He trotted to our side, where he dropped it by my feet before trotting back across the road.
Thomas and I crossed to his side. We laid our father down beside him.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I signed.
He nodded his head, raising his paw-hands and signing back, “And I yours.” My father claimed that in the Old Time, dogs had paws on all four legs, ridiculous as that sounds. Now they have paw-hands on their front two legs, and we communicate by signing. I’ve often wondered how much of our speech Rufus understands, so I’ve always been careful what I say around him.
Thomas and I were shivering as we hurried back across the road and down the hill. Outside the cave entrance, I gestured to him to give me the carry-sack and the knife we’d brought with us. I unwrapped the new body we had brought back with us; it was Rufus’s father. It happens that way sometimes. The Old Dog and my father had been close for almost two decades, since the time they had both taken over as clan heads.
“Do you want to skin him this time?” I asked my brother.
“You do it.” He squatted beside me as I skinned the body, carved it into chunks, and stuffed the meat and skin into the sack. Then he picked up the blanket. “They’ll take care of father, Marc, won’t they?”
I nodded. “When we die, we eat them and they eat us.”
We can’t afford waste. We do what we must to survive.
I slung the bag with the carcass over my shoulder and pushed past the windbreak into the cave. Her face set in grim lines, my mother lurked inside; our cave is just within the entrance to our clan’s cave complex. She gestured to me.
Thomas and I followed her into our room, where I dropped the wrapped carcass at her feet. I started to edge my way past her, but her hand on my arm stopped me.
“You’re Clan Chief now.” She spat the words. “Provided, of course, the council confirms you.”
“You’re no more fit to lead than your brother.” She stared at Thomas.
I glanced at him, seeing his hunched shoulders and downcast gaze as he moved to stand at my back. There wasn’t room in the narrow entrance for him to move past my mother and me.
“You’re needed inside,” she said to me. “Thomas and I will see to whatever it is if you take charge of the meat.” She would have done this regardless. She never lets me prepare the food.
I glanced at Thomas, who shuffled his feet. “Thom comes with me,” I answered. I turned, pushed my brother out into the corridor, and followed him out.
Mother was right behind me. “Why bring the child along?” With a swift step, she managed to grab Thomas by his outer jacket and dragged him back toward our room entrance.
Thomas stumbled. The caves were natural, the rocky floor uneven and the walls jagged. “Ow!” He pushed at her, but she didn’t let go. “I want to go with Marc.”
“This brat isn’t needed at Council. He can help me prepare the meal.”
“Meal preparation is woman’s work. I’m bringing him with me. He stands next in line to be Clan Chief.” I always tried to protect Thomas from my mother. She resented him even more than me.
“The child doesn’t have a brain in his head.” Mother spat, and the glob narrowly missed my feet.
“Then you’d better pray nothing happens to me for a good, long while.” I clenched my fist. I hated my mother as much as I’d loved my father. Nothing would ever change that.
Mother lifted one shoulder, which was her mark of displeasure. She glared at me once more before returning to our room, where she pulled the hide curtain across the doorway so that I could no longer see what she was doing.
Thomas crept up beside me. “What was my mother like?”
Thomas was my father’s son, but his mother had died when he was an infant. My mother, having given birth the previous week to a stillborn daughter, was made to take him in.
“As good and happy as my mother is grim and close-minded.” Thomas was eight years younger than I, and I remembered his birth and his mother’s death clearly. His entrance into the world had been a difficult one, and her womb had torn. She’d bled to death. I put a hand on his shoulder. “Come, let’s go.”
“Okay.” The corners of Thomas’s lips lifted. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder.
He scuttled down the corridor, and I followed, gnawing at the problem of him and Mother. And of Mother and me as well.
We followed the corridor inward toward the hot spring and the council chamber. It had been hollowed out years ago and sported an opening near the top of one wall to let in steam from the spring. The warmth was welcome after the chill of the outdoors and of my mother’s room. Mother never lit a fire if she could help it, and, being near the outside, her cave was always cold. Thomas and I shrugged out of our outer jackets and left them in the heap by the doorway.
“Marc, you’re late.” Ben, my half-brother, my mother’s older son, sat at the head of the stone table. My mother loved Ben as much as she hated Thomas and me. My father, on the other hand, had treated all of us the same. But he had never interfered with Mother.
I stopped and squatted a short distance from the doorway. I was the last member of the council to arrive; all but one of the stone stools were occupied. “The Old Dog died. Thomas and I cut up the carcass and brought it in.” I motioned Thom closer. He took a couple of steps.
“Marc, come take your seat, please.” Ben’s voice, quick and loud, held nothing but impatience. “Thomas, you may stay where you are.”
I considered arguing. Instead, I shuffled over to the seat Ben indicated, at the end of the table opposite him. “Mother is cooking the Old Dog.”
“It still won’t be enough.” Ben glanced at Thomas.
Thomas raised his gaze. “I’m not a baby. I won’t be one of those put out to die.”
Ben grunted. “We hope no one will have to be put outside, but the food situation is dire. We’re near to starving, and it’s the coldest part of the winter. Spring is at least a month away.”
“So what are we going to do?” Thomas asked. “Are we going to hunt?”
“It’s dangerous to hunt in winter,” Eric, my sometime friend, gazed at me, a challenge in his dark eyes.
“We’ll have to,” I replied. “We need meat.” As Clan Chief, I’d be expected to lead the expedition, and I wasn’t a good hunter. I feared failing and shaming myself in front of the others. Still, what other choice did we have?
“You won’t help if you end up dead,” Eric said. “Don’t you remember the story?”
“The story of the Hounds and the Wolves? How the Dogs were murdered by the Wolves in the winter?”
“How the Wolves were murdered by the Dogs,” Eric said. “The Wolves were the victims and the Dogs the killers.”
I flushed. “You’re wrong, and anyway, it’s just an old story. We’re going to have to hunt, whichever way the story reads.”
Chapter Two: Leader?
We spent the remainder of the meeting arguing about food distribution, dwindling supplies, and the like. The council turned to Ben when they had a question instead of to me, and I became increasingly uneasy. I waited for someone to propose confirming Ben in my place, but despite the murmurings, no one did. I was my father’s oldest son, and he hadn’t named anyone else. According to tradition, that made me the clan’s leader. I figured there were enough conservatives on the council to make ousting me difficult. But still, I recalled whispered tales of unpopular new leaders dying suddenly. I tried my best to put the stories out of my mind, but a thread of fear remained curled in my belly.
By the time the meeting was over, I wanted nothing more than to stomp off by myself. Thomas, after one glance at my face, murmured something and ran away, leaving me to push toward the exit alone in an attempt to avoid Eric.
He was quicker than I, though, and grabbed me by the sleeve of my tunic as I tried to leave. He leaned toward me and sniffed, pushing his nose into the sensitive spot between my shoulder blades. “You stink.”
I shook him off, hoping to escape without encountering anyone else. Alas, too late; Ben smirked at me as he crossed the chamber.
“You’re not clan chief yet,” Ben said when he reached me. “Your father didn’t name you heir. He named me, and I can prove it.”
“How?” I asked.
“You wait. You’ll find out when the time comes.”
I was on my way back to my mother’s cave when Kassie found me. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I was looking for you. Now that your father’s dead, you’ll need a cave of your own, I can help. We can get a cave together.” She took a step toward me, and I retreated until my back rested against the cold stone of the corridor wall.
“No thanks,” I said. I liked her well enough, but I didn’t want to start a family. What if I had a child and then had to put it outside? The thought made me sick.
“You’re almost twenty years old. You need your own cave, and you need to father a child as well.”
“I still don’t want your help.”
“Eric told me you were looking for a cave. Did he lie?”
“I’ve been looking, but I haven’t decided yet if I want to move.” I chewed my lip. “I wouldn’t bother with a cave of my own if it weren’t for Thomas.” I needed to get Thomas away from my mother before she injured him. Or worse.
“Are you planning to ask Eric for help?”
I shrugged. “The only ones who would be willing to help me at all are you and Eric.”
“Don’t ask Eric. There are things he knows, stories he hasn’t told you, things he needs. He’s keeping secrets.”
I shrugged. “Secrets. Everyone has secrets.”
“Who’s going to follow you as Clan Chief if something happens to you?” She punched me in the stomach, pretty hard. It hurt.
“Thomas would follow me.” I swatted her arm. “Don’t punch me.”
“Thomas is too young to lead.”
“Well, I’m alive for now, and I have all the problems I can handle without worrying about something stupid like who will lead if I’m dead.”
Kassie rolled her eyes. “I’ll see you later,” she said. “When we eat.”
“Sure. When we eat.” If we were lucky, someone would have found a carcass with some meat today, and we’d have enough food for everyone at the evening meal. But even so, hard choices were coming, and I’d have to make them.
We all ate together in the council chamber, since it was the warmest spot in our cave complex. Fortunately, someone had brought in the remains of a deer carcass, so everyone was able to have food.
After supper, it was time for stories, and Kassie spoke first.
“Eric, I want you to recite Fur Brothers Tale. Your version.” She glanced at me, and I shrugged; I was, unfortunately as it turned out, unfamiliar with Eric’s version of the story.
Eric stood. He loves to recite. “Through the dark woods runs the wolf-pack, shifters in thrall to the moon. Hot in pursuit are the others, bloodhounds who bay a dark tune.”
Shouts started up, and Eric stopped reciting to point at someone. “Speak.”
“The Wolves were pursuing the Hounds, ninny.” The man stood—he was seated at the back of the cave, far from the dim flicker of the firelight, and I couldn’t make out his features. “What kind of lore master are you?”
Kassie jumped up from her place beside me. “Eric’s version is the true one. The Hounds were running after the Wolves. The Wolves are the true Friends of Man.”
Gasps came from around the chamber.
“You lie.” I jumped up. “Dogs are Man’s Friends.”
Everyone started shouting. The fight would have gone on a lot longer, but Eric raised his voice. “I’ll recite something else.”
After a few seconds, the chamber became quiet.
“The Gates of Hell,” Eric began. “He stood before the gates of hell to bargain with a shade. He drew a breath, then struck the bell and drew his heavy blade.
“The gate was formed from primal fire, glowed with a steady flame. But in that hell his heart’s desire, and on his head the blame.
“The shadow slipped between the glow that formed the fiery gate. Dar raised his sword to strike his foe. The shadow murmured, ‘Wait.
“‘If you would see your love once more, then listen now to me. While men have entered hell before, no man has broken free.’
“‘And yet I too must take a chance, so, shadow, stand aside.’ The shadow bowed and, with a glance, let hell’s gates open wide.
“‘I’m going now to meet my love. Though I’ll remain in hell, my story will be known above.’ Then did the death-bells knell.”
No one interrupted him this time. As soon as he was done, we banked the fire and retreated to our own caves for the night. I avoided Eric and Kassie, instead returning with Thomas to sleep beside my mother. In spite of my worries, I fell asleep as soon as I lay down and rolled myself up in my blankets. When I next opened my eyes, it was morning.
One morning as I was driving to work up Route 495, I spotted the carcass of an animal lying on the grass on the median. I was in the left-hand lane, driving at about 60 mph, and I didn’t have time to determine just what kind of animal it was as I drove past. A short while later, I passed a discarded mattress beside the road on the right hand side. By the time I got to work, I’d conceived the scene that became the beginning of this novel, which I titled Side of the Road.
The novel is a dystopian young-adult fantasy set in a future ice age. Civilization has collapsed. Marc, the main character, is living with his clan in a cave complex. Conditions are primitive. It is winter, and food is scarce. Genetically mutated Wolves and Dogs live close to the clan. The clan is living in harmony with the Dog clan a short distance away but distrust the Wolves.
Later in the novel, Marc receives help from a Wolf, but his clan doesn’t believe him. Marc wants to prove that Wolves can also be Friends of man in order to redeem himself and be confirmed as clan leader. His half-brother Ben wants to see Marc permanently exiled in order to take his place; Ben wants to lead the clan himself and hurt the half-brother who he believes has always gotten preferential treatment.
Marc goes on a journey in search of a mysterious library thought to contain relics from the so-called Old Time before the ice came. He wants to find the library and prove that Wolves are Friends of man, but his half-brother Ben, the dog Rufus, the weather, and the unknown location of this proof all oppose him. The novel centers around Marc’s search and the question of whether he will find the information he seeks and return to his tribe to be confirmed as leader or be permanently exiled and die without the support of his fellow clansmen.
Margaret Fieland is a poet and writer living on Cape Cod. She is the author of four published science-fiction novels and a book of poetry.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018