Maznah’s legs felt like dead weights. After more than a day of walking she had finally reached the other side of the swamp. She hoped the war had not got this far and villages here were not like the burning ruins she had left behind.
The soft ground below the water shifted and she stumbled forward, grasping the greasy bark of a large tree to stay upright. One hand moved instinctively to stop the baby, cradled in its small sling, swinging too far away from her chest. Limbs squirmed beneath the covers.
Maznah uttered soothing tones. “It’s okay. We’re nearly on the other side. Then there’ll be help.”
The trees began to thin, their leg like roots becoming more exposed as the land rose out of the swamp. Beyond hints of blue sky could be seen between the trunks. Fatigue was pushed back by an upwelling of hope.
Metal objects glinted in the bright morning sunlight. A graveyard of machines spread out ahead of Maznah. Here were vehicles of many different shapes and sizes. Vines wound themselves around the mound, inching their way into every crack their probing tendrils could find. A lizard sat atop the mountain of scrap. It regarded the newcomer with a slow-blinking stare, watching as she skirted the edges of the pile.
The objects meant very little to Maznah. She knew what a car was, but like everyone else when The Wipe had come she had lost the centuries of knowledge that humanity had accumulated. All around the world, technology lay rusting and crumbling as it broke and could not be fixed. The civilisations of Earth had been levelled in one fell swoop. Now there was no inequality; depravity was everywhere.
A thin path, worn by occasional use, ran from the scrap yard and through another screen of trees. As Maznah followed it she caught the scent of wood fires. The path came out between two single story houses built of mud and straw. It changed from a forest trail to become a five- man-wide dirt road. Further dwellings were spaced along its sides, spreading out to form a township whose buildings rose with the land towards a series of hills.
People of the village regarded Maznah as she passed by. Self consciously she tried to tidy herself, brushing back her long hair, straightening her dress. She wished she had wiped away the mud that still clung to her legs.
A woman sat in front of one of the houses, a basket of sweet potatoes by her side.
“You spare something for me and my baby?” Maznah asked as she walked up to the seller.
The woman looked Maznah up and down and then leaned back in her chair. “What you got to barter?”
Maznah felt tears of weariness well up in her eyes. “I’ve come through the swamp. My village was burned, my husband dragged off to fight in the war.” A sigh escaped her lips, rasping in her dry throat. “I have nothing.” She started to turn, knowing what the answer would be before it came.
“Hey.” The seller had stood. “You can have this.” She offered a small tuber. “It won’t be no good for the baby, but okay for you.”
Maznah took it, tears now heavy on her lashes. “Thank you,” was all she managed.
The sweet potato was almost gone by the time she reached the top of the hill. Here the houses had become remnants of the lost world. Stone walls still stood but the roofs had gone. Now thatch covered the gaps where tiles had been. The road forked. To the left it ended in a town square. Market sellers were laying out their produce on blankets spread on the ground. It was likely there would be someone there who could help her child. If not, then they might be able to direct her to elsewhere in the village.
As Maznah turned towards the market she spared a glance in the other direction. That was the moment she saw the sails held high above the buildings. Her heart skipped a beat. She had been told of windmills that were still used to run what few items from the past worked. If such was the case here, then whoever owned it would surely know what to do. Maznah changed direction.
Never taking her eyes from the spindly structure, she half ran, half staggered towards it, one arm holding the bundle close to her chest. Her legs had begun to shake from the exertion. The road turned and she was standing in front it; a metal tree, the circular disc of its leaves rotating slowly in the wind.
Maznah staggered up to the building crouched below the windmill and knocked on the door. After a moment it swung inwards. An old man blinked at her. His sun darkened skin matched the colour of the swamp water.
“I need your help,” Maznah managed, her voice filled with sobs.
The man said nothing.
“Your windmill. You have ‘lectric?” Her head rose, indicating the sails above the house. Then she took her baby from its sling and held it out towards him.
The man looked down at the child. His blank expression changed.
“It doesn’t generate power,” he told her. “It pumps water for the village. Take your …” he paused and studied her face, the sorrow evident. “Go and beg elsewhere.” The man stepped back and closed the door.
Maznah began to cry, once more holding the bundle close against her chest. It moved its head. The covers had slipped back and the small face of a robotic dog peered out, its nose blinking red. The sunlight glinted off the cracked solar panels between its ears.
23 October 2009
Another drought is affecting East Africa. The UN’s World Food Programme has said that $285m will be needed during the next six months in an attempt to stave off complete disaster.
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