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art by Agata Maciagowska

Salvage

K. S. Dearsley has an MA in Linguistics and Literature and has had numerous stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. She lives in Northampton, England, and is Writer in Residence at The Grid artists' studios in Warwickshire. When she is not writing, she lets her dogs take her for walks. Her fantasy novel, Discord's Child, is available at www.amazon.com.
"Sebastian, come look!" Madeleine called her brother to come and see what she had found. It was not the first time.
"Not now, Maddy. Pitches'll sack me if I'm late again." Sebastian pulled on the palm guards he had made from a tire. They protected his hands and helped him grip the sharp edges of the metal drums he spent his days fashioning into walls and roofs. It had been a great find. As well as the palm guards he had been able to put new soles on their sandals and make Maddy pads for her shins and elbows. She was always picking up scrapes and bruises gleaning with the other scavs who were too young or too old for other work.
Once, so myth said, the hills were a valley, a huge empty bowl. Year upon year the valley was sown with everything that no one wanted--things that were ugly or old, broken or decayed--until they became the slopes upon which Maddy and Sebastian tiptoed, two of the equally unwanted people who scavenged the hillsides like gulls following a plough.
Madeleine pulled at Sebastian's T-shirt. "Now. Please?"
He looked at her. She was too short and too thin for an eight-year-old, but so full of life that she almost fizzed.
"What is it this time?" He allowed himself to be pulled outside their hut. "One day," he told Madeleine, "we'll live in a place with plastic bottle windows and tire insulation. We'll never be cold or damp again."
Madeleine nodded at him round-eyed, as she always did. One day, when he had saved enough barter tokens. If Pitches did not sack him for being late.
"We'd better be quick, Maddy."
They set out. The spindly-legged girl pulled Sebastian along by one hand and clutched another of her precious finds in the other. They had had to take it to the oldest to find out what it was, although Madeleine had been careful not to let go of it while the oldest, so wrinkled and feeble with age that it was genderless, examined it.
"I remember, when I was little. It's a book." The voice rasped like the pages as it turned them.
"And what are these?" Madeleine pointed to a picture of something straight and brown with bits of green dotted all over it and a bird sitting amongst them unlike any of the crows and gulls that flapped and screamed over the hillsides.
"Pictures of things that don't exist any more," said the oldest. "It's a tree. Once you used to find bits of them on the hills, but they didn't last long." It sniffed. "Plastic's better."
It had not mattered to Madeleine that the trees did not last. For her, the book was magic, and worth more than a whole hill of batteries.
She led Sebastian away from the flattened and compacted area outside the huts and around the nearest slope to the steep hillside behind it. Instead of the roughly conical shape of its fellows, the hill had a ragged bite taken from its side where a landslide had given birth to a smaller mound at its feet.
Sebastian dug in his heels. "I told you to stay away from here, it's dangerous." Even so, he cast an experienced look over the exposed slope. Everything of any worth had already been carried away.
"Not if you're careful," Madeleine said. "You have to put your feet down gently, like this." She began tiptoeing through the broken bottles and rotting containers. Sebastian sighed and followed her.
"Here," she said, pointing at the ground in front of her.
"Where?" Sebastian took another step forward.
"Careful!" She hauled on his shirt. "You'll tread on it."
Sebastian squatted to get a closer look. He could see nothing except the usual detritus.
"Here." Madeleine knelt and carefully cleared the loose scraps of plastic bags and empty wrappers away from something covered in rust that was poking straight up.
"It's a bit of old wire. Pitches'll have my head for breakfast, and all for a bit of old wire!"
"No, don't you see? It's like in the book." She flicked through to the page with the strange bird. "Isn't it wonderful?"
Sebastian looked again. Now he noticed how the frayed ends of the wire resembled the structure of the brown stuff of the tree. "You made it. Very pretty. Now, I must go."
"No... " Madeleine protested, but Sebastian had already turned back.
Pitches was already at the workshop when Sebastian arrived. Despite the hammering that rattled the walls and echoed in the workers' heads hours after their shift had ended, he spotted Sebastian as soon as he slipped into his workstation.
"You're docked five tokens!"
Sebastian did not bother arguing. He knew he was a good worker and could easily produce as much in half the time he had missed as the others did, but there were always new people waiting for a place who were willing to work for less. Now Sebastian would have to work all the harder to make up the loss. Over the next few weeks he hardly had time to make sure that Madeleine had her breakfast, let alone wonder about what she had been doing. As long as she continued to decorate their hut with shiny strips of plastic, and hummed the strange tunes that filled her head, Sebastian did not worry.
Then one morning there was another: "Come look, Sebastian." Her face was filled with light, but Sebastian did not look up to see it.
"I can't, Maddy. I've only just made up the last loss."
"Please, Sebastian, please... "
"It's not another tree, is it?"
"No...."
Her voice made Sebastian turn. "Have you been at that landslide again?"
"Please come and see."
"What is it?"
"You won't believe me if you don't come and look." Tears like glass chips made her eyes bigger than ever.
"All right, if it's the only way I'll get any peace, but it had better not be another tree!"
He set off after her. She took a different route, but it was soon clear that they were heading for the same exposed slope.
"Maddy...."
"Not far now." She tugged at his sleeve.
Sebastian hesitated. He was going to be late now anyway, and Maddy would not be cured of her obsession unless he followed.
"This is the last time."
She skipped on before he finished the sentence, but only a few more yards, then she stopped him. "Close your eyes."
"I haven't got time for this." He closed his eyes, and allowed Madeleine to guide him around a curve in the path.
"Now," Madeleine said.
He opened his eyes, then blinked hard.
"You see? It's not another tree."
The rusty twist of wire was now a trunk of thick steel cable above the height of his head, and silver foil leaves rustled on its branches. Ribbons and lone baby shoes, corners of crumpled photos and the caps from aerosols blossomed among them, things that Sebastian had never noticed when they were under foot. He felt a lump in his throat.
"Is this what you've been doing?" He tried to sound angry.
"It's grown."
"If you say so." Sebastian jerked his head at Madeleine to follow, and marched back the way they had come. There was a feeling in his chest that made him want to laugh and cry at the same time.
"Wait!" Madeleine said, but he would not. As she gazed at the tree, there was a fluttering in the air, and a small bird with a patch of red on its front settled amongst the foil leaves. There was another thing in the book that the oldest had said no longer existed, but the oldest was wrong. A word came into Madeleine's head: spring.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 26th, 2012


"Salvage" was inspired by work at an exhibition at The Grid artists' studios which took place several years ago. It was a kind of constructed tree hung with found objects. I don't know what the artist intended it to represent. It could have been a life tree with the objects representing periods or events in someone's past, or it could have been about waste and recycling. I hope it was the latter, and that "Salvage" has taken the idea and passed it on.

- K.S. Dearsley

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