“I’ll be back as quickly as possible”
“Just find something to eat.”
“I can’t continue like this.”
“We are starving to death.”, these days Aiya’s words were persistently muted by tears. She was too dehydrated for real tears, but they were still there, nonetheless, choking her thoughts and squeezing her heart.
The baby was quiet, suckling on her tiny languid breast. Kai looked at them one last time before leaving and wondered how there could be anything left for the baby to drink in this depleted skin.
Things had changed rapidly. Their lives were never easy but now they lived on the verge of survival. A few months back they could still get some corn or at least tapioca, but now they couldn’t find either. They had a lot of land from both their families but land meant nothing nowadays. It was a pile of waste as far as Kai was concerned. The soil had become the same as Aiya’s breasts - drained.
Years ago, they used to live in a house and could even enjoy the humble company of a small-town community. Food wasn’t great even then but they could still find it and together with others they tried to grow some crops. Hell, they tried planting anything that would decide to live. Each year the insects would be less and less, plants would be smaller and weaker and livestock was a story of the past. Only the rich could afford fruits and vegetables now. Kai had heard of such communities, living in towering glass greenhouses, having their own ecosystem that would provide them with all that was scarce. He hoped it was all a lie and that everyone in the world struggled as much as his insignificant spit of a family. He hoped no one was fortunate enough to eat fresh salad and to have reasons for smiling. He hoped everyone was as wretched as him.
Rapidly their community disintegrated. Whoever didn’t die, ran away. Aiya and Kai moved in search of food but all they found was desperation and dread. Worse was when they started searching more for fresh water than for food. They had a whole sack of filters that they had saved over the years. One day they stumbled upon a group of ferocious animalistic men, turned savaged out of pure hatred for their fate. All they could do was throw the sack and run as fast as possible through the nearby shrubbery. That night Aiya finally broke down and cried for hours. Kai held her and never let her go.
They now kept away from people. They quickly learned that violence was what they would find if they tried to initiate a contact with anyone out there. Not that there were many people, the land was bare just like its soil. They knew that many must have died from starvation. Others were killed by their own kind. Some probably by hungering or rabid wild beasts but who could blame them, exactly? Few lucky ones, however, managed to escape. Kai didn’t know where these enormous fiery machinery were off to but in the last year he had seen a few in the sky. The rich, again, he thought and tasted only bitterness in his mouth and mind. Other planets or space stations, it was all the same to Kai. He didn’t care where they were going but he loathed that these people had choices.
The worst day for Kai was when they found that Aiya was with a child. In other circumstances they would think it a blessing. They tried for over 15 years to conceive but they knew most people were impotent now and only the rich could afford any health treatments.The moment they decided that it would be sad and irresponsible to bring a new life into such a world - it happened. This child brought only hopelessness to them.
She gave birth a few weeks ago. It was a 24-hour long terror of excruciating pain, followed by an hour of Aiya screaming and Kai howling, praying for it to be over. The baby came covered in blood and amniotic fluid but perfect as a dream in a world morbid as a nightmare.
Kai didn’t know how or why Aiya and the child had survived. Aiya herself didn’t know why and often in their own separate thoughts they wished it otherwise. Aiya was breastfeeding constantly and getting skinnier by the minute. Kai knew that now he only lived for them, he couldn’t abandon them. He often longed for it.
He peeked outside from the entrance of the abandoned factory. The chance of running into anyone or anything was small but he never took any chances. He had a knife and a few small hand-made iron tip arrows in a small leather pouch on his belt. Over his shoulders he carried a sturdy old backpack, mocking him with its size.
The last few days all they had eaten were a few rats he caught in the corridors of the factory and a can of dog food he found while exploring one of the cellars. The rats were quick learners though and they all disappeared, leaving only droppings to show they ever existed. Kai wondered if they could eat rat droppings.
The factory was on the edge of a small forest and he entered it without hesitation. Hiding animals was his best chance of finding dinner today. He wanted to enjoy a walk in the woods but it was impossible. The last few months a disease had spread among some of the trees and now they looked just like everything else - dying slowly in horrific pain.
He was walking silently among the big roots of trees, trying to catch a glimpse of movement. It was not a movement that caught his eye, but the distinguished softness of a rabbit hide. He quickly lowered on his knees. He was right. A big skinny brown rabbit was lying by the entrance of a hollow beneath a large pine tree. He stopped breathing and started at it while slowly opening the pouch on his belt. Without making a sound, he managed to take a small arrow out but then sighed and straightened up. It was dead. Just like everything in this god forsaken land. He walked up to it and examined it with a stick. Froth and blood around it’s small muzzle. Bloodshot eyes. Tongue covered in black spots. Kai hadn’t seen such spots before but it didn’t surprise him. Seemed like the only things that could still make a good living were the diseases. Well, good for them.
A tiny movement caught his eye by the back foot of the rabbit. A baby uncovered its face from the soft fur of its dead mother. Kai sat down. He felt his thoughts spinning and felt dizzy at the sudden impact on his used up emotions. What a waste of life, he thought. The small life looked at him with its beady black eyes. It didn’t try to run away, it just looked at him. The teeth of hope in its eyes crunched at his heart and he felt crushed. He took his backpack off his shoulders and dug deep. When he found it, he took it out and instantly felt calmer. By the dog food can, he had found a precious fortune - a half-full pack of cheap cigarettes. Cheap cigarettes were still better than no cigarettes. He didn’t tell Aiya that he found them. Not because she would scold him for keeping them. He knew she would want to immediately lit one and he thought it wouldn't be good for the baby while she was breastfeeding. Looking at the dead mother rabbit now, he didn’t know why he cared at all anymore.
Kai leaned back on the dried up mossy ground by the hollow and smoked a couple of cigarettes with closed eyes. He remembered how much he used to complain as a child to his ma and pa of having corn porridge every single day. Back then they rarely had anything else. Now it was an impossible dream. Their diet nowadays consisted mainly of small rodents and if they were lucky - a clear nettle broth.
Kai’s parents want to send him off somewhere, anywhere, to try and get an education. To have a better chance of leaving this wreckage of a planet behind. He had insisted that he would stay and help them till the end of time. And for what? He had failed. Now he has a child with no prospects for life. He had already failed his child, too.
He pushed himself up and without hesitation, grabbed the small fluff of life and opened its mouth. Small black spots on its small rabbit tongue. With one careful movement, Kai broke its neck.
Using his hands he dug a shallow hole in the ground by the hollow and buried the mother with its child. He suspected that there might be more little ones down in the hole. Maybe only this one was strong enough to follow its mother. The rest were probably already dead, with black spots on their tongues, Kai told himself.
He got up and feeling the weight of a thousand years on his shoulders, he walked on.
He reached an unusual greenery by a still swamp and examined the plants. He stared at them for a long time. Parsnips. Aiya would be so happy to have some vegetables. Even if just root ones. He opened his backpack and filled it with as many as he could get. No meat tonight and this was a good thing. Meat used to be too expensive when he was a child and he always asked his ma and pa to get some chicken from the market. Now he had gone weary of meat.
By the time he had walked back to the end of the forest, he felt his spirits lifted. He straightened his back and quickly climbed the stairs to the floor which they had made into a cozy den. He could hear the baby crying and immediately dropped the backpack in order to get the bundle off Aiya’s arms.
“Yes, I found some parsnips.”
“Parsnips? There are no parsnips.”
“Well, there are, open the bag.”
Aiya hesitantly opened the bag and her eyes grew wide. She didn’t say a word as she took a pan over to the small gas hob which they had found on a deserted campsite a few months back. She took her knife out, cleared somewhat the roots of soil and chopped them in the pan. She poured some muddy water over them and lit the gas. Kai looked at her skinny figure and felt only love for her. He was gently rocking the baby and humming a songless sound by the tiny ear. Aiya left the parsnips to boil and curled up on the floor by the small gas hob. Kai left her to rest.
The baby fell asleep and left the small bundle on a stack of blankets in the corner. He drained the parsnips and saved the water for further cooking.
He knew there would be no further cooking.
Parsnips have been extinct for years now.
This treachery root looked just like the parsnip one but Kai knew better. He was a small child when his pa showed him this one by a lake near their house. His pa told him that a water hemlock would leave a nasty rash on his skin if touched. His pa warned him to never be tempted by its taste. Seizures and death will follow, his pa had told him.
Kai and Aiya ate peacefully and she went back to rest. Kai took the sleeping baby, rubbed its gums with some of the sweet boiled roots, hugged the bundle close to him, kissed the small forehead and laid down beside Aiya.