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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twenty: Passings

For some moments now Moira’s sleep had been troubled by an irritating noise nearby – someone was muttering, worrying over some bit of news in a deep baritone. Finally she could stand no more of it.

“For heaven’s sake, hush, Jared,” she snapped. “I’m just dying. I’m not deaf.”

“Sorry, Mother,” the voice rumbled, then was still. She reached out toward him without opening her eyes, and he took her hand in both his large, calloused paws and held it gently. Jared was her oldest, made by unknown strangers whose fate remained a mystery, who left him for Glen to find, dirty and nearly starved, beside the road as he returned from his first foray into what was left of the world. Jared had become the first of her children, adopted by her in that first summer as survivors began to gather at Falling Spring. He had also served to spare her from the rush to increase the settlement’s population that had occurred just before the men went north in the first winter of new time. Ellen had joined in the effort to repopulate, and her daughter Ayla was born the following August, along with Stephanie, Logan, Pierce, Alec and four others whose names and faces she could now only dimly recall.

One thing she did remember, as if it were tattooed on her soul, was the evening she had spent with the community elders telling the story again of her encounters with the religious zealots, the militia group from which they had sprung, and what she feared they might someday attempt, especially if they found out what had become of their missing search party. “Our history from before may be judged irrelevant over time, but this is part of our story, and it may well someday have consequences. Better to be aware of our beginnings, even though we would hope you would choose to leave it within this room,” she had told them. She had cautioned both Ellen and Steven to keep their own journals private and let that particular memory fade from common knowledge.

Dying was such a nuisance, she thought sleepily. It made some things from long ago so clear, while obscuring the significance of each passing, present moment. Even the ticking of the clock should seem more precious now, she mused. Instead, she was just tired of listening to its ticking the seconds of her life away. If Jared would go away, or just hush, she would sleep. She told him so and her 30-year-old child kissed her forehead, smiling wryly at her impudence in the face of death itself, and tiptoed silently from the room.

As she had drifted in and out of consciousness in these last few days, Moira had been reviewing her life, not as conventional wisdom would have it, seeing it slide by one scene at a time in chronological order, but almost at random. If there were any sense to her ramblings, she guessed it would be in terms of relationships. She remembered her life with Glen, her life with Steven, her life with Ellen and Joel, as strings of related events, smiling sometimes, tearful at others as she watched her cohorts in this strange adventure change, grow, age, and become dearer to her heart. Of them all, she knew, it was Ellen to whom she had become and remained closest. Ellen had taken Steven as a lover and later Moira chose Glen, and they had borne those men’s children. The following year, Steven had come to her, while Glen had chosen a woman newly arrived in the community by way of the bus accident. Ellen had, she had said with great humor, found a ‘donor’ from among a passing band of traders who had arrived in late summer hawking salvage from the ruins of towns to the east. She had made the man write down his genealogical information before he left, so some track could be kept of the ongoing genetic interchange.

With the intermixing, particularly after the “bus people” arrived, the community as it grew had become a rainbow of colors and other genetic characteristics. And with every new mix, combined with their driving quest for the preservation of knowledge and skills, they had increased the potential for a stable and lasting population. By their combined hands and bodies, she thought, they had finally set aside the specter of an end to humanity and were now able to focus on the shaping of an enlarging and increasingly promising future.

As those first years had passed, and the tradition of men leaving the encampment in winter continued, Moira and Ellen had forged a bond that was unassailable, becoming lovers at one point, then moving past that into another realm they couldn’t explain, but closer somehow. They had come to see themselves as two sides to a single coin, as they saw the community take guidance from their strength. They had learned to pair the talents of each member with jobs that suited them and to delegate responsibilities into reliable hands. Their focus had been fixed on how to keep the balance, to find and shore up the underpinnings that kept the whole system running. Some kept records, some oversaw seed trials, and others focused on education, from that first school to seeing the establishment of the small university branch, driven by the task of passing on every bit of knowledge they had or could glean to as many of the community’s residents as were willing and able to learn. While his father had taught animal science, Arthur Slocum, the veterinarian’s son, had given instructions in the use of the tiny computers to download mountains of information from their satellite library and had seen it made available to other communities. Many of those computers were still working, although not many questions remained left to ask, given the limits on their ability to put more than a modicum of technology to work. Ancient Annie LeBeaux still lectured from her chemistry lab while continuing to work toward developing still more uses for the amazing hemp plant. And Tish Beebe had left a legacy much more substantial than her wheat ale when she enriched their capacity to make many vital implements and ‘potions’ from the bamboo and medicinal herbs she had brought with her.

Moira had taken a lengthy turn teaching biology, agriculture, and simple genetics. Ellen had taught herbal medicine, nutrition, and food preservation. Steven had taught blacksmithing, metalworking, and farm mechanics. Glen had taught outdoor skills, horsemanship, and the simple astronomy used in navigation. Veterinarian Slocum had teamed with Alice Compton, the nurse practitioner, to practice and to teach basic medical knowledge, and the two had linked with Ellen and Tish to develop some highly effective medicines. Others who came had brought additional skills and knowledge, and all were pressed into service as both doers and teachers. Over time, traditions had developed. And as new people continued to arrive and settle in, more skills had been learned and shared.

Moira smiled, thinking of all she had been witness to in her 30-some years of struggle in this wild and beautiful place. A voice nearby murmured a hello, and she realized that while she slept, Ellen had come in to sit with her. Good. There were things to be said to Ellen, and time was growing short. She could feel it in the coldness of her fingers and the way her lower extremities seemed somehow very far away.

“What meanness are you thinkin’ up now, old woman?” Ellen asked in a tender voice that showed signs of deep fatigue. “I’ve seen that little grin long enough to know you’re up to something. Aye, missy, even now you’d be planning mischief.”

She felt Ellen’s hand on her arm and reached to grasp it with her own frail one. “You know me too well,” Moira whispered, the smile still flickering about her lips.

Ellen, watching her, saw how much more pale and weak Moira had become even in the few hours since she had last checked on her, and nodded but couldn’t speak, knowing her voice would tremble from the tears she was choking back. Goddess. She couldn’t be going now. It was too soon. She wasn’t even 70 years old. It couldn’t be.

And then a small chuckle worked its way through her tears as she chided herself. It would always be too soon for Moira to die, even if she lived to be a hundred and twenty. But this just wasn’t right. She was their strength, their mainstay, the only leader they’d ever had. She had carried them all on her own strong shoulders. Now those shoulders had simply given out. Ellen shook her head. If only her lungs were better. If only she hadn’t taken that fall from the mill wheel. If only she’d taken better care of herself, had not taken on everyone’s children, had fewer responsibilities, fewer hard choices whose consequences had forever weighed on her mind.

Moira’s voice interrupted her musings.

“You’re chewing old bones again, lady,” she said. “You need to just let it be. It’s all right. I’ve had my time. It’s someone else’s turn now. And speaking of that, what have they decided, have you heard?”

Moira knew the village council was locked in debate over whom to choose as her successor. It wouldn’t be an easy choice. Glen was still alive and fit, but he wouldn’t relinquish his post at the head of the Brothers to be village-bound. Steven would have been another natural choice, but he was gone to a tragic end. Joel, too, had gone away more than a year ago, and they did not know if he still lived. He had headed out east the autumn before in search of a better trade route to the coastal lands. Afterward, he’d intended to travel north, into the uncharted land where there were rumors of a race of giants. This spring, one of the so-called giants, actually just a man taller and more blond than was common locally and probably of Scandinavian origin, had returned with some of Joel’s company. It turned out that this fellow was another relative of the Yoders, those scavengers of landfills and junkyards. But Joel, they said, had decided to take the boat and continue on, intending to map the northern coast before returning home.He had taken a company of Brothers that included two men and a woman and had set out by jonboat just two days before a wild and fierce storm had battered the northlands shore. None of them had been seen again.

Moira did not believe he was dead, but she missed him more, she thought, than she would have anyone save her own children. Still, she realized, if he were here, he would be far more suited for taking over Glen’s job than her own. Truth to tell, everyone else but one was too young, or inexperienced, or too slow of wit, to make an effective replacement. She looked up at Ellen and her eyes warmed.

“If they’ve got any sense, they’ll name you,” she said. “There’s no one that would be any better at the job. And besides, they’d better use up us old hands while they can.” She gripped Ellen’s hand hard as a coughing spasm seized her. Dying shouldn’t have to be so damned painful, she thought. Of course, if it got really bad she knew she could trust Ellen to do what needed doing. But she was going to hold out until the end if she could. She didn’t want to put that burden on Ellen. And, besides, she thought with a hint of a wicked grin, she was actually looking forward to the process itself and didn’t want to miss anything.

She could feel Ellen’s concern and fought to contain the coughing. Ellen held a glass for her to drink, and she took a breath and tried to look as if she were in less pain than she was. Her psychic awareness had been growing steadily since the Change, but in recent weeks it had gotten almost spookily intense. She could hear what most people were thinking any time they passed anywhere near her. And she could tell if they were lying. From her bed, Moira could pinpoint the location of nearly everyone in the village, from the smallest infant to the oldest codger, and most of the nearby animals as well. It was as though a web of energy held everything living linked together and she could see it, just barely. Individuals showed up as small sparks of light in varying colors and intensities. Those to whom she was closest shone brightest; Ellen was a soft blue shot through with bursts of violet, magenta and copper. Where it touched her, the web was green as the new spring grass. Where their energies touched, all was golden.

“Oh, great,” Moira thought. “It’s a good thing I’m on my way outa here. I tell any of this and they’ll take me down and lock me in the loony ward.” But she knew they wouldn’t. Such abilities, while none as strong as hers seemed now, had been cropping up with some frequency in quite a few others. Joel had begun to exhibit similar skills in training animals, she remembered. And Ellen, she knew, had some uncanny abilities of her own although they manifested differently. Ellen really could heal injuries merely by touching them. Most things, that is. Moira knew what anguish her own illness was causing her long-time companion, because it wasn’t something that could be mended. Her body had simply worn out. But the two were so inextricably linked together that Ellen had to be experiencing what was happening right along with her.

Their connection had deepened years ago, when Moira had insisted on having as large a family, between them, as possible, while maintaining their own intimate relationship. It had made for a complicated decade or two. They’d found that over time romantic entanglements could be worked out much easier than childcare for a menagerie that included, between them, three boys and two girls. She’d thought for a while they wouldn’t survive it with affections intact. But it had made their connection stronger. For years now they’d been able to hear one another’s words or feelings in time to answer a question before it was voiced, or to reach to touch simultaneously.

These days, though, she was having to work hard to hold some of her own thoughts back, keeping them in a more private location. There were some things Ellen already suspected and would know soon enough. She knew Moira was gravely ill. Moira thought she didn’t know how short the time was becoming.

For all her musings about the past, the one thought Moira tried hardest to hold at bay was the fear that she’d left something undone — some nugget of critical importance, without which the community couldn’t survive. Of course, their losses had already been vast. Hell, she, Tish and Annie’s had barely figured out how to make paper before they’d run out of the supply stored here in the basement. And, in truth, the stored paper might have lasted longer had she not one day realized, in a flash of panic, that the vast majority of this new world’s most essential information was stored far overhead in two information satellites, reachable only by computer systems that would sooner or later fail. That winter, she recalled, when the last printer went down before the job was finished, they had invented a new profession – that of scribe. Arthur Slocum had spent himself keeping the machinery going until they’d gleaned all that was possible, then cried at the last gasp of the technology that he would probably not see regained in his lifetime. He had since become the school administrator, then the college chancellor.

In that same year they had also created another role, that of mediator, when some of the hemp, cotton, and flax allocated to the weavers and clothiers had to be diverted to paper-making. But it had all turned out well. Some of the underground vault space had been converted to a library, and most of the information had been copied in time. Now, the village’s electrical capacities had all been diverted to maintaining the seeds and the library in climate-controlled comfort.

She couldn’t really see a basis for her worry. Overall, things were now looking more positive than they had at any time since the Change. Still, she felt a frustration that burned in her bones about having to leave now, with so much unfinished.

Her cheeks puffed out in an explosive sigh as she recognized her ego rearing its ugly head. Even now, she thought wryly. Better shift gears, she decided, seeing Ellen’s observant eyes on her. Better to feign distraction than to admit the direction of her thoughts. Actually, she realized she wasn’t really faking so much as just gradually fading. What an ignoble way to go, she thought, and decided to fight a little longer.

Maybe she wasn’t shielding as much as she thought, for Ellen suddenly asked, “What’s on your mind, little one?”

“If I were just a little younger or felt better, I’d be spending time studying this new home-grown magic of ours. This psychic sensitivity that’s popping up seems to be traveling down through family groups. I’d like to know more about that, wouldn’t you?” she said, hoping to engage Ellen in conversation and head off her scrutiny. It didn’t work.

“I know that if I were just a little more stupid, I’d fail to see what you’re trying to do,” Ellen retorted sharply. “If you think you’re just going to drift off and get away from this planet without my noticing, you’ve got another think coming. Now let me in. I need to know – whatever there is to know. Don’t keep this from me, dear heart. Not any of it. If my time with you is running out, I don’t want to miss a single instant. You understand me?” she said, her voice trembling, but not losing control.

Moira winced but nodded, irritated that a tremor was beginning in her voice. “It’s going to be soon, I think. I can feel things,” she paused, looking for words that would describe this strange process as her body began to shut down. “I can feel things moving, changing. I think my systems are beginning to go. Actually, it’s probably time to gather everyone around who wants to be here.” She caught her breath as pain shook her, then laughed softly at Ellen’s expression of concern. “It’s a perfectly natural process, love. We’ll all have it to do sometime. And I never really believed I’d last long enough to die in bed. And your bed, at that.” They both laughed at this, and Ellen reached to cup Moira’s face with one hand, as the other brushed the hair back from her forehead. “I love you so, so very much,” Ellen said. “I will love you forever, you know.”

“I know. As I will you, my love.” Moira reached for her, and Ellen came into her arms, cradling her thin body with a strong but gentle touch.

“Don’t be sad. We have built a world together.” Moira whispered. Then her tone became stronger as she spoke in a voice very different, more like her old self. “Listen. We won’t have many more minutes alone from here on. So I beg you to remember this, love.”

Their eyes met, the connection went deep. “On some foggy morning, look for me on the bluffs above the river. One day I will come to you as I did on that first day, and as I have on every day since. You have my heart in your keeping for now and always, sweetest one. If there is a way across the void,” Moira’s voice broke then, and they both cried as they held one another. “I will find you…” she whispered, and then said it again, as much mind to mind as voiced. “I will find you if there is a way.”

She slept then and dreamed of days on horseback along the river, and golden sunshine on the hills, and herbs in bloom in the gardens they had made along every street and waste space, digging channels to carry water for irrigation all over the gently sloping lawns leading down into the new village of Falling Spring. She had stood by those same channels during that deadly winter of ice, when every movement was an invitation to disaster, and had held a sobbing Glen and rocked him after Willy fell on the ice and broke a leg, and had to be put down. In the dreams that came she stood above the fields by the river and saw harvest after harvest of wheat, corn, oats and hemp billowing in the wind, feeding, clothing and making strong these citizens of a new world. She put out her hands in the dream to catch the hissing torrent of seeds pouring into their cloth bags, headed for storage. Her whole life’s work – to protect the seeds and see to their renewal.

Then the scene shifted and she saw Joel paddling up the Eleven Point River from the new seaport called South Home, wearing skin clothing and a hat of unfamiliar design. His beard had slight streaks of grey and his hard muscles were driving the paddle against the current. His canoe was heavily loaded and he seemed in a great hurry. She smiled when she inhaled, smelling, instead of river damp, Glen’s ever-present tobacco. She opened her eyes.

“Hey, Glen,” she said softly, the affection in her voice making his eyes crinkle. “Joey’s coming home. I saw him. How goes it with you?”

“It goes well, sweet lady,” he answered, taking her outstretched hand in his larger, harder one, and cradling it gently, his thumb caressing her knuckles and reading their frailty. “I’ve just come from council. They’ve decided your choice, as usual, is the right one. Ellen will take your place as leader. And they’ve also decided to give that position a title other than just leader. They wanted me to tell you before, well, while you can still appreciate the humor in it.”

She could hear the smile in his voice and she looked up at him. Glen, at 70, looked hewn from weathered oak. The lines in his face were deep, but his skin was smooth and brown. His hair, gray and worn long, was braided with bright cotton thread, a task he had probably shared with one of his granddaughters, probably Alissa, who was fascinated with colors. It had already contained a few grey strands when they met and wrestled over a pistol all those years ago. Now it was more salt than pepper, his beard and mustache nearly white. She followed the familiar sweet curve of his lip with her eyes as he spoke.

“They have named you Mother of the Seeds. They said to tell you it is in honor of all you have done to preserve the web of life for those who will follow us. You, out of all of us, have made the essential difference in keeping us alive and making life livable, by preserving and teaching us the means for our survival.”

She tried to respond, but her lips wouldn’t answer her bidding, and all she could get out was, “Sweet.”

“Listen, little Seed Mother,” he said gently. “They sing to you.”

Glen slid his arm beneath her and lifted her slightly, while Jared and his partner Pete stepped forward, pulled back the curtains, and drew the window open. She heard the music rising and looked around. Ellen was there at her head and the rest of the children crowded around. Alissa laid a tiny garland of embroidered flowers of many colors into her hand, while Robert and Ethan reached out to touch her at ankle and knee. The rest of the children and grandchildren clustered behind them, some meeting her eye bravely, others sobbing openly. Outside, the voices were lifted in an old song from before the Change, a song written, fittingly, she remembered, by a man called Yarrow. But they had altered the words, or at least some of them:

“There is only one river. There is only one seed
“And it flows through you, and it grows in me …”

She could see the wind stirring in the trees by the river and felt herself lifting toward them. As she left the pull of gravity behind, though, she remembered suddenly the things for which she was responsible, and all the bits and pieces of knowledge she hadn’t had time or thought to impart to anyone, and all the love she felt for her family, her people, and her world. And there was Ellen, whose eyes she met as her body fell back into Glen’s arms and whose face was the last living thing she saw in this life. Like a milepost, a lantern in darkness, or a lighthouse on a storm-tossed sea, she homed in on that image and launched herself headlong into the void between the worlds.

 

An exhausted Brother Joel put in his long, hand-hewn dugout canoe at the river docks below Falling Spring just before nightfall. Hearing the song and knowing for whom they must be singing, he ran up the path through the gates and all the way to the Keep. The mourning villagers made a path for him as he went, some of them crying out in pity as he passed. At the Keep, he stopped and caught his breath before entering. His appearance caused surprise and consternation among some family members. But Ellen was waiting for him.

“She told us you were on your way,” she said. “She said you’d be here.”

“She’s gone, then,” he said. It was not a question but Ellen nodded, her eyes still brimming with tears..

“She said to tell you she loves you, and is so proud of your brave, good work. We need to know everything we can about this island of ours if we’re to use it well.”

“She knew, then, what I’ve been doing?” he said again, his eyes meeting Ellen’s speculatively.

“She may have picked it up intuitively, but I’d like it if you’d fill me in,” she said. “They’ve named me to succeed her. I hope that meets with your approval. I know what she meant to you. And I hope you’re not disappointed to not be named to the leadership yourself. The council thought …”

“The council was absolutely right,” Joel said, interrupting her. “I’ve not the experience or the inclination for that job. Besides, I think that to hold our male egos in check, the job of mothering should by rights always belong to a woman.”

“The council agrees. They named her Mother of the Seeds. She was pleased.”

“Mmm. The Seed Mother, is she? And you’re to be the next, am I right?”

“That’s what they’ve said. What do you think?”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, looking into her eyes, his voice barely above a whisper as his face twisted in a rictus of pain. “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye. At least to let her know how much I loved her. I heard her in my dreams last week, calling me home. I came as fast as I could.”

“She knew that,” Ellen said. “She knew you were on your way and had me get these out to give you, to remember her by.” Ellen handed her tall, adopted son Moira’s prized binoculars. He smiled, but then tears started to flow.

“She loved you as one of her own, Joey. Joel. Just as I do.”

“I know. I remember her better than my own mother. I just … I just wish she was…. I had so much to tell her.” As his voice broke and he stopped talking, Glen came in quietly and stood beside him, placing a gnarled and veined arm around his sturdy shoulders.

“Moira has passed the veil,” his bass voice droned softly. “But the Seed Mother remains.” Joel nodded, his head bowed, his tears flowing freely. Then he looked up at Ellen and was startled, for although her gaze had been sad, he felt her sudden sharp intake of breath and a wild triumph in her heart, her eyes darting across the valley to the bluffs with an exultance that disquieted him for a moment. Then the odd sensation faded and he smiled.

“I see you have taken it on, Mother Ellen,” he said. “The mantle of leadership rides well on you. May it always.” Ellen lowered her head in acknowledgment, then faced the two men, a smile broadening on her lips as her eyes shone with love for her last remaining partners in this amazing adventure.

“Always, that’s the trick,” she said. “Let that be our job descriptions.”

Then she turned and walked through the door into the room that had been Moira’s apartment and now would be hers. As she looked out the window at the scene before her, where the orchard began and the hill sloped down gently toward the village, she gazed again toward the bluffs beyond her sight. Some errant breeze caused a movement of the light and she looked to the side and saw her face, and yet ever so slightly not her face, looking back at her from the mirror. Moira had passed. She had been there to witness it. But there was something not quite her own in those eyes that looked back. She smiled and shook her head. “It would be just like her,” she thought. And then she stepped out into the evening to join the singing. Time enough, she thought, to let this mystery reveal itself. Meanwhile, she had a village to run and the seeds to tend, for a little while.

-30-

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nineteen: Maturity

At the ten year celebration of the founding of Falling Spring and Mumbros territory, all of the founders were feted with a week-long feast on the commons between the boarding house for singles and the mill pond. There, where Moira, Ellen, and Joel had held their first picnic, a large pavilion had been constructed, open all around but with wind screens and a small raised platform at one end. Homemade tables and chairs had been set up to hold a fluctuating crowd, and the celebration featured mountains of food, homemade fireworks, music, and dancing, with a few rousing speeches thrown in for good measure. The week of festivities worked itself up to a final day of praises honoring the first family and others who had made notable contributions to the community.

After all the speeches had been offered and a dozen or more toasts raised, the children and betweens were freed to regroup on the lawn in front of the singles house, where the frequent work parties were organized on ordinary days, and the youngsters began several games at once, the aims of which seemed chiefly to be to fall into giggling piles at intervals.

While some older folks elected to retire for the evening, most of the adults settled into small clumps at various tables and told stories, shared ideas and rested from their busy schedules. It was, after all, the season of planting plants and seedlings, readying the vegetable beds, and tilling the lower fields. Every year the rising population demanded more attention to food crops, while commerce demanded higher production of trade goods, including the increasing variety of products they had learned to make from the hemp plant. But not this week. By turns, the founders had told their stories of how this place came to be – the sacrifices, the threats, and the joys of meeting new arrivals. Even the various new animal arrivals were celebrated.

At a quiet corner of the dais, Moira and Ellen relaxed over yet another glass of wine and watched the younger ones at play. But they both looked preoccupied and each continued to scan the crowd uneasily.

“Do you feel that?” Ellen finally asked.

Moira nodded, her face drawn from listening intently. “Something’s not right. But I can’t quite get a grip on it. Some kind of trouble. Not a threat, at least not in the usual sense.”

“Not quite here, but not a long way off, either,” Ellen added.

Moira roused herself. “I think I’ll have a stroll down to the gate and see if there’s something or somebody incoming who’s in distress. I’m sure there’s a watch, but with all this ruckus going on they may be distracted by the festivities.”

“Don’t be long, or I’ll worry,” Ellen said, giving Moira’s arm a squeeze.

Moira turned and smiled. She nodded toward the children at play. “I’ll take one of those little rabbits with me,” she said. “If it’s something important, I’ll send ‘em back on the run.” As she walked away, Ellen watched her relaxed, confident stride and noticed some others watching and smiling. The ten years seemed to have gone by in an instant, but it was an instant filled with a wealth of memories. And in all of them, Moira was always the first one willing to take on any task without fear and without failing.

“I don’t have to ask what she’d risk for this place, or even if she’d kill for it, or for me,” she thought, watching her disappear into the night. “She already has.”

She felt more than heard someone approach and looked up to smile at Joel.

“They’re sure making a fuss over us all,” he said softly, smiling back. “It’s a little embarrassing for me, because I was just a kid when the really hard work was done.”

“It’s embarrassing for all of us, Joel,” she said. “We were all just doing what we had to do to live. That’s still going on, so we shouldn’t be singled out just for getting here first.”

“Well, it was Moira who made it possible,” he said. “I still get chills when I think about those times.”

Ellen nodded. “Me too,” she said. We’d have died if she hadn’t stepped in.”

“Or worse,” Joel said, his tone bitter.

“Speaking of stepping in,” Ellen said as a thought struck her. “I hear you’re thinking of stepping out on us.”

He shook his head vigorously. “Not for a good long while,” he said. “Not to worry. I’m nowhere near being finished with my house, and there’s at least another couple years, maybe more, on getting those singles cabins finished. Moira and Glen want them strung all the way up the hill. By the time that’s finished, I’ll be way into the advanced tracking program that Glen is offering. I’m not going out there until I’m ready. And I’d like those who’re thinking of going with me to be ready as well. We’ve got to tackle that Northern Edge someday. But the kinds of tales coming out of that place make me shudder to think about it. I wouldn’t go if anyone else could come up with a map of that coast. But nobody has so far.”

Ellen nodded agreement, and they each wandered off into their own thoughts. Joel was humming a tune faintly, and she recognized the sound of distant strings. Someone at the far end of the pavillion near the open fireplace had brought out a guitar, and another picked up a flute. Old Mr. Langston was gone but both of his grandsons had learned his music, and they both reached for their fiddles and began to play. After a moment Joel stood, went across to the players and joined in on his penny whistle. Ellen was drawn to the soft, melancholy music and moved her chair to sit closer. She had almost drifted off to sleep when her eight-year-old son Ranier padded up softly. He was out of breath from running.

“Mama, Moira said you’re to grab Alice and come up to the keep right away. A family has come in and they’re all sick with something. Toby’s brought a wagon, and they’re going to try to get them up there without letting anybody else near them. She said tell you she doesn’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”

Ellen thanked him and told him to go wash his hands and to not say anything to the others. Looking across the room, she spied Alice deep in conversation with her mate. Trying to be discreet, she hurried over and placed a hand on Alice’s arm.

“We need you up top,” she said in a low voice. When Alice nodded and made to continue her conversation, Ellen leaned closer. “I’m sorry. It can’t wait.”

When they got to the wide road leading to the keep, Toby was coming down and offered them a ride, but Ellen refused. “Take that rig down to the river and give it a good scrub. And you too,” she ordered as he hurried away.

At first glance, it appeared to be influenza but of a kind not seen by anyone among the caregivers. Fever, cough, and stomach upset were to be expected. But the diarrhea was uncontrollable, and of the family of six, one child died in the middle of that first night. The grandfather was too weak from vomiting to take in anything, even water, and he succumbed the next afternoon. The remaining two children and their parents, dosed with endless water containing all the natural remedies available, began to stabilize but not to improve. On the evening of the second day, Annie came in from a wildcrafting expedition with Tish, her arms loaded with greenery to be analyzed. She was surprised to have such an abundance of company in the not often so busy infirmary next to her lab. After stowing her supplies she came back to have a look. She was beginning to look more like her actual advanced age but was still sharp mentally.

She felt one fevered brow and then another, then turned to Moira, who had been standing watch over the patients almost nonstop and who filled her in on the details. “You need to get some rest, sweetie,” Annie said. “You don’t look much better than them. I don’t suppose you collected any stool samples for me to check?”

“They’re in the lab waiting for you. But I’m not leaving until we figure this thing out. Moira said. “It doesn’t make any sense for the diarrhea to continue this long.”

“True. It’s almost like they have more than one thing,” Annie observed. “Did you have a chance to ask any of them if they’ve been around anyone with similar symptoms?”

“No. So far they’ve all been too out of it.”

But as she spoke, the older woman raised her head slightly and asked for water.

“Do you feel up to answering some questions?” Moira asked as she brought a cup and held the woman’s head up so she could drink.

“If you think it will help,” was the weak reply.

“It might. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the matter with you.”

“We thought it was just a cold or a bit of the flu,” the woman said. “There was a lot of sickness when we came through Buren. But nothing like this. We stopped for a night to rest, but the next day, everyone got worse. We didn’t know if we could make it here, or if you’d let us in if we did.”

“Where did you stop. Was there anyone else there?”

“No, Ma’am. It was an abandoned farm. We thought we might get some water from their well, but the electricity was off and we couldn’t work the pump. We ended up just filling our canteens from the pond. It didn’t taste very good, so we didn’t drink much.”

“Did you think to boil it,” Annie asked.

The woman shook her head. “The fire was already out, and it was raining. It was just too much work to build another.”

Moira sighed, nodded and looked across the bed at Annie, who had looked up at the same time. They had likely found the second cause of the sickness. It was a near certainty the family had contracted cholera, or something near to it, from the contaminated pond water. The two met at the foot of the bed and started to discuss treatment, but then Moira wobbled and had to sit down.

Annie reached over and put a hand on Moira’s brow. “Headache,?” she enquired.

“Yeah. How did you … oh hell. I tried to be so careful. But this really feels like the flu.”

Annie led her to a cot in the far corner of the infirmary. “You just better hope you didn’t get exposed to the other,” she said softly. “The best medicine is sleep, so you get at it. I’ll keep the watch. And I’ll get a culture going to verify the infection, so we know what we might have that could help them through it.”

Within a few days, the scare was past, although everyone working at the village infirmary got a crash course in the disposal of hazardous wastes. Moira, too, recovered from her bout of illness, and was soon back at work. She noted, though, that she was beginning to feel her age and every setback seemed harder to snap back from. It took a near tragic fall about a year later to make her realize that not only was she not immortal but that she had better put more focus on passing on her skills and knowledge than just in employing them.

She’d been up with the early watch, helping ready a work crew that would mend fences along the river that had been ripped up by spring floods. They’d be working with lots of old rusty barbed wire, and she had made sure they were outfitted in heavy leather gloves and other gear, even though the day would be warm and humid. Cuts made by rusted metal could foil all their medical skills, as tetanus vaccine was in short supply and what little they had was risky, since even with refrigeration it was very outdated. So she’d breakfasted with them in the singles dorm kitchen, and had returned there after their send off to grab a second cup of coffee and one of the cook’s famous sweet rolls. As she stood on the porch studying the early activities of a village that was just coming awake, she heard a shout coming from the mill and shielded her eyes from the low sun as she turned to see its cause. What she saw almost caused her to drop her cup. She set it carefully on the porch railing, leapt to the ground, and set off at a dead run.

Much of the mill’s operations had been improved over time but the mechanism itself still had parts dating back centuries. The wheel was overshot, driven by water from the spring’s outflow high in the middle of the bluff. When the wheel was stopped, the water was diverted by a flume, a wooden trough whose outer end could be swung out over the wheel so the water fell onto it at about a one-o’clock position. The falling water engaged with a series of buckets or enclosed paddles set at angles all around the outer circumference of the wheel, and by its weight the wheel was forced down and began to turn with some speed and force, thus driving implements and the grinding wheel. The flume was hinged, and was set free at the end of each workday so the stream of water fell directly into the millpond. Each morning it was the task of the miller’s devil, or apprentice, to climb to the top floor of the mill and, using a rope tied to the end of the flume, pull it over and anchor it in place, using a knot tied near the end of the thick hemp rope that when pulled tight fitted into a notch cut into the frame of the large square opening at the top of the wheel and flume. The wheel would then turn until the flume was released. A simple but dangerous design, especially when put into operation.

This morning the rope had apparently slipped from the apprentice’s hands and was dangling from the end of the flume with water cascading over it into the millpond. Another helper had gone into the pond, had retrieved its frazzled end and was climbing up the side of the wheel with the rope in a loop over his shoulder. Meanwhile the apprentice had climbed out onto the wheel and was reaching down for him. Unfortunately, unobserved by the climbers, the flume was being dragged slowly back toward the wheel by the weight of the wet rope. The situation was rife with opportunities for disaster, Moira could see. She could also see, as she came closer, that neither of the men could hear the miller’s warning shouts over the din of falling water. Neither seemed to realize their peril, for if the water reached the wheel, or if either man varied from his balance at the wheel’s exact center, they would be dashed to the rocks or thrown into the channel into which the wheel spun.

She passed the miller at a run and was up the steep steps as though a real devil was behind her. But she’d come up with a plan while running, and she grabbed up a long-handled garden hoe from outside the mill’s doorway as she ran.

“Harley,” she shouted. “Come in.” He turned and shook his head.

“I’ve got to get the rope.”

She pointed to the flume, which was still inching toward them, and showed him the long handled implement.

“Let me come out past you and I’ll hold the flume away while you bring the rope inside.”

He nodded and stood up straight, so she could crawl out between his legs and not put the wheel off balance. She came out, hoe first, and planted its broad side against the flume. By that time the helper, a lad named Galen, had come high enough to swing the rope end skyward, where Harley reached out and caught it. All would have been well then, for Harley, holding the very end of the rope, eased himself back inside the window, and Galen started clambering back down the side of the wheel. But Galen wasn’t watching where he put his hands, and the left one came down solidly on a wasps’ nest. He screamed and flung himself away from the wheel, and as he did, he pushed away from the center and the wheel began to turn.

Moira saw his action and felt the wheel began to roll forward. As it did, she lost purchase on the flume and it began to swing toward her. If she remained where she was, she would either be pinned between the flume and the side of the mill or be tossed into the narrow channel beneath the wheel. She had only seconds to decide. She scrambled up and, as the flume came in on her and caught the spring’s outflow, she dove straight into the channel of the flume itself and was spit out like a mere matchstick, over the wheel and past it, kicking at the nearest bucket as she passed to deflect her path. She missed being pulled into the channel by inches, but where she landed, just in front of the wheel, the water was not deep enough to break her fall. She went in flat, face down, with her arms crossed in front of her face. It was all that saved her.

She retained no memory of the fall, or of the many hands that lifted her gently but swiftly from the water and carried her in a litter up the hill to the infirmary. She awoke, hours after bones were splinted, cuts were bandaged, and the excitement had died down, to the light of a candle and Ellen’s soft breathing in the chair next to her. She thought at first her companion was asleep, but no.

“If you ever do anything like that again, I swear to god I’ll shoot you,” Ellen said, emotion in her tone.

“I’m not sure there’s enough left of me to do it again,” she answered. “What’re the damages?”

“Wrist, three ribs, and a concussion, to start. Several inches of skin and a little blood. And your superwoman badge. You’ve been demoted to ordinary human. I just can’t believe you. What were you thinking?’

“I was thinking they didn’t see what was happening and they wouldn’t be able to stop the wheel from turning and at least one of them was going to die. I couldn’t stand it.”

Ellen choked out a laugh that was partly a sob. “How did you think I was going to stand it if you killed yourself out there, Missy! I can’t lose you. None of us can. We’ve lost too much. You just can’t …” she stopped talking and wept openly, until Moira reached out and pulled her close. She didn’t speak until Ellen had quieted.

“I’m sorry I frightened you. But I took the job. And there’s no retirement plan. I’m in it for the duration.”

“Yeah,” said Ellen with a sigh as she sat back and rubbed her eyes. “Me too. But maybe we could consider slowing down a little.”

Moira chuckled. “I could go for that. I could start right now.” They laughed. Within minutes, the two were asleep, hands clasped, dreaming about days to come.

The next morning, after breakfast, the children arrived. They’d had five between them in those early years, Ellen three and Moira two, and each was poised to take up a chore that their mothers had been responsible for. Jared, the oldest, had a list, he said, and would be willing to take advice as to which was suited for what job. Any of them, he said, would certainly be willing to be trained. But there would be no No answers. And so they agreed, and everyone, even six-year old Aidan, set off with a chore to do.

This was not the only, nor the worst, to befall the family that year. That autumn, as Moira sat outside the Keep taking a break from prepping herbs to dry, she felt a deep ache, not quite physical, and for which there was no apparent cause. Then she looked up to see Joel stumbling up the path, obviously upset and exhausted, his dusty face tracked with sweat and tears. As he came before her, he met her eyes and then looked away, fighting to hold back sobs.

“Who?” Moira demanded, a chill clutching at her neck as her breath stopped.

“It’s Steven,” he said. And then his knees buckled, his face contorted. “He was down in the far pasture, looking for a cow that was ready to calve. He heard the cow scream, and ran to help. The pigs. They had the calf, and he – he just didn’t think. He tried to save it, and – and they took him down. They cut him bad, and he tried to run, but he was losing too much blood. He was trying to get back, but he was too far away. Lucky someone saw him just as he fell, or he’d still be out there. But it was too late. He bled out. He’s gone, momma. He’s gone.” The young man collapsed at her knee and wept as he had not done those long years since his arrival. Moira stroked his hair as her own tears coursed.
Then Glen and Ellen arrived riding double on Glen’s horse, Willy.

At her questioning look, Glen said, “Eldon and Ray are bringing him up on the wagon. We thought to put him up here until, well, until we figure what to do.”

“I know what to do first,” said Moira in a calm voice. “I want those pigs dead, every goddam one in that band. Drag them out far enough into the woods where their pals can find them. Make it plain, piss on their heads. Let them know you murder a human and you die. I think they’re smart enough now to take the point. Then we’ll call in the town and bury our friend.”

So it was done, and they rallied, and the years continued to pass, with Moira healing, mostly, and everything in her realm moving just about the same. Only, as she had promised Ellen, a little slower.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seventeen: A Community and a Nation Evolve

The third year passed into the fourth without incident. That fourth spring, largely due to the organizing efforts of the Brothers bolstered by the Crafters’ Society, the isolated trading parties had now become an organized group of traders and artisans who had made for themselves a near-circular route that would travel to every settlement that would have them during the warm season. Every spring thereafter would see the crafters and artisans plying their trades and gathering the news at festivals held all along their circuit, joining the caravan near their home places and dropping out when they had come full circle. 

In that same year, applicants to join and be trained by the Brothers began coming from other territories.  The mapmaking and map-revising Brothers were also receiving requests for a more detailed set of maps of as much of the island nation as had yet been explored and documented.

One faction, however, opted out of joining the larger community, saying they had no interest in joining with others for anything other than the most unavoidable contact. They were the fundamentalist communities of the southwest, who were now calling themselves “The Religious” and had named their territory Gloriland. As language became fluid over time, words and meanings evolved, and outside the group the name the isolationists called themselves began to change, first becoming “the Religes” and then just “Lidges.” Whatever they were called, they remained aloof from the inter-territorial socializing. They did not invite the trade circle to make a stop in their territory.
In the course of their wanderings toward Gloriland, however, many of those who ended up there had taken with them a number of sheep, goats, and other livestock, and once they’d found out about the trade route, they had sent some of their folk to join the caravan, bearing cured cheeses, leather goods, and woven articles from scarves to sturdy winter clothing. They were shy and reticent, kept mostly to themselves, and offered quality merchandise, and so they were welcomed by the towns and the other traders. Unlike those other communities, though, they held no festivals of their own, they did not welcome outsiders and discouraged travel by strangers into their home country. They permitted the annual visits of the Brothers only grudgingly.

The intense season of winter storms had been decreasing in severity with each cycle of the seasons, but they continued to bring travel to a virtual halt from mid-November to March, making the seasons when travel was possible busier every year with trade and communications between all the other communities in the new territories. Glen had asserted that once trade routes were established and made safe, the entire economy could grow and flourish. And he was right. It did.

Even so, given the distances and the modes of transportation available, as the settlements increased the frequency of their seasonal contacts with others, those disparate communities were making use of the solitary winter months to further their distinct crafts and develop a unique character within their own cultures, so that as they grew closer in some ways, they grew farther apart in others.

Poplar Bluff, for example, now on the island’s east coast, had become a community of crafters and artisans, especially after the discovery that the earth shocks had opened up a sizable new vein of potter’s quality clay. Over time the export of dinnerware and other functional pottery became that settlement’s primary source of income, with masonry goods from floor tiles to brickwork a close second. A seaport was established, plans were being made to enclose an area where the submerged land was flat and the sea shallow for the manufacture of salt. And everyone finally stopped using the old name and it became just Popular.

Once people began to recover from the initial shock of the Change, people and communities across Ozarkia began to examine the potential for other industries to serve a growing population, and to assess how to promote a more civilized society in general. Education was a prominent concern island-wide, since schools and colleges throughout the area had all suffered from some physical destruction as well as the loss of much of their faculty and staff.

As the certainty grew that help would not be coming from any outside entity in the near future if at all, the preservation and passing on of knowledge became a grave consideration. Mumbros was one of many territories addressing the issue, and toward the end of the summer before, Moira and the Brothers had worked to identify all the scholars and teachers who survived. Over that winter they made plans for an all-island meeting to discuss developing a single, national educational system. More important was the need to settle on what might be the shape of that education and how existing knowledge could be preserved and enhanced. The meeting was to take place in late spring of year four, at a location to be determined.

A major problem to be solved and which was recognized in every territory almost at once, was that much of the education that had been taught previous to the Change was no longer pertinent to the state of things in present time – or for the foreseeable future. Whatever changes might befall them in the future, it was a certainty that it would not be changing back to what once was.Therefore, what had been American History, World History, and World Geography had become a study of the annals of an ancient world. Technology, too, had been reduced to an analysis of what might still be possible, given the shortage of replacements for dying or doomed electronics. New sources of raw materials existed only in dreams. Newly proposed courses would mostly be related to researching, investigating and mapping the new demographics of this vastly diminished nation. In the sciences, emphasis would be put on locating and mining former landfills and other salvage sites for materials and processes that had once been commonplace but were now precious, if they existed at all.

Using a courier service maintained by the Brothers, whose members took time away from winter training to provide security and vital communications, over the winter the scholars were able to select a meeting place and organize an agenda. After some territorial wrangling, they chose a suitable town near to a central point of the island, one which had an existing university branch and a library housed in structures that had suffered but not fallen. The town, which was more or less intact, had once had a longer name but was now referred to as The Plains. The people there had worked hard to regain basic services and had already restored most of the main campus facilities. That community offered itself as a place to restart a program of higher education and to make their programs available to other communities. Early in summer they had sent word that students from every region were welcome to journey there in the coming fall, to arrive ahead of the winter winds, and plan to spend the winter term on site. Due to the mayhem just passed there was no shortage of vacant housing that could be made available, they said. Students could work out their tuition by assisting in the rebuilding and rehabbing efforts. In fact, as Moira observed, The Plains would probably be on the short list when the new nation chose a site for its national capitol.

Once the date for a meeting was selected, Moira said she would head up the attendees from Falling Spring, a contingent that included Ellen, veterinarian Haley Slocum, nurse practitioner Alice Compton, biologist Tish Beebe, and chemist Annie LeBeaux. In one of the longest town meetings yet, just before the gathering of scholars, Moira asked the people what they thought were the most important educational needs of the still evolving community. They agreed, for instance that mathematics and science should be, for the most part, untouched, as should language arts. History, social studies, political science texts, on the other hand, would have to begin anew.

“Geography is also a brand new field, as is cartography,” mused Rickard, which prompted an excited response from Glen.

“Then we must teach it as an exploratory science, a research field. As soon as we get some folks trained in the principles, we can take them out to do field work,” he said. “It’ll be great hands-on training, and we need the information. The Brothers can only do so much without solid science behind them.”

“You’ll need to find someone who has transits and such and some training in surveying if you’re going to get all the way into it,” Steven added. “But even without a surveyor you can use the measurements from those old highway maps to make new ones.”

Sonny Akinato, of the bus people, said he had such skills and had brought what he could salvage of equipment he had found as they had walked out of the devastation. He suggested that as well as standard academics, the conference should consider the need for a trade school path of study as well as the study of the abstract arts.

“Virtually all the jobs for ordinary people in the future will be in fields different from what we know now. Granted, those who remember the time before have many things to offer. What we must do now is prepare for the days and years ahead, where the knowledge and the needs will be different, and those memories, if not captured, will be gone,” he said.

The meeting produced at least half a dozen discussions among smaller groups that lasted well into the night. By the time Moira and the delegates headed toward the meeting at The Plains, they had designed most of what they hoped would become a workable and practical curriculum. But in those early morning hours before their departure, the earth again trembled and shook, an unsettling reminder that the changes had not necessarily come to an end.

* * *

The conference was both exciting and fruitful, for the most part, and by the end of the first day several matters had been settled to the satisfaction of most attendees. Depending on the coursework selected, student fees for supplies would be paid in traded labor. No tuition would be charged, other than a yearly fee to the college town from all the territories whether or not they sent students every term.

All the territories agreed on the basics except for the Southwestern colony, whose delegates announced at the start that they would be providing their own schooling and would pay no fees to the “heathens.” Their small delegation marched precipitously from the meeting after being firmly assured that aside from a survey of world religions, there would be no coursework offered based solely on either the King James Bible, which they requested, nor the Koran, which they were certain was in the plan after spotting someone who looked suspiciously as if they might be Muslim, wearing a turban and carrying a suspiciously large volume. (It was the Sikh man from the bus people, who was a mathematician. He was carrying a dictionary.).

When asked, Moira told the conference-goers that Mumbros was pitifully short of both scholars and master artisans, and that the few they had, including those at the conference, were too elderly, too unwell or too badly needed at home to be able to spend the winter months teaching at the school. However, she said, those who excelled in certain fields would be welcome to come to Mumbros should they desire advanced training or fieldwork. Of expertise in those fields they were well supplied. And they would be happy to train younger scholars to teach in their place.

The meeting adjourned with an agreement to begin classes as soon as a catalog and a faculty were assembled and to meet again the following April to review how the first term had gone. High on the agenda of that next meeting would also be a discussion on what a national government might look like and whether some form of the U.S. Constitution would serve. Everyone was in agreement that local rules governing individual territories should be put together by those who would have to put up with them.

In Mumbros that subject was already a hot topic. As early as the community’s second summer, the need for more structure than the weekly town meeting provided had become painfully obvious. A new problem arose nearly every day that needed taking up by those most suited and/or most interested in the outcome, and as often as not, too many hands and opinions only hindered resolution. So a group was formed to draw up the skeleton of a village charter with the understanding that it could be changed or added to when needed, and other groups could either volunteer or be appointed to take up specific issues as they arose and decide whether to deal with them directly or bring them before the larger group.

In most cases though, people were content to let the founders, that original group of Moira’s family and close associates, have the last word on the day-to-day issues. And Moira’s tenure as the village’s leader went unquestioned. The founders had created the village and were, after all, the most invested in keeping order and maintaining a sustainable structure. And Moira’s image still held as the last official representative of what had once been the most powerful nation on earth. The extended family met frequently over dinner to analyze those matters of governance left to their discretion, including which issues to delegate and which to keep to themselves. Glen, as head of the Brothers, reported directly to Moira, as did Ellen, Steven, Annie, Alice, and Rickard. One night at supper Ric expressed it thus:
“We’ve never pretended we want to rule over everyone. But we have the opportunity, as this community settles into sustainable ways, to guide people toward sensible, humane choices and away from zealots of any stripe. We only have the one chance to get this right, because we’re getting older every day and every season brings more young ones into the world who have no sense of a history before this time. That should be our first priority, to use our influence to guide our part of the world forward. Otherwise, what are we here for?”

Conversation over dinner was lively another night, this one after a teamster attending the town meeting mentioned he had observed that training the transportation animals was both easier and harder since they had all gotten smarter. The varied reactions to his statement revealed that many people had observed changes in all the sentient beings around them, changes that defied explanation. The domesticated four-leggeds, from horses to cats, seemed to understand human language and even thoughts a great deal better than before and could even follow simple instructions. Creatures out in the wild had developed some new and often disturbing traits as well. There was, of course, the matter of the feral pigs, whose population had grown and become more ferocious as the traits of the wild Ossabows had dominated the gene pool. Even though black bears and a few cougars had survived, the pigs had become the most dangerous predators to threaten human populations. Even the village’s own jovial Tamworth swine were terrified of their wild cousins.

The Brothers had the most encounters with them on their travels throughout the territories, and had begun working to drive them away from populated areas. At the meeting, the discussion turned to a stirring up of tales about pig encounters and away from voicing any notion that perhaps some humans were also beginning to get a bit smarter, or stranger, or a bit of something that no one could quite put a finger on. The village leaders, especially the first family, were reluctant to talk about the phenomenon. They were studying it, but warily. It was obviously not happening to everyone but some were experiencing things they found very odd, and occasionally hair-raising.

Ellen observed one night over her plateful of late greens and well cured wild ham that she believed some people, just a few, were developing more acute intuitive abilities. Some had developed a high level of empathy; others could diagnose illnesses or had a heightened sense of direction. Still others seemed to be able to predict weather. With her confession, it soon turned out that everyone in the family had noticed things but no one had been sure enough of what they’d seen to mention it. Glen confessed that he was unable to get lost. “I’d been noticing that even before I came here, but I thought it was just Willie, my horse. But I’m pretty sure I have a touch of it, too.”

“Well, Moira and I weren’t sure but what we’ve been hallucinating,” Ellen admitted, “but we both seem to have developed a bit of the healing touch. And I’d almost swear the herbs are teaching me more about how to use them than I ever learned from the books, or even from experience. I know that sounds crazy, but…”

“No, it’s real. I know it is,” said Joel, interrupting. “I’ve been teaching my dog to do some neat tricks because he’s extra smart. But as soon as he catches on, it’s like pretty soon all the dogs can do it. Really. It’s very weird. What do you think is causing it?”

Moira shook her head. “I wouldn’t hazard a guess, except that we were warned from the beginning to embrace unexpected gifts and avoid unintended consequences. I’m thinking we should, for the time being, just keep quiet about this. Just watch and listen. Take notes. And we’ll come back to it once we’ve taken the pulse of the community.”

They all nodded and turned their attention back to their plates. It would be some time before the matter was discussed aloud again, although when a moment of oddness occurred, they would glance up, often as not, and see another family or community member meeting their eyes as if to say, “Did you see that? I saw it. Did you?”

Even as odd events continued to multiply, the family held the knowledge close to their chests. It was a wise choice, given that as time went on, as surely as gifts were appearing among some individuals in the community, they were less apt to be found in the larger population. And when they did show themselves in that population, those “talents” were often uncontrolled, and sometimes wild and dangerous.

After a serious fall that injured but did not break her leg, the family again urged Tish to move up the hill where she could receive better care. She refused, saying, “If I can’t live near my garden, what good does it do me to live?” So a work crew was formed, a safer and more serviceable cabin was designed, they built her a new ‘hut’ next to the old, and she was very happy – well, as happy as she got.

She lived in her newly designed quarters, puttering in her garden and guiding the occasional student for more than a decade before age and illness finally took her. By then, hemp fiber, hemp oil, bamboo and the products made from them all had become Mumbros’ largest exports other than the increasingly known true-issue seeds. Hemp-oil and its distillates fueled lamps, lubricated wheels and gears and provided for a variety of needs all over the village and beyond. Steven had gotten his shirt of cloth made from hemp and cotton. And more than a dozen of Mumbros’ brightest young scholars had mastered the knowledge of biochemistry and half of those could also call themselves by titles from herbalist to chemical engineer.

Tish was also said to have been at least partly responsible for the smooth but volatile brew cooked up by millwright and barrel-cooper Lon Brixey from the generous portion of grain that arrived from the Amish each fall. They called the product a wheat ale, and it was for this, oddly, that the two of them would be best remembered in the decades to come.

Moira valued the cranky old woman most for the store of knowledge she brought and saw her most important contribution as her ability to teach, or more like download, all her training and expertise into the upcoming generation. Through her, and with Annie, Ellen, Alice and Haley’s help, Falling Spring also became known for its advanced studies in the sciences, as it trained the professionals who traveled from over west at the University of The Plains, where a faculty of surviving academics from all over the island had gathered. Civilization and a well-educated populace were returning as the light of knowledge began to spread across the new island nation of Ozarkia.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Thirteen: Troubles

Some weeks later, just as the main portion of the village was ending its work day, another lot of would-be settlers arrived, led by a tall, very slim, bearded man who introduced himself as Ephram Larch. He had a haughty demeanor as he scanned the parts of the village visible from just inside the gate, suggesting he was examining the accommodations and finding them wanting.

When asked the usual question about beliefs and world view, he snorted and said, “Truer Christians you’ll never find anywhere.” Behind him on a handsome blue roan horse was his younger self, by the look of him. He was Larch’s son, called Brynner. After him came a young couple, Leatrice and Huck Lewis, in a buckboard wagon loosely filled with supplies, some of them piled to make a bed for Eva Swan, an elderly woman who was Leatrice’s mother. She appeared to be quite ill. Someone had sent for Moira and when she came down the hill, Glen was waiting for her just out of hearing from the visitors.

“I don’t like this bunch, Moira. I saw this fellow up by old Terisita preaching to a little bit of a crowd, pitching hell and damnation and wrath of god stuff. I never invited him nor any of his crew. He must have got wind of us and followed our trail.”

“Well, we may be stuck with him at least for the short term, as it’s too late in the day to just send them out into the wild. We’ll have to put them up for a little bit. It won’t take us long to suss out what they’re made of.”

Glen nodded and started to walk away, then stopped. “We’d best have someone keep watch over them until we know what they’re up to. I can’t help but think that he, at least, has some of his own designs in mind for this place.”

“You know who we might put to the job?”

“How about young Ted? He’s beginning to get his strength back and is looking to be of help. You might have a word with him over supper.”

“Or sooner,” she replied. They parted and Moira drew nearer the conversation by the gate.

Rick had finished his assessment of their needs and was on his way back to the his little house, which also served as the village canteen and welcome shed, to find the village map and see what nooks and crannies might be available to hold the five newcomers. Moira meant to introduce herself, but stopped when she heard the hiss of Ephram’s hoarse whisper.

“I wonder where they got that little nancy-boy,” he spit. “Looks like they could offer a proper welcome, instead of sending out some pervert to paw over the weary travelers.”

She stepped forward. “I’ll be the one to do the welcoming, mister. Although I wonder that you’d be so soon willing to bite the hands that mean to make your dinner.”

Ephram flushed and yanked his hat from his head.

“Beg pardon, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to speak poorly. Where might your husband be, if you’ll permit me to ask?

“Ask away. But you’ll not find him. I’m not here in place of my husband. I’m here representing what’s left of the federal government. And I’d like you to state your business here.”

“You’ve got no man to be in charge? What kind of place is this?”

“It’s my place, mister, and unless you and your friends mean to sleep in the cold dew outside the fence tonight, I suggest you learn to watch your tongue. We’re not a community that excludes people for their differences, unless they make themselves intolerable.”

At that moment Rick reappeared and began to direct the visitors.

“I have a little cabin right at the end of Main Street that’s empty. It’s small, but it will serve temporarily. There’s not much for bedding, but I expect you’ll have some with you. It’s three rooms, so Mr. and Mrs. Lewis can have one, Mister Larch and his son will take the next, and your mother can have a room to herself. I’ll take you there now, then show you gentlemen to the stables. If your mother needs a nurse, we can see to that as well. I’ve already sent someone to tell the kitchen to rustle you up some dinner.” He ushered them away into the gathering dusk and Moira, shaking her head at the bizarre encounter, headed for the farmhouse to propose a new job for Ted. Glen was right to be concerned. She had no idea what the others were about by coming here, but Larch was going to be trouble. Of that she had no doubt.

The next night was meeting night and was attended by all, including the new arrivals. The village’s human population had now grown to 25 and if the newcomers stayed would hit 30. They were now officially full, since no other housing remained except for the summer kitchen behind the farmhouse, and with its vast brick oven and iron cookstove it would not easily be converted from its original purpose.

Now that most of the harvest was in, it was time to assess the community’s progress and shift most of the harvest crew to other tasks, most of them involving construction. Moira called on Eldon to make the first report.

“As y’ know, we’ve been shorthanded at every turn, so things have gone slower than they might have. However, since last week I’ve taken a crew and four wagons up to my old place, and we managed to bring back about half the lumber I had stored up there. We’ll need to start on the school soon. But given the way people keep coming in, we thought it best that the Inn be given first priority. With the foundation work already done and the walls up, we’ll be raising some partitions up on the second floor by end of the coming week to make some sleeping rooms. We can divide up the downstairs as soon as we can decide on what goes into an Inn.”

He asked for help with the design and both Rick and Toby raised a fluttering hand. Toby had a word to say on inns and what they should offer. “Something to drink besides water would be good for a start,” he said with an impish grin. At this a laugh and a cheer went up.

“If enough basic equipment could be salvaged from stores and from what other gathering expeditions might bring, a small restaurant or pub could be assembled so people could sleep and take their meals there,” Ellen commented.

More good news followed as Annie LeBeaux announced the completion of her laboratory. In her report she said she, Ellen, Alice Compton, and Haley Slocum were now working to develop an infirmary/pharmacy/dispensary within what had been the large public space at the visitors center so they could better see to the residents’ ongoing medical needs.

The next report on the harvest, by Toby, was not so encouraging.

“As you know, much of the planting was gotten in late, due to lack of hands to do the work. We’ve been fortunate, as most of you who came later brought some food stocks with you. Still, we won’t know where we stand until all the root crops are in. It’s going to be touch-and-go even at best. As it stands now, we’re just barely going have enough food to get us through the winter. The livestock situation is some better, for we’ve had two good cuttings of hay and are looking at one more, maybe, before frost. But if very many more folks show up, well…”

Just then, Helen spoke up. “One thing we could do, and we’ve already started it somewhat, is use the big kitchen and larder up here to make at least one of the days’ meals for everyone. That way we can better portion out the food and make sure everyone gets at least one good hot meal a day. There should also be at least some food and snacks kept at the Inn when it’s finished, hopefully before winter. We should probably put a food crew together to see the whole thing is organized and efficient, so things don’t go to waste.”

“That’s good,” said Moira. “Anyone who’s interested in helping with that, get with Helen after meeting.” Several nodded, and Eldon raised his hand.

“It sounds like to me, if we mean to be careful with the food and still have room for more incomers, I’d best be starting on a boarding house next, or a dorm, or bunk house. Something. If we could find the right salvage, I could put in a commercial kitchen there, and we could serve a noon meal for everyone down there, with a regular dining room.

Helen quickly whispered in Moira’s ear and she nodded

“If you can put together something sturdy enough to house it, you can take the whole kitchen from up here on the hill,” Moira said with a grin. “The village has far more use for it than I do, and it’d be more convenient for everyone, especially Helen, because she’d have more ready help.” Another round of nods followed.

“Any questions or other issues,” she asked.

Ephram Larch raised his hand. “Where is your church?” he demanded.

Moira hated his tone, but the question was a valid one.

“Well, Mr. Larch, since you’re new here, you probably don’t know much about the history of this place. It has only been a real village for less than a year. It’s actually part of what used to be a small national park and was intended to be a work of living history, demonstrating how folks lived in centuries past. The Park Service staff were building replicas of what facilities would exist in such an old pioneer town, and they just hadn’t gotten to the church yet. But if you’d like one, you’re certainly welcome to help build it. I’m sure we have several carpenters willing to help. And as it happens, we already have a minister.” She had Ray stand and introduced him to the newcomers. He stammered a welcome awkwardly, but was smiling when he sat down.

After suggesting it might be time for those assembled to gather themselves into smaller groups or crews according to their interests and talents, Moira called the meeting to a close and announced that the next week’s meeting would be devoted to the subject of education – everyone’s education – and how to develop best practices for living in the world as it had become. As usual, everyone’s thoughts would be welcomed. Then Ellen brought in trays of cookies pebbled with dried fruit and a spare quantity of nuts. She drew close as she handed Moira a pair of cookies.

“That went well, I thought. How about you?”

Moira grinned and shook her head. “I don’t know. The more I think things are settling into place, the weirder they seem to get. I think we’re going to have some trouble out of that Larch guy. He reminds me a little too much of some other guys we had to deal with once, in the long-ago.”

Ellen’s lips tightened. “Then deal with him we will,” she replied. “I don’t suppose you considered just shooting him when he came up to the gate?”

Moira snorted a laugh that sent cookie crumbs flying, and shook her head yes, then no. “Too many people about,” she choked out, and they both collapsed in gales of laughter. When someone asked what was funny, Ellen shook her head. “It’s a very long story,” she said, and Moira chimed in with a “Too long. Much too long.” For the rest of the evening, they avoided looking at one another because the meeting of their eyes set off more giggles. Evidently, they agreed the next morning, that once grim matter had finally been laid to rest.

It was as Moira feared. Ephraim Larch, despite all cautionary words directed at him, seemed determined to throw up obstacles to virtually every aspect of any plans for the village’s future. First he wanted to challenge the actual structure of community life itself. His general complaint centered around the notion that women were in charge of everything that mattered, and that just wasn’t right. They were making decisions they just weren’t suited to, he said, which Steven and Glen found hilarious. It especially rankled him that Moira was the community’s highest authority, and no argument, even the one that she represented the last vestige of government, would appease him. For her part, Moira had been done with trying to appease him about anything from the time she overheard his first sniping, whispered comments at the gate.

At the next town meeting to discuss, among other things, the principles by which their community might move into the future, Larch had an opposing opinion about everything and Moira soon tired of his interruptions. He first tried to divert the discussion into the need for armament, which was rebuffed. When discussions turned to the need for a school, he asserted that the school’s coursework must be guided by fundamentalist Christian principles. Then he insisted that all subjects other than homemaking should by rights be taught by men.

Moira had had enough. “Mister Larch, I believe you have misunderstood what we are here to do. We are making plans for a school, a school that will address life as we know it. It must serve to prepare those who will come after us to live in that world. It is far, far too soon to discuss what we plan to teach in it, and how, and by whom. We need to move on with the real concerns that face us today.”

He continued sputtering, and she said, finally, “How about this? Next week we will take up consideration of our various belief systems, our attachment to traditions, and the need to accommodate a diverse population. Will that do?”

“No, but I see I’m outranked here,” he snarled. “And as for true Christian traditions versus this ‘diversity’, it appears to me there’s only two traditions here, the true believers and your little rabble of heathens. I’m not sure you should even have a place at the next meeting.”

Moira smiled a broad and very cold smile at that. “I will be the judge of where my place is, thank you. And if I need your advice, I’ll ask for it. Now sit down and hush. We have work to do, and you’re being a hindrance.” Those gathered moved closer in and kept to the subjects before them, and soldiered on to the end of the meeting.

Then came an event the following week, just hours before the next scheduled meeting was to start, that turned the discussion about diversity and traditions and one’s place in things completely on its head. Rick and Toby had just finished serving up morning tea, coffee, and little breakfast buns to the early workers stopping by their small cantina when they heard the sound of singing, many voices singing. And then there was a shout, followed by a whoop of joy, again from many more voices than should be there. Evidently there were visitors at the gate. But when Rick reached the entrance, he could scarcely believe his eyes. This new congregation, if that’s what it was, was possibly the most ethnically and racially diverse group of humans he’d seen since moving years ago from California to the Ozarks. There were eleven of them in all, including, when they’d gotten the stories straight, three African-Americans, two Asians, one Pacific Islander, an Arab, a Sikh and three people of various Hispanic origins. And they were very happy to be there, apparently, because they were laughing, cheering, and all talking at once. By the time Toby had raced up the hill and fetched Moira, Rick had made at least a little headway in sorting out their story.

First of all, they were tourists, or had been, all of them from the St. Louis area. They had been riding on a tour bus just north of Memphis, returning home from the Gulf coast, where they’d spent the Thanksgiving weekend at the casinos in Biloxi. Then the first big earthquake hit. The driver had managed to stop without crashing the bus, but they had been very close to the fault zone. They had exited the bus safely, but had afterward suffered many injuries and some fatalities during their first few days while making their way through some violently disturbed terrain that was never still and was rapidly filling with water. They finally made their way to Poplar Bluff and found food and clean water and shelter of sorts, even though the city, which they insisted on calling Popular Buff was mostly in ruins. They were welcomed after a fashion and some had stayed there. But there were too many of them, and some proved too “diverse” for some, so that portion had decided to move on to what they called “Vanbyren.” Room had been made for them there, but grudgingly, for that town was already overcrowded and resource poor, and when spring arrived and the winds subsided, most had been ready to attempt another trek in hopes of finding either an abandoned town where they could settle together or someplace where they might be better received. They had experienced just too much hostility and suspicion, especially toward their darker colleagues, from those very homogenous, i.e. white settlements, to feel safe, they said. They’d heard rumors of some fabled settlement where it was said people of diverse origins might be welcome, and they had decided to try for it, using a highway map with the little park shown on it. That leg of their journey had taken some two weeks, they said.
Their arrival threw the entire ensuing meeting into chaos, leaving Ephram Larch so dumbfounded he had nothing to say. Instead of wrestling over beliefs, the discussion was on how many rooms at the Inn could be quickly made livable and how soon a dormitory could be finished. Then there was the question of how on earth they would all be fed. Fortunately, along with the newcomers had come a trio of pack animals carrying a supply of foodstuffs along with their meager belongings, so concerns over immediate hunger were assuaged. It was obvious, though, that this was only a very short term solution. The entire flock was bedded down in the cavernous lower floor of the building that was to be the Inn. Sandwiches and snacks were brought down from the kitchen at the Keep, and they got comfortable as Moira explained to them the conditions under which the community was organized. They were thrilled to comply.

As for the meeting, it was decided that further discussion about schooling as well as about religious traditions would just have to wait until the chaos had subsided.

The conflict, however, was far from over. Some who had arrived earlier, the Riggs sisters in particular, had already expressed discomfort over how few “traditional Christians” existed in the population. There were Christians of various sorts among the new arrivals, though, and Moira was encouraged, for Larch and the Riggs girls had now found some things in common with people who at least marginally shared their beliefs. Things should get better now, she thought.

But instead, they got worse, not through anyone’s fault, or from bad intentions, but because of the serious issues that had to be faced regarding their real-life circumstances. Even before the last of the fall harvest was in or the huge batch of newcomers arrived, it was evident there simply would not be enough food to keep everyone fed all winter without depleting the seed stocks to dangerous levels. Without sufficient seeds to replant and enough extra to save against crop failure, they could only delay the demise of the entire settlement. Again it was Glen who came up with a solution, over the first family’s dinner table in the center’s former conference room.

“I’ve enough stored away at my place, in a large, roomy cave below my house, to feed maybe twelve —fifteen people over the winter,” he said. “Plus, the hunting is really good up there. Why don’t I take that many of the single men and boys up there and hole up for the winter. It’s a good shelter, they’d have water and a way to keep warm, for there’s plenty of downed timber to cut. And the cave was used as a hideout during the Civil War, so it’s been worked on to make it a little more homey. We could spend the winter passing around our skills and learn things from one another. And without all us heavy eaters around, you should have plenty on hand to keep the ones who stay. I mean, we could just go up there and bring back the stores, but that wouldn’t solve the drain on other resources or the housing problem.”

It was not the best of solutions, but it might work, the family decided. In fact, town meetings aside, here at the dinner table at the Keep was where most essential policies guiding the community were often formed and refined. They had taken seriously Joey’s notion of calling the massive structure the Keep because they kept not just the seeds there but priceless tools, knowledge, and records – the irreplaceable essentials, in those deep, climate controlled vaults. It also remained the only private meeting place for these few who were charged with keeping order as the population swelled and village life became more complex.

They presented Glen’s solution to the villagers at the next meeting and it was accepted. But when the time came to select who would go, religion, in the form of Ephram, again became a problem. Urged on by him, many of the more conservative Christian men claimed they were unwilling to leave their families “unprotected.” Nor did they want their young men spending months away from their families, especially in the company of those they considered unchurched heathens.

Then Moira caught wind of another, more sinister plan that represented a larger threat to the community. Ted, who was still keeping an eye on the Larches, had heard them scheming over a plot to wait until the other men left, then oust her as the community’s leader and replace her with a “good Christian man.” Not surprisingly, Ephram was both the instigator of the plan and the prime candidate to replace her. She hurriedly called a family meeting at the Keep. Then, backed by Glen, Steven, Joey, and Ellen, she called the villagers together in a special town meeting and spelled it out for them.

“I’m embarrassed that this discussion has to take place at all, but since it appears necessary, let me be as clear as possible. That you were welcomed here at all,” she said, looking pointedly at Ephraim Larch, “is a testimony to our generosity and decency as a family. We had already established our own rules and laws for this place which is in our keeping. If you mean to stay here, then you must respect that generosity as well as our ways. If you cannot abide them, then I invite you to seek shelter elsewhere. I am confident there are other communities more to your liking that would welcome you. In fact, we can provide you with maps to show you the way and loan you the transport to get there. And we could certainly use the space. Then there is the matter of resources. We have already agreed that in order to survive the winter some of you will have to spend those winter months elsewhere regardless of your personal wishes. None of us wish to leave or to send others away. We simply do not have and cannot get enough food for all of us to stay here through the coming winter. In addition, from observing the weather patterns as we head into the fall, we think it’s likely that the violent storms we experienced last winter may repeat themselves. So if we, and you, are to make this move, and do it deliberately, we must begin preparations now. At the first sign of worsening weather, Glen will take the men who have the least attachments here and head north. They will spend the winter months there at his home beside the Jack’s Fork River and return to Falling Spring as soon as the storms abate in early spring. Anyone who can’t abide this arrangement, or who can’t abide our ways, is welcome to choose alternatives. Glen can tell you about a couple of communities that are more – conservative, if that’s what you prefer – and help you to gather your belongings and move there before travel becomes dangerous.”

“I can be their guide and take them there, if they can be ready to go soon,” Glen agreed. Asked to define “soon,” Glen said, “within the next couple of weeks.”

At that, Ephram leaped to his feet.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on here,” he said in a loud, hoarse voice, spitting in his rage. “These women, these witches, are sending us good Christian men off to die so they can have our women and turn them into witches, or worse. They don’t have the right to say what we’re to do. They’re women! They shouldn’t even be allowed to speak. This place belongs to God! If anyone’s going to leave, it should be these godless heathens with their circles and charms.”

Several people looked surprised and some were offended at his outburst, but a few were nodding their heads. He was just getting into the rhythm of his speech when a metallic click caught everyone’s attention. Larch turned to look at Moira and found himself staring down the barrel of her pistol, which was aimed at his head.

“I’ll tell you what gives me the right,” she hissed in a voice no one had heard her use before. “This place is in my care. The responsibility for its survival is mine. I have paid for it in blood. A long time ago, before any of you knew of its existence, I was given the job to protect it. I take my job seriously, Ephraim. I would kill for it. I have killed for it. And I would do it again if need be.” The crowd surged back at the threat and bedlam threatened.

She holstered the pistol and raised her hands, calling for quiet.

“Listen to me. Listen. Do you really think you have been sent here because you’re good Christians, or because you believed we were? Do you not know where you are? This is the last outpost, the last hope, so far as we know, of rebuilding human civilization. Do you think we will let this outpost fall in order to appease your beliefs, or anyone’s? You may think what you wish and go where you wish to think it, but here at Falling Spring we will place our faith in human dignity and intelligence. We will worship the world that has let us live another day here. We will honor our differences and find common ground. And we will care, by any means necessary, for the seed stores in our keeping.
“They, not you, are our future. Without them there will be no future for any of us. If you would like to participate with us in this endeavor, then I advise you to keep your divisiveness and your nasty little egos (she said this last looking straight at Ephraim) to yourself, and join the work. Until and unless we find out differently, we must carry on as if we truly are the last hope of humankind. We don’t have time for this petty conflict over whose God is in charge. Everybody’s God carries equal weight here. If you have a problem with that, then leave. Otherwise, let’s stop this nonsense and get back to work.”

And they did. When Ephram turned back to look at the crowd, it had already begun to disperse, leaving him standing alone. Steven went to him, put his arm around the man’s sinking, dispirited shoulders, and led him off to the stables, where they worked the rest of the morning shoveling manure and arguing philosophy, a combination that caused great mirth when Steven described it at supper that night.

The next day the winds turned colder, and the day after that came the first howling drafts that foretold the arrival of the dreadful winter storms. The men would have to go north, and soon. But first Glen must guide Ephraim and his son, the Lewis family, and whoever else wanted to go, to a fitting home in another settlement. At first the Lewis’s were torn about what to do, because Leatrice’s mother, Eva Swan, was still too feeble to travel. But as if answering their concerns with a practical solution, she passed quietly in that first windy night and was buried the next day up on the knoll with the other settlers, old and new. And so the cemetery gained another, far more peaceful resident than the other recent arrivals. The following morning the little party took their leave without the Riggs sisters, who decided in the end they didn’t want to leave their little farm.

That same evening at the Inn, in a light furnished by the generator at the mill pond dam, the community gathered to discuss when the men should leave, who among them should go, what they would take, and what (and who) must be left behind. The discussion continued until late that night and long into the next lengthening evenings weighing the options.

As they talked, more concerns surfaced, and some frank discussion ensued, some of them out of the earshot of all but the family. When Annie and Alice joined the conversation over dinner at the Keep, the talks on genetics turned to an examination of the existing and probable future human gene pool. Ellen was older than Moira, but still pre-menopausal. If civilization were to be maintained, there would simply have to be more children and every effort made to have them. Also, some elements of conventional morality around the tradition of monogamy might have to be at least temporarily put aside, and that would require discussing it in plain terms with all the villagers – especially the women.

Fearing another confrontation with those who still might be too conservative for such notions, Ellen and Moira began calling women aside quietly, both those still capable of being mothers and those who had enough experience to form a cadre of midwives. They explained what needed to be done. Quietly, in most cases at least, Moira thought with a smile, the long evenings soon became more entertaining for a good many of the community’s residents. Memories were stored that kept quite a few men and women warmer through the winter nights apart.

And children came in plenty through the following summer and early fall.

Evidently some of the same discussions took place in the northern outpost at Glen’s Cave, because several of the younger men returned in spring eager to attempt a closer association with some of the girls of their own generation. Tom Langston took up with Regina Sharp, a young black woman from the bus. Arthur Slocum began courting Rae-Jean. And Eldon Case struck up a romance with Ruthie Riggs after his own mother, Marianne, moved across the hall of the farmhouse and in with John Langston.

Late that following summer, along with several of the village’s women, Ellen had a son, named Latham, after her father. Moira, after much deliberation and worries about not doing her part, finally declined, citing the many responsibilities she had that would be jeopardized by having an infant in tow. Besides, she had adopted the orphaned toddler, Jared, who was growing fast but still a handful. Maybe next year, she said, and Ellen supported her decision. What had started as a ragged bunch of survivors was fast becoming a real, diverse, multigenerational community. This new world was at last beginning to look at its future with some confidence that there might actually be one.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eleven: Making Room

Within a week after the Langstons arrived, more people, livestock, and even house pets began to trickle in, and as Ellen had predicted, room had to be made and plans altered again and again.

With the arrival of help and more temperate weather, Moira rescinded her decision to free all the livestock, and everyone but the young colts seemed relieved to be back in their pens. The poultry had been especially hard hit by predation and the village was down to just three hens and a single rooster, plus a single hen turkey from each of the turkey breeds and no rooster from either. But each of those turkey hens had apparently mated, both with their absent mates and evidently with a wild turkey male as well, for after they were penned, they nested and began producing some very odd-looking chicks along with some who looked quite ordinary. A mystery but not one they’d question, since the flock was now up from two to sixteen. The chickens had also been busy, each hatching out a brood of half a dozen or more. Not all of those lived, of course, but the chickens from the original flock numbered well over a dozen now, and the birds would likely nest again before fall. In addition, a motley little flock of four migrant chickens, including a brown leghorn hen, two bantam hens, and a bantam cross rooster, all of them ragged and some injured, stumbled into the village late one day, the rooster answering the call of the resident male. After some introductory tussles, they were welcomed into the flock, and the gene pool was further enhanced.

Likewise, a pregnant Holstein cow, then two Angus heifers and a bull calf, and then six rangy beef cattle of questionable lineage showed up at the lower gate, plainly asking for shelter and a little graze. They, too, showed signs of being worried by some kind of predatory animal and so were let into the gate of the harvested oat field and contented themselves tidying things up. Most of the Tamworth hogs returned, followed by a meek little Berkshire gilt, all of them polite and looking for a little corn. They trotted merrily into their enclosure, following a rattling grain can, and soon were happily settled.

One morning when she left her apartment, a small gray cat with golden eyes was sitting at Moira’s door. She warned it about the dogs but it marched inside, stood all its hairs on end, smartly slapped each puppy on the nose as it approached, wove its way around Sheba’s legs and purred, and made itself at home. Moira saw it was a girl and named it Stella. So, slowly but steadily, the village began to fill.

The arriving humans, with few exceptions, seemed to have been selected and sent by Glen. Most of them showed up holding hand-drawn maps on scraps of paper, and most seemed to understand the still unwritten rules of order. By the time Glen himself finally came home, he’d sent more than a dozen on ahead. In addition to their personal effects, each of them brought items of food, tools, medical supplies, reference books, and other salvaged and irreplaceable commodities from the world outside, and each presented those things as their entry fee. Each seemed eager to declare an open mind and religious tolerance among their qualifications for admittance. Obviously Glen had given them a talking to before drawing his maps. With every arrival, new skills and talents came with them.

First down the lower road by the river came Toby Stoffer, an organic farmer and orchardist who was carrying with him bundles of fruit tree scions he’d salvaged from the wreckage of his nursery, and Rickard Mills, his husband, a landscape designer. The two of them arrived with some fanfare on a noisy all-terrain vehicle pulling a trailer. On it in addition to the tiny trees were tools, boxes and bags tightly packed, several jerry-cans of fuel, and a Maine coon cat named Edna. Edna immediately set to work in the barn. Rickard applied for a job.
”I recognize that my profession has gone extinct, darling,” he told Moira. “I’ll work at anything you’d like me to do. But I hope you don’t mind if I pretty things up a bit as I go along.”

“I think you’ll both be as happy here as we are happy to have you,” Moira said, and then, realizing her choice of words could be taken two ways, added, “I’m delighted you’re here. This place could use a facelift and we can certainly use the extra hands. You’ll have all the work you want.” The men chose as their residence the lower shed just up from the gate, once used for storing landscaping equipment. Those items were moved, with some reverence on the part of Rickard, to a larger open-fronted shed opposite the gate, and the former landscaping shed soon acquired a patio, a tiny kitchen, and an outdoor grill. Before long, it became a popular after-work destination for many village residents.

Toby offered himself as Ellen’s assistant in the garden and Rickard was soon put to work refitting the “demonstration” shops of the village as living quarters and some real shops. Evenings he spent digging, planting, pruning, and “prettying” the extensive grounds. Soon Ellen handed over the food gardens and a growing orchard to Toby and devoted herself entirely to the medicinal herbs, and Rickard’s designs went far beyond prettying. Within days, he began approaching Moira with drawings he’d made on a small sketch pad filled with ideas for expanding the food gardens, developing more home sites, and creating planned public areas. As for the structure of the village’s common area including Main Street, he said, all that was lacking was sufficient people to run the shops. That, he predicted, would in all likelihood, take care of itself. And it did.

Next to arrive was Eldon Case, a 40-year-old farmer from just up the river from the Langston farm. He’d survived the winter but had watched his wife and father succumb to the cold and dark and terror that the nightmare changes had brought. He came in riding a tall bay mule, leading a donkey packed with his belongings, and driving before him a Jersey cow and calf. Riding behind him on the mule was his mother, Marianne Case. Running alongside and helping guide the cattle was a little cattle dog answering to “Burt.”

A little behind them that day came a lone woman driving a horse before a small buckboard wagon loaded with unknown items under a tarp. Her progress was tentative and Moira wondered why – until she recognized her.

“Oh my God it’s Helen!” she exclaimed, and went racing down the road, startling the Cases’ animals. “Sorry,” she called as she slowed so as not to startle the horse next in line. “Oh, Helen, I’m so glad you’re alive. I had so hoped that someone from the staff was out there and would eventually come in. Steven’s here.” As Helen pulled the wagon to a stop, Moira climbed aboard and threw her arms around the older woman. Helen Walker had been the manager and chief cook for the museum’s demonstration kitchen, had gone off with the rest for the Thanksgiving holiday and had never returned – until now.

Moira took Helen’s hand in both of hers and said “How are you? Really.”

“Well, we had a tight house and enough to eat and we just holed up and waited for the storm to pass,” Helen said. We only live about five miles away, but we were afraid to come down here, afraid of what we’d find and afraid we couldn’t get here and back. The bridge up there is out, you know. Then Nathan took sick about a month back, and, well, your man got there just about in time to help me bury him. He said you were OK and you’d have room for me. I sure hope you do.”

Moira gave her hand a shake. “Are you kidding? I’d take you in if I had to throw somebody else out. Now come on, let’s get you inside and get somebody to tend to your horse. We’ll get the wagon unloaded when we’ve settled on where to put you.”

Meanwhile, Toby and Steven were quizzing Eldon. Soon they knew he had grown up on his family’s farm but had worked in town as a welder, carpenter, and sometimes mechanic, and he had an abundance of manual skills to offer. He was at once befriended by Steven and offered charge of the tool room at the Center. He made his living quarters in the smaller of the barn’s two tack rooms and took his meals with the Langstons. Mrs. Case settled in one of the farmhouse’s upstairs bedrooms and offered to help in the kitchen and garden, although she soon began eyeing one of the little shops and mentioned she was a competent seamstress. When Ellen told her of the stored bolts of cloth, she began planning her new career. She and John Langston became immediate friends when Marianne confessed she played piano and John began to acquaint her with his small squeeze box accordion. Helen moved into the space up the hill that had been the dressing room for the performers, right next door to her beloved kitchen. The small population had already been eating Helen’s cooking from the meals stored in the freezer, but they soon discovered the fresh version was even better.

Learning of potential resources awaiting them at the abandoned farms upriver, Rick and Toby spent a can of their precious fuel on multiple trips hauling tools, materials, and supplies back to the village. Moira made sure they were both armed, but apparently the noise of the little four-wheeler was enough to keep the feral and vicious “wee little piggies” at bay.

Two days from the opposite direction down the road came the two Riggs sisters, 49-year-old Reatha and 40-year-old Ruthie, whose farm was downriver. They had not been sent by Glen. They had been living on their parents’ farm downstream from the Park for several years but had kept to themselves. They had dared the trip upriver after hearing, faintly, the noise from Toby and Rick’s ATV. It was the first human-made sound they’d heard since the “Changes,” they said, and they were afraid it might be the last. They’d come in a small, two-wheeled horse-drawn cart, saying they’d left all their worldly belongings behind in the care of the neighbors who’d joined them over the winter and who had stayed behind to do the milking. They could go fetch them if they could all please stay, they pleaded with tremulous voices, offering up their list of useful skills. They were schoolteachers but also dairy farmers, cheese-makers, and beekeepers, they said. They could, with help, bring with them as many as a dozen hives and ten head of Guernsey cattle, all good milkers. It was almost too good a gift and would strain the ability of the existing facilities both to house and to feed just the animals, not to mention another batch of new two-legged arrivals to consider as well, including that other family yet unseen. It was time to consider a larger plan.

Moira asked the sisters to return home and bring everyone back the next day right after the morning milking so all could attend a town meeting. She proposed a discussion to work out the details of how this larger village might proceed. The sisters happily agreed, and were invited to stay for lunch and beyond to meet the rest of the village residents before returning home. Tom and Toby on horseback escorted them back to their farm and returned home just before full dark.

The meeting was set for 10 a.m., but preparations had been underway since dawn, when Ellen, Helen, and Marianne began work next door in the kitchen, turning the regular morning meal into a brunch-style buffet more suited to the gathering. Moira also enlisted Steven and Tom to make some adjustments to the room that had been the museum’s theater. The addition of a long folding table down front with chairs behind it where the village’s unofficial leaders would sit made the space perfect for the meeting. They had also added, at Ellen’s suggestion, another long table at the back to hold all that food and drink. The theater at the former visitors’ center, which could seat up to 120 people, had seemed too large, but was still the best site for this meeting, as it was comfortable, and everyone could be seen and heard.

As the meeting time approached, people began strolling up the hill in what was becoming a festive mood. Steven’s daughter Sarah had recovered her strength enough that she and Joey were now looking after Ted Langston, who was still weak and was having a hard time building back his strength. As the meeting approached, and with help from Eldon, they hitched one of the trained Morgan mares to a flat-bedded farm wagon, enlisted “Grandpa John” Langston as wagon master, and offered a ride up the hill for Ted and anyone else who wished it. Ted hesitated, then agreed to ride and keep his grandfather company. The Riggs sisters said they’d like a wagon ride, too. Toby and Rick, who had already started up the hill, came walking up alongside the shy Lettie, the girl who’d taken refuge with the Langstons. Each of the men took an arm, and walked with her up the hill, chatting quietly in the bright morning, as the sun filled the shaded upper hollow. Above them, they could hear children laughing. Tom Langston and his mother were walking quietly behind them.

“You know,” said Toby, “if this is going to be the end of the world, I think we could have done a whole lot worse, don’t you?” He gave Lettie’s arm a squeeze. He’d heard the story of the loss of her family and was careful not to be flippant. 
She smiled a small smile, then took a deep breath and seemed to breathe in the beauty of the day. Her smile grew larger. “It could be worse,” she agreed.

As others began to file into the center and find the theater, Rick pulled Moira aside and pressed for a serious discussion of setting up an ongoing and regular schedule of meetings where residents could be informed and educated and have input into how the growing village should be organized. She agreed to bring it up, but she said Rick would have to be in charge of presenting suggestions for a plan. He pulled out his notebook.

“I don’t suppose you’d have a larger piece of paper?” he said. He had changed from his usual jeans and landscaper’s apron and was wearing a thin cotton shirt and dove gray slacks. His graying blond hair was tied back at the neck. He looked every inch the landscape designer.
She directed him to the conference room where a presentation pad and easel were stored.

As he hurried away, Ellen, Helen and Marianne came parading up to the theater entrance carrying large trays of pastries and other finger foods which they arranged on the table at the back next to pitchers of iced herb tea, flasks of coffee and a random assortment of glasses and cups. People continued to stream in, and soon all were gathered, sipping and nibbling as the discussion began.

The first suggestion was that they find a suitable name for this structure they were in other than Visitors Center, and designate the theater as the town hall. But what should the entire facility be called? Joey raised his hand.“Why don’t we just call it the Keep, because that’s where you keep everything important?”

Everyone agreed it was short and descriptive enough, and the name was adopted without further conversation. Moira, who had assigned herself as host of the first meeting and was determined to keep her input to a minimum, shook her head as she served coffee to the small group, muttering something about how she hoped everyone realized that this made her the keeper.

Next, Rick arrived, set up the easel, and began to sketch out a plan using a dark marker. He began to explain his plan for how the village should be developed over time.

“We’re barely even a villagette here, Rick, not a real village,” Moira said in protest, but he pressed his point.

“Not yet, we’re not, but the more who arrive, the less there’ll be opportunity for changes. We don’t have enough room in this hollow to just let it grow like Topsy. We need an organized plan to make the best use of the space,” he insisted. “We already need a school. And soon we’ll need to add a church or two, I expect. And a community center, and an Inn, or at least a hostel, and…” She nodded, waved a hand in surrender, and agreed. From now on, she said, she would host weekly meetings here, where everyone could have a seat and a say, and everyone could voice their concerns and ideas, and listen to the concerns of others.

Realizing this meeting and the ones going forward would need some structure, Moira asked for items to go on an agenda, and nearly everyone had something to add. Clearly, people had been thinking about the future. Rick was still adding to his drawing, so she asked if he would yield the floor temporarily so other business could be taken up. He held up his hand with the marker to show he’d heard her, then continued drawing.

Eldon was first to speak but he had obviously been talking to Rick.

He stood and removed his green feed cap, revealing the tan line that stopped halfway up his forehead – a farmer’s tan. “Since it looks like we’re all gonna be here a while…” He paused, waiting for someone to disagree, but no one did. “…and I expect we’ll see some more show up before long…” Everyone nodded, so he went on. “We’d better be tryin’ to get as ready as we can, and as soon as we can. We’re sure not ready now, even though this place as it stands is a real blessing. But we’re going to need more rooms, more places under roof, more food, more …” he stopped, looking for the word.

“Structure,” said Steven, and Eldon nodded. Rick looked pointedly at Moira, who acknowledged him with a wry grin.

“I’m not saying I’m the one to do that, at least the planning part,” Eldon continued. “Now I can build things or take them apart. I know how things go together. But I’m not one to know where to put them. Lord, if you could see my place…” he looked at his mother, and tears sprang to his eyes. Then he turned to Rick. “I know you all did some foraging up there, and that’s fine. But you didn’t make a dent in what’s there. What I’m saying is, I’ve got lumber put away, and tools, and some more food stored, not much but some. We could take a crew and a couple wagons back up there, cause then I can build you some more little houses. And I think you ought to let me have the wood shop at the mill. I can get the wheel going and use that to get the saw going, and then we can make our own lumber. I think we’re gonna need all we can make.” He looked around. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Steven raised a hand, and Moira nodded to him.

“He’s right on all counts. We can’t do it all at once, of course, but I’ll be happy to work on that with Eldon, and I think he’s the logical one to take on things at the mill.” He turned to the man, who had taken his seat and put his cap back on. “I don’t mean we expect you to do it by yourself. We’ll get you some help down there every time we can.” He suddenly remembered himself and quickly turned to Moira. “That is, if that’s all right.”

“Let’s don’t stand on ceremony here,” Moira said. “If that’s what works, let’s do it. But I want to hear more of what Rick has to say about structure before we go much farther.” She turned to him, and he rose from his seat on the end of the front row. He had finished drawing and sat down to wait his turn. He looked suddenly young and almost elegant, Moira thought.

“Hello, dears,” he said, stepping back to the easel. He folded back the sheet where he’d been drawing to reveal an enlarged aerial photo of the museum grounds that he’d found in the conference room. “Forgive me, I’m such a ditherer, I just can’t work without visual aids, or I’ll just blather on and confuse everyone. I hope you don’t mind.” He nodded and rubbed his hands together as his audience mumbled what he took to be assent.

“Well,” he said, picking up a long wooden pointer. “Here is what we have now. And here is what I propose we do with it.” He turned the page back, to let them see the sketch again, then turned back to the photo.

“Let me explain,” he said, and everyone nodded. “Here at the mill dam is our electric power source. It’s limited, so it will have to be used judiciously. Maybe street lights, but that’s about all. So things that need to operate off that power – small industry, perhaps – will need to locate there, or nearby. Doesn’t have to be big, doesn’t have to be dirty. In fact, we shouldn’t allow it to be dirty.” He moved the pointer’s end across the pond to the mill itself.

“Now here’s our mechanical power source. It, too, could be retrofitted to produce some small bits of electricity. But the belts that run directly off the wheel will drive the sawmill and the cotton gin and some woodworking tools. All that in good time.”

The pointer moved again.

“Now, here we are down at the farmstead. We will need more housing immediately, yes. But as people work out where they want to live and what they want to do about that, they may well want to put their own houses in a location that suits them. What we need is somewhere to put the newcomers in the meantime. Because I’m nearly sure more are coming. I propose we take the old log building next to the mill that was the general store in pioneer times, and turn it into a distribution point for general stores, like nails and hand tools and such, that everyone will need and that we’ll need to keep track of. It needs a little work, but it’s a sound structure and we need a place in a central location to put things we use frequently. We can’t just go to the hardware store if we lose something. And we shouldn’t have to walk all the way up the hill to fetch a nail. We should probably move the smithy up here, too, so the means for making and repairing tools would be nearby.”

At that, Steven nodded. “Works for me,” he said

Then Rick pointed to the shops on the little street. “Now let’s look at downtown,” he said.

“This rather oversize building here, the one that’s almost finished.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “It was intended to be the general store. It’s perfect, but not for a grocery store. It’s a two-story structure, very sturdy. Now just imagine. If we were to put in some partitions, several upstairs and a few down, we could easily turn it into an inn for those newcomers who aren’t sure if they’ll stay or are just passing through, or we don’t have anywhere else to put them. And later, for those who want to stay and haven’t built yet, or can’t yet, the next thing to build would be a boarding house, or a bunkhouse, which we can put here, just down from the farmhouse to house single people, temporary workers or the like. That should get us through the next little while and use up what lumber we can get hold of. The shops downtown, we should only use to bed down people temporarily, because we’ll want actual businesses in there, as tradespeople become necessary.”

At that, Marianne Case’s hand went into the air. “Speaking of trades,” she said, “I know I’m out of turn, but if I had a sewing machine, I could use one of those to set up a shop to make clothing for people. Would you all be interested in that?”

Several nodded agreement and the crowd began talking together.

“Great idea. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Rick cautioned, pointing back to his drawing. “That’s wonderful, Marianne, and I think we’re going to find that kind of business very necessary and very soon. I think everyone who wants to try out a small business should just do it. With the understanding that for the foreseeable, it’s all going to be on the barter system, with all of us working as hard as we can and helping each other, just to get enough to keep us all.

“But I want you to look at this other drawing and consider how I’ve laid out these other, future parts. I wanted to allow for areas to be used as we need them, how we need them. I want you all to think about all this and tell me what you think works and what doesn’t. For instance.” He pulled a pencil from his pocket and made X marks on the map. “All these crosshatched areas should be converted into food gardens – not right this minute, but as soon as possible. Why? Because the soil here is very productive bottomland, it’s below the millpond so it will always have water, and it is close to all of us so we can pitch in when needed and give the crops the attention they need. We will likely not be having any lettuce trucked in from California very soon” His voice rang in the sudden silence. “Everything we eat we will have to grow or forage for. Fortunately, Moira has seeds for just about everything. But the distance between seeds and food is marked by toil and sweat. We should start immediately if we want to be getting fall crops in.”

Steven asked to speak next, and what he said was a surprise.

“ I want to take up the matter of these newcomers and their farm now. I think this is the right place for it, while we’re discussing plans for the overall village. Because I have another thought on what to do about the sisters’ offer of their stock and the beehives. They’re offering to bring all their worldly goods and move off their farm. But it’s a pretty darn good farm, and it’s closer to us than we may have thought. There’s just a great big hill between us. But in the shape it’s in, with its good barns and its milking parlor and its well-built home, their place is exceptionally well equipped. I’ve been looking at maps of the area, and the sisters’ land actually abuts the park at a point just around the river bend. I’m wondering if the sisters might want to just stay where they are now that they know they have neighbors who can offer help in need. We could even extend the perimeter fence to enclose both places within the village. There are some nice house sites over there facing the river, and some good pasturage, and we can hold the area between for small industry as it develops. We’d leave the fields in place, and clear some more areas of bottomland as needed to add to our cropland. Even with the livestock we have now, we’ll soon need more forage. And they have a regular dairy already set up down there. They can even make cheese.” At this a cheer went up and the level of enthusiasm rose markedly.

Reatha was beaming and Ruthie began to cry openly.

“I was so hating the thought of moving,” Ruthie said. “Our family has had that place for four generations. But we just didn’t want to be alone anymore. Yes, yes. Of course we’ll stay.”

To that end, Steven asked Eldon to first help build another buckboard wagon so the sisters could travel to and from their farm to run the projected school, and then, with the help of Rickard, to begin designing that school.

By this time Moira’s smile had widened until she thought it might crack her face wide open. She set down her agenda and just let people talk, and by the afternoon’s end the village was officially named Falling Spring, Marianne Case had a clothing and “notions” shop on Main Street, Nancy Langston revealed her talent as a weaver and asked for the shop next to Marianne to set up her loom to eventually produce cloth for Marianne’s use. Best of all, Grandpa John Langston had asked for help in clearing the last of the threshed oats from the broad threshing floor in the middle of the large barn, and to get it done before the next Saturday. Then he invited them all to a dance.

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