I’m out on the far edges when the Gelic pounces out of nowhere like they always do. She snatches my lapels with ivory clean hands, pulls her smiling face close, breath clean as death, asking me throaty-voiced did I know my very own personal saviour.
Caught dead to rights I am and only the quick talk to save me. I spit out that I do know my personal saviour, a fella by the name of Big-Ski, who just that morning saved me a thumping.
The story is only a scrap of nonny, but it stops her for a tic. It’s an old trick but a good one. Toss up a bit of doggerel, something outside their ken, blinker them long enough to make a dodge.
Not that the tale of Big-Ski isn’t true, for it is. But buttonholed by a pretty Gelic is no time for long-winded tales. Waste of a good story, too, because Big-Ski thumping them three and truly saved my sorry ass, and all for no better reason than a belly laugh I’d served him up that morning.
Any other day Big-Ski might have joined the boyos who were knocking me. Ski enjoys a good brawl, and he’s not picky about which side he joins. He brawls for the pure sport of the thing. But today Big-Ski is my salvation and I’ve no time for wasting breath, talk, or tale on a Gelic.
That pretty Gelic doesn’t loosen her grip, but those gleaming eyes hesitate half a heartbeat and I know she’s trying to parse out what a Big-Ski is and how he might tally with her notions of the narrow path. Of course, she can’t make Ski tally with anything in her world but I’m not offering explanations. Half a heartbeat is all I’m going to get, and a smart lad doesn’t waste his one chance.
I slam my forehead into her beak hard as I can. She’s too close for a broken nose, but I get a splash of blood for my trouble. Then I go limp as a boned fish and husk her, slip out of my mac like dirty water, and roll across the soggy ground. She’s left holding my empty coat. I’m gone without need of a backward look-see, splashing away through puddle and dreck, dodger dodging, coatless but free.
I’ll come back for my mackinaw once the bloodied Gelic girl gives it up. Meanwhile, I’m ducking culvert tops and sewer rungs, not wanting to add a split noggin to a close call. I hear friendly voices ahead and make for them, all the while listening behind, but there’s nothing chasing me except echoes.
Probably that grabby Gelic girl is already on her way back to her side of the line. Gelics aren’t much good with uncertainty. Surprises disrupt their sense of orderliness and they lose their purpose. As I run, I imagine her back amongst her own, sporting her bloody beak and her story of trying to bring salvation to one of the dirty heathens. How she’s almost got one. Almost.
To hell with her. I’m gone and feet don’t fail me. Those friendly voices build to a hum, and I’m in the free and clear. I slow to a walk and the sweep of memory catches up with me. Funny how that happens in the here and alone.
It wasn’t always thus and so, the Gelics across the edge and us banished. Been so long now, lots of younger folks never knew it any other way. But remember it, being born back before there was a them and us. I was twelve when my family did the runner, my parents waiting until it was almost too late.
When I was a boy, everyone lived in a big jumble under the sun, or so it seemed to us kids. Didn’t seem that way to the Gelics, though. Any sort of jumble made them restless. To their reckoning, there was but one way to live. Didn’t matter who or what, their way was the right way and the only way. They called it the narrow path and they applied it to everything and everybody.
Gelics began slapping rules on anybody they didn’t like, and they didn’t like anyone the slightest bit different. It went way past not liking. A person or thing outside their narrow path struck fear into their hearts, and fear made them dangerous.
Once the Gelics got scared, they got busy. What kept them busy was identifying all the folks who believed or behaved in any way outside of what the Gelics believed. The narrow path belonged to the Gelics and no one else. It wasn’t like those old gospel songs where everyone was welcome. The Gelics didn’t want any riffraff walking beside them.
The most important thing was for everyone to believe what they believed. It was their way or the highway, and the highway led to a fiery hell. The Gelics had beliefs about every aspect of living: how babies were born, how kids were raised, what subjects got taught in the schools, and so on right on down the line.
Sex was one thing that drove the Gelics into a frenzy. They conjured up rules about every aspect of sex, stiff rules that no one seemed to obey, not even the Gelics. They got into a lather about sex, especially when other folks were enjoying sex more than they were.
They cooked up rules about who could fuck who, when, and how the fucking should take place. When their sex rules didn’t catch on with everyone, the Gelics set about making their rules the law of the land.
You might figure people would have put a stop to it. Truth was, times were hard, many people were confused, and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. The Gelics were big on control, offering it up as an answer to all of life’s uncertainties.
Meanwhile, well-meaning folks bickered amongst themselves. They split into groups and fought one other. While they were wrangling, the Gelics were getting a solid grip on the levers that moved society. They had the courts and the cops, the politicians and the power, the bullets and the borders. Once they consolidated that power, they weren’t shy about using it.
By the time regular folks could see the writing on the wall, clear and bloody, it was too late. Things went from bad to worse. I was just a scruffy kid running with other scruffy kids. We didn’t notice the changes in the same way our parents did. Most of it only became clear to me after we made the jump and got the hell out.
But that’s years and water under the bridge and all of us under as well. Nothing left except the Gelics running everything on their side, them pretending to walk the narrow path even when they’re crooked as a hound’s leg.
I splash into a circle of light and find Big-Ski and those same three boyos who tied to give me a whacking. Everyone’s pals again, of course, the four of them sharing a bit of gnaw and passing around a bottle.
We hallo each other and I drop myself down. The bottle dodges to me and I’m glad of it. Big-Ski gives me a smile and a whack between the shoulder blades. He means well, the big ox, but I almost spew my slash. Spilling anything is a waste and wasting anything is a crime. Drink most especially.
The four of them eye me while I’m busy catching my breath and holding my grog at the same time. One boyo is sporting a shiner, courtesy of Big-Ski no doubt. Still, it’s all grins and banter with blows laid by the wayside. Billy, the one with the black eye, chides me as I hand over the bottle.
“You look to be coming from the edges, Grimy, only where’s your coat? You’re supposed to be scrounging, not losing.”
The others chuckle over that. They’re waiting for a tale, and I try to spin it out proper.
“Right you are, Billy Brant, scrounging I was and far out on the edge. Someone’s got to bring home the goods for you lazy sods.”
That sets them all to laughing and earns Billy a few finger pokes as well. They’ve been at it for a bit and the bottle makes them an easy audience.
“You know the rhyme, Billy. Button and marble, trinket and tool, a scrounger harvests the trash of the fool. Only it was me almost got harvested and lost my coat in the doings. A Gelic jumped me, a pretty thing with a grip like a monster. Came out of nowhere she did. Had me dead to rights.”
“I bet that woke you quick. How’d you dodge her then?”
“Luck was with me, boyos. She had strong claws, but she made the mistake of going for my coat instead of my throat. Gave me time for a bit of the quick talk and a head bash to her nose. I left her bloody, but I had to skin out of my coat as well. So here I am, empty-handed and sorry for it. I expect I’ll have to go back for the coat. Can’t waste a good mac.”
Nods all around and a pass of the bottle. The truth is I was almost snagged, so the boys don’t ride me too hard. Big-Ski tries to make it easier in his clumsy way.
“Aw, no worries, Grimy. You’re just a wee squirt and scrounging is dangerous work. Just a bit of bad luck and no more. The coat will be there, sure as anything. What’s a pretty Gelic want with your filthy old mac?”
He slaps me another one on the back, gentle for him, but it near knocks my head off. Quick Jim is grinning at me, not ready to let the story go.
“Maybe you should have gone with her, Grimy. She might have done more than comfort your filthy soul. There’s other bits need salvation as well.”
The circle of light fills with our laughter and it’s a good thing because laughing pushes out the fear. A scrounger who gets snagged is never seen again. It’s no laughing matter, and we all know it, which is why a body has to laugh all the harder. Lose your laugh and you’ll never go near the edges again. Then who would do the scrounging?
The truth of it is life is hard down here. Everyone has to do their part. Me, I’m little and quick, so I’m a scrounger. Get to the edges, find the goods, bring them back. Others, like Big-Ski, they’re the fighters. They protect the families that live further on. It’s the scroungers and fighters that live closest to the edge. We make up a buffer of sorts, much as we can.
Fighting doesn’t come often, but it happens. There’s not much rhyme or reason to it, but the fighters have to be ready. In the beginning, the Gelics tried to wipe us out, but as the years passed, they realized we served a purpose.
See, the Gelics need a bogeyman, someone to blame for all the bad things in their world. We heathens come in different colours and different creeds, so we make damn fine scapegoats. Hell, we even speak different languages. Don’t matter to the Gelics if it’s a hurricane, plague, or pestilence. The heathens did it.
Every few years, a new boss will rise up amongst the Gelics. That’s when the fighting starts up again. A boss man only stays boss if he shows how tough he is. And with the Gelics, the boss is always a man. They can’t abide a woman being bossy.
The heathens aren’t picky about whether someone is a he, she, or whatever. We can’t afford that nonsense. There are women fighters, same as women scroungers. Some of the fiercest fighters are women. It’s easy to reckon when you remember all the shit Gelics dumped on the womenfolk.
Back before they took power, what scared them holy Gelics most, besides maybe sex, was the idea that women might get the upper hand over the men. They preached that women were less than men to smash the womenfolk down, then used the laws and the courts to keep them down.
The image of a strong woman still scares the bejesus out of those fools. That’s one reason our women fighters are so good. The Gelics might go three of four up against a fella like Big-Ski, but a fierce woman coming at them unmans them. They turn tail and run for the safe side of the edges.
But here and now, there’s the five of us laughing with me in the centre of it and happy to be there. Then Big-Ski pushes himself to his feet, and a considerable push it is given his size. He scoops me up by the armpit so I’m standing beside him. The lads are grinning at us, waiting for another laugh. Big-Ski addresses them all pomp and circumstance like he’s on the stage somewhere.
“M’Lords, if you’ll excuse us, this brave knight has lost his armour and we are off to recover it. Pray, keep the home fires burning and the castle secured until our return.”
Those three boyos start burbling like a kettle on the hob. Then Big-Ski mimes a whispered aside, but his voice roars out at full volume.
“C’mon, Grimy. Let’s go save your coat!”
The lads boil over with laughter as Big plants a hand on my shoulder and pushes me forward.
I head back into the tunnels that lead to the edge lands, back to where I last saw my mackinaw. Big-Ski is beside me, ducking his melon under low culverts and steel rungs, moving fast and easy for such a big man. The friendly laughter fades behind us until all I can hear is the splash and echo of our footfalls.
Then we’re out of the tunnels now and into the edge lands proper, amongst the middens of refuse thrown away by the Gelics. They probably think it’s a clever insult, using trash to demarcate the line between heathen and Gelic lands. For us scroungers, it’s our bread and butter.
We’re moving careful and quiet now, eyes alert, but the truth is I’ve got no worries. Big-Ski takes up a lot of space beside me. I feel like a kid who’s brought his big brother to bash the bullies, all cocky and brash. Then I see my brag for what it is, knowing that if I were alone, I’d be slinking and dodging, just like always.
The thought of it sets me back. Before I can stop it, a question blurts out of my pie hole.
“Hey Big, you ever wonder about all of this, how we ended up heathens and all?”
Big-Ski grins down his shoulder at me.
“Naw, I got nothing to wonder at. My mum and dad told me all about it. Where did that Gelic jump you?”
I point to my left and veer that way. We’re close now, and I scan the gaps between heaps of rubbish, looking for any sign of the Gelic girl. The question is still dogging me and I’m not paying as much attention as I should, but Big is here so there’s that.
“I didn’t mean wondering how we got here. I guess I’m asking do you ever have doubts about all this. I’m always thinking about it. Rolling it around in my head, you know?”
Then I hear a thing I never thought I’d hear out in the edges. Big-Ski is laughing, laughing out loud where any stray Gelic can hear us.
“Yeah, Grimy, I got doubts. I doubt those lads will save us a drink. I doubt any of this shit will last forever. Maybe a long time, but not forever. I think about it all the time. But you answered your question while you were asking it.”
I must be looking at him like an idiot because he lays a hand on my shoulder, far gentler than I thought Big was capable of.
“Think about it, Grimy. Doubting and thinking are the very things that make us who we are. We argue about everything, right? Every heathen has a different idea about this or that. Hell, we’re a rabble of ideas. The Gelics call us heathens because they don’t know any better. They never were the brightest bulbs in the pack. Those holier-than-thou bastards should call us polytheists or polyglots. Or maybe polliwogs. Ha! Polliwogs, wogs, get it?”
Big-Ski’s elbow almost knocks me over.
“Look, the Gelics can’t abide the idea of doubt, much less folks thinking their own thoughts. That’s why they were in such a frenzy to take over everything and boss everyone. Some poor fool might think up something outside their narrow path and then their whole show would come crashing down. So have your doubts and think your thoughts. Meanwhile, I believe we found your mac.”
Big points to a swath of red plaid crumpled in a heap on the ground. I pick it up, flap it hard, shooting dirty droplets through the air. Big-Ski shields his face with one big paw.
“Hey, Grimy, lookie here!”
I look where Big is pointing and see a fine skein of blood spray on the shoulder of my mac.
“A fine day’s work, my lad. You escaped your Gelic and drew blood into the bargain.”
I hear something clang, maybe metal dislodged by a careless step. Big-Ski hears it too, and we’re both of us ready. I jerk my thumb back toward the tunnels and whisper low.
“Overstayed our welcome, Big.”
He nods his head, hisses an answer.
“You’re in the lead, Grimy.”
Then we’re moving fast across the edge land, retracing our steps past heaps of discarded treasures, slipping into the tunnels where dark and doubt protect us from salvation.
Image by icheinfach from Pixabay
8 thoughts on “Under Threat of Salvation by Marco Etheridge”
Congratulations on landing the Halloween slot. This proves that there is nothing scarier than like-minded groups. They all have full moons in some sky that turn them into werewolves, no matter their intentions. Well done as always.
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I maybe have taken something out of this that wasn’t there.
I like how you left the initial statement of ‘Before there was a them and us’ as that takes this somewhere else because let’s be honest – There has always been a them and us, no matter what side you are from!
This made me think on the Jewish Ghettos in Poland with the ‘thieves’ moving outwith to get what they could. The Berlin Wall also came to mind as did the oppression of Catholicism and the treatment the Taliban has for women as well as a few ideas on cults. You mixed these ideas into each faction.
What I enjoyed was that these were all very small hints and you moved on and changed before we could get a grasp on them.
My only criticism (initially) would be that the big fellow’s opinion at the end became a bit of an information dump…But when I think on that, when you are asked your opinion, it can only ever come out like this, so again, this is very well done!
You are a wonderful writer and the hints that you put throughout were very skillful.
Superb my fine friend, simply superb!!!
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A narrative that expertly weaves back-story, world-building, character development, action, philosophy… what am I leaving out? Oh, right … imagination. Very well done.
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Hugh said much of what I was going to write. In the USA the the attack on the husband of a high level politician has eclipsed over a hundred who died in Korea, ongoing mass murder in the USA, and the cruel war in Europe. The description of the attack is determined by politics rather than information.
Perhaps this dislike or hatred of others has come from our ape ancestors. We have found the enemy and he is us. If I knew anything about writing, I’d say excellent allegory.
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This really drew me in – a great dystopic tale for Halloween!
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Thanks to everyone for the comments and encouragement. Happy Halloween!
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A bit of an Irish kind of patter, quite entertaining, the argot of the edges. Indeed, no-one likes to be under control, or out of control, for that matter. Somewhere there’s a medium outside of polarities. The theme reminds me a bit of “The Chrysalids,” with its exile of “mutants” to the “Edges.” I agree with Doug, we are instinctual creatures, just beneath the surface.
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As others have a said a great Halloween post. I got a sense of Lord of the Flies with this one. I really like how you write – a combination of esoteric / otherworldly alongside very informal / well-paced tone – this does a great job of making something unusual read as the everyday and commonplace, which is a real skill.