Entered into a competition. A story told in five stages.
Paolo stole his father’s book from the tottering bookcase in the second-floor study. It was heavy and large, quite too big to hide under one’s sweater or cleverly behind one’s back. He thought himself lucky to get down to the first floor with it, after not being noticed once. He imagined it would be speculated long after by historians. They would scratch their grey beards in wonder of what sort of sequence of events could have placed into the small hands of Paolo Montorelli that book, The Origin of the Species, which would change forever human behaviour and compel this young boy to make history.
He sat on the wooden floorboards in his bedroom looking at the diagrams mostly, tracing the lines with his fingers and allowing his tongue to practice the names of all the various scientific words. His concentration undisturbed by adult antics, he was left to study for hours the masterpiece. Of course, he already knew what the bulk of it equated to, without even needing his eyes to stumble over the complex language, for they had gone over Darwin’s theories in science class the week before.
Survival intrigued him. He knew now why he had been born a man, given strong bones, nimble fingers and a quick mind. He was meant to survive out there, in the forests, in the wild, where food had to be hunted for and danger was a constant companion. Where he was, in that ancient and enormous house, where everything was provided, even love, which he did not want, he felt suffocated. He would have to leave. In the space of that small, cold and sparsely decorated bedroom, Paolo dreamt up a plan.
The next day he led them into the forests.
There were seven other boys in Paolo’s group of friends. There was Jon, who was smarter than some of the others, and older too. Tim was the same age, but not nearly as smart. Hans was the youngest, and quite fat, though Paolo thought he might prove strong if he put his mind to it. Mark was a shy boy who had a problem of some sort, which gave him no excuse to infuriate Paolo. James was young, but as loud as someone twice his age. Little Fred was somebody’s younger brother, Paolo could not remember who, and was dragged along for only this reason. The last boy was Abe, who was good for nothing except following, the characteristic Paolo valued most in his friends. A motley crew gathered from school, parent’s friends, friends of friends and from the local neighbourhood, they ranged in age from nine years old to fourteen. Paolo was the oldest – fifteen, and his birthday in March, before midyear, making him one of the oldest in his class. He was tall too and boasted of muscle on his arms and strong legs for walking. In his mind’s eye, as he held a tree-branch as a walking stick, his feet finding footing easily amongst the flotsam surface of the forest floor and his legs pulling him through the strides uphill, he looked the picture of man as Darwin had imagined him. His friends were not necessary – he had brought them along only to teach them. He led the way now, and they trusted him, but he would teach them to trust no one.
Paolo had often walked into the Forests of Leigh, not too far away from the town, but far enough for the noise to fall away and for the stars to emerge each night without the competition of electric lights. He walked further that day than he had ever been before, and the boys followed him. They had brought with them a few loaves of bread, some cold meat and some stone fruit. More important to them, however, was the array of hunting knives, arrows and trap-making utensils that Paolo carried in his own rucksack. For did they think they could exist on fruit alone? Men needed meat to survive. Without it, they would be skinny, scrawny beings, useless as rabbits, with not a bit of muscle between them.
They set up camp in between two massive conglomerates of rock, one which looked like a bear (they called this Bear Rock) the other which looked like a sneering face (this one they called Father Rock). A large sheet strung between two trees served as a shelter in rain, a hole dug spontaneously by one of the boys as a latrine and the stars as the only roof over their heads.
They stayed for two weeks before problems arose. Despite Paolo’s attempts to foster some sense of belonging in the group, introducing a group whistle, a secret knocking code and giving every boy a group-name, unhappiness yet reigned. Their food had lasted only due to Paolo’s furious rationing. Jon-lo was perpetually hungry, Tim-lo’s rash was coming back, Mark-lo’s wounded knee (from a tumble in some scrub) had become puffy and sore and Little Fred-lo had been complaining of stomach aches for three days. What was more, their food source was diminishing quite quickly, at a rate that alarmed most of the boys. Paolo stayed placid.
“What must we do?” said Hans-lo. Of course he was worried about food, Paolo thought. He probably dreamed food, it was so constantly on his mind.
“We’ll have to get more food from somewhere,” James-lo caterwauled, “or we’ll all starve to deaaaaath!” He had an irritating manner of lengthening words for extra emphasis.
“Gotta steal some from town.” Said Mark-lo, whose eyes never left the ground, not even when Paolo addressed him.
“No!” Paolo spat. “We never steal anything from town. It’s against the rules.”
“There are rules?” Little Fred-lo said, his eyes growing wider. If he had been perhaps ten or eleven, instead of nine, then Paolo would have taken it as an insult.
“Of course there are rules!” Paolo barked. “The rules of survival! You do what you need to in order to survive and you never, never,” he repeated to Mark-lo, who continued to stare at the ground, “rely upon anyone. If we go crawling back to town now, we’ll lose and we’ll break all the rules!”
“So it’s like a game?” said Abe-lo.
“It’s exactly like a game.” Paolo intoned. “Survival is a game and whoever is the most cunning, the smartest and the best fighter will win. Everyone else is a loser.”
“Only one winner?” a boy cried.
“Yes! And if you’re a lousy wimp, you’ll be the first to go.”
The boys all lowered their eyes to the ground, shuffling their feet in the dirt. Their shame gave Paolo time to think. With Darwin’s theories pulsing through his brain, the answer came soon enough. Of course, it was the right answer, for it put into practice every principle of survival that criss-crossed Darwin’s great book.
The next morning they had meat for breakfast, then for lunch and for dinner. There was enough to last them for the next four days. Men need meat, and the boys were happy, satisfied. Hans, the pig, however, had disappeared.
For a long time they played this gave of survival. They were growing strong on the meat that Paolo was bringing. Every day it would be the same – meat would be roasting on the fire as they awoke, ready to be consumed heartily for breakfast, and one boy would have disappeared. It was accepted by all the boys, none questioned, none complained.
By now, Paolo’s copy of The Origin of the Species had grown quite tattered, so he set to work carving select words and phrases into the trees. He could not remember how to write letters very well, and his hand was so unsteady that the legibility of the words was hardly better than that of his soiled and broken copy. But none of the boys ever minded, and none noticed that Paolo had added a few clauses of his own to Darwin’s manifesto.
“See here,” he told the boys, pointing to a tree trunk covered with his words, “it’s not enough to survive without anyone else’s help. Any adult could do that. But most adults won’t do it. Society is weak. A town is little more than a group of suckling babes. We should teach them, shouldn’t we? Teach them how to survive properly!” The boys cheered and hoorah-d Paolo’s declaratory speech. In the next few days, they sought to put it into practice.
One morning, they climbed up to the top of the hill. Paolo had timed it carefully, so that the first signs of sunlight, the dull, washout grey of the dawn sky, were just beginning to appear. Below them lay a little village, the first signs of civilisation they had seen for months. Some of the boys were beginning to wonder if civilisation still remained beyond the Forests of Leigh.
“Look,” Paolo said, “this town is desolate. No one moves. You would think all of them were dead in their beds. But you will wait and see.”
As the sky coloured to a more greyish hue, the first signs of life appeared. First came the sound of a door opening. Then, of a dog barking. The metallic sound of a bucket being dropped, sawing in the distance and the slow, methodical sound of water being pumped. Within an hour, the town had fully awakened.
“See how they crawl about like ants,” Paolo remarked, “every day is the same – fetch the water, go to church, clean the stable, shovel manure. It’s pitiful.” He spat. Then he turned his back to the town. “We’ll go there tomorrow. Go there and teach them the proper way to do things.”
Before they went to sleep that night, Paolo made a serious effort to clean the grime off The Origin of the Species, the other boys sharpened sticks and cleaned the blunt hunting knife. Paolo spoke words of ferocity and leadership to them long into the night – the sort of words he could imagine warriors being made to listen to before going into battle. He slept with a smile on his lips.
The town looked bigger once they had reached it, much bigger than the model-village they had seen from atop the hill. Nevertheless, it was quiet, dead. Paolo continuously ran his finger over the blunted blade of the remaining hunting knife until he could feel a wound opening up in his skin. He had prepared for a confrontation, a battle, a war. But there was no one here. Were they to ambush them? He would kill them in their beds, like he had done to so many others.
They had formed one line now and were snaking between the houses. Each followed the boy in front of them, and Paolo followed nothing but his own instinct. He felt his bare feet in the mud, could smell the embers of the blacksmith’s fire, tasted the smoke in the air, heard when footsteps as cautious as his own were making their way steadily towards them. He motioned for his group to stop, and they did, piling themselves awkwardly behind him. Slowly, Paolo advanced forward in the direction of the sound. A giant would be there, a giant of a man, probably the town blacksmith, with a white-hot poker in his hand.
The footsteps belonged to a boy. He had bright red hair and large green eyes and stepped out when Paolo did the same. He held in his hand a broomstick, and on his face, a fierce look. Paolo’s expression settled into a disappointed frown. He motioned the boys over with a look. They encircled the red-haired boy. Then the boy motioned his friends over. Paolo’s boys stepped back. They were outnumbered.
“Who are you?” Paolo demanded.
The boy answered immediately. “Onslow.”
Paolo narrowed his eyes. The intruder had a group-name already. He was obviously a leader, too.
“You think you’re so great.” Paolo spat, unable to think of any other phrases.
“I’m in charge in this town. You don’t belong here.” Onslow said quietly.
“Whoever is the oldest is in charge! Isn’t that right?” Paolo looked to his group, and they cheered in response. He would win this battle. The other boy had an immature look about him – he had to be at least two years younger than him.
“I’m fifteen.” Paolo gloated. “What about you?”
“Fifteen.” Answered Onslow. Paolo showed no surprise, but pressed his wounded thumb again to the blade of the hunting knife. Blood was beginning to seep into the pocket of his trousers.
“March.” Paolo replied. His trump card.
“February.” Said Onslow, and the battle had shifted.
“You’re not in charge.” Said Paolo through clenched teeth.
“Whoever is oldest is in charge.” Onslow quoted him.
“I said that to trick you. Whoever is the best at surviving is in charge. What do you know about surviving?” he sneered. “You live in a town. You don’t need to survive. Your mother makes your food for you and your father tucks you into bed at night. We’ve lived in the forest for months now by ourselves.” He poked Onslow’s small chest. “You don’t look as if you’d last one week in the forest.”
The boys around Onslow eyed Paolo with looks of malice. Onslow stayed completely placid. “Are you going to teach us how to survive, then?” he asked Paolo.
“No!” Paolo laughed, and the other boys laughed too. “Come back with us to the forest and we’ll see how long you last for.” A smile spread its way across his face. Onslow still showed no emotion.
“Do you accept?” Paolo smirked.
Paolo’s pocket was full of blood by the time they had returned to the camp. He had almost lost his game, almost broken the rules, but despite this, he had managed to triumph. But he told himself not to celebrate yet. There would be hard work to come, but ultimately he would prevail.
Onslow never slept. Paolo never once saw him close his eyes. It was infuriating, unrelenting, impossible. And as Onslow stayed inhumanely awake, so did Paolo.
At first, Paolo did not have the courage to show this intruder boy how it was they survived. But soon he was fed up. Tim-lo was annoying him, and there had not been meat for three days. He waited until after the sun had set, the moon had disappeared behind the trees and the only face watching him was that of Father Rock sneering at him. Onslow was staring into the fire.
It took one moment to slit Tim-lo’s throat, and one lonely cry from the dying boy to set Onslow’s gaze upon him.
“So that is how to survive.” The intruder boy intoned. Had these words been laced with realisation, epiphany on Onslow’s part, Paolo would have been satisfied. But they dripped with mockery, sarcasm and loathing. The boy had to be dealt with.
Paolo first attacked the boy when he had wandered off to the far side of the camp, near Bear Rock. Onslow had thrown him off and hastily picked up a large tree branch to defend himself with. Paolo could not get anywhere near him. The next time, he swung at the boy with a knife while he had his back turned, but the boy turned suddenly and Paolo missed, leaving him standing without explanation before Onslow’s searching eyes.
The only way was to lynch Onslow. But Onslow’s group was far bigger than his – they would overthrow him, exile the rest of his group and live in their place. The only way was for Paolo’s group to move away – but that wasn’t fair! The camp belonged to him! Or, if worse came to worse, Paolo himself could move away. But he would be alone, with no one else around, no meat on the fire, no one to prey upon. His hands began to shake when he thought about this. Onslow was driving him from the hunter to the hunted, with nothing more than an unrelenting stare and a gift for luck. He would have to kill him, or he would be killed by him.
He took the boy far away one day. Far enough away so that none of his group would hear him cry out, no one would know to intervene and no one would know who had been the victor until either one or the other made it back to camp. As he led the boy away, Paolo realised with a smile that there would be meat on the fire again the next morning – the best meat yet.
The boys waiting at the camp heard nothing. They saw no sign of either boy from when they opened their eyes in the morning to when they closed them again that night. When they rose the next morning, it was to the smell of meat. Not an unexpected smell, though it sent a thrill through the boys. The battle was ended and the loser in front of them. Though it was impossible to tell from the disembodied pieces of meat which leader it belonged to, each boy had his theory. But neither Paolo nor Onslow was present in the camp. The boys waited until evening. Finally, a party was sent to search for them. Perhaps they were still fighting. Perhaps they were both lost.
The party came back, incoherent and frightened. Some had the dry tracks of tears on their cheeks. There was no explanation for the report. Both boys had been found, still locked in a final fighting stance, though both were dead. One pair of glassy eyes stared into the other.
The boys eyed distrustfully the meat on the fire. The same meat, human meat, that they had been eating for months. But with all boys present in camp, both leaders dead behind Father Rock, the mystery sunk like a weight in their full stomachs.