The Drove of Maris-Charlottes
by David Turnbull
Ida spat dirt from her mouth as she rode her weevil through the dust cloud churned up by the drove. These were healthy potatoes, Maris-Charlotte cross breeds, not a hint of blight on their creamy brown skins, none of them with a circumference less than three feet. Good rolling stock too, each one amply rounded so that their tumble was sufficiently smooth and uninterrupted, allowing them to gather a swift forward momentum.
There had to be at least four hundred head. They were feral and stubborn – not used to human contact. Managing them was going to be a challenging prospect, however, with Ida’s father and most the more experienced drovers felled by influenza it was imperative that she tried. A drove this size could make all the difference. If the potatoes could be enticed to settle in the three-acre field that had been cultivated in anticipation of their arrival there would be sufficient food to see her community through the winter.
Astride the speckled shell of her weevil, Ida maintained her position centre back of the rolling, tumbling drove, eyes constantly peering through the dust for signs of any attempted break away by rogue potatoes. She could see that her crew, most of them inexperienced teenagers like herself, were tired, but she knew she couldn’t afford to slow the pace – at least not until they were within sight of the settlement.
This expedition had originally been her father’s idea.
It was something never attempted before –the capture and domestication of an entire drove. An end to the perilous task of sending out hunting parties whom, at best, only managed to bring back half a dozen potatoes with each foray. His vision was to establish a settled drove that could be tended and cultivated season after season, bringing at last an end to the long winters with hardly enough food to see them through.
There were, of course, those in the community who said this was a foolhardy proposition – doomed to failure from the start. They called her father crazy and irresponsible. They tried to engineer a vote against him in the assembly and continued to foment dissent even when a clear majority had decided in favour. More than anything Ida felt that she owed it to her father to try and prove those people wrong.
Just ahead of her one of the potatoes hit a rock, the jagged surface tearing a gash into its skin and gouging out a white chunk of starchy flesh. The potato skidded and skewed away in an awkward and erratic trajectory. In doing so it hit another rock, causing a deep fissure to split along its dusty skin.
This one wasn’t going to survive.
Ida yanked at the reins, turning her weevil in the direction that the wounded potato was hurtling. Drawing level with it she unsheathed her machete. A dozen eyes blinked up at her, weeping trails of starch. Seeing that it was in pain she slashed downward, putting it quickly out of its misery.
As they pushed on across the flat miles of the dirt plain, heading ever south to the grasslands of their home, Ida watched the crew manoeuvring their weevils to the left and the right of the thundering charge of the Maris-Charlottes, using the speedy agility of their six-legged mounts to block and steer the direction of the drove so that it constantly rolled forward like a mighty, unstoppable avalanche of boulders.
“Ha!” they cried. “Get along boys!”
The sound of their voices was mainly for their own benefit. The potatoes sensed only vibrations in the ground and the proximity of scents and odours to their porous skin. They could have just as easily been steered in silence.
They passed a vast pride of red skinned Desiree boars, their girth four and five time bigger than the Maris-Charlottes. These gargantuan beasts were nestled down in the sandy belly of a crater, basking in the warmth of the early afternoon sun, eyes shut against the glare of the sun. The Maris-Charlottes picked up their pace, instinctively reluctant to encroach on the territory of their larger and far more volatile cousins.
Five miles or so beyond the crater Ida relented and called a halt to allow the crew to rest. No one dismounted. They ate astride their weevils, gnawing at dark strips of goat meat jerky, vigilantly watching the Maris-Charlottes for attempted breakouts. The potatoes were bursting with accumulated energy and ready to roll on the slightest encouragement.
Kwami, her father’s oldest and closest friend, came riding up alongside of her. His wiry white hair was laden with fine, russet coloured dust, sticky sweat winding streaks down his dirty face. He pointed to the distance. “Lea’s on her way back.”
Lea was one of their most proficient riders and Ida had sent her ahead to scout out the terrain. “Should we ride out to meet her?” More than any of the others she valued Kwami’s opinion.
“It might be best for you to hear what she has to report without anyone eavesdropping,” he told her.
Without waiting for her response he spurred his weevil on.
Ida chased after him.
Ida knew from a short distance that Lea had bad news to deliver. She could read the signs in the way her childhood friend hunched her shoulders and avoided direct eye contact as she and Kwami approached.
The three of them drew level and slowed their weevils so that they circled each other, clashing shells from the closeness of their proximity. Lea was clearly breathless from her ride and Ida could see from the manner in which her weevil quivered beneath its shell that she had been pushing it remorselessly.
“There’s a celery colony headed this way,” she said.
Ida felt as if a hot needle had been plunged into her heart.
The marauding celery colonies that prowled the dirt planes were voracious herbivores, devouring every form of plant life in their path, mercilessly and savagely preying on any potato herd they encountered. If they were to get in amongst the Maris-Charlottes there would be utter carnage.
“Have we time to turn and run?” she asked.
The legs of her weevil churned in the dirt as it circled before the other two.
“They already have the scent of the drove,” said Lea. “They’re moving this way – fast.”
Lost for words Ida turned to Kwami.
“Your father always says that if you can’t run you should attack,” came his response.
Ida drew breath – Kwami was right, they couldn’t possibly hope to hold a defensive line between the colony and the drove. As soon as they sensed the approach of the predators the Maris-Charlottes would scatter and flee.
“If we mount an attack some of us will have to stay back to try and prevent the drove from dispersing,” she said.
“Your father and I passed through this section of the plain a few years back,” said Kwami. “There’s a closed gully less than a mile to the east. If we drive the potatoes in a few of us can hold them there.”
“You take six with you, then,” said Ida. “I’ll take Lea and the other five to mount the attack.”
“You think seven of us can take down a colony of celery?” protested Lea.
“Eight,” said Kwami. “I can drive the potatoes to the gully with five. Myself to the rear and two on each flank, one scouting for strays.”
“You’re sure you can get them to the gully?” asked Ida.
“I don’t see that we have much choice,” said Kwami.
With Lea by her side and the six volunteers bunched in behind them Ida kept her eyes firmly fixed on the ridge. To the east a cloud of rusty dust was rising as Kwami and his team pushed the Maris-Charlottes toward the sanctity of the gully. Her heart began to pound furiously as the first clump of celery appeared on the apex of the ridge, green plumage of leaves shimmering with menace.
Her weevil reared up on four legs, antennae trembling in fearful anticipation. Ida patted its head to sooth it. “Hold fast,” she told the volunteers.
Now the entire colony passed over the ridge, heading straight at them like some pale, ghostly army, battle pendants of green leaf clusters raised high above them, vermicular root tubers ploughing deep furrows into the dry soil in their determined forward advance. Trembling slightly Ida drew her machete. “Slice down and at an angle,” she told the others, demonstrating with a swift slash through the air.
“On my word!”
The volunteers raised their machetes and held their spurs at the ready. Ida waited; sweat soaking her brow and drenching her back, her left hand trembling with the weevil’s reins wrapped tightly around it. She could smell the acrid scent of the celery on the wind. It was thick with intimidating malice. She hoped the stench of it wouldn’t reach the drove before Kwami had them safely corralled in the gully.
As the colony drew closer the individual bunches of celery formed themselves into an offensive huddle, razor sharp leaves whipping ferociously through the air. “Now!” screamed Ida, digging her spurs into the weevil’s underbelly. “Show them no quarter!”
Adrenalin charging her veins she rode her weevil in amongst the colony, feeling suddenly small and inconsequential as the wan bunches loomed gigantically above her, eight and nine feet high. Worried than even a moment of hesitation might cause her to turn and run she slashed down with her machete, slicing through the raised vertical ridges of one of the advancing stems. Pungent juices splattered her face and stung at her eyes. The celery reacted violently to her assault, bearing down her with its whipping foliage.
One of the leaves caught her shoulder, tearing a gash into the sleeve of her blouse and drawing blood from her forearm. Cursing against the pain she hacked back, tossing severed leaves into the air with every determined swipe of the machete. The celery reeled and tried to plough a retreat through the soil. Seizing the advantage Ida drew in the reins and swung her weevil around, swiping and hacking as she went. One last chop and the celery collapsed like a mighty tree.
As the weevil skittered clear its legs became caught up in the furrowed earth and it tumbled head over shell, sending Ida flying. Spitting dirt she scrambled back to her feet. All around her Lea and the other volunteers were charging and hacking as the colony thrashed its bloody frenzy, slashing red ribbons across their flesh.
When she saw that her weevil was on its back, churning its spidery legs as it rocked its shell back and forth to try and right itself, Ida stuck two fingers between her teeth and gave a high pitched whistle. Immediately the creature rolled over and ran to her, bowing obediently down to allow her to remount.
Spurring it on, machete raised high above her head Ida rode once more into the melee. She saw her cousin, Kieran, reining back his weevil as a bunch of celery bore down on him. The whip of the leaves missed him but cut straight through skull of his weevil, slicing it cleanly in half. The weevil collapsed instantly, translucent slime oozing slowly from the wound.
Kieran dismounted and hacked a wedge with his machete blade into the base of the celery. The leaves lashed at him again. He dodged them and hacked out another wedge – and then another. When the celery teetered he raised his boot and kicked it on its way.
Ida rode toward him and hauled him up behind her on the shell of her weevil. They entered the fray – Ida hacking her machete to the left, Kieran hacking his to the right.
“It’s a miracle,” said Kwami, dabbing stinging ointment onto the latticework of scars that crisscrossed her face and arms. “The entire colony routed and you didn’t loose a single person.”
“More stubborn mindedness than a miracle,” said Ida, wincing as he tended another cut. “We’re one weevil down though. Kieran is going to have double up with someone else.”
“We should camp here in the gully,” suggested Kwami. “Give everyone time to rest properly. Cook up a pot of potato broth to lift moral. Let the weevils feed on the peelings.”
Again she accepted Kwami’s counsel. A potato broth wouldn’t just lift moral, it would help everyone overcome their fatigue and regain their strength for the remainder of the ride. The weevils were being driven hard. They too needed food and sustenance if they were going make it back to the grasslands.
Five minutes later Kwami returned with the potato he had selected from the drove. His arms were wrapped around its plump girth, muscles straining from the weight of it. He laid it down by her feet. It trembled a little and rocked back and forth, grains of dust falling around it. Its eyes blinked and observed them both.
“We have another problem,” Kwami told her, running his fingers gently over the potato’s dappled skin.
“Feel,” he said.
Ida did as he asked. In several places on the smooth surface of the skin her fingers detected little raised knots. She gasped. “It can’t be? Surely it’s too soon for them to be rooting?”
“It’s a stress response,” said Kwami. “You and the others have the smell of the celery all over you. When potatoes feel threatened their natural instinct is to bury themselves in the soil.”
“If they start digging in we’ll never get them back home,” said Ida. She could feel the situation slipping away from her again. “How long do you think we have?”
Kwami shrugged his shoulders, creasing his wrinkled brow.
“Maybe a day if we’re lucky.”
“Can we do it?” she asked. “Can we get back in a day?”
“We should make the broth,” was his reply. “But two hours sleep is the most we can allow. Then we have to roll the drove.”
He picked up the Maris-Charlotte and held tightly it in his arms once more. He’d selected a fine specimen. The broth would be good and hearty. Ida drew her machete. With a single lunge, tempered with a tender respect, she stabbed through the potato’s skin and sliced into the crisp flesh of its waxy heart.
Onward they rode, pushing south across the plains, into the sunrise and then once more into the full midday heat, the drove of Maris-Charlottes rumbling and tumbling ahead of them, riders constantly blocking the way with their weevils whenever a patch of fertile soil temped a breakout from the main group.
Ida had sent Lea ahead once more to scout for predators. Being a weevil down meant everyone had to work all the harder. Tempers were frayed and patience tested. Ida worried that any little incident might kick off an argument that could lead to them loosing their slender hold on the drove.
She wasn’t in the best of fettle herself. Her mouth was parched from the inhalation of the dust, her nostrils were crusted with it, her eyes stung and wept from the constant scratch of the grit trapped behind her eyelids. Her back ached; her thighs were chaffed from the rubbing motion against the camber of the weevil’s shell. Angry blisters covered her hands, making it painful to keep hold of the reins.
She could see that some of the drovers were almost asleep in the saddle, heads and shoulders slumping and then jerking straight when their weevil clambered over some rock or raised clump of turf. The weevils themselves were flagging – their steady pace noticeably slowing to a weary trot rather than a solid gallop. Still Ida wouldn’t allow herself to relent. She was more determined than ever that she would fulfil her father’s ambitions and get the potatoes home before they had a chance to take root.
It was late afternoon when Kieran came riding back from the head of the drive, clutching the loose cloth of the jacket of the rider who held the reins of the weevil he’d been allocated to. Scars from the encounter with the celery had crusted darkly red on his forehead. “Look, Ida,” he said, pointing to the distance. “It’s the hill. We’re almost home.”
She had been noticing for a while now that the dirt terrain they were passing over was gradually merging into the scrawny scrub that marked the approach to the grasslands. She looked though the clouds of dust to where Kieran pointed and her heart soared when she saw the green hill rising up in a pronounced hump from the flat plain. On the other side of that hill was their settlement.
She imagined the smug looks on the faces of the doubters – another sunset approaching and still no sign of the drovers’ return. But if they maintained their current pace she felt sure that they could make it around the hill and be driving the potatoes along the track by dusk. See what they have to say for themselves then, she thought.
Now Kwami came alongside her, his weevil dancing in the dust he tugged the reins to slow its pace. “Lea’s on her way back,” he said.
Sure enough Lea’s weevil could be seen, deftly skirting the lower slope of the hill.
Again Ida and Kwami rode out to meet her and again Lea was the bearer of bad news. “There must have been heavy rains over the past week,” she said. “The track is like a mud bath. We’ll never be able to drive the potatoes along it.”
Kwami agreed with her. “If the drove gets anywhere near soft mud they’ll settle in and we won’t be able to budge them,”
Ida felt a deep rage go shuddering her.
Does every single thing have to stack itself against me?
She looked to the green hill. For as far back as she could remember that hill had been their shelter from the winter winds and the landmark to guide home anyone who became lost on the dirt plains. Now it was the possibly the last insurmountable barrier that might ruin everything they had strived so hard to achieve.
For moment all seemed lost. She thought of her father and the others who had taken to their sick beds before she left with the drovers. They would be weakened from the virus and without an accessible food supply they might never recover sufficient strength to see them through the harsh winter.
She looked again at the hill rising before her.
“I have an idea,” she said and spurred her weevil.
On Ida’s bidding the drovers assembled at the foot of the hill, astride their poor, worn out weevils. Their exhausted faces were layered with dust and dried blood. Ida could see from their mood and their deportment that they were all painfully deflated and demoralised.
“My father had a dream,” She told them. “It was a dream we all shared. Yesterday some of us almost lost our lives fighting to defend that dream. We owe it to ourselves, and to those waiting for us at the settlement, to finish what we started.”
“But how?” asked someone. “You know we can’t drive the potatoes along the track.”
“We should have listened to those who said that this would never work,” grumbled someone – she couldn’t quite see whom.
“They’re rooting already,” said Lea. “We don’t have time to scout another way around the hill.”
“Why would we drive them around the hill when we can drive them over the hill?” asked Ida.
“Over the hill?” said Kieran. “Impossible. It’s too steep.”
“On the other side of the hill is the field that we cultivated,” Ida reminded them all. “We each had a hand in that – removing the boulders and turning the soil. Turning it again and again. Didn’t we all fetch pails of fat worms from the mire so they would break it down further? The soil in our field is deep and moist and the potatoes we have driven all this way are so desperate to root. All we have to do is get them up to the top of the hill. Once they bathe in the earthy smell rising up from our field they’ll willingly roll down the other side of their own accord.”
“Can’t we just let them take root on the track?” asked someone. “We would know exactly where they were whenever we needed to harvest them.”
“It wouldn’t work,” said Ida. “As soon as their offspring matured they would scatter back to the dirt plains and we would have to revert to sending out hunting parties. In the winter our tables would be empty. Have we not prepared paddocks next to the field so that the offspring can trundle free within boundaries of the fences?”
“Ida is right,” said Kwami. “We have to try this. Remember the broth last night? Remember how fine it tasted? Just think what it would be like to taste broth like that every night. Just think what it would be like if we could guarantee that our children and our children’s children after them could taste broth like that every night.”
This subtle change from Ida seeking Kwami’s guidance to Kwami following Ida’s lead seemed all at once to focus everyone’s attention.
“Imagine potato baked in the ashes of the fire,” said someone.
“Imagine potato mashed with a splash of goat’s milk,” said another.
Ida could sense a palpable lifting of moods.
She knew that she had to seize this moment before it slipped from her grasp.
“Come on!” she urged, spurring her weevil. “Let’s get these potatoes back home!”
And the drovers, every last one of them, rallied behind her – Kwami to her left, Lea to her right, Kieran and his rider not far behind.
The potatoes had become lethargic, swivelling in the dirt to try and grind away the surface so that they might gain enough purchase to bury themselves in and settle.
Then slowly, in the face of resolute and determined persuasion, they started to roll up the green slopes, multitudes of eyes blinking, tiny claws of white root now clearly visible on their dirt caked skins.
The weevils stumbled and fell, rose up and fell again, legs sometimes becoming hopelessly tangled in the gorse and the heather that grew on the hill. Several times Ida saw drovers having to dismount to cut them free. But they pushed on, yelling encouragements, as much to each other as the potatoes.
“Hah! Get along boys!”
When at last they crested the hill Ida almost burst into tears at the sight of the snaking streamers of grey smoke rising from the chimneys of the little huts in the settlement. She saw the cultivated field, dark and loamy against the red sunset. She saw her father come to the door of her hut, wrapped in a blanket, looking weak and frail. She called out. She didn’t think it possible that he would hear her from this far away, but somehow at that moment he looked up to the hill.
His head turned to the open doorway of the hut. Her mother came out and looked to where he was pointing. They both turned to hug each other. Other members of the community stopped what they were doing and craned their necks to the slope.
Ida spurred her weevil.
“Ride them down!” she yelled.
With the drovers and their weevils urging them on the Maris-Charlottes rumbled over the hill, coveting the sweet, dark soil that awaited them.