||J&K 4Ever by Sam Hawksmoor
Published by Hammer & Tong
(Print & Kindle on Amazon)
A powerful young love story set in the bleak badlands of a ruined civilization.
USA Edition / UK Edition / USA Kindle/ Canadian
Reviews: 'Gripping, really draws you into the story. Jeyna is a wonderfully strong character.'
- Roxy West
... a heart-warming story which testifies to the ultimate strength of youth.
Dr Allen P Cook - Director School of Education, University of Bridgeport
‘You didn’t think they’d let you have Kruge, did you? You didn’t waste time on hoping for that. They know, they always know. That’s why they’re sending him away.’
J& K 4Ever - Chapter 1: Mercy
Jeyna listened as Martha lay dying on the hill. The wounds on her body were festering and angry. No one knew how she’d got there or why she’d been attacked. Although she was obviously in a great deal of pain, no one could help her. It was strictly forbidden. Pity could get you whipped in Bluette.
Martha had never once spoken to her in all her fifteen years, but Jeyna had always suspected that she’d known her birth mother. She worked in the same laundry, one street over from the orphanage and there were rumors they had been cousins. Sometimes Jeyna had glimpsed her gathering sheets from the lines ready to be pressed, but she’d never once said hello. No surprises there, orphans were lowest on the totem pole in Bluette, only acknowledged if there was a grave to be dug or house cleared after a death.
Jeyna was sitting in the back of an abandoned rusted car. A relic from an ancient past, but still had window glass and an upholstered back seat. The chrome was long gone, but the leather was still good. No one in Bluette had ever seen a car move – unless pulled by a horse.
This was the one unsupervised hour of the day before prayers when she could go or do as she pleased. She watched as Martha groaned and wept, her lips swollen, pleas for mercy strangled in her bone-dry throat.
Jeyna heard a twig snap. Immediately her heart began to race. She squeezed herself back into the shadow of the vehicle, peeking out of the cracked glass at who was approaching.
Kruge made a clicking noise to let her know it was him and she exhaled with relief. He was late.
Jeyna was nervous now, had anyone followed him? It was still light. The Ministers would be quick to flog them both if they thought they were here to help Martha. Out here on the hill, in public, no one would dare. If the Lord meant you to live he would save you. It was written thus. Needless to say, in a town without trained doctors or even nurses, few were ever saved in the town of Bluette. That’s a fact.
Kruge offered her a brief smile as he climbed into the back of the car to join her, kissing her lightly on the lips. This was Jeyna’s hidey place. The one place in all of Bluette no one would come, no one could eavesdrop. A private space where they could meet in the freedom hour. It was ironic that Martha had chosen to die here. Not that it was her choice of course. The Ministers claimed there were no crimes in Bluette. Only sins. But leaving Martha wounded and broken on the hill was a terrible crime. Jeyna hoped whoever had done this would suffer, but knew there was little justice in this city.
‘I have something,’ Kruge said quietly, opening his hand to reveal red tablets.
Jeyna loved his hands, even the calluses on his fingers. Kruge always kept them clean despite the fact they made him work all hours in the carpenters cabin. He was forever sawing or sanding or gluing things. She’d grown to the same height as him in this last year. He’d grow taller eventually. Didn’t matter if he didn’t. Without Kruge she was … she didn’t want to think of there ever being a time without Kruge in her life. They both knew they were bonded together – no matter what. The Ministers would try to marry them off to whomever they saw fit, but Kruge had already pledged himself to her and she to him. In the orphanage two were stronger than one. They had learned that lesson very quickly. There had been fights and together they had taken them all on. Now they were left alone. You couldn’t put a knife between them.
She glanced out of the window again as Martha groaned. She wondered if they really were related, it seemed unlikely. Martha was pale and fair-haired. Jeyna had a brown complexion with dark auburn hair, well hidden from men’s gaze under her headscarf.
‘These tablets will finish her?’
‘That’s what Ma Jiggs says.’ Kruge answered.
Jeyna pursed her lips. Ma Jiggs was the woman in the town you went to when you were sick and didn’t want anyone to know. She knew all the herbs and potions. She was the one who’d secretly taught her how to cure a fever and manage a cold. Wanted Jeyna to apprentice to her, but the Warden had forbidden it. The Ministers denounced Ma Jiggs from their pulpits, but she knew that they too secretly went to see her under the cover of darkness.
Kruge stared through the glass at Martha. ‘Ma Jiggs says that used to be no one ever died of a broken leg. She’d just bind it and the bones would mend all by themselves.’
Jeyna said nothing. The Ministers would say a broken leg was a test of God’s patience. If he didn’t fix it you weren’t worthy of his attention. Besides if your leg was broke you couldn’t work and if you couldn’t work you couldn’t expect to be fed.
Martha had been dying for two days now. They wouldn’t investigate any injustice done to the woman. There was no crime in Bluette. This always confused Jeyna because she knew, as well as Kruge, that everything was a crime in this town.
Jeyna looked into Kruge’s dark blue eyes. He seemed to know what she was thinking.
‘Ask her, Jeyna. Ask her before you give her the tablets.’
Kruge withdrew a small glass bottle of water from his jacket and pressed it into Jeyna’s hands. ‘She’ll need this to swallow them.’
Jeyna nodded and moved towards the door. She glanced back at him suddenly. ‘Keep watch.’ She looked beyond him to the slopes down towards the city as if expecting the Minister’s Enforcers to appear any second.
Light was fading. This had to be done in the dark - but not so dark they couldn’t get back to the orphanage in time. Nothing more the Warden would like than to shut the gate in their faces and report them to the Ministers for a whipping.
Kruge pressed his hand on her arm for encouragement. ‘Now. Do it now.’
Jeyna stepped out of the car. She hurried to the side of the dying woman and knelt down beside her.
‘Martha. It’s me, Jeyna from the orphanage. Can you recognize me?’
Martha’s head was lolling from side to side, her eyes mere pinpricks as she fought the pain of hunger and the festering wounds in her leg. Her tongue was thick, her mouth dry. Jeyna gave her some water to help her speak and brushed off insects and swollen maggots gathered around her bloody wounds. She had been stabbed; Jeyna could see that now. Something terrible had happened here.
As she swallowed her head steadied and her eyes fixed upon Jeyna.
‘Finish me. Finish me now,’ Martha begged.
Jeyna nodded. ‘I’m aiming to do just that. I need to know. Did you know my mother? Did you know her name? People say you did.’
Martha could see Ma Jigg’s red death tablets in Jeyna’s hands and she tried to grab them but Jeyna held them up high out of reach.
‘Give,’ Martha croaked.
‘Who was my mother?’
Martha narrowed her eyes. If she had any spit she would have used it on Jeyna, but two days without water had done her in. ‘You was the curse that ruined her life,’ Martha croaked, her voice filled with venom.
Her reply struck like an arrow to Jeyna’s heart.
‘Why? Why did she put me in hell? You know what the orphanage is like.’
Martha could only think of the tablets now and the precious release they would bring.
Jeyna sprinkled more water into her throat. She put the pills on the ground. If she actually placed them into her mouth that would be counted as murder in God’s eyes and she knew God was always watching. Martha had to be able to pick them up by herself and swallow them voluntarily.
‘Don’t you want to know who the father was?’ Martha rasped as she made to grasp the red tablets.
Kruge was watching, still keeping one eye on the slopes. He was scared there would be a witness. You didn’t want to give anyone the chance to be a witness and have any power over you. The Lord loved witnesses – especially if they were ready to denounce another.
‘Don’t let her tell you,’ Kruge called out, sensing danger. ‘Don’t let her say it.’ He knew that knowing the father could be worse than not knowing. It could lead to a world of sorrow.
‘Ajabuti,’ Martha whispered, a hint of malice in her eyes.
Jeyna blinked. Minister Ajabuti was the worst one of all. The man who hated women. The one who’d banned women singing, the one who’d closed the schools to girls and made them all wear heavy shapeless clothes to hide their ‘sin’. No man should ever be tempted by the evil ways of women. The man who personally saw to the public floggings and cared nothing if the one being flogged died.
Minster Ajabuti could not be her father. He just could not.
Martha had the tablets now and crammed them into her mouth. She could not swallow and Jeyna withheld the water bottle for a moment.
‘You’re lying. You’re just saying that to be mean.’
Martha lunged for the water bottle and clasped it with her wiry fingers – long dirty nails digging into Jeyna’s hand. Jeyna let her have it and watched as she keenly swallowed the tablets and finished the water.
‘Now you know what it’s like to be cursed, Jeyna Ajabuti. Be sure to tell him your name when he comes after you. But wait till after he’s had his way with you. It’s a mortal sin. Wait till he’s done. He’d have to confess.’ She almost smiled with satisfaction at the thought of it. ‘He’d have to confess his crime.’
Jeyna took back the empty bottle and walked back to join Kruge. Her head was reeling. Kruge was right, she hadn’t wanted to know who the father was and now couldn’t put it back. Kruge took her hand and squeezed it. He could see she was in shock.
‘I’ll not let that man near me – ever.’ Jeyna said with quiet determination.
Kruge pulled her away from the car and they set off at speed down the slope.
Jeyna briefly looked back into the darkness – wondering how long the tablets would take. How happy Martha had been to swallow them.
‘Come on. Faster,’ Kruge urged, hearing the bells. ‘We’re late for evening prayers.’
Jeyna knew now why she’d been placed in the orphanage, knew exactly why she’d been shunned by her mother. The unwanted children of those abused by the Ministers were plenty enough. She’d never thought of herself as one and certainly not by Ajabuti, the cruelest of them all.
‘Does it make a difference, Kruge?’ She was dread nervous now that he’d hate her as much as everyone hated her father.
‘You’re not him,’ Kruge told her softly. ‘You’re still beautiful, Jeyna. I hate him – I love you.’
Jeyna bit her lip. These were just words. She wanted proof. She wanted him to hold her and swear forever that knowing who her father was wouldn’t destroy his love for her. ‘I belong to you, Kruge. Tell me I belong to you.’
Kruge pulled her to him and held her tight. ‘Always. You belong to me.’
Jeyna closed her eyes. She felt her heart would burst. The horror of her birth was only now making itself felt. She stumbled beside Kruge as he guided her down the slope to the ruins of Bluette and the shambles that was the orphanage.
‘Will she be gone now?’ Jeyna asked.
Kruge nodded. Five minutes Ma Jiggs had told him.
The bell summoning them all to prayer was still ringing in the darkness ahead.
‘Will the Lord forgive me?’ Jeyna asked the darkness.
‘You showed mercy,’ Kruge reassured her. ‘I hope you’d do the same for me one day.’
But Jeyna knew she wouldn’t. She’d rather kill herself than take Kruge’s life.
A bat flew by, narrowly missing Jeyna’s headscarf.
It was a sign. Martha was transformed already. A bat no less.
‘Kruge? Is that you?’ A voice boomed out from the darkness. ‘I’d like a word with you, son.’
Jeyna hurried on alone into the chapel. She shuddered. She knew that voice. Did he know where they had just been? What they had done? Her heart raced. To think that evil voice belonged to the man who was her father. She realized too late that she still didn’t know the name of her mother.
Minister Ajabuti appeared out of the darkness and placed a broad hand on Kruge’s shoulders. He was smiling. Kruge understood this to be a very bad sign indeed.
‘It seems I have a job for you.’
‘I have a job, Minister.’
‘Now you have a new job. It would appear apprentice Jacob had an accident two days ago and is with us no more. You will taken to Devil’s Plain tomorrow at eight. Your skills in carpentry will be useful to the Keeper. Pack your things. You will be living there under his supervision now. Do not forget your prayers, Kruge.’
Kruge felt his heart skip a beat. The scrapyard was at the far edge of the city. It was filled with the prohibited things. He was to work there? He’d see no one. He’d be miles away from Jeyna.
‘The Keeper will make sure you’re busy,’ Minister Ajabuti declared. ‘You’ll be getting a raise. You’re almost a man now, Kruge. We must find you a bride next year. Who knows? Do well there you might end up Keeper one day.’
Kruge tried to look grateful, but all he was thinking of was Jeyna. How would he protect her being so far away? Only a fool would think the scrapyard was a promotion. No one dare use ‘scrap’ in case the Ministers found out. He didn’t even know why there was a scrapyard.
‘Run along now. The Lord won’t wait for your prayers, but remember to thank him. I had my eye on you, Kruge. A steady hand, patient too. The Keeper is frail and needs a sensible boy like you. Don’t let me down.’
‘I won’t sir. May I ask how the boy died?’
The Minister looked Kruge directly in the eye, unused to being challenged.
‘He burned to death. Foolish mistake I believe. The Keeper was quite upset.’
Kruge walked on ahead to prayers. He was deeply unnerved. The Minister ‘had his eye’ on him. What did that mean? And how did the boy burn to death in a scrapyard?
Minister Ajabuti watched him go; impressed that Kruge hadn’t flinched when he told him how the boy died. He was sure he had made the right choice.
He walked away from the depressing orphanage and made his way to the corner where someone was waiting, anxious to speak with him. There was always someone anxious to speak with him. It was quite irksome.
© Sam Hawksmoor 2023
J& K Review
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Read the Q&A with Sam Hawksmoor and Sara Troy here