Q is for Quail

At any other time Freddie, Diana, and the four-year-old child Melissa, would have looked like a strange family unit. They were trudging down a long, sunken lane, covered in thick red ditch mud and scratches from the foliage they had encountered. There was little let up in the humidity of the day that joined their clothes to their bodies and made them gasp for breath.

But these were not normal times. They encountered other ragged people on the road. Some were walking purposefully while others were drifting from side-to-side bereft of belongings and reason. These were the most dangerous people. They had nothing to lose and a desperate and far-off look in their eyes.

They avoided eye contact but made an exception with the wild-eyed woman who was sitting at the side of the road staring at the gathering cloud mass above.

“Where are you heading to? Where are you from?” Diana asked.

“I was in Danville,” the woman replied in a sing-song voice she could have used to tell her kids a nursery rhyme.

“It was terrible. The place was packed out. Nowhere to sleep. Nothing to eat. Then the soldiers came. They started taking people away.”

“Heck. Where to?” asked Freddie.

The woman shook her head wildly. Freddie put his hand on her arm to steady her. “It was a big truck, like a meat truck. We were packed it. Clawing and cutting each other. I caught the eye of a soldier. When we stopped, he pulled me out to have his way. Then it was as if…as if he lost all interest. I slipped away into the bushes, and now I’m. I’m not sure where I am.”

“West Virginia,” said Freddie.

The woman nodded and drifted back into her own world. Freddie gave her a chocolate bar, and they continued down the road. It became an effort to remain a cohesive unit. Freddie tugged at Diana; Diana grabbed on Freddie. They both pulled at the kid or took turns at carrying her. “We should have picked up the gun from the car,” Freddie said.

Diana pulled at her filthy blouse and let Freddie catch a glimpse of a sleek, black holster resting against her belly.

“Just in case,” she said. “Carson wasn’t totally good for nothing.”

After walking more than 10 miles in a westerly direction, the road plunged into a thick forest. They were wary about disappearing into the forest but there seemed no other way. A steep ravine rose to their right, and they did not want to backtrack. In the darkness, they moved closer. The child wailed at the sounds of heavy birds moving in the trees and other rustling creatures. At some point, they found a clearing off the road and napped. When they woke up, they were in blackness. Then a light flicked on. They gasped. It was a powerful arc light. There was a voice behind it, but they could see no face.

“Come with us please,” it said. There were other voices in the woods. Diana left her gun in her pants.
They were taken down a hard and well-defined path in the forest and into a compound. Figures were cooking something around a fire. A man with a large bushy beard came at them out of the crowd and stuck out a grubby bear claw.

“I’m Dave. Would you care for some quail?”

They were taken over by the fire where the birds were roasting. Dave explained they were on a quail farm where they hunted, gathered and grew all that they ate.

“We don’t need stores or deliveries. That’s why we have some high fences and some high caliber guns,” he chuckled. “We are mostly self-sufficient, but we also trade.”

In the shadows behind them, Freddie made out some long and rudimentary dorm huts and the trailers of a half a dozen trucks. The place wasn’t fancy, but it certainly seemed functional, and nobody would stumble on it.

Beyond the fire, a toothless woman was humming a tune as she stirred a big pot of beans. The words came scratchy across the night air that was as thick as the substance she was stirring.

“Oh, Dixie, the land of King Cotton,
The home of the brave and the free;
A nation by freedom begotten,
The terror of despots to be.”

Freddie had never heard of such a song. It felt antique but also apt for the times. After a meal that was the best thing Freddie had tasted for a long time, Dave picked up the child on his shoulders and led them to their sleeping quarters, a rough barn with wooden bunks. There were many other bunks but no sign of anyone else.

In the night, as he slept feverishly, he felt hands on his shirt and nails grasping at his buttons. Diana’s finger was on his lips, and she slipped it into his mouth. She shushed him as she ripped at her filthy blouse and pulled him to her. When he woke, he was shivering through a dream of armies that rose and fell and blood that stained the fields. He felt her breath on the side of his face and the tightness of her arms around him.


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