Freedom From Money

Entry by: Finnbar

6th April 2017
The Commune

The smell that rose from the vats was acrid in Claire’s nostrils. In three weeks this would be another batch of beer ready to be transferred into kegs, loaded onto the back of the rusty red pickup and driven to the town over the ridge.
There the barrels would be exchanged for things they needed but couldn’t attain elsewhere; engine parts, replacement solar panels, a new pump filter for the well. Of course other things –fertilizer, kitchen utensils, chocolate, ammunition- would be bartered for too, but for those they would trade boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, trays of eggs, wedges of cheese and smoked fish. The beer they kept for big transactions; everyone liked Claire’s beer.
They had all the necessary licences to brew and distil, purchased at the commune’s founding for thirty years ahead, but not to sell the final products. Yao, who had been a barrister in Madrid before giving it for a life free from money, had warned them that barter of the alcohol didn’t circumvent the need for the licence. If it hadn’t been so expensive they’d probably have bought one.
Done for the day, Claire dragged the copper-banded wooden lid back over the vat, grunting with the effort until it thunked into place. She pumped out some gritty yellow soap from the industrial dispenser on the shed wall and scrubbed her hands as she crossed over the compound to the longhouse.
Yao was emerging from one of the greenhouses, still looking less natural in his overalls and green wellies than he had in the three piece suit he’d arrived in three months ago, little girl in tow. She greeted him and he hurried over. “Did you hear that Morrissey wants another gathering tonight?”
She clicked her tongue. “Jesus. Does he really believe all that stuff he spouts? I still think we should just kick him out.” She noticed that they were walking in step even though she was half a head taller. He almost bounced as he walked.
Yao’s face creased with worry “It’s supposed to be a safe place for anyone Claire. If we start getting rid of people where will that lead?”
“I promise, the road he wants to take us down has far worse than exclusion at its end. I still don’t see why we even need one rifle, never mind –what was it he suggested? One per adult?”
“Well, there are bears around.”
“One bear. There was one bear. Once. And it got scared off with a shovel and a fire extinguisher. I was there. People die when there are guns about.”
They reached the sturdy but mismatched solidity of the longhouse. The long, low design with the sloping earth walls and grass roof had been Mark’s idea, along with the jetty made up of three entire tree trunks jutting out into the lake. He’d been into archaeology n a big way: she half suspected that he’d only joined the commune to play Viking for a few years. Maybe that was why he’d left without telling her. Maybe he was afraid of her reaction when he let her down. She realised she was scowling and forced a smile, holding the door open for Yao.

The poncho around Claire’s shoulders was thick and well made, but her bare arms were getting chilly in the autumn air. She got up to thrown fuel on the fire and sat again. Minutes passed. No sign of Morrissey, Jane or Alberto. She flicked on her green laser pointer and shone it through the smoke, catching eerie patterns in its eddies and making Yao’s daughter Heng point and laugh. She was yet to turn two and tottered around the Commune with a state of constant surprise and wonder on her cherubic face. The laser distracted her from where she’d been rubbing Maria’s swollen belly, hoping to feel a kick.
Gravel crunched beneath three sets of boots as Morrissey came up the path into the clearing, flanked by Jane and Alberto. Unlike the others –thirty three who lounged around in whatever they’d been working in during the day with the addition of a blanket or shawl- they had changed into dark brown coats; long and waxed, used for fishing on the lake in rainy weather. Alberto was the tallest, and stuck out in people’s minds because of the missing chunk out of his left ear. Jane walked so lightly her footfalls were barely audible next to the other’s; it was the main quality that made her their only skilled tracker and trapper. She kept her features blank always, and betrayed no emotion. Morrissey himself was short, and squat. He had wide shoulders, tree-trunk legs and little neck. When he spoke, his voice was deep, rich, controlled and demanding all at once. Combined with his physical presence it demanded attention and held it until he was finished with you.
He strode to a high point of packed dirt near the fire. There was no preamble; after a slow look at the faces around the fire he began “We have a way of life here. We have a dream of freedom. None here need to be convinced of the vices of the modern world, or of the dangers that it presents to us here.” He gestured with his hands as he spoke; not frantically, but like his voice, controlled and steady. “The government collectors have been harassing us once again, and using the police as their trained bullies. Yesterday I saw a sergeant intimidating our dear Maria.” Maria shrank back from his gesture, arms wrapped about herself, her face flushing from the attention of people’s gazes. “Yes. A pregnant woman. He stood before her, hand on his weapon no less, and demanded information from her that I for one know she did not have. Of course, I intervened on her behalf, but had he drawn his firearm even I would have been helpless before him. These are not the noble guardians we learned about as children. This is a mob, a gang, with the full might of the law behind them and no morals. It is past time we stood up to them. I say we…”
Claire wasn’t sure at what point in the monologue she stood up and left. Morrissey barely glanced in her direction but she felt Jane’s eyes on her all the way down the path. She wandered without a direction in mind, but found herself heading towards the lake. This place, this wonderful place. She could feel it all coming apart at the seams. She was scared for it. That was the problem really- fear. It was why people were listening to Morrissey at all. The commune, which had no other name, had been her home for three years; she wasn’t ready to let it go.
Walking the beach, which was lined with pebbles, sand and small pieces of driftwood from the huge expanse of the lake, she thought back on her time here and found her eyes filling with tears. Would she still make beer if the commune fell apart?
She approached the jetty, feet crunching the pebbles, and caught a glimpse of the corpse of a deer, banging gently up against one of the uprights. It happened sometimes; they fell into the lake where the banks were steep and couldn’t get out, and the currents brought their bodies here, bloated and rotting. Claire sighed. The last one upset the children badly, she could probably fish this out and bury it before they could see.
The jetty was slippery, and when she bent down to grab at it she couldn’t get a grip of its fur, nor see a handy antler to grab in the patchy moonlight. But wait… the fur felt strange. And even half submerged the shape was wrong.
She grabbed again and it listed to one side, rolling over the shoulder. Mark’s wide eyes stared up at her as his body flipped with a splash.
She reared back, hands clapped to her mouth to stifle a scream. Mark. Mark was dead. It was easy to see the ragged wound across the neck where his throat had been slit.
She turned away and vomited. Leaning on one of the uprights, she heaved and heaved ‘till she was dry-wretching and there was nothing left to come. Mark. Jesus Christ.
The beam of an electric torch danced across the trees. She was going to call out but some instinct stopped her and made her crouch low on the jetty, behind the upright. Her breath came quick and deep, and she was shaking from having thrown-up so violently.
The figures came out onto the beach, two of them, one tall, one short, though she could only hear one set of footsteps. Alberto and Jane.
He carried the torch, but from what Claire could see she was diverting her gaze from its light. Preserving her night vision. It struck her at once that, of course, it was her they were looking for. She didn’t need to see them to know that their knives would be strapped to their belts, and her shuddering intensified.
They were coming up the beach now, shining their torch into every nook and cranny that might hide a person. There was no way they wouldn’t see her once they shone it up the jetty.
Grabbing a pair of freezing, rust-flecked bolts, she scrambled down the upright, grabbing onto its sides with her feet to take some of the weight. She hung there beneath the jetty for thirty seconds. A minute. Longer. Her arms were straining with the effort. Finally the torch beam swung overhead and a set of footsteps moved off.
She clambered back up. They were nowhere in sight.
Quick. Quick. Back to the longhouse. If she could get there she could warn Yao, warn everyone, they could call the police and…
A stick snapped loudly beneath her and she stopped stock still. Nothing. Running again, quiet and low. She could see the lights ahead and-
The impact from the side drove all the breath from her. She scrambled up and there was Jane, knife in hand, diving for her again.
Claire managed to get out one scream and flail wildly, knocking the knife aside before a hand was on her mouth and a knee in her gut and she was on her back. She groped up, gouging fingers into Jane’s eyes, mouth, anything. But the grip on her mouth was implacable, and with the other hand Jane was feeling around for the knife.
She found it.
Claire grabbed her wrist with one arm, and tried to tear the other hand away from her mouth. If she could only scream again!
But Jane drove a knee into her chest, again and again. Claire felt a rib crack. It must have shown on her face, and Jane, knowing she wouldn’t be screaming, withdrew her hand. She took a firm grasp of the knife and prepared to plunge it past Claire’s arms and into her heart.
There was no time to react. No time to fight down the pain and scream. Jane’s face was illuminated with the light from the camp. There was no glee or rage or victory; it was as expressionless as always.
She brought the knife down.
The crack of the rifle shattered the night. Jane showed the first expression Claire had ever seen her wear; shock. She keeled forwards and Claire had to twist aside to avoid the knife that still had her weight behind it.
Then Yao was pulling Jane aside, pulling Claire to her feet, the rifle trembling in his little hands. “You’re safe. The police are coming. You’re safe, it’s okay.”
“I think I’ve broken some ribs.”
“It’s okay; we’ll get you a doctor.”
She laughed, though it hurt to do so.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“What will we pay the doctor with?”