They announced they would help. Said they would show me how to do it all. So I learnt, it was hard. They took me out to what they called fields and I wanted to fall upon the ground, to wrap my arms around my head. ‘Too much space,’ my brain screamed to me. Bix held me fast against his side and always his voice was murmuring explanations and encouragements. Then I felt so ill, the smell of the animals was rank and strong and they seemed always to be bleating or lowing as we moved among them
I had to watch where I placed my feet; the fields were filled with the animals’ waste. ‘Why was it not kept clear?’ I sounded inside my mind. Flies buzzed and hummed from the piles to our skin, our clothes. I kept my teeth closed tight and tried not to show my disgust. The animals seemed to be in a permanent state of panic or puzzlement. They ran from us and then toward us in a bewildering rush of bodies. Some, braver than their kind, butted and nibbled at my legs, my hands, no matter how I tried to keep myself from them. Bix just laughed and jumped us sideways, this way and that, and once he swept me up in his arms and over the heads of a group of curious lambs. What would the Directors say? I heard children laughing and shouting in a field next to us. ‘Chasing the birds,’ I was told. ‘Why?’ I thought.
The man taking us through the field, John was his name, kept talking, talking. I tried to listen to understand what he said. I stopped walking the better to do so. I shut my eyes quickly; I had forgotten and looked up. The fields spun for that instant and I felt Bix’s arm tighten. John was explaining something about respect for the animals. Of kindly slaughter. I could not help my words and I blame my disordered senses for the disrespect I showed to him.
‘Where is the respect,’ I asked, ‘in being kind and then killing them?’ John joined in with Bix’s laughter. The animals did, I suppose, look happy enough, if not being miserable was being happy.
Then, for Gran’s request, they chose a sheep and took it, roughly it seemed to me, to a small hut in the Village, where John picked up what looked like a pair of scissors but they were strange, larger and thicker than any I had seen. He dragged the protesting sheep between his knees and, bending over, proceeded to take off the woolly coat. I stared, I could not help myself; to my shame I could not help myself. What was he doing? In what seemed no time at all the sheep was half its size and so smooth, clean and white. Why, it was beautiful in its way. Someone bundled the fleece, as they called it, away from John.
They killed the sheep.
Before I knew what was intended they killed it. Right there. I was nearly sick then from the stench of the blood that poured from its neck. I managed to Control. I would not humiliate my hosts in such a way but never have I had my manners tested so severely. I stared at the heap of death, speechless, as it sprawled at my feet. My heart was hammering within my chest and I could feel the blood rushing fast, too fast, around the blood vessels of my brain. Gran, did you know your request involved killing this animal? Did you always eat dead animals? I had never before had to consider that aspect of Gran’s lifestyle, before the City.
Was I responsible for this animal’s death or was Gran? Had the Authorities realised what my task had involved? If they had, why had they not warned me, did they fear I would not honour Gran’s request if I had known? Maybe they had not known, then was I at fault for not stopping the act? But I had not known what they were going to do. How could I have imagined they would kill it?
My head was pounding now and my thoughts swirled in a turbulence of disorder that threatened to split it. I was losing my ability to think, to reason. I felt my breath beginning to fail me and the animal at my feet grew hazy. My legs began to shake. I needed to leave but how could I, what excuse did I have to rush away? These people were helping me, helping Gran. They had killed one of their animals for us, strangers to them. How could I disgrace them, myself, Gran or even the City?
I was so lost. Then Bix was there leading me away, an easy comment tossed over his shoulder to the people. I heard dimly a pleasant rejoinder as my legs collapsed beneath me. Bix was holding me up and led me to a small room next door with a strangely warm smell. He lowered me gently to a soft cushion and sat beside me holding me and telling me to, ‘Breathe slowly, my love; be calm, be calm.’ His voice was even and gentle, instructing me ‘Slow. Calm. Breathe.’
It was not my Mantra but it started to work. My muscles un-knotted slowly, my stomach felt some ease, gradually my mind slowed its chaotic galloping and I could see my way to Control. It did not come at once but it would come if I remained at peace within Bix’s encircling arm. He was my sanity.
His voice sank to a comforting nonsense, his words meant nothing, the kind of words that maybe Gran had used when I was young, the kind of words that eased hurts and fears just by the rhythm in them, by the sound of them. I slid my hand into his, feeling his warmth, his security. I bowed my head against his chest and used his heartbeat to slow mine down, to match his beat. Then I was calm, had Order and Control. The dead animal was filed for future thought and logic. I could face the Village again. I looked up and tried a smile for Bix.
‘Good girl,’ he smiled back. ‘Ready for the rest?’
I hoped I was.
‘Will you wait here for a few minutes? I’ll check there are no more surprises like that.’ The instant panic I felt subsided and, looking around at the smallness of the space, I felt safe enough to consent realising, as he left, that Bix must have been uneasy within walls so close together.
I looked around and pressed my fingers into the softness beneath me and realised I was sitting on many fleeces of sheep. Bundles of the fleece surrounded me. That warm and comforting smell belonged to them. I examined with sight and touch. Feeling the greasy softness, seeing flecks of plant life and dirt tangled in the hairy texture. What, I wondered, would happen to these? How could I find out? I caught my thoughts then, why would I want to know?
This was new. I had never wondered the how of anything that I didn’t need to know. Sometimes with Gran, when I was very young, I had asked questions that the Supervisors had labelled curiosity and led them to Rehab me. My memory of that is faint and vaguely unsettling. I hardly ever think about it. Gran had warned me not to ask questions, that she would tell me things unasked. Had the Rehabilitation not worked, that I now found myself curious about these fleeces? I must try harder. I did not mention my new problem to Bix when he returned; I would find a quiet time and work out these Aberrations.
Bix took me to the house we had eaten within that morning. There was a female waiting; I thought she was about my age. She smiled at me and asked me to sit at the table. Bix was leaving, I watched him go with a sense of loss. Then I turned back to the woman keeping my eyes low as courtesy demanded. I could hear Bix outside the window talking to what sounded like a group of men.
‘My name is Susanna.’ I felt such a sense of relief. Not once had anyone offered their name since we had arrived, a fact that preyed on my anxieties. Had I and was I still offending them in some way? Elated at this proof I had not, I bowed my head and offered my name back.
‘Bix has been explaining some things to us,’ she said. ‘You see, here in the Village it’s the visitor who has to offer a name first. We had thought you didn’t wish to do this, now we know that you were waiting for your hosts to be first. It is a misunderstanding.’
I stared across at her, astonishment and guilt equally mixed. I had offended but how could anyone guess at such a strange convention? She continued, ‘Bix has explained about your customs and how outward emotion is considered embarrassing to others. We’d thought that you found us all of no account as you seemed uninterested in us. Now we know you have been as considerate as any could wish.’
I grew flushed and anxiety rose within me. I had been so rude, but how could I know? They did not tell me in the City.
‘We had known you would find being Outside strange but we hadn’t considered how terrible. We hadn’t known how you would feel about touching, noise and bustle. Most of all we hadn’t realised you had never known about meat and how it’s produced. I’m asked to apologise on all our behalfs.’ She hesitated and then, ‘Please, can we start again?’
I wanted to run and hide like a chastised child. How could I have behaved so badly? I turned my head so the eye water would not be visible. I who had full marks always in Politeness sessions. I who could recite every Protocol our level was allowed to know. Then, in the silence that stretched until it seemed to breaking, a new and novel thought crept into my conscious, one that would never have been allowed in Sessions. I realised that there were two sides. They had been trying to be good hosts and I a good guest. Separated by the Sefuty Line for fifty years we no longer used the same forms of behaviour.