Invisible, we are all invisible. Whoever comes to this village has no name and no past, or at least, none which he cares to remember. We have arrived here, coming from all directions. Each of us has a reason to escape or to hide. We all trade food, but many brew their own beer. Not out of mistrust, but to keep a remainder of their pride.
We are all aware that this respite won't last. If pursuers don't catch us, sickness will. If hunger doesn't put en end to our run, winter will. How many days have we got left? Every morning, the sky turns a little darker and the wind a little colder. Our days are numbered.
Two rabbits have been caught in the traps I set up yesterday. I will eat one myself and trade the other for dry food. "Cheese puts you through the winter," my mother used to say. "Cheese and walnuts."
I see the group as soon as I enter the village, with two women in their midst. I stand still and contemplate them with suspicion. Who has allowed women to come here? Women bring trouble and, as it is now, we have more than enough.
With a rabbit in each hand, I walk up to the group and inspect the newcomers. The two women have long blond hair. One of them is just a girl. "We don't want women here," I tell them bluntly. "You have to leave."
"They have horses, Joshua," replies the shoemaker. The other men in the group nod in agreement. Horses are a strong argument. Horses are valuable. I walk past the women and examine the two horses.
The animals look starved and exhausted. Their hair is falling and their eyes are half-closed. "These two don't have long to live," I comment. The shoemaker shrugs his shoulders. "Neither do we," he counters.
I shake my head, turn around, and walk to my place. Idiots, I tell myself as I light up my fire. Those horses will die and the women will stay. I skin one rabbit and set it to roast over the fire. Then I must have fallen sleep.
When I open my eyes, I see the girl standing in front of me. "Your rabbit was going to burn," she says, pointing at the fire. She has laid down the rabbit on a flat stone. The roasted meat smells good and I am hungry. The girl stares at me, but I don't say thank you.
"Will you take us with you, my mother and me?" she asks, as she watches me pick up the rabbit. I turn to her again, wondering what she is talking about. I don't want to share my meal with her. My reply comes automatically. "I am not going anywhere."
"The other men say that you are going to leave soon," she goes on resolutely. "They say that you are the only one who knows the way out." I know she is talking nonsense, but I am puzzled all the same. "Out of what?" I react.
The girl looks at the roasted rabbit and then at the fire. "Out of the winter," she explains. I hesitate long, but finally, I give her a leg of the rabbit. She thanks me and goes away to share it with her mother. I know I have been stupid. Later, the girl's words hunt my dreams all night.
The next day, the shoemaker walks to me. He is carrying a new pair of shoes. "I made these for you, Joshua," he says. The shoes are beautiful, of the kind I could not afford in a million years. "I know that you are leaving soon, Joshua," goes on the shoemaker. "When you leave, I want to go with you."
I refuse the shoes, but that doesn't help. Later, I must refuse cheese from another man. Then, a knife. They all say that they want to follow me out of the winter. I decide to put an end to this nonsense. In the evening, I walk to the two newcomers.
"Thanks for the rabbit yesterday," begins the older woman, when I stand still by their fire. Her long blond hair reflects the flames. "My daughter told me that you are planning to leave tomorrow." I look around angrily. In the shadows, I see the girl smile.
I catch two more rabbits the following morning. When I return to the village, I see that nobody has listened to me. They are all standing up together, with their possessions at their feet. Even the two squalid horses seem to have been awaiting me.
"We are ready," announces the shoemaker. I look at the two women and the men. Hunger and cold have made them lose their mind. My eyes cross those of the girl. She is smiling again. I have to tell them that we are not leaving. I have to tell them that I wouldn't know where to take them.
The shoemaker advances two steps and sets his right hand on my shoulder. "We are ready to follow you, Joshua" he adds. "Without you, we would have all stayed here and died." I open my mouth to tell them that we are all going to die here anyway, but I am unable to speak.
All ears are awaiting my words. All eyes are focused on me. I see hope in those eyes and also tears. The wind sends a shiver through my spine and the two rabbits feel heavy in my hands. These people need a real leader, I tell myself. They need someone who knows what to do and where to go. Someone who can show them the way.
Before I have a chance to speak, the girl mounts one of the horses. Her mother and the men pick up their bundles from the ground. The shoemaker thanks me again and asks me which way we are going. I see the girl on the horse look at the sky and then South.
I must speak now and shatter their dream. The truth cannot be delayed. I look at the shoemaker in the eyes and I see that he begins to doubt. The shoemaker's trust in me is not based on solid ground, I realize. I take note for the future. "South," I tell them. "We are going South."
[Image by Todd Baker under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]