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Once upon a time there was another press, called Elder Mountain, the creation of two women, one a writer and one an artist. The artist is no more, and neither is that endeavor, the name having passed on to the Elder Mountain Journal, a publication of Missouri State University-West Plains. The writer from Elder Mountain is now a solo act, and this is her journal.

-m

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eight: From the Ashes

The lean, dark-haired woman sat atop the bluff, her jeans-clad legs swinging over the edge, listening to the sound of falling water, watching the single blood-red blossom of a fire pink plant nod in the spring breeze. Moira was grateful to see a sign that the nightmare winter was finally done and the heartbreaking spring was showing promise, but there was no joy in her musings.  The flowers came back as though it were just any year. But in the world of humans … would anything familiar ever return, she wondered? Season into season, tragedy after tragedy. She had awakened to memories of her own family and friends, and the admission at last that everyone she held dear might well be gone forever. And whatever their fates, there were miles and miles of chaos between her and any of them. She might never know. Even the idea of contact with the outside had become an abstraction. As if… Her attention was fully captured by the immediacy, the urgency, the immensity of the change, the loss.

Dark thoughts for a beautiful morning, she admonished herself, raising both hands to ruffle her hair and maybe shake her brain loose from this track. The morning’s chill was long gone, as were the mosquitos, who’d taken to the shade. She rolled up the sleeves of her blue chambray work shirt as she looked out across a valley filled with blooming dogwoods and fresh spring greenery. But as always of late, her attention swiftly focused until everything faded except the knoll across from her where the village cemetery lay, expanded so recently by the addition of those four fresh, new graves. It had had to be done; the judgment call had fallen to her, and she had accepted it. She was, in fact, still the person in charge. But Goddess above, when would the death grip of her desperate, murderous act loose its hold on her middle and let her breath again?

Her grim reverie was interrupted by a movement at the edge of her sight. Ten-year-old Joey, the village’s newest and youngest resident, was walking toward her along the bluff’s edge, holding his arms out for balance, agile as a cat. He saw her watching and grinned, pretending just for an instant to lose his balance, then catch himself. The little imp, he never missed a chance to turn ordinary doings into a bit of fun, she thought. Then she grinned in spite of her mood. Thank God for that, for the resilience of youth. He was not yet entirely himself after his recent experiences, but was swiftly healing.

After all, who would say little Joel Pierce had it wrong? Surely he’d suffered as much as anyone in the past months, first losing his mother in one of the deadly windstorms, then seeing his father cut down before him by the so-called “saviors” now residing peacefully on the knoll.

Ellen Wyrick, the other victim of the evil crew, was not his kin at all, although they had bonded in their suffering and captivity. She was just a woman, an herbalist who had been living alone on the edge of Alton when the so-called “true sons” passed through, pillaging and killing. They’d left the town proper alone, skirting the verges to steal food. But they had chanced to stop at her home, had seen that she lived alone, and when they had found her storeroom of tinctures and herbs and her wise woman’s books, they had pronounced her a witch. Redbeard had told them they could take her and do with her as they wished until they tired of her.

That had been a mere week before they’d arrived here, she told Moira. In the interim she’d lived as their slave, preparing their food, assigned the most tedious of camp chores, and suffering their constant attentions, passed around among them nightly. The emancipated prisoners had given up their stories, in small increments with long silences between, soon after she had freed them from their bonds and led them up the hill to her real home, away from the scene of the carnage. She had fed them and let them bathe in comfort and privacy, found them clothes, and pulled couches from the lounge area into her apartment for sleeping, so no one would have to be alone. Then she had told them what she’d done.

Ellen had found the manner of the men’s deaths ironic, and no wonder. They’d died, she said, from the same malady she’d been planning for them as soon as she could put hands on some of the deadly water hemlock root. She’d searched for it daily along the trail, she told Moira. Had she found it, but in insufficient quantity to kill them all, she said, she’d meant to use whatever she found on herself and the boy, who had also suffered terribly at their hands.

Moira did not ask for more details. But the next morning, she’d encouraged them to tour the visitor’s center, telling Ellen while Joey still slept to keep him up the hill, perhaps occupied with Sheba’s pack of puppies, while she attended to the grim scene below. Then she’d hiked down the hill and fired up the small tractor with its digging bucket from the landscaping shed, using it first to dig suitable graves and then to transport the bodies, one by one, to their final rest. She had searched their pockets, written the names of each on a board as makeshift headstone, wrapped them in old horse blankets and planted each in the rocky earth of the cemetery up by the old original settlement. She had taken everything they’d brought, down to their clothes and shoes, and spread it on a table on the farmhouse porch.

When it was done, she had brought the woman and the boy down the hill to the graveyard to let them see and understand they were safe at last from their tormentors. She had recited some spare words for the dead, calling for whatever mercy might be suitable for such, leaving it to better wisdom than hers. Then she had walked among the graves and carefully, meticulously, spat on each one. The boy had been the first to warm to this part of the ritual and made his rounds once, then twice, then at a run, giggling hysterically and spitting and crying until she’d caught him and held him while he sobbed.

Ellen’s rage and fear and humiliation had not been so easily assuaged. She asked which was the grave of the black-bearded one and spat once there, then stood for a while, staring at the freshly-dug earth with haunted eyes, before making her stumbling way back down the hill to the village. They had found her inside the farmhouse kitchen, scrubbing furiously at dishes, stove, table and floor, grinding away at the blood, the poisonous residue, even their footprints in the dust, until all traces of the men were gone. When Moira suggested they might burn sage and cedar as a cleansing ritual, Ellen smiled for the first time. Like the welcoming smile she’d given the men when they arrived, Moira thought, it had looked more like just the baring of teeth.

Since then, she had been unable to persuade Ellen to come up to the Visitors’ Center for more than a few minutes at a time. She had claimed the farmhouse for her own and spent most of her time just sitting on the porch and looking up the hill, seemingly intent on keeping watch on the cemetery, as though to assure herself that the men would stay safely buried. Joey had at first been confused and wouldn’t leave Ellen’s side. So Moira brought their food down to the old house’s kitchen and had gone back to her daily chores.

But as the spring days went by and Moira continued the work of repairing the winter’s damage to the museum’s buildings and grounds, first Joey and then Ellen as well found ways to occupy themselves in helping with the chores, carrying tools, feeding chickens, and hauling water to the farmhouse for household use. While Ellen still struggled and kept her distance from any but the most basic communication, Joey was quicker to regain his good spirits. Ironically, it was his spirit that began to heal them all, sweetening the days with his merry laugh and comic antics. He’d even helped Moira go through the men’s baggage and tack, crying out only once when he found his father’s watch in one of the men’s saddlebags. She’d insisted he keep it and he carried it everywhere, like a legacy, in his pocket. He’d become the village’s timepiece.

Now, as he stood balancing on a rocky crag, he hauled the watch out of his pocket and announced, “It’s eleven-twenty-three. Ellen says it’s time for you to come on down.” He pocketed the watch, hopped the space between two of the bluff’s jagged teeth and reached out to clutch her outstretched hand. “She’s made lunch for us, and she wants us both there. She says she’s tired of all this moping around. She wants you to come help her work up a list of what needs doing around the place, so she can be a better help. I told her I’d rather go on a picnic, but she ran me off and told me to go fetch you instead.” Joey smiled a toothy smile as he hopped up on the rock next to her and wiggled in place, puppy-like, his humor infectious. Moira grabbed his chin and turned his head to the side so he was looking at the valley floor below, where a gingham-clad figure, wicker baskets at the ends of both arms, had spread a cloth on the grass.

“Looks like she heard you, pal,” Moira said. “We might as well go down and see what she’s cooked up.” She stood, shook out the pins-and-needles feeling in her leg from sitting too long on the hard seat, and followed the boy back down the rough trail that sloped eastward toward the dam below the millpond. Once across the dam, she broke into a sprint, whooping joyfully, daring Joey to race her. He won effortlessly. The two dropped to the grass next to where Ellen had laid out the cloth, Moira heaving and puffing and Joey collapsing in giggles.

“Not so fast,” said Ellen with mock sternness, standing between them and the food. “You go wash up first. I’ll not have heathens at my fine table.” She folded her arms and stared them down, even though Moira argued.

“I’m not sure a wash will change that,” she said. But groaning and muttering, she and Joey stood and walked to the millpond where they bathed faces and arms in the cool water. They walked back across the grass, using shirttails and sleeves for towels.

Ellen shook her head, smiling wryly.

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” she said. Then she stepped aside to show them the spread cloth, where waited sandwiches of roast beef on fresh-baked bread, potato salad, baked beans, and a fat plastic container of sweetened iced tea. “Just a little something I threw together,” she said to Moira’s look of astonishment. Then she clasped her hands together, took a deep breath, and continued.

“I don’t know about you, but I need to be over with this. I woke up this morning and decided I could go on like I was doing and give even more of my life to those worthless expletives, or I could try to remember who I was before all this happened. And I thank you for giving me time to quit feeling sorry for myself. I’m ready to start talking about how we’re going to stay alive long enough to grow old here.” The two women looked at one another for a long moment. Their mouths were smiling and their eyes bright with tears. But neither faltered.

Finally Moira nodded. “Yeah. We do seem to have some time on our hands, and there’s plenty to do here” she said, her voice shaking only slightly. “I could use a hand, that’s for sure.”

Ellen extended hers, Moira took it, they shook hands briefly and turned to the food, went to their knees and filled their plates with some of everything.

Watching Ellen pour frosty glasses of tea for all, Moira muttered, “I see you stole my ice.”

“I did,” Ellen responded. “So arrest me. Oh, wups. No sheriff.”She sat demurely on the grass, plate in her lap and skirts spread around her, looking regal but relaxed. She gazed at Moira pointedly. “So tell us about this place,” she said, using her fork to gesture in a vague circle that took in the long valley surrounding them. “Tell us everything.” So they ate and talked, talked and ate, and when the telling was finished, they put away for a time the experiences of the past month, gathered up the picnic debris, and got straight to work.

The next two weeks were a blur of activity, as repairs to the mill’s roof and spillway were completed using lumber stored in the millwright’s shop. Moira located a half-dozen tall house jacks in the back of the same building and got the barn’s feet under it again, a task made easier by the fact that the barn loft was now nearly empty of hay. That was another matter to be dealt with, but not now. She didn’t have the time or the will to assess the fields and the livestock just yet.

She cleaned the manure out of the barn stalls, got the pickup truck started, and used it to haul the loads of fertilizer to the vegetable garden. There Ellen, with Joey’s help, spread it over the beds and wide rows. Then, using the wealth of implements made for the small tractor and formerly used for mowing and landscaping the museum grounds, Moira plowed, disked, harrowed, and made rows. Then she brought forth the seeds for a number of varieties of beans, corn and squash, the survival food combination called “the three sisters” by Native American farmers, and devoted fully half the garden’s space to them and to all the stored and sprouting potatoes she could find.  She finished off with sowings of early greens. These last she’d have to watch carefully because she had none of their seed stored. These salad greens, all of Asian origin, had been sent as seeds by a friend to test their suitability for Ozarks summers, and whatever new seeds these few plants offered, must be collected if they lived. Nothing could be left to chance. Everything was now irreplaceable. Still waiting in the greenhouse were dozens of seed flats containing all the frost-tender plants — tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and more. The cabbages could be planted, but temperatures were still too much in flux for the tenderer shoots.

One morning Moira exclaimed “Oh, my word!” as she marked another day off the calendar in her apartment. Tomorrow was the first day of May, which, she realized, made tonight May’s Eve, or Beltane. Most folks who were only vaguely acquainted with pagan ritual thought of Beltane, if they knew of it at all, as the time when those evil, devil-worshipping pagans held wild sex orgies, frolicking and coupling in the corn to assure a bountiful harvest. Moira laughed at the thought, and she wondered if her newly-acquired family might run screaming down the hollow if they discovered she had turned into every bit the heathen the bearded men had been trying to stamp out.

But she also knew there was more to this particular celebration, at least for her, than an orgiastic rite of spring. It also marked the celebration of Mary, the Mother of God, in all her many aspects. Mary, whose presence in her own mind through all her rituals had kept her at least marginally sane for the months past.

Moira had felt the hand of the Great Mother on her back ever since that first fateful day when her solitude had been stolen so violently. Her life had been changed forever by the act of taking the lives of those men. It was that holy hand that had given her the way, finally, to come to terms with what she had done. She had spent long days alone, walking in the woods with the shadows of Mary’s wilder aspects –Artemis the Hunter and her sister Athena, the Warrior. She had felt them beside her and Mary’s loving hand on her heart until, at last, she had accepted that there had been no other choice left to her. She had done the only thing possible to protect that which was hers to protect. If she had it to do again, she would do exactly the same.

It really was time, then, to move on, and to celebrate the coming days, whatever they might bring. At whatever cost, this new world had already brought her some of the help she’d asked for, in the form of these new and excellent companions. She stepped out of her apartment and strode down the hill to find Ellen and explain to her what she had in mind. She located Ellen rummaging through boxes of fabric in the large square building that would have eventually become the make-believe village’s general store.

“I’m about the world’s worst seamstress,” Ellen said by way of explanation. “But one of these days we’re going to run out of all the clothing that halfway fits from up at the costume room. Fortunately there are overalls even in Joey’s size. I just thought I should do a little inventory, in case I need to whip up a dress or something. You know, in case there’s a dance.” They both laughed at the unlikely notion. Then Moira mentioned Beltane.

To Moira’s surprise, Ellen had needed no explanations. In fact, she said, she’d been wondering whether the subject might come up on its own or she might have to disclose her own inclinations.

“Those fellows weren’t so very far off when they dubbed me a witch, actually, although I’m not sure I’d actually call myself a true Wiccan. I’m more of an open minded Unitarian, I guess you’d say. I am an herbalist, after all, which is associated very closely with the Craft. And before I moved to the country, I hung out with a pretty diverse crowd that came to our church. Belief in a Christian God was sort of optional, that kind of thing. I was raised Unitarian and I believe in a Higher Power, but not the old guy in the white nightgown, as W.C. Fields would say. If you want to read witch into that, help yourself. I was never part of any coven; I’ve just followed my own leanings. But I’ve studied religion and spirituality pretty widely, and I know about Beltane, although I’m amazed that it’s already here. So just what kind of frolic did you have in mind, anyway?” She grinned mischievously, causing Moira to blush furiously.

“I . . . I don’t know . . . I thought . . . maybe we could have a bonfire and maybe sing a little, or do some small ritual piece or something. Hell, I don’t know … I don’t even know that much about it…” she stammered to a halt and Ellen laughed out loud at her discomfiture.

“Me either.  So I suppose we can just do whatever occurs to us,” she said, still laughing. “There’s no one out here to tell us if we get it wrong, after all. Sure. Let’s do it. What can I do to help?”

“If you’ll put together another picnic, Joey and I’ll drag some limbs down from those windfall trees that need cleaning up anyway, and I’ll build a bonfire. If we get that done this morning while it’s cool, then I can see to mending the corral fence so I can let those new horses out of their stalls. Maybe we could plan on supper about six, with the bonfire after. Does that sound okay?”

“Sounds perfect. I’d planned to spend a while on those herb beds today, so I’ll fire up the stove and get a couple of pies in the oven, and put on a pot of beans or something. If you’re going to be up that way, check the warehouse freezer and see if you’ve got anything resembling smoked sausage or kielbasa. I thought I saw that, or something like it, up there the other day. If I had some sausage, I could make us some version of red beans and rice.”

Moira patted her middle lovingly. “All that and pie, too? Be still, my heart.” She blushed again but was saved by Joey’s arrival. He’d been going everywhere at a run, and today was no different.

The tanned sprite bore almost no resemblance to the shy, pale lad who’d arrived short weeks ago. He skidded to a stop between the two women. “Pie?” he exclaimed. “Did I hear pie? Pie’s my favorite. I must have pie. If I don’t have pie, I’ll die.” He clutched at his chest and fell over backward into the grass. The outburst was so outrageous that the two women laughed out loud.

“Whoa, partner. Don’t expire just yet,” Ellen told him. “The pie’s for supper. It’s not made yet. You’ll have to wait.”

He groaned, shook his head, and said, “I cain’t. I cain’t,” then sank back, feigning unconsciousness.

“Well,” Moira said, still laughing. “along with the pie we were going to have a bonfire, that is if I could find me some good help. But it looks like my good help has just gone and gorked on me.”

Joey opened one eye and looked to see if she was telling the truth. She looked him in the eye and nodded, then sighed. “Of course, without any good help, it’ll probably have to be just a little bitty fire.” She sighed again and started to walk away.

“Wait,” Joey said, his voice sounding weak and far away. “Wait. I b’lieve I’m starting to feel some better. Yes!” he shouted, leaping up. “I think I’m gonna make it. So where we puttin’ the fire, anyway?” He slung his arm about Moira’s waist as she grabbed him gently by the hair. The pair went off skipping, out of step. They were both giggling as they disappeared up the path, with Ellen’s warm smile following them.

The sun was but a faint glow in the west and the crescent moon was following it down when Moira uttered a tired sigh and leaned back. She was sitting in one of the Adirondack-style chairs she’d hauled down the hill in the pickup truck from one of the picnic areas. Ellen was beside her in another. The bonfire was mostly coals now, its only light coming from the occasional blazing up of small sticks as Ellen lazily broke them into pieces and tossed them on the embers. Joey was stretched out on a sleeping bag, watching the stars with one of Sheba’s leggy pups snuggled next to him. He was still trying to decide which dog to choose for his own. The constellations, Moira was relieved to see, were still the same familiar shapes. According to the star chart in the office, however, they were no longer occupying exactly the same places in Earth’s sky. Polaris, the North star, was now located noticeably northwest.

That said, it was still a beautiful night, topping off a splendid evening. After a dip in the millpond and a change of clothes, they’d feasted, given thanks, and stumbled through a few campfire songs contributed by Joey, and all had leapt the fire twice and made wishes. So the celebration of Beltane was judged complete. Moira felt totally sated and at peace. She sighed again. It would be easy to just doze off right here and sleep the night away. But they’d wake up dew-covered and sore, she knew. Better to just call it a night. But she had one more small task to see about. She had let Joey tend to evening chores by himself while she moved the chairs and a picnic table down to their new fire circle. Now she needed to make sure he’d not forgotten anything important, without appearing to mistrust him. She stretched and yawned, then stood. “I think I’ll go down to the house and make sure we turned all the lamps out. Anybody want anything?”

Ellen, knowing of her real errand, smiled and shook her head. Joey’s eyes were closed, his arm raised to cover his forehead as if warding off a blow. She hoped his sleep was dreamless. “I’ll be back shortly,” Moira said quietly and headed off down the slope past the farmstead to the village.

Joey’s work was darn near perfect. He’d forgotten to drop the top latch down on the Percherons’ stall, but they seldom tried their gate, content to doze in the familiar space until morning. She had a last look around, then walked out into the road, surveying the facsimile village before heading back up the hill. She paused and her eyes narrowed. Now, that was strange. There seemed to be a light coming from the shop front where the museum had created a montage of a 19th century small town doctor’s office. She watched in silence. The light moved. Someone was inside. Moira slipped her service piece, a nine millimeter Ruger pistol that she’d carried every day since the arrival of the militia men, out of its holster and levered a round into the chamber. Holding the gun pointing skyward, her index finger lying alongside the barrel, she stepped silently down the grassy lane, stopping to examine every shadow along the museum’s “Main Street.” The set of structures, made to look like the heart of a small village from the 1880s, had still been under construction when the calamity occurred, but several cubicles were already at least partly furnished. She’d been there just the previous day, examining the cobbler’s shop to see if the tools and materials existed to make shoes, or at least moccasins, for Joey’s rapidly growing feet. Now she avoided the board sidewalks and padded silently down the dirt street until she could see where the light was coming from.

“Whuff-hm-hm-hm,” some unidentifiable thing spoke just in front of her.

She started violently, then took a deep breath as she made out the silhouette of a horse standing quietly in the shadow. She stepped closer and made out the form of a saddle, backed by a bedroll and well-filled saddlebags. She was feeling to see if there was a rifle in the boot of the saddle when a hand reached out of the darkness and yanked the gun out of her hand. She whirled, yelling, and struck out with her foot, connecting  with someone’s leg. Better to die fighting than give up, she thought, and threw herself at the shadowy figure. Off balance, they both fell, with Moira on top. She swung and connected again with a face, then a hand grabbed her right arm and held it. She punched with her left and the man yelled an oath. Finally he got hold of her left forearm. She tried to knee him but he rolled to the side, still holding her arms. He made her stand.

“Let go of me, you sonofabitch!” she shouted, fury driving her wild.

“Wait a minute, dammit. Just wait a minute. I’m not trying to hurt you, goddammit. I’m just trying to keep you from killing me. Just stop it for a minute, will you?” She held still.

He took a couple of deep breaths, and let her go. She punched him in the face.

“Shit! All right, goddammit. You asked for it.” The man grabbed her right arm and whirled her around so she was facing away from him, then wrapped both arms around her and lifted her until her feet were no longer touching the floor. “Now will you just quit it and listen to me?” he said.

Just then a light flashed into their eyes and they heard the “snick” of a firearm being cocked. The voice that spoke was Ellen’s but it was colder than Moira had ever heard it.

“You’re the one that better quit it, mister. Put her down and get your hands in the air.”

Moira could feel the man exhale before setting her down gently. She stepped away and turned to look. He was tall, broad-shouldered and tanned, with cocoa-colored hair to his shoulders and green eyes. He looked to be somewhere in his late 30s.  His worn, sweat-stained Stetson hat lay at his feet, below a denim shirt and jeans and high-top laced moccasins. He was beardless, but sported an unwaxed handlebar mustache that covered his upper lip and hung down longer at its ends. He managed a wry grin and shrugged as he spoke.

“I’m damned if I know what I’ve done to get you all so upset. But I’m certainly willing to apologize.”

“What do you call sneaking around at night and assaulting people?” Moira snarled.

“Hey, I wasn’t sneaking around at all. I thought I was by myself down here and I was looking at the doctoring tools to see if there was anything I could use. I didn’t know there was anybody else around. I ain’t seen anybody at all in more than a week.”

“How about jumping someone and taking their gun away,” Moira said, unconvinced.

“Now, ma’am, I don’t mean to offend anybody, but when someone is slipping up on me with a weapon of destruction in their hand, it’s my policy to remove the weapon before anyone gets hurt, although . . . ” He paused and rubbed at the side of his face where Moira had punched him. “It didn’t quite work out the way I planned it.” He sighed and raised his hand to join the other, still held high over his head. “Look. I’m just passing through this valley on my way down to see what’s left of this country. My name’s Glen Truett. My home, or what’s left of it, is up on the Jack’s Fork over toward Winona. I decided while the quakes were still going on that as soon as it got decent weather I’d get out and see what was left, find out who had made it tout alive, and see if I could help get things – anything – back on track again. I’ve not found much until now,” he said, his eyes bleak with the memory of things he was not talking about.

Moira, moved finally by his look of despair, looked at Ellen, who shrugged and lowered her gun but remained watchful.

“So,” Ellen said. “So, who are you? What are you about? What’s your take on all this? Your credo? You some damn militia looter or somethin’?

“What?” He had lowered his hands to chest level, but the question startled him, and he stopped, his face a grimace of disbelief. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you believe in? You got a religion? You a heathen? You think God did all this? You think you’re the new king of the world? What? What do you call holy?” Ellen persisted. She had to know.

The man shrugged. “Life, I guess. Nature. Gaia, the spirit of the earth. I don’t know. I been living out in the woods on my own for a long time, tryin’ to get away from a lot of that stuff. I’m part Osage by blood, so I respect the Native ways. And I read a lot of stuff up there in my cabin, waiting for everything to settle down, trying not to go nuts. But I don’t hold with the fundamentalists. I just never could get those notions into my head. It all sounded made up. And made up by folks who didn’t know much. My daddy decided he was a born-again Baptist when he quit drinking, and that new religion of his caused us just as much heartache as the drink. So I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t go there.”

His eyes questioned Ellen, wondering if he’d said what she needed to know. She returned the look for several heartbeats. Finally, she heaved a sigh and looked across at Moira, who only shrugged. It was Ellen who finally decided.

“Well, Glen, you want some coffee?”

He grinned, then started to laugh without any sound, and the change in his face was remarkable. “More than anything in this world, ma’am,” he said.

The two women led the way up the path toward the farmhouse and met Joey on the path. He had brought a flashlight and guided them, sliding into step with the stranger once they had been introduced and Joey was brought up to date on the circumstances of Glen’s arrival.

“How’d you know Moira was trying to slip up on you?” Joey asked.

“Willy, my horse. He told me,” Glen answered.

“Really?”

“Swear to Goodness.” The horse, walking behind without having to be led, whickered softly, and Glen interpreted with a chuckle. “Now he wants to know if you’ve got an extra bag of oats handy. Later, Willy, after I’ve had my coffee. Okay, partner?” The horse snorted, and Joey’s eyes widened as they walked behind the women up the path.

_________________________

In case you missed them;

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

Chapter 3 – “It Begins”

Chapter 4 – “Beyond Reach”

Chapter 5 – “Come The Dark”

Chapter 6 – “The Devil In The Details”

Chapter 7 – “Unalterable Acts”

_________________________

World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seven: Unalterable Acts

Scratched arms, torn clothing, and a stitch in her side accompanied her as she arrived back at the museum grounds, running all the way. And with every step Moira had been thinking feverishly, examining her options. There was no knowing how much time she had. They would travel more than a mile compared to her scant few hundred yards, and they had been headed toward the river to water their horses when she’d seen them last. But they were coming. Worse. They were coming to loot the museum, to plunder its precious cache of tools and seeds. It could mean the end of things, civilization’s last hopes gone to the hands of craven marauders, terrorists, and so soon. No! She was not, by God, going to let that happen.

As she ran, dodging black haw and greenbriar, wading headlong through vines and brambles, her momentum ripped a path through the tangled understory  filling the steep hollow which at its worst was still the most direct way to the museum. She had already deduced that any kind of frontal assault would be futile. Rifles or shotgun were out – she could not attack them from hiding. That left only her service piece, a .9mm Ruger that was accurate at short range but totally impossible to conceal, and a small .25 caliber pistol, an off-brand “Saturday night Special” inherited from her father, that could fit in her pocket but was accurate about to the length of her arm, give or take. These “militia men” had assault weapons.

Militia men they were, she was sure of it. They had to have come from somewhere within horseback range, and from their language they sounded like the renegade, so-called white supremacists who had gained a reputation in the region as bullies prone to violence. But their compound was far to the west, with miles of rough country between. To her dismay, they had not only survived but had come here with a purpose. Evidently their leaders had seen the chaos created during the past winter as their chance to lay claim to all that was left. Their conversation made it clear they had not come to ask for the seeds but to take them, as they had taken their hostages. Who knew what else they might have already done. And their head man was talking of moving in and staying.

“Over my dead body,” she snarled between clenched teeth, realizing it might be exactly that.

But counting on firepower was out. She would have to stop them another way. And to do that, she had to let them get in close, and convince them she was unaware of their intent – or her peril. How could she do that? Perhaps she should be crazy. That shouldn’t be too damned difficult to pull off.

Her grin was a rictus of pain and defiance as she stumbled in the back door of the center and threw herself at the warehouse doors, which swung open wide and banged against the walls as she passed. She heard Sheba bark from behind her apartment door but didn’t dare respond. Sheba would try to protect her and that would just get herself shot. This would have to be a solo job.

She hesitated, seeing the stacks of boxes, the filled shelves, the well-stocked tool room. If they saw what was here, she was doomed. Stumbling again, gasping for breath, she crossed the warehouse and yanked open the dressing room door. About halfway down was her locker, where she kept the costumes she used to perform in during living-history re-enactments. She threw open its door and put out a hand to steady herself and stop her racing mind and adrenaline-filled muscles. Then off went the uniform shirt and jeans, stopping to pry off her hiking boots. On over the head went petticoats and gingham shirtwaist dress. Tug them down. Tie her hair back with a ribbon. Throw an apron over all, towel her face dry and check the mirror. Transformed, sort of. But for the sweat and scratches, she looked like any old-time farm wife. Could they be persuaded to think she’d just wandered in here and found the place, just another refugee? She’d play her crazy act to the hilt, and maybe they’d let her live. But staying alive wasn’t the issue. The issue was stopping them. And stopped is what they must be. No matter what.

She sat down on the long bench against the wall and pulled her boots back on, thinking furiously. There must be a way.

She could make them a meal and dose them with something. They’d be out long enough that she could tie them up. She was already beginning to smile as her breath suddenly went out in an explosive sigh and she slumped against the wall, grasping the flaw in that plan and any like it. Even tied, they were lethal. They would never be anything else. Not so long as they lived. She could disarm them, but she could not make them harmless. She certainly couldn’t call the sheriff.

She closed her eyes, trying to clear her thoughts, to see if she was missing something. No. They could not be made harmless. And there was no law to appeal to. There was just her. This was the place she had been given to protect, and she was the law. There was no help for it. She was simply going to have to kill them, or die trying.

Moira sat in silence for a long minute. If there were a God in heaven, she was facing a very long eternity. On the other hand, what God would turn these beasts loose on the struggling remnants of civilization? The world they were trying to build was not one where she, or any woman or child or civilized man, could ever live safely.

“No,” she said aloud, shaking her head. There was no choice, or, if there had been, she had already made it. So all that remained were the means. Firepower was not the answer. It would have to be sabotage. And she thought the means for that might be found at the millpond, or, barring that, at the shed where the garden pesticides were stored. Ironic that she’d argued against their use due to the potential of bringing harm to humans. At last resort, they might do exactly that.

There was no more time to waste. She heaved herself upright and was off again at a trot. First stop was the walk-in freezer, where she helped herself to a number of packaged foods pre-cooked for the demonstration kitchen. Into a basket went a round of cornbread, a large portion of bean and beef stew that would fit tidily into an iron Dutch oven, and some stewed tomatoes with chopped onions and brown bread broken up and stirred into them. From a storage bin alongside went a handful of small sweet potatoes to bury in the ashes of the cook fire she would build in the wood cook stove. It was all just good, simple, wintered-over springtime fare of the kind they’d expect. Nothing suspicious.

She left the basket by the back door and went back through the public area to her office, pulled open a bottom desk drawer, and snatched the small pistol from its hiding place, along with a box of shells. At close quarters, or as a last-ditch gambit, it might make the difference, she thought, sliding a bullet into each chamber of the little revolver and checking to make sure the safety was on. She tucked the pistol and a handful of extra shells into the deep side pocket of her dress where it would be covered by the apron, and went back to the warehouse one more time for a can of coffee – and a butcher knife. Then back to the door she went, snatched up the basket, and trotted off down the hill, her gait uneven but determined.

By the millpond she set the basket down again and shielded her eyes from the sun while she peered along the far verges of the water. It should be on the far side, just next to the dam. She spotted it, a withered shrub at winter’s end. but it was not the innocent it appeared. She’d intended to have the hazardous perennial dug out last fall, but the first frost had stopped her before she got someone assigned to the task. The ornamental was dangerous to let thrive adjacent to public areas, although it made an attractive addition to the bluff-side greenery. The problem was, it shouldn’t be here at all. It wasn’t indigenous, for one thing. Some long-ago resident of the hollow had evidently brought the plant in as an ornamental and had put it there at the far edge of the dam so it might escape a killing frost. Of larger concern, it was deadly poisonous.

She held out both hands to balance herself as she crossed the narrow catwalk across the spillway and hopped to the ground on the far side. A few more steps and she was standing before the plant she sought. Only its first tiny leaves were showing, not sufficient for her intended use. But the dried leaves were lethal as well. She rudely chopped at the leafy branches with the butcher knife until she’d knocked the leaves down, then scooped up a hefty measure of last year’s leafy growth, along with several clusters of withered berries. She fingered the leaf shoots. The legendary Oleander, an ancient and treacherous beauty that was deadly to most animals as well as humans. And if the literature was correct, it acted quickly. If she could just get a portion of it down their gullets without poisoning their prisoners, all well and good. She thought how that might be done and smiled a smile that did not reach her cold eyes. She’d make a tea. She wrapped the leaves, berries, and twigs in a cloth, retraced her steps across the dam, and headed for the farmhouse at a run.

The cornbread was in the oven, the potatoes were in the ashes, the pot of chopped leaves and stems was steaming on a back burner next to the bubbling stew and she was replenishing the fire in the wood range with split oak faggots when she heard the whoops and shouts of the men. They must have realized they’d found the museum’s lower gate. “Thanks for the warning, fellas,” she whispered.

Moira paused on the porch and inhaled a great gout of air, twice, then composed herself into the pitiful creature she wanted them to see. Gathering the front of apron and dress in her hands to make running easier, she set off for the gate, which she’d left closed but not locked. Running down the hill, she saw them before they saw her and was almost upon them when she gave a shriek of feigned joy.

“Ayee. Praise God. Thank you, Jesus. Is it you? Is it really my Savior come to take me home? Ah, sweet Jesus, you’ve come for me at last,” she babbled as she ran toward them.

Startled at the sound as well as the sight of her wildly-waving skirts, the horses shied as she’d hoped they might, jostling their riders away from their weapons, making them concentrate instead on keeping hold of their reins and staying upright. She kept wailing and chattering, waving her hands in the air, until the redbearded man, standing in the saddle and wrestling with his dancing palomino, finally shouted her down.

“Good Christ, woman! Shut your mouth. You’re driving the horses crazy. Shut up!” he called this last over his shoulder as his mount circled and reared again.

Moira stopped waving and lowered her hands to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just got so excited. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone. I’m sorry,” she said, hiding her voice behind her hands but continuing to babble. As the palomino turned to face her again, the red-bearded man swung down off his horse. But before he could stop her, she lunged headlong into his arms. Holding him tightly around the waist, she sobbed as though her heart would break. But her tearless eyes peered beneath his arm as she sobbed and met the eyes of the bound woman bringing up the rear of the procession. She leaned, turning Redbeard until his body blocked her from view of the other men but not from the female captive. As the woman came near enough that she could see the horror and fear in her eyes, Moira shifted her head slightly to meet the woman’s gaze head-on and, still clinging tightly to Redbeard, lifted her face so the woman could see her mouthed words. Please, Mother of God, let her understand me, she prayed silently, while her lips formed the words the woman had to hear.

“I know. I know. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Then she had to stop because the gray-bearded man drove his horse between, keeping the women from meeting. But before he did, she saw the woman’s chest rise with a sudden intake of air and her eyes widen, lit with hope. It was the best she could do for now.

Moira bowed her head and brought one hand to her face, hiding her eyes as Redbeard disengaged himself. She drew a rag from her apron pocket and blew her nose noisily before wiping her dry eyes. Then she smiled up at him, hoping he saw gratitude in her face instead of just her bared teeth. “Tell me. Tell me where you’ve come from. How did you find me? Are you here to stay? Will you take me with you when you go? Ah, just talk to me, man. Let me hear voices other than my own.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I will, if you’ll stop your yellin’ and prayin’ and let me get a word in. I take it you’re a good Christian woman. Is that so?”

“God-fearing and baptized right in yon river there,” she said, struggling to remember how the litany went. She’d do better to claim a fundamentalist background than her own liberal Methodist one, but she wasn’t sure she could keep it all straight.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing these wonderful men to my rescue,” she said. She grabbed his arms again and shook them. “You’re the answer to my every prayer. You truly are. But, oh, mercy, I am forgetting my manners,” she said, putting her hands to her face again. “Have y’ all had your supper yet? I’ve got some stew on the fire, just up the hill. Oh, my goodness. Yes. The stew. I’ll need to get back to it before it burns,” she said, turning to go.

His hand shot out and seized her arm in a bruising grip. “Just hold on a minute, missy,” his voice hissed, and for a moment she thought he’d seen through her disguise. But his concern was more for himself. “You sure you’re all alone here?” he asked. “You’re the only one about?”

“Why, of course,” she said, trying not to fight his grip. “I’ve been here a month or more, scared to death the whole time.

“My farm’s just down river, you see, and when the food ran out, and Orville never come back from town . . . ,” she said, letting her fear fuel the catch in her voice. “I had to go somewhere, and I knew they kept food up here. But when I got here, they was all gone. I thought I was the only one left anywhere . . . ”  Her voice broke again as she spoke the truth for the first time, and now there were real tears shining from her eyes.

“Well, you’re not. In fact, you’re one lucky woman. We’re all of us among God’s Chosen. All four of us. You’re among your own again.” She made what she hoped was a joyful exclamation of surprise as the red-bearded man smiled and raised his arm to introduce his three male companions, still mounted, who stared down at her. Beyond them, the woman sat, still tied, and the boy had come forward to cling to her stirrup.

“What’s the matter with them two,” she asked, forcing contempt into her voice. “Did they steal somethin’?”

“Well, she’s a witch. And the boy won’t mind anybody. He’s incorrigible. We’re taking them in to be judged.”

“Witches!” she said and spat on the ground, as in her head she begged forgiveness. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something to do with the cause of all this, if you ask me.”

“I know just what you mean, Sister. Now what’s this I hear about supper? We’ve traveled a long road today.”

“Yes. Mercy, I was wondering why I made so much stew. I thought I was going to have some extra for tomorrow. But, land sakes, I’ve got just about enough to go around.” She glanced hatefully toward the woman and boy. “Don’t know if I’ve got anything fit for them, though. They don’t deserve my good stew. Maybe I can boil up some mush or something for them. Or maybe there’ll be an extra tater or two. I’ll see what I can do.” She turned, gathered her apron and skirt in her hand, and beckoned the men to follow. As they neared the farmhouse, she stopped and pointed toward the barn.

“You gentlemen should find hay and feed and stalls for your horses in there,” she said. “Make the animals comfortable, while I see about dishing up some supper.”

The men dismounted and the black-bearded one walked back to help the woman roughly off her horse. “You can leave them in the barn, too, if you like, and I’ll take something out to them later.” She wanted to get the two prisoners out of the way and have some time to herself to check out her hastily-ordered kitchen.

She got only half her wish. The prisoners were led to the shade outside the barn and made to sit, then their feet were tied and their hands bound behind them. But Redbeard didn’t want her to go off by herself. Despite his friendly manner, he didn’t trust her. Well and good. He shouldn’t. He should be deathly afraid of her, and perhaps somewhere in himself he sensed it. But he wouldn’t, Goddess willing, see his peril as coming from something as innocent as homemade stew.

He watched, arms folded and leaning against the doorway as she set five bowls down from the shelf. She filled one with stew, then stopped, with an exclamation.

“Land sakes, I forgot the spicebush,” she said. She used the lid of the small pot to strain out the solids and poured the poisonous brew into the stewpot as the other three men tramped in from outside and took seats at the kitchen table. She dished up the remaining four bowls of stew, sliced and buttered wedges of cornbread, and dipped up smaller bowls of the breaded tomatoes. But when she began laying place settings, Redbeard leaned forward. “Ain’t you going to eat with us?”

Damn! She put down the last of the knives and walked over to him, placing her hand in the middle of his chest. “I’ll have a bite in a little bit. I’ve got a bowl set aside. But let me get you all served first. You’ve been traveling all day. And, well . . . it’s been such a long time since I’ve served a man . . . I’d like to just enjoy it for a while, if I might.” She smiled what she hoped was a seductive smile and patted his chest, then, feeling the cushion of hair under his shirt, reached a forefinger between his buttons and said, “My, my. Such a furry bear you are.”

Redbeard slid a hand around her waist and drew her to him. “You like furry bears, do you?”

She didn’t have to feign her sudden shortness of breath, only the reason for it. “I do, ever so much,” she said, her voice trembling. “Especially red ones.” Then, as he leaned toward her, reaching to a kiss, she pushed him away gently. “But there’s plenty of time for us to get . . . acquainted, after everyone’s had some supper and gets settled in for the night.” She fluttered her eyes at him. You get to your dinner and I’ll make us all some coffee.” She barely had time to turn her face away from his leering grin before a spasm of disgust shook her. Never mind, she told her body as her teeth clenched in a snarl. Whatever gets the job done. Just do it.

Moira turned back and surveyed the men filling the small farmhouse kitchen, now seated around the laden rough-hewn table. The gray-bearded man was facing Redbeard, and Blackbeard was across from No-beard. Perfect. She urged them to set to. “”Dig in before it gets cold. I’ll have your coffee for you in just . . .” her words ended in a sudden gasp as Blackbeard grasped her buttock in his hand. But before she could speak, Redbeard snarled a curse and Blackbeard’s hand dropped to his side.

“Leave off, Billy. Leave ’er go. Let her see to her cookin’.”

“Well, Gol, what’s with you, John? She yours or something?” There was a long silence, punctuated finally by the black-bearded Billy. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“No matter,” she said. “I understand. You’ve all been away from your women a long time. Just don’t be so . . . rough. All right?”

“Yes’um,” Billy said, abashed. Then there was silence, punctuated only by the scraping of spoons against bowls. Finally, Redbeard said again, “Ain’t you gonna eat?” and she nodded, reaching to pull the untainted bowl toward her.

“You all had enough? There’s plenty here,” she said, looking around the room, bowl in one hand and spoon in the other, trying to make her voice sound friendly, as they all shook their heads that they had. She nodded again and turned toward the stove. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”

A chair scraped back and she turned, seeing Redbeard rise. “I’m going out for a smoke. I’ll check the prisoners while I’m out,” he said and stepped out onto the porch and down the steps into the yard, where the light was beginning to fade. Moira took her bowl and spoon to a small table by the window, where she could observe the men while pretending to season her stew from a crockery tub. Of the three remaining men, two were still cleaning their plates while Graybeard slowly sat back from the table, a pipe in one hand and a small cloth pouch in the other.

Suddenly Davy, the beardless one, coughed, then made a strangling sound. “God,” he said, “I feel sick.” He tried to stand but retched suddenly and bent forward. “Oh, God,” he cried again. “Mama?” and fell forward, sprawling across the table.

“What the hell?” Graybeard said, staring in astonishment and clutching his pipe and pouch. He looked at Moira, then at Blackbeard, who was staring at the top of Davy’s head, which had landed in the bowl of stewed tomatoes and looked bloody. Suddenly Blackbeard’s eyes widened and he gathered himself as if to stand. Instead he roared in pain, reaching toward Moira with outstretched arms and fists that clenched and unclenched. His teeth snapped shut and he snarled, trying again to rise. Somewhere halfway through the movement he stopped, and, like a toy winding down, sank slowly back into his chair, head arching backward until it, and he, could go no farther. Then he was still.

“Youuu . . . you bitch! You – you’ve poisoned us,” Graybeard’s voice rasped as pipe and pouch hit the floor. He was groping for his gun when his breath caught in his throat. He struggled for air, but when his breath came out at last, in a rasping groan, his head fell forward and he did not breathe again.

Moira stood, transfixed at the grisly scene before her, but her head snapped up as heavy footfalls crossed the porch. Her breath came out in an explosive rush as the red-bearded man strode through the doorway and stopped, incredulity in his face and the burnished steel of an assault rifle in his hand. They stared across at each other, then Moira looked away, to the table, where his bowl of stew sat, untouched.

She closed her eyes and sighed, defeat evident in the sag of her shoulders.

“I knew there was something about you that wasn’t right,” Redbeard said. “You were too glad to see us. And you weren’t afraid. But why? Why…this?” he asked, gesturing with the rifle at his fallen comrades.

“I saw you coming. You were treating that woman and child like cattle. And you were going to steal the seeds. I couldn’t let that happen. They’ll be needed if people are to survive.”

“But, Good Christ, woman! The seeds were ours by right. We’re the Chosen. Those seeds belong to us. We’re the ones meant to rule the world to come.”

His gun was hanging in his right hand as he raised his left toward the heavens. He was shaking his head, as if any view of the world to come other than his were inconceivable.  It was now or never. But she couldn’t let it end without answering him.

“No,” she said, raising her left hand, making a fist except for the straightened index and pinky fingers, which made the sign of horns, for rejection, for sending evil back upon itself. “It will not be as you say” She spit the words out deliberately. “Not so long as I can do or say otherwise. The world of take and wreck and ruin is dead. Those who rule this world must earn it.” And while the red-bearded man stared at the sign in her hand, confused, she put her other hand in her dress pocket, raised the nose of the pistol that she hoped would shoot true, flicked off the safety with her thumb, and pulled the trigger. His head jerked only a little, as if startled, and he gazed at her in puzzlement as a flower blossomed in his forehead. She’d shot high, but it would do. She stood calmly, meeting his gaze until she saw the light go out of his eyes and his knees begin to buckle. By the time he hit the floor, she was headed out the door, running toward the barn where the prisoners waited.

____________________

In case you missed them;

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

Chapter 3 – “It Begins”

Chapter 4 – “Beyond Reach”

Chapter 5 – “Comes The Dark”

Chapter 6 – “The Devil In The Details”

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Next Chapter

World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Six: The Devil in the Details

Moira was sprawled atop a bluff in the sunlight, gathering greens. As the weather warmed and the awful winds continued to subside, there was occasionally a sunny day. She meant to make the most of this one. She was foraging for early wild edibles, the kind from which the traditional Ozarks “spring tonic” was made. High above the river bottom beyond the park, she had bet the herbs would take advantage of every second of sunlight, and she was right. She’d left Sheba behind along with her band of rowdy half-grown pups, as the whole pack was too hard to manage and still get anything done. They so loved a romp, and she’d locked them all outside early this morning while she finished greenhouse chores. Those had to be meticulously done, as she’d replaced the beds of overgrown lettuce with flats of newly seeded garden vegetables that she hoped to transplant soon to the farmstead garden down the hill. The lettuces were now being enjoyed by the few surviving chickens and the four-legged livestock. But she wanted something fresh for herself.

She was stretched almost to her full length reaching to seize a prize, a clump of tender fiddleheads, the early shoots of the bracken fern. She hooked her foot around a small sapling to keep from going over the edge. She’d already collected salad makings of rocket and sheepshire. These tender but sturdy shoots that nestled in a sheltered, sun-washed pocket in the rocks would add bulk as well as vitamins to her nutrient-starved diet. Greenhouse fare had kept her going but it was stronger medicine she was after now. She would add the coiled shoots to another belt pack that already contained violets in leaf and flower and a bag of redbud blossoms.

She was humming to herself but stopped when she thought she heard a noise, a metered clopping sound almost like hoof beats coming from far up the old road. The morning mist still hung over the dirt track that ran along the base of the bluff and on toward the lower museum gate. Lightly traveled in previous years and untraveled by humans at all since the first quake, the track was now weed-grown and dim, the few ruts marked by standing water from last night’s rain. Probably another stray horse looking for a herd to join, she thought. She’d been taking in strays of all kinds in the past months, all of them the four-legged kind except for a couple of chickens.

Here next to the river the awful winds of the past winter had not created so much havoc; fewer trees were down, and the road was still passable for as far as she could see. She’d not come by road or by horseback but had hiked up and over the ridge separating Pigeon Hollow, out of which Falling Spring flowed, from the Eleven Point River valley and the stream into which the spring’s waters emptied. The old-timers’ spring tonic of wild potherbs to augment a diet of canned goods and lettuce past its prime had provided the excuse for some brisk exercise and a welcome change of scene.

Perhaps next week, if the good weather held, she might venture out this way in her truck to see if she could reach a main road. She was not hopeful. For more than three months the radio and TV had remained silent, and nothing but dead air and static had answered her calls on Steven’s ham-radio set. Steven had not returned to the museum as he’d promised, nor had anyone else appeared. She wondered if anyone within traveling distance was still alive. If the whole ham radio operator network was out, it could only mean that the disaster was as widespread as she feared and of catastrophic proportions. She knew that base stations had to be pointed in the right direction to pick up another base station’s signal. But she should be picking up something off satellite, unless . . . unless the planet had actually moved from the plane of the ecliptic, had somehow rolled partway over, or done something else equally unimaginable.

With one of the tiny computers she’d found a set of instructions to calibrate the unit to find a satellite, but that would only give her a library, not a source of current events, so she hadn’t tried it. More sorting and unpacking had revealed more parts of Rudy’s “stash,” some still mysterious and some just humorous. A small, square package had poured forth dozens of the storage units, half flash cards and half jump drives, some empty and others full of unknown information. One large tube had contained a mile or more of mirror-finish mylar film. Another, fortunately opened early in the search, revealed, of all things, two seedling coffee trees. They must have thought they were stocking the Ark, she thought with a grim chuckle.

“They should have thought to send two of me,” she muttered.

She still had no way of knowing what was happening in the world outside. She supposed if the world were ending, more evidence would appear soon. But what she’d seen so far wasn’t all that horrific. True, there had been those weeks of black, roiling clouds, and that terrible wind that seemed to go on forever, and there was a haze in the sky night and day now. Moreover the April weather didn’t seem quite as warm as April should be. But the sun was out, and things were up and growing. So hope had not entirely faded.

On the other hand, she was in the middle of a continent, well-protected from what had been predicted as the worst of possibilities. And if the damage and destruction was as bad and as widespread as she imagined from those last days of television reception, then rescue could still be weeks or even months away.  Her thoughts roamed far afield as she snapped off the fiddleheads and stuffed them in her pouch,

She heard the measured clopping sound again, but the wind came up and it went away. She shook her head. Now it sounded more like a couple of horses. Or cows. She wouldn’t be surprised. As the winds had calmed, stray domestic animals had begun wandering in from who knows where, seeking herd or master. At first she had hoped some human would also come wandering in – perhaps a Forest Service worker or game warden, even a neighboring farmer in search of his cows. But so far it hadn’t happened. She continued to put out hay for the cows and horses and now also for an old ewe with her pair of lambs who had taken up residence. She still threw a little corn to the chickens, who wandered at will. The cattle herd had actually increased to about a dozen with the assortment of beef and dairy cows who’d come wandering in and settled with her loyal brood, and she was up to about a dozen horses. She had seen no sign of the pigs.

Sometime this spring, if the weather held, she would have to begin putting in crops, not just to feed herself but to keep the livestock through the winter to come. Fortunately, the grass hay from the museum-owned fields along the river had been put up in large round bales wrapped in plastic and stored out of sight of the museum’s public areas, so she would have a cushion against dry weather and her inexperience. She rejoiced every day that among her many purchases last autumn had been fresh stocks of grains and grass seed for the seed vaults. On her mind at the time had been the potential need for extra against drought, bad weather, or other potential causes of crop failure. Though she hadn’t at the time known a cataclysm was coming, she’d paid particular attention to laying in new varieties of open-pollinated heirloom vegetable seed for the kitchen garden and traditional grasses, corns, and legumes for the fields.

As she waited for the expected cows to show themselves, she thought it unfortunate none of the animals in her care had opposable thumbs, for she could use the help. In a sheltered spot outside the greenhouse, more varieties of fruit trees delivered late last fall still awaited transplanting to their new homes around the compound – a daunting task for one woman, even if it were the only work to be done. But it was difficult to even imagine the effort it might take to provide food for the entire menagerie — it seemed overwhelming, even with the tools at hand, including horse-drawn rakes, plows, and harrows, and the horses to pull them. In truth, there was only one team really trained to pull, and another halfway there. Most of the rest were an unknown quantity. If only she had a few more pairs of hands, she thought, the work would seem less impossible. Even the gathering of wild and domestic herbs for food and medicine sometimes seemed futile. But she had no one else yet to rely on, and she must do everything she could to assure her own survival.

In these past months, left too long alone with her thoughts, she had come to see the importance of the resources in her care in a different light. She’d come to understand just how critical they might be for humans who intended to survive into the future. Nowhere within several hundred miles existed such seed stocks. The  Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, if they survived, would be one possible source, although their stores would have been managed with more attention to variety than to quantity. And there was the Seed Savers project in Iowa. Closer by, there had been a little place in Brixey, over in Ozark County. If they had survived.

Without open-pollinated seeds, even if people survived the obvious ravages of climate chaos, they would not be able to grow anything approaching an adequate supply of food beyond one or two seasons. When hybrid varieties began to revert to their parent varieties, production of edible foods would diminish dramatically. Of course, not all hybrids reverted and some isolated organic or traditional farmers here and there would have been saving their own favorite vegetables and grains.

But how many of them had survived? And how many mouths could they feed while trying to grow out supplies of extra seed for themselves and others? Given the possibility that no more than a few were still around, she observed, the whole question might be moot. Either way, it was just too soon to tell. And without information coming from beyond this valley, she might not know for a long time. She sat up and pulled herself back from the edge, her thoughts focused too much on the larger situation to pay attention to fiddleheads or to keeping her balance on this high ledge.

She heaved a great sigh and stretched out on her side, facing the roadway. Better to gather herbs, catch a few fish, do what she could each day, and let the Great Mother see to the rest. No doubt She had enough on Her hands these days seeing to Her many creatures and Her own dear self without attending to the worries of one stray, carping daughter whose needs for food and shelter were so amply met. Besides, this lonely daughter had been down this particular road too many times already. She placed her palm flat to the earth, in a spontaneous gesture of reverent thanks for the recently calmer days, and started packing up her bounty, getting ready for the long hike home.

The hoof-beat sounds continued to draw nearer. She peered in the direction of the sound but couldn’t see any movement. Cows? No. Horses. Definitely horses, and several of them. It was probably the band of young Morgans she’d released a few months back. Half-wild, they had come and gone frequently from the farm compound in past weeks, torn between exploring and seeking a ready supper. Lately they had been accompanied by another young equine, a slim-withered orphaned horse colt who loped along behind the sturdy Morgans, but with a distinctive gait, possibly a  Foxtrotter.

She stood up to see better. Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she uttered a strangled cry. It was not only hoof beats she was hearing, she realized. She would almost swear she heard voices, as well. She drew a breath, preparing to shout. But then, almost against her will, her hand moved to cover her mouth tightly, stifling any call she might have made. She had no idea who was coming, she told herself fiercely, as her mind warred with itself. It could be salvation; it could be scoundrels. Better to find out, she decided, before whoever it was spotted her. She lowered her body into a crouch and moved along the bluff’s edge to where there was a gap in the greenery and she could see the roadway clearly for some distance without being seen.

At first she was so relieved she wanted to cry. The mounted figure that appeared round the bend in the road, except for his curly red beard, was dressed military-style, outfitted in what appeared to be full desert camo, with a carbine slung over his shoulder. Instead of military gear for his sturdy palomino horse, however, the horse bore a standard Western saddle, complete with lariat, saddlebags, and a large bedroll. Of course, rescuers would use whatever was available, she reasoned. But still she did not reveal herself .

“Paranoid,” she whispered to herself.

Then the second man hove into view and she was glad she’d stayed put on her sheltered perch. He also was outfitted in quasi-military garb, but had added an outlandish headdress of vivid hue. He was still too far away to see exactly what his headgear was made of, but it was not, she was certain, military issue. This man was smaller than the one who preceded him and narrower in the shoulders. He, too, sported a full beard, though his was dark and grizzled. On the roan horse’s rump, behind the saddlebags and bedroll, was what looked like a duffel bag packed very full. It bobbed from side to side as the horse picked its way delicately along the rutted trail.

The third man was hardly a man at all, thin to the point of scrawniness and with only a trace of beard. His headgear, a felt hat with much ornamentation, was no less unusual than that of the man who preceded him, and his military-style clothing was ill-fitting and torn. The gear he carried seemed an awkward assortment of boxes and bags roped together. His horse, however, was a beauty, a tall, high-stepping chestnut-colored Tennessee walking horse. Unfortunately the horse and rider appeared to be ill-matched in more than looks. As the horse rounded the bend and came up on its fellows, it shied at a low branch waving in the breeze and started sidestepping, going off the trail and turning in a full circle before resuming its place in line. The youthful rider struggled to gain control and unleashed a torrent of oaths, while the leader of the group turned to watch.

“You wanted that beast so bad, Davy,” the man called. “Now get a hold on him or I’ll give him to someone who can.”

The young man snarled a reply, which proved a mistake. Before he could get himself firmly seated, the lead rider dug his heels into the palomino’s flanks and was on the boy. The palomino whirled to ram its body sidelong into the taller horse as the red-bearded man stood in his stirrups to reach the youth with his right arm. The quirt in his hand sliced through the air with a hiss to lash at the boy’s face. The blow was blocked by the boy’s raised clenched fists as he struggled with the reins. A trail of crimson marked its passage across the backs of his ungloved hands and in a cut on his cheek, but he made no outcry.

“That tongue of yours is going to get you killed someday, Davy, if I don’t do it first,” the red-bearded man snarled, dug his heels into the palomino’s sides again, and resumed his place at the head of the column.

Almost unnoticed in the fray, a fourth man came into view on the trail, this one the biggest of all, wide-shouldered and black-bearded, his camouflage shirt ripped at the sides and laced together, the sleeves cut out to reveal a grimy white T-shirt beneath. Wherever they’d acquired their military dress, there had apparently been none large enough to fit him. The roughly-fitted shirt was held in place at the shoulders by the straps of bib overalls. Only the tips of his cob-soled boots fit into his stirrups, making the massive man appear to be riding on tip-toe. This last man held the reins of his sad-faced gray horse with one hand, while the other reached backward to pull the lead rope of another horse, this one apparently the group’s pack animal.

But no. Again Moira’s hand had to stifle a cry. There was a woman on the horse but she was not a member of the company; that was certain. Her head was bowed, her body swayed as though she could barely keep herself from falling, and her hands were bound by a rope that passed around her middle, holding her arms tight against her sides. Her clothing was ragged and in disarray. Tied to the cantle of her mount was yet another rope, this one towing a small boy, tied at the wrists, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He stumbled along wearily at the rear of the column. Moira’s hands clenched at the ugliness before her. Whoever these men were, they were no rescuers. They were bandits, perhaps, or worse. Surely she must do something, but what?

The red-bearded leader had passed directly below the outcrop where she lay concealed when he held up his hand, signaling a halt. The trail, narrow to that point as it threaded its way through the forest, opened onto a small meadow that extended several hundred feet to another bend in the road. Beyond that bend and another, little more than a mile away, was the lower entrance to the museum. Could this be the group’s destination? Moira leaned forward, listening intently.

“Let’s take a rest here, brethren,” Redbeard said. “I need another look at the map.” It was easy to see who called the shots in this group.

The second rider, whom she dubbed “Graybeard,” was alongside the first in a flash, swinging down from his horse before the leader could dismount and hurrying to hold the palomino’s bridle while the red-bearded man stepped to the ground and retrieved a much-folded document from his saddlebags.

The youth, whom Moira was already beginning to think of as “No-beard,” stopped some little distance away, dismounted, and occupied himself in tying the reins of his recalcitrant beast to a sturdy low-hanging tree limb. The animal uttered a high whinny, sidled away and gave the boy a wide-eyed look. He may or may not have been a decent rider, but the horse wasn’t used to him, and obviously didn’t like what he’d seen of the young man so far.

The fourth man, who might as well be Blackbeard, Moira decided, reined in his horse behind the other two and dismounted quickly, looping his horse’s reins over a branch before hauling in the lead rope on the woman’s horse. As she came alongside, he reached up, grabbed her around the waist, and dropped her unceremoniously. As her feet hit the ground she nearly fell but he put out an arm to steady her.

He pointed to a nearby fallen log where she might sit. “Rest while you can, witch woman. We’ll soon be to this mill storehouse, or whatever it is, and you’ll have plenty to do.”

She struggled with her bonds as he reached to free the boy’s rope from the saddle. The boy was hanging back, the rope still taut between his hands and the saddle. “Can you at least untie my hands so I can see to my needs?” she asked, her voice hard and bitter. “It’s not like I’d have anywhere to run to out here.”

The man grinned. “I don’t think you’ll run, because I won’t have to chase you.” He jerked on the rope tied to the boy’s wrists, causing the youth to fall. “You know this little devil’s mite wouldn’t live a minute past your going, don’t you?” He knew the answer to his question. “I wouldn’t come after you. I’d just cut his ugly little throat. Want to try me and see?” He gave the rope another jerk, and the boy, who was trying to regain his feet, fell forward again, this time landing with his chin in the dust. The woman struggled to reach the boy but Blackbeard kept hold of the rope around her waist and pulled her to him instead, forcing her backside against his belly as he bent his knees, then straightened, rubbing himself up against her. “Besides, witch, it’s your turn to keep me warm tonight. You wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?” The woman uttered an oath and continued to struggle until he laughed and cuffed her. “Hold still, and I’ll free your hands. You see to yourself and the boy, and I’ll watch.” He laughed again, a low guttural sound.

Moira recoiled from the scene, knowing she should do something to help the woman. But any effort of hers, weaponless, would serve for nothing except to place herself in equal danger. She kept silent and forced herself to watch as the woman, still bound around the arms by the looped rope, helped the boy to his feet and led him to some bushes where they could at least have the illusion of privacy. First she stood between the boy and his captors, her back to him, so he could relieve himself. Then they did turnabout, suggesting they’d been forced to suffer this solution more than once. Moira shifted her attention to Redbeard, who was standing almost directly beneath her, showing Graybeard something on the unfolded sheet of paper. He appeared to be studying a much-used topographical map.

“It should be right up this next hollow here, where it shows the road leaving the river and going up,” Redbeard said, pointing to the spot on the map and then to the river’s bend.

“How do you know it’s the right road?” Graybeard asked, his voice a tenor whine. “I don’t see any museum marked on there.”

“That’s because it’s an old map, doofus,” Redbeard returned, his tone sarcastic. “What it does show, however, is Falling Spring, right there smack in that hollow. That’s where the museum is. My cousin Ed, God rest his pitiful soul, told me about the place just last year. Said they had every tool you could imagine from the pioneer days. And all the old breeds of stock. And seeds out the ass. We find that place and our worries are over. We can set up our own group over here, go out and find us a few more servants for the Lord’s chosen,” he said, gesturing toward the woman and the boy, “and live like the kings of old, Randall.”

“I don’t think Father Lowell will like that, John,” Graybeard said. “He wanted you to just come over here and bring back tools and whatever scavenge you could find. I don’t think he meant for the Chosen to be putting up new settlements out here in these woods. Besides, it’s damn spooky down here in all these twisty little hollows. I don’t like it.”

“Jeezy-Crow, Randall,” the redbearded man said between his teeth, exasperation making his face red, too. “Every damn thing spooks you. It’s about all I can take, having to travel clear across country just to find what we need, and provide leadership, and all the while having to drag this bunch of sissies and crybabies along. Next time, just stay home,” Redbeard said. He turned to his saddlebag and re-packed the map. “Now let’s get these horses watered and get on our way. We should be able to make the place before night. Maybe we’ll surprise somebody and help ourselves to their supper, huh?” He laughed, slapped the graybearded man on the back, hard, and walked a few feet away before unzipping his fly and urinating on a tree. He laughed again when he saw the woman and child staring at him in disgust. “Want some, witchwoman? You’ll have to wait. It’s Becker’s turn tonight.” All the men guffawed at this, even Davy, snorting a laugh through his acne-scarred nose as he tried awkwardly to remount the uncooperative horse.

Moira had seen enough. Behind the bluff’s edge, the ground dropped away into a shallow depression that led away south over the ridge to Pigeon Hollow. With luck and a little stealth, she could make her way back unseen. Falling Spring was these marauders’ target, she realized, and she didn’t know what to do. First, though, she must get away without being discovered. She crouched lower behind the outcropping and moved silently away. A dozen steps and she would be invisible from the trail. But one of those steps dislodged a rock. The men stopped. A stone’s throw away from Moira, a squirrel ran up a tree and began chattering an alarm. The men laughed, assuming it was they who were being alarming. They turned off the road and headed down toward the river. They did not see the silent woman above them as she slipped away from the bluff’s edge and out of sight. Not just she and their prisoners, but the museum, and perhaps the future itself, were in dire peril. She had to stop them. But how?

_________________________

In case you missed them;

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

Chapter 3 – “It Begins”

Chapter 4 – “Beyond Reach”

Chapter 5 – “Come The Dark”

_________________________

 

Chapter 7 – “Unalterable Acts”

World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Five : Comes The Dark

The storm, if that’s what it could be called, lasted a couple of months. It wasn’t constant, but almost so.  Over time there seemed to develop an odd pattern to the chaos. Fierce lightning. Howling, destructive winds. A turbulent, roiling darkness, with just enough change in density to separate day from night. Short, unreliable respites at dawn and dusk when the winds would slow and almost stop. And like a clock, a dreadful, wrenching trembling as if the earth were tearing itself apart that recurred with terrifying frequency.

It wasn’t until late in January – Moira would never be able to mark the exact date – she began to take notice of a new change in the light, a slight lessening of the overall torment. It was one of those random moments when her terror subsided enough to hold onto a rational thought. But nothing, including thought, could persist in this relentless cauldron of change.

She was now trying to determine if the sun was actually coming up in a slightly new and very wrong direction. The evidence had presented itself on one of those infrequent days when the sun had made a brief appearance in a position near the horizon. It had been a rare sight in past weeks, and even when visible it seemed to peek out furtively, battered and bleeding, burning redly through the ink-black heavens.  The roiling darkness that had replaced the normal winter sky resembled smoke from oil-field fires, only high and far off and carrying no scent on the frigid wind.

Moira had been attempting to count the days or at least the day-long periods of dim light that had regularly punctuated the darkness for more than a month. She wondered if the polar shift or magnetic storm or whatever rumor gleaned from fitful ham radio bursts had actually proved correct. Not that the exploding caldera at Yellowstone wouldn’t have been enough. She had heard through those ham operator conversations, that the fly-by dark planet may have altered course;  had actually struck the earth; that the earth had tipped off its axis or out of its orbit … and on. Doom after improbable doom was offered in a desperate attempt to make sense of unimaginable events. She doubted if anyone knew exactly what had happened except perhaps the folks on the International Space Station, and they, too, had gone silent. She wondered if the villain, whatever it was, had yet done its worst.

Ten days into the new year had been about the last time she remembered hearing a radio broadcast before the regular radio stations went dead. Before that, from shortly after the first quake, the news had been horrific both far and near, with reports of vast areas of land around the Pacific rim breaking up and sinking, whole islands disappearing in the Pacific, and Texas, my God, half of Texas eaten away, along with most of the Mexican Gulf shore. Greenland had apparently shaken off the remainder of its icy skin and, along with Iceland, was alight with volcanic fire. Everywhere, it seemed, civilizations were crumbling under the weight of massive environmental onslaught, with whole areas of the United States and the world simply gone silent. The government itself had clung to life only briefly before it was completely overwhelmed and had stopped issuing bulletins or warnings. The President had urged calm and had begged God’s forgiveness and his people’s pardon for being unable to offer more help. Then he, too, had been replaced by faint static and then silence. There had been no mention of a Christmas parade.

That had been about three weeks ago. There had been only a slight let up in seismic activity since, although few tremors matched that first jolt. The weather was less kind, offering nothing approaching normal. No rain or snow, just increasing darkness and howling, bitterly cold winds with only the small pauses at dawn and dusk, beginning soon after that the last conversation with Rudy Juarez, and unceasing since.

Moira braced herself as yet another tremor made the trees shiver and the rocks groan. She felt like she was in a war zone, constantly under attack. No, she thought suddenly, pushing the thought away. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t about her, but trust some random, lonely human to take it personally. It was the whole planet that was under attack from what seemed now to be mostly self-inflicted wounds. Mother Earth. Her earthly home, and the home of all life, of everyone she knew and loved, every living thing was at the brink of destruction or past it. It was a place her imagination simply could not go.

Still she couldn’t keep her mind from the circuitous questions that had replayed each day since this havoc had begun. What was really happening out there in other places, to people she cared about? How bad was it? Where and how were her family? Her friends? Were any of them still alive? Was it this bad everywhere? Was it worse? Had anyone else survived? And, most important, when might it end? Or would it?

But though she could articulate many questions, there wasn’t a soul anywhere offering answers. Electrical power was inexplicably still flowing from the center’s power plant. But there were no radio or television stations broadcasting on any frequency she could find. The land line, her cell phone, and the satellite telephone had all gone dead. Panicked by her inability to communicate with the outside, she had searched for and found Steven’s small short-wave ham radio outfit and had for a week or more satisfied her hunger for a human voice by probing the dial for distant messages. But before she could figure out how to use the transmitter for messages of her own, to call for help or to inquire about her home and family, the unit had stopped working, or at least had stopped receiving a signal. Perhaps there were no longer any operators broadcasting anywhere within its range, another possibility that didn’t bear thinking about.

Feeling desperate, she had tried the unit one more time and heard a voice. Quickly she had adjusted the tuning and turned up the volume. But the voice was not speaking English, and the message it was repeating in a tired and frightened voice was not being answered. Then the voice had quavered, static overtook it, and it was gone. She wondered if it was the last human voice, other than her own, she would hear. For her sanity’s sake, it was time to stop listening.

Her CD player still worked, but she began avoiding any music with lyrics. She believed she might go mad from sheer loneliness. For she knew she could be, by fluke of her unique location, the last surviving human.

Then one morning she saw the winter sun rising redly and wide, in a direction that was, to her recollection, due east, instead of east-northeast, where it should have been at midwinter. For several days the impossibility of this phenomenon didn’t fully register, and when it did, she wondered if madness had finally arrived.

She was alive but very possibly insane, a notion she accepted with an odd calm. It was a  curious place to be, insanity being, in these circumstances, defined as a sane reaction to experiences that, while seeming almost normal by now, were wholly outside any reality she had ever known. Yet where she ought to have run screaming with terror into the night or thrown herself from a cliff, she was instead fascinated, mesmerized by this bizarre new world. Her senses overflowed with experiences so forceful, so unnatural and yet so impossibly real, that she sometimes stopped whatever she was doing to sit and stare for hours, held in the thrall of the unearthly noises on the wind, the constant trembling of the planet’s skin, the roiling sky in which lights flickered but no birds flew.

There were days in the past weeks when she had been captivated by the noises alone, sounds of a world that seemed in its death throes, with each moment a changing note in a bone-jarring cacophony. From nowhere and everywhere, the earth’s cries filled the air, now in a rumbling bass, now in sharp staccato. At times she wondered if she had somehow stumbled into a new dimension, one containing a fundament gone to jelly and chaff, which incidentally seemed bent on trying to remove itself from beneath her feet at frequent and random intervals. And above all there were the incessant, horrific storms, hail-filled skies and shrieking, twisting nightmare winds that continued to batter and scour the ridge tops to rubble – a devil’s symphony that held her in its trance until she forgot that such a condition was called shock, and she wondered what the information flooding her senses might mean. Was the very earth out to kill her? She didn’t know. It hardly mattered. All things seemed equally possible.

Still, this citadel of earth-covered concrete where she took shelter remained intact. Daily she rallied from insanity long enough to thank its maker and to devise a set of increasingly important rituals – and do the chores, of course.

Small scraps of control held her back from the edge. She worked out a routine to keep her days in order of a sort. Upon waking, she would put on water for tea, measure finely ground corn meal from the mill into a pan of cold water and set it on the electric stove. She would stir until it thickened, feed herself and the dog, who she decided to call Sheba, and begin her morning meditations while Sheba stood watch.

The same quake that had thrown her favorite ceramic teapot off the shelf and shattered it had unearthed a book, a gift from one of her alternative friends and written by a woman named Starhawk. It was called “The Earth Path.” She began reading, finding words that didn’t necessarily clarify what was happening, but gave her small things to do that eased her fears. She soon learned the words for simple ritual-making. That in turn caused her to read more, to rediscover long beloved tomes by writers as disparate as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh. Some days afterward, while rearranging her belongings again after a particularly strong shock, she found a card with a verse in it attributed to some ancient Druidic order, called “The Litany of the Earth Mother.”  For some reason, it spoke to her in a very personal way. She altered it somewhat to make it seem a personal message from her deepest self, and began adding it to her own litany of sacred words..

From her experience in a field that had mixed science with hidebound Puritan culture and almost totally peopled by men, she had already been looking a bit askance at the notion of an infallible God of her Fathers even before the world ended, she thought. Now such notions as those offered no comfort at all. In these strange days when the very substance of things seemed tossed asunder, she yearned for something to bring her literally to ground. She simply hadn’t the strength to invest in a far-off, obviously uninvolved heavenly presence, especially one that had elected to lob a stray planet at her earthly home. In these days when the Earth itself needed such healing, why not call out instead to the God, or Goddess, on whose uneasy belly she was tossed, and by whose breath she was blown to the far corners of her courage. Or so she reasoned, if reason it could be called.

In any event, each morning, after a moment of silence to move her thoughts away from panic, she lit a candle, knelt on a cushion before an altar she’d built out of objects, some from nature and some from gadgets made precious by what they symbolized to her — a broken clock, a vial of spring water, a key — folded her hands and began her prayers. She did not ask a heavenly presence to save her. Instead, she began in a spirit of gratitude, voicing the powerful imagery of the Litany, calling to the Mother of All and struggling to find peace in Her presence:

O Earth My Mother.

Thou of uncounted names and faces,

Thou of the many-faceted Nature in and above All,

All Love and Life fulfilled;

Look with favor upon this humble, precious place,

Grace me with Your Conscious Presence, Remind me of your Love,

Inspire and infuse me with Your Power;

By all the names by which You have been known,

Earth, my Mother, hold me close.

And so the days passed, the winds howled,  the ground trembled and quaked, and she kept to her rituals and held on, as best she could, to her senses. The solid, certain presence of Sheba brought her an odd calm. Sheba was not only female but had been pregnant, which is probably why she’d wandered off from her people in the first place. Now there was a pile of week-old puppies in a box by the heater. The dog stayed inside while Moira did the chores and the walk down the hill to attend to the livestock became lonely again.

One day while she was descending the hill, the wind threw an oak branch that crashed to earth where she had stood only an instant before. She took it for an omen. A person could get killed out here. Worse, they could be almost killed, and left to die slowly and alone.

She resolved that day to free the livestock once and for all, and in doing so free herself from the treacherous daily hike. They’d been happy enough to return to their pens after the sky darkened and the winds grew vicious. But they needed to be able to get back out if she became disabled or worse. She didn’t really know if this was a good idea or even a sane one. But it was the only idea that seemed sensible and that offered everyone, including her, the best chance at survival.

She swung open the chicken house door. They’d have to take to the trees to be safe, but there was ample forage if the feed ran out before she returned. She’d be back to check on them when weather permitted. She filled their feeders, emptied the nests, left the door open and moved on. The cows were still in their stalls, waiting to be fed. She worked out the logic of it in her head as her hands put their food outside the stalls in places out of the weather, and set them free.

She opened the horse stalls, put down some food, threw back the huge barn doors and took down the gates that opened into the wheat fields and lower pastures. It was not as important now to save the winter wheat crop as it was to give the animals access to some kind of reliable forage they could get to without her help. She freed the pigs but left the door to their shelter propped open. They were smart, they would figure it out, she thought as she poured grain into an improvised self-feeder that would keep them going until they got to the woods and discovered acorns. Then she closed and locked the granary door to keep the improvident horses from foundering. But she left open a high window in case the chickens or the small crew of barn mice that fed the barn cats needed a bit of extra protein.

Some of the beasts, such as the yearling horses, fled their enclosure immediately, surging in panic or exuberance out of the corral and through the lower field, finally disappearing over a creek bank. The pigs behaved similarly, bolting from their pen in a riot of squeals and snorts. The chickens and turkeys, noticing their range had increased dramatically, quickly busied themselves scratching up new food sources, singing and murmuring merrily. The rest, well, they must fend for themselves too, she muttered, turning her eyes away from the large sad eyes of the bovines standing at the gate to the pasture, looking puzzled, and the dark-eyed Percherons who continued pulling down hay from the stanchions, ignoring the open doorway behind them. She went back to the central corridor of the barn, climbed to the loft above and threw a couple dozen more bales of hay down beside the barn and stacked the mangers in the loafing shed high. The domesticated livestock had shelter for the seeking, and forage for the taking. They might have to develop a little independence, but they would not starve. It was the best she could do.

She could stay down there in the hollow with her penned charges and see they were kept in regular feed only by giving up the only shelter where she could stay warm through all these storms of air and earth – her apartment at the Center. And she wasn’t that crazy.

For one thing, the outer shells of the structures in the village had the insulating qualities of any building constructed in the 1880s, which is to say, none. And as the restored and recreated homes and farmsteads at the museum were not intended to actually support real families through the winter, even though they’d been supplied with wood burning stoves, there was no store of firewood to heat even one house for more than a small interval of time. There was no food for humans at the farm site, no electricity, and nowhere she could keep warm. In the simplest of terms, she could not live there.

On the other hand,  the center held all the elements essential to her survival, at least so long as her luck held. The electrical system remained intact, providing her and her plants with lifesaving heat and light. Also, she realized with some amazement, at the center was the stock of incredible stores she’d laid in against the museum’s once-far different need as a tourist attraction. Much of it was still piled in untidy heaps that couldn’t be damaged by seismic activity, but it was protected and available for needs that now might stretch not only beyond expectations but beyond imagination. Should her circumstances become permanent, she thought, she was better-supplied than Robinson Crusoe. The realization didn’t exactly comfort her but did help hold blind panic at bay.

The electrical power generated by the small subterranean power plant inside the dam had not so much as flickered during the worst of the blows and tremors. The dam, spillway, and everything in and behind it had survived, at least so far. Even the mill, although its roof had sustained some damage from falling debris from the bluff, was still structurally sound, sheltered as it was by the bluff against whose face it rested. And, incredibly, the bluff still held together and the spring still flowed.

She continued her litany of what-ifs as she walked. With luck, the greenhouse plants could be kept alive indefinitely by the heat tapes at their feet and a battery of grow lights clustered low over their heads. And if summer ever came again, there were the seed stocks – enough open-pollinated plant varieties to grow food for herself and a few animals virtually forever. If the livestock were lucky and possessed sufficient foraging ability, they would all find ways to make it through as well. They were herbivores, after all, and food, even in winter, was available for the finding in the woods and fields.

But that wouldn’t really take care of every situation. So what she would do was this – at regular intervals, say every week or so if she lived, she would return to the village to put out more food for them. It would take a stupefying amount of luck, along with all the cunning and wits they could muster, for any of them including Moira to survive for long in this strange new world. She would have to learn what she could of her new circumstances by experience, and by keeping a meticulous record of events and occurrences, and she was doing that. She had started keeping a journal on day three of this changed era when she realized the earthquakes might not stop for a long time, and therefore just about everything she took to be normal was gone for good. She had taken a sturdy notebook from the office stores and started a daily book of events. It had already begun to come in handy.

For instance, the winds were savage but not constant. They seemed to die down for a while near sunset and to surge back with increasing violence as soon as full night fell. The earth tremors and the deep booming noises were more difficult to predict, but they, too, seemed to follow a pattern of sorts. In any event, she had reasoned, her only hope was to muster what sanity she could and work out a new pattern of her own, a schedule of tasks and responsibilities that she could reasonably expect to maintain. As much as she regretted having to leave the animals to their fates, removing the cycle of daily trips to the village in this vicious weather would increase her survival chances considerably, and actually remove the tie between her survival and that of the animals to some extent. At least she hoped that’s how it would work out. At any rate, it was done. She opened the last gate, threw down the last bit of corn, and headed up the hill.

As bad as things were, she realized, they could still get worse. In the back of her mind, never far from consciousness, was the knowledge that summer might not come at all. She knew about the theorized phenomenon of nuclear winter – described by experts as what would happen when dust from the number of nuclear explosions that might be expected in an all-out war blocked out the sun, resulting in years of cold and dark, with no seasons, no summer growth, and, after a while, no life. It could be occurring now, possibly as a result of what she was sure was widespread volcanic activity. Perhaps, she thought, she was seeing the predicted phenomenon demonstrated first hand, for the forecasted results seemed similar to what was now occurring. This, along with the oddity of the sunrise being possibly in the wrong place, seemed good evidence that the polar shift, or whatever it had been, had indeed occurred. For all she knew, the shift might have thrown the planet out of its orbit. For all she knew, she might be the only human witness to the last pitiful struggles of life on Earth. Actually, it might be time to think about something else, she decided. She turned on her heel suddenly, remembering some detail still unattended to.

The day, what there was of it, was beginning to fade, and the momentary reprieve from the wind was about over. To punctuate the thought, a strong earth shock threw her against a stanchion just as one of the Morgan mares wheeled and bolted through the doorway. She missed by scant inches being trampled. She turned, pale-faced, and made her way unsteadily across the barn lot and resumed her journey on up the hill.

It was time to take up another task. Rudy and his friends had sent supplies against every variety of event, some of which she hadn’t opened yet because they were marked to be opened only in the event of a doomsday scenario. For her money, Doomsday was here. It was time she dug through the mess to see if there was anything that might alter or improve her circumstances even slightly. She doubted it. But she had been stubbornly holding onto them as something of a last hope, in case all else failed. Well, she asked herself, am I not there?

What she found initially was so small and so impersonal that it seemed no help at all. She hoped for and found a satellite phone, but no one answered any numbers she tried. She hoped for emergency numbers, and there were some, but she worked her way far down the list with no success. And she hoped for an indication that help, in some form, might arrive. None was offered. Instead, under another small bundle of iPads, and a supply of sealed rechargeable power packs for them, she found a heavy envelope with a letter containing her official government orders. As she read the instructions and the purpose for including them, it finally hit her just how bad things might be and how much more they had known from the beginning of the scare than they’d been willing to share. Her eyes welled with tears at the introduction, and her fist held her mouth closed against any sound as she read.

“Beloved friend and colleague: If you are reading this, then our time on earth as humans is in grave peril, and you may be a resident of one of our only surviving outposts. We hope with all our hearts it has not come to this. But if it is so, we have taken these steps to secure as much of recorded human history and knowledge as can be stored for the use and understanding of future generations. With damaged systems and reduced resources, it stands to reason that even if populations survive, as repairs are made, some technological advances and the knowledge base upon which they were built must be set aside. Likewise, without computer networks, much communication of knowledge and skills will also be lost. These small units, if powered and used sparingly, should last for some decades. They are keyed to access computers on the space station and other information satellites that circle the earth, as they will continue to do for centuries, although it is not known how long and how well their makers will continue to be able to communicate with them. Some places on the planet may retain these capabilities while others may not. We have done our best to preserve as much as we can. We send this into your hands with all our desperate hopes for your survival, for you are our future. God’s blessings on you.

Moira read it twice, then repacked the computers in their heavy wrappings and carried them down the stairs into the seed vault, where they’d be safe. She didn’t need them, but somebody might, someday.

That had been weeks ago. Uncounted days passed until she was surprised out of a fitful sleep one morning by a ray of sunlight shining on her face.

It was being reflected off the small mirror hanging beside her window – a mirror whose reflective side, she realized later, in a moment of clear thought, faced northeast – reachable, at an angle, by the sun in summer. In winter, as now, it should have been facing the sun edge-on. There it was again, that tiny, insignificant, totally impossible thing. She had noticed it before but had attributed it to her inability to think rational thoughts. Now science replaced suspicion. It was true, what she’d thought earlier. Either the planet had somehow actually tilted on its axis, or else . . . what?

It was not until very early spring that she finally put that phenomenon alongside the other overwhelming evidence that something cataclysmic had indeed happened to the Earth. For one thing, unusual birds, most of them waterfowl, many of them sea birds, were appearing alongside the museum’s resident population of khaki Campbell ducks. Many of them seemed confused, shaking their heads, flying up to circle aimlessly and then landing again. It seemed the tiny grains of magnetite they grew above their noses to guide them during migration must be sending confusing messages. Likewise, no form of electronic communication, which had ceased during the seismic activity, ever resumed; there was still no signal to be had on any communications device, even the short-wave radio.

What begged for an answer was why, now that winds and seismic activity were beginning to subside, did no radio signal, short wave or long, reappear? Why, now that the sun was visible for a little while on most days and weather was becoming more stable, did she hear no airplane’s drone, no beat of helicopter blades. No drone of a truck somewhere. Or whine of a chain saw. Was there really no one left in the world’s wreckage but her?

It was not until the nightmare winds began to soften and she could explore the area outside the compound that she was able to acknowledge the mind-boggling scale of the destruction. She was alone, yes. But how alone? Was there anyone left at any of the nearby towns — or anywhere? What about Springfield? Springfield was a thriving city with a major airport and four television stations. Or Ft. Wood, with its Air National Guard detachment that should be patrolling, looking for survivors. How could it all have just disappeared?

She wondered if she should simply leave the place that had held her safe and strike out in search of civilization. But where to? And how would she get there? After a hike out the driveway to the paved road, she realized there was simply no way to do it. In the direction of the river, a mountain of uprooted, broken, and shredded trees lay across the road where it crossed the ridge top. The other way, where the road had gone through a cut blasted through the nearby hilltop, there was now only a line of pavement disappearing into a new hillside of loose clay and rock. The tremors had sealed the cut, completely obliterating the road. There was no way for any rescuer to get in by the normal access routes. And if the lower road by the river looked at all like these upper ones, there was no way out there, either. She would just have to wait for someone to come by air, or the river.

She exhaled an explosive breath that contained a bitter laugh. And who would that be? Of all the nearby human settlements that might possibly have survived, no one would think to look here. Of all possible surviving humans within rescuing distance, only Steven knew for sure that she had stayed at the museum. Certainly he had vowed to come to her aid, but that was about as likely as waking up tomorrow to find this had all been just a bad dream. Possible, she admitted, but damned unlikely.

All she could do for now was stay alive, keep the museum’s infrastructure intact, and keep her wits about her, such as they were. Even if she was lost in the middle of nowhere, and even if the world had turned completely on its head, there were the seeds and the gifts sent by Rudy and his pals – from food and the other necessities to the computer linkups to satellite libraries. Somewhere, safely stored, were all the tools and information needed to fuel and reboot civilization, if she, or someone, could keep that link alive.

____________________

In case you missed them;

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

Chapter 3 – “It Begins”

Chapter 4 – “Beyond Reach”

_________________________

Chapter 6 – “The Devil In The Details”

“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Four: Beyond Reach

 

The following Friday:

As she had been doing frequently since Sunday, Moira was on the satellite phone talking, sometimes to Rudy and sometimes to others unknown, who offered updates and chilling fragments of news from afar, most of it as stomach-churning as the increasingly bitter weather and the smaller but more frequent earth tremors. They all agreed the situation was nowhere near over.

The worst scenario to contemplate was the growing conviction that the caldera, the giant magma uplift below Yellowstone, was likely getting ready to blow its top, an event that had happened more than once, but never within human experience. If that were to happen, the ash cloud would likely turn everything for a thousand miles south and east into an ash-covered desert. For all their fear about it, mentions were brief and soon passed over. It simply didn’t bear thinking about. If that were actually to happen as they feared, most of her partners in this venture would be dead. And the rest, including her, were likely to be, as she was, scrambling to save what was left of the habitable world. She had thought she was being relatively calm as she worked away through the warehouse cleanup, celebrating the things she had thought to stock up on and lamenting the things she hadn’t thought of. For instance, in terms of future defense, although there were four guns on the property, there was only one box of shells each for the pistols, a handful or two for the 12-gauge shotgun, and barely two boxes for the handiest, a .410 gauge varmint gun. That collection did not an armory make. And this morning, when she was walking through the garden area and found a withered luffa fruit with a full seed cavity hanging in a sheltered spot in the fence, she burst into tears. How in God’s name did one prepare for losing Everything.

She’d been telling herself it might not be so bad. Things could settle down and regain some semblance of order. And then last night she had a dream.

In the dream the Visitors Center was instead a large cavern of soft, chalky rock with hastily hollowed out rooms where things were stored haphazardly. Staff members were coming to her, complaining that their salary checks had not arrived. She tried to explain to them that the chaos as a result of the crisis would delay things, but she finally relented and said she would issue the checks herself. She went into an adjoining space where the computers were kept, but found the printers were glazed over with a chalky residue left by seeping water and were becoming part of the rock, and there was no paper on the rude shelf where supplies were kept. When she attempted to turn on a monitor, there was no power, and then the keyboard before her began to disintegrate as she touched it and she was left with only little eroding cubes that had been the keys.

When she awoke, short of breath and heart pounding, she called Rudy, but got one of his staff, who told her the D.C. offices were being shut down due to flooding that was backing up from the Chesapeake Bay into the Potomac. Large portions of the capital were under an evacuation order, including much of the downtown area of government offices. Rudy, he said, was up in one of the mountain strongholds that had been prepared for a possible nuclear attack, making space for equipment storage and organizing that end of the move. The young man, an attache´, was alone in his office, manning the phones, he told her, while dumping computer files into long-term storage. Everyone else was out in front of their building, filling sandbags and trying to hold the water back until all the files were copied and put somewhere safe. “Don’t worry,” he said in a tone that said his words were empty. “We’ll whip this.” She wished him the best and rang off before her voice betrayed her.

After a simple breakfast, she was still nowhere near able to form a plan for the day. Since bone weary was not the proper attitude for starting the day, it must be time for a break, she decided. Throwing on a barn coat, she headed out the north doors and across the parking lot toward the pine thicket. She stood awhile in the lee of the great signpost, soaking up the weak winter sun and inhaling the crisp fragrances of winter. Only a dusting of snow had fallen in the night and it was already somewhat bird-tracked. She threw down some crumbs from breakfast and laughed as the little snowbirds came right up to within touching distance in search of a morsel or two.

Then, looking further, she notice another little bird that remained still. It had apparently fallen from a branch and landed upright, but it was dead. It might have been literally scared to death. The realization struck her straight to the heart, and she gasped at the pain of it and fell to her knees. All in that moment, the truth came rushing in. No matter how secure she might be in this little hidden spot, she was surrounded by the likely deaths of thousands, with millions more facing the same fate all over the globe. In a vision that pictured the earth mother brushing parasites off her belly, she saw among them her family, friends and colleagues, and uncounted strangers she would never know. She mourned them all, crying openly, her sobs turning to keening, the sound one reserves only for the loss of loved ones.

Some time later, when she became cognizant of how stiff and cold she was becoming, she dipped her mittens in the snow and washed her face, stood upright, and headed back to the only home she still had.

She spent the balance of that day in a peculiar agitation, unable to work long at any single chore, not from lack of energy but from an odd inability to think more than one step ahead. After heating her coffee three times in the microwave without ever drinking any of it, she finally sat her self down on the daybed in her tiny apartment and decided to see if she could clear her thinking and calm her mind, her canine companion snuggled tight against her. Within minutes, she fell into a sound sleep and awoke two hours later, refreshed. She would have to work on being able to tell the difference between agitation and exhaustion, she decided. But she’d rather be talking to Rudy. A little after 10 p.m., he called. He sounded as exhausted as she had been, but she drew a laugh from him when she recounted the events of her dream.

“That’s nearly how it is,” he said. “My recurring dream is where I’m riding in an old 1960s-era city bus touring San Francisco. It’s all very beautiful, but when we get to the top, at Coit Tower, we go right through the parking lot, through the fence, and off the cliff.”

“That sounds pretty terrible,” she said.

“That’s not even the scary part,” he said with a wry chuckle. “We never reach the bottom. But I don’t wake up, I just keep falling and falling. And that, too, is pretty much how it is when I’m awake.”

“I get that. I know I’m nowhere near getting the worst of it.”

“Well, kiddo, that was the idea. You’re one of our success stories, so far.”

“Not all of the outposts are faring as well,” she asked.

“You could say that,” he said, and then hesitated.

“I did say that. So tell me.”

“Well, I’m sure our guy in Idaho has some complaints, if there’s anything left of him by now. And we haven’t heard a peep from anybody in California’s coastal range or southern Nevada. Of course, there have been some land movements out there, particularly along the southern end of the San Andreas fault. Satellite photos show the present north end of Baja’s Gulf of California as being just below San Diego. And San Francisco bay is larger by half. Not as much damage as I would have expected, actually. Of course, that may be part of that long slow fall in my dream. There is some steady subsidence in the basin that includes Los Angeles. But no huge tremors. So part of the infrastructure is holding, and people are starting to head out of areas like that in a more or less orderly fashion. Again, there’s not as much panic as I would have predicted. A little like Moses into the wilderness. But of course we haven’t told them everything we know.”

She shook her head. Part of her wanted more details, the rest had had enough. But he wasn’t through.

“The Russians sent up a rocket this morning to the space station. We offered to bring them all home, but all three elected to stay, even knowing this may be the last ship to go up. The Russians are seeing worse damage than we are, and we don’t have another landing pad that’s any more secure. So we shipped them all the food and supplies the rocket would hold. We had already transferred archival files of everything we could think of up to them. You’ve got codes and access links coming to you now, so you can call them for odd bits of info. They’ll be there as long as … well, as long as they last.”

Moira was silent for a while, trying not to betray another surge of sorrow and grief she felt for these brave men and women. Finally, Rudy added, “I know how you feel. But the truth is, we’re all in the same boat. They may be the farthest away, but right now they’re safer than we are. Listen, kid, I gotta go. There’s a bunch more info coming to you tonight on the secure channel. Get on there and get it downloaded. We don’t know how long these links will hold. Better to plan for the worst.”

“Expect the unexpected,” she said, smiling. “That’s become my motto. Thanks, amigo. Hope to hear from you again soon.”

“I’ll do my best. Hang tight.” The silence after he disconnected was deeper than any she’d felt so far.. Whatever happened, it was going to be a long, cold winter.

Meanwhile, given the pitfalls of dwelling on the future, staying in the present tense seemed a more useful if not more pleasant option. As she applied herself again to clearing the chaos in the warehouse, at times the work felt almost like a meditation. This box goes here, that one there, this barrel of axle grease to the toolroom, that pallet of baking soda to maintenance, and so on in a quiet, steady rhythm.

A different strategy was needed for the mystery packages, more of which were finding their way, piece by piece, onto the shelves in the conference room. Each contained a surprise, and not all were easily identifiable. A cataloging system and copious notes had to be created as she worked out what each item might be, and what it might be for.

The multiple thin tablets and their keyboards, most of them vacuum sealed, were easy. Less obvious, for instance, was the long, tubular package of fine metal screening that appeared to be associated with a box of tightly packaged chemicals and another of instruction manuals. By examining the supplies as a group, she soon deduced their function – it was an easily assembled apparatus for making paper from local natural sources of fiber. Another set of boxes contained sets of laboratory equipment for a wide variety of uses related to processing available materials into useable products that might no longer be available from the outside. God bless them profusely for those items alone – tools she’d never have thought of until it was too late. Those went straight to the labrynthian storage vaults.

Other parcels she opened just in time, as they contained more live samples of plants that either were not native to this part of the world – tiny saplings that would grow coffee, tea and a variety of citrus fruits – or plants that were difficult or impossible to propagate from seed. She doubted she would be able to keep the pair of cacao trees alive without severe pruning, for they would undoubtedly grow too tall for the greenhouse. But she thought the vanilla orchids might be happy in the warmest part of the warm room. Several other live specimens were medicinal in nature and might save lives if pharmaceuticals were no longer available. Most precious of these, she thought, were the delicate Asian sweet gums, the Chinese herbs, and the tiny seeds of opium poppies. They had delivered the nearest things to a living pharmacy as one could imagine.

These precious green gifts presented a challenge, though, for they filled the greenhouse past its normal capacity. Fear of more destructive tremors kept her from adding more shelves, so she was forced to transfer some of the plantings, particularly the tree saplings, into tubs that could be rolled on casters to the glassed-in, light-filled lobby of the Center. All would be safe so long as the generator under the mill dam held and kept the heat pumps running. If that went, life would be far less comfortable in a number of ways that didn’t bear thinking about. Best to focus on one potential calamity at a time, she thought. There were many other alternatives that might well end in unthinkable consequences.

As the days grew closer to when the passing “rogue planet” reached its nearest point to the earth, time seemed to slow until she could only work in small segments punctuated either by the ring of the satellite phone or a sudden shudder as another tremor struck. And she noted more than once that she had just stopped in the middle of a task to be silent and listen. The sense of impending doom became more and more overwhelming. And every day the news worsened.

An outpost in the southern Appalachians suddenly went silent, and then one in Nevada and another in the Dakotas. From the still active outposts in the California Sierras and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, she learned that sea levels, which had already reached epic heights from the continuing effects of climate change, were not the only danger to the coasts. Far worse had become the tidal changes caused by the warring effects of the earth’s own moon and the approaching massive space rock, which threw the normal rhythm of the tides into an unpredictable arrhythmia that was making any travel by sea treacherous and unwise. Out in the travel lanes were hundreds, perhaps thousands of freighters and tankers stranded because they could not safely approach the coasts. Coastal residents to the east had mostly been evacuated inland, while populations along the northern Pacific coast were being urged to head north toward Canada or east toward Colorado, but not, definitely not northeast. Public  media continued their assurances that the worst would soon be over. That was one of the possible outcomes, Rudy said. Most of the others were too horrific to consider, and hardly the kind of news to mention to an already terrified populace.

On the private satellite network they shared, more reporting stations continued to go silent, at first intermittently and then just gone. Rudy, speaking from his mountain stronghold in the Poconos, cautioned her with every call that it could be his last. And then one day it was, with less than six hours remaining before the dark planet was to reach its closest pass. She was sure of the time, because they were talking when the interruption occurred. He was delivering more bad news.

“We’re moving everyone we can out of the immediate area of the caldera and sending them north into Canada,” he said, referring again to the ominous signs that the lava dome under southeastern Wyoming might be awakening. “Yellowstone is closed and everyone evacuated, as are all the wilderness areas nearby. Canada is cooperating by expanding their border crossings at Vancouver, Glacier-Waterton and on east to the Badlands.

“It’s frustrating, because for all our efforts, there is still so damned little we can do. If we can get past the next 24 hours with little or no catastrophic events, I’ll be able to breathe again,” he said, with a laugh that had no mirth in it. “Hell, I might even be able to give up my antacids.” She was beginning to offer sympathies for his worries that far outreached hers, when he interrupted, his voice strained.

“Ah, shit. There it goes. I gotta go, kid. You be…” And he was gone. Just like that. And so was the network. A few electronic mutters, then nothing. She stood for a long moment, looking at the phone, stunned. She glanced up at the calendar. It was Dec. 21, just hours before the solstice.

All of a sudden, as though she’d received a strong elbow to the ribs, she began to move, first to the warehouse entrance, where she donned her stout farm coat and boots, and then out the door and down the hill at a run, her dog at her heels. How long would it take the effects of what had to be the worst – the disastrous explosion of the caldera – to reach this sheltered hollow? A few precious hours at most. The animals must have food and water available. The greenhouse and now the windows in the lobby must be reinforced. And she must get herself and her dog to the safest place she could find.

At the barn, she threw open all the stall doors, threw down whole bales of hay and filled all the containers she could find with water. She threw grain around wildly, hoping by doing so that no one would overeat but everyone could find something. She released the chickens and the pigs. And then she was heading back up the hill calling over her shoulder, “Good luck, everybody. I’ll see you when I can.”. As she ran, she began to hear an odd creaking and groaning in deep bass tones, and the ground began an eerie rhythmic shudder, as if it were crawling. She reached the top and threw herself in the warehouse door. She hadn’t imagined the crawling sensation. Everything that wasn’t firmly anchored was moving as if alive.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply until she caught her breath. No point in waiting for things to return to normal. Normal was gone, as was the world she knew. Time to prepare for the world to come. She turned toward the lobby’s tall windows and strode forward into her uncertain future, her dog beside her, a roll of duct tape in each hand.

_________________________

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

Chapter 3- “It Begins”

_________________________

Chapter 5 – “Comes The Dark”

“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Three: It Begins

Daybreak on the Sunday following Thanksgiving:

Moira gasped, rising out of a dream in which someone was calling her name. In the dream, she had fallen out of the old rowboat in the pond below the mill and was trying to get hold of the boat and keep her head out of the water. But the wind kept whipping up waves that rocked her and the boat from side to side, faster and faster . . .

She snapped awake to the sound of glass shattering. Her first thought was a wind storm was underway and a limb had hit the greenhouse. But when she tried to get out of bed, something threw her back. And then did it again. My God, she thought as she came fully awake. It’s an earthquake. And a big one.

She grabbed at the bedside clock as it flew from its perch above her head and then had to dodge a rain of books as they tumbled from the same rack of shelves over the bed. She lurched forward again and landed on all fours by the bed, still cringing as objects fell around her. She yelped as she felt something warm crawling up beside her, then realized it was the dog, who was shaking almost as hard as the floor beneath her. She grabbed the dog and dropped beside it, huddling against the bed. Then all was silent. From somewhere she heard a whimper, which stopped as she realized it was issuing from her own throat. The floor gave another shudder and she braced herself. Then all was still again. She heard a low moan, not hers, and reached to embrace her new companion who was still trembling uncontrollably.

“Sshh, sshh, it’s OK, it’s OK,” she said, though they both recognized the lie. She held the dog until its trembling grew less. “It’s all right,” she said again, taking the dog’s face in her hands and looking her in the eyes. “I’m scared, too. But we’re in this together, OK?” She took a deep breath and felt the dog do the same.

She stood shakily and looked around at the chaos that was her apartment. She still clutched the clock. The time, 7:21 a.m. Sunday. First day of the week, but perhaps last day of the world, she thought. She judged the tremor had lasted less than a minute, although it had seemed longer. Her living space was transformed — dishes and groceries spewing out of cabinets, a desk lamp hanging by its cord, books and papers everywhere.

Walls and ceilings, however, had no cracks. This part of the structure at least was intact, which made her smile. She had once compared this hugely overbuilt headquarters to an elaborate bomb shelter. She was regretting her criticisms now.

The Center was a monolith of cast concrete and steel that had been built to survive anything. So said Joseph Beverly, the founding director who had preceded her in her job and who had written the specifications for construction of the massive facility early in his 21-year tenure. The specs had called for a welcome area, introductory exhibits for visitors, space for administration offices, and storage areas. But Uncle Joe had seen and seized an opportunity to make it vastly more than that. Her predecessor had been fiercely passionate about all things Ozarkian. But he was a biologist first, and his overriding passion had been for protection of the unique plant communities and seed varieties indigenous to the area, especially those that had made up the traditional food crops of the pioneers. His mission, according to the Park Service people who remembered him, had been to design and build a front door into the past, to add both nobility and authenticity to the living history museum. He had done that.

But while doing it, he had quietly and without apology built as well a botanical archival facility of the first order. Beneath the Center was a vast, insulated, climate-controlled chain of vaults intended to store heirloom seed samples and relevant paraphernalia, with a hothouse above for propagation and preservation of living specimens. He had overbuilt by a factor that approached logarithmic, reasoning that the way government contractors overspent on materials and labor, no one would notice. In fact, no one had until it was done.

Her vision of the museum’s mission and purpose had not always matched Uncle Joe’s, but at this moment Moira felt so grateful to him that she wanted to cry. He’d meant the building to withstand everything, and it was time for her to go out and see if it actually had.

Her hand flew to the wall to steady herself as the floor shuddered again, and she heard another tinkling sound as another pane of glass shattered. She exclaimed aloud again when she realized that the sound was coming from the greenhouse. She rummaged through the rubble, found a pair of sneakers, and pulled them on. Then she motioned the dog up onto the bed and told her to stay. Moira edged carefully to the interior door, which opened easily, ran down the hall to the greenhouse complex, and dashed across the entryway. Or tried to. A jumble of long-handled gardening tools left propped against the wall were now scattered across the floor and down into the stairwell. She stumbled her way across, cursing the mess. It could wait. Of greater concern were the priceless heirloom plants of all description living next door.

She tugged open the door to the cool room and found it far cooler than it should have been. A gust of bitter winter wind struck her full in the face and she cried aloud as she threw the light switch. One whole section of glass in the long vent windows had disintegrated into thousands of cubical shards and its remains were sagging out of its frame. Like icy gems, the fragments of safety glass glittered in the beds of wintering greens. Worse, the temperature had already dropped to at least twenty degrees below greenhouse normal and was still plummeting as the wind whistled through the broad opening. She surveyed the other sections installed in hinged frames so the greenhouse could be vented in warm weather. There were several ominous-looking cracks and one small section where the pane was missing altogether. A makeshift patch or two might hold for a little while, she thought, but more aftershocks would certainly loosen more panes. Fortunately not all of the panes were regular greenhouse glass. Most of those had been replaced last fall with durable polycarbonate panels. The awning windows had been left as they were, since the safety glass had already survived several hailstorms. No one had given a thought to earthquakes.

All the plastic panels were still intact. And fortunately, she had more. It would take no time at all to retrieve some new sections, cut a patch for the heat-leaking hole and then reinforce the remaining glazed areas with more. Even more fortunate, the work could be done from inside the greenhouse, where she was less likely to freeze her rapidly chilling behind. She turned on her heel, leapt over the obstacles, and jogged back in the direction she had come.

The Poly was in the warehouse, and she’d seen a can of putty in the toolroom. The closest path was through the public area, but entering it, she shuddered. None of the glass-fronted oak cases had actually fallen, although one pair was leaning drunkenly against the north wall. Dislodged ceiling tiles littered the floor like giant snowflakes. Scattered among them were books, stuffed toys and bits of broken pottery from the gift shop. Lots to be done here, but first there was a larger disaster to avert.

She picked her way through the area and attempted to shove the warehouse door aside. She met immediate resistance when it hit something just before the halfway point and swung back toward her. She looked around it to see the obstruction. When she saw, she let the door swing closed, found a chair and set it upright, and sat down, suddenly and completely stopped.

She had expected some chaos but not the mountain of cartons and cans that nearly filled the warehouse. All of the work of her inventorying and filing, gone to nothing. Worse, there was no path through the debris, nor would there be until she cleared one — or waited for a crew to arrive. The polycarbonate panels, stored against a far wall of the toolroom, would not save the greenhouse contents. Not this morning. Finding anything in that mess would be the work of several days. The plants needed her now.

After a moment of thought she stood and headed back at a run, retracing her steps until she reached her living quarters. Once there, she yanked open the door to the utility closet. There above her head on a shelf was another solution, just waiting for her to think of it. As the dog danced around her, delighted at her return, she reached out on tiptoe and tugged down a large scrap of heavy-duty plastic tarp left over from another project, folded and tucked into a corner. A kitchen drawer yielded a roll of duct tape, scissors and a utility knife. The wonders of modern technology, she thought, sometimes just boil down to whatever works.

“Stay,” she told the dog again, and it grudgingly sat as she ran again in the direction of the greenhouse.

Her first priority was to prevent further harm. She hurriedly strung the tarp to cover not just the largest hole but the entire section showing cracks, lopped off the excess and slapped enough duct tape around and across to hold it in place. In a storage cabinet, she found several folded sheets of polyester row cover already cut to the size of the beds. Laying the remains of the tarp aside she unfolded the sheets of spun polyester and spread them out like blankets over the chilled greens. The sheets were used routinely to cover the greenhouse overflow in spring, when bedding plants were moved outdoors to harden off before planting in the farmstead gardens. They would shelter these plants, at least holding the greenery above the freezing point.

When every section was blanketed, the greenhouse resembled the snow-covered gardens outside. Each bed of tender veggies and softwood cuttings was nestled in a cocoon of white, while the taller plants resembled ghostly sentinels in their individual wrappings. The warm room next door was luckier. There was little damage, but she draped her tropical pals with more of the row cover just in case. She shifted from overdrive to a more thoughtful pace, feeling her energy flag as the adrenaline in her system burned out. But who knew what lay ahead? Better to take the prudent way. And there was still a lot of park to examine for damage. She’d feel better knowing that this small corner was, for a time at least, secure. After breakfast she’d make repairs that would hold for more than the moment.

Now it was time to refuel. Amazingly, the kettle was still on the stove, and the burner would still heat. With tea water coming to a boil, she grabbed a handful of grapes, found an unbroken bowl and a box of cereal, and made a quick breakfast. The sugar had spilled but the milk bottle was intact. She added a chunked banana and shoveled in the comfort food, standing with her back to the littered counter. The view out the window was deceptively unchanged. Was the trouble over, or just beginning, she wondered.

Despite her grim conversation with Rudy earlier in the weekend, she hadn’t really expected a tremor of this size, especially here, far from the nearest major fault line, or this soon. She wondered what was happening elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, did she really want to know? She looked toward the television, noted its odd angle perched in the corner on its shelf and reached up to straighten it, but didn’t turn it on. Better to deal with the here and now first, and see to the things she might actually do something about.

In hindsight, she should have been better prepared for this. Of the entire compound, the greenhouse was probably the most vulnerable structure. Hard to prepare, though, for what you can’t really imagine. The mistake had only cost her work and time, so far. It could have been worse. But she was shaken. What else had she failed to anticipate?

For the past two days, news broadcasts had been filled with news, rumors, theories and conjectures about the changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Then had come more stories, these more hush-hush, about alleged movement of the polar ice cap. Other odd occurrences, such as the sudden appearance of hot volcanic mud bubbling up in a field in Russia, and reports of faulty altimeter readings on airplanes attempting to land at airports as widely spread as Omaha, Wichita, Dallas and Oklahoma City, made her begin adding up the score, as Rudy Diaz had done. Every prominent scientist claimed to be the most reliable authority on what was happening, but the truth was, how could anybody know for sure.

Sudden planetary changes were certainly a part of earth’s history; the proof was in the scars and craters scattered across the planet, some of them hundreds of millions of years old. A theory touted in years past blamed some kind of polar shift for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Or a huge asteroid striking in the Yucatan. Either could be so. Whatever it was, it didn’t get ‘em all, though, she thought, managing a wry grin. Some of them lived to be the ancestors of snakes and turtles, probably chickens. And songbirds. So that disaster seemed to have turned out all right, though she doubted the dinosaurs would have shared her assessment.

She pitied the “authorities” whose job it was to keep order and avoid the mayhem people could create if there was widespread panic. It didn’t help that some scientists postured and some in the media still couldn’t resist their wild-eyed, breathless, edge-of-doom prognostications.

Of course, some people were onto the ruse and knew the scientists and government officials weren’t telling the whole truth. They wanted the straight story, but the authorities continued discounting all rumors, albeit with worried faces they couldn’t quite conceal. The situation was being monitored and people should remain calm, they repeated. What else could they say?

It had become increasingly clear to her, and probably would have even without Rudy’s warnings, that some kind of calamity on a planet-wide scale was not only possible but was now likely. On this particular part of the planet, Moira thought wryly, it’s just become damn near certain. But given that, what does one do? She rinsed her bowl and finished off her tea as if it were any normal workday and returned to her repair and reclamation efforts.

An hour later she wedged the last remnant of heavy plastic into place around the broken sections of window, closed the window frames firmly against the plastic and taped around its edges with duct tape. The remaining panels of unbroken or cracked but intact glass she taped with a liberal crisscrossing web of tape, using nearly the entire roll. “The hell with conservation,” she muttered savagely. “I’ve got a whole case of the stuff out there in the warehouse – somewhere.”

But it was much too soon to be thinking about the confusion in the warehouse. With this first emergency over, she’d best get down the hill quickly and see how the animals and the museum’s other structures had fared.

“Not well, but not as bad as could be” was the answer, she realized even before she arrived. She could hear the cacophony of animal and poultry noises echoing up the narrow valley long before the rooftops of the farmstead came into view. She paused only long enough to give the mill a cursory examination to determine if everything was still in its place. It was, except for a display of flour at the mill store that had come tumbling off its wooden shelf and struck a glass display case full of gift items. The case, gifts, and several small jars of honey lay in a flour-covered mound of shards and syrup. A mess, but nothing that couldn’t wait, she decided. Luckily, before leaving for the holiday, the miller had shut down the mill wheel and shifted the chute to one side, allowing the spring to cascade unimpeded in a great waterfall to the pool below. She called the dog away from its explorations and continued on.

Unlike the mill’s water-powered tools from pioneer days, the facility’s electrical plant, located under the spillway at the lower end of the millpond, provided the bulk of power today. The flow of water never stopped. Electrical power to the Center had not been interrupted by the tremor; proof of its wellbeing was in the lights still burning in her apartment. She gave the dam and spillway a cursory glance anyway but saw no damage. The spillway was a reinforced concrete bulwark below which the generator was anchored firmly in bedrock and reinforced with more concrete and steel.

She hurried on toward the shrill chorus of livestock proclaiming their fright and discomfort at the tops of their lungs. The chickens were fine, merely frightened and confused by the shakeup. Their house was standing but had been knocked slightly off its props at one corner, and would need shoring up. The rocks on which the bottom logs rested had shifted, she saw, and the doorframe sagged. She hastily measured out feed and filled their water urns from a well-concealed insulated hydrant. Thank God that pipe hadn’t broken. There were no eggs to be had.

She stepped outside where the pigs shrilled excitedly.

The young shoats were panicked and ran to hide as she stepped into the pen. But they peeked out as they heard her measuring out their ration of cracked corn and wheat middlings into a bucket, and overcame their fears as the grain cascaded into the trough. They oinked and muttered their discomfort all the way through breakfast in a non-stop porcine chorus. But then another aftershock shuddered through the farmstead, causing them to scream in almost human voices as they ran again to hide behind their houses. They peered out at her as she called to them in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help it.”

She sighed and headed for the main barn, where the cattle bawled and the horses were mysteriously silent.

Entering the cattle’s normally cozy home and looking for anything askew, she saw something else that chilled her, although she wasn’t sure the cattle understood its import. The side-to-side shaking that had characterized both the first quake and its aftershocks had pulled two of the loft supports away from their moorings, leaving the section of ceiling above the stalls unsupported. Seeing the tons of hay looming atop the loft floor, she wasn’t surprised they were sounding alarmed, but how did they know? No matter. This qualified as emergency number two and would need to be seen to very soon. She would try to get somebody from the maintenance crew on the phone and get them up here as soon as the roads were clear.

In the meantime, Moira began making soothing nonsense noises and uttering familiar words, speaking calmly and reassuringly to the beasts. She borrowed a heavy hammer and some spikes from the tool crib, set up a tall stepladder and managed to get both posts wedged back into a workable angle and nailed in place. To do more would require house jacks, and she wasn’t actually sure the facility owned any.

Moreover, a further inspection showed that all the loft supports had drifted slightly off-center. She went back to the tool crib behind the granary and got a heavy sledgehammer and more spikes, applying them both liberally until all the posts were more or less centered and secured to the beams above them. Her arms would take some days to recover from wielding the heavy hammer. She had no idea if this would keep things secure if more quakes occurred. But it was better than doing nothing. The barn’s builders had evidently given little thought to fastening the uprights to the beams, reasoning that the weight of the barn would hold everything in place. They also figured that the barn and the earth under it would stay where it was put, she thought wryly.

She scrambled up into the loft to put down more hay and went back to the granary for extra portions of sweet feed, murmuring more quiet words of reassurance as she let the calves remain with their mothers. Usually they were desperate to get in, and their mothers were in desperate need of being milked. Last night’s decision had avoided another small crisis and saved some time as well. She filled their water trough from the barn’s insulated tank, which was wide and deep, and full enough to have stayed in place.

It was time to check on the silent horses. She rolled aside the tall door swinging from its metal track and cried out. Where the south wall of the barn had been, there was an empty space, a cold, biting wind and thin sunshine. A section of the wall had fallen, and the horses were gone.

On closer examination, she determined that the wall might have had some help in falling. The massive Percherons had evidently panicked when the tremor started and had kicked their way free, going straight out the back side of their stalls, knocking loose in the process another section of wall that they shared with the yearlings’ stall. The young horses had also fled, presumably following the massive sable-colored mares. The only horses left inside the barn were the two pregnant Morgan mares who were huddled in the corner of their stall, wild-eyed and panting with fear. She brought them oats and fresh water, approaching them gingerly and staying out of the way of their nervous hooves. After securing their stall door, she threaded her way through the ruins of the barn’s south wall to the adjoining pasture and began calling. Suddenly the dog gave a joyful bark and bolted. Soon, here she came, dancing and weaving, one of the yearlings running before her. Deftly, she guided it into the corral and glanced up at Moira, awaiting instructions.

“Go get ’em,” Moira said, and the dog did.

Nearly an hour passed before she brought three more of the Morgans and one of the Percherons back to the corral. No point in trying to persuade them to return to their quarters when they couldn’t be contained there. Luckily, the corral was in the shelter of the barn and had its own open, roofed “loafing shed” normally used to shelter young animals from the summer sun. It was barely tall enough for the Percherons, but it would shelter the skittish equines from the cold and keep them safe, she hoped. She walked ahead of the horses into the enclosure, using for her lure a coffee can half full of sweet feed. She shook the can, and they knew the sound. With any luck, the remaining mare would return by evening.

Moira had done all she could for them for now. She made cursory examination of the village storefronts along the newly constructed Main Street and noted what needed repair before she began her weary climb back up the hill. Halfway there, another aftershock rumbled, a strong one, setting the frozen trees in motion, limbs moving in a macabre dance as she crouched and tried to keep her balance. The silence that followed was eerie, broken by the distant cry of an animal in fear or pain. The little canine was wild-eyed and panting but never left her side.

Back at the Center, the power was still on, and lights were glowing merrily. She would need the lights when she started to work in the windowless warehouse, sorting out the mess. But before that, she had to answer the phone.

Someone was calling! She was cheered considerably at the prospect of some contact with another human. But where was the phone? She followed the electronic chirping to its source beneath a jumble of books that included, ironically, the telephone directory. Eagerly she pressed the button to connect. Steven’s rumbling baritone was music to her ears.

“Hey, gal. I thought I was about to have to come out there and see about you.” He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Sure is good to hear your voice. How’s it goin’? Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on here,” Steven’s voice sounded shaken, too.

“Likewise. And pretty well, all things considered. It’s a mess, of course. You should see the warehouse. How is it over your way?”

“Not good, but not near as bad as over east. Epicenter’s on the New Madrid fault, from what we hear. No reports coming out of there, but the video coming in from fly-overs looks pretty scary. Memphis took a bad hit, and St. Louis too. All that brick, you know.”

“My God.” Then, before she could think, before she could stop herself, she blurted, “Listen, if this gets worse, I mean, a lot worse, you know, you can come here. Just load up your folks and bring ‘em.”

“Hey, Coach, this will all blow over. I mean, we may not make it to work tomorrow if things don’t settle down right away. But they will eventually. And if you get lonesome out there you just come on into town, or we’ll come and bring you. This ain’t a picnic, but we’ll weather it. We live in the Ozarks, remember? Now, tell me the truth. You need some help out there? Do I need to come on out and help clean up the damage? I will if you need me to. I don’t mind, shake up or no shake up.”

“Absolutely not. There’s no damage here that I can’t handle. There’s just a mess. Right now, your family needs you much more than me. I’m just telling you, Steven. You are all welcome here if , well, you know.”

“You know things I don’t know.” his voice was very quiet now, even grave. It was not a question.

“I don’t know anything for sure, Steven. But I’ve heard some things. And if you need a place … Just don’t forget, OK?”

He agreed, and went on updating her on news from the notoriously unstable New Madrid Fault zone. Though long dormant, it had once been the site of the most severe earthquakes in American history during the period between 1811 and 1813. It was not just one crack miles deep in the earth, but rather a vast network of fractures stretching far and wide from its central point beneath the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Missouri’s “bootheel.” Studies had located cracks beneath the two river basins running several miles in each direction from where they met at Cairo, Ill. The center of the web of fractures ran directly below the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO to a few miles below Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro by locals), where the main fault left the river and faded into a network of smaller cracks. Those ran generally southwest across the Missouri Bootheel, bisecting its namesake, New Madrid ( MAD-rid) County. Both Memphis and St. Louis were located square in the path of greatest danger.
Steven continued talking, filling her in on news from the world outside.

“Electric power went down for a while, right after the first quake. We figured it was probably the power plant over at Sikeston going off-line. They’re pretty close to the fault. But it just came back on a few minutes ago. Local radio news said we’re getting a temporary feed from the coal-fired plant over at Springfield. And Springfield TV said just a few minutes ago that electrical supply was way below normal across the whole grid, and we should be careful to use no more power than absolutely necessary. So we’re looking to see what we can cut back on, and talking to our neighbors. I hear the mayor’s called a town meeting for tonight. I tell you what, though. The city sure is glad it built its new water tank up on a hill and on the ground, instead of up on stilts in the middle of town.”

She mumbled “That’s good.”

“One reason I called was to remind you about the shortwave radio down at the smithy. It’s in my locker. It runs on batteries or regular household current. If you lose power, or if the grid shuts down and local stations can’t broadcast, at least you’ll be able to get some news from the outside.

“What about network news, or stuff on line?”

“Hardly any of that’s working just now. Technical difficulties, they’re saying, but …” His voice trailed off and when he spoke again his tone sounded less certain. “Look, I get what I think you’re trying to tell me. But in all probability, we’re all gonna be okay. No doubt we’re due for some major inconveniences until things get put back together. But hell, that’s nothing we can’t handle. I could still come over, if you need me to help.”

She appreciated his concern for her welfare and his thoughtfulness in calling. She suspected, however, that being cooped up in a small house with three rowdy youngsters for the past few days accounted as much for his devotion to duty as anything else, so she didn’t waver. She was glad she hadn’t pressed harder on the issue of offering his family shelter. He had heard but hadn’t really understood. It didn’t matter. If the worst came, he would remember. She put a reassuring note in her voice.

“You all just stay put. Everything’s fine here. Well, almost. I had to do some repair on the greenhouse, and the horses kind of remodeled the barn a little bit. But there’s nothing that won’t wait. You stay with your family. We may not be out of the woods yet. They still haven’t figured out what’s happening up north yet. And by the time they do, who knows where we’ll be?” She was trying for a note of cheer, but Stephen’s answer sobered her. He had been listening after all.

“The fact is, Moira, I expect we don’t really know where any of us will be by the end of next week, or even if we’ll all be alive. I mean, I’m hoping for the best. I hope I’ll show up for work in a few days just like usual, and all this bad stuff they’re saying might happen will turn out to just be talk. Or it will happen to other people in other places. Or not at all. But there’s nothing sure. I just want you to know that…well, I know this sounds weird, but … if things get really crazy and I live through it, I’ll be there, sooner or later. You follow me? I’ll get out there some way, or send somebody. We won’t forget about you and just leave you out there by your lonesome. I want you to remember that, in case things get hairy. One way or another, I’ll get there, or I’ll send someone.”

Moira knew he meant to reassure her, but his words sent a chill up her back. She was not the only one who faced an uncertain future – it could mean everyone, everywhere on earth. But how many were having to face it alone? She needed to get a grip. If she let any fear show in her voice, he would come now. He had that hero instinct. And there were unspoken bonds between them.

But this was her post, not his. Her responsibilities were to this place, and his were to his family. She appreciated his attempt to reassure her, and she said so. Then she rang off quickly, leaving what was unspoken to take care of itself.

“I’m good, Steven. I really am,” she said. And as she set the receiver down she added, “Take care of your own, brother man.”

Steven’s voice in the phone and his concern for her had taken the edge off her panic. In the days that followed, Moira would have his words to remember, but little else. Meanwhile, it was time, perhaps well past time, to confront the rest of the so-called doomsday stash.

In a corner of the administrative wing that had doors opening on both a conference room and the warehouse, Moira kept a small office that was unlike the one in which she greeted the public. This one was strictly for her own work. Tall shelves, files, tables for drawing and dabbling – her playroom, some called it. It was here she’d had the help bring the mysterious bags and boxes that had begun popping up in her incoming shipments, marked urgent and personal, and not listed anywhere on her invoices.

Most of them were where she had left them, although some had spilled out from under her desk. She pulled up one at random, rummaged in a drawer for a utility knife and sliced open the end of the box. A small seedling with oddly shaped leaves peered out. Instructions were enclosed.

“What the hell…” she muttered. The next box held a stack of wireless broadband cards, sealed in impervious containers. The next, a couple dozen of the smallest, most highly advanced tablet/laptop computers she had ever seen, all of them sealed like the cards. Another held a stash of high tech watches with screens.

“What the hell…” she said again. She was to repeat herself many times before the afternoon was through. And there were still many packages to go, buried somewhere in the pile. Finally a nudge reminded her she needed a break, and so did the dog.

A walk in the snowy woods and a cup of tea later, she felt less alone and more able to face what might lie ahead, at least one step at a time. Having the dog there helped. It needed a name, though.

“What do you suppose might be a good name for a noble beast like yourself?” she inquired.

“Arf,” the dog replied.

“Not very imaginative,” she said.

The dog whined.

“All right. I’ll wait for an inspiration, Ok?”

At that point the dog whirled and took off after a squirrel, making her laugh for the first time in days. “I don’t care what your name is. I’m keeping you,” she called after.

_________________________

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 2 – “Thanksgiving”

_________________________

Chapter 4 – “Beyond Reach”

World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter 2: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning dawned clear and cold. Moira awoke to sparkling, dancing shafts of pale winter sunlight filling the windows of her small apartment. The little abode was not much more than a cubby built into a niche on the back side of the visitors center. From the inside entrance it was just a couple steps across a hallway connecting the administrative portions of the facility to a door into the main exhibit hall. The outer door to her personal space was more private, allowing easy and shelterd access to the park. A light snow had fallen in the night,  sugarcoating surfaces and softening the edges of the stark end-of-autumn landscape.

Awakened by the chatter of juncos and chickadees at the feeders outside, Moira dressed hurriedly in Levi’s and cotton pullover and added a sweatshirt, gloves, a cap with earflaps, and blanket-lined denim farm coat. She was so eager to get outdoors, she nearly scalded herself trying to hurry her tea.

She poured the tea into an insulated mug, stepped into worn but well-treaded boots, and made her way outside, tongue still smarting from the tea and eyes blinking at the brilliant day. With a glance at her watch, she breathed in the icy breeze, strode over to the public walkway, and headed down the hill at a brisk walk. Even on a holiday, there was much to do and no time to waste.

Oddly, she’d enjoyed  a good night’s sleep even after another evening contemplating the possibly coming fall into the abyss, if that’s what it was. This is how it must be in war-torn countries or similar places where catastrophes had already happened. Anxiety became such a dominant element in one’s thoughts that the body and brain just put up a damper to quell its effects, so no matter how bad the news, one could still function at a level close to normal. Just stay in the now, she told herself. Doomsday or not, the chores awaited.

Last night’s discussion with Rudy’s carefully selected group of highly intelligent “preppers” had not actually cheered her but had made her glad she had asked to join in. Some others appeared to feel the same, especially those who believed they might have found solutions to some of their own issues from the photos she’d provided of the heirloom farm tools and machinery.

“Far easier to put a wheel on an axle if you know what the hell it’s supposed to look like,” one observed.

There were fifteen of them, scattered from Nova Scotia to the Cascades, the Wasatch Front to the Superstition Mountains, all ensconced on carefully selected hopefully stable underpinnings and at elevations above 1,000 feet . Moira was surprised to hear about one other installation relatively close by, but farther up in the highlantds. Most were nearer the coasts. It gave a whole new context for “friends in high places,” someone joked.

Last night’s session revealed some had begun to get whispers of installations underway or being planned in other countries, notably Australia and Norway. If they were just now starting to plan, they were already too late, one group member observed. Hopefully that wasn’t the case.

Rudy had been doing his best, but they had not yet found a way to make contact with any of their counterparts in other lands. The outpost almost within hailing distance of Falling Spring, on the other side of Tom Sauk mountain, was an impromptu installation created by Jim Parsons, a retired park ranger, one of Rudy’s mentors, who had augmented his retirement plan after hearing from Rudy some of the dire speculations. Parsons had gathered his extended family (wife, mother and father-in-law, a younger brother and his family, and some family friends) for an extended “reunion” at their mountain cabin, which happened to be located near a substantial cavern system. Parsons had married a Mormon girl, and folks in that tradition were already accustomed to keeping food stored against  possible world ruin, he’d said. Her people were already “preppers,” he had joked, but they sure didn’t expect it to happen like this. His entire extended family had spent most of the past month moving their combined stores into a dry area of the cave system, and were getting settled in. She hoped she would eventually get to know them all. If there was time. Another subject that didn’t bear thinking about.

Besides, her life was difficult enough on this day fending off the ghosts of Thanksgivings past. She made a wry face. Well, then, thank God or whoever was listening that there was work to do, enough that she might entirely avoid the spectacle of watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade through tears of self pity, as had been her recent experience.

Good grief, her inner self spoke, bringing to a halt her rambling thoughts. Self-pity,indeed. She should be giving thanks there actually was a Macy’s parade and it could still happen. After the disasters visited on the world’s people in these recent years, finding anything to celebrate was amazing. The human spirit might be twisted at times, but it was still strong; people were discovering a capacity for resilience in the face of troubles beyond anything she could have imagined. She was embarrassed at the paralyzing effects of the melancholy she sometimes felt over her family troubles. What were her small complaints compared to genuine tragedies?

“Get over yourself, kid,” she muttered through her teeth. “Your life – your family – not perfect. It is what it is. Deal with it and move on.” She continued muttering to herself as she strode down the asphalt path.

Some of the fault was her own, she’d be the first to admit. Her attempt to entertain her family with the stories of her newly found Ozarks alternative community had been a poor idea. After all, she had separated herself long ago from her family’s hidebound conservatism. Once out in the wider world, she had soon discovered that the communities her parents had spoken of with such disdain were just people, no more, no less, and certainly deserving of respect. At the university she had also been exposed to cultures and classes of folks far different from her own. And their food. My God, how could you not love people who made pad Thai and bulgogi and piroshkis. And tabouli! Then she had to laugh. She’d forgotten to have breakfast, so better lay aside any thought of exotic foods until the chores were done.

But, as she brought herself back to the point of that thought, the fact was her family had disapproved strongly of her friends from the very first time she came home to visit. Soon after assuming her current post, she had met, through Steven,  a group of highly entertaining and unique individuals of disparate origins, most of whom had moved to the Ozarks in the 1970s and 80s, lured by real estate ads offering cheap land, lower crime rates, and a pristine rural lifestyle. Finding themselves surrounded by some unexpectedly xenophobic, often backward thinking folks who were among their neighbors, they had joined with other like-minded locals and newcomers in a loose-knit tribe of liberals, libertarians, and a fair scattering of lesbians that had created over the years a low key but tightly knit community—a family of choice, who called themselves the back-to-the-landers. They were colorful, well read, and living in relationships diverse enough to defy description. And they held great affection for one another despite their many differences.

Local color wouldn’t describe the kinds of folks one was likely to meet at a potluck, she’d told her folks at the Thanksgiving dinner table a year ago. There were Wiccan potters, Buddhist vegetarians, Scientologist greengrocers, Unitarian lesbians, PhD carpenters, goat-raising social workers, and everybody in between. She had never at any of her past postings or any other time of her life experienced such a mutually respectful community of friends. All their various opinions and world views seemed happily gathered in a general spirit of generosity and good will. And above all, they were kind to each other and to their surroundings, whether people, animal, plant or planet.

She had told them she was blessed to have stepped into a true communion of spirit, as these lovely folks with their high-minded but homespun ways welcomed her into their midst. It was amazing to her that they, and she, had landed in such an unlikely place as these hard hills, characterized as they were by isolation, poor prospects, and poorer resources.

Here, in this improbably thriving community, a cultural counterpoint to the surrounding poverty and difficult circumstances, she had come to discover a new level of comfort with her own views, in a kinship based on shared vision, open minds, and kindness. The transformation in her thinking over time had been so natural, so comfortable that she had been a little stunned when her parents had behaved as if she had suddenly decided to reject all they took to be holy and take up the trappings of a terrorist. But that wasn’t it at all. She’d just found and taken her own path, a way to which she had always been drawn. It was an admittedly unorthodox but very natural set of country ways, and she’d settled in as though born to it.

Of course you’d have to know these folks to realize how harmless they were. What was the big deal about a Solstice gathering, for instance? She’d taken a liking to some of these freethinking pagans, actually, and had enjoyed their conversations about the origins of Christianity, the gender of God and other head-bending topics. But as for going over to the Devil, she’d discovered the religion of the most pagan among them was actually earth-based, in other words, in their belief system there was no such thing as a devil. In their view, such a being simply didn’t exist. Sure, there was evil in the world, but it was in us, not something apart. It was part of human nature and our mission was to rid ourselves of its influence. How cool was that? She’d tried to explain that to her tradition-bound kin, but they weren’t having it.She wished she’d just kept her mouth shut about the whole thing.

She was still muttering under her breath as she rounded the turn, but she stopped short with a gasp, rocked back on her heels by the sudden opening of the scene before her. “Mother of God,” she whispered, astonished anew at the view into the long river valley, with its rock bluffs, its broad vistas and deep hollows. She would never get used to this pristine manifestation of  a perfect heaven.

The snow had brought the clouds to earth and set into them an enclosed bowl rimmed by tall pines and wide crowned oaks. At its center was the mill pond built centuries ago by the first European immigrants to capture the outflow from Falling Spring. It was more than an abandoned historical site. It was the magical heart of this ancient house of the spirit. It was because of this, without question, that the First People had gathered here in ancient days, this the reason the village had been built and rebuilt, and now was why the museum and the park that protected it existed.

It was certainly why she had felt called to take on the job of steward of this isolated place. From the moment she had glimpsed the first photos, she had lobbied hard for this posting. And now there it lay, available to her every morning and now spread doll-sized below her — the historic limestone bluff with its unique spring that spouted out from a channel between the rocks, and the dark pool that reflected the scene in reverse. The entire shadowed length of the bluff had been transformed into a cold cathedral of icicles wreathed in thick hoar frost, created as the fifty-degree column of falling water roared through the twenty-degree air and plunged into the rippling waters of the pond. If God wasn’t here, then where was He? Or She. Or Whatever name one might call the most high, the most holy.

She stood transfixed, watching the smoking, swirling currents of air as they rose from the water’s surface. Away from the spring’s outflow the pond was calm, its waters rimed with ice and thatches of frosty foliage along its grassy banks. Overhead, scattered wisps of cloud punctuated a clear sky. But the sun had not yet penetrated this deep hollow. Some of the icicles that hung from the north-facing rock bluffs were six feet or more in length. Out of the sun’s reach, they could grow until the January thaw. If there was one. She shivered and resumed her trek down the path.

As she descended the last loop of trail, a trio of tan, heritage-breed Campbell ducks bobbing on the pond announced her presence to the world, their braying calls sounding more like coarse laughter than the quack-quacks attributed to them.

“Tell me another one,” she called to them and received more brassy guffaws in return. Shaking off her earlier mood, she grinned and applauded their tipsy maneuvers as each popped beneath the surface and bobbed up again moments later, mouths full of greenery. It was too cold to stand still for long. She stamped her feet, chilled even in their insulated boots, and continued on to the farmstead, where a unique collection of farm animals awaited her attention. She admired, in passing, the broad lines of the well-kept late 19th century farmstead home, with its long front porch and summer kitchen, but she had only one errand there and it was soon accomplished. She trotted down the stone steps that led to the farmhouse basement and banked the fire in the wood furnace. With the tourists gone there was no one to be kept warm, and no plumbing to freeze. Once that was done and its doors were shut tight, she moved on to the next task – breakfast for all.

First stop was the hog pen, where the wiry and excitable Tamworth shoats and sows bumped and jostled one another, jockeying for position at the trough, waiting for their morning meal of cracked corn and wheat middlings. Unappealing as they were, these beasts were a welcome change from the nasty creatures they’d replaced, she thought. The museum’s mission was to show Ozarks life as it had been in pioneer times as realistically as possible, down to the animal breeds and the plant varieties that had been common in those earlier days. That mission had figured prominently in her having scored highest among applicants for the job as administrator,  as she was the only agriculture specialist who applied.

But one look at the ridge-backed porcine monsters residing at the museum when she arrived had been enough for her to issue them their walking papers. Rare they were, but too dangerous to be just a rail-and-wattle fence away from the public. She’d recognized the treacherous beasts by the breed’s reputation – a cross between the descendants of Ossabaw Island hogs stranded by a Colonial-era Spanish shipwreck on an island off the Georgia coast, with wild Arkansas razorback hogs left by other Spanish explorers who had traveled up the White River valley through Arkansas and southern Missouri in the 1540s. It was an evil combination that accentuated the toughness of both breeds but tended, coming as it did from two very small gene pools self-selected for survival skills, to accentuate such undomestic traits as aggressiveness, wily intelligence, and a general hatred of anything that moved.

Behind an electric fence they might have been relatively safe to keep on display. But with only the rail fences of the 1880s, even reinforced by the 19th century’s version of barbed wire, they were an accident waiting to happen. In fact, a pair of young boars had made their escape not long before she arrived, destroyed a patch of turnips in the farmstead garden, and killed a cat before taking to the woods. They were never recaptured. In her opinion and that of the employees who worked with them, the whole bunch had already overstayed their welcome.

Everyone had been happy when the remaining beasts were hauled away, traded to a more secure facility in return for the marginally less authentic but vastly more personable Tamworths. The worst these homely little red critters could do, she thought as she dodged one squealing shoat and dumped the last of the grain into the trough, was to run you over in pursuit of their corn. That one action, ridding the museum of the hoodlum hogs, had earned her many points with her crew.

The other animals who occupied the demonstration farmstead now had mostly been selected before Moira’s arrival, but she was very satisfied with the rest of the breeds presented here. And the criteria made sense. Would they have been in the Ozarks in the 1880s? was the question. If the answer was yes, most of the other questions were moot, except for a critical look at how they interacted with humans. They didn’t have to be friendly but they were at least required to be civil. With the Ossabaws gone, they were.  That, and the fact that it was feeding time, made them all very happy to see her.

She methodically parceled out grain and kitchen scraps to the rare red bourbon turkeys and speckled “dominecker” chickens, then started on the residents of the big barn. The first duty was to the equines because they were the most vocal. She clambered up to the hayloft in the main barn to toss down hay for the massive Percheron draft horses and the quicker, smaller Morgans. Below the loft’s other side were the cattle and oxen, some of whom had calves but were separated from them overnight by a sturdy fence. She filled their mangers, too, and hopped down to add some grain for all but the milkers.

From the bins in the granary she filled a bucket with mixed grains sweetened with molasses, poured it into a series of feeding pans in the milk parlor, gave some to the lonely calves, and led the friendly Jersey and milking short-horn cows from their stalls into their stanchions to take the morning milk. Because no visitors were present she used a small portable milking machine instead of milking by hand as was done in demonstrations, and finished quickly, leaving some of the milk for the eager calves. She emptied the result into a pair of tall buckets, noting in passing that the back door to the milk house was ajar. Steven may have done it on purpose so the barn cats could complete their mousing chores, so she left the door open and poured the last dregs of the foamy milk into a shallow pan for their breakfast. Then she opened the stanchions and let the calves in with their mothers. Moira welcomed the sun’s rays peeking over the ridge as she carried the buckets outside, but she knew it would be hours before the cold abated. The sooner she could get her aching toes to somewhere warm, the better.

It was mid-morning by the time she finished and trudged back up the hill to her cozy apartment, a pail in each hand. In the meantime the sun had retreated again behind thickening clouds, suggesting that more snow was on the way. No matter, she thought. Most of her day would be spent indoors, and the outdoors could use the moisture. The heavy buckets went straight to the small commercial kitchen off the warehouse where the farmhouse food served to visitors was actually prepared. By long habit, she slipped a filter into the milk strainer and poured the pails of fresh, still slightly warm milk through it into a series of wide-mouthed urns, which she then stowed in a large commercial cooler alongside several similar jugs. It was almost time to make more cheese. But that chore would be someone else’s. At least she hoped so.

Back in her quarters she put the kettle on to boil and, reneging on her earlier vow to avoid televised holiday celebrations, reached for the TV remote. The signal was clear and the picture perfect, but it wasn’t the parade.  Instead, a news bulletin was being broadcast. She put down her spoon and the sugar bowl and moved closer to the TV.

“. . . an  apparent shift in the earth’s magnetic field was discovered yesterday in data recorded at the space station . . . a possible malfunction in a sensor on the station was at first . . . ” The signal dissolved into snowy reception, as it sometimes did in these hills, and Moira puzzled over the announcement. What were they talking about? What data? And if the magnetic fields were changing, what did that mean?  She searched her memory for some context. As if in answer, the picture and sound returned, this time revealing someone she recognized, a top NASA scientist, being interviewed. ” . . .  never seen anything like this, so we’re still examining the data, but at this point we just don’t know. It could be related to recent solar activity. Or it might be something to do with the Wyoming disturbances. We should have more information within a few hours.”

“Disturbances? What disturbances?” she snapped at the screen. Again, the answer to her question came swiftly, and the next speaker’s voice seemed strained. In the brief moments when the picture was clear, he looked pale, like someone who’d been up all night with a colicky baby.

“We don’t know if it’s related to whatever is going on out there. We’re also seeing some unusually high tides as this “anomaly” comes nearer, and there’s a bit of an increase in earthquake activity as well. But we really don’t anticipate anything too spectacular . . . but in truth, we don’t know any more than you do. We’re having to watch and wait, just like you. In the meantime, we’re picking up some really spectacular video from our satellites up around the Arctic rim. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Aurora Borealis like this in my lifetime. I hope we can bring some of this to our viewers. . . . should be able to get a better picture of the whole situation by the weekend.”

But when an interviewer asked what else the magnetic upset might be signaling, she thought the scientist seemed worried as he looked off-camera and said “That’s all I’m at liberty to say right now.”

Cursing, Moira muted the sound, went to her desk, removed a small box from beneath a pair of directories, opened it to reveal her satellite phone, and pressed speed dial. If this was a signal that the end had begun, she needed to know about it,  and she knew the number to call. Should she batten down the hatches, or just mind her own business? It was time to talk to Rudy again.

“Is there something new I need to know this morning?” she asked when he picked up the phone. “What’s up?”

“Something, for sure,” he said. “How big a something we don’t know, so I can’t tell you much. I’ve been listening to the news feeds since before daylight here and I can’t make any sense out of them. Everybody’s telling a different story, but they’re all obviously shooting in the dark. Whatever it is, it’s happening very fast.”

“Wait. Let’s back up. First of all, what’s the confusion? Last I knew we were watching the Northern Lights because of  increased sunspot activity or whatever. But this guy on TV looked like he was in a real sweat. What is he not telling?”

“Something’s … moving. Up north. It’s something to do with the ice cap, what’s left of it. Something’s way off up there under the ice. And Wyoming is jiggling like the cap on a pressure cooker. Little quakes, too many to count. Normally that’s a good sign, that means pressure is being released gradually. But I don’t know. I keep listening, waiting for somebody to drop the ball and give us a real clue about what they think might be happening. So far, nobody has. But if my ear is any good, those who have the most information are about to wet their pants.”

“Um, are you telling me, dear friend, that we should be kissing our asses goodbye?”

The security chief made a disparaging sound through his teeth.

“You know those guys. If it was, they’d not say so for fear of stirring up a panic. Even if we hadn’t seen too many disaster movies, the hits we’ve taken these past few years have already screwed some pretty significant real estate. People are still in shock from that.”

And then his voice lowered, and he cleared his throat and seemed to hesitate.

“On the other hand…” he hesitated. “Look, I don’t want to spook you, but I’ve been doing some lurking on the secure channels for the past few hours, and, you know, I don’t think they’re holding back. I think they just really don’t have a clue what’s going on, because nothing like this has ever happened before, at least in human history. Have you opened all the stuff in your stash?”

“I’ve been putting it off, to tell the truth, and I’m not sure I’ve even found it all yet. It’s on today’s list, after dinner and the parade. I had just turned on the tube when this stuff came on.”

“Well, you won’t find anything particularly reassuring.  But you’ll see we’ve been reaching out in a lot of different directions, putting together  this “survival kit.” We realized early on we needed to respond to the possibility, which seems to be increasing as we speak, that some significant areas of the planet are becoming unstable on a very dangerous level. I told you that the possibility of major earth movements were being projected not only in the Pacific rim but in formerly quiet areas like the New Madrid fault zone and along the White River up near you. And in addition to the swarms of quakes, the lava dome in Wyoming has risen significantly as the quakes continue. And there’s a large area of the Great Plains from Nebraska clear down into Texas that appears to be subsiding, very slowly but enough to measure.

“The combination of all these effects is enough to cause some of us who’ve been sending you these little care packages to consider seeking shelter for ourselves pretty soon. A few are already headed for the hills. The rest are tryin’ our best to figure out if we’ve done enough and stored enough and made enough available in enough different places for some of us to make it. We hope we’ve done enough.  But I think we’re about to run out of time.

“Not us, as individuals, I mean, but us, the species, our various civilizations. Because this really might be it. The big Kablowski. We had to do something. We don’t wanna go all the way back to the Stone Age or worse. We don’t want to lose everything. Obviously there’s a lot we could stand to lose, but…”

“Jesus! You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“You bet your ass, sweetheart. I’ve been serious for a long time. I just couldn’t go along any longer with all the liars and fumblers. I mean, even now. We may be looking at the goddam end of the world, and the only thing some of them are working on is to somehow blame it on terrorism, or at least the other political party. Some of the paranoids up here in D.C. have decided  someone’s been boogering the Hubbell scope and that what it’s showing isn’t really happening. But there’s a big hunk of something out there that they can’t make fit their theory, so now they’re working on who they should nuke.

“To be fair, it’s had our best minds baffled as well. Until now. From what I understand, they know what it is. They just don’t know what it’s going to do. From the chatter I’ve picked up, the folks on the station are seeing some things they’ve never seen before, and  it’s got them pretty scared. They think it may be that rogue planet that’s just wandering along on its own path and passing by on a visit. I’d never heard of such a thing but it turns out there are a lot of them out there. We’ve just never had one visit before. It doesn’t seem to be on a trajectory that will hit us but it’ll be close enough to do some damage. I think we’re already beginning to see that. It should be visible very soon, I’m told.

“So, back to your very first question – I don’t have an answer. My training says I should tell you to carry on until we know more. My gut, on the other hand, tells me you might want to settle up with your nearest and dearest and get right with your Maker. I swear on my mother,” he said, and she could hear the emotion in his voice. “We’ve put everything we had into getting as many as possible as ready as we could make them in the event this turns out as bad as it could be, and now I don’t think nearly enough of us are ready enough, God help us. But we’ve done the best we can. I hope to God we’re not the only ones who’ve been trying.”

“Hey, my friend,” she said, trying to shake him from this dark turn of mind. “Don’t worry about me. The warehouse out here is bursting at the seams. I’ve got enough stock on hand to weather about anything. And I’m sitting on this big rock that is the Ozarks Highlands. So if this business turns out to be really bad, at least I won’t go hungry or run out of toilet paper,” she added with an attempt at a laugh, which he joined. Then they went quiet, thinking about the possibilities as yet unknown.

“Take care of yourself, my friend,” he said softly.

“Yeah, you too. And thank you. For everything. If we have a chance, it will be because you gave us one.”

“De nada. Vaya con Dios, commadre.”

She smiled at his attempt at the feminine inflection but found tears suddenly springing to her eyes.

“You too, man,” she answered, and rang off. A brief flash of memory struck her then, of a much younger Rudy lifting a stein of ale in her direction at the party on the night they graduated from the academy. Despite her gender, he said, she would always be the toughest nut in the bunch. It might have been so, she thought, but she certainly didn’t feel like it now.

It was the remark about getting right with your family that got to her first. She would never be right with her family, planetary emergency or not. There was too much distance between them to ever make it right. It wasn’t just their opinion of her friends. There was also her divorce, in which they’d taken her ex-husband’s side, because, after all, he was perfect. After that she’d stretched family ties to their limits by putting distance both emotional and geographic, between them. No calamity, natural or otherwise, could heal or change that. Add to that the fight over religious sacred cows, and there wasn’t much left to be repaired. She still smarted from the shouting match when she had suggested their version of Christianity had been shaped by ignorant fundamentalism. It might not be what her home church believed, she had said, but its leaders certainly weren’t taking any pains to challenge medieval thinking that was out of touch with the modern world. She had known things had gone too far when her sister called her a Satanist. It was ugly. And that had happened just last Thanksgiving, come to think of it. God, Goddess, whatever. Talk about the ghost of Thanksgivings Past. She’d not sat down to dinner with any of them or had a civil conversation since. Maybe she should call and attempt some fence mending. Or not.

She turned back to the television to see that this time there was a parade. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day extravaganza was underway, but she no longer wanted to watch it. She turned off the television, finished making her tea, and stood at the window next to her breakfast table looking out at the bird feeder, watching the cardinals, finches, chickadees and titmice duke it out over their seedy repast. She stood like that for a long time, her hand cupped around the mug, staring past the birds to the barren hillside and the icicles hanging from the rocky outcrops.

“Ah, the hell with it,” she said aloud, shaking herself out of her morose reverie. “You can be bull-headed and full of yourself, or you can just do the decent thing and break the ice. After all, you’re the one who’s been giving everyone the cold shoulder,” she said into the small oval mirror that hung next to the window, angled so she could give her hair a last look every morning before venturing out to meet the public. “Besides, if you’re all that hot about this Mother Earth thing, shouldn’t you be, well, more . . . nurturing, or something?” She made a face at the mirror, whirled and reached for the phone, this time the land line. If she hurried, she could catch at least some of them before they headed out for the day.

“Hello, Mom?  Hey, happy Turkey day.”

By noon she had talked to the whole family, or all the ones that counted, with varying outcomes. Her mother still lamented about Moira’s divorce but was glad to hear from her and responded in loving tones. Forgotten, it seemed for the moment, were questions about her soul. Just as well. But also absent was any mention of possible upcoming calamity. She quickly realized she knew both too little and too much to attempt that conversation, and no one seemed interested in bringing it up.

Her parents had divorced during the previous year and when she contacted her father he, too,  seemed happy to hear from her and told her how proud he was of her in her new job. But he soon changed the subject to complain about the awful time he was having trying to live alone. “You women have it so much easier making a home, you know?” he said, and she laughed, remembering his long and steadfast refusal to learn anything about any job he considered part of domestic life.

She did her own changing of subjects when the conversation seemed headed toward their troubles with one another, the break-up of their marriage, or anything even remotely resembling religion. “I can only imagine what you’re going through. It’s hard for everyone these days,” she said pointedly, then fended off firmly anything that seemed headed toward her beliefs, her relationship prospects, or her own failed marriage.

Stop that! she admonished herself. It wasn’t a failure. Staying would have been the real failure. She had chosen to get out because it was the only sane option left. Not that Keith had cared all that much if she was sane, so long as wifely duties and other personal services were attended to. If ever there had been a man with a toxic level of self-esteem, Keith was it. She pondered calling just to offer a truce and wish him a happy Thanksgiving, but then in her mind she heard his voice, drawling “Of course you do, Darling. Fetch me a drink, would you?”

Her holiday sentiments were getting out of hand. There was really only one more number to call. But when she reached her sister’s answering machine instead of Fran herself, she was relieved. She had been dreading this call most of all because conversations with Fran were, even at the best of times, difficult. Fran nursed grudges, always had. Even against her own children when they failed her. And of course they did. Everyone failed her. No conversation would be complete without a few swipes at Mom and Dad for not giving Fran the attention she’d needed or the training to grow into a good and loving mother. She was sure to have some ugly crack saved up about devil worshippers, Moira knew. So she whipped out a cheery greeting, offered good wishes to the answering machine, and got off fast, just in case Fran was merely screening her calls and deciding whom she would deign to answer. Cut to the chase, Moira thought, warbling a too-cheerful goodbye, and get the hell out of Dodge.

But once it was done, she placed the receiver in its cradle, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against the wall. This must be what it felt like to die, she thought. Every conversation had felt like a last goodbye that was understood but could not be acknowledged. “I’ll see you,” she had said to them all, knowing the chance of that was like a leaf in a strong wind, eluding capture as it swept along on currents far beyond the power of humankind’s control.

She sat like that for some minutes, beyond tears, seeing their faces, wishing she could somehow hold them up to some sacred light so that whatever happened, they would not be hurt by it or made afraid. They were not bad people. And they were hers, or had been. But there was no power on earth that would let her step between them and their likely fates in the coming maelstrom. After a while she huffed a sigh and stood. It was time to prepare her tiny homage to Thanksgiving dinner.

She set the precooked turkey breast out to finish thawing, topped off her tea with a jot of hot water from the kettle, and swept through the interior doorway, headed for the warehouse like a woman on a mission. The mission was to cheer the hell up, get busy, and get some work done. She set to with a vengeance.

Doing the family thing hadn’t exactly cheered her but it had certainly helped reinforce her perception of her dysfunctional family. Hell, none of them had even mentioned the news or the possibility of impending planetary doom. They’d probably decided it didn’t concern them, she thought. She heard the self-righteousness in her unvoiced pronouncements. Hmmm. Could it be that this particular acorn wasn’t falling all that far from the tree?

“Ahem,” she said aloud, “could we quit with this introspection nonsense and get to work, please?” She willed her thoughts to attend to the tasks at hand.

By two o’clock she’d succeeded in creating a virtual city of stacked boxes; toilet tissue and paper towels soared in tall columns, joined by lower stacks of heavier items: cases of vinegar, scouring powder, baking soda, and soap-making ingredients. Good choices, all. Low-impact cleaning supplies saved money, met with historic parameters and gave the environment a break. A triple win.

She surveyed her just-created “cityscape,” then used the hand-operated fork lift to move three pallets of rock salt into the maintenance area. One more to go, and that one was going for a ride. After a side trip to brew another cup of tea, she would slide the last pallet of salt into the back of her little red truck, fork lift and all, and drive it out the paved road that connected Falling Spring historic site and heritage farm to the rest of the world. The county-maintained roadway went all the way up to the top of the ridge, where it met the main highway four miles away. But she didn’t intend to follow it that far. Instead, she would go a little more than a mile to a turnoff down an unmarked graveled track that wound its way off the ridge top to meet the old road to Falling Spring Village whose track lay down along the bottom of the hollow, following the river. Most of that road was now on park grounds and was no longer a public thoroughfare. It was only maintained for trips such as these. She would enter the fenced portion of the museum grounds from that lower road and store the salt in a maintenance shed out near the lower gate. There the salt could easily be accessed for use in curing meat, brining pickles, and other pioneer-day tasks demonstrated at the living history farmstead. The salt kept here up top would mostly be used for clearing the museum parking lot of ice in winter.

Down the hill, along with the salt, would go a half-dozen rolls of reproduction antique barbed wire, two shovels borrowed last week from down-slope and not returned, a dozen rolls of sisal baling twine for the horse-drawn baler, and the grain dolly she’d borrowed for unloading the delivery trucks. A second load of pig iron and assorted replacement blacksmithing tools would have to wait for another day, when stronger arms and a stronger vehicle were available. The iron would overload her small truck and she wasn’t sure, even if she got it loaded into the truck bed, she could actually get it out again without Steven’s help, as there was no loading dock at the smithy. Best to just keep the heavier materials around until needed, she reasoned. Meanwhile, she pulled, pried, and wrestled the small but extremely heavy wooden crates away from the doors and rolled the last pallet of salt out onto the dock.

Then she stopped. The plan was good but the timing sucked. She watched as a curtain of penny-size flakes of snow wafted lazily down to drop into a mass of their fellows, stacked an inch deep already on the uncovered end of the dock. There might be enough weight on the back wheels of the truck to make the trip down the hill. But with the weight off, how would she get back up? She sighed and pulled the salt back inside. Time to go to Plan B, and Plan B was turkey and trimmings.

Back in her tiny kitchen, she moved the pre-cooked meat from its plastic coffin to a stoneware platter, balanced a chunk of butter atop it, and put it into the oven, along with a pair of baking potatoes and an acorn squash, halved, seeded, and drizzled with butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. Two home-canned jars, one of corn and another of green beans, and a store-bought can of cranberry sauce would round out the meal. She set the oven dial, donned her coat, gloves and a cap with earflaps, and wound her way out through the public area to the visitor center’s entrance to savor a brief walk in this new snow.

The pinewood and buckbrush thicket alongside the lane between the visitor center and the paved county road was one of her favorite haunts after hours.  If peace and serenity were to be found this day, it would be here among these whispering conifers. She offered her face to the snow-filled breeze and stepped out into the silence. Crunching her way down the lane, she startled a young doe, but it dashed only a short distance before stopping still within the cover of the pines. She flicked her ears in warning, but Moira made no move toward her and she stayed in cover.

Not a single track marred the county road, adding to the  solitude. To her left, the road dead-ended at a canoe put-in on the Eleven Point National Scenic River less than a mile away. To the right, it wound about the shoulder of the hill, disappearing some distance away between two tall man-made rock bluffs carved out by the road’s builders. The original dirt track, probably an Indian trail, had reached Falling Spring from the bottom of the hollow after a circuitous crawl over steep and rocky terrain. The Ozark Mountains were the oldest on the continent, eroded to mere stumps, but mountains still. The route used by pioneers had been deemed too hazardous for tourists, so for the museum a new route had been laid out along the ridge. Large obstacles such as hilltops were blasted into submission and the rest smoothed, straightened, and asphalted into a more civilized thoroughfare.

She dawdled there at the end of the driveway, taking shelter for a while in the lee of the massive wooden signboard marking the entrance to the museum. It was not a stop on a larger journey but a destination she knew well and had visited often, just to savor the surprising level of activity in this sheltered little ecosystem. The hiss of new snow blown along windswept pavement, the sigh of the wind in the pines, the muffled conversation of winter-dwelling songbirds holed up in the dense greenery waiting for the storm to break, were all parts of  nature’s own symphony. Chickadees, titmice, two kinds of finches, and a lone cardinal muttered quietly in the trees, while the little slate-backed juncos, the snowbirds, flitted across the woods understory, searching for dislodged seeds and an occasional mummified fruit to fuel their tiny furnaces. “Whatever the state of humans and planets,” they seemed to say, “It’s just another winter day in the Ozarks. Find the good in it, and weather the rest.”

Good advice, she decided. Breathing deeply of the sharp winter air, she bade them all farewell and headed back to finish preparing her meal, ready now to give thanks, if not to the God of her fathers just now, then perhaps to his Mother.

Dinner was satisfying, the turkey and vegetables accompanied by a fresh greenhouse salad and a favorite old movie, a comedy called “Outrageous Fortune,” sent to her by a friend as a “celebrate-your-divorce” present. She lingered over dessert, a thick slice of store-bought cake and ice cream roll drizzled with a homemade cherry topping.  The topping was the work of Helen Walker, the chief cook at the farmstead during the summer harvest demonstrations. The cherries were put up the old way, boiled down with sugar almost to jelling stage, poured into straight-sided glass jars, and sealed with a layer of hot paraffin wax. It was tasty enough to generate thankful thoughts all by itself, she decided, scraping the last dregs off the plate.

When the movie ended she suited up again in her outdoor duds. It was nearing dusk and time for evening chores. She grabbed the plastic bucket of chicken treats, which now held a handful of greenhouse trimmings, a few baked and crushed eggshells, some stale bread, and the seed-laden middle from the acorn squash. The chickens would relish the snack and she needed the exercise after that kind of meal. Besides, it would be good to get the animals bedded down early for the night and see to her own rest and comfort.

She started down the snow-covered path, then hesitated, struck with indecision. What the heck. There was still some daylight left. Why not drive down with the maintenance supplies and worry about retrieving the truck after the snow was cleared? If she loaded the truck really tight, it would keep its footing even in a layer of snow this substantial. And unless she moved the supplies destined for down-slope out of the storeroom, they’d still be in the way as she tried to get the rest of the supplies situated. She headed back for the loading area, fumbling for her keys. Besides, she told herself with a grin, it’s a good excuse for a really beautiful drive. If the truck got stuck, Steven could haul it out later with the tractor.

A half hour later, the small truck groaning under the load but holding tight to the roadway, she drove out the main entrance and headed up the road toward the ridge. A small pine tree that had been bent into the roadway under its load of snow might have been an obstacle, but she was able to nudge it aside with the truck’s front fender and continue on.  The gate at the bottom entrance was another challenge. The frozen lock faced the inside and she, of course, was outside. A few minutes’ fumbling, though, and it was done.

Once inside and at the maintenance shed, with the help of the manual forklift, everything was quickly dispatched. As she’d half expected, the truck didn’t want to go anywhere uphill once it had been emptied, so she parked it next to the smithy and gathered up the carton of leftovers for the chickens. Chores should be a snap.

But they weren’t, and getting the animals tucked away proved less simple than she’d thought. The chickens were nervous and didn’t seem to remember who she was, although she’d fed them just a few hours earlier. She got the same treatment from the bovines and decided it must be the intensity of the snow squall, which was beginning to worsen as the day darkened into an early winter twilight. The cows snorted and lowed in answer to the wind, which was now gusting strongly, and the calves refused to be separated from their mothers. “Oh, good grief, stay in there then,” she finally snarled at them, put down some extra hay, and stalked off to try her luck with the horses. There it was even worse. Every equine on the place was in a panic, starting at shadows, refusing to be touched, and bolting outside every time she tried to close the side doors into the barn. Realizing she could be injured by their increasingly frenzied antics, she threw up her hands in disgust. “Fine,” she snapped. “If you want to stand out there in the snow and shake your butts, just shake away. See if I care. What are you going to do if a bear comes calling and you out here and not safely locked in the barn, huh?”

But as she paused to give the horses time to reflect — an unlikely expectation, given their behavior — she did some reflecting herself and didn’t like what she came up with. A bear showing up in this weather wasn’t all that uncommon. The little black bears once native and now reintroduced weren’t all that aggressive and a horse might be too much to tackle, even if they were hungry. A cougar, now . . . that was another story. She shivered, dashed out into the corral, and began waving her arms. She ran at the horses and yelled until her voice was raw. It worked. The horses were so unsettled at her unexpected behavior, they decided the barn was the safest place after all. They fled wild-eyed into their stalls, still shivering, muttering to one another, and blowing great puffs of steam out their noses.

“Great,” she said to them sarcastically, “now what am I going to do to fend off the bear, or whatever? How ‘bout I climb over the rails and bunk up with you guys?” They had no useful comments for her, so she turned, grabbed up a broken shovel handle for a pretense at protection, and headed out into the snow-filled night. Not for the first time, she wished she had a dog. It wasn’t that they weren’t allowed, but it was hard to find one that fit the breed requirements of the museum — common to the area, in existence in the 1880s, good with cattle and people, and logical for a farm operation. She had made contact with a breeder who said he would research the question and get back with her, but he hadn’t. As the storm thickened and branches creaked and moaned with their loads of snow, she wished he’d already brought her a pup and she had it by her side.

No bears or cougars accosted her on the way up the hill. But just as she came near the end of the climb, she heard a far-off sound, a deep, heavy, groaning boom, coming from the direction of the farmstead but much farther away. It was an eerie noise, one she’d not heard before. A sonic boom at this time of night, she wondered? But she forgot about it as the warm glow of her porch light appeared. It would take more than lions, bears, and sonic booms to keep her from her rest tonight. Still, Rudy’s words tugged at her consciousness. If the end were really near, would anyone see it coming? Would it be swift or torturous? Or just a slow slide into oblivion, she wondered.

She exhaled, then bit off a scream at the sight of a shadowy figure beside her doorway. It was a dog, black with white muzzle and forelegs and a white blaze on its chest – a border collie, from the looks of it – sitting demurely at the edge of the light, smiling and wagging.

“Well, hello there,” Moira said, catching her breath. “You about gave me a heart attack.” The dog stood, wagged vigorously, and put out a paw in welcome.

Moira accepted the greeting. “Howdy, pardner,” she said. “Aren’t you a long way from home?”

She searched the dog’s neck for collar and tags, but there were none. More searching revealed burrs and tangles and skimpy flesh over the ribs. The dog had apparently not been home in some time.

“Oh, boy,” Moira sighed. “Well, you’re not exactly period-correct, are you? We’ll have to find you a home somewhere else. But that doesn’t mean I can’t offer you supper. How do you feel about turkey?” she asked, holding the door open. The dog walked in as though she’d been there a dozen times before, surveyed the room, and lay down on the rug by Moira’s bed.

Moira watched in growing amazement, her recent thoughts replaying in her head.

“Be careful what I wish for,” she muttered, assembling a supper for two. A meal, a bath, and a long comb-out session later, she fell asleep scratching the dog’s head.

_________________________

Chapter 1 – “The Call”

Chapter 3 – “It Begins”