The next day proved cold and sunny. Mani was out the back of our place, sawing some wood to make shelves with a new saw he’d bought. I put my fleece jacket on, and wandered out.
“Hold this end while I measure up, can you?”
I knelt on the cold ground and Mani bent back to the wood with a tape measure. He made a mark with a pencil, which he then tucked behind his ear.
“What did you mean the other day about Brena? When you said she sold things to the soldiers?”
Mani didn’t look up, and spoke as if addressing the wood.
“She said you knew something.”
My heart jumped, and I swallowed. “No-one’s told me. I guessed.”
Clever. “About Brena baking something into the bread. And selling it.”
Mani put the tape measure in his pocket and stood up. He looked down at me, still crouched and holding the end of the piece of wood. I was dead.
“This is the first and last time you are ever going to mention this,” Mani looked into my guts as he spoke, his voice like metal. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, so leave it alone. The village needs you to leave it alone. I’m only going to say it once.”
I stared at him, petrified.
“If I hear whispers that you’ve been asking questions again, I’ll batter the living shit out of you. I don’t care what it takes. Have you got that?”
Slowly, creakily, I nodded once. The inside of my mouth was dry as bone.
I had run, gasping in the cold, to the stream. The whole village, that’s what he’d said. The whole village was involved. In dozens of other cellars, belonging to people I had known all my life, harvests of red flowers were growing, slowly. The pollen, whatever it was, had sent me to sleep and I’d barely touched it. Who knew what it did when it was eaten, or cooked.
I’d seen men exist in a drugged world before now, when the fighting was at its fiercest and no-one ever returned once they’d left us. Unable to cope, they’d gone with minds focused on other things, just as real. They’d said goodbye to their families with empty eyes, barely recognising them. Seeing them only as colours.
I stared at the stream. The sky had fallen towards earth, laden with grey cloud. I knew what it was that was pulling at Jilla’s feet, dragging her away from life. I had thought her stories were from a vivid imagination. I hadn’t known she was an addict.
Her time at Jan Creusel’s – all those hours – she must have been exposed to enormous drifts of flowers over the months, maybe years, that this had been going on. And Leni, he was sure to be involved – his cellar was probably being used too. Jilla was surrounded with the pollen, day and night. No-one had noticed.
It began to snow. I stared at the fir trees as they crowded innumerable on the opposite bank, silently turning white. Their lethal shelter seemed tempting. As the snow started to fall thick and fast, I turned and ran as I’d never run before, back to the village.