The vast expanse of snow covered plains ran off into the distance, the early light reflected against the girl’s goggles. Lalang brushed her hair back as a gentle but cool breeze hit her face. At the far end of the plains of snow sat the border of her homeland, a mountain, bigger even than the behemoth she had scaled up now, but she could not see it, even on a clear day like today. The blue sky, the pure white ground, it was calm, peaceful, taking a deep breath Lalang savoured that moment as she did every morning, before looking down at the hut below her. Her home she shared with her mother, sat like a blemish on the clear landscape. They had already finished the early morning fishing, her mother would now be trying to start the Worobo the old tiresome furnace that was key to survival in these lands. It was even older than Lalang in her sixteenth year, but unlike Lalang, as she got wiser, faster, more skilled, the Worobo grew old, tired and threatened to die every day. The long Dark that came at the end of every day threatened to consume them, if there was no warmth, there was no life.
The fish had been plentiful as usual, knowing where to drill for the fish was also key to survival here, and Lalang knew better than most. You couldn’t drill in the same place too many times, it would weaken the floor beneath you, and fish did slowly learn where not to travel, but varying your fishing sites would mean that all who lived on the plains would never run out of food. Food was not an issue here, although one would get sick of fish if but for the fact that few knew any different, but the oversupply meant that it was almost worthless in trade, one could not get a new Worobo trading fish oil, dried fish or fresh.
There came a roar over the hills, a strange sound in the peaceful lands, but one that Lalang knew well. A trader came every fortnight, exchanged batteries and occasionally brought vegetables, shrivelled up grey things, and took away their excess fish products. Ira was the man’s name, it was always Ira, he was the only one that bothered to travel out this far, he gave her mother a funny look, Lalang didn’t understand it, but it was a look that filled her with foreboding and disgust. Lately, he’d started looking at her that same way as well, as such she always looked forward to his departure.
Nevertheless she didn’t want to leave her mother alone and so began the descent back to her home, such as it was. It took her only a few minutes to return, Lalang moved gracefully over the steep foot of the hills, you move more gracefully than anyone I’ve known a voice came to her from her distant past, she pushed it aside.
The black skip, a rumbling old machine flew in and landed near the hut, sputtering as it stopped. From a distance, Lalang saw Ira, the trader, a man with oily hair slicked back, his moustache elaborate in its twirls which did little to distract from the crooked yellow teeth with black ends. Few had pleasant teeth in these parts, but Ira’s seemed somehow worse than anyone.
The man disappeared inside the hut with a sleigh of goods and wasn’t there long before Lalang returned, wrapping her large fur coat around her, which she had undone to cool down after her hike up the hills.
The inside of the house still had the chill of the night and her breath steamed out as she entered. They had turned the Worobo off not long before light, trying desperately to save it from the exertion.
Ira looked up and gave a gap toothed grin to Lalang, her mother sat at the table, the old battered, light plas-metal had lost its gleam years ago. Her mother’s usual demeanour, her light in her eyes had also gone. Ira’s grin was worse than normal, it was predatory, what had happened?
Ira simply shrugged and loaded up their old batteries and containers of fish and fish oil, the newly charged batteries and a bag of vegetables sat by the door.
‘These batteries had best last till the next fortnight this time, the last fell short by two days, even worse than the ones before,’ Lalang scowled at the man.
‘Look here,’ he turned on her, his grin dissipated, ‘you’re lucky I come out here at all, no other trader would bother with the likes of you, so count your lucky stars-‘
‘I’ll report you to the Neyeng authorities for bad trading, you know what that means,’ she cut him off. He went silent. Yes, it would mean his license would be suspended and he couldn’t trade in the village or surrounding areas, it would mean his death.
‘No one would listen to you,’ he said through a strained grin, his look was of condescension, ‘you’re a child.’
‘Not by age, nor by action, now are you sure those batteries will last?’
Lalang’s mother seemed to come out of her shocked silence and looked at her daughter, the glint in her eye returned.
‘I’m sure you wouldn’t cheat us Ira, would you?’ She said, her gentle voice ebbed through the cool hut. She stood up, her full height a head shorter than the trader who was himself not especially tall for a man. Her mother’s olive skin, dark eyes and black hair, tied behind her head gave her a gentle look, her voice matched.
‘Well, I’ll give you an extra one just to make sure,’ the man said reluctantly, he left with the supplies and returned shortly with another battery in his arms, grunting and panting as he did. He was only suffering a little from a spread in the mid section, but it was clear that he was desperately unfit. ‘You’ll think about my offer, it still stands, Worobo aren’t cheap you know’ he said to her mother, ignoring Lalang altogether and trudged back to his skip.
Her mother returned to the furnace, connected a new battery, she looked distracted, upset. What was that offer? She wondered, thinking back to how upset her mother had been when she returned, and how Ira’s face had been that of an animal about to sink its teeth into a meal. She didn’t understand this, but she now hated Ira more than before. He would get us a new furnace? What did he ask for in return?
Her mother grunted and muttered as she attached the battery and tried several times to start the old Worobo. They only needed it to run for a short time at a low temperature, it would help dry out some of the fish, dried fish was a great emergency store and ideal for travelling, it was a staple on the plains.
Lalang removed her coat feeling more comfortable now, she went to the basin, retrieved the knife and began filleting the buckets of small Maja they had caught this morning. Her hands glided with ease, the knife like an extension of herself as the fish fell into place, the usable parts in the bucket, the not -to- eat in the other. The Maja were not used to get oil, they were better for eating, but they would get more varieties in the next few days, she knew where to drill.
After a few minutes, the Worobo finally sputtered to life, and Lalang helped moved half of the fish onto the drying tray, the rest would be cooked fresh for breakfast and during the long dark when the furnace would be on for heat anyway.
As her mother scattered and seasoned the fish, then began preparing the vegetables for breakfast, Lalang looked through the dirty glass and the outside world. There were only two such windows allowing light in, but it was enough on a clear day to see in the main room, but not the attached second room where she and her mother slept.
She studied her reflection in the dirty window, her freckles hardly noticeable. She tried to remember when she had seen herself last in a mirror, couldn’t recall if she had changed much. Her olive skin, dark slanted eyes and black hair made her unmistakably her mother’s daughter. It made her think of the time her father had shown her her image for the first time in Neyeng the local village. She pushed the thought aside, admonishing herself for disappearing into the past when there was so much to do in the now.
‘Mother,’ she said gently, ‘I think I’d like to go to town and look for work.’
‘Work?’ her mother started as if shocked, ‘but I need you here.’
‘I know, but I could try, maybe get enough to trade for a new Worobo or perhaps earn some money-‘
‘Money?’ her mother cut her off, not harshly, but her tone said all that needed to be said of her faith in such an idea.
‘Well we can’t trade fish oil for a furnace,’ she protested.
‘No, I can get us a new one, next fortnight,’ her mothers eyes became empty pools as she stared past her daughter into the middle distance.
Lalang didn’t quite get her meaning, but knew it had something to do with Ira, and this made her angry.
‘No mother, I can do this, I can’t stay here forever at any rate.’ The grim determination told her mother wordlessly that she wouldn’t have to trade with Ira. Her mother nodded in understanding.
‘Perhaps, but it’s dangerous out there.’
‘I can handle myself better than anyone on the plains, you said so yourself.’
‘In the mountains my child, you read the storms and the animals better than anyone, but it’s other people I’m concerned about.’
‘I know, but I still need to go.’ Her mother sighed, nodded, she hated the idea of her daughter leaving, but knew she was right, it would happen sooner or later.
After breakfast, Lalang packed her bag and strapped her warmest clothes on, although left them loose as she was to exert herself on her walk.
Her mother hugged her close, tried to hold back her tears and waved at her as she walked off, her feet gently caressing the snow as she went.
Lalang felt no fear, she promised to be back before the Dark anyway, but carried two days worth of food just in case. She had water, freshly melted, a spare bottle full of ice that would melt gradually, ‘always one full bottle’ was the axiom.
It took her only a few hours to make the half day trip, such was her speed, the village of Neyeng stood in the distance, the several dozen huts branching off the one main street, the hustle and bustle of the mid morning foot traffic was visible even from her vantage point.
Making her way into town, the first time she had been by herself, and the first visit in many fortnights, she looked around in wonder, the hundreds of residents seeming like an ocean of activity compared to her usual one hut, two person existence.
‘Look out girl!’ A voice cried as a sled pulled by a six legged Ngar flew past, the man with his wife looked down at her as they drove their wild panting creature onwards, its tongue hanging out of its sawed off, fanged mouth. The wife clutched her child wrapped in a blanket. They must have been the richest in town to have an animal at their disposal, with all its burdensome needs.
‘Are you ok?’ A pleasant voice came at her from behind. Lalang turned, noticed she stood near a store where a young man stood, smiling at her with a gentle expression.
‘Me?’ She said, her heart skipping a beat. I don’t remember seeing him, she thought as she realised her jaw was hanging open. He was a full head taller than her, his gentle youthful face and pristine smile captured her attention. He wore lighter clothing, had no need for heavy gear when largely staying in doors, thus his fit active lifestyle was betrayed by his form.
The young man looked down at her clothing, she noticed that some sludgy snow had splashed on her from the cart as it had flashed past her. Her clothes weren’t clean before anyway, so she paid it no mind.
‘Oh yes, thank you I’m fine.’ She mumbled.
‘I remember you,’ he said, ‘I saw you once, with your mother, you live out near the border?’ She nodded, ‘you’ve grown,’ he said with a broader smile, she didn’t quite know why, but she felt a slight tingle, her heart beat faster.
‘Ah, yes, I’m here looking for work, my mother needs a new Worobo it is older than I, I am very skilled-‘ she stopped as the young man put up his hands.
‘I can’t help you with work, my family owns but a small store,’ he gestured to the building behind him, the grimy glass revealed a vast collection of trinkets. She looked in awe, there were toys, she’d never had a toy growing up, but her eyes were drawn to a model, different spheres all attached together on what looked like die-cast metal.
‘What is that?’ She gaped.
‘Oh yes, it’s a model of our solar system.’ She looked at him blankly. ‘Come in, I’ll show you.’
She hesitated, it was impolite to refuse such an offer, after all, life on the plains was tough and offering ones warmth with a stranger was not offered so casually. This was however a distraction, but something about this young man drew her to him, she wanted very much to learn about this model, but she also wanted to talk to him, no matter what he had to say. With minor reluctance, she hiked up her backpack and followed him into the store.