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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Fourteen: The Village It Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven commended her farsightedness, but she demurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for a complete list of chapter links.

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