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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nineteen: Maturity

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

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

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

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

“Do you feel that?” Ellen finally asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got to get the rope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Sixteen: The Way It Grew

And so the days and seasons passed, and in the third year of the community of Falling Spring, in the new territory called Mumbros, babies were born, newcomers continued to arrive, and the village grew and continued to change as seasons and circumstances dictated. Its citizens learned to state in clear language their life ways and rules as more prospective settlers arrived at the gate. They were equally eager to provide directions for making their way to other settlements when the newcomers determined they were not a good fit. The villagers’ hospitality never faltered, and when people arrived who were short on supplies or were travel-worn but didn’t want to stay, they were invited in to rest and restore themselves, and were supplied with food and other necessities when they left to seek accommodations elsewhere.

The Brothers, who were now readily identifiable by their “uniform,” which consisted solely of a trio of bands of red cloth – hatband, armband and one fastened to the boot, continued widening their explorations and at Moira’s suggestion were keeping copious notes on the changing demographics of the island nation.

The Brothers had come into their own since that first hard winter when they sheltered in a large, roomy cavern up north at Glen’s homestead. Glen related the story of that first winter, and Steven wrote it all down in a journal he had keeping since first arriving back in the village.

“As the winter’s cold deepened, we were pretty much confined to the cavern and had little to do beyond harvesting firewood and concocting meals from an odd mix of ingredients. So there was plenty of time to talk. We did a great deal of talking through all those long nights. Otherwise, we’d have probably gone mad listening to the godawful racket of those howling winds. But after a while we tired of sharing our pasts and began to take up a serious conversation about what might be the needs of the future, assuming we might have a future. And there, in that all-male environment, we naturally began to speculate on what tasks might be more suited specifically to the talents and strengths of men. We talked about our failings as well, and the curse of being slaves to testosterone. Gradually we came into a larger vision of our various skills and proclivities. We came to see ourselves as one single, strong cord in a web of interlocking cultural strands. In short, we began to understand our place in things.”

For everything to work, Glen explained, everyone must find their place, their lifework, really, and just do it to the best of their skills. For instance, some would naturally choose to nurture the children, the animals, all the growing things. Although some insisted that job was more likely to be a woman’s choice, Glen asked that they question that stereotype, as it might no longer be appropriate in this new culture. Needs would be different. So would choices. They discussed the concept of homebodies and talked about Steven, who, although he was virtually unable to leave the village, had essential talents and skills within the community. The same was true with other men like Toby and Rickard, who had come to occupy their own essential place in the fabric of village life, a place that deserved respect.

Still, someone had to keep order, especially between and beyond the settlements. Obviously, Glen said, some of them were clearly cut out to be cowboys, while some were…just not. By winter’s end nearly all the men at Glen’s Cave happily volunteered to serve the brothers’ mission and do whatever job was given them while they searched within themselves to find their own place in the fabric of life. A few of the young men balked, bragged and boasted they could make their own way. Glen said they were free to take any path they chose, but said their way would not be the Brothers’ way.

When reporting on those discussions back at home, Glen was quick to emphasize that in no way did the Brothers intend to take on the leadership of the community and its surrounding territory. Instead, they humbly asked the community’s blessing for their endeavor to bring order and some helpful pairs of hands to those places and people who had such needs. Their stated intent was accepted by all and welcomed by most. By the next winter’s end, the Brothers had become a pillar in the framework of communities. By then, though, they were having to make some adjustments to their internal structure when some of the younger hardworking women demanded to be included in their company. That was managed by enlarging an otherwise unused chamber in the cavern where the “Brotherwomen” could establish their own enclave, living apart but coming together for meals and training. Rules for those interactions were simple, and transgressions punished sternly and fairly. Soon, they had become a polished unit, known as fair arbiters of disputes while being helpful in other ways as needed.
Everywhere they traveled, they found communities where refugees from a variety of somewhat related sects and cultures had made homes for themselves wherever they were welcomed in. People of all inclinations had set about choosing where and with whom they wished to live, and many of their choices were spiritual ones. In particular, the Christians had broken into somewhat modified factions, with traditionalists blending their ways with the Amish and Mennonites on the island’s west coast and the more mainstream sects finding their places in and near the community of Van Buren, over on the Current River.

It became likely, although no one knew for sure, that the most radically conservative Christians had cemented their relationships as they walled themselves off from casual contact with the outside world by journeying deep into the rugged Monadnocks that lay to the southwest. As travelers had passed on their way to other destinations during the past year, rumors had spread of sightings of scattered groups identifying themselves as fundamentalist Christians making their way southwest toward their “home country.” Some were congregations from small country churches, while others were packs of semi-organized, well armed white men who weren’t inclined to share their thoughts or beliefs. “Like follows like,” most people said and dismissed the news, although not without some concern. With luck, those folks like everyone else would be too occupied trying to construct a sustainable settlement in that inhospitable land to cause their neighbors any significant problems, at least for the present.

Meanwhile, Falling Spring and its environs had become the most diverse anywhere, and were known for their tolerance and respect for the ways of others. “No harm,” was the first law. The very progressive, the Unitarians, the Quakers, the Back-to-the-Landers and many other under-represented tribes had all managed to settle in comfortably among the increasingly pagan, pantheistic heathenish ways of the founding family, whose policies of kindness, fairness. and inclusion resulted in a society whose disagreements mostly ended in handshakes rather than conflict.

Meanwhile, as news spread about the availability of true-growing seeds, representatives from other settlements and territories began to call, many of them offering items they hoped to trade for seeds. In that third spring, the idea began to grow of having some sort of festival to accommodate the many more than the Amish who arrived looking to augment their seed supplies and to trade their wares for a variety of items in short supply at home.

Early on that year came a group of potters from somewhere near “Popular,” hawking bowls, teapots, plates, mugs, and flagons. After them came vendors from Van Buren peddling dried and cured fish, meats and fruits. Trade kept up a brisk pace all summer, and in the early fall a small traveling theater company from somewhere over west came and held a Chatauqua-style show at the Inn. The company contained everything from jugglers to debaters and they were delighted to take their pay in seeds and supplies.

Later to come that year was an old man, August Barton, who stumbled up to the Inn one evening long after the harvest was in and winter threatening. He was afoot but his pony pulled a cart loaded with a haphazard collection of vessels filled with a searing moonshine that he had made somewhere over the hills to the northwest. Between the infirmary, the herbary and the Innkeeper, they bought out his entire supply and placed orders for more. He was to return at the ends of two more autumns with cartloads of alcohol, and at his second leave-taking he led a contingent of three apprentices who packed up their bedding and foodstuffs and returned with him to his mountain abode deep within an old, long-untended orchard near Grove Hill. They would learn to tend the orchard and to craft its fruits, in combination with a handsome supply of wheat and corn from the Amish families next door, into respectable brews, vintages and spirits. The contract established between the distiller and his wards included continuing to supply his earthly wants after he retired from the business. It was an agreement that all parties were to find agreeable. Possibly in honor of what he had brought them that chilly October night, they ever after referred to a fine harvest from the wheat, grape, or apple lands, as a “right August offering.”

Even later than the distiller arrived, as the dreaded winter winds were beginning to batter the hilltops that year, a trio of hard-muscled, grim faced, very tall blond men arrived and asked to speak with the village’s leaders. Ostensibly they were selling a few bits of cookery made of crafted metal, along with tools old and new, and other rare oddities from a place to the north where they held land that once had been a large municipal landfill and several salvage yards. But they had more to offer. They spent a long evening at the Inn, visiting with Moira, Glen, Rickard, Annie, and Tish, discussing the community’s needs for the future, especially suggesting what these miners of the wreckage might search for as they delved further into the metal salvage and the packed full and sealed landfill. The most interesting question came from Annie.

“This landfill. Is it still sealed, or is it leaking?”
Burton Yoder, a tall, bearded man who appeared to be the leader of the group, had the answer. “It’s holding together fairly well so far, ma’am. But the earthquakes didn’t do it any good. There are a couple of places where some sludge is showing. We’ve stopped it up the best we can.”

As the conversation continued, Moira studied him. He looked to be about 50, tanned, and with a burn scar that marked him from his ruined left ear to somewhere below his collar. When she asked about it he said, “I was driving east trying to get back to my folks’ farm when, as you remember, everything went to hell. I spent a little time under my car, mashed up against the exhaust manifold. Whitley here pulled me out,” he said, gesturing toward his brother, a taller and slimmer version of himself. The third man, younger but larger still, was a cousin, Kris Kuhn, who said little but watched the proceedings intently.

Behind him, Moira noted, Joel had come in and found a perch next to their table where he could hear the conversation. He seemed very interested in the men from the north. But Annie wanted to hear more about the sludge. “Next time you come, bring me a sample, a quart or two if you can. I need to know what’s in it, to see if there’s anything we can separate out and use.”

Everyone looked at her with varying degrees of curiosity mixed with revulsion. She let out a huff of air. “We need a multitude of things that cannot be had without the materials to make them,” she explained. “Like it or not, it’s a resource.”

Moira cleared her throat. “She knows what she’s doing. Leave her to it.”

The conversation continued late into the evening but even when the family bade the visitors a good night, Joel lingered. He wanted to know more about the north country. He was told there seemed to be an impenetrable wilderness beyond the blond men’s territory, and that strange stories came out of that place from the few who returned from attempts to explore it. He kept notes, along with directions on how to find the blond men’s home country, should he someday wish to travel there. He was wishing it already but hadn’t the age or experience yet to try it. Best of all, he had enough wisdom to know that. He filed the urge, along with his notes, in a leather bag on a peg where he kept his little penny whistle he’d found amid Glen’s bags of salvage. Someday, he thought, maybe I’ll be the one to solve that mystery.

The original family still dined together almost every night, and at the dinners, even though the list of items for discussion always included some urgent matter, there also arose first a framework and then a plan to stabilize the underpinnings of this place, to make it work better as a unit. For that, there must be a way to promote and control economic development. First on the list was the need to make a hospitable place for the traveling merchants when they returned, as everyone knew they would in the spring. Some kind of minimal shelter for the travelers would be needed as well as a place for those folks living in outlying areas who would face a journey to market that would often take longer than a day. The Inn could not hold them all.
As Moira described the large open area needed to hold a market place and adjacent temporary quarters, Joel looked up from his plate.
“That’s easy, how about down next to the ball field? There’s lots more space than we need to play ball, and it’s pretty level. It’s no good for crops because it floods once in a while. But that only happens in very early spring. Even if there was damage we’d have time to clean it up before the Gather …ing.” They laughed at his odd stutter, but later began to repeat it. Thereafter, the spring festival would be called the Gather.

The plot of land measuring about 15 acres of riverside meadow, would serve the purpose neatly, they decided. But as Rickard was quick to remind them, winter was almost upon them, and if habitable places were to be completed before the next season of travel and trade, who would there be to make them? Those most able to perform the work would be gone to Glen’s cave for the winter.

“We may have to weather the weather, and come back a week or two early,” Glen said, but he didn’t look happy about it.

“Well, to be fair, you’ll not be taking everybody, and Eldon and I can get a lot done ourselves during breaks in the weather,” Steven said.

“Not all of us go up to play cowboys,” he said, reminding everyone that he wouldn’t be going to Glen’s cave due to his fear of the woods, and neither would Eldon because of his arthritis.

That brought them to another urgent matter for discussion. The following week, Glen and his followers would be on their way to the winter outpost of the Brothers. This time his choices included the most fit among them, for they would spend the time training for service. Months had already gone into the building of the new group that merged law enforcement and social services. It had now become large enough to patrol almost all the territories, offering practical assistance and keeping order.

“I’ve been thinking about all this, and I’d like to throw out an idea for us to chew over,” Glen said. “We’re already planning to send a few patrols a little farther out to contact all the other known communities and farmsteads to assess their needs and gather information. It’s time to see if we could be more of a help to them. We could spread the word about the Gathers, let them know they can come and trade for what they need. And we certainly have plenty of wares to trade as well.” There were nods around the table.

“Well, as long as we’re doing that, why not see if they would like to come at a couple of dates, one in spring to buy seeds and again in fall to share their harvests,” Steven offered.

“That would certainly make it safer for everybody. It’s still not all that safe to wander off into the wilds alone or to travel in unprotected little groups,” Glen replied. “If we knew when they were coming, we could provide better security along the trail.”

“While you’re at it,” Ellen suggested, “why not encourage the folks in all the communities you visit to set up their own gatherings, to make a season of festivals. If you staggered the dates, that would encourage the merchants and artisans to work out a regular trade route to serve all the communities. Glen’s messengers could let them know about it and then provide some security along the route to protect the traders and the customers from tramps and ruffians.”

“I can see how that would work,” Moira said. “We need to know our neighbors better, and a more organized approach to commerce would be good for everyone, yes? Maybe we should organize a crafters’ guild to help with the planning. They will know more than we do what their needs would be.”

“I can see it now,” drawled Rickard, who had been invited specifically for this part of the discussion. “First there’s a guild, and then a chamber of commerce. Next thing you know we’ll be organizing rival sports teams.” Everyone laughed, but then the conversation went quiet. There was still hesitation, finally voiced by Annie.

“This is all very well,” she said. “But we shouldn’t put too much faith in the good intentions of all our neighbors. Bad apples, you know. Everybody has them.” Everyone knew what she meant. She had been accosted more than once by vagrants and thieves while trying to make her way to Falling Spring.

As more ideas were thrown into the discussion, Moira excused herself to rummage in the nearby files. She returned with a map of what had once been the state’s highway system.

“I realize that this is hopelessly out of date and more so every day, but it’s fundamentally accurate as to directions and distances. I have several copies, enough for you to take a couple along and make notes, so the basic document can be modified to fit present times. We have a pretty good idea of road and trail conditions, but we need to have better information not just about who and what’s out there but what they’re up to. I’m not at all comfortable with waiting for some other group to come up with some hinky idea of government and try to foist it off on everyone. I’m not suggesting we try to take charge of everything everywhere. But if we’re to protect our own autonomy over the years, we need to start investing now in making ourselves appear strong enough that we’re not to be messed with. Some would just think to come take our stuff. But there are also those, as we know, who would love to try to make us conform to ways that really wouldn’t suit us.”

They laughed again when someone muttered “Ephraim.”

“Well, there’s that,” said Glen. “Ephraim’s still out there, and I’m sure his ideas are gathering steam, especially over in the Monadnocks. I’m really not looking forward to going over there. But I think we must.”

And so the days passed, autumn turned toward winter and the band of Brothers departed for their winter encampment. All over Ozarkia the nut harvest was in full swing, as was the gathering of persimmons and the little wild fox grapes. Traps were set for catching furbearers and bows were strung, arrows fletched, and the hunters were abroad for the winter’s first fresh meat. In Mumbros, after a fair weather carpentry crew was established made of male homebodies and females handy with hammer and saw, a plan was developed and simple shelters were built down by the ball field in anticipation of the next spring Gather at an official Gather grounds. Shortly afterward a crafters’ society was formally charged with developing a circle of Gathers that crafters would follow to call on and serve even the most remote settlements, so long as they were welcome there. But the idea of forming a chamber of commerce was tabled ‘for the foreseeable.’

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Fourteen: The Village It Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven commended her farsightedness, but she demurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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