When the adults at the gathering started shouting, Doe always sneaked away. She would slip though the broken doors of the long room and find herself wondering the dimly light corridors of the building from The Before. Doe weaved around the remains of bricks, wood and glass shards that littered the grey floor. Her deer skin and fur trimmed boots, which she was always careful not to damage, did little to protect her feet. The adults’ voices followed her, quickly merging into one background sound that assured her she wasn’t alone.
Letting her hand touch the wall, she trailed her fingers along it until she came to a doorway. The corridor walls contained many openings and some interested Doe greatly. Stepping into the first room, she looked around at the destroyed walls and broken windows. From out of them, she could see the collapsed side of another building and patches of dead grass. There was nothing left to try and guess what this room had once been used for.
Doe left and walked a little further down to another opening. Stepping in, she saw pipes sticking out from the walls and brown puddles on the floor. This had once been a water room, she had learned from Ma, were The Before Peoples would clean themselves and look at their images in wall glass. The remains of wooden divides lined the floor opposite her where more pipes and holes stuck out.
The next room was just the same, though the smell of wet rot was stronger in here. Doe crinkled her nose and walked towards the far end. There on the floor was a large chunk of the wall glass. She was surprised to see it still unbroken. Staring down into it, Doe saw her image-self; a dark skinned girl of twelve summers, in a brown bear fur dress with large murky eyes. Her black hair went down her back and was tangled with beads, feathers and scraps of fabric. Across her bare arms and neck were the painted on markings of her tribe. The collection of weird blue and red swirling shapes and images, which she didn’t understand, seemed to blur together in the glass.
Turning away, she went out and carefully walked to the end of the hallway. The leftovers of a double door barred her way, without fear she crawled through and into her favourite room. Doe could no longer hear the adults’ voices, nor any other sound other than the ones her feet and breathing made. She took a moment to look around.
Weak sunlight was coming in from some of the broken board up windows and falling on smashed wood that lay scattered around. Grey stones, dirt and dust coated everything thickly in a hardly disturbed blanket. Completely covering the floor and piled up amongst the wood and stones were the written tales from The Before.
Doe gently walked over them, feeling slight shifts and soft creaks coming from under her feet. She went to the far corner, where she had built herself a den out of wood, old coverings and towers of the tales. Sitting down on a large cushion, she picked up one of the closest bindings of paper and flipped the dusty, torn coloured pages over. She recognized some of the animals inside, but had no idea what the odd shapes that marked the spaces around the images were.
Over time, she had come to grasp some of the tales the images told her. Her mind had also become good at creating the possible tales the pages could contain. Placing the one she had picked up down, she turned around and selected another from a small pile, which she had decided were her favourites so far. Looking at the front image, she saw it was her current most favoured one and settled down to view the drawings.
The tale, as Doe had come to understand it, seemed to be about a large stripped cat whom went to a little girl’s home to play, have cups of drink and eat sweet things. The images always caused her to smile and also showed her what had happened in The Before. For that was Doe’s overall understanding of the written tales, just like it was for The Now spoken tales the elders told.
Coming to the last page, she closed the binding and placed the book back. A loud banging noise caused her to jump and Doe scrambled from her den and towards the far window. Peering out, she saw a few members of the other tribes standing outside and clearly arguing. Pulling a face, she decided to leave in case someone found her here. Walking quickly over to the doors, she recalled her Ma telling her that the items from The Before plagued The Now and were reminders of the failures of The Before Peoples.
Stepping back into the corridor, she ran down to the long room and stopped just short of the doors that figures were pouring out of. Loud voices and crying of children echoed through the building. Desperately, Doe squeezed past the bodies and searched the long room for a familiar face. Her eyes stopped on one of her elders and she hurried over. Standing beside him, she looked around at the quickly emptying room, but couldn’t stop any other face she knew.
‘It’s all for nought,’ the elder mutter and Doe turned to him.
He was dressed similar to her, though the bear fur covering him was longer on the legs and arms. His grey, thin hair covered up his wrinkled face and he seemed in deep thought.
‘What happened?’ she asked.
The elder shook his head, ‘too young,’ he mumbled and patted her hands, ‘not concerning you. Before stuff, land problems, tribal quarrels.’
Doe pulled a face and played with a feather in her hair.
The elder eased himself up and tried to stretch out his bent back, ‘let’s leave,’ he suggested and held out his hand. Doe took it and they shuffled out of the room together.
In the corridor, Doe shot a last look at the room right at the end, then lead the elder to the front doors. Standing on top of the steps, they could see that most of the tribes were grouping together before dispersing. Their own tribe were standing off to one side and Doe started to take the hobbling elder over.
‘Do you know a tale from The Before about a stripy cat and a girl?’ Doe whispered as they walked across.
The elder shook his head, ‘I know one about a wolf and a girl. One of my elders used to tell it to me.’
‘Well, in this tale a cat comes to have drinks and food at this girl’s house,’ Doe said excitedly and happily that she could at last tell this tale to someone.
‘And what happens?’
‘The cat makes a mess of things and the girl finds it funny. At the end everything works out and they are like friends. I found it in one of The Before’s written tales.’
The elder stopped and looked down at her. Doe gasped and went silently. They were stood close enough to their tribe to be overheard and to prove this, Doe’s eyes darted to the nearest puzzled faces.
‘Where is this Before item?’ the elder grumbled.
‘Not here,’ Doe said quickly and too loudly, ‘it was…in the Heaps. A long time back. It just came into my head.’
‘Think no more about it,’ the elder responded softly, ‘The Before tales are dangerous. They helped to cast The Before Peoples down. If you ever find one again, bring it to me or another elder. We must purge The Now of all The Before objects.’
Doe nodded her head before dropping it. Sadness swelled inside her and her eyes felt wet. A light hand squeezed her shoulder before guiding her away. I must keep my secret better, Doe thought as she walked, or else all those Before written tales I’m enjoying will be gone. I don’t understand how they can be so dangerous, but if the elder says it, then it must be so. Maybe, one day I could prove them wrong and The Now could become like The Before again. Then we could all have stripy cats to play and have drinks with.