Renate Oude Nijeweme
A small plot of land

A small plot of land

Readingtime: 15-30 minutes

The improvised sundial showed that too much time had passed. Tubbernay was only 40 minutes away. Even with everything against him, he would have made it back hours ago. Ricca gathered her stuff. There was no use sitting here, watching more time pass by; she had to make it back to Sketha, she had to make sure no one would come for her. Ricca knew that she would be in danger for not making the delivery. Maybe Thiubis had a secret stash somewhere?

She just needed to think like him. Her brother was a well-calculated person. He would have a supply of all the moonshine needed to survive stored out of sight, just in case everything went south again. His shack was on the way to Sketha anyway, so the only thing she had to do was avoid people. Something that is sheer impossible nowadays, there were always people around since the water rose and the whole nation was swallowed.

Well, not the whole of the country was flooded, a patch that was now called Läichsakseny remained dry. Everyone knew for years that it would happen, everyone knew for centuries that the lowlands would not survive the rising waters, no matter how many storm surge barriers they would build. So every person who believed, came here. The only liveable place was Läichsakseny and that was where many people flocked to. Many, far too many; there were far too many people on this small plot of land.

She just had to dodge the wrong people, that would be more achievable. Ricca sighed and ploughed through the high grass. She knew every nook and cranny of this place, and Thiubis’ shack wasn’t that far now.

As a kid she explored every dirt track, every main road, every place except for the area by the wall. Only Thiubis went there. It wasn’t for people like her, he said, and she never asked him to clarify. There were more rules she had to obey without knowing the full extent of them. There were many unspoken rules hanging in the air. There was always the threat of prison if you only thought wrong, and getting caught doing something that was frowned upon resulted in the most extreme punishments. Even death. You just never knew which way the ruling would fall, like you never knew for sure what was frowned upon. There was no rulebook. You just had to read between the lines. She had no idea how she was still alive.

Thiubis’ shack was empty. She had hoped to find him lying on his ragged mattress. But he wasn’t there, nor was there any supply to be found. He wasn’t as prepared as she thought. Ricca pondered her options. She could only go to Sketha with the moonshine, a hint of a promise or a good cover story. And right now, she had none of those. Not going to Sketha would mean they would come looking for her sooner or later.

She figured that if they couldn’t find her, they were unable to bother her either. All she had to do was stick it out until tomorrow, if Thiubis was not back by, then she would go out to do some exploring of her own. Searching for where she thought Thiubis ought to be; where he was stashing the moonshine, at the abandoned grounds near the wall.

She could smell the wall before she could see it. There was a scent of petrichor, as if it had just rained after months of dry spells; the fragrance travelled far in the crisp morning air. With every step she took, the smell grew stronger. The sun only just peeked above the horizon. Early mornings were the best time to travel. Even the most notorious drunk would have fallen asleep when the morning light hit the grass. And it was not hot yet, she had plenty of time.

She traced the deep red lines of the wall with her fingers while she walked along it. She didn’t know where Thiubis hid his stuff. His. Their stuff. In her head, it had always been Thiubis’ project, and she just tagged along to survive. Ricca didn’t like the whole illegality of it; she didn’t like not knowing where he kept the moonshine, being this dependable on him. Maybe if she had made more of a fuss she wouldn’t be in the predicament, she would be able to take care of herself. She had to trace his steps, she was sure that somewhere along this wall there would be a sign of Thiubis.

Suddenly, she noticed how the vegetation was changing. Where the ground behind her was overgrown with ferns, she saw remnants of concrete and what must have been PVC in front of her. The plants that were still there had leaves in colours that had nothing natural about them, and the further she looked, the more deformed the plants seemed. The leaves seemed already scorched before they fully unfurled. While she followed the trail, images of Thiubis lying hurt on the ground flashed through her mind. It wasn’t likely, Thiubis was the most careful person she knew. But even the most careful man could hurt his ankle or trip over a stone, she thought.

The rising sun flickered on something metallic. She rushed to it. Was it something Thiubis left behind? It surprised her when she found that it was a steel tube that had caught the light. When she approached it, she saw all kinds of metal rise out of the ground. Meticulously, she scanned the landscape that lay before her. She thought she could see remnants of a fence and shrubbery had made way for alloy-green PVC pipes. There was no sign of her brother, though. Disappointed, she turned around. And at that moment she spotted it. Hidden behind all the distraction was the strap of his backpack poking upwards. You had to recognize it to see it.

With her heart thumping with a mixture of fear and hope, she ran over. Perhaps she would see Thiubis or come across clues to where he was hiding. But all that was there was his backpack. Discouraged, she sunk to the ground; there was no sign of him, and the backpack appeared to be empty. Thiubis must have made his rounds before he disappeared, which meant she could stop worrying about dodging crowds and making deliveries. With a sigh of relief, she traced her footsteps back to the wall.

The Osning built the wall quickly and efficiently as they had been building for eons; they built this one generations ago and Ricca was amazed that the fiery red wall had stood the test of time. The porous bricks stored the sparse rain and evaporated it in the drought, creating a high-humidity micro-climate close to the wall. She was sure she heard someone curse. It was not a strange hiss of air steaming off the wall; it was a smothered voice, irritated by the same damp air she inhaled.

What Ricca knew about the Sandbergersteinmauer was that it was built to make it absolutely impossible for her and her people to increase the area of land on which they were living. Behind the wall were several zones where no one had been since time immemorial. The area directly beyond the wall would be full of ambushes, poisonous plants and other entrapments. Survival was not an option, once you made the decision to go over the wall, there was only death, everyone knew that; it was impossible for her to hear a voice on the other side.

With her palm against the wall, she inhaled the dampness and with a shaky voice, she asked if someone was there. A flurry of wind blew fragments of a sentence her way. “Stay away, you filthy animal” it seemed to say. A shiver went down her spine as she obeyed. Filthy animal. The words kept repeating in her head. Ricca quickly sought her way back along the wall. Stay away. She felt the words all her life, they always hung in the air around her, and now she heard them travelling through the wind, from empty spaces; the same old loneliness came over her. The solitude people breathed her way since she was born; silence welcomed her everywhere she went; silence and faces turning away.

Ricca never knew why. She was always struggling to figure it out and had endless thoughts about what it could be. Maybe the wind held the answer, maybe it was because she was a filthy animal. Ricca felt the same old worthless feeling that crept up on her, and she knew, that if she felt it long enough, it wouldn’t just be loneliness she felt. The very thing she didn’t feel like doing right now was the very thing she needed to do. She needed to be surrounded by people, make some small talk. What she needed was a pub.

The only pub she knew that didn’t smell like rats dancing in weeks old urine stood in the middle of Sketha. She was lucky, there was a free barstool and it was fairly clean. Stay away. Stay away, you filthy animal. Why did the voice sound so disgusted with her? It’s nothing, it didn’t mean anything. “What didn’t mean a thing?” The drunk next to her asked.

Ricca realized she had been thinking out loud. “I was at the wall. Someone spoke to me.” She blurted it out before she realized what the weight was of what she just revealed. It was forbidden to be near the wall, it was considered dangerous and treacherous to even think about the existence of a world behind the wall. The red wall signalled the end of the world, at least to them. She saw the bartender coming closer. He must have sensed the tension; he was good at his job, keeping the peace in this little odd place where everyone tried to forget their life for a while. The drunk started to laugh. “Someone talked to you, eh. You must be very special.” His laugh made his voice falter as he ordered her a beer. “Here, drink that you wacko.” The best she could do was double down. Thank him for the beer and go on her merry way. But she slugged the beer in one go and said that she knew what she heard. Stay away, it said. Stay away. No need to mention the filthy animal, Ricca thought. “Staaaay awaaay huh” said the drunk. “Sounds like the wind to me. Or.. or..” He started laughing and slapping his knee. At least someone thought this whole ordeal was funny. “Or you heard the people, the people in them grounds there.” She must have looked confused because he got all serious all of a sudden. “You know, the people there” he said as he bellowed his drunken breath into her face.

“The people in them fields who are there since the beginning of time, well, a bit later than the beginning.” The bartender chimed in. “Yeah, maybe the ghosts of the graveyards also think you’re a special little laddie. What were you doing there anyways Richard?” She knew he meant well. He was only teasing, though she never wanted to hear that name again. He damn well knew it was Ricca now. She got up. “I know what I heard, and it wasn’t the wind, and it weren’t the ghosts of some ancient burial ground. There was someone there, and whoever it was didn’t like me to be there.” With her head held high, she walked out of the pub.

Ricca felt the beer in her legs as she walked slowly through the heat. By the time she reached Thiubis’ shag, the only thought in her head was water. Her eyes were dry, she scraped her throat constantly in an attempt to moisten it, to no avail. The sun was unforgivably hot, and even the birds kept quiet, with their beaks gaping open as they sat in the shadows waiting for the heat to pass. The door to Thiubis’ house was ajar. Strange. Ricca was certain she had closed it when she left. She carefully pushed the door open and peeked inside.

Water. She knew he had some drinkable water in a barrel in the back room. She needed it before she needed anything else. Luckily, the barrel was filled to the brim. Ricca took a gulp and felt how thirsty she still was. With a thump she sat down on the floor. Little sips, she knew, would lessen her thirst the fastest. After feeling the water coming back into her eyes, she looked around; now she was no longer as focused on quenching her thirst, she felt something was wrong. She remembered how the door to Thiubis’ place was already open, how the thirst tuned everything out, but now she could see that the place was totally ransacked; somebody was clearly looking for something or someone. Just like she.

Thoughts about the hidden backpack raced through her head. Did she search enough for Thiubis, did she search the backpack thoroughly for hints and messages? Maybe she overlooked something obvious. He wouldn’t have left her without any notice, would he? He always teased her, verging on bullying, but that was just because he was her brother, he still cared. She hated it when thoughts like this popped up, every now and then there was this feeling that it wasn’t just brotherly teasing. Ricca stood up and started pacing. Round the mess. Around the options they once were. Round the choices she had to make. And back again. There was nothing she could do here, the only sane thing to do was go back to the place where she found the backpack and keep looking for clues. He may have abandoned her, she certainly would not abandon him. Not if she had the slightest inkling that something may be wrong. Ricca knew she would go back to the wall, despite the voice.

The red of the wall seemed more intimidating now she knew what was on the other side; body’s, deep in the ground. The drunkard in the pub had said they were thousands of years old, and that idea and the howling of the wind made her hear the words she feared. You filthy animal. She knew this time it must have been in her head; the death don’t talk. She knew how others perceived her, and filthy was the least of them. And in a way they were right, she was the outcast, constantly trying to stay invisible in this crowded place where nothing mattered more than the way you looked and if you fitted in; where nothing mattered more than the way they thought about you. Be normal or die. Ricca was lucky she had found ways to escape the gaze of the others, she knew how to stay alive. Now she knew that there was death on the other side, she felt uneasy being here.

Ricca spotted the place she had left the other day and noticed right away that she had missed something. Where the ferns were still abundant, and the PVC gradually took over the ground, there stood a massive stone. There must have been an inscription that once could be read, now moss was all there was. Slowly Ricca followed the contours of the stone with her hands; if there was something there, she would find it, there was no need to rush things. Knowing her brother, he couldn’t resist using a stone like this. She didn’t know what she could expect, but a clue was all she was hoping for. A clue that Thiubis knew what he was doing; not only for his, but also for her sake.

Almost at the bottom of the stone, where the mosses merged into the sheer volume of ferns growing in the area, she felt an uneven patch. She knew she could trust him, she thought as she lifted a well-hidden box out of the grounds. Would there be enough moonshine to get her through the next few weeks? Maybe Thiubis had left her instructions so she could finally make it herself. A disturbed stag beetle ran over the back of her hand as she flipped the lid all the way open. An overwhelming emptiness stared at her. Nothing. Thiubis had left her with absolutely nothing. She was sure he hadn’t thought about her for even a second as he packed his things and left.

Ricca didn’t notice her tears and only realized she was crying out loud when a voice said, “’this’ you’re doing?” Startled, Ricca stopped crying; she was right, it never was the wind, it was a voice so vivid it couldn’t be just a figment of her imagination. Ricca took a deep breath and decided to answer the voice. Who cared if she spoke to ghosts, everything was already in pieces, she could fall to pieces as well.

“I am crying. My brother left me. I’m all alone.” She answered the voice on the other side of the wall. “That’ll make e’rybody cry, no.” The voice sounded soothing. She shrugged her shoulders. Perhaps. “Are you dead?” It was the only question on her mind, but she didn’t anticipate the reaction. A laugh bigger than she had ever heard rolled through the air and not only went over the wall, but the sound waves pressed through the porous stones, cascading over her. “Dedth. why’d you think that girlie?”

Blood rose to her cheeks as she admitted that it was told to her by a drunken man in a pub. The laugh came back to full strength.

“Do you believe ev’rything, ev’ryone? Even drunk’rds?”

“Well no. Not always. Sometimes. But drunkards can be right too.”

Did she really believe everything and everyone? Her cheeks could stay embarrassingly red because she knew the answer. She was ashamed to admit it, even to herself, but she believed everything everyone had said; she rarely questioned anyone; she didn’t question how people handled things nor how they treated her.

She certainly did not question the fact that the water level made them all live on this heathland; she did not question the wall, she did not question the red lines in her life. On the other side of the wall, the laughter had turned into a chuckle. A chuckle that only pleased him. Ricca banged the wall. Stop it, just stop your laughter, she wanted to say, but the words stuck in her throat. She pounded louder, harder so the voice would know to stop. She felt the pain comforting against her knuckles. Yes, maybe she believed drunkards, but at least she wasn’t sitting on top of death.

She forced her voice and with one last bang she screamed, “Just stop!” For a moment, everything went silent. She heard no laughter, and she heard no wind; the only sound that followed that silence was a new sound, the sound of a crumbling wall. Red stones and gravel raced to the ground; slowly but steadily making a hole in the wall. Ricca watched with a mixture of anguish and awe; she did this, she made a crack in what was once an inviolable fact; a vast construction, and now it had a rift, because of her and her fists of rage and embarrassment. The hole got wide enough to see the other side, large enough to see the dead laughing; and with some force, she made the hole in the wall big enough for her to wriggle through.

She felt a hand on her arm. It was a warm one and certainly not death. When she looked up, she saw a friendlier face, then she ever thought she would encounter. “Are you a-right?” The familiar voice asked. She nodded. Then she remembered the death, the graves she probably stood on. She looked at her feet in the dewy wet grass, but there was no sign of a gravestone, no sign of mourning, no sign of death. When she looked up, the only thing she saw were lush rolling hills.

“What is this place, where am I?” She didn’t even waver when she asked him.

“You’re here, with the Osning. All’s well, all’s safe” he assured her.

The Osning, so that was true. What more would be true? Maybe their version of graves was these fields in different shades of green. Maybe she perceived their evil as friendly faces and hills of green. “Are we standing on someone’s grave?” His eyes widened, and he looked like he did his utmost not to burst into laughter again.

“Som’ones grave? You might be right there, girlie, tho no-one still calls them so.

‘This som’thing from thessen Holozän. Longer ago then mem’ry goes. Better you relax.”

Relax. Ricca didn’t know how to. Everything that had happened in the last few days had led to this moment. She knew she threaded every rule, once again diverged from the herd, and all she could do was carve out a place in the fringes of possibility.

This wide open landscape sparked a new feeling in her head: hope. She took a deep breath and looked at the person beside her. They seemed friendly, with twinkling in their eyes and a mouth always on the verge of a smile. But she had no way of telling if they were sincere; she didn’t know their place in the herd.

“Well, clearly you’re not one to relax” They said. “What’s it you want? I can show you the ways of the Osning; Unless” They pointed to the wall. “You want to go back.”

Ricca thought how their laughter had outraged her enough to break down the wall. They had laughed at her gullibility, and she knew they were right. She trusted others too quickly; so she shut the Osning and the entire world out and with closed eyes, she took a deep breath. The air was different here, still saturated with humidity, though it felt like it contained the freedom the horizons promised her. With closed eyes, she could be wherever she wanted to be, at least, wherever her mind allowed her to be.

She saw Thiubis walking in the blazing sun with enough moonshine for a month; she saw herself sitting in the pub whose smell lingered around her for days, where they consistently called her Richard. She felt the confining force of the wall that ran right through all opportunities, but the wall was not all that was holding her back.

She could not breathe unrestrained, could not think unrestrained, could not feel unrestrained. Ricca folded her hands behind her head and stretched her neck, her fingers and with that, her thoughts. She saw how she would always be Ricca over there, Ricca on any reflective surface, and Richard, always Richard when someone else looked at her. Today, she had a choice she never thought she would have. She had no certainty that things would get better if she turned her back on the wall, left Thiubis and the herd behind.

Her neck snapped as she slowly moved it back to its normal position and, still with her eyes closed, she yelled: “Ricca. I am Ricca.” She didn’t need to look at them to gauge their reaction because their reaction didn’t matter. With brisk steps, Ricca walked back to the hole in the wall. With her hand, she wiggled out a stone and put it in her pocket. Ricca followed the Osning who had already continued their way. When she caught up with them, they looked at her in surprise.

“Ey, Ricca so you chose this eh?”

Feeling the past in her pocket, Ricca straightened her back and there and then she decided that no matter what would happen, she could deal with it. After all, she was Ricca. Everywhere.