They left in the middle of the night, one by one, travelling like a herd of deer. Whilst everyone else was sleeping, the women and girls made their way by candlelight out of the village, careful not to make too much noise. Their lanterns cast shadows and illuminated the night, their cloaks billowing softly in the slight wind. The only sounds to be heard were the treading of their boots on the ground and the resonant hooting of an owl deep from within the woods. The repeated hitting of the soles of their boots on the ground was calming; their hearts were beating fast, unsure of what was to come. Their journey was a long one and the outcome was not certain. There were no guarantees any of them would make it. A girl clutched hold of her mother’s hand, keeping tight to her side. Her breath came in hitches and all she wanted was to run back home to her warm bed and the familiar feel of normality. She was only tiny and had to stretch her legs to keep up with everyone else. Why were they walking so fast?
‘Mummy,’ she whispered, tugging on her skirts a little. Just enough for her mother to look down.
‘Quiet, little one. Now is not the time for talking. It’s too dangerous out here.’
Why? she thought. Why can’t I talk? Where are we going?! Somewhere, though, deep inside of her, she could feel it. The energy felt wrong out here – tense and nervous. The group was walking hurriedly now, their heads turned towards the ground. All around there was a sense of urgency. The girl only realised where they were when they came to the fence. Normally placed to keep people away from the river, she watched as one of the ladies took out a pair of what seemed to be scissors and cut an opening. One after the other, the women filed through, careful not to catch their clothes on the sharp barbed wire. When it came to her turn, the girl’s mother caught hold of her shoulders.
‘Don’t worry, little one. Things will get better now. We’re searching for a better life.’
They waded through the river, their skirts soiled by water and mud. The land was different here, and they were different too. Under the dark canopy of the trees, they didn’t have to hide. Shoulders relaxed, pleasant murmurs between people. The girl’s mother squeezed her hand tightly, a smile playing on her face. They had gotten out… The abuse and suffering would end now. The men would no longer be able to touch them. Better times were ahead.
It took them four days of endless, tiring walking to get to the first site. It was eerily quiet and dark, the moon not even showing their faces. The little girl looked over her shoulder, sensing an unwelcome presence. Nobody else seemed to notice though. The twelve of them, the girl included, set up camp, but the girl was still uneasy. They were settling down to sleep when the visitors arrived. Slowly and silently, they crept up without warning. The screams of one of the twelve was heard first, and then another, another, another, until the air was rife with the cries of the women. Silence for one beat, then another. The only sound to be heard subsequently was the retreating footsteps of the attackers. Afterwards, passersby, returning to their own land after trading their goods for the last time before the arrival of winter, would discover eleven bodies, blank but horror-filled looks on their lifeless faces. When they tried to move the bodies, they found a little girl. Clutching hold of a body, tears streaming down her face, they picked her up. She continued to whimper and buried her head in the warm jumper of her saviour.
‘Put her in the cart under one of those blankets,’ a soothing voice called out. ‘That’ll keep her warm.’
So they laid her down in the back of the cart, amongst a pile of fleeces. The cart jolted, but it felt safe. The girl dreamed she was on a boat. Rocking to and fro, the waves crashed and roared. The boat would lead her to an island where the sun was an everlasting presence. She could live there with her mother and they would always be happy. But her mother was gone. She was alone now. Alone... She remembered the words her mother had spoken to her the day before.
‘Where we’re going,’ she had said, ‘there’ll be other people like us. We won’t have to hide anymore, and we can finally be happy. You want to be happy, don’t you?’ The girl had nodded her head in reply, but there was a question on her mind: just what was her mother, and the other women, running from?