Was the instruction for the first task, which I completed with a waspish tenacity. After that, things became a little clearer. The Senior Vegetarians made me complete two more bravery/stupidity tests to see which one I was and, although they never confirmed the results, they did tell me that I had performed well enough to be Chosen. See the capital C there? That’s how you know it’s a big deal to be Chosen. For a week before I undertook the task I was given a huge sack of nuts and mushrooms and sent to live in the trees to ‘prepare’ and when I emerged – a bit overgrown, a bit mossy, still beestung – all the Vegetarians cheered me to the edge of the village where one of the Seniors gave me The Last Meat.
The Last Meat was packed into an old wellington boot which had been stitched closed. I think it was beef, though I had never actually seen it. The Senior showed me the best way to hold it, the leg of the boot under my armpit and the foot of it in my hand, and then gave me directions. I was to take The Last Meat to another village, through the devestated apocalypse wasteland that lay between, the wasteland and all the horrors therein. Not that I was worried – I had proved myself brave/stupid enough to take on this task and that was good enough for me.
I set off with The Last Meat under my arm in the position I had been shown but once I was out of sight of the village I began to have more fun, kicking The Last Meat high into the grey air and chasing it as it bounced across the scorched earth. I dodged the blackened trees like they were assailants and ran as close to the stinking marshes as I dared until my heart was beating the blood hard around every mile of my brave/stupid body. I kicked The Last Meat high again and it soared into the sunless sky and fell heavily to the ground and disaster as I watched the boot explode. It landed and The Last Meat bounced and rolled until it came to a stop. I picked it up and examined it and noticed two things. One – it was unharmed. Two – it was, as I had suspected, beef. I could feel the bloodlust rising in my teeth and my gums and my vegetarian soul as I held the meat in my hands. And, more worryingly, I saw unfriendly shapes emerge from the gloom. Toward me.
I held the meat like it was a rugby ball and started to run the way a man who is either very brave or very stupid runs towards a swarm of bees. Quickly the shapes were closer, becoming more detailed horrors – a hundred crazed carnivores, some adults, some children, some geriatrics, all of them wild and strange and surviving somehow out there far away from civilisation. All of them running towards me, their tongues flapping about like stray dogs. And for the first time I was scared, because I realised now that I might be brave or stupid but these creatures were crazed and my fearlessness was nothing compared to the complete black hole of their minds.
As they ran towards me, I ran towards them. They were easy enough to push out of the way, falling like bags of sand, but the sheer weight of numbers was against me. And they were not just grabbing but kicking, biting, scratching at me until my body was under attack just as it had been by the bees all those weeks ago. I ignored these injuries as I continued to push through the crowd. The meat was still my primary concern, and I kept it close to my chest. It was still intact and that was the important thing. Beacuse I was not important, I was just one of the many. But The Last Meat, that was unique.
They continued to pour out of the wilderness and surround me and attack me and for a while I didn’t think I would ever fight my way through. There’s only so many deranged bodies you can shove out of the way, only so many tiny attacks you can weather, only so many miles you can struggle through such carnage. And for a while I thought about stopping and letting them win, letting them have The Last Meat, maybe even eating a little myself. But I didn’t, I kept going. Maybe that makes me brave. Or maybe it makes me stupid.
Finally the walls of the next village came into view and I began to feel the pressure of the slavering pack ease around me. I was, I realised, being helped. A small army from the village – those who were brave/stupid but not brave/stupid enough, basically not as brave/stupid as me – were hauling the carnivores away from me, grabbing them and yanking them away from the meat and me, spinning them off into the dead surroundings.
And I fell through the gates of the village, The Last Meat in my hands. I placed it on the ground in front of me and lay there long and exhausted for a long and exhausted time. My body was broken in many places and my mind lay shattered somewhere out there. The Last Meat from was taken from me and there were triumphant cries as the villagers celebrated its safe delivery, carrying high above their heads into the centre of the village.
And what about me? Brave/stupid me, I was left lying on the ground at the entrance to the village as the armies poured back in through the gates, over and around me, my body trampled into the dust.
I did not move for days. I could hear the celebrations continuing, and as I lay and listened I pondered the question of my bravery/stupidity. By now I thought I knew which one I was, and the answer did not please me. It was the one lucid thought in the whole of my stupid, wrecked and jabbering mind, the one thing that I thought I now knew and everything else false or impermanent. There would be no more tasks set for me, and so I set my own.
When I had recovered sufficiently I hauled myself up off the ground and unlocked the gate to the village. Bravely, I stepped outside and let myself be consumed by the waiting apocalypse, the death underfoot and the bleak air and the hundreds of bodies which would soon be upon me. Stepped forward and let myself be swallowed whole.