Author Jonathan B Evans


Jerreck had been excited and scared when he was told that he was joining the foraging group - excited because he had been chosen rather than any of his peers. Scared because it was dangerous harvesting the weeds this late in the season, when the gas was at its most active.
Last night he had found it impossible to sleep. He told his mother he was worried that he might make a fool of himself in front of men who looked up to and respected his father.
‘I’m frightened that I’ll let everyone down and disappoint you both,’ he told her.
‘Why think that? Your father and I love you very much and you’ll be fine,’ she reassured him, tenderly brushing his black hair from his face. ‘Just make sure that you do what Hern tells you.’
She had squeezed his hand, smiled through her concern, kissed him lightly on the forehead and left him to a fitful sleep interrupted by weird, vivid dreams.
He had woken early. He skipped breakfast, having no appetite and at the appointed time had thrust his way through the series of skins that provide the caves with limited protection from the hostile elements. As he had emerged into daylight his eyes started to water, stung by the acrid gas carried across the plateau from the mud sea below. Squinting against the glare of the suns, he had adjusted his scarf to cover his mouth and nose – he left just a thin slit through which he could see and had made his way across the wide, barren ledge, its surface littered with rocks and boulders.
He had joined the rest of the group and after a final check by the leader – Hern – they’d moved off, crocodile file, across the plateau.
As he had searched for the weed Jerreck realised that he was not relishing the next few months. The colony eked out its meagres supplies of meat and fish with the weed - the bitter leaves still hard and unpleasant despite hours of boiling. Without it they would starve and he hated the gnawing hunger of winter and being confined below ground.
The plants were surprisingly hard to find. Their broad leaves were invariably covered with a fine layer of dust and they clung to the barren surface, close to large rocks. When at last he’d found a plant he’d grabbed hold of the leaves in one hand and scrabbled at the root, trying to prise it from its strangle-hold - his only reward was half a weed and his fingers cut to shreds.
Bent almost double he’d worked his way forward until he’d found another patch, knelt on the cold, hard ground and attacked the plants. When he managed to rip them from their hold, he’d shaken loose stones from the roots and tossed them into the bag slung low across his back.
It had been hard physical work - his back ached and his fingers were cramped and bleeding, but now his bag is finally full. With the drawstring pulled tight to stop the weeds from spilling out, he stands at the top of the precipice looking out over the mud sea. He has reached the boulders that mark the edge of safety - the end of his known world. He has never been this far from the caves before.
He’s stunned by the sight of the mud sea stretching into the distance like a huge seething body, rising and falling in ten metre waves. He closes his eyes as he feels dizzy from the height and the boiling turbulence fifty metres below. The force of the wind pushes him back as if to keep him away from danger. He tastes the acridity of the wind - the smell assaulting his senses.
He catches a movement. Something is skimming the surface of the sea. It disappears into a cloud of gas and reappears like a phoenix, its wings on fire, flaming in the sunlight.
It’s a Soar Bird riding the thermals. Gliding on fifteen metre wings, it rises and falls on eddying currents.
With a flap of its enormous wings, it rises twenty metres overhead. Craning his neck he shields his eyes from the glare of the suns as he watches.
The bird descends and glides over the surface of the bubbling sea, searching for mudfish. Its wings are like burnished copper. Large feathers splay out like fingers, ruffling in the wind. Its proud head is capped with black feathers. Jerreck has never seen anything so majestic. He is mesmerised watching it fly in ever decreasing circles, keeping its eyes pinned to one point on the mud’s surface.
Without warning, it tucks back its wings.
It dives.
Feathers flash in the sunlight.
It drops like a dart towards the sea.
Without thinking, Jerreck follows the bird.
In his excitement, he runs past the boulders.
He hears the shout, but too late. He can’t stop. His feet slide on shale as the slope drops away.
He throws himself to the ground. He digs his raw, aching fingers into loose stones. He scrabbles around, desperately trying to grasp something solid. There is nothing to hold on to.
The steepness of the slope, the momentum of his run and the shifting scree beneath him, all drive him forward.
Sliding and falling, gravity pulls him inexorably towards the cliff.
He can’t breathe. He tumbles and rolls. He has to slow down or he’s going to die.
‘No!’ He cries out.
He flails around trying to grab solid rock - anything. He clutches at the passing surface. He ignores the pain in his torn hands. He digs in his heels, but keeps accelerating. The incline increases.
He careers towards the sheer drop.
He slams to a halt. His body jars as his heels smash into a solid outcrop of rock. It’s only a small tip, jutting out from the surface. But it’s enough.
His legs ache from the force of the impact. He holds his breath, waiting and praying that the rock holds.
Stones loosened by his fall sweep over him and plummet to the sea. A large stone cracks him on the head. A trickle of blood runs down his face.
Slowly craning his neck he looks down. His feet are less than a metre away from the precipice. Somehow he manages to cling on. He closes his eyes. Holding his breath and being careful not to lose his footing, he pushes back gingerly into rocks. They shift. He freezes.
Everything goes quiet apart from his hammering heart.
His body aches from the battering and his legs burn from the effort of keeping his footing. He expects the rock to give way at any moment and to fall to his death. He is perfectly still.
He clenches his eyes shut and clings on for dear life. He wishes he’d stayed behind, or that someone else had been chosen instead of him and he prays that he will be rescued.
Then he smells it.
‘No!’ he wails, opening his eyes.
He is surrounded, but his scarf was ripped from his face as he fell.
A small bubble of panic expands in his chest. He tries calming himself. He breathes more deeply. He gags as the poisonous air burns his throat and fills his lungs. Tears spring to his eyes and he starts to retch.
He has to get away from the gas.
Desperately trying to keep his balance and anchoring his feet, he slowly pushes his face into the rockface as he tries in vain to find a pocket of clean air.

Hern rushes forward. He can see that Jerreck is in a precarious position. He can just make out the top of the boy’s head at the steepest part of the incline. He’s amazed that he didn’t fall over the edge, but he will be difficult to reach.
He gathers the team together. ‘Quick Siad, tie the ropes to the boulders and the rest of you get into a chain,’ he orders.
They are just getting into position when Hern watches in horror as gas rises up from below the ledge. Its curling, smoke-like fingers feel their way towards the boy.
‘Get back and sit down, it’s too dangerous!’ Hern says as Jerreck disappears in the murk.
They huddle together to wait out the gas.
‘We should move back,’ says one of the men.
‘No. We stay,’ Hern commands. ‘It’s easy to get lost in this and we should all stay together with the boy.’
‘I pray that his scarf is in place,’ Siad says.
‘If not he is surely dead by now,’ mutters the first man.
‘Silence! We wait for this to clear and then we rescue him, understand!?’ shouts Hern. The group falls quiet, each man praying for the boy.
Hern shudders as he remembers the effects of the gas - seeing people overcome by the fumes becoming delirious, then slipping into a coma and dying a slow, agonising death while friends and family can only look on helplessly
It begins to rain. A heavy squall throws great globules of rain at him. Hern bends his head towards his lap, pulls his cap down and his scarf up.
It is only a brief shower, but the water drips down his neck and mingles with sweat cooling on his back. It seeps into his underclothes.
As he waits he thinks back to earlier that morning.
‘Are you sure you want to do this Jerreck?’ He had asked.
‘Yes!’ the boy exclaimed - his face anxious in case he was left behind.
Hern had stared at him and then nodded, satisfied that he was ready.
He had briefed the group. ‘You know the routine - keep to the marked areas, keep your eyes open and watch what you’re doing. Pull the scarf over your nose and mouth and make sure that it’s secure. The gas kills, but if your face is properly covered you’ll be safe. If you aren’t sure get someone to check it for you.’
I warned him about not going past the boulders. I told him that if he did he would be over the cliff in no time. What was he thinking?
The rain stops, but the gas remains, hanging over the group, unable to move.
Just when it’s becoming unbearable and he wonders much more he can take of just sitting around waiting for it to lift, the fog starts to recede. He springs into action.
‘Quick! Tie both the ropes onto the boulder and around me,’ he orders.
I’m not going to lose the boy - not on my watch. I would never forgive myself. What would Tahan say and how could I look him in the eye? He probably won’t survive after that much gas, but I have to get him back.
He checks that the ends of both ropes are secure and orders the men to take hold. Then they lower him past the boulders.
Hern slips on pea shingle. He finds it impossible to move forward and stay upright. He lies flat on his back and inches forward, pulling with his feet.
By the time Hern reaches him, Jerreck is delirious, but somehow he still manages to hold on.
Hern gets a foothold on the rocky outcrop and lies on top of Jerreck. The boy is thrashing around.
Hern pushes him back into the ground. He tries to get the rope around him. It’s a tricky manoeuvre.
Jerreck’s arms are flailing around.
He hits Hern in the face.
Hern jerks back.
It all happens so quickly the men holding the rope are taken by surprise. One or two of them lose their grip. Hern tumbles off the cliff and falls into open air.
He falls ten metres then slams to a halt. The rope tears at his armpits and his legs swing wildly. He crashes back into the cliff, winded as the air is crushed from his lungs.
When he finally stops swinging he is dangling below the ledge, with only birds between him and the sea.
Regaining his breath Hern shouts out and is slowly hauled up.
Level with Jerreck once more, he sees that the boy is oblivious to what’s going on. He’s badly affected by the gas - his lips foaming and twitching and Hern is amazed he hasn’t passed out.
He inches towards Jerreck talking in soothing tones.
‘That’s it Jerreck. Hold on. Don’t panic. I’ll get you out of here.’
His voice seems to have the desired effect. Jerreck becomes calmer.
Either that or he is exhausted, Hern thinks as he moves on top of him again.
Hern worms an arm around the boy’s back to get the rope under Jerreck’s armpits. He is almost there. He is just easing Jerreck forward, trying to get the final bit of rope around him, when Jerreck lashes out.
This time they both fall.
The only thing stopping the boy from falling to his death is Hern’s hold around his waist. His arms strain against the weight as they swing back toward the cliff.
Hern twists around so that he takes the full impact of the blow. He smashes into the rock face. He nearly drops the boy.
Thankfully Jerreck’s last exertion was too much for him. His body sags and his limp, lifeless form is held as they dangle below the shelf.
Hern lets go with one arm. His arm strains against the weight. He tries to hook the rope around the boy’s chest. He can’t quite manage it.
His arm burns from the effort of holding Jerreck. He won’t be able to hold on much longer – his grip is loosening. The boy is slipping from his grasp.
Hern makes one last desperate attempt. He fights with the rope. It slips through his greasy hands. Sweat stings his eyes as he fights with the weight of the boy and the writhing rope. He tries again.
At this final attempt he gets it around. He tightens it under Jerreck’s arms, tieing it off and making sure that Jerreck can’t fall.
Hern takes a moment to massage his torn muscles and to catch his breath. Then he yanks on the rope.
‘Pull us up!’ he shouts.


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