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Scourings, the ragged leavings of the groups that had passed before us, that is what sustained us during our journey westward. Scattered beneath rocky overhangs or shoved into the rotten bellies of ancient trees, we found cans of preserved vegetables, heavily salted slices of rabbit meat, dried-out noodles. And usually a smudge of ash and cold cinders somewhere nearby. Usually. To say whether these treasure troves of rubbish were months or years or decades old would not have made sense to us. We had lost all sense of time and cared only for distance: how far we had come from the East and how far until we reached the utmost West, an accurate idea of which eluded us completely. These left-overs seemed always to be sufficiently abundant to prevent us from starving to death. Well, with the help of the rare berries and roots, the odd trapped bird or rat, the occasional lifting of a stone to consume the insects and grubs that lay beneath. On deeper reflection, it seems clear that the abandoned stashes were not even our main source of food, but their importance went beyond the energy they gave us, beyond the proteins and vitamins and carbohydrates they donated to our thin, famished bodies. For they told us that people had passed here before, people had lived before, had passed these same spots, people who survived, at least for a time, people who knew how to do more than just search the thorn bushes for blackberries and scrape into the soil in search of mud-clung tubers. This was an immense comfort to us, for, although we knew nothing else, although we had no memory of a time when things had been different, we were sure that in some distant epoch, perhaps in the time of our grandparents, things had been easier, and so could be easier again, would be, when we finally arrived in the West. You cannot imagine the loneliness a band of half-starving families feels as it crosses the huge wastes of a land seemingly without end. You cannot imagine the vulnerability we felt, the indifference with which we shed members of our tribe, skeletons of skin and bone that drifted off from the group unobserved and settled themselves on the sodden ground somewhere, a heap of bones soon, sinews rotted out, crows cantering about the prize, jostling for the last scrap of meat or marrow, us too in turn, eventually, leavings for whatever creature’s journey could find sustenance in what we left behind.
There was only one distinct memory from the past that remained with us. Not a memory really, more a saying. It was the first thing we said in the mornings, the last thing we said at night. We had few feelings about these words, nor did we necessarily believe them, at times people would discuss such things by the fire, briefly, for someone would always get upset and so the conversation would end.
These were the words we mumbled daily to ourselves:
“You have found once more your rightful place within this world, within the circling wheels to which you belong, within the endless rivers of atoms, within the unquenchable torrents of energies. Be grateful and ask for no more. This is all there is.”
Each morning we recited these words and each morning we began to march once more.
Dermot O'Sullivan is from Dublin, Ireland. He studied English Literature in Trinity College, Dublin. His work has been published in various journals including The Honest Ulsterman, Causeway/Cabhsair, The Dalhousie Review and Fence. He currently lives in Brazil, where he recently had his first full-length play produced.