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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 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 Twelve: A Season of Beginnings

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You the chief?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…?”

“But what?”

“But what aren’t you saying?”

“It’s nothing.”

“What?”

“She’s…noisy.”

“How do you mean, noisy?”

“Like…well, she sings. To her iPod?”

“So?”

“She can’t sing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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