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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Fourteen: The Village It Takes

The explosive “Aaa-choo” that echoed down the hard corridor was followed quickly by a curse, as Moira worked her way down the dusty shelves far back in a little-visited corner of the seed vaults. She knew what she was looking for but damned if she could find it, and the dust was beginning to get into her brain.

Where could all the dust be coming from in what was supposed to be a sealed chamber? Well, come to think of it, it couldn’t be that well sealed or the air would have gone bad years ago. She guessed it could be coming down through the ventilation shafts, although those were supposed to be covered with filters. Maybe the earth tremors that had begun over two years ago had knocked something loose or made a crack somewhere. She would get Steven to look into it. That wasn’t her job or why she was down here.

Somewhere in this ill-assorted mess was a book of such arcane information that she had thought best to keep it tucked away in earlier days, when the vaults had been part of a living history museum and she was simply its chief of operations. She’d been hired based on her knowledge of plants and animals. And yet some plants, in an era that was beginning to seem in many ways far back in archaic times, had been on a forbidden list. You weren’t supposed to know anything about them at all. Don’t ask, don’t tell. No, wait. That was another issue. Never mind.

It seemed now as if nearly everything from those times was swiftly receding into the dim past, so much had the world changed. She expected the same experience was common to everyone. But the book. Where was it? She’d held onto it even though it had been somewhat of an illicit tome in the world that once was. She had been one of those forward looking individuals who thought there was more to be considered about the notorious hemp plant than its reputation as the devil’s weed. For one thing, she’d traveled abroad frequently in her younger days and had seen first hand some of the industrial uses to which it had been put in other, less puritanical cultures. Certainly in the last days of the old world the laws had changed and research had made some forward strides. But much of that new research had not been published, and now probably would never be.

She’d been putting the word out since last year that she was looking for samples of both mature plant material and seeds from as many different varietal sources of hemp as possible. She knew she must locate every possible existing variety for more than one reason. First, with their limited pharmacological capabilities, they needed to make use of all the medicinal plants they could find and learn uses for. Not long before the Change, it had been discovered that different strains of cannabis had different medicinal properties which still needed evaluating. And secondly, she knew that at least one variety of the hemp plant had once been valued primarily for its fiber. In fact, farther to the north and west, over in Amish country and beyond where some of the terrain was flat enough for row crops, hemp had once been widely grown for that purpose. But that was before the cotton, tobacco, and liquor industries had taken aim at its smaller cousin, the marijuana plant, and had pressured Congress into outlawing the cultivation of any variety of cannabis. However, she knew now that the wild hemp still flourishing on roadsides and in waste spaces in areas where it had once been cultivated was far different in character than the shorter, bushy, aromatic specimens that were cultivated for more medicinal and recreational purposes. They needed all of it. Annie had brought a few seeds, but they were old, and only one plant survived, a male that did not produce viable seeds.

Just last week when a stoned-looking young man stopped at the village for supplies, she persuaded him to share with her a small quantity of his obviously recreational variety – because it had seeds.

She’d had the devil of a time convincing him to part with a gram or two, plus some additional seeds, but he had finally capitulated, and now they had on hand enough seeds to produce one strain of the valuable medicinal in quantity sufficient for use and research. The object now was to procure seeds of other varieties, particularly the strains with differing medicinal properties. She was pretty sure she could trade with any surviving farmer to the northwest for the wild hemp, the one used in industry. There were still people alive in that country, for Glen had met them. One day the fiber and the seeds would come. To keep the strains pure, the fiber plant would need to be grown widely separated from its cousins to avoid cross pollination. Perhaps they should just continue to let the plant grow where it was happiest, and establish good trading partners with people in other places who grew different varieties. Ellen the herbalist had claimed most of the resinous plant material obtained from the young man and was busily making tinctures for use as painkillers and tranquilizers. The seeds had been passed on to Toby and a number of other reliable growers to do with as they would. A small portion of plant material was passed to Annie, who was now extracting its resins and trying to track the markers that would make the variety distinguishable from any others.

If they could find reliably useful varieties, most other issues would be moot. For instance, if some folks decided to indulge in a toke or two purely for recreation, it was none of her business. It was hard enough to enforce such rules as were absolutely necessary for survival. She didn’t have time to keep track of everybody’s personal habits so long as they posed no harm to others, and neither did anyone else. Besides, every one of the survivors still carried the immense burden of loss, not just of family, friends and loved ones, but of their entire context as human beings. How could she argue against any remedy for pain, particularly the pain of deep grief and heartache? But now she was drifting, and she must keep on track.

What she needed desperately, and as soon as possible, was information on how the plants of the fiber-producing hemp could be processed into the goods and materials that were rapidly becoming rare commodities in this isolated culture. Paper, for one thing. And rope. And door mats, shoes, baskets, clothing. Goddess, the list was endless. Leather served for some purposes but was itself in short supply. Split white oak would do for durable baskets but had little tensile strength. She had begun her dusty search when she’d remembered reading that the oil extracted from hemp seed was extremely versatile and easily processed into a variety of fuels and lubricants, including lamp oil.

In just these past year and some months some things once thought crucial to life were gone, used up, and no replacement had been found that could be produced in sufficient quantity. They’d soon be reduced to burning animal fat for light if nothing else could be found. The small amount of electricity from the mill pond generator was providing some comforts for now, but even at its peak it could supply only minimal amounts beyond what was needed to keep the vaults dry and evenly heated.

She had been both generous and practical, she thought, in allowing its use to drive power tools used in the construction of housing for the rapidly growing community. They might as well use the tools, and use them up, while there was power to spare, she reasoned. After all, both the tools and the generator would wear down and then wear out over time. Once they were gone, there might well be no replacing them. They were merely buying time and sparing these unintentional pioneers some physical effort as they struggled to adjust to a world of vastly different and far fewer resources. From here on, there seemed very limited potential for the kind of growth that was once called “progress.”
Fortunately, those long-silent folks who had earlier supplied her with the “doomsday stash” had sent numerous large cartons of rechargeable batteries, and more of lightweight, flexible solar panels. Those too would be useful for their limited lifespan as would, eventually, the still half-full carton of once cheap and now priceless butane cigarette lighters.

Unfortunately, some of the settlers at Falling Spring hadn’t figured out the need to be frugal, or perhaps were still in denial. It was only through her dogged determination and occasional threats that the more short-sighted of the citizenry hadn’t decided to just chuck the preservation of the vitally important seed stocks in favor of holding on just a little longer to that last precious symbol of their former lives — electric light. Never mind that the supply of light bulbs was dwindling, too, and there was no conceivable way at this point in the new world’s evolution to make more. Goddess, what primeval forces were at work. She was seeing deeply what fear was driving them all, to be without a way to light the darkness. No wonder they panicked so easily when reminded that the age of cheap and plentiful electric power had simply ended. Well, she meant to fix that problem for good and all, if she could only find that damned book!

An hour later she had found helpful instructions on brewing homemade beer, making vinegar from apples, basic soap making, leather tanning, and fermenting techniques. And a recipe for a variety of intoxicating beverages, including raspberry mead, of all things. All useful information, but not what she sought. She tried to remember where she had last seen the text on hemp production and processing.
Wait a minute. That’s right. It was a reference book, not something from popular culture. She’d come across it at the university library’s annual book sale while still in grad school and had been intrigued enough to carry it home. She’d paid something like a quarter for it, she remembered. Now, she thought, it was priceless. It was also likely to be stored with the rest of her ag reference books on a shelf in her bedroom upstairs. Oh, great. She’d spent a morning down here in the dust for nothing.

Well, not quite, she thought with a grin. She’d found the beer-making book. What they’d managed so far was drinkable, more or less, but that’s all. Their crop of barley had been meager since it wasn’t really suited to the local climate. Maybe they could substitute wheat for part of the malt and still get something drinkable – if the wheat harvest was sufficient. It was worth a try. She’d drop that book by Lon Brixey’s cabin down next to the mill. An African American carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade before the Change, and one of the latest arrivals, he’d been trying to get the woodright’s shop, powered by the mill wheel and used by the house builders, developed into a better design so he could make more than lumber. He was talking about making, among other things, barrels and casks for storage vessels. He’d also frequently expressed serious displeasure at the mediocre quality of the beer and the few fruit wines they’d managed to produce. If he wasn’t interested in developing the craft of beermaking, she’d bet he’d find someone who was.

Someone overhearing her thoughts might have thought her a little too focused on the production of addictive substances, she realized with a grin. But she knew what her growing extended family was going through in its struggle to adjust to this new and difficult life. If she could spare any of them an ounce of pain and make their daily lives smoother, that would be just fine with her.

She bypassed the energy-sucking freight elevator and headed for the stairs. She was stronger than she’d been in years from the physical labor required to stay abreast of her duties and jogged easily up the stairs from the vaults, brushed the dust from her clothes, and had another sneezing fit at the top. When she entered her apartment by the back door, the book was just where she’d thought it might be, tucked away right between chickens and grains on a closet shelf.

She leafed through its introductory pages as she strolled absently out of her personal quarters, across the hall, and into the cavernous room that had once been the exhibit space of the visitor center, now converted to use as an infirmary and for other purposes. Most of the equipment in the hall, including the antique tools and implements on display, had long since been scavenged for direct use or as patterns to copy, their once-obsolete designs having suddenly become essential again. She looked up, hearing the screech of a nail being pulled through wood, and found Steven dismantling one of the last remaining tall display cases. It was on its side with its front open, the heavy glass panels from it and two other cases leaning against a nearby wall.

“What’s going on, my good man?” she asked, moderating her tone as she noted a small, moccasined foot protruding from what she’d thought was a pile of rags. “I see you’ve stolen my son.” Jared, her adopted firstborn, was just now old enough to escape from the village nursery so long as he had supervision. He was becoming Steven’s frequent companion on days when his tasks posed no danger, like today.

Steven nodded and smiled. “I thought I’d give the nannymamas a break for a few hours. I know people describe his kind of energy as ‘all boy,’ but I swear, this one seems to be about a boy and a half.” He smiled as he stood and put out an arm to pull her to him. They embraced awkwardly, each unwilling to put down their tools — hers the book and his a pry bar. Exchanging smiles of easy affection, they held each other a moment and then stepped apart.

She pretended an official tone as she demanded, “And what mischief are you up to today?”

“I’m commandeering these articles for use in the greater plan, oh wise and generous one,” he said, affecting a similarly officious tone and saluting with the pry bar. There appeared to be more than one mischievous child in the room.

“In other words, you’re absconding with more loot from my place to put to some questionable purpose of your own,” she returned.

“That’s it, exactly,” he said with a grin, looking pleased with himself. “The glass will make some great windows for the school, and these cases will hold lots of books and supplies, once I’ve put in some sturdier shelves. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Not a bit, especially since I’ll end up with more of this great big room so its other endeavors can expand and offer more space for essential services. The theater is great for meetings. We can seat everyone and more in that space,” she said, gesturing toward the adjoining room.

“This room has the capacity to become a medical center of sorts. Annie has her lab, Nurse Alice has her clinic, and Ellen is developing a proper herbary to process and store medicinals in what used to be the other restroom and the janitor’s closet inside. They all seem to get along well enough, and are learning a great deal from each other.”

Steven commended her farsightedness, but she demurred.

“ It had to happen. At first, I was obsessed with keeping this whole facility, excepting Annie’s lab and the warehouse, as some kind of last remnant of the world before. But I’m over it. I don’t really need anything in here for me beyond my apartment. I do want to hold onto that, because I really think I’d like to have another child, once this guy’s a little farther along. I was against it at first, because my job gives me little time to spare caring for an infant. But now that the nannymamas have organized, that’s not so much of an issue. I’d have the benefit of those extra hands. But what we really need” she said, shifting gears, “is a community health, science, and research center. And what we don’t need is another structure to build. So I’m thinking this is it.”

“Yeah. Like a Keep,” he said and grinned, for everyone called it that, but she still found it awkward.

Yeah, kinda,” she agreed. “I’m beginning to see that.”

“Well, don’t see it too clearly. There’s bound to be another meeting,” he said and made a face.

“Oh, Goddess bless us, not that,” she groaned. They laughed, and she returned to her previous focus. “Well, hey, we’re going to have to do that anyway pretty soon, because I’ve just now found us the answer to most of life’s biggest problems.” She held up the book and he read its title.

“What’s this? ‘Hemp Production and Processes?’ Oh, right. You’re going to get us all so stoned we don’t give a rip for life’s biggest problems, is that it? Some answer.”

She held the book up and shook it under his nose, a menacing look on her face. “No,” she hissed. “I’m gonna take this stuff and grow you a shirt – and some tow ropes, and maybe some house paint, and a goddamn night light, you scientifically challenged woofer. You know what this means? We work out how to break this stuff down on a large scale into its component parts and we have a manufacturing base. We have raw materials for some of the most basic goods of civilized life. It’s all right here, in this one amazing plant.

“And I’m not blowing smoke, buddy. Did you know that this fiber is, ounce for ounce, stronger than steel? We can make ropes and cables and baskets and paper and clothing, plus lubricants and oils for nearly every use imaginable. We can cook with it and light our houses at night. This stuff is going to save our asses, Steven. No kidding. I’m certain of it.”

“Wow. Okay then, I guess I’m impressed,” he said, sobering. “So how do we go about it? How do we get these wonders to happen?”
She heaved a sigh. “Let’s save that for the meeting. I need to bone up on my subject matter some more before I go blowing about it like this before an audience. But I’m glad you said ‘we,’” she said with satisfaction. “If we can locate the right seeds, I’m sure we can get the stuff to grow. But then to learn the refining processes, to work it into usable forms, I’m going to need the right implements, including some pretty sophisticated machinery. Warning’s fair – I’m probably going to be keeping your forges hot all summer.” She gave him a wicked grin, which he answered with eyebrows raised.

“Oo, baby, you know what I like,” he quoted the long-ago popular song. They shared another hug and a chuckle, and he returned to his task. Moira tiptoed out, leaving Jared to his nap, and found a sunny corner outside, next to the greenhouse and out of the wind, where she settled down to read everything she could squeeze out of this little book about industrial hemp. It was going to be their salvation. She just knew it.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twelve: A Season of Beginnings

 

Looking back, Moira was grateful the meeting was over by the time Annie LeBeaux arrived on the scene, for she’d have raised enough questions and thrown in enough ideas to keep them talking all evening and into the night. But it was midday the next day before she chugged up to the gate, now always kept locked, and tooted the horn on her fabulously unique vehicle.

At some time in the past it had been a motorcycle with sidecar, Moira decided. But it had long since given up any pretensions of adhering to its previous identity. For one thing, it had a solar panel for a roof. Across the handlebars was a shelf beneath which several cords and bungees held an assortment of poles that at second glance appeared to be garden tools, several fishing rods, and possibly a harpoon, all tied together. The shelf, piled with an assortment of gadgets, extended back toward the driver and held several large pockets, pouches, and baskets into which were stuffed a bandanna, a folded topo map, binoculars, a pistol, several highway flares, a canteen, a crank-charged radio, a large jar of vitamin C pills, another of ammunition, and an iPod.

Both the cycle and sidecar were painted an astonishing number of colors, and the sidecar was packed to the gills with bundles, bags, and boxes of mysterious and unknowable stuff. The whole apparatus was towing a lawn-tractor trailer rigged to a homemade hitch, and it, too, was piled high with boxes wrapped in a tarpaulin and tightly bound.

Rick was first to greet the amazing Annie, and he sent Joey running up the hill to fetch Moira while he invited her to his patio for coffee.

“Tell me you’re not putting me on,” the woman said, her voice rasping, her shoulders suddenly straighter at the mention of the now rare beverage. She looked to be about 70-something, short, stooped, and with weathered skin, red hair going to gray, and green eyes going everywhere, darting from one new sight to another as if to memorize or to verify its reality. Her face was tanned and creased, with lines running deep, from laughter and much else it seemed. She wore a worn cotton tee and fatigue pants with many pockets. Her hands were rough as she twisted a thin cigarette from makings in a can.

“It’s the real thing and just brewed,” Rick said and laughed as she sniffed the air hungrily. “How do you take it?”

“Just coffee. Thanks. Oh, my sweet mother,” she sipped, sighed, and continued to look around her.

“Been looking for us for long?” Rick inquired softly.

Her gaze drew inward. “Long enough. I took a wrong turn up north a ways and ran into some nasty little critters.” She shook her head. “It’s good I had a gun. It’s gotten scary out there.” She said no more but sipped her coffee until Moira arrived, then leaned forward and stuck out her hand.

“You the chief?”

“More or less. I’m Moira Evans. I headed the museum, so I was a federal officer back when we had a government. No word on that lately,” she said.

“Don’t hold your breath. Annie LeBeaux here. You know a fella name of Glen Truett?”

Moira nodded. “I thought he might have pointed you our way.”

“Not because he thinks I’m cute,” Annie retorted. “I’m a biochemist by trade. I can make about anything if I’ve got the raw materials at hand. I figured you might have a use for me. It’s for pretty damn certain nobody else has.” She gestured over her shoulder at the fabulous vehicle. “I brought my kit and my library.”

Moira sized up the small woman, looked over her outfit, and liked what she saw.

“Well, Annie, if you can put up with my company, I believe I’ve got a good spot for you, one I hope you’ll find comfortable enough. It ain’t the Ritz, but the rent’s reasonable. When you finish your coffee, come on up the hill and I’ll show you around. And by the way, we don’t have any objections to churchy people, so long as they have no objections to us.” Annie grinned and shrugged, but had no comment.

On her last fumes of fuel, Annie drove up the hill to the Keep, unpacked her gear and after some discussion, installed herself at the back of the main hall, using book shelves and display cases to wall off her domain, which now included one of what had been the public restrooms. It was now being retrofitted as she began setting up her laboratory equipment. Moira stayed nearby, tidying the largely empty front hall and making sure she was on hand in case Annie needed help. But she finally called it a night long before Annie finished fashioning her abode and workspace. The few times Moira glimpsed her lean form as she went searching for a tool in the warehouse, she appeared to be plugged into her iPod and partly walking, partly dancing. She asked few questions, mostly in search of tools and supplies when needed.

Rickard stopped Moira in mid-step coming down the hill next morning to ask how the new resident was settling in.

“Well enough, I suppose,” Moira said. “She worked late. She’s now all unpacked and is well on the way to getting her lab up and running. She’s asking good questions and is pretty savvy about our needs and circumstances.“ She stopped, but kept nodding her head.

“But…?”

“But what?”

“But what aren’t you saying?”

“It’s nothing.”

“What?”

“She’s…noisy.”

“How do you mean, noisy?”

“Like…well, she sings. To her iPod?”

“So?”

“She can’t sing.”

Rickard lowered his head until he was looking at Moira over his glasses.

“I know,” she said. “Get over it.” And he nodded.

Alice, Ray and Rae-Jean Compton, the neighbors who had moved in with the Riggs sisters over the winter, had stayed on after the sisters had gone back home to work out how they might be a part of the community, from where they should live to what they had to offer. It was a long discussion and involved many meetings with various people. When Alice disclosed her skills Ellen immediately took her by the arm, led her away, and kept her several hours. Even if Alice Compton had arrived alone with just the clothes on her back, she’d have been a godsend. She had been a family nurse practitioner at the clinic in Alton and was the first real health-care professional they’d seen. The day after, while Moira was getting Annie settled up the hill, Alice was busy laying claim to the tools from the doctor’s office and moving them up the street to a two-room shop next door to Ellen’s place where she planned to install a tiny clinic.

Ray, her husband, identified himself as an Episcopal minister whose faith had been badly challenged by the events of the past few months. He exhibited all the signs of severe post traumatic stress and seldom spoke unless spoken to. Pressed, he said he no longer felt qualified to serve as a spiritual counselor, and asked to be considered based on his minimal skills as a laborer.

Eldon offered him a job as a part-time helper at the mill, but after discussion it was clear he’d be better for the present in the job he already had as a dairyman for the Riggs sisters, since he only had to show up on time for the milking. Alice said he sometimes just went missing but was usually to be found nearby, often just standing and looking at the river. His was perhaps the most visible but far from the only case of PTSD. Using Ray as a willing example, she cautioned that everyone should be careful to give each other breathing room and kindness as they made their way back to the present reality. Soon, someone thought to organize a second weekly meeting where people could come just to talk. It helped, though its efficacy was most often judged by the community members reactions when another aftershock hit, or later, when the vicious winter winds returned.

Rae-Jean, the Comptons’ teenage daughter, was a problem of a whole different order, a 16-going-on-35-year-old womanchild whose hormones were looking for somebody to show them a good time. And at Falling Spring, good times of the sort she was looking for were hard to come by. Fortunately, her mother recognized the symptoms of hormonal suffering and gave her plenty of chores to keep her occupied, mostly helping her father down at the dairy.

The Compton family was happy with the idea of working in the village but staying with the sisters, where Ray and Rae-Jean could manage the heavier work at the dairy. Alice had a good horse and with the help of Ray and Tom moved all her own medical equipment to her clinic space and hung up her shingle, complete with office hours. With pharmaceutical supplies virtually unavailable, she, Ellen, and Annie also began spending regular hours consulting together over how possible alternatives to lost medicinals might be found or made. Everyone here had experienced such emotional losses that they all suffered some damage; the wounds were mostly invisible, but all very real. Soon the three quasi-medicos were prowling the woods, meadows, and seed stores, searching for things like skullcap, arnica, boneset, and hops. There was much rejoicing when a healthy patch of St. John’s Wort, an herb used to treat depression, was found up near the cemetery. There was no cannabis, but Annie allowed as how she might have a few seeds. All the remedies for which they only had seeds were out of reach until another harvest. Until then they’d have to make do. As soon as Glen returned, he might be persuaded to go back to see if anything was left of the Alton Clinic or Ellen’s house and its stores, they decided.

To be honest, Moira was pleased about the arrival of new children not just for the benefit of having a ready-made younger generation but also for the wealth of opportunities to foist off the remainder of Sheba’s puppies, for they were driving her to distraction. Fortunately, Sheba had only had five, but having given one to Joey and another to Glen, she had three of the beggars still loitering around underfoot. She meant to make sure every arriving child had a dog until she was down to just one again.

Steven’s daughter Sarah hadn’t really settled on one pup in particular, so when Tom, Ted and Lettie arrived, Moira pounced, leaving it to them to sort out which pup went with whom. They were thrilled, but Ellen jeered at her exhibition of crass self-interest. She had to alter her view shortly after Glen returned.

As told previously, Glen finally made it back to the little valley on September 15th, just in time to help harvest the field corn. He was thinner and looked weary, as did his horse, Willy. Behind his little pack train of two heavily loaded horses, in a makeshift wagon pulled by a sturdy Welsh pony, were two young girls ages nine and eleven, Presley and Hanna Scott, whom he’d rescued from a situation bad enough he wouldn’t describe it, and a small boy, a toddler, found beside the road alone and near starvation. Piled around the children was more pillage from his search for supplies. Behind them on horseback was 40-year-old veterinarian Haley Slocum and his teenage son Arthur, who was driving a wagonload of their possessions and veterinary supplies. Others would be coming later, said Glen, as soon as they could work out transportation. He might go back for a few, he added. But first he must unload his horses and give them a good long rest.

While he did that, the first order had been to find every one of the newcomers a place to land, and they soon found their niches in the rapidly shrinking makeshift living quarters scattered around the village. Moira was delighted to see so many more young people in the group and she knew Joey would also be pleased. The Scott girls made their home down at the dairy with the Riggs and Comptons, giving Ray a sunnier attitude and Rae-Jean more to occupy her time and reflect on the consequences of having children. The Slocums took up residence in a small shed next to the barn that had been used to store surplus grain, and opened a tiny clinic focused on animal health.

The little boy was not as easy to place due to his age. He was oddly drawn to Moira, which she enjoyed. She had taken him into her arms as Alice brought him from his first medical exam and much needed bath, and had fed him crumbles of bread and small sips of milk as she tried to elicit information from him. He could talk, barely, and was politely requesting “mo behd” and “mo miik” as he swallowed each bite. She was surprised and touched at his apparent level of comfort with her, as he was smiling and patting her hand as she fed him. She must remind him of someone. How could anyone have just left him behind? But again, who knew what perils they had faced. It would remain a mystery. When asked his name, Glen thought he’d said “Jed.” But he frowned and fussed when called that. It was Ellen who tried the name Jared, and caused him to giggle and beam. He was a charmer for sure. But they had to get some weight on him. Surprising herself, Moira asked if she could keep him with her for a while and got no objections. But because of so many demands on her time, he was often shunted between Helen, Ellen, and Steven as well, and he soon assumed those four were his family.

There was a short commotion among the dogs when Glen brought out the pair of hefty Pembroke Welsh Corgi adolescent pups he’d found at a house where no one else was still alive and brought them along in his saddlebags. The male of these, a lad named Barney, stepped right up to Ellen the moment they met, sat down at her feet, met her eyes and offered a paw, plainly saying, “I’m here about the job, mum.” Her heart was lost the moment she laid eyes on him.

His mate, a bouncy little girl they named Hester, was just as firm about Sarah, finding her in the orchard reading, clambering right into her lap, heaving a great sigh, and going straight to sleep. The new girls had brought their cats with them, so for a little while, everyone was paired up except the one boy, Arthur Slocum, and he was only longing for his computer. Moira had an idea she might be able to help with that.

It was as if the entire village had gone on holiday the next day when Glen opened his packs and tossed aside the covers on the loaded wagons. Inside were utensils, tools, and canned or boxed foods and medicines, all salvaged from a farm supply and a small grocery store that had been left open but untouched, the occupants long fled. Moira swept in with Steven close behind to gather up the tools before others could help themselves. The tools and findings would be stored at the warehouse until the storehouse was ready, available for residents to borrow as needed, Moira explained. But first they needed to be marked and catalogued so they could be checked out when needed and retrieved later. Every item had to be treated as though it were irreplaceable. Because it was. She put the foodstuffs and canning supplies in Ellen’s hands, who commandeered Annie’s refueled transport to get them up to the main kitchen. While they gleaned and sorted, Glen told them where he’d been.

He could have brought a larger entourage, he said, but there were more than a few he had not told of this place. Most of the little settlements he’d found were welcoming and the residents of most seemed happy where they were. But there were also several enclaves and individuals he had avoided approaching at all, once he’d watched them from a distance. Some were in armed encampments; others were too far gone, mad with grief and fear or in other ways out of control. He had also made maps directing people looking to relocate but that he felt were incompatible with the ways of this place. Those he directed toward other fledgling villages to which they seemed more suited.

“I didn’t just leave anybody unless they were dangerous or seemed to want to be left,” he said. “But some would obviously make a better fit in other places, and I did what I could to help them find their way.”

One such place, he said, was at Van Buren on the Current river where many had survived, with residents pooling their resources and helping one another through the wild and dark winter. Those people had worked out their differences, most of them, and were growing community gardens and sharing food, led by their church leaders.

“It’s a curious mix, with lots of the more fundamentalist church influence, but they’re mostly focusing on the old-time ways and values, and there are others who lean more toward moderation and are asking their views be respected, too. They’re all working hard and working together, for the moment. No real zealots among them, or if there were any, they’ve either gone somewhere else or don’t have enough support for stirring up trouble. The ministers are working in dialogue, and the people are actually starting to thrive. They, too, are taking in lots of strays. I think there’ll be a good home there for those who prefer a more mainstream Christian community.”

The town of Poplar Bluff was mostly in ruins, but some had survived and were building back. One good sign, he said, was that the area’s community of artists had survived mostly intact and were being a good influence on the town as it grew back. Of course, they were still trying to cope with a very changed landscape. That was true almost everywhere. The social structures that would emerge were still anybody’s guess, he said, and could vary wildly from town to town. Travel between these outposts of quasi-civilization was difficult at best, as many roads were damaged or blocked and most of the bridges were down. But distances and difficulties could be seen as protection as well from some kinds of troubles.

He had not had time to explore all of this new landscape, but he said he found reason to take heart in that several small communities, a half-dozen or more, had rallied usually around some source of supplies and were at least holding their own at establishing some sort of order. But in some places more radical elements had taken charge. Some were selling a hard message of God’s wrath to gain control of what little resources were left. Others were simply taking ownership at gunpoint, creating their own kingdoms, leaving the rest to serve their new masters or starve. At some point, he said, order would need to be restored in the larger area. But not now.

“Speaking of that larger area, there’s something else you should know. The physical changes are far more vast than anyone expected, as I found when I arrived at Poplar Bluff.” He went on, describing the high bluff for which the town was named, where he had first discovered that what had been farmland was now an eastern sea. He made sure of it by tasting and finding it salty. He had seen the sea again while looking southward from a point above where the White River Valley should be, below Mountain Home. The town, though heavily damaged, was still there. But just below it, where there had been mountains, was a rolling surf pebbled with small islands as far as the eye could see. To the west there was also water as far as the eye could see, or so he had heard from people he had met on the trail, but he had no clear idea how far away that was. From the north, no one had yet come. There was only an eerie silence and a feeling of foreboding coming from that direction. Someone would have to go that way and find out the truth of the place, but that was for another day or perhaps another season.

Right now, autumn was upon them, and there were still crops to get in, and more living spaces to build. And what the next winter would bring was anyone’s guess.

“For now, I think we’ll have our hands full taking care of ourselves. That’s why I was very selective in handing out my little maps.” He grinned as he said it but there was a hard glint in his eyes. He had seen more than he was telling, Moira knew. Right now she wasn’t sure she wanted to know more. Tend to the home place, then deal with the rest, she told herself, and look to the tasks at hand. And so the days passed.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Ten: Combing the Wreckage

They did not see Glen’s face again until August, when he rode in casually on a sunny afternoon, looking tired and bringing with him the two pack horses loaded down with badly needed supplies including the promised canning jars and lids, and his dog, near full grown and looking scruffy from the trail. The jars arrived just in time for the tomato harvest, and to make pickles. And soon there would be apple butter.

But they had news of him much sooner. First a pair of teenagers arrived by canoe one morning not even a week after he had left, begging shelter for themselves and others from upriver. Glen had found them and given directions to Falling Spring before moving on, they said.
They brought with them a sad winter’s tale that was to grow all too familiar as the summer wore on.

“We couldn’t get warm, and there wasn’t enough food to go around,” said Tom Langston, a lad of about 16. “We didn’t have wood heat in the house. It was all-electric, so when the electric went off, we had to move out to dad’s shop where there was a wood stove. But there wasn’t room for everyone, and not nearly enough wood. We didn’t turn anyone away, but we just couldn’t keep everybody warm. We cut wood every day that we could get out and butchered all the livestock. We about hunted every squirrel and rabbit out of the brush, but when even more people started coming in, we couldn’t keep up and there just wasn’t ever enough to eat.”

Their neighbors had come seeking help when their food ran out, he said, and they had all tried to pitch in and help however they could. But in all, only five had survived the winter, including their mother, grandfather, and a girl from a neighboring farm. The girl’s parents, a brother, and an aunt had all been starving when they arrived, and none but the girl had ever rallied. They had also lost their own father when the fierce wind blew a limb down on him, and a younger sister had developed an illness they didn’t know how to treat. In all, six had perished. They knew of the museum’s existence but had never been there, and had no idea anyone, or any supplies, might be there.

The boys were both trying to talk at once and Ellen stopped them when the younger boy started to cry. She brought them into the farmhouse and fed them on cornbread and milk and fresh blackberry pie. Then she made Ted, the younger boy, lie down and sleep before he said more about their story. The oldest, though, was nearly frantic to return up the river to fetch the rest of his family.

It was Moira who accompanied Tom on the trip back upriver. Ted wanted to go but was clearly too malnourished and ill. Tom wasn’t in top shape but insisted he was strong enough, and he proved to be. Fortunately, the weather was settled and the current was smooth for the four-mile trip upstream. Not all could be brought down in one trip, so first to be transported was the grandfather, John Langston, who was elderly but spry and who would not leave if it meant being parted from his collection of musical instruments and the family’s personal possessions, mostly clothing and keepsakes. To the family’s surprise, Moira wholeheartedly concurred with Mr. Langston’s decision, and so the instruments – two guitars, a banjo, two fiddles, mountain dulcimer and what appeared to be some kind of button accordion – were packed carefully around him in the first canoe, along with personal items of his including some small tools. He rode in front while Tom paddled and steered from the rear seat. Moira, in the second canoe, hauled more tools, luggage, a store of quilts and blankets, and small family treasures. Tom’s mother and the neighbor girl stayed behind to pack the rest of the family’s belongings and household items that would be useful in their new home. Moira noted that no one wanted to stay behind alone and decided there was probably more of their story than had yet been revealed.

“Now, see that y’ don’t go and spill me, Thomas,” the old man scolded, obviously enjoying himself. “You’ve got over 200 years of history packed in here with y’.”

“And how old would the instruments be, then?” Moira asked innocently, a twinkle in her eye.

The old man gave a whoop of laughter. “You watch y’rself too, Missy,” he said, seeing how tightly packed was Moira’s canoe with the family’s goods.

On the return trip down the river the old man spoke quietly to Moira of the family’s trials and the hardships faced by the young people. It had been hard for them all to endure, and hard for him to watch.

“We old ones expect to face hard times,” he said. “But to start with such a burden, so young…”

“It’s never too early to learn courage,” Moira said. “And I’m afraid they’re going to need all they can find of it in this hard world we’ve inherited.”

He nodded and said, “it’s a different world, for sure,” then was silent.

It was mid-afternoon when they reached the ford below the village, but Ted and Joey had been waiting and watching for them by the stream side. Joey set off at a run to get Steven, who was already jogging down the slope with a wheelbarrow to carry the baggage and instruments.

Steven hurried to help the old man up the road to the farmhouse, calling over his shoulder, “We’ll come back and get the rest. Do what you need to.”

Moira turned to Tom, whose hands were trembling as they unloaded the rest of the gear.

“What say? Are you up for another run today, or should we wait ’til tomorrow morning?”

Tom was already shaking his head. “I can’t … I don’t want to leave them up there alone another night,” he said. “There are things, bad things, out there in the woods, and if we’re not there…”

His breath was getting shorter as he spoke and Moira put a hand on his arm, seeing the signs of panic.

“Whoa, Tom. Bad things. What do you mean?”

“Wild dogs or somethin’, and somethin’ worse, like a pack of pigs, only really vicious, really … crazy. A bunch of them carried off the last of Lettie’s goats yesterday, if you can believe that. It was awful. I think they’d have come after us but they saw we had a gun. We’ve thought for a while they been watchin’ us.”

“Pigs in a pack, stalking people?” Moira said, incredulous. Then she thought of the surly Ossabaw boars who’d run away. It was just possible, she guessed.

“Well, all right. Let’s grab a bite to take with us, and we’ll go and stay the night, and bring the others back tomorrow.”

Tired as they both were, they ate quickly as Ellen packed up supper for the party, then paddled hard, urged on by an increasingly agitated Tom. They arrived back at the Langston farm just at dusk. Tom’s mother Nancy, who had been watching for them from inside the small cabin that had served as workshop and then shelter, ran to meet them, brandishing an electric lantern Moira had left behind on the first trip. As soon as they’d pulled the canoes far up the bank, she beckoned them hurriedly inside and bolted the door behind them. She looked frightened.

“I didn’t know whether to hope you’d come back or hope you stayed away somewhere safe,” she said to Tom. “Those pigs are back. I saw one of them prowling at the edge of the yard a while ago, and now there are more. I don’t know what they’re up to but I don’t think we should go outside anymore tonight.” Tom nodded.

Moira looked around the room. Lettie, the neighbor girl, was sitting in the corner, her arms wrapped around herself as if she were cold, although the night was balmy. Thin to the point of emaciation, with dark hair and pale blue eyes, she looked to be about 16, about the same age as Tom. She looked terrified.

The cabin was a single sizable room about 20 feet on a side, with windows on three sides. On the fourth was a lean-to addition holding a small bathroom, mudroom, and pantry. Along one wall were makeshift bunks and rolled-up bedding. A trestle table occupied the center of the room; a kerosene lamp, fuel for which she must remember to ask about, was lighting the room from the middle of the table. All the windows were open, for there was a fire in the woodstove and a pot of water for coffee was steaming. Moira handed Mrs. Langston the bag of food and soon a hearty, precooked stew from the commercial kitchen at the park was simmering as well.

Behind the door, Moira noted, more luggage and belongings had been packed into bundles. It would be difficult to carry both passengers with all those belongings. Surely the boys, or she and Steven, could make another trip later to retrieve more things from the farm. She wondered how she would broach the subject. Time enough for that later, she decided. She asked if perhaps Mrs. Langston had some spare canning jars, which prodded a nervous laugh from the woman.

“Spare? Just about everything we’ve got is to spare now that we’re getting out of here. We have lots of things that might be useful in a place where we’re safe. Maybe we can send the men back up later. But now I just want to get us all out of here alive.” She turned to the stove and bade them sit at the table, for the food was ready. She began to dip up the savory stew into bowls.

Moira started to say something, she never afterward knew what, when suddenly a dreadful commotion began, with squealing, banging, thumping, and a cacophonous rumble of small sharp hooves scratching and scrambling onto the porch, and large, heavy bodies rooting and bumping into the house. The pigs, it appeared, were attacking the building – at which moment several things happened at once.

Tom raced to the room’s corner and grabbed up a rifle. Lettie put her hands to her face and screamed. Mrs. Langston dropped the ladle into the stew with a cry. A terrible crash made the door shudder and a horrible, huge porcine face heaved itself through the window next to the door, ripping the screen and framing its face in a hideous parody of portraiture. Without thinking, Moira whipped the Ruger from her hip and fired three rounds straight into its mouth. Another scream, this one not human, was cut short as the body crashed backward onto the porch floor and the face disappeared. The roar of the gun inside the small room was deafening but when the noise died, they realized that everything outside had also gone quiet. The silence was soon broken by several soft grunts as the pigs appeared to discuss the situation.

Then they heard the tiptoe of many small hooves as the animals exited the porch and walked down the path into the woods, continuing to grunt among themselves, sounding disappointed. For a long moment, no one moved or spoke. Then Tom stepped to the door and looked out.

“They’ve all gone. ‘Cept for the one, of course. Guess they had all they wanted of us,” he added as he stepped back in and closed the door, grinning at Moira as she re-holstered her gun.

“Well,” Moira said as they looked at her in wonderment. She took a deep, not altogether steady breath. “Let’s eat, shall we?”

In truth, no one was more unnerved than she at the notion that the Ossabaw hogs might be the seed stock that had spawned these violent predators. But it wouldn’t do to scare everyone any more than they already were by speculating aloud. She forced her hand to be calm as she picked up her spoon. The stew was quite good, after all. And Mrs. Langston had fried thin corn cakes on the stove top to go with it. They talked quietly, listening between bites, but the forest remained quiet.

They took turns keeping a watch for the rest of the night but there was no more commotion. When morning came, it took all four of them to drag the massive hog carcass down to the river away from the farmstead. After some discussion, they decided to leave it there for scavengers, whether its own kind or others.

They wedged Tom into the rear of one canoe, bundles packed tightly around him from the stern to where Lettie was sitting up front wrapped in a shawl. Moira and Betty Langston shared the second canoe with a small mountain of other goods and set off, leaving the farm to wait for more harvesters to return later, if ever. The return trip was uneventful, though more than once they had the sense of someone or something watching them from the riverbanks.

When they arrived back at the center, Moira was greeted by another surprise. In her absence, Ellen had moved all her belongings out of the farmhouse and into the small, tidy milliner’s shop at the upper end of the village’s street of shops. Those buildings, meant only for summer programs at the park, were of single-wall construction, unheated and without insulation. But when Moira tried to protest, she got no further than the phrase “demonstration village.”

“Cancel the demonstration, honey. We’re about to become the real thing. And I’m about to be the village herbalist,” Ellen said with a wide smile. “Step into my parlor.” She waved Moira into the back room, where she had installed a tiny wood stove, a desk, an armchair and an iron single bedstead salvaged from items donated to the museum and stored in the barn. In the front room was a countertop ready for a small display and a work table with jars and bottles ready to be filled with salves, ointments, and tinctures. By the door stood two crates containing the shop’s former furnishings.

“It’s logical,” she pointed out over Moira’s protests. “We have acquired an actual family that needs housing and they’ll need nearly every bit of that farmhouse. In fact, there’s nowhere else to put them. With any luck, we’re going to be badly overcrowded very soon, and we’re going to have a lot of these kinds of problems to solve. I thought I might as well get a jump on it before all the spaces were taken.” She was leaning back against the door frame of her new abode, a scarf around her head, forehead damp with perspiration and eyes filled with pride. Then she looked at Moira and her eyes softened.

“You thought I might come up there on the hill with you, didn’t you? Honey, there’s no room for me up there, not yet. That place needs to be gone through and thoroughly repurposed before it can be put to any good use in this world we’re living in now. And then it’ll be a headquarters, not a home. That’s for you to work through and nobody else. After all, you’re in charge. You’re the boss lady, and it needs to stay that way. You better just stay up there so everybody remembers that, because every once in a while you’re gonna have to remind them. I’ll stay down here and keep the locals whipped in line. Between us, we’ll have ’em surrounded,” she said, laughing away the hurt in Moira’s eyes. Her words soon turned out to be prophetic in ways they could not have foreseen.

First, though, the Langstons needed help setting up the farmstead as their family home. Fortunately the house included a “birthing room,” a parlor, a pair of storage rooms, and a large walk-in closet in addition to its four furnished upstairs bedrooms. There were also stairs leading to a finished attic. So the home could be made to house many more residents in a pinch, assuming they were compatible. Tom returned to their former home one more time with two canoes and a very nervous Steven, and brought back all the furniture, bedding and useful items they could carry. With those additions, they were able to furnish rooms for all family members as well as outfit the farmhouse kitchen with a number of useful tools. That week passed quietly as people began finding their own little nests and collecting small items to make theirs a personal space. The main meal of the day continued to be prepared at the kitchen up the hill, gradually emptying the still loaded freezers. And the gardens were beginning to produce vegetables enough for everyone and more, and the canning jars, including more found in a shed and those retrieved from the Langston farm, were filled methodically, the work of many hands. The earth movements had gradually become smaller and less frequent, and life began to take on the semblance of a kind of order.

But no one trusted that it would last, and just as they began to relax, another group showed up, and then another. It seemed that as soon as the little village began taking on what seemed to be a stable form, more changes were required. While some were annoyed, others craved the interruptions, as it left them less room to dwell on the world left behind. And so the days of summer passed.

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