Bewildering Stories

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Looking Past Midnight

by Margaret O’Neal

There are people at the camp who season their game with real pepper and other assorted condiments, their contraband filched from dining rooms in the town. Fisher has a stash; he is one of the smart ones. Tonight, as a cold rain falls, he rips open ketchup packs, flavoring his boiled squirrel with genuine tomato, a dash of salt. He stirs his supper counterclockwise, his spoon scrapes the bottom of the pot.

He trains his bad eye on me. I feel it. I shift in my seat, muttering to myself that he can stare all he likes; I won’t be asking for nothing tonight.

I shiver from the cold. I have one blanket left, but I won’t trade for food. I am not afraid of hunger.

They say I don’t have the tools to survive this life. Perhaps the smart ones are right. Fisher turns his good eye toward me, and I take this knowledge from him. His wide-eyed stare sees that rabbits outrun a woman with a gimp leg.

In town, there are sidewalk cafes where men dress in white, and women wait for doors to be opened for them. I have seen this world from the edge of the cliff. The sun beats down on the treeless streets as couples stroll from store to store, each man’s arm caressing his lady’s shoulder.

The women point toward gleaming windows, and I wonder what they look at, talk about.

I hear a noise and raise up as Fisher reaches for his pistol, but it’s only Old Man Bertram, drunk on blackberry wine. He stands underneath his tarp and holds a soup bowl to his mouth, slurping its contents. After throwing the bowl to the ground, he farts and goes into the deep wood to relieve his discomfort.

Fisher clears his throat like he is going to say something. I lift my head to look, but Fisher does not speak. He holds a spoon toward me, and I can see the fat glistening on the handle. I almost have to lay back down. I can withstand the hunger, but not the wild look in Fisher’s eye. It hurts to imagine his arm on my shoulder.

In the Deep Wood, men have little sympathy for women who can’t fend for themselves. I know this and yet still expect better of the men who walk by and spit onto an overturned pot. Fisher has never done so, but he may yet. I should be careful.

Fisher still holds a spoon toward me, and I finally walk toward him and touch his fingers, then the spoon, unable to stay strong. He scoots over and makes room for me at his fire. The ground has been cleared of rocks, and it is almost comfortable. I drop to my knees and lick the spoon, my tongue darting, catching every drop of grease as Fisher studies my lack of grace. I slurp louder than old Man Bertram, but I try not to burp or fart, suddenly conscious that this is my first time at Fisher‘s fire.

His hand reaches for mine, and as the rain falls, I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, that I see something good in his eye.

I hope I’m seeing him right.

Copyright © 2005 by Margaret O’Neal

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