Thomas and Bull scanned the community. Men were standing about, staring at them. Some stood with their arms folded, while others held rocks in their hands that they had been using to improve their dwellings. The camp was silent other than the distant sound of the waterfall gushing on the far side of the gorge.
“Come on,” whispered Thomas to Bull and started off towards a simple stone hut that was to be their dwelling.
“Let’s see what we can gather. It’ll be cold at night,” suggested Bull.
Bull began to wander around the base of the wooded cliffs that lined the ravine looking for branches and sticks. After several minutes he had a decent armful to bring back to their quarters.
Bull felt a clip on his heel and before he had time to react, he was sprawled out in the dirt, his sticks and branches strewn on the ground. He tried to get to his feet but, with some shock, realised that a foot was pressing down between his shoulders.
He tried to look around but could only crane his neck so far. His assailant’s features were blotted out by the bright sunlight behind him. The man put all his weight on Bull’s upper back, forcing the air out of his lungs. Bull groaned helplessly.
Stepping forward the man scooped up the wood and headed off, leaving Bull winded and in pain. Noticing staring eyes from nearby huts, Bull returned to the edge of the camp without a word and began searching for more branches. He returned with only a meagre offering and found Thomas gently encouraging smoke from a tiny pile of sticks and dry leaves. Thomas noticed the scratches on Bull’s face and the dirt on his clothes.
He dumped his sticks next to the circle of stone that acted as a fireplace and sat down.
Thomas came and sat close to Bull and put his hand on his shoulder.
“It was the surprise. I didn’t see him coming,” said Bull.
“It won’t always be like this,” Thomas smiled at his friend.
Bull thought back to the time spent with Jesus in Zion and the exhilaration he had felt as Jesus described what was to come.
“One day… one day all will be well,” said Thomas.
Bull pulled himself upright, looked at Thomas and nodded.
The flames were now flickering in the fireplace. Bull closed his eyes and enjoyed the warmth.
Thomas woke with a start. Shouting could be heard echoing off stone walls and heavy footsteps thudded past his window. He opened the door a crack and peered out into the half-light. Unable to see anything, he crept outside. Several blocks away, flames were shooting up into the sky.
Thomas returned and put his hand on Bull’s shoulder, gently shaking him awake.
Bull followed Thomas outside.
“Should we go and take a closer look?” he asked, seeing the flames.
“Ok, but let’s keep in the shadows. We aren’t here to intervene and prevent the consequences of people’s actions playing out.”
The two friends quietly made their way toward the fire.
“Looks like someone will be without a hut,” whispered Bull.
There was more shouting close by and the sound of breaking glass.
“Over there,” said Thomas pointing to where three men were brawling in the dirt on the pathway. They could see other men looking on from the windows of their huts.
The words the men were shouting were hard to make out, but suddenly a fourth man emerged from behind a hut. Before anyone had time to react, he brought a large rock crashing down on the head of one of the men on the ground. The other two scrambled away as the victim lay motionless, a pool of dark blood spreading across the dirt. The assailant raised the rock above his head again and this time threw it down onto the victim’s back. Thomas and Bull remained concealed in the shadows as the figure disappeared back into the darkness.
Rushing over, Bull lifted the rock from the man’s back. He was unconscious and bleeding badly from an open gash on the top of his head.
“Let’s get him to our hut,” said Thomas.
Laying him carefully on Thomas’ bed, Bull fetched water and tore cloth from a shirt drying near the wood burner in the corner.
After he had gently cleaned the blood away from the man’s face and neck, the man’s eyes began to flicker.
Thomas sat down on the bed, next to the man.
“He’s starting to come round.”
The man opened his eyes and looked first at Thomas and then up at Bull who had finished wiping his forehead clean.
“The wound has closed,” reported Bull to Thomas.
“Yes. There’ll be a scar and bruising, but only for a day or so.”
The man’s eyes widened as he realised he was in someone else’s hut. “What do you want?” he asked in a quiet, husky voice.
“Nothing. You’re safe,” replied Bull.
“You’ve been hurt, but you’ll be fine soon,” Thomas reassured him.
The man looked at Thomas with a deadpan stare.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Thomas, and this is my friend, Bull.”
“Friend?” said the man sardonically. “No one has friends here.”
Thomas smiled. “Bull has been my friend for a very long time.”
The man looked unconvinced.
“This is our hut,” Bull explained.
“No one shares!” The man groaned as he attempted to sit up. “We just take what we can.”
“Not everyone,” said Thomas. “We are here together.”
"Who attacked me?” asked the man.
“We don’t know,” answered Bull truthfully. “Do you have any ideas?”
“It’s been madness since I got here. Every man against everyone else. All trying to be top dog by whatever means.”
“What’s your name?” asked Thomas
“Oliver.” He reached up to feel his wound and winced with pain.
“It’ll be tender for a while yet,” said Bull, “but your body will heal quickly.”
“Why are you helping me?” asked Oliver, as he lay back on the bed. “What do you want?”
Thomas stood up and pulled over a wooden chair from near the wood burner.
“We don’t need anything. Can we do anything else for you?” asked Thomas, taking a seat next to Bull.
“No one helps each other here!” Oliver said, staring up at the ceiling. “This shithole is an endless dogfight. And I’m no different.”
“How so?” asked Bull.
“I’ve been hoarding fuel. I just take it from anyone I see with it. If I can, I will.”
Oliver continued to stare up at the ceiling, not looking at Thomas or Bull.
Bull turned to Thomas and raised an eyebrow.
“Do you kick their heels to take them down?” asked Bull.
Oliver breathed out slowly through his nose, resisting the urge to look at Bull.
Suddenly he sat upright, scrambled off the bed, ripped open the door and disappeared.
Bull and Thomas looked at each other in surprise at the speed of Oliver’s recovery and his exit.
“He’ll be ok,” said Thomas, closing the door.
The next morning dawned bright but an acrid smell hung in the air as Thomas and Bull went to inspect the burnt hut. The roof had fallen in and everything inside was reduced to ashes. As they made their way to the wellspring to collect water, they noticed small groups of five or six men gathered here and there. Some appeared to be arguing with hand gestures flying.
“Talking to one another for a change,” said Bull.
“A positive step, I think,” said Thomas in a quiet voice.
Heading back to their dwelling with two large pails of water, they heard a voice shout out behind them.
They turned and saw Oliver coming towards them.
“A meeting. Tonight. Main square. Be there!”
With no further explanation, Oliver turned and headed off in the opposite direction.
“No mention of last night,” remarked Bull. “Maybe he’s embarrassed?”
“He approached us, which is progress,” said Thomas. “And so is a meeting. I wonder how this will go?”
Arriving at the square, Thomas and Bull were greeted by an unusual sight. Men were working together arranging chairs into rows in a semi-circle. As more people arrived, the seats soon filled up. Hardly anyone spoke; most stared at the ground or into the distance, trying to avoid eye contact.
As the trickle of new arrivals came to an end, a man stood up, flanked by two others, their arms folded.
“Listen to me,” began the man in the middle with an authoritative voice. “My name is Owl. Thank you for coming tonight.”
His words were met with steely silence.
“A dwelling was burned down last night. I don’t care what grudges you hold against each other, but we need order, not anarchy. If you’ll listen to me, I will tell you how…”
“Who the hell are you?” shouted someone near the back.
“In the Previous Age I was chief of police and I led a community of survivors for many years after the Great Suffering. If any of you think you are better qualified, then let’s hear it now.”
A man stood up.
“It’s Yuri,” whispered Bull.
“Eastern Europe was once mine. There’s nothing you can teach me.”
“Eastern Europe was the minor league!” yelled another, standing to his feet. “We knew how to control governments in South America. If you want a leader to run things around here, you’d better listen to me!”
“This is a bragging competition,” said Thomas under his breath. “Let’s go.”
Thomas and Bull slipped away down a path leading from the square just as a roar began to swell. The sound of chairs being smashed and men shouting echoed through the grid of dwellings.
Many of the men had bloodied and bruised faces the following morning, and all of them kept their eyes fixed to the ground as they passed by to collect water and wood.
After a few days the groups of muttering men began to reappear at various places around the settlement.
“Another meeting. You two had better be there,” Oliver called out to them later one afternoon.
This time a different figure stepped up to the front and called for quiet, as some of the men seated in their rows were already quarrelling with their neighbours and making threats.
“Now, gentlemen, let’s see if we can be civil this time, shall we?” He was well-spoken with an upper-class British accent. “It’s clear that chaos is tiresome and childish, and I for one believe we are capable of civility and decent public discourse. Now, I suggest we all turn to the chaps either side of us and jolly well shake hands?”
The man stepped towards the front row and offered his hand to one of the men seated there. However, noise had begun to erupt from the far side of the semi-circle. One man had pulled another into a head-butt, leaving him on his knees with blood pouring from his nose. Another had come up from behind and smashed a chair over another man’s head in the back row. In no time at all, the crowd was once again engulfed in hand-to-hand violence.
Thomas and Bull stole away again as the square was engulfed in another night of brawling.
This pattern persisted at the next three attempts to hold a meeting. Men would turn up ready to exact revenge on those who had offended them at the previous gathering. A lust for violence and a desire for ‘justice’ brought most of the men back for more, although injuries kept some away. For most, the brawling had become a brutal game.
And then it ceased.
The following two days were unusually quiet in the camp with hardly anyone venturing out of their dwelling.
Thomas and Bull made their way to a small grove of trees near the waterfall. Here it was cool and shady, and birds sang joyfully from the higher branches of the trees. It was the time of day when the light from the heavens was at its richest and Thomas and Bull had each brought a blanket to create a comfortable place to sit.
When they had first arrived at the community, the two men had set aside time every few days to meditate, but they had soon felt the need to do this daily once they had experienced the violence and chaos of the settlement, which was more intense and stressful than anything they had experienced in the Previous Age. It was through meditating that they were able to obtain comfort and guidance. Some days the time spent in silence was short, while other days they sat for hours. Often after meditating they would discuss important issues together and were frequently encouraged at how similar their thoughts were.
After some time in silence, Thomas turned to Bull.
“I feel that we should meditate in the square just before the next meeting.”
Bull nodded in agreement. “I had been feeling we should demonstrate something of this to the community too.”
Next morning they observed once again the now familiar scene of huddled men deep in discussion, and later in the day they noticed Oliver rapping on the door of a nearby dwelling with some force. The door opened just a little. Oliver motioned with his hands toward the square and, although his words were out of earshot, it was clear he was spreading news of another meeting.
“Let’s go early this evening and have our time of meditation before the meeting starts,” suggested Thomas.
By the time men began to gather in the square, Bull and Thomas had already spent a while seated in contemplation on their blankets in a corner of the square where a huge elm tree created a shady spot.
“Odd way to take a nap,” said Oliver quizzically as he passed by. “What the hell are you doing?”
Bull and Thomas remained quiet.
“Anyway, it’s time for the meeting.” With that Oliver strode over to the rows of chairs and took a seat, fidgeting a little as he waited to see who else would turn up.
“Shall we stay a little longer?” suggested Bull.
They heard a sudden thud and were showered in dust as a large round stone landed just in front of them. Looking around, they saw Yuri smirking as he headed towards the crowd.
Thomas stood up. Bull followed suit and they took their places near the middle of the semi-circle of seats, next to a makeshift aisle.
The atmosphere was uneasy with a different group of men standing at the front.
“Right, for everyone’s sake, let’s do things differently tonight,” one appealed to the crowd, a note of desperation in his voice.
“We been thinking and we’ve already talked with some of you,” said another.
“We’ve proved we can fight,” said the first, “but apart from that we have achieved nothing.”
“So let’s agree something here and now,” said the other man. “It’s clear we’ve been grouped together because we’re all a match for each other. We’re all used to running things, and we’re all strong.”
A man in the seats stood to his feet.
“I reckon you’re right. None of us is going to stand aside and see someone else come out on top. Fighting is pointless.”
“So, what do we want to do?” said the first man.
Owl stood up. “We need order. We need structure. We need to organise. I can do that.”
“It isn’t about us here at the front,” said the second man. “We just wanted to say that we can’t keep on with this endless fighting. Owl, if you want to organise things, we aren’t going to argue.”
“Right,” said Owl. “I just ask for some trust. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but things can improve here, if you can let me try.”
Bull stood up. “I know you, Owl.”
Owl turned to see who was speaking and visibly bristled when he saw Bull.
“I think you’d be good at organising,” said Bull confidently. “But maybe it would be good to select members for the first committee at random to create trust.”
Bull sat down, pleased that he had been able to speak to Owl with kindness after all that had passed between them in the Previous Age.
Owl turned back to the men at the front.
“Ok. Names out of a hat,” he said decisively. “It’s the only fair way to create the first committee.”
“He’s gone with your suggestion,” whispered Thomas, surprised.
“Ok, meeting adjourned. We will reconvene tomorrow and draw names,” announced one of the men at the front.
“Progress,” said Thomas to Bull with a hopeful smile.