The Pecking Order

Entry by: Alobear

1st June 2016
The Pecking Order

Dag always eats first. That’s the rule, and has been ever since he got here. The daily ritual is always the same. They come to the gate with the chute and stick it through, while Dag stands ready with his bowl. When the gruel starts running down the chute, he waits until his bowl is almost brimming over before he moves away and lets his deputies take their turn. There are three of them, all nearly as big and mean as Dag, but not as clever. After they are done getting their food, it’s pretty much a free-for-all, with everyone else scrabbling to get access and get away with at least a few mouthfuls before the flow stops. I’m one of the unlucky ones - since I don’t even have a bowl. So, I wait until right at the end and scrape up what I can with my fingers. Sometimes, I don’t time it well, and they take the chute away before I get the chance to get any gruel. Those are the bad days.

That suggests there are good days, which isn’t true. There may have been before I came here, but it’s difficult to remember a time when my world consisted of anything other than this cave system and those in it. Some die and are taken away, and sometimes there are new faces to replace them, but mostly the days are the same endless struggle with hunger and boredom. The tedium is occasionally punctuated with moments of fear or pain, especially when Dag and his deputies want to play but, overall, time is meaningless. I wonder sometimes if there’s anything actually outside this limited existence at all, or if the entire universe has shrunk to these rough walls and twisting tunnels.

And then she comes.

It’s a day like any other. The darkness of the caves is only relieved by what little light filters through the gate, and the faint luminescence of the moss that grows on the walls. I am sitting in my usual spot, a small hollow in the rock that gives me a view of the whole main cavern. It allows me to watch the others, tracking the daily conflicts and shifting alliances, without drawing attention to myself. Dag is in fine form today, strutting about as if he owns the place and laughing as his deputies torment others smaller than themselves. I shrink back as far as I can within my hollow, and hope his attention doesn’t wander my way.

There is a commotion over by the gate; the sounds of shouting and footsteps approaching. Everyone’s attention swings towards the noise, to see that they are bringing a new face to join us, but it’s a face unlike any that has come before; it is a woman. She is wearing torn trousers and a stained shirt. Her feet are bare; they will have taken her shoes, as they do everyone’s. She is struggling against the vice-like grip on her upper arm and she is shouting.

“You can’t do this! I’m a United Nations Aid Worker and I’m here on official business! I demand to speak to someone in charge!”

She must have angered the wrong people if they have brought her here. This is no place for a woman, and I imagine she won’t survive long. Even if she isn’t killed, she will be broken.

She doesn’t get any response, other than to be shoved roughly through the gate and in amongst us. They lock the gate again, and leave. The woman watches them go for a moment, then slowly turns to take in her new surroundings. I can see the fear in her eyes as forms emerge from the shadows all around her, but she stands tall, defiant.

Dag steps forward and circles her, looking her up and down appreciatively. I jump down from my alcove and start to turn away. I don’t want to watch this. But, something in the woman’s expression catches my attention and I stay. She doesn’t cower away from Dag, but looks him in the eye, standing her ground. And then, when he reaches out to grab at her, she catches his hand, twists it around and forces him to his knees. I hear a sickening crack and he collapses, howling, cradling his arm to his body. The others are stunned for a moment, but it’s difficult to know what their reaction will be. The woman has defeated our leader, and with ease, which should now put her in charge, but her gender raises other questions that may have more unpleasant answers. The mob could go either way.

I don’t wait to find out. I step in, tap the woman on the wrist and beckon frantically before backing quickly towards one of the tunnels. Her eyes dart from me to the others and back again, and I see her trying to calculate her options. Evidently, my actions have labelled me the safer bet, as she moves to follow me and manages to clear the crowd before any of them can decide what to do.

I turn and run, trusting that she will be able to keep up. The tunnels twist and turn, away from the gate, and I keep going until we are well away from the areas most commonly travelled. I can hear one set of bare feet scuffling behind me, but no others, so it looks like we have made our escape.

Eventually, we come to a much smaller cave, one I’m not sure any of the others know about. I spend long periods of time here, until even the company of the others seems preferable to the relentless solitude and I find myself returning to the main cavern once again. Now, though, it provides a welcome haven. I turn to see the woman standing hesitantly in the doorway. I cross to a small pool of water, fed by drops that trickle down the wall. There are many such pools throughout the cave system, but this one I consider mine. I dip a hand in, collect some water, and hold it out to the woman.

She comes forward, takes my hand and brings it slowly to her lips to drink, her eyes fixed on me the whole time. When she has finished, I drop my hand to my side and just stand there, looking at her.

“Thank you,” she says.

I don’t know if she’s talking about the escape or the water. Perhaps both. I shrug.

“Do you understand me?” she asks.

I nod.

“My name is Sarah,” she says. “What’s yours?”

I shrug again, this time a little helplessly, and look away.

“You don’t know or you can’t tell me?”

I point to my mouth, where they cut out my tongue, and shake my head. I think being silent has helped me survive this place so far, but I would dearly love to be able to talk to this woman. Instead, I kneel on the ground, dip my finger in the water and trace a single word on the dusty ground.


I have not heard anyone speak my name in longer than I can remember. I nod and smile.

She smiles back.

“Well, thank you, Tam. Things could have gone quite badly back there.”

I nod again.

“How long have you been here?”

I just look at her. Even if I could speak, I wouldn’t be able to answer that. There is no way to tell the time in this place, other than by the daily food delivery, though I’m only assuming that comes daily. It could be twice a day or every other day, for all I can tell. I do know that my body has somehow become attuned to the timing of the food, so I can tell when it it time to return to the main cavern. It will not be long now, and I failed to get any food last time, so I do not want to miss it today.

While all this has been going through my head, the woman has been regarding me solemnly. She seems to accept that I’m not going to attempt to answer her question, and just starts talking again.

“A long time, I’d guess.” She sighs. “Well, I don’t want to sound self-important, but people will come looking for me soon, and this place will be discovered and most likely shut down. I don’t know what will happen to you and the others, but I can guarantee it’ll be better than this.”

In and of itself, I’ve always thought this little cave is quite pretty. There are patches of moss that provide some low ambient light, and the trickle of the water into the pool provides a kind of background music. It’s quiet here, and safe from the potential dangers of the others. But getting out of here would surely be preferable to staying, even if I don’t have anywhere to go. Still, we both have to survive until the woman’s friends come for her, before I can think about what I might do in the outside world.

I put my fingers to my lips and mime eating, then raise my eyebrows in a question.

“I don’t have any food on me, I’m afraid,” the woman says, apologetically. “They took everything.”

I shake my head, then mime eating again and point back the way we came. I touch my wrist, in an attempt to convey the idea of a specific time.

She’s very quick. “Oh, I see!” she says. “It’s nearly dinner time, but we have to go back for it.”

I nod emphatically. She looks apprehensive.

“I’m not that keen to test the other men again yet,” she says, “and I’m not that hungry, either.”

I point to myself. It may be selfish, but I don’t have the benefit of her recent healthy diet. I need to eat. I would offer to go and bring something back for her, but I have no way to carry the food. If she doesn’t want anything, though, perhaps I could just leave her here for the time being. I point to her and then to the ground, then to myself and the way out.

“I stay here while you go?” She shakes her head. “I don’t like that idea any better. I’d never find my way out of here again. And I guess I have to face whatever’s waiting for me out there at some point.”

She gestures at the doorway, a clear indication that I should lead the way. The woman walks very close behind me, her presence awakening sensations in me that I had thought long dead. I ignore them, concentrating instead on where I am going and who might be around us.

When we reach the main cavern, they are just putting the chute into place through the gaps in the gate. There is already a crowd around it, but everyone looks very uncertain. There is no sign of Dag, but his three deputies are lurking at the edges of the cavern, looking dangerous. One of them catches sight of us and immediately strides over. I cringe back automatically, but he brushes past me and does something entirely unexpected. He holds out a rough bowl to the woman, and then stands back to allow her through. The other two deputies form up in a line next to him, holding back the crowd and ensuring her safe passage. She grabs my hand and pulls me forwards to the chute, handing me the bowl.

And so, I am first to collect my food, while all the others look on. I don’t know what will happen when, or in fact if, anyone comes looking for this woman. But, for now, there’s a new pecking order in this place and I find myself suddenly at the front.