When the first fence went up, we thought nothing of it. Indeed, if Haigh hadn’t been pig-headedly tracking a deer, we’d never even have realised it was there. It was some thirty miles outside the village and nobody, other than Haigh, would have wandered so far or spent five days tracking a skittish white-tail. But he did, and that’s how he was the one to spot it.
When he finally returned with the handsome creature slung lifelessly over his shoulder, my normally taciturn husband had slumped down at the kitchen table and tugged thoughtfully on his beard. ‘Well now,’ he’d said. ‘What do you reckon I saw when I was out there roaming?’
I glanced out of the window at the higgledy-piggledy shacks leaning towards each other like weather beaten old gents. Beyond that were our animal pens and, further out, the fields of wheat and barley, along with the fruit orchards that gave our community its daily sustenance. Then, towards the horizon, the rolling hills which had made up the backdrop to the canvas of my life since the day I shot out from between my mother’s legs.
I couldn’t imagine what, exactly, Haigh might have seen among the vast sweep of nature. Wild and untamed though it could be, it was nevertheless predictable in its own way. Seasons came and went; harvests were sown then reaped; animals and people mated and, in turn, animals and humans came squealing into the world, borne on a tide of blood and gratitude. Our old passed on and were buried out yonder, but still we remembered them. We never forgot. Generations ago, we had turned away from the harsh sweep of modern life, choosing a remote corner of the earth to call our home. Warfare, consumerism and the technological advances that had turned other people into unthinking, unfeeling drones were left behind. We had opted out and never looked back because, despite its hardships, ours was a gentle way of life. We tamed the loamy earth, looked after it and, in return, it looked after us.
So, as my husband sat drumming his fingers on the table, I simply waited; silent. I knew he wasn’t really expecting an answer and, for once, I sensed that he needed to talk. ‘It’s the damned oddest thing, Gretchen,’ he finally said. ‘I found a fence. Out there.’ He gestured towards the grand outdoors.
This was unusual, but not impossible. Apart from Haigh himself, our people tended not to roam too far — and while we knew that others were going about their daily lives somewhere, their existence was far from ours. Further than we’d need or want to travel. We were self reliant; there was no requirement to trade or mingle with others. That’s not to say, though, that others wouldn’t or couldn’t creep closer. ‘Maybe someone else has set up on the land — had the same idea as us? A fence isn’t so odd really,’ I said. Setting our kettle onto the stove, I glanced out of the window at our own little white picket affair, which contained a small herb garden.
Haigh followed my line of sight, shaking his head. ‘No, not like that, Gretchen,’ and, for the first time, I noticed the fear in his eyes.
‘Well, here’s the oddest thing. It didn’t end. And it was tall. Really tall.’
I planted my hands on my hips and chuckled. ‘Don’t be silly, Haigh, of course it ended. All fences end somewhere.’
‘Well, this one didn’t,’ he said, his cheeks reddening. Haigh didn’t like to be laughed at. ‘There was no end to the thing. It just went on and on as far as I could see — east to west. I followed it for a few miles but with the deer on my back, I finally gave up. I just know it didn’t end though, here in my gut,’ he said, smacking his palm against his hard stomach. ‘So there.’
The next morning, Haigh and ten of our strongest men set out to find the fence and discover who might have sent it snaking across the earth. We didn’t see them again for two months.
By the time Haigh and the others returned, their womenfolk had given them up for dead — myself included. The longest Haigh had ever been away was a moon’s turn. He was our community’s explorer — if wandering off for a few weeks could every truly count as exploring. By and large, those who are satisfied with their lot don’t go looking for more beyond the next horizon and the next. So when the men failed to return, we feared the worst. We could little have imagined, then, that their reappearance would bring with it something more troubling than death.
After the initial tears and embraces came the questions. Did they find the fence and, if so, where did it stop?
‘It doesn’t,’ said Haigh. Again, I almost laughed. Two months to bring back the same ludicrous notion he’d first hazarded. Except, this time, he had evidence.
‘We found it and followed it,’ said Denny, Beatrice Jones’ son, stumbling over his words. ‘It just loops round in a huge circle. And it’s tall, really tall. Too big to climb, unless we’d taken a ladder with us. But who goes journeying with a ladder?’
‘So what’s it for? What land are they protecting?’ asked Beatrice.
‘And who are they?’ shouted one of the old folk at the back.
At this, Haigh shook his head. ‘I don’t know. That’s the strangest thing of all — we never saw another soul that whole time. We walked till our feet bled and blisters grew on our blisters but there was no sign of life. We hollered and helloed as we went, but nobody ever helloed back.’
We are not a curious people by nature. We know what we need in order to survive, but the need to seek out new territories and boundaries is not bred into us. Quite the opposite really; our forefathers opted out of society for a reason. If you go looking for trouble, you’re like as not to find it, as my great grandmother used to say. Which is why, after the initial reconnaissance, nothing more was done about the fence. It didn’t affect our daily lives and our curiosity ebbed as our harvesting work increased.
The fence may even have been forgotten altogether if it hadn’t been for the wrong two people falling in love. We are not a large community and because of this, we have strict guidelines about whom can marry whom. So when Solomon Adams declared his love for Isabelle Talbot, they were told to nip it in the bud. Their families were too closely related and such an alliance risked muddying the community gene pool.
Unfortunately, Solomon and Isabelle had other ideas and decided to elope. It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened when they went missing. What we hadn’t reckoned on was the speed with which they returned. Two days after they left, they were back. ‘I-it’s the fence,’ cried Isabelle. ‘There’s another one!’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Haigh.
‘It’s a second fence,’ explained Solomon, who had been part of the first expedition. ‘But it’s closer. We hit it after the first day. It’s taller too. So we turned back.’
If things weren’t the same for Isabelle and Solomon after the discovery of that second fence, they weren’t the same for the rest of the community either. A second party was sent out and confirmed what the couple had recounted. This time, the men were only gone a week. The fence, as Solomon had described, was higher and closer; its circumference smaller.
It’s true that the fence didn’t overly affect us directly. The sun continued to rise over our fields each day, bathing them in its holy, life-sustaining glow. Three babies were born and one of our elders passed on. The days crept past and time turned over on itself. Yet something had changed in our hearts. We were still free and part of the land, but we didn’t feel it quite so much anymore. The mere existence of the fence niggled at us. What was it supposed to be keeping out?
Then, one day, Annie Tailor woke just before sunrise and the cry she unleashed roused the whole village. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window, leaning out to see what all the commotion was about. As I did so, I was assaulted simultaneously by the sound of my neighbours crying in dismay and the sight of an insanely tall fence following the line of our little village. It was made of iron and, through the tiny latticework pattern, I was still able to view our fields and the hills beyond — both the tamed and untamed land that had made up our village’s world for years. However, there appeared to be no way through it.
This time, there was no need to send out an expedition to negotiate the fence. It was plain as day for us all to see. The sheer height of it was dizzying, and it curved in at the top, its iron tips touching, making escape futile. Indeed, it ran around the outskirts of the village, penning us in; not so much a fence as a metal cage. Whoever was responsible must, somehow, have erected the structure in the middle of the night. But this seemed impossible. There were nursing mothers, light sleepers, insomniacs, lovers, children — surely someone must have seen or heard something. Yet, we were all present, and none could account for the existence of this latest enclosure.
It has been two weeks now and the fence is still there. I keep thinking I will wake to find it has all been a bad dream. Already, in this short time, three of the villagers have gone mad. We are used to living in close proximity, but now it is enforced. We are no longer free to tend our fields, to roam, to simply know that we are able to explore a limitless world, if we so wish. We can still see it, tantalisingly close, through the ironwork of the fence. It is all still out there, that vast wilderness of freedom and possibility. There beyond those bars.
I am not sure how long we will survive. We are fracturing. The fence is breaking us down, making us hyper-aware of both ourselves and others. I feel like running from people I’ve spent my whole life living cheek by jowl with; even my own husband. And then there is the feeling of being watched. After all, if someone put the fence there, then someone has to be watching.
It has already claimed lives too. Yesterday, two more people were found hanging from it, unable to accept a future locked in behind its unyielding form. Now, as Haigh dozes fitfully in the chair, I set aside my sewing. Normally he would be out working the fields, but since this latest fence appeared he has lost all interest in life.
Wandering outside, I sit on our stoop. The fence throws dark shadows across the earth, a latticework tapestry that would be beautiful under any other circumstances. For years, we have been a people who’ve lived without boundaries — the ones who opted out of society and are of little interest to others. We saw no need to fence our terrain, our simple existence making us unafraid of attack or invasion. Yet now I see it; none of the fences we discovered were constructed to keep other people out. They were there to keep us in; narrowing our territory bit by bit, entrapping us like animals to the slaughter.
I am sitting there, sifting dirt through my fingers when a hum fills the air. It’s not a loud noise but even so, it feels as if it’s inside me and around me, shaking me to the core. A giant shadow falls across the earth, blotting out the sun, turning my vegetable patch dark. I know what it is. I know without even looking up. I thought it was the stuff of fables, storybook legends; the tale of the monster in the sky. Now I know that it was true. And in my gut, I am certain that this horror has visited other quiet corners of the planet before. It came for them, as it has come for us today, because it knows that we are all alone; outcasts from society. It was safe for it to encroach upon our lives slowly, gradually, watching and waiting, observing us going about our daily lives, playing with us until it was ready to strike. Before it whisks us away, it will wipe out all traces of our little community. Because who else would even know we existed? We have lived our whole lives as self-imposed outcasts, and there is nobody else to notice our absence or mourn our passing. Our isolation has, ultimately, been our undoing.
I stand, refusing to look up, and return to Haigh. For a few minutes more, at least, we will both be real. And, in those final moments of existence, as his eyes meet mine, we can pretend that we still matter.
'The Fence' was published in Popshot's 13th issue, The Outsider Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.