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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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