Brad swallowed a young boy on the road while we were traveling, outside the tall castle. The boy was in danger and Brad allowed him to travel by way of his stomach.
“What else am I going to tell him?” Brad asks us (us being all his friends, me being one of many). “What else is a boy supposed to do, with a tail like that, stuck in a moat? My stomach is his safest passage.” The boy was the size of a salamander.
For years we’d been reenacting the renaissance at this point, so long that we were untethered to answers from the other side. What was someone to do? We gave up search engines, satellite coverage, internet browser histories, same day shipping. We traded up for old clothes, chained armor, shields, homemade ink, a butter churn.
I need to explain it.
A brief summation: There was a choice after mass-technology became all encompassing to go back in time, or in this case over a rather crudely built wall, to a caste system. Knights, lords, ladies: that’s what people voted for, maybe they saw something sweet about chivalry and sword fights, about death-match challenges and dying en masse by flu. They took the frames off cars and made carts with tires. Horses were freed and captured and stolen back and sometimes freed again. Fires were set using rubber that burned for days. Big buildings fell and towns were abandoned and reclaimed. Brad was there early. He brought us all in, made the lot of us first generation.
“If you adapt quickly, we can still carve a seat at the table,” Brad said. So for men short on muscles, boys really, we asked Brad, we trusted him, and he told us to get sewing, and then to get dressed, all the while we whistled tunes. He’d scribble notes for our outfits, lighten our spirits as we made them. Buster traded his guitar for a lute. I helped rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and without ever really noticing it we found an order, a way of doing things. We built oaths and rules through word games we were already familiar with. When we were short on answers we asked Brad. You could ask Brad anything. He’d answer quickly. Lightly. Easy.
We were the Brotherhood of the Cross. It sounded cool, vaguely or very religious depending on what you look for in a name, and would keep us together, in this new place. We traveled in a line, we had songs which made us look established, and those of us who could grew facial hair. The group would look distinguished this way, have an authenticity here in this new land pretending to be a very old one.
Our numbers were strong enough to fill an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of the boarded up city. We had no rooms to let, so the practice of turning large families away was unburdened. We harnessed our skills. Those not squeamish killed the first animals. Those that couldn’t bare the blood planted seeds and raked compost. We wanted for little as a group, and made our presence known in the village, hoisting our shanks and vegetables up high, and bartering for goods and services. This went on for two years.
The house sat at the highest vantage point in the valley. We were harvesting the finest crops. When they came, claiming the house was needed for more important lineages, they went to Brad. Though we were initially offered a place to stay Brad said we were too many already. He bargained for new land several counties over, and money to fund our journey. This is when we began to walk.
We called it a pilgrimage, though we stayed within the same state. We made it over a river, a mountain, several abandoned highways, and so many empty towns. We realized just how many had chosen to stay in the know, to remain over the wall. There would be days between seeing fellow travellers on the road. To us we had reached the farthest possible place, and knew too much, and we had Brad, waving us over, saying this was the way, so we left. We left microwaved popcorn and jarred coffee pre-milked and sugared, with a shelf life of weeks. We left ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, photo albums, the cloud.
Of course Brad had to carry the boy. He was our leader, and who were we to question him? When we ended up on the flat raft over the wide river crossing he traversed the current. When we were too deep in the mud he stacked us atop one another to build a ladder out. He happened upon this boy while making cups of his hands and filling them with moat water, he felt responsible when the small thing looked up at him, floating between his palms. None of us were parents and none of us had partners. Brotherhoods, it turns out, are made of men, and even here and now, no one was willing to alter the old way.
With his thick tail for legs and his webbed fingers, the boy would crawl up Brad’s throat when he was hungry, pull Brad’s tongue when he was thirsty. At first, the signal of mealtime was Brad’s gag reflex. He would hold his knees and bend over, and start heaving. We all thought the boy had died and here was Brad vomiting up his soft body. But, we soon adjusted to Brad’s dry heaving and bending over. Brad’s throat relaxed to the idea of the boy’s slippery figure crawling up, leaning forward from the back of his tongue and screaming out for food. After a while it just looked like Brad was burping before the boy would appear below his dangling uvula.
We made camp most nights and Brad would wander off to gather whatever he could find in the surrounding brush or forest and we would not see him until morning. Most places where we made camp were good for animal meat, which we would set traps for and make fires to roast over. Brad was sleeping less and less, each stop took more of him away.
The child liked berries and fruits, things made up mostly of juice. If a grape were too big Brad would mash it first before the boy leapt further up his tongue to gather the bits. If a berry was too large he’d slice bits off and place them on his tongue like the eucharist.
We ask Brad less. On a clear and perfect day we are walking, he not even at the front of the line. He shouts, “water!” He is pointing off the path to an old bridge, with a river beneath it. The brotherhood stops and looks. “Let us head there, fellows.”
I go to him, under the old bridge, wading thigh deep in the river, his eyes fixated on the spiraling shape his boy is making in the water. The walls are lined with graffitti, Brad’s hands are at his hips. I ask Brad, “what will you call him?”
Brad looks up at me then and smiles. “You know, I hadn’t even considered that it was my job to do it. I’ll be happy to think of a name.”
How could Brad have anticipated this? The constantly upset stomach from the growing boy’s twists and turns, the vomiting him up. How could Brad have known that his biology would change when he introduced this element to his system? How could Brad have known the responsibility he’d feel, the sudden unarguable connection?
When we came upon this warm river we were wondering why stop now, this early in the day. Hours have passed, Brad fixated on his boy in the water. We are asking Brad “what should we do?” and “what’s next?” and “where do we go from here?” And Brad is waving his hands and closing his eyes to brush us away.
“What is next?” someone shouts loud piercing through the grumbles of the brotherhood. Brad stands upright pointing at first at me, and then it is clear past me, to Colm, saying, “Follow Colm, I am staying here, near the river to watch this boy grow. He needs the berries that are all around us, it is the only place I have found where I might sleep, here, under this bridge, safe from looting and raiders, while he swims, with his belly full, and his body stretching.”
Colm is now stepping in and demanding that we move on, that we must move forward, that surely our order will die here along this river. "This is hardly a place for us to make camp, let alone a home," Colm says. Brad has already removed his knightly wears, he is stripped down to a peasant’s cloth.
“There is land where you are headed,” insists Brad, “it is promised to the brotherhood. Don’t ask me anymore. Ask Colm. And when you call to Colm, call him Brad.” I look at Colm, the group looks, though we only want to look at Brad. “Just look at Colm, as he stands there now, follow him. He will be your Brad. Ask Brad.”