The Shuffler

 

The Shuffler

 

W. G. White

 

Wendul Snork deserved this. He deserved the ache in his thighs, and the blisters swelling on his feet. He even deserved the sunburn, the lobster red skin already peeling and itchy. His lips were cracked, his tongue dry and coarse. Each breath he dragged down into his lungs was a scratching pain at the back of his throat, almost not worth the oxygen it brought.

I should stand. It would be proper to stand. But he didn't, not even close to it. Instead he groaned a woeful tune and buried his heels deeper into the sand beneath him. Sand, sand, bloody damn sand! I'm sick of sand! He'd heard, once upon a time, that folk had actually enjoyed sand! The idea was absurd, and yet the fact remained, Wendul had read it at school. School. Let's not think of schools, old chap.

“Dead Walker dreamin'!” A voice penetrated Snork's mind and bounced about his skull, echoing the same phrase this way and that, from every which angle imaginable.

No. No, not echoes. The voices were outside his head! It was the same phrase but carried on tens of lips, sung with a new range every time it repeated.

Wendul opened his eyes and was met with a naked foot lifting across a blemish free sky, like some blimp. He'd read about them too. Some monstrous old world sky vessels, bloated and ready to burst. The foot continued its onward journey and came crashing back down to the sand, having safely cleared Wendul's head.

“Dead Walker dreamin'!” the foot's owner said with a chuckle.

Good heavens are they talking about me? I'm only resting, why I've not been sat for three minutes – the cheek of it! Perhaps he should stand, show them he wasn't as soft as they all thought him, but then they'd think he was doing it for them! Wendul Snork was his own man made, dragged from hand-me-down socks to spit shined leather boots. No, I think a few minutes longer shan’t hurt much. What's the rush, eh chap? You've still at least another twenty hours yet! Time enough for a kip, I should think.

“Dead Walker dreamin'!”

“Oh shut up would you!” Snork sat up with a start and a snarl. “I'm very much aware of my situation and I dare say I've got it rather under control, so if you'd just leave me well enough alone I should be quite grateful! Thank you!” He slunk back into the sand and heaved a heavy sigh.     

“Sometimes you've got to be sharp, Wendul. Folk won't listen to softer chaps, that's what Pa always said–” he stopped mid-sentence, and blinked at the endless expanse of blue sky above him. Black spots now circled. Crows cawing and screeching in hungry delight. He sat up again, twisting his plump head this way and that.

Crikey, where is everyone? After a moment he stood, brushing sand from the hairs on his legs and the crack of his behind. Why they had to take his clothes was beyond Wendul's comprehension, but Sheriff Oldborne was insistent. Had the Sheriff not been armed, Wendul was convinced things might have ended differently. He would've at least kept his boots.

To the south, Wendul could see nothing but the endless red wastes. Flotsam and footprints and giant tank track grooves showed what way the Walking caravan had come, and which way they were headed. Besides that, there was nothing to hint at humanity's existence, only sand. Sand to the west, sand to the east, sand to the north and sand to the south. Some sand was red and hard, some was wavy and free, there were dunes, sink holes, mountains, and plains – but all of it sand still.

“I do think I might have enjoyed grass.” Wendul wiggled his fat pink toes and felt the sand irritating the soft flesh between each digit. For a Walker, Wendul hadn't ever truly walked that much. He was a larger man, he'd admit to that, he enjoyed the finer things in life, his meats, his wines and his ever so devilish pastries. Still, for all his riches, the stout man had never felt grass beneath his feet. Never had he swam in an ocean – never had he swam at all! All of this was lost to Wendul, and indeed to man. It had been generations since anyone had felt the thrill of a snowy morn, relished in a monsoon of rain or hail. All there was, all there'd ever been, was sand and the hike.

They weren't too far away, those perpetual hikers, Wendul could see them up ahead as they marched onwards. Ever marching, never slowing, never stopping. When folk stopped they ended up much the same as Wendul; alone and lost at the back of the herd, chances of survival fading with every step not taken.

Dead Walker dreaming, indeed. Best hop to it Mr. Snork, else you'll make a fine feast for those crows above. He placed one foot in front of the next and swayed, not quite expecting the pain it would send to his calves. Baring his teeth, Wendul forced the next foot forward and lifted a light rain of sand with it. Before too long he was walking again, his pace quickening when the notion of his mortality truly struck home.

My word, I could have died! Ten more minutes and I'd have never caught them! He rejoined the back row of the Shufflers and slowed his pace to a more comfortable one, matching his fellow outlaws with each step.

“Decided to join us, eh, Snork? Enjoyed ya wee kip?” said one of the Netters, a glorified prison guard and little more.

“Here, is that lard arse back?” another Netter said, turning his horse's reins and staring down at Wendul. That particular Netter was a nasty piece of work, Wendul had no love for that man, nor the neat moustache holding his face at ransom. His name was Renn, and by what Wendul could gather, he was some sort of captain, or thereabouts.

“I just needed a rest, gents. Little more.” He smiled, though knew it looked a weak thing.

“Rest he says!” Netter Renn slapped his knee and moved the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “How long has our Mr. Snork been shuffling, company?”

“Four hours.” The reply came as a monotone grunt sounded from each of Wendul's naked colleagues.

“And how much longer does our esteemed Mr. Snork of Snork's Traders have left to shuffle?”

“Thirty-four hours,” they replied again, each man clearly aware of how long he himself had yet to walk.

“Well, yes, OK then.” Wendul wet his lips and shook a stubby finger. “See, well, yes. I'm a tactician, Mr. Renn.”

“Is that so?”

“This hike shan't beat me, not if I rest every once in a while.”

“Shan't it not, Mr. Snork?”

“Indeed.”

“Well ain't you just a man with a plan.”

Wendul tapped his temple, quite viciously, perhaps more so than he'd intended. “It's all up here, Mr. Renn. Mind over matter, so they say.”

“They do say that, don't they?"

“Indeed they do. It's simply a case of finding the correct balance between determination, and realistic expectation.”

“Is it now?”

“I'd say so.”

“Wanna know a wee tip, Mr. Snork? One that'd help ya, like?”

“Why I'd welcome one!”

Netter Renn was riding beside Wendul now, his horse treading carefully through the sand, a beast with practiced precision. Renn leant down and flicked the toothpick from his mouth. “Notice how quiet your friends are, Mr. Snork?”

“Yes, well, I had noticed that, actually. Quite schtum chaps, aren't they? All keeping mum, wouldn't you say!”

“It's 'cause they all know next water's in seven hours, Mr. Snork. See, this here gang'a scum knows that when a man speaks, he's using up all manner of precious moisture. He's drying himself out with every silly wee word. Oh, don't you worry about me, Mr. Snork I've got me a nice fat skin'a water right here. Could talk all shift, me. You though? I don't fancy your chances. So by all means, Mr. Snork, do go on about that brilliant tacticians brain'a yours. I'm sure we'll all be telling tales of it come start of next shift when you're laying face down in the sand a mile back.” Renn ended his speech with a deep slurp from his water skin. His laugh was a cruel one, and one that bounced about Wendul's head for at least an hour before it finally faded away.

Netter Renn had been right, of course. So much so that Wendul hadn't uttered as much as a syllable since, not even when conversation was sought after by his fellow Shufflers.

Of course I knew that. I did! Who doesn't know that? You lose moisture when you breathe for the Walker's sake! You're slipping Wendul, you're slipping down quite the slope indeed!

He'd managed to find his way back to near about the column he'd started in, with eight rows of Shufflers behind and three ahead. They spread themselves at least a kilometre wide, a total of twelve rows, perhaps a couple thousand bodies to a row. Near enough twenty-four thousand Shufflers and he still manages to ride by me...Netter Renn seemed to be keeping Wendul in his sights. Never straying too far. Always with that cruel smirk and those laughing eyes. If I didn't know better I'd say he quite fancied me.

By the tenth hour of his shuffle, Wendul was more than a little parched. He'd stopped sweating an hour ago, a burning cramp was working into his thighs and nausea threatened to steal his stomach away. Even so he managed to maintain the walk. He'd even turned it into a little game, matching his own footsteps with the prints of the woman in front of him.

His game did little to distract from the sandpaper world that was his mouth, nor the bloody raw mess his feet had become. He'd stubbed his big toe on a partially buried piece of flotsam, a horseshoe, perhaps. Something metallic and nasty. Half of the toenail had come away with the blow, and what remained had twisted into a sand-covered, nightmarish mess. Wendul tried not to look at it.

“An hour til watering time, folks. We all enjoying ourselves thus far, aye?” Netter Renn mocked, though Wendul only made eye contact with the man's water skin. “Anyone wishing they'd not been such a miserable bastard in their old life?”

Somewhere in the distant reaches of the caravan up ahead, a deep horn blew, and a low rumble vibrated through the air, encompassing Wendul in a blanket of sound.

“Second shift called!” a Netter shouted from the west.

“Second shift called!” another Netter cried.

“Second Shift called, kiddies,” Renn muttered. “Looks like the sun's leaving for a wee while. Don't you worry yourselves, it'll be back before ya know it. Some'a ya might be thinking that's a good thing, no more'a that damnable heat! It ain't bad for the first few minutes, I'll grant ya, but bloody nights don't it get chilly! Tell 'em how chilly it gets, Gohn.”

Gets right chilly at night,” said Netter Gohn.

Right chilly says Gohn.” Renn wet his lips and his eyes landed on Wendul. Wendul held the Netter's gaze for a beat too long before staring at the sand again, hoping beyond hope that nothing would come of his glancing. Some folk took ill to being looked at, something Wendul never quite understood.

He had to be looking at me to see that I was looking at him, and yet somehow he's angry? A double standard if ever there was one!

“A little tradition I like to keep alive,” Netter Renn said, seemingly oblivious to Wendul's staring, “is that of second shift story time. It's a silly thing, truth be told, but I like to keep me guests well entertained, ya see. A little story to help chase the chill away.”

Somehow Wendul found himself closer to Renn. Was he drifting that way or was the Netter doing it on purpose? Wendul glanced towards the west to see a familiar scene. The horizon a purple blanket, twilight jewels adorning the delicate fabric sky. The sun, a half hidden orb, was the crown of the darkening scene.

“Wendul Snork, of Snork's Traders,” said Netter Renn, a fleck of spittle escaping from the corner of his mouth to nest within his moustache. “What did Wendul Snork do to end up here? To end up with the rest of you thieves, rapists, and rusty whores?”

Wendul's stomach sunk, he limped on his ruined foot and wanted nothing more than to bury his head in the sand, like an ostrich. Big extinct birds, old boy. You're a man. A man made. Respected! A trader! Chin up, chap, it'll be over before you know it.

“I'm sure you've all heard'a Mr. Snork. Mr. Snork of Snork's Traders. The shoes on Bernard here are most like some of his.” Renn gave his horse a stroke and smirked. It was most probably true, Wendul's company supplied horseshoes to at least half of the Walking caravan, horseshoes and so much more.

Netter Renn continued his story. “Snork's business has been growing for quite some time now, ain't it Wendul? More clients, more cogs fattening your purse, but more cogs that need spending, too. Now, children, it didn't take too long for Mr. Snork to overreach himself and agree to more than he could truthfully handle. Did Mr. Snork retract his commitments? Course not! That's bad business, ain't it, Mr. Snork? No, what Mr. Snork did was, he decided to cut corners and bully his clients into accepting higher prices for lesser products.”

Now just you, I well, no, I – I think that's quite enough of that, thank you.” Wendul blinked rapidly, he shook his flabby cheeks and kept his head low.

Hold up, Mr. Snork, we ain't quite there yet!”

I think we very much are as a matter of fact. I'm already here aren't it? Humiliated, humbled and scared. Have I not suffered enough?”

Netter Renn tutted. “Yous tell me, Mr. Snork, have you suffered enough?”

Wendul caught a glimpse of the man walking next to him, the curious glint in his eye, the hunger that burnt behind that glint, the need for knowledge. He saw it in the other faces too, all of them with questions buried behind their tongue tied mouths.

Turning a profit again,” Renn continued, “Mr. Wendul Snork of Snork Traders, the esteemed business tycoon, and tactician mastermind turned his greedy wee eyes to other ventures, to bigger boats. It were a school barge, weren't it, Mr. Snork? A boat full'a wee kiddies. See, Mr. Snork got it into his fat head that he could sell broken wheels at half the price'a new ones. Stealing from Wheelsmiths and selling on to unsuspecting clients. Only it didn't quite work did it, Snork? When the wheels began to splinter ya told 'em not to worry 'bout it. Ya told 'em it were fine.”

I did no such–”

And then...ya sunk a school. Mr. Wendul Snork of Snork's Traders sunk a school.”

A lump refused to leave Wendul's throat, he stammered, trying to find the words to defend himself, but there were none. You damned arrogant fool, Wendul. It was all going so well, too.

No one died,” he uttered. A feeble excuse.

Oh aye, that ain't no lie, no sir. I'll go tell that boy's Ma, shall I? Tell her that, despite the fact her wee boy ain't never gonna walk again, it ain't really Mr. Snork's fault, cause the lad ain't dead...You crippled a child, Mr. Snork! So, you look me in the eye, Snork. You look me in the fucking eye and you tell me if you've suffered enough...”

 

Watering time had come and gone, yet Wendul Snork's throat still felt as dry as it had before. Now his bladder screamed for release, an irony that didn't escape the once trader. He let the urine flow mostly without conscious thought. He barely even acknowledged it, though the lack of burning desperation in his bladder was a welcome relief.

He was sweating again, too, despite the chill of the night's air. It's almost as though I'm throwing the stuff away! Don't you realise we need liquids to survive, you stupid, detestable thing, you! He prodded at his belly and sighed, before returning to his chest and rubbing it to stave off the cold. An impossible feat, all things considered.

Many Shufflers had drawn themselves into groups to share body heat whilst they walked, but all of Wendul's advances had been abruptly shot down. He would hike alone, cold and thirsty.

Nearby, as always, rode Netter Renn. He slept in his saddle. His head rolled forward as he snored softly. Wendul's eyes were set firmly on the Netter's water skin. The notion of theft wasn't one Wendul outright dismissed. He'd always considered himself an honest man and, despite Renn's dramatic retelling of his crimes, he still held true to the idea.

Oh, Wendul. What would Pa say if he could see you know, chap? Nothing good, I'd think. He sighed. Alright, Wendul! You've two options as far as I can see. One: die cold and thirsty. Or two: die cold and quenched. When he put it like that there wasn't really a choice at all.

Carefully, or as carefully as an exhausted man could manage, Wendul reached out to Renn's water skin. He flinched back when the Netter snorted in his sleep, and almost tripped over his own feet for lack of concentration. One finger found the leather strap, and Wendul glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching. No Netters but a few Shufflers had eyes on him. He pressed a finger to pursed lips and turned back to the task.

He had a firm grip on the strap now, but Renn had wrapped it over his saddle, so Wendul had the unsavoury task of lifting the Netter's hands to free the skin. He took a quick sip, just to remind himself what he was fighting for. The water was like pure joy taken liquid form. He let some trickle down his chin and dribble to the sand.

Oi! Snorky!” a shuffler did his best impression of a whisper and Wendul cringed. “Give us it here, would ya!”

Yeah. Share!” said another.

Right bloody thirsty I am.”

Water ya waiting for, mate!” one man laughed and a fair few joined him.

Wendul begged them to be quiet with his eyes, he waved his arms and tried to mouth to them. I'll share it, I will! You just need to be bloody quiet, you fools! He froze when Netter Renn cleared his throat.

Got something'a mine there, have ya, Mr. Snork?”

 

One foot and then the other, one rose when the other had fallen, much like the habits of celestial bodies, one was forever chasing the next. Wendul had to focus now more than before, he had no games to pass the time, no footprints to slip into, he was the forerunner, the pace-maker, the man at the very front.

Come on now, Snork,” said Netter Renn, “keep them legs pumping, lad. You've a few folk behind counting on ya.”

As punishment, Wendul had been tasked with the Shuffler's pace. No prisoner could walk faster than he. If he couldn't keep up with the Walking caravan then neither would anyone else.

They'll leave everyone behind, that's what Renn said they'd do. Leave everyone far enough behind that we'd never catch up. We? Well really now, Wendul, I thought you had more sense than that! They'd eat you in a moment.

The Netters had fallen into the formation that had earned them their namesake. They'd formed a giant net the length of the Shufflers. One line up front and one behind, ensuring that no man passed Wendul Snork. When the Shufflers fell behind the rear Netters, or when the Netters felt their own chances of rejoining the caravan had diminished, they'd leave. Galloping off into the night and taking their precious resources with them.

It was too much responsibility, too much to ask of a man labouring with each and every breath he took. He dragged his feet by necessity alone, drawing on some hidden strength buried deep in the many folds of his gut. Sounds found him often, he supposed they were jeers from his ever-present companion, Renn, but he wasn't moved by them; he had one task and one task alone.

You think I'll kill them, don't you, Renn? You think I'd let them die...Mayhap I will...What was it Pa always said? No, no – Wendul! Think of Ma now. Yes...sweet Ma. What a handsome woman she was. He stumbled, and almost felt a wave of restless apprehension crashing over him from behind. He could feel the weight of a thousand eyes dragging him downwards into quicksand, slowing his legs to make it feel as though he was wading through treacle.   

Vaguely, Wendul was aware of a Liner's arrival, a courier of resources from the Walking. He pulled two donkeys with satchel bags strapped to their flanks whilst riding a third donkey himself.

Ho-up, friends,” the Liner called, grinning. He turned his donkeys and matched the Shuffler's direction. Netters busied themselves with the supplies on the far donkey whilst the Liner spoke with Renn.

Yous lot are much too far back, Renn. I were starting to think we'd lost ya,” the Liner said.

You ain't gonna lose us, Jim,” Renn muttered, “not the Netters anyhap. Can't say the same for this sorry lot.”

Pace-maker?”

Yessir.”

Jim the Liner whistled and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “How much longer they got? I've seen Gil rounding up the next batch, few'a the other Sheriffs doing the same.”

Renn glanced first at the sky, and then at Wendul, before he said, “First shift's call. Dawn'll end it, I reckon.”

I make that six hours.” Jim snorted. “He ain't gonna last six hours, Renn...”

Aye. That's the idea.”

The Liner swallowed and Wendul met the man's eyes. He saw hopelessness there. Some ounce of compassion too perhaps? Wendul wanted to cry, but he hadn't the water to spare. He wanted to scream, but his throat was so raw he knew he'd never stand the pain.

After a moment, the Liner looked back at Renn and said, “Suppose I won't tell you your business if you leave me mine. Good morning to ya Netter Renn.”

Good morning.” The men nodded to one another and then Jim was gone, making his way back up to the Walking, leaving Wendul to his fate.

 

At the call of the final hour, Wendul Snork almost collapsed. His pace was little more than a meagre crawl. His breath a laboured rasp that rattled from his throat all the way down to his chest, burning the entire way there. He couldn't even feel his feet anymore, he wasn't certain they were there – he dare not look down least he recoil so violently he lose his step and fall. And if he fell he'd never stand again.

To the east, Wendul spotted the first inklings of the sun's return. Gently, the black of the night's sky was repainted in a deep dark blue with just the faintest hint of amber. It was beautiful, but moot. Wendul would never witness that teasing sun's rise.

He stopped. Simply unable to do it any longer, he hadn't the wind, nor the sail. He'd run aground, unable to move himself any further.

And why should I? I'm so very tired...so very weak. Which one of them would do the same for me? Who amongst them would save Wendul Snork? Not I. You can't save dead men. Wendul Snork is a man dead, I am his corpse. His memories, his regrets. Heavens, I am his legacy....what a cruel universe indeed.  

You had me worried for a moment, Mr. Snork. You had me very worried, mate!” Renn pulled back on his horse's reins and the beast whickered, before stopping. “I started thinking you might just bloody well make it. You almost coloured me a fool!”

Wendul's head slunk. His chins resting against his collar bone. He closed his eyes, inhaling a deep, deep breath. Much like his first, Wendul Snork intended his last breath to be a good one.

His limbs were leaden, like useless branches that refused to be swayed, no matter how strong a wind that might blow. The sand beckoned, as glorious a bed as any man could hope for. He almost fell into it, too, he almost let it steal him away to strip him to his bones and hold him there upon the spot where a man named Wendul Snork had at last said enough.

And he would have done just that, had it not been for a woman's call.

Please,” she cried. It was merely one word – but one word that quickly became echoed by a voice built from twenty-four thousand mouths, strong enough to move mountains let alone a man. They called for him, the Shufflers, they needed him for just a while longer. Wendul's heart swelled, beating like never before as he raised his head and listened to their pleas. So he did what his Pa would do: he walked.   

“It ain't gonna be enough, Wendul,” Netter Renn seethed. “You've still got at least ten minutes, you ain't gonna keep it going for that long! As soon as my boys overtake just the one'a yours, we're gone...”

Wendul ignored the Netter, he walked instead, feeling his pace quicken with each step he took.

Why're ya doing it, Snork? Gonna cripple some more kids, eh? You ain't welcome up there, not no more. You ain't got shit! Just die, do us all a solid.”

COME ON SNORKY!” some Shuffler somewhere behind shouted, and was met with a thunderous cheer. They began chanting his name, pushing him further on a horse made of their praise. Wendul closed his eyes and let it carry him. He smiled, his arms outstretched as he bathed in their encouragement. Netter Renn's words were nothing compared to this. Grains of sand in a world of desert. This was an oasis, a tsunami and a snowstorm. This was grass beneath his toes. I knew I'd much enjoy grass!

“No. That's far enough, Snork! You stop, you stop right sodding now!” Renn jumped from his horse and walked beside Wendul, as close as he could manage without touching. “You don't deserve to keep on, you don't deserve the oxygen you're sucking down! I wanna see you die, Wendul. I wanna stand over you when you steal the last piece of air you're ever gonna steal. So fall. Fall, ya fat piece of fuck. Fall, Wendul! Do it! FALL!”

Wendul fell, but not because of Netter Renn. He fell because the sun was in his eyes and the horn that sounded the start of the first shift was flowing through him like the ghost of every dream he'd ever dreamt. On his knees, he wept dry tears, a free man once more. Renn raged and cursed, but Wendul was free of sin, free of Renn, too. He'd walked them both away, leaving them in the sands, and now he was ready to be born anew.

I'll build something. I think I will. Something to help that poor boy I hurt. That'd be nice, very nice indeed. Good show, chap...I think I might sleep now. He flopped onto his side and found he couldn't move. In his mind's eye he lifted his hands to swat away a strand of hair irritating his nose but found all he could manage was the closing of his eyes. Was he even breathing? He didn't truly know. He didn't know if it was sand beneath him or a mattress. Were the hands that ruffled him so violently friendly or cruel? Wendul Snork wasn't sure, but neither did he care. He wasn't there anymore, he wasn't inside his body. He'd escaped to go someplace else. Someplace free, where folk walked only seldom. And, when such a time for walking did arise, it was done at a stroll, with nothing else but grass beneath one's toes.

 

 

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