My brother loved to run; not from or to anywhere, just to run. He never crawled my mother said, took his first step and ran from that point on, a tiny toddling thing wearing the biggest smile on his sticky face she’d ever seen.
They said I was his shadow. Maybe that was because I could never keep up, was always behind. There were five years between us, and he never waited for me. I don’t think he could, don’t think he meant anything by it, only that when he ran he ran flat-out and he never looked back or stopped until he was ready to fall over with tiredness.
The first time I went after him I got lost. I remember how scared I was, how I couldn’t see over the wheat, how it stood up around me in a wall. The wind played with it, bent it and bowed it so you’d think it might be soft as water, but the hard, tough stems cut into me like knives and the chaff pricked my feet. I was three and I sobbed and screamed. I thought I’d be stuck there forever and the tears poured down my face. I have dreams about it now, that terror, that hopelessness, of being abandoned and trapped. I wake up boiling hot and sweating from those dreams, with the covers tangled around me as if I’ve been fighting them in my sleep, although I’ve seen a lot worse since, so why I keep on dreaming about this one thing, I don’t know. That time, my brother heard me and came back for me, took me back home still clinging to him, my face red and streaked with tears.
The only cool place, apart from the house, was in the shadows of the water tanks. They were vast and round and stood on four concrete posts so they looked like strange, giant insects if you saw them from a distance. I liked to sit under them, looking out between the two front legs at the fields all around, stubbly and bare sometimes and at other times green or golden brown. The pumps made a droning noise underneath the ground, vibrating the earth slightly. I liked that, it often used to send me to sleep.
My sister liked it there too. She’d drawn pictures on all the posts when she was younger, vines intertwined and leaves with strange little faces peering out at you from amongst them. She drew people who looked like they might almost be made of trees and leaves, their long, thin legs and arms caught in weird gestures.
We all lived with the worry so long I can’t tell when it began to get worse. My dad had always complained about the quotas, about the water shortages and how every year they expected him to work a miracle: How every season the quotas were higher, the water less, and allowances that had once been available fewer and fewer. My mum and him had always discussed it when the new terms came around; we’d hear them talking about it after we’d all been sent to bed.
“I just don’t know Gwen,” my father would say. “I just don’t know.”
“We’ll manage,” she’d answer. “We always do, don’t we?”
There were protests. I saw one on the TV once, where some people had marched with banners. They always seemed far-away though, not really anything to do with us.
The year I was eleven, when the new terms came, there was no discussion. There was a row instead, that slowly grew and grew, raised voices becoming shouts and slamming doors and ended with the sound of something breaking; china or glass I never found out. We gathered in my brother’s room, staring at each other in silence. If we’d been younger we might have all clung together but we just sat, shocked. My brother was nearly sixteen and normally he looked pretty grown-up to me, but that night in his room he looked younger than I was, his eyes round with dismay. My sister, who was thirteen then, fetched a book and started to read it, her fingers pressed hard into her ears.
There were protests after that right in our town. My dad threatened to go, but my mum wouldn’t have it so that became another row. I went and sat under the water tank where it was quiet, and that was when I saw the two people who walked as silhouettes across the sky. They were pretty far in the distance, right on the boundary of the settled land, and I had to squint against the sun to see them at all.
They both bent down and seemed to fiddle with something in the ground. Then they disappeared.