Probably Ruth shouldn’t have overheard their whispers. She should have been asleep already, but after what seemed like hours she was still as awake as when the keenar sang. So she had slipped from under the blanket, climbed down the ladder and picked up her cup, rubbing her fingers along the smooth wood. Quietly she crept outside.
The men had a fire in the centre of the square. They sat and stood around it, creating dark shapes that blocked Ruth from the warmth of the flames, but also hid her in the shadows. She noticed her father, his face lit by glow of the flames and sparks reflected by his eyes. Her father frowned as he listened to another man, Peter’s father. His low voice seemed blended with the dark sky, as deep as the shadows that circled around the fire.
“It was young Mason,” Peter’s father said. “Of course we never expected anything else – but it was terrible to see. His eyes closed, covered in red muck. His skin dry, like it was strips of meat lying under the sun for days. They found him stumbling through the fields at the edge of the village, biting his lips, blood everywhere - his face, shirt, hands, feet …”
“And now?” Ruth’s father asked, his eyes all darkness. Ruth shivered, gripping her cup tightly, noticing a splinter beginning to form near the rim.
“They shot him. He fell like a dog.”
Her father nodded slowly. “May he find rest,” he said, as Ruth stumbled back into her home.
When she tried to climb back up the ladder, she realized her hands were shaking. It was hard even to hold onto the rungs, but she pulled herself up quickly, afraid of being caught.
She knew young Mason. He had taught Peter how to catch fish in the stream. He was friends with Jack, who would make rude jokes if the teacher left the schoolhouse. He had tossed pebbles at the girls as they walked through the fields, or picked berries at the edge of town. As he tossed the pebbles, he would chant, “try to run away. Go on. Leave.”
Then he had left, disappeared, and now he had returned. There was red muck over his eyes, Peter’s father had said. Ruth trembled under her blanket. She imagined him falling in the sun, spitting blood onto the ground. She almost heard the gun firing a second time, just to be sure.
That was what they had done to Chief, when he had run away, coming back with red foam dripping from his mouth, blinding his eyes, his fur dull. That time Tanya had tried to cover Ruth’s eyes, but Ruth had watched her pet fall, writhing in the dirt.
It was a long time before Ruth could fall asleep, and even in her dreams it seemed that she could smell the smoke of the gun.
When the sun came up, Ruth rolled away from its brightness. She wanted to keep sleeping and make the day disappear. As soon as she was outside, she would be reminded by the sun and dust. Her mother called her from downstairs and finally she dragged herself into the sunlight. As she helped prepare breakfast she worried about whether she should share her knowledge with Peter.