I had to mistrust my own brother. A hideous feeling crawled in my gut. The people I had always seen as fixtures around me, immobile, like trees in a forest, were moving abruptly. As a gust of wind whipped round the clearing I turned my face to the shadow of the firs, bent forward, and vomited all the food I’d eaten that night onto the frozen ground. Wretched, but somehow feeling better, I grabbed a small fistful of snow from the north side of the nearest tree, and wiped it over and into my mouth, spitting it out.
I had to stand in Mani’s way. Jan Creusel had said there weren’t many people left who could do it. I gasped in some arctic air, as if rising from a deep dive, and looked down at the house full of strangers. The rest of the village lay dark and empty. This was the only opportunity I would have.
Slowly, I crossed the clearing and circled round the doctor’s house, keeping out of the pools of light shining through the windows. At the road, I headed down the hill, past empty homes, breaking into a run as I got further from the party. Within five minutes I was at the standpipe, looking at the dark shape of Jan Creusel’s place. I had never felt so scared in my whole life.
Buruk was guarding the door. We looked at each other. Buruk knew I wanted to get in, just as I knew he wasn’t going to let me. Our Mexican stand-off lasted thirty seconds and then I remembered something. Turning, I ran back to our place, and scrabbled underneath my bed. Nothing. Panicking, I swept the floor blindly with my hands, feeling dust, odd nails and a single sock. Then my hand brushed against something sticklike and dry. I grasped it, and backed out from under the bed, sitting back on my heels. I held the flower that Jilla had given me, dead and dried out from many weeks lying undisturbed on the floor in our home, where the stove had been kept constantly burning.
I crept back outside, looking quickly round. No-one. I approached Jan’s house, holding the flower out in front of me, and pretending more bravery than I felt, advanced towards Buruk. The full moon shone on his silvery coat, and his breath came in small clouds in the cold air. I pointed the flower at him, and he sniffed at it, cautiously and for what seemed an eternity. Then he whined, and lay down. I stepped past him and tried the front door. It opened and swung back with a creak, showing Jan’s moonlit kitchen.
Jan’s kitchen was better than ours. He had more room, and his table was new-looking. I was distracted by photos he had on the wall, black and white. It was too dim to see them well, but I thought I recognised a young Brena in at least two of them. I had to get on.
I scanned the room, and caught sight of a small door in the corner, which led me down five wooden steps into a cellar. It was utterly dark, and I struck a match from a box on Jan’s kitchen table. It flared to show me that a light bulb hung from the ceiling, and I spent six matches looking for a switch, finding it eventually by the door in the kitchen.
At first the cellar looked as I had expected: shelves along the walls stuffed full of old tins of paint, nails, tools and bits of wood. There were two long tables in the centre of the room, both bare. I looked harder, and sniffed. The smell I had detected at Brena’s was here too, fresher somehow. Then I noticed several large pestles and mortar on one of the shelves, where they had no business being. I reached up for one. It was heavy and awkward, the pestle sliding round the rim of the mortar as I tilted it off the shelf, making a loud scraping sound.
Inside, there was a thin layer of yellow dust at the centre, where something had been ground. It smelled strongly, and I ran my finger through it and then touched it with my tongue. It tasted of nothing – Jilla was right about that. I held up my dry flower to the light and examined its centre. There, I could just see some tiny yellow specks, some remaining pollen, on the withered remains.
Jilla had told me about hundreds of these flowers, crimson. Mine had been the only one left the next time she looked. What the hell were they? My head felt thick and heavy, and I suddenly felt very tired. I had no idea how long I’d been here, and it abruptly felt essential to leave. I raised the pestle and mortar over my head and pushed it back onto its shelf. Then I went back to Jan’s kitchen and switched off the light. Moonlight razored in through the window.
At home, I carefully put my dead flower back under my bed. Then I lay down in the dark, and unexpectedly fell asleep.