The common good
The mountains were what made them, but also what kept them down, moulding the souls of those battling its gifts of frost and sleet to etch a poor living out of its infertile shoulders. But as time stretched, so did the ever-rising temperatures, changing the mountains and the world. Now the mountains kept them safe from whatever raged beyond.Blades of grass, still glazed over with frost, quivered under the footsteps of winter boots behind Ivan as he swung his axe one last time. This pile of logs will have to be enough for the committee; the firs and spruces which had taken over the ski slopes, now almost bare of snow, were already steeped in shadow.
‘Emma,’ he said in a swirl of ashen steam, the hope in the question-statement shaded by fear. But why? He could pick her signature shuffle—half army private, half weekend charity volunteer—out of an acoustic line-up of footsteps, if anyone bothered to capture them in a recording. In the days when they could still use something to record.
‘They’ve come today.’ Her shrill soprano was commanding, earnest; she was always the first to know.
‘They didn’t find anything,’ Ivan said. Which was true.
They entered the wooden hovel with the sloped roof they called home. Stella, their daughter, was still asleep in their only bedroom. Emma cast off the crimson scarf which belied her rank in the Citizen’s Committee and snatched a sack of lentils from the half-empty pantry.
Lentils, cornmeal, a cup of broth; their daily ration, year out, year in. If they got lucky they could add a sprinkling of wild herbs, or mushrooms after rainy days. But always no more than a handful: the rest would need to go to the chapel, where supplies were stored. Emma insisted on that.
The passes had been sealed for years now; first by avalanches when the glaciers started to melt, then by staves planted in the defrosting soil, on orders of the committee, when the few outsiders—they were already called that—brought harrowing tales from the valleys. By then, even those sturdy delivery vans weren’t making their uphill trek anymore.
The only way left to get in or out was through the mines, their shafts tunnelling through the rock to resurface in the valley. The committee kept the mountainside entrance under lock and key, although villagers did leave, from time to time, to search for food or supplies to bring back. Few returned.
‘When did they come?’ Emma asked, counting the lentils in her hand.
‘In the afternoon,’ Ivan said, fumbling with kindling by the fireplace. ‘I opened the door, showed them in. They checked our pantry, had a look around, and left. They were very kind about it.’
‘As we all are when doing our rounds. Did they say anything?’
Ivan shook his head.
Emma filled a rusty kettle from the barrel used to collect snow melt. There was always more of it these days. ‘Nothing about why they came here?’ she asked.
Of course, they wouldn’t tell her; even her.
She shivered. ‘It’s cold today. Why isn’t the fire on?’
‘Wanted to save, didn’t I?’ Ivan said, striking a match.
‘You had it on yesterday and it wasn’t half as cold.’
Emma’s eyes narrowed as she spotted the mound of smouldering embers in the middle of the fireplace, away from the burning pyramid of twigs and dry leaves Ivan had delicately assembled against its left-hand-side wall.
‘It died when I went outside,’ he said.
‘No wonder we’re running low on matches,’ Emma said, arms aloft. ‘Why did you let it? Why light it at all, if you were going outside? Ivan!’
Ivan kept nursing the timid flames, careful to keep them against the far wall, averting his gaze. ‘Don’t know,’ he squeaked. ‘Didn’t think.’
Ivan swallowed and let out a burst of nervous laugher. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘You avoid looking at me, you don’t answer my questions—‘ Emma squatted, hands again on her knees, peering at the flames. ‘You said you opened the door for them.’
‘That means you were inside.’ Emma stopped Ivan from throwing on a bigger log.
She grabbed a poker and prodded the fireguard lined up against the fireplace’s right-hand-side wall. There was a clink of metal on metal. Emma’s eyes flickered to Ivan’s hapless face. Using the poker’s wrought-iron hook, she latched on to the fireguard, pulled it towards her, and let it clatter to the fireplace’s floor. A pile of cans and sacks stood behind it.
Ivan grabbed hold of Emma, but she shoved his hand away.
The flames were losing tempo. Ignoring them, Emma knelt to retrieve the cans.‘So that’s why the inspectors came. Cornmeal? Beans? Meat?’As she spat out each word she let the item in question drop onto the crooked table. Ivan winced at each thud.
Emma was shouting.‘Just what were you thinking? Why on earth didn’t you give this in to the committee? Our citizens are at risk of starvation and this is the example we set?’
Ivan called her name, his hands ensconced around her crossed arms, aching to sooth her. ‘I didn’t save this for me. I saved it for us. For our future. For Stella. What if something happened and we were left to fend for ourselves? What would we give her?’
Emma stepped back.‘I can’t even look at you right now. You lied to me, you lied to the committee, you lied to everyone. And you’re not even ashamed of it.’
‘I did it for our own good,’ he said, raising his voice in turn. ‘It could save us.’
‘You don’t even know what good is.’
‘Isn’t it what’s best for my family? Our family?’
Emma shook her head. ‘It’s the common good, Ivan. The community needs it; some people more than us. The rules are clear. No hoarding. Only that way we can make sure there’s enough for everyone.’
A child’s cries reached them. Stella’s.
Ivan’s eyes wanted to accuse.
‘I’ll go check in on her,’ he said instead.
Ivan returned to see Emma filling a crate with the cans recovered from the fireplace. His cans. No, their cans.
‘What are you going to do now?’His question was injected with alarm.
‘I’ll bring them in, to the chapel. Where they belong.’
‘What are you going to tell them?’
‘The truth. Something you’re not used to.’
Ivan walked down the muddy central road—the high street, they used to call it, when the cement still held—to the four-story wooden building, crowned by a sloped roof like all the others, that used to be the hotel. The committee had turned the ground floor restaurant into a people’s canteen.
An old metal desk had been squeezed onto the wooden porch by the front door. The handwritten cardboard sign advertised for volunteers for the mines. There was no queue.
The old man with the red scarf manning it wore an optimistic smile. ‘Want to do your bit for the community’s future? Go down the mines, see the world beyond the mountains, come back with the supplies we need. You’ll have the committee’s gratitude forever.’
Ivan passed on. That didn’t chime with what he’d heard from the couple of miners who made it back whole, in body and in spirit, as they retold their story in hushed tones and with dilated eyes. The people outside will kill you for your boots, they said; if they’re friendly, they’ll infect you. Health systems couldn’t keep up with a boiling world.
The canteen was packed. Here the queues were perennial; Ivan waited in line for his ladleful of gruel with his cornmeal and his lentils. No one said a word, but all the grim stares were on him as he searched for a free place. No one moved aside; spare seats were filled with scarves and caps.
As he scanned the packed wooden benches, the burly man who used to be a butcher before the mass extinctions drove his broad shoulder into Ivan’s. The bowls slid off Ivan’s tray and emptied their contents onto the hardwood planks.
Ivan grovelled on the floor, scooping up his lunch with his hands. No one offered to help, not even the red-scarved committee men stationed by the door.
Everyone knew everything in the mountain towns. Everyone knew that it was thanks to Ivan that the committee had issued the new regulations; it was thanks to him that their homes were searched top to bottom, and all their food relinquished; and thanks to him they could only ever eat here, cheek-by-jowl, at set times, under the watchful eyes of the committee.
Ivan got back up, balancing what he could salvage on the tray. But the spilled broth had made the planks slippery. Ivan slid and fell with a cry of pain. He lay on the floor, nursing his backbone, eyes welling up as he witnessed his lentils gathering dust on the sodden floor. He had been so hungry.
Emma ran from the committee’s bench, leaving their daughter on the lap of her neighbour, and came to him. She grabbed the mangy piece of cornmeal from the floor and placed it on his plate.
‘Come on!’ she said. ‘You’re still my husband, after all.’
Ivan didn’t have the strength to grasp her outstretched hand.
Emma turned towards the diners. ‘How about some help here?’ she asked.
But they kept eating, eyes cast down on their bowls.
Emma slumped down next to him, cross-legged on the floor- She offered him her bowl of lentils, watching him as he licked it clean. When he returned it to her, her gaze was chock-full of empathy.
Ivan looked away. Hunger had given way to shame. She used to feed him with soup, like that, when he was sick. And he would do the same for her. Now she had fed him, and he hadn't done anything for her. Or for anyone else since he remembered.
He glanced around. The diners in the canteen had returned their eyes to their bowls, but the pity and scorn clung to his pathetic self like the duct tape they used to mend things with. Was he broken without repair? Ivan hoisted himself up, ignoring Emma’s helping hand. No, he wasn’t.
He had enough of their pitiful looks, of his weakness, of Emma’s judgement. He wanted to tell them that they weren’t better than him, that he didn’t just care about himself.
But he didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to Emma. Instead, he strode towards the desk on the porch where the red-scarved man sat.
The snow-ridden slopes were flooded with the greyish amber glow of the freezing alpine dawn. In a hard-hat and with pick and chisel dangling from his belt—all courtesy of the committee—Ivan set out along the narrow dirt trail which led from their home to the mine’s closest entrance, keys in hand.
It wasn’t long before Emma caught up with him.
‘Wait,’ she said, out of breath, trying to grab him, blocking his way. ‘Think about it one more time. I beg you.’
Ivan sidestepped her and continued walking.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ she asked, chasing after him. ‘You have a daughter. Think about her!’
Ivan halted and lowered the handkerchief wrapped around his nose and mouth. ‘So? Isn’t the community more important? You taught me that!’
She gave him a crazed look. ‘Ivan, this isn’t a tin of canned meat we’re talking about. It’s about life and death! You can’t leave your wife a widow and your daughter an orphan.’
He grabbed her arm. ‘I love you and I love my daughter. But I love this place too, for good or ill. And it won’t last long without fresh supplies. We both know there’s only one way to get them.’ Ivan resumed his march before he finished speaking.
Emma was taken aback.‘It doesn’t mean you have to go! There are others who can do it. Others better suited, unmarried men...’
‘Emma, there are no volunteers,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I need to do my bit.’
Emma burst into tears.
Turning around, Ivan put an arm round her shoulder.’You’ll need to be strong,’ he said in a more conciliatory tone, ‘for our daughter.’
Emma, drying her eyes with her elbow, at length managed to speak, in between the hiccups and sobs.‘Are you sure you’re not doing it just for me?’
Ivan stiffened.‘It’s for the common good.’
He pushed her back, gently but firmly, and set off again, towards the mines.