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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twenty: Passings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moira’s voice interrupted her musings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-30-

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nineteen: Maturity

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

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

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

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

“Do you feel that?” Ellen finally asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got to get the rope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seventeen: A Community and a Nation Evolve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter 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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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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