I am walking down the dirty street, mud spattering over my legs and the tattered hem of my skirt. Thunder growls overhead, and heavy drops of rain are falling in torrents. Why Grandmama had to send me out to fetch water in this weather completely beats me – it's not like the river water is any cleaner than the rain! I hate getting wet, but the worst is still the stink of the wet road, covered as it is with rat corpses, piles of rotting rubbish older than me that no one has ever bothered to remove, and the spilled-out contents of ancient sewers that no one has found out how to fix – ever since They came.
I stare at the clean, white, almost shiny road parallel to the dirty mud path I have to walk on. Humans aren't allowed to use the sidewalks – they are only for elves. We are too lowly to use them: we are like dogs, like animals – if not even less – to them.
Sometimes I get so mad at the world that I want to do the same as the rebel girls and smear that forbidden sidewalk with a good, smelly glob of mud. Those pretty, expensive satin shoes the elves like to wear wouldn't look all too good after taking a walk in that stuff – but it would teach them a lesson. It could be them in the squatter camps and the ruins, and us in the gigantic white-walled burglar-proof mansions. There's more of us than them. But I'm not the one to teach them. I've never been brave, and I never will be.
There is a soft creak and one of the huge golden gates in the long row of walled-in enclosures to my right softly opens. I look up, and am immediately filled with longing for that pale blue umbrella coming out from the gate. It wouldn't be much use now though – I'm already completely drenched, from my messy hair to my muddy toes.
The girl with the umbrella doesn't spare me more than half a glance. The half glance that she gives me, though, is filled with contempt and a mixture of fear and disgust. It's as if I'm a cockroach to her, some evil disease-carrying drain creature that should best be removed.
Her hair is fiery red and wavy, hanging down her shoulders like rivers of lava. Her eyes are young and green. I can't help noticing how pretty she is, and how clean, and I think of how dirty and ugly I must be. Her sky-blue dress has never seen mud, and neither have her white silk shoes studded with sapphires.
She laughs as she hooks her arm in that of a tall, silver-haired man. The gate closes behind them and they start walking along that clean road, talking to each other, the girl skipping happily. She must be quite a bit younger than me; ten, maybe eleven. When I was her age, I had never worn any shoes all my life yet. I hadn't ever slept in a real bed. I hadn't lived in a house with solid walls and a door that could close properly. I still don't.
I wish I had a father who went for walks with me. I wish I had someone who could tell me the things I want to know, who could teach me but also laugh with me, who could tell me all the secrets about the past that I can only see in crumbling ruins and rusty sewage pipes. But I don't have a father, and however much I try, I can't remember ever having had one. No one in the village has a father, or an uncle, or a brother, or a husband. Don't ask me why. I've been asking Mama and Grandmama for years. But all they ever say is, "It's not for your young, innocent ears to hear, Katarina." Well, I'm almost sixteen! How long does it take until you're not so young and innocent anymore?
The girl brushes a strand of fiery hair behind a pointed ear with her gloved hand, chattering on as if she doesn't have a care in the world. There was a time when I was small, when every night I would wish that by the next morning I'd have ears like that. Then I could live like the elves, in huge mansions and with enough to eat every day; I would have a future and wouldn't have to fear what the next day would bring. But every morning when I walked down to the river on the other side of the elf city and looked at my reflection in the murky water, my ears were the same as ever: round, human, ugly – a misfeature in this world dominated by elves.
I watch as the girl and her father turn a corner and walk out of sight. Even if I had pointed ears, I'm sure they would never accept me. They would know at once that I am human – no elf is as slow and clumsy as we are, their senses are sharper, and anyway, how could I ever learn their language? We're not even allowed to learn to read, never mind learn the language of the most learned race!
My hand is hurting and my back aches. I put down the water bucket, some water sloshing down on my feet. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, coughing as I notice I'm too close to the broken sewer to do that. I feel the rain fall on my face and run down in little rivulets, and for a while only the terrible smell close by reminds me that I'm in the real world and not some far-away place where humans like me are free and accepted…
And then I feel someone watching me; watching me as only an elf can. My eyes snap open. The great golden gates of the Elvish palace are just opposite where I am standing, on the other side of the forbidden sidewalk. A new guard is standing there, lazily watching the street. Since there's no one else around, though, I know that it was him staring at me so intently. Why? I have known his people all my life. I have always known elves, always seen elves staring at me as if I was a piece of dirt to be scrubbed away. But just now, his gaze felt… different.
Suddenly, he turns and looks straight at me with clear, green eyes. I quickly lower my head, feeling my cheeks redden, and pick up the bucket of water again, hurrying on my way. I must have imagined it. I must have imagined it! It must have been the rain blurring my vision or making me see things.
He smiled at me. An elf actually smiled at me! At me, a lowly human; a short-lived, dirty, filthy human! Cautiously, I turn around and look back. He is still watching me, still smiling. Smiling! It almost frightens me. Suddenly nervous, I half run the rest of the way to the city edge and up the hill dotted with small, crooked shacks.
"Katarina! Katarina, hurry up!" Even from this distance and through the pouring rain, I can see that Grandmama is wearing her most menacing glare. She is standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips. "I need that water now! What have you been doing all this time, taking a little leisure swim?"
"I wasn't!" I yell back, dodging a mangy stray dog with half its hair falling out. Somehow, as I run, I hardly take in the rusty hovels, the blank-faced women with bent backs going along their usual tasks, the rain splashing into dirty puddles and springing off the wilting salad leaves of unsuccessful gardens, the rebel graffiti on each and every empty wall, the groups of girls huddled together around dying fires to secretly plan a revolution that everyone knows will never happen, and the piles of old tins and plastic bottles that no one ever moves. My mind is too full to let any of it in – it's as though I've left a part of me behind on that muddy road in front of the elf palace.
Stop it, I warn myself. You're hungry. You haven't eaten since last night. Of course you were just hallucinating!
I wipe my dirty feet on our 'Home Sweet Home' doormat – I don't know why we keep it; Grandmama always says we shouldn't lie, and then we have a lying doormat. This tiny house doesn't deserve to be called 'home': a real home isn't made of old rubbish materials, corrugated iron, rotting wooden planks from who-knows-where and rusted car parts – and for a house to be a home, there has to be a mother. Our shack fills in neither of these qualifications.
I put down the pail of water by the door, accidentally spilling some. "Don't waste it, you clumsy girl!" Grandmama cries, quickly pulling the bucket from my hand. "And what were you up to, daydreaming again?" I stay silent and turn away, picking up my knitting from on top of the old washing machine that serves as our cupboard. Why does she always have to start the same discussion again?
She sighs. "Be careful, Katty. You shouldn't daydream so often! One of these days you'll forget where your place is and get in trouble, just like your good mother, bless her soul." Shaking her head, she turns around to the tiny corner we call 'kitchen', pulling a flowered handkerchief from her apron pocket and quickly wiping her eyes. When I know that she isn't really crying. That she's never cried since Mama disappeared. That she took it all so quietly, one could have thought she didn't even care.
"She didn't forget her place," I mutter, but Grandmama is making such a noise with her pots and pans that she doesn't hear me. Or maybe she does, and is just pretending. She also doesn't like to talk about it; she doesn't want to hear any of it. There are many things she doesn't like to talk about.
Why? Why does no one ever want to talk about such things? Why do they all turn away and cross themselves nervously whenever I ask why I don't have a father, why I don't have an uncle, why I don't have a brother? I can remember them; it's no use pretending they never existed! Why do they keep us in the dark, hush us up when we ask too much, pretend this is the way it should be when it's so clear that it isn't? Why does it always mean, "you don't need to know", "I'll tell you when you're older", "maybe someday your mother and I will tell you"? Mama is gone now – one day, Grandmama will be gone too. How will we ever know then?
I untangle the scarf Grandmama is making me knit for our old pneumonia-suffering neighbour, Sylvia. The wool is even dirtier than my grubby hands. "Didn't you wash the extra wool?" I ask my sister.
Ophelia shrugs. "You try to do that when your little sister is off gallivanting in the city with the only water bucket!"
"You call that gallivanting? Fine, you take a walk through the sewer tomorrow!"
"You know I have more important things to do."
"Oh really? Like what? Making even more mess of your knitting?"
"Katty!" I look up into Grandmama's glare. "Leave your sister and get that scarf done!" She looks at me reproachfully for some seconds, then turns back to her work in the kitchen, muttering something about how much better girls were in her times. Well, Grandmama, in your times, there were no elves coming on Raids every few nights. In your times, there wasn't the danger that they would come and take you away to some dreadful place no one wanted to talk about. In your times, there wasn't always the fear that an elf might attack you for such a stupid reason as that you were breathing too loudly. In your times, things were different. But now isn't the Old Days. Now is now, and no one can change that, however much we want to.
In the Old Days, people still had enough food to last for three meals every day – now, we're lucky if we have more than one. Then, they had chocolate and ice cream and more types of sweets than one could even count – I never even knew what these things were before Mama told me and Ophelia about them. People had football and holidays, they had sunny days at the seaside building sand castles and playing games – we have to use up all our time working just to have enough to survive one more day. They had school buses and teachers who gave you more homework than you could ever handle – most of us young girls in the village don't even know how to read because the elves believe we'll use schools to organise rebel rallies. They had a cat or a dog to look after and hug when it was cold in the night – we only have starving strays that howl in the dark and kill our neighbours' scrawny chickens. They had big houses with shiny floors and windows and shelves full of books – my house isn't even worth talking about, and the only books we have are illegal and hidden in a hole under the floor, moulding. They had water which was transparent and actually tasted of nothing – we have something brown and slimy that tastes like mud. They had nice, clean wool; they had big shops to buy things from – we have to shear our neighbours' sheep with blunt children's scissors from the rubbish dump, spin the wool by ourselves, and try to make our own food grow in tiny vegetable patches; we can't even look at an elf shop for two seconds without being punished for, apparently, attempting theft.
Mama told us a lot about the Old Days. The way she told a story, we could see and feel everything. She described the taste of chocolate so that we almost thought we were eating it ourselves; she talked about her school days and her teachers so that we could imagine them right before us, even smell the headmistress's strong perfume and hear the Maths teacher's squeaky voice. She resurrected the old world in our minds, so that our lives weren't quite as hard anymore and there was something to hold on to – I don't even know what; maybe the past, maybe the hope that someday things would change back again to what they used to be. Mama wasn't scared of telling us the truth. Grandmama kept saying she was going too far, but I think she never came far enough. I wonder how our lives would be now if she hadn't disappeared.
Outside, somewhere in the distance, I can hear the calls of an elf propagandist riding around our village, trying to convince us how fortunate we are and what kind superiors we have. I wonder how much they pay him; usually elves don't dare come close to us for fear of catching some frightening human disease. Through the half-open door, I can see some rebel girls out in the rain, painting slogans across a crumbling wall and covering the old advertisement behind it. "Peace and Bread" – "Freedom for All!" – "With all our strengths combined, we can regain this planet!" I can't read, but I know the phrases they like to shout whenever they think no elves are listening.
But they are listening. Who knows where their spies are hiding; hungry women looking for food, possessions or special benefits. I don't know what's the braver thing to do, be a spy for the elves or rebel against them. Both ways, you're sure to end up dead. No one can resist the elves for long. Maybe that's why they took all the men away. They're waiting for us to break; waiting for us to die out, one by one, until there's none of us left. Those who fight back, they take away. Those who resist, like Mama, suddenly disappear.
How long will it take until there is any change?