Nights were quiet this far from the metro. In a lean-to at the back of the shed the donkey huffed and munched the chaff old Moss had given her. Lucille lay with her head between her paws, eyes glancing this way and that as the men in the two sagging armchairs took their turns in the conversation.
“Trouble, you say? Can’t straightforwardly say I know the meaning of the word. Trouble, now. Would that be good trouble or trouble that takes a bit of chewing?”
Dale reminded himself that Moss wasn’t getting any younger. But then, even in his youth, he was hard to follow. Not crazy exactly but pretty close sometimes. Eccentric? Definitely.
“Trouble, Moss. The kind that doesn’t look like it’s going to go away. I think we have a problem out east.”
“ Out east is good now, brother, you know that. Out east we send the ones who get too sick, the ones who get the sick that makes every body sick, we send them to the faraway family so the faraway family can make the sick not sick any more. When the sick goes away, out east is good again. Right?”
“Who told you that?”
“Tell me again. Tell me everything.”
“From when? From when you carried me out of the fire? It’s hard to remember. You know it’s too long, too long time ago when I was just learning how to grow a beard, and I knew the song of the families and you carried me.”
“Before then. You never told me about before then.”
Dale saw how the old man suddenly trembled. How the moisture gathered in his eyes. He watched as Lucille stood up and whimpered, pushed her nose under Moss’s wrinkled hand, lay her head on his lap. It was quiet for a long time. Moss stroked the dog and said nothing.
“I’m sorry”, Dale said, “But I need to know. I need your help. When I brought you in out of the eastern salt all those years ago, I thought you were lost. I thought you’d gotten separated from a bunch of oil crazies or fallen off your camel and hit your head. I thought maybe some murdering lunatic had dumped you out there. But then, in the weeks you were delirious, you talked about a valley and you talked about tree frogs. That got me wondering, because no-one I know has seen a tree frog in the last fifty years, maybe longer.”
Moss muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t have the memory. It is not with me any more.”
“Then, after I got you settled out here, I didn’t think much more about it. Things were ok. You never wanted to go into the metro, you were happy to stay out here and it was no trouble keeping you supplied. But it’s not ok any more. I need you to think back, tell me what you know. Tell me about the tree frogs and the valley, because I don’t think you were dreaming, and I don’t think you made them up.”
“No. No. The Keff will come. They will shake their heads at me and there will be no more singing.”
Dale stood, walked over to where Moss was sitting and put his hands on the old man’s bony shoulders. “Moss, look at me.”
Moss lifted his head. His eyes were troubled, restless, moving the way a dry leaf moves before a big gust comes and carries it away.
“You weren’t the only one we rescued from the eastern salt. You were the first. There were four others in the last ten years. Not many people, a long stretch of time. All of them half crazy, wandering out alone in the saltlands. All in the east. All of them unpierced, undrawn. But we didn’t think much of it at the time.
Then, five days ago, a couple of my scouts brought in a girl. From the eastern salt. Screaming, raving, crazy. Unpierced, undrawn. And she had a fig leaf in her hand.