“Hush,” I whispered to her. She whimpered wordlessly, her stained face streaked clean by the tears she continued to shed. I worried over her – could she dehydrate from crying too much? She hadn’t told me anything. I’d found her in the forest as I ran from the group behind me. Alone. Leaning into a bare aspen facing west – the same way that horse ran. Where the sun sets. She cried and cried, her hands covered in blood- not her own. I had examined her quickly and whatever wound had produced that much blood would not have been the tiny scrapes and scratches. I had carried her a few miles, trudging steadily through thick underbrush, careful of my movements but unfamiliar in how to care for a child, or how to walk lightly while carrying a child. She fell asleep twice, only to wake and stare at me, tight lipped, her eyes wide with fear and shock and then light recognition. She realized I would not hurt her. She never screamed, only whimpered.
As night fell, the fog that lay heavy across the southern valley in the shadow of Camel’s Hump turned heavy and dense, it’s fingers cold and icy against our skin. This child was only in a t-shirt and shorts, and I clicked my tongue in irritation. What rational guardian in this world lets a child cavort in inappropriate clothing so close to fall? I had no extra clothing – simply wearing through what I had until I needed something new and picking it up along the way (usually off of a corpse). I dug through my pack anyway, finding scraps here and there I could use to patch my things. I looked at her, eyes on the ground, arms hugging her tiny torso, and I stopped. Just for a moment. She heard and looked up, tears still slowly gouging trails through the filth and blood on her cheeks. I sighed.
I unzipped my sweatshirt, ragged and worn at the cuffs and collar but still functional. I crossed my legs and leaned against the tree behind me, an old pine bleeding sap. I could feel it sticking to my hair.
“Come sit,” I said to her, motioning to my lap. Her face contorted in panic, her eyes widening. I recognized instantly her face of terror- probably something like my experience with the man at the beginning – and sighed. There is no age limit for them. There is a new world order here.
“Please, you will die if we don’t warm you up.” She started to cry as she crawled towards me, the terror plain on her face but her – what? fear? – instilled some sense of disgusting duty that drove her towards me. “I won’t do what they have done,” I whispered quietly, and she lifted her head to me, her eyes fixing on my face solidly for the first time. She crawled into my lap and I zipped the oversized sweatshirt around both of her, her head leaning tensely into the hollow of mine, still untrusting of my promises. Good. At least she was not naive.
She fell asleep quickly and I realized with a single, electric jolt that when I was small I used to fall asleep in my own mother’s lap like this, and it tore at my gut to realize this gesture of solitude and warmth was no longer considered motherly but instead a sign of perverted sexual deviance, molestation and rape (she’s only a fucking child). I still wondered what happened as I drifted off, caught between the world where the fog shields us and the world where dreams plague me.