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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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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nine: Assembling A Family

Glen settled into the rhythm of farm life like he’d been born to it. By the time he’d been there a week, they’d all assessed each other, and found themselves comfortable with the change. The family, for family it was beginning to appear, met each day at the farmhouse for breakfast to discuss plans for the day’s work. With Glen sawing and Joey stacking, they cut a great number of branches from the hollow’s blown-down trees into firewood lengths against the needs of an unknown future. Then Glen and Moira harnessed the gentle Percherons and snaked the larger lengths of oak, ash, walnut, hickory, and pine down the slopes and to the large pole barn next to the mill where the woodright’s raw stock was stored.

While that work was underway, Ellen put herself in charge of the daily farm chores, including garden and pens, and made sure the meals were plentiful and on time. One rainy day she left a meal of sandwiches and potato salad in the cooler for the others and journeyed up the hill to the commercial kitchen in Moira’s fortress home, where she took inventory of all their food stocks, including canned and frozen foods.

The report she delivered along with dinner was comforting at first, but became less so with the telling.

“We’ve got plenty of everything for now,” she said. “In fact, we’re pretty well supplied for the next couple of years with canned vegetables, fruits, and the like. But that’s where it begins to fall apart, because by that point we’ll have to replenish those stocks. Our supply of canning jars is laughably small, not to mention jar lids. I found just two cases of quarts and a single case of pint jars, each with a single set of lids and flats. Without more flats, those lids are not re-useable.”

“That may not be the entire store,” Moira said. “I’ll check the cellar and smokehouse. Helen may have put some away closer at hand to the farmhouse kitchen.”

“I’d have checked them already, but they’re padlocked,” Ellen said, and Moira grimaced.

“My fault. Sorry. What else did you find up there?”

“There’s still half a freezer-full of pre-cooked food, I guess made for the demonstration kitchen. But we’d better make a point of using it up because it’s beginning to show some freezer burn. Also, I saw we’re down to about our last four hundred pounds of baking soda. Whoever placed that order has kept us in biscuits for the next hundred years, provided the flour holds out. Speaking of which,” she paused and looked across to Moira, then at Glen. “If we don’t get that wheat crop out and some corn put in soon, we’ll have no biscuits nor any cornbread next year. In fact, I’m not sure the flour we have will hold out that long. I checked the wheat bins up at the mill, and they’re nearly empty. Have you all thought about what you’ll do on that end? I imagine it’s not much better in the granary.”

Glen cleared his throat and began, “I’d been meaning to mention it, but we’ve been going so hard I put it aside. You know we’ve got those two fields down by the river that are planted to winter wheat and oats. They’ve been grazed some, but there’s plenty left. If we don’t get any more rain this week, I should be able to get in there with a mower. But we don’t have a grain combine. I guess the guys here just harvested by hand.”

Moria nodded. “Scythe and cradle. It’s tedious, but you don’t lose anything that way.

Glen was silent, considering the idea. “The fields look to be about ten acres each. It’d take us two or three days apiece, at least.”

“But we wouldn’t have to wait so long for the ground to dry out, would we?” said Ellen, excitement in her voice. “We could start tomorrow. Unless there’s something more important.”

“No,” Moira said. “If we’re going to do it, and it looks like we are, then the sooner the better. Another couple of weeks and we’re going to be cutting hay.” Glen groaned and Moira grinned. “And you thought you’d already been busting your butt. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, buddy.” And she laughed, a carefree laugh such as she hadn’t heard come out of herself since way last year, before Thanksgiving. Before . . . Sudden tears sprang to her eyes, and she heaved herself up out of her chair. “Mornin’s likely to come early,” she said with mock sternness. “I need to get some Zs.”

Dawn saw Glen in the smithy, sharpening the scythe blades he’d found in the garden shed. Nearby, Moira was assembling the sturdy, lightweight cradles that fit on the scythe handles and would catch the grain stalks as they were cut. She had sent Joey to load a roll of baling twine onto a wheelbarrow. She’d made his morning when she issued him his own Barlow knife and assigned him the job of binding the sheaves of wheat as they came off the cradles. Ellen brought plates of biscuits and spicy sausage gravy with two eggs on the side. Moira and Glen each got a mug of steaming coffee, while Joey received a rare treat — hot chocolate. They made short work of the hearty victuals and were headed toward the field almost before Ellen made it back to the farmhouse. She would be along later, she said, after morning house chores were done and dinner put by. The sun was only halfway up the sky when her head popped up over the rail fence and she hopped over the stile. Gone were gingham dress and apron, replaced by overalls a size too large, a loose cotton shirt, and the wide-brimmed straw hat she wore while gardening. Given a brief lesson on the scythe and cradle, she was handed her own tool, assigned a row the width of a scythe’s swing, and left to her own devices. She leaned into the job and slowly acquired the skill.

By noon they had cleared almost an acre and were speeding up as their skills improved. Joey could no longer keep up with their bundles. He had retired to a shady spot and was cutting lengths of cord according to a measure given him by Glen. He delivered them by the handful to each of the cutters as they called for them. His pup, christened Aluicious, Alley for short, was helping.

With the sun overhead and the breeze no longer keeping the sweat dried on their faces, Moira finally called a halt.

“Let’s stop now so we’ll have the strength to do more later,” she said. They combined their last bundles into a single sheaf and headed for the farmhouse. They had just clambered over the stile and stepped into the roadway when suddenly Moira cried out and broke away from them, running up the lane as though a demon were after her. Her three companions looked at her in astonishment, then past her down the road at the museum’s lower gate where a man stumbled toward them, leaning on a wooden staff, a large pack on his back. Moira reached him in time to catch him as he slid to the ground. When the others reached them, they were even more surprised, because Moira and the man were on their knees in each other’s arms sobbing as if their hearts would break. Steven Lane had returned, just as he’d said he would. Strapped to his back on a packboard was his six-year-old daughter, Sarah. She seemed barely alive.

Once they were fed, Steven was relieved of a short version of his story — the town of Alton almost deserted, decimated by a virulent flu virus for which there was no treatment, with the town’s only doctor the first to fall, and Steven’s family dead, except for this one daughter. He slept the clock around and more, rousing himself in time for supper the next night. By that time more than half the wheat was cut and bound into shocks, standing like tousel-headed children in the field. He insisted on joining the work the next day, and by that night they had finished the wheat harvest.

Joey took on the care of little Sarah, who it seemed wasn’t ill, only half-starved, terrified and exhausted. Having a chance to be older than someone brought a new sense of responsibility to the boy, and he seemed to thrive on it, bringing her snacks, drinks, and small meals. He and Alley kept her entertained while the others worked the fields.

The crew thus enhanced made short work of the oat harvest as well, and by early June they were eyeing the hayfields in well-muscled anticipation. But one night at dinner, Glen made a surprising announcement.

“I guess I’ll stay on through the haying season, then,” he said in response to Moira’s description of the effort it would take to get the hay baled, hauled, and stacked in the barn’s massive loft.

“Where else are you gonna go?” Joey asked, laughing.

Glen didn’t answer for a minute, until he looked up from his plate and saw that all eyes were on him. “Well,” he said, as if they should already know what he meant. But he saw that they didn’t. “I was on my way somewhere when I stopped here,” he said.

A chorus of protests rose, and he held up his hand until there was silence. “Yes. I know. I’ve gotten real comfortable here. But even if I was to decide to make this my home, which is real tempting, believe me . . . we still need to know what else is going on out there in the wider world. We don’t need any more surprises of the kind you all had,” he said, looking pointedly at Moira and Ellen.

They had told Glen what happened after he questioned the circled cross brand on two of the four new horses. Moira had filled in Steven as well. They understood what Glen was saying. But the news of his impending departure, even though it made sense, was unnerving. They had come to depend on his strength, his savvy, and his trustworthiness. Steven was still recovering from his hurts, and without Glen they wouldn’t feel as safe anymore. He watched their faces as they each digested the news. Finally, he spoke.

“Look. The main clean-up work here has been accomplished. The feed crops are in, or will be. And you said yourselves there are things we need that someone is going to have to go out and get. That somebody is me. I’m the logical choice. I’ll take a pair of the Morgans for pack horses and bring back canning jars. And jar lids. And a newspaper if I can find one, by God.”

He stopped, the emotion in his voice bringing all their feelings forward. He took a deep breath and continued. “Most of all, we need to know for sure just what kind of a future we’re looking at. We need to know what’s left of this world. We can’t just sit here and let things happen to us. For all we know, this place, its resources, its seed stocks, may be the last best hope for survival, just like Moira has feared. If that’s the case, we’d better know about it. And we’d better get a few more hands to help, if there are any out there that are sane and reliable.”

They sat in silence for a long time, until finally Joey spoke and broke the mood. “See if you can find some more kids while you’re out there,” he said. “Me and Sarah are getting tired of just hanging out with crabby old adults all the time.” They all laughed, and Glen promised to do his best.

The next morning, Glen and Steven spent a companionable pair of hours at the barn and blacksmith shop, selecting the animals best suited for travel, repairing tack, including Glen’s worn saddlebags, and talking. Steven had spoken little thus far of his experiences prior to arriving at Falling Spring. Now, knowing of Glen’s impending departure, he seemed almost eager to share his thoughts.

“You picked out a route yet?” he asked.

“I have to go east first. I’ve got relatives over by Van Buren, or I did. I want to go far enough to get down off the Ozarks Plateau and see how it looks over closer to the fault. So that means at least as far as Poplar Bluff and Crowley’s Ridge. Then I’ll either head back here or follow the ridge south. All depends on what I find.”

Steven sighed. “I’m afraid all you’ll find is heartache, my friend. It’s bound to be worse over there. There may not be anything left at all.”
Glen nodded, his face a grim mask. “Either way, we need to know. You have any plans to venture out again?” Glen asked.

Steven shook his head but was a long time in answering further. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ve become a coward. I hate to admit it, but I felt a fear out there like I’ve never felt in those woods. I don’t want to go out there again at all. I mean, I was brought up on a farm, but this is different. I got so scared that we’d just die before I got us here, and nobody would ever even know where we fell. And then I thought maybe I’d get here and find her gone, or dead.”

Glen grinned at him. “She wasn’t, though. She’s one tough cookie, our Moira.”

“She is that,” Steven agreed with a chuckle. “Always was, although I’d never have dreamed . . .” he stopped, shaking his head, and made a gesture toward the graves up on the hill, his thumb and forefinger making a gun.

“Hah!” Glen laughed. “I would, after the way she went after me that first night.”

They laughed, then became silent. Finally, Glen spoke.

“You know, it’s funny about that. It was Moira who made me realize what we should be doing, and where I might fit into it all. I mean, it’s so easy to just look at all that’s happened in strictly personal terms, like it’s a disaster that’s only happened to me, or to us.

“But she’s right. What if we’re it — just us and maybe a few others here and there? There’s no way we’ll survive as a species like that. We’ll just live out our little spans and die, and that’ll be it. No more humans. I can’t . . . I can’t accept that. If there’s a way to find some others and bring them here, we might have a chance to begin again the best way we know how. And if there are more of those devils over west, I’d not want the world to end up in their hands, either. There ought’a be some alternative. So that’s my cobbled-up thinking. I think it’s worth a try, at least. What have we got to lose?”

Steven nodded, but his face was drawn as if in pain. “You’re right, of course. But I don’t think I’m going to be any help to you. I honestly don’t think I can ever go out there again.” He sat down on a hay bale and leaned forward, hands cradling his head and elbows resting on his knees. Glen stood for a moment watching, then moved to sit beside him. He pulled Steven to him and cradled him like a child. Steven tried to pull away, but Glen held him fast.

“Now you listen to me. I’ve got brothers of my own, or I did. And I’ll tell you like I would tell them. I don’t think words like ‘coward’ have any place in our lives here. This is all just too damn scary and too hard. We start judging ourselves by anything beyond our ability to just show up, and we’re lost. We are all valuable now, just as we are. We’re all we have. After all,” he said, loosening his grip and poking Steven in the ribs, meeting his anguished look with a wicked grin. “We can’t all just saddle up and ride off into the sunset, er, sunrise. Somebody’s got to stay here and keep the girls company.”

Steven looked shocked, then broke into a whoop of laughter, followed by Glen’s brash cackle. Thus far “the girls” had expressed absolutely no amorous interest in either of them. They’d all been too tired, and too scared, to even think about it.

“Tell you what, fella,” Glen said, “You stay here and tend the home fires while I ride out and see if there are any other fires burning somewhere. Maybe I’ll find us both a girlfriend.” He slapped Steven gently on the shoulder as they both stood, chuckling again.
Steven blew his nose noisily. “I’ll settle for you finding your way home again,” he said.

The new family found the Solstice celebration bittersweet, knowing Glen was leaving soon. Food, laughter, and a fire for jumping made a party of it, and little Sarah had her turn as fire vaulter, but in Steven’s arms, squealing with delight as everyone applauded. Both were recovering quickly from their time in the wilds, at least physically. But Steven’s eyes were shadowed and his smile infrequent, and Sarah was still afraid to sleep alone. Joey, though, was determined to lighten her heart. As the others talked, urging Glen’s return by summer’s end, Joey showed her how to find the Big Dipper in the night sky.

The morning of July first, Glen was saddled and underway astride his four-legged equine pal Willy, leading a pair of pack horses lightly loaded with food and camping gear. One of the collie pups, which Glen had taken to calling José, decided to go along and would not be denied. After sending the wagging adolescent back twice, Glen threw up his hands and relented.

“I guess we need somebody to watch out for us,” he called back from the old road that snaked back north along the river. He was standing in his stirrups to wave at his assembled family who watched him from the gate. As the little caravan reached the bend in the road, all eyes turned aside, following local superstition. Watching someone as they disappeared out of sight cursed the journey, or so it was said. Besides, it was time to get back to work.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eight: From the Ashes

The lean, dark-haired woman sat atop the bluff, her jeans-clad legs swinging over the edge, listening to the sound of falling water, watching the single blood-red blossom of a fire pink plant nod in the spring breeze. Moira was grateful to see a sign that the nightmare winter was finally done and the heartbreaking spring was showing promise, but there was no joy in her musings.  The flowers came back as though it were just any year. But in the world of humans … would anything familiar ever return, she wondered? Season into season, tragedy after tragedy. She had awakened to memories of her own family and friends, and the admission at last that everyone she held dear might well be gone forever. And whatever their fates, there were miles and miles of chaos between her and any of them. She might never know. Even the idea of contact with the outside had become an abstraction. As if… Her attention was fully captured by the immediacy, the urgency, the immensity of the change, the loss.

Dark thoughts for a beautiful morning, she admonished herself, raising both hands to ruffle her hair and maybe shake her brain loose from this track. The morning’s chill was long gone, as were the mosquitos, who’d taken to the shade. She rolled up the sleeves of her blue chambray work shirt as she looked out across a valley filled with blooming dogwoods and fresh spring greenery. But as always of late, her attention swiftly focused until everything faded except the knoll across from her where the village cemetery lay, expanded so recently by the addition of those four fresh, new graves. It had had to be done; the judgment call had fallen to her, and she had accepted it. She was, in fact, still the person in charge. But Goddess above, when would the death grip of her desperate, murderous act loose its hold on her middle and let her breath again?

Her grim reverie was interrupted by a movement at the edge of her sight. Ten-year-old Joey, the village’s newest and youngest resident, was walking toward her along the bluff’s edge, holding his arms out for balance, agile as a cat. He saw her watching and grinned, pretending just for an instant to lose his balance, then catch himself. The little imp, he never missed a chance to turn ordinary doings into a bit of fun, she thought. Then she grinned in spite of her mood. Thank God for that, for the resilience of youth. He was not yet entirely himself after his recent experiences, but was swiftly healing.

After all, who would say little Joel Pierce had it wrong? Surely he’d suffered as much as anyone in the past months, first losing his mother in one of the deadly windstorms, then seeing his father cut down before him by the so-called “saviors” now residing peacefully on the knoll.

Ellen Wyrick, the other victim of the evil crew, was not his kin at all, although they had bonded in their suffering and captivity. She was just a woman, an herbalist who had been living alone on the edge of Alton when the so-called “true sons” passed through, pillaging and killing. They’d left the town proper alone, skirting the verges to steal food. But they had chanced to stop at her home, had seen that she lived alone, and when they had found her storeroom of tinctures and herbs and her wise woman’s books, they had pronounced her a witch. Redbeard had told them they could take her and do with her as they wished until they tired of her.

That had been a mere week before they’d arrived here, she told Moira. In the interim she’d lived as their slave, preparing their food, assigned the most tedious of camp chores, and suffering their constant attentions, passed around among them nightly. The emancipated prisoners had given up their stories, in small increments with long silences between, soon after she had freed them from their bonds and led them up the hill to her real home, away from the scene of the carnage. She had fed them and let them bathe in comfort and privacy, found them clothes, and pulled couches from the lounge area into her apartment for sleeping, so no one would have to be alone. Then she had told them what she’d done.

Ellen had found the manner of the men’s deaths ironic, and no wonder. They’d died, she said, from the same malady she’d been planning for them as soon as she could put hands on some of the deadly water hemlock root. She’d searched for it daily along the trail, she told Moira. Had she found it, but in insufficient quantity to kill them all, she said, she’d meant to use whatever she found on herself and the boy, who had also suffered terribly at their hands.

Moira did not ask for more details. But the next morning, she’d encouraged them to tour the visitor’s center, telling Ellen while Joey still slept to keep him up the hill, perhaps occupied with Sheba’s pack of puppies, while she attended to the grim scene below. Then she’d hiked down the hill and fired up the small tractor with its digging bucket from the landscaping shed, using it first to dig suitable graves and then to transport the bodies, one by one, to their final rest. She had searched their pockets, written the names of each on a board as makeshift headstone, wrapped them in old horse blankets and planted each in the rocky earth of the cemetery up by the old original settlement. She had taken everything they’d brought, down to their clothes and shoes, and spread it on a table on the farmhouse porch.

When it was done, she had brought the woman and the boy down the hill to the graveyard to let them see and understand they were safe at last from their tormentors. She had recited some spare words for the dead, calling for whatever mercy might be suitable for such, leaving it to better wisdom than hers. Then she had walked among the graves and carefully, meticulously, spat on each one. The boy had been the first to warm to this part of the ritual and made his rounds once, then twice, then at a run, giggling hysterically and spitting and crying until she’d caught him and held him while he sobbed.

Ellen’s rage and fear and humiliation had not been so easily assuaged. She asked which was the grave of the black-bearded one and spat once there, then stood for a while, staring at the freshly-dug earth with haunted eyes, before making her stumbling way back down the hill to the village. They had found her inside the farmhouse kitchen, scrubbing furiously at dishes, stove, table and floor, grinding away at the blood, the poisonous residue, even their footprints in the dust, until all traces of the men were gone. When Moira suggested they might burn sage and cedar as a cleansing ritual, Ellen smiled for the first time. Like the welcoming smile she’d given the men when they arrived, Moira thought, it had looked more like just the baring of teeth.

Since then, she had been unable to persuade Ellen to come up to the Visitors’ Center for more than a few minutes at a time. She had claimed the farmhouse for her own and spent most of her time just sitting on the porch and looking up the hill, seemingly intent on keeping watch on the cemetery, as though to assure herself that the men would stay safely buried. Joey had at first been confused and wouldn’t leave Ellen’s side. So Moira brought their food down to the old house’s kitchen and had gone back to her daily chores.

But as the spring days went by and Moira continued the work of repairing the winter’s damage to the museum’s buildings and grounds, first Joey and then Ellen as well found ways to occupy themselves in helping with the chores, carrying tools, feeding chickens, and hauling water to the farmhouse for household use. While Ellen still struggled and kept her distance from any but the most basic communication, Joey was quicker to regain his good spirits. Ironically, it was his spirit that began to heal them all, sweetening the days with his merry laugh and comic antics. He’d even helped Moira go through the men’s baggage and tack, crying out only once when he found his father’s watch in one of the men’s saddlebags. She’d insisted he keep it and he carried it everywhere, like a legacy, in his pocket. He’d become the village’s timepiece.

Now, as he stood balancing on a rocky crag, he hauled the watch out of his pocket and announced, “It’s eleven-twenty-three. Ellen says it’s time for you to come on down.” He pocketed the watch, hopped the space between two of the bluff’s jagged teeth and reached out to clutch her outstretched hand. “She’s made lunch for us, and she wants us both there. She says she’s tired of all this moping around. She wants you to come help her work up a list of what needs doing around the place, so she can be a better help. I told her I’d rather go on a picnic, but she ran me off and told me to go fetch you instead.” Joey smiled a toothy smile as he hopped up on the rock next to her and wiggled in place, puppy-like, his humor infectious. Moira grabbed his chin and turned his head to the side so he was looking at the valley floor below, where a gingham-clad figure, wicker baskets at the ends of both arms, had spread a cloth on the grass.

“Looks like she heard you, pal,” Moira said. “We might as well go down and see what she’s cooked up.” She stood, shook out the pins-and-needles feeling in her leg from sitting too long on the hard seat, and followed the boy back down the rough trail that sloped eastward toward the dam below the millpond. Once across the dam, she broke into a sprint, whooping joyfully, daring Joey to race her. He won effortlessly. The two dropped to the grass next to where Ellen had laid out the cloth, Moira heaving and puffing and Joey collapsing in giggles.

“Not so fast,” said Ellen with mock sternness, standing between them and the food. “You go wash up first. I’ll not have heathens at my fine table.” She folded her arms and stared them down, even though Moira argued.

“I’m not sure a wash will change that,” she said. But groaning and muttering, she and Joey stood and walked to the millpond where they bathed faces and arms in the cool water. They walked back across the grass, using shirttails and sleeves for towels.

Ellen shook her head, smiling wryly.

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” she said. Then she stepped aside to show them the spread cloth, where waited sandwiches of roast beef on fresh-baked bread, potato salad, baked beans, and a fat plastic container of sweetened iced tea. “Just a little something I threw together,” she said to Moira’s look of astonishment. Then she clasped her hands together, took a deep breath, and continued.

“I don’t know about you, but I need to be over with this. I woke up this morning and decided I could go on like I was doing and give even more of my life to those worthless expletives, or I could try to remember who I was before all this happened. And I thank you for giving me time to quit feeling sorry for myself. I’m ready to start talking about how we’re going to stay alive long enough to grow old here.” The two women looked at one another for a long moment. Their mouths were smiling and their eyes bright with tears. But neither faltered.

Finally Moira nodded. “Yeah. We do seem to have some time on our hands, and there’s plenty to do here” she said, her voice shaking only slightly. “I could use a hand, that’s for sure.”

Ellen extended hers, Moira took it, they shook hands briefly and turned to the food, went to their knees and filled their plates with some of everything.

Watching Ellen pour frosty glasses of tea for all, Moira muttered, “I see you stole my ice.”

“I did,” Ellen responded. “So arrest me. Oh, wups. No sheriff.”She sat demurely on the grass, plate in her lap and skirts spread around her, looking regal but relaxed. She gazed at Moira pointedly. “So tell us about this place,” she said, using her fork to gesture in a vague circle that took in the long valley surrounding them. “Tell us everything.” So they ate and talked, talked and ate, and when the telling was finished, they put away for a time the experiences of the past month, gathered up the picnic debris, and got straight to work.

The next two weeks were a blur of activity, as repairs to the mill’s roof and spillway were completed using lumber stored in the millwright’s shop. Moira located a half-dozen tall house jacks in the back of the same building and got the barn’s feet under it again, a task made easier by the fact that the barn loft was now nearly empty of hay. That was another matter to be dealt with, but not now. She didn’t have the time or the will to assess the fields and the livestock just yet.

She cleaned the manure out of the barn stalls, got the pickup truck started, and used it to haul the loads of fertilizer to the vegetable garden. There Ellen, with Joey’s help, spread it over the beds and wide rows. Then, using the wealth of implements made for the small tractor and formerly used for mowing and landscaping the museum grounds, Moira plowed, disked, harrowed, and made rows. Then she brought forth the seeds for a number of varieties of beans, corn and squash, the survival food combination called “the three sisters” by Native American farmers, and devoted fully half the garden’s space to them and to all the stored and sprouting potatoes she could find.  She finished off with sowings of early greens. These last she’d have to watch carefully because she had none of their seed stored. These salad greens, all of Asian origin, had been sent as seeds by a friend to test their suitability for Ozarks summers, and whatever new seeds these few plants offered, must be collected if they lived. Nothing could be left to chance. Everything was now irreplaceable. Still waiting in the greenhouse were dozens of seed flats containing all the frost-tender plants — tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and more. The cabbages could be planted, but temperatures were still too much in flux for the tenderer shoots.

One morning Moira exclaimed “Oh, my word!” as she marked another day off the calendar in her apartment. Tomorrow was the first day of May, which, she realized, made tonight May’s Eve, or Beltane. Most folks who were only vaguely acquainted with pagan ritual thought of Beltane, if they knew of it at all, as the time when those evil, devil-worshipping pagans held wild sex orgies, frolicking and coupling in the corn to assure a bountiful harvest. Moira laughed at the thought, and she wondered if her newly-acquired family might run screaming down the hollow if they discovered she had turned into every bit the heathen the bearded men had been trying to stamp out.

But she also knew there was more to this particular celebration, at least for her, than an orgiastic rite of spring. It also marked the celebration of Mary, the Mother of God, in all her many aspects. Mary, whose presence in her own mind through all her rituals had kept her at least marginally sane for the months past.

Moira had felt the hand of the Great Mother on her back ever since that first fateful day when her solitude had been stolen so violently. Her life had been changed forever by the act of taking the lives of those men. It was that holy hand that had given her the way, finally, to come to terms with what she had done. She had spent long days alone, walking in the woods with the shadows of Mary’s wilder aspects –Artemis the Hunter and her sister Athena, the Warrior. She had felt them beside her and Mary’s loving hand on her heart until, at last, she had accepted that there had been no other choice left to her. She had done the only thing possible to protect that which was hers to protect. If she had it to do again, she would do exactly the same.

It really was time, then, to move on, and to celebrate the coming days, whatever they might bring. At whatever cost, this new world had already brought her some of the help she’d asked for, in the form of these new and excellent companions. She stepped out of her apartment and strode down the hill to find Ellen and explain to her what she had in mind. She located Ellen rummaging through boxes of fabric in the large square building that would have eventually become the make-believe village’s general store.

“I’m about the world’s worst seamstress,” Ellen said by way of explanation. “But one of these days we’re going to run out of all the clothing that halfway fits from up at the costume room. Fortunately there are overalls even in Joey’s size. I just thought I should do a little inventory, in case I need to whip up a dress or something. You know, in case there’s a dance.” They both laughed at the unlikely notion. Then Moira mentioned Beltane.

To Moira’s surprise, Ellen had needed no explanations. In fact, she said, she’d been wondering whether the subject might come up on its own or she might have to disclose her own inclinations.

“Those fellows weren’t so very far off when they dubbed me a witch, actually, although I’m not sure I’d actually call myself a true Wiccan. I’m more of an open minded Unitarian, I guess you’d say. I am an herbalist, after all, which is associated very closely with the Craft. And before I moved to the country, I hung out with a pretty diverse crowd that came to our church. Belief in a Christian God was sort of optional, that kind of thing. I was raised Unitarian and I believe in a Higher Power, but not the old guy in the white nightgown, as W.C. Fields would say. If you want to read witch into that, help yourself. I was never part of any coven; I’ve just followed my own leanings. But I’ve studied religion and spirituality pretty widely, and I know about Beltane, although I’m amazed that it’s already here. So just what kind of frolic did you have in mind, anyway?” She grinned mischievously, causing Moira to blush furiously.

“I . . . I don’t know . . . I thought . . . maybe we could have a bonfire and maybe sing a little, or do some small ritual piece or something. Hell, I don’t know … I don’t even know that much about it…” she stammered to a halt and Ellen laughed out loud at her discomfiture.

“Me either.  So I suppose we can just do whatever occurs to us,” she said, still laughing. “There’s no one out here to tell us if we get it wrong, after all. Sure. Let’s do it. What can I do to help?”

“If you’ll put together another picnic, Joey and I’ll drag some limbs down from those windfall trees that need cleaning up anyway, and I’ll build a bonfire. If we get that done this morning while it’s cool, then I can see to mending the corral fence so I can let those new horses out of their stalls. Maybe we could plan on supper about six, with the bonfire after. Does that sound okay?”

“Sounds perfect. I’d planned to spend a while on those herb beds today, so I’ll fire up the stove and get a couple of pies in the oven, and put on a pot of beans or something. If you’re going to be up that way, check the warehouse freezer and see if you’ve got anything resembling smoked sausage or kielbasa. I thought I saw that, or something like it, up there the other day. If I had some sausage, I could make us some version of red beans and rice.”

Moira patted her middle lovingly. “All that and pie, too? Be still, my heart.” She blushed again but was saved by Joey’s arrival. He’d been going everywhere at a run, and today was no different.

The tanned sprite bore almost no resemblance to the shy, pale lad who’d arrived short weeks ago. He skidded to a stop between the two women. “Pie?” he exclaimed. “Did I hear pie? Pie’s my favorite. I must have pie. If I don’t have pie, I’ll die.” He clutched at his chest and fell over backward into the grass. The outburst was so outrageous that the two women laughed out loud.

“Whoa, partner. Don’t expire just yet,” Ellen told him. “The pie’s for supper. It’s not made yet. You’ll have to wait.”

He groaned, shook his head, and said, “I cain’t. I cain’t,” then sank back, feigning unconsciousness.

“Well,” Moira said, still laughing. “along with the pie we were going to have a bonfire, that is if I could find me some good help. But it looks like my good help has just gone and gorked on me.”

Joey opened one eye and looked to see if she was telling the truth. She looked him in the eye and nodded, then sighed. “Of course, without any good help, it’ll probably have to be just a little bitty fire.” She sighed again and started to walk away.

“Wait,” Joey said, his voice sounding weak and far away. “Wait. I b’lieve I’m starting to feel some better. Yes!” he shouted, leaping up. “I think I’m gonna make it. So where we puttin’ the fire, anyway?” He slung his arm about Moira’s waist as she grabbed him gently by the hair. The pair went off skipping, out of step. They were both giggling as they disappeared up the path, with Ellen’s warm smile following them.

The sun was but a faint glow in the west and the crescent moon was following it down when Moira uttered a tired sigh and leaned back. She was sitting in one of the Adirondack-style chairs she’d hauled down the hill in the pickup truck from one of the picnic areas. Ellen was beside her in another. The bonfire was mostly coals now, its only light coming from the occasional blazing up of small sticks as Ellen lazily broke them into pieces and tossed them on the embers. Joey was stretched out on a sleeping bag, watching the stars with one of Sheba’s leggy pups snuggled next to him. He was still trying to decide which dog to choose for his own. The constellations, Moira was relieved to see, were still the same familiar shapes. According to the star chart in the office, however, they were no longer occupying exactly the same places in Earth’s sky. Polaris, the North star, was now located noticeably northwest.

That said, it was still a beautiful night, topping off a splendid evening. After a dip in the millpond and a change of clothes, they’d feasted, given thanks, and stumbled through a few campfire songs contributed by Joey, and all had leapt the fire twice and made wishes. So the celebration of Beltane was judged complete. Moira felt totally sated and at peace. She sighed again. It would be easy to just doze off right here and sleep the night away. But they’d wake up dew-covered and sore, she knew. Better to just call it a night. But she had one more small task to see about. She had let Joey tend to evening chores by himself while she moved the chairs and a picnic table down to their new fire circle. Now she needed to make sure he’d not forgotten anything important, without appearing to mistrust him. She stretched and yawned, then stood. “I think I’ll go down to the house and make sure we turned all the lamps out. Anybody want anything?”

Ellen, knowing of her real errand, smiled and shook her head. Joey’s eyes were closed, his arm raised to cover his forehead as if warding off a blow. She hoped his sleep was dreamless. “I’ll be back shortly,” Moira said quietly and headed off down the slope past the farmstead to the village.

Joey’s work was darn near perfect. He’d forgotten to drop the top latch down on the Percherons’ stall, but they seldom tried their gate, content to doze in the familiar space until morning. She had a last look around, then walked out into the road, surveying the facsimile village before heading back up the hill. She paused and her eyes narrowed. Now, that was strange. There seemed to be a light coming from the shop front where the museum had created a montage of a 19th century small town doctor’s office. She watched in silence. The light moved. Someone was inside. Moira slipped her service piece, a nine millimeter Ruger pistol that she’d carried every day since the arrival of the militia men, out of its holster and levered a round into the chamber. Holding the gun pointing skyward, her index finger lying alongside the barrel, she stepped silently down the grassy lane, stopping to examine every shadow along the museum’s “Main Street.” The set of structures, made to look like the heart of a small village from the 1880s, had still been under construction when the calamity occurred, but several cubicles were already at least partly furnished. She’d been there just the previous day, examining the cobbler’s shop to see if the tools and materials existed to make shoes, or at least moccasins, for Joey’s rapidly growing feet. Now she avoided the board sidewalks and padded silently down the dirt street until she could see where the light was coming from.

“Whuff-hm-hm-hm,” some unidentifiable thing spoke just in front of her.

She started violently, then took a deep breath as she made out the silhouette of a horse standing quietly in the shadow. She stepped closer and made out the form of a saddle, backed by a bedroll and well-filled saddlebags. She was feeling to see if there was a rifle in the boot of the saddle when a hand reached out of the darkness and yanked the gun out of her hand. She whirled, yelling, and struck out with her foot, connecting  with someone’s leg. Better to die fighting than give up, she thought, and threw herself at the shadowy figure. Off balance, they both fell, with Moira on top. She swung and connected again with a face, then a hand grabbed her right arm and held it. She punched with her left and the man yelled an oath. Finally he got hold of her left forearm. She tried to knee him but he rolled to the side, still holding her arms. He made her stand.

“Let go of me, you sonofabitch!” she shouted, fury driving her wild.

“Wait a minute, dammit. Just wait a minute. I’m not trying to hurt you, goddammit. I’m just trying to keep you from killing me. Just stop it for a minute, will you?” She held still.

He took a couple of deep breaths, and let her go. She punched him in the face.

“Shit! All right, goddammit. You asked for it.” The man grabbed her right arm and whirled her around so she was facing away from him, then wrapped both arms around her and lifted her until her feet were no longer touching the floor. “Now will you just quit it and listen to me?” he said.

Just then a light flashed into their eyes and they heard the “snick” of a firearm being cocked. The voice that spoke was Ellen’s but it was colder than Moira had ever heard it.

“You’re the one that better quit it, mister. Put her down and get your hands in the air.”

Moira could feel the man exhale before setting her down gently. She stepped away and turned to look. He was tall, broad-shouldered and tanned, with cocoa-colored hair to his shoulders and green eyes. He looked to be somewhere in his late 30s.  His worn, sweat-stained Stetson hat lay at his feet, below a denim shirt and jeans and high-top laced moccasins. He was beardless, but sported an unwaxed handlebar mustache that covered his upper lip and hung down longer at its ends. He managed a wry grin and shrugged as he spoke.

“I’m damned if I know what I’ve done to get you all so upset. But I’m certainly willing to apologize.”

“What do you call sneaking around at night and assaulting people?” Moira snarled.

“Hey, I wasn’t sneaking around at all. I thought I was by myself down here and I was looking at the doctoring tools to see if there was anything I could use. I didn’t know there was anybody else around. I ain’t seen anybody at all in more than a week.”

“How about jumping someone and taking their gun away,” Moira said, unconvinced.

“Now, ma’am, I don’t mean to offend anybody, but when someone is slipping up on me with a weapon of destruction in their hand, it’s my policy to remove the weapon before anyone gets hurt, although . . . ” He paused and rubbed at the side of his face where Moira had punched him. “It didn’t quite work out the way I planned it.” He sighed and raised his hand to join the other, still held high over his head. “Look. I’m just passing through this valley on my way down to see what’s left of this country. My name’s Glen Truett. My home, or what’s left of it, is up on the Jack’s Fork over toward Winona. I decided while the quakes were still going on that as soon as it got decent weather I’d get out and see what was left, find out who had made it tout alive, and see if I could help get things – anything – back on track again. I’ve not found much until now,” he said, his eyes bleak with the memory of things he was not talking about.

Moira, moved finally by his look of despair, looked at Ellen, who shrugged and lowered her gun but remained watchful.

“So,” Ellen said. “So, who are you? What are you about? What’s your take on all this? Your credo? You some damn militia looter or somethin’?

“What?” He had lowered his hands to chest level, but the question startled him, and he stopped, his face a grimace of disbelief. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you believe in? You got a religion? You a heathen? You think God did all this? You think you’re the new king of the world? What? What do you call holy?” Ellen persisted. She had to know.

The man shrugged. “Life, I guess. Nature. Gaia, the spirit of the earth. I don’t know. I been living out in the woods on my own for a long time, tryin’ to get away from a lot of that stuff. I’m part Osage by blood, so I respect the Native ways. And I read a lot of stuff up there in my cabin, waiting for everything to settle down, trying not to go nuts. But I don’t hold with the fundamentalists. I just never could get those notions into my head. It all sounded made up. And made up by folks who didn’t know much. My daddy decided he was a born-again Baptist when he quit drinking, and that new religion of his caused us just as much heartache as the drink. So I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t go there.”

His eyes questioned Ellen, wondering if he’d said what she needed to know. She returned the look for several heartbeats. Finally, she heaved a sigh and looked across at Moira, who only shrugged. It was Ellen who finally decided.

“Well, Glen, you want some coffee?”

He grinned, then started to laugh without any sound, and the change in his face was remarkable. “More than anything in this world, ma’am,” he said.

The two women led the way up the path toward the farmhouse and met Joey on the path. He had brought a flashlight and guided them, sliding into step with the stranger once they had been introduced and Joey was brought up to date on the circumstances of Glen’s arrival.

“How’d you know Moira was trying to slip up on you?” Joey asked.

“Willy, my horse. He told me,” Glen answered.

“Really?”

“Swear to Goodness.” The horse, walking behind without having to be led, whickered softly, and Glen interpreted with a chuckle. “Now he wants to know if you’ve got an extra bag of oats handy. Later, Willy, after I’ve had my coffee. Okay, partner?” The horse snorted, and Joey’s eyes widened as they walked behind the women up the path.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Six: The Devil in the Details

Moira was sprawled atop a bluff in the sunlight, gathering greens. As the weather warmed and the awful winds continued to subside, there was occasionally a sunny day. She meant to make the most of this one. She was foraging for early wild edibles, the kind from which the traditional Ozarks “spring tonic” was made. High above the river bottom beyond the park, she had bet the herbs would take advantage of every second of sunlight, and she was right. She’d left Sheba behind along with her band of rowdy half-grown pups, as the whole pack was too hard to manage and still get anything done. They so loved a romp, and she’d locked them all outside early this morning while she finished greenhouse chores. Those had to be meticulously done, as she’d replaced the beds of overgrown lettuce with flats of newly seeded garden vegetables that she hoped to transplant soon to the farmstead garden down the hill. The lettuces were now being enjoyed by the few surviving chickens and the four-legged livestock. But she wanted something fresh for herself.

She was stretched almost to her full length reaching to seize a prize, a clump of tender fiddleheads, the early shoots of the bracken fern. She hooked her foot around a small sapling to keep from going over the edge. She’d already collected salad makings of rocket and sheepshire. These tender but sturdy shoots that nestled in a sheltered, sun-washed pocket in the rocks would add bulk as well as vitamins to her nutrient-starved diet. Greenhouse fare had kept her going but it was stronger medicine she was after now. She would add the coiled shoots to another belt pack that already contained violets in leaf and flower and a bag of redbud blossoms.

She was humming to herself but stopped when she thought she heard a noise, a metered clopping sound almost like hoof beats coming from far up the old road. The morning mist still hung over the dirt track that ran along the base of the bluff and on toward the lower museum gate. Lightly traveled in previous years and untraveled by humans at all since the first quake, the track was now weed-grown and dim, the few ruts marked by standing water from last night’s rain. Probably another stray horse looking for a herd to join, she thought. She’d been taking in strays of all kinds in the past months, all of them the four-legged kind except for a couple of chickens.

Here next to the river the awful winds of the past winter had not created so much havoc; fewer trees were down, and the road was still passable for as far as she could see. She’d not come by road or by horseback but had hiked up and over the ridge separating Pigeon Hollow, out of which Falling Spring flowed, from the Eleven Point River valley and the stream into which the spring’s waters emptied. The old-timers’ spring tonic of wild potherbs to augment a diet of canned goods and lettuce past its prime had provided the excuse for some brisk exercise and a welcome change of scene.

Perhaps next week, if the good weather held, she might venture out this way in her truck to see if she could reach a main road. She was not hopeful. For more than three months the radio and TV had remained silent, and nothing but dead air and static had answered her calls on Steven’s ham-radio set. Steven had not returned to the museum as he’d promised, nor had anyone else appeared. She wondered if anyone within traveling distance was still alive. If the whole ham radio operator network was out, it could only mean that the disaster was as widespread as she feared and of catastrophic proportions. She knew that base stations had to be pointed in the right direction to pick up another base station’s signal. But she should be picking up something off satellite, unless . . . unless the planet had actually moved from the plane of the ecliptic, had somehow rolled partway over, or done something else equally unimaginable.

With one of the tiny computers she’d found a set of instructions to calibrate the unit to find a satellite, but that would only give her a library, not a source of current events, so she hadn’t tried it. More sorting and unpacking had revealed more parts of Rudy’s “stash,” some still mysterious and some just humorous. A small, square package had poured forth dozens of the storage units, half flash cards and half jump drives, some empty and others full of unknown information. One large tube had contained a mile or more of mirror-finish mylar film. Another, fortunately opened early in the search, revealed, of all things, two seedling coffee trees. They must have thought they were stocking the Ark, she thought with a grim chuckle.

“They should have thought to send two of me,” she muttered.

She still had no way of knowing what was happening in the world outside. She supposed if the world were ending, more evidence would appear soon. But what she’d seen so far wasn’t all that horrific. True, there had been those weeks of black, roiling clouds, and that terrible wind that seemed to go on forever, and there was a haze in the sky night and day now. Moreover the April weather didn’t seem quite as warm as April should be. But the sun was out, and things were up and growing. So hope had not entirely faded.

On the other hand, she was in the middle of a continent, well-protected from what had been predicted as the worst of possibilities. And if the damage and destruction was as bad and as widespread as she imagined from those last days of television reception, then rescue could still be weeks or even months away.  Her thoughts roamed far afield as she snapped off the fiddleheads and stuffed them in her pouch,

She heard the measured clopping sound again, but the wind came up and it went away. She shook her head. Now it sounded more like a couple of horses. Or cows. She wouldn’t be surprised. As the winds had calmed, stray domestic animals had begun wandering in from who knows where, seeking herd or master. At first she had hoped some human would also come wandering in – perhaps a Forest Service worker or game warden, even a neighboring farmer in search of his cows. But so far it hadn’t happened. She continued to put out hay for the cows and horses and now also for an old ewe with her pair of lambs who had taken up residence. She still threw a little corn to the chickens, who wandered at will. The cattle herd had actually increased to about a dozen with the assortment of beef and dairy cows who’d come wandering in and settled with her loyal brood, and she was up to about a dozen horses. She had seen no sign of the pigs.

Sometime this spring, if the weather held, she would have to begin putting in crops, not just to feed herself but to keep the livestock through the winter to come. Fortunately, the grass hay from the museum-owned fields along the river had been put up in large round bales wrapped in plastic and stored out of sight of the museum’s public areas, so she would have a cushion against dry weather and her inexperience. She rejoiced every day that among her many purchases last autumn had been fresh stocks of grains and grass seed for the seed vaults. On her mind at the time had been the potential need for extra against drought, bad weather, or other potential causes of crop failure. Though she hadn’t at the time known a cataclysm was coming, she’d paid particular attention to laying in new varieties of open-pollinated heirloom vegetable seed for the kitchen garden and traditional grasses, corns, and legumes for the fields.

As she waited for the expected cows to show themselves, she thought it unfortunate none of the animals in her care had opposable thumbs, for she could use the help. In a sheltered spot outside the greenhouse, more varieties of fruit trees delivered late last fall still awaited transplanting to their new homes around the compound – a daunting task for one woman, even if it were the only work to be done. But it was difficult to even imagine the effort it might take to provide food for the entire menagerie — it seemed overwhelming, even with the tools at hand, including horse-drawn rakes, plows, and harrows, and the horses to pull them. In truth, there was only one team really trained to pull, and another halfway there. Most of the rest were an unknown quantity. If only she had a few more pairs of hands, she thought, the work would seem less impossible. Even the gathering of wild and domestic herbs for food and medicine sometimes seemed futile. But she had no one else yet to rely on, and she must do everything she could to assure her own survival.

In these past months, left too long alone with her thoughts, she had come to see the importance of the resources in her care in a different light. She’d come to understand just how critical they might be for humans who intended to survive into the future. Nowhere within several hundred miles existed such seed stocks. The  Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, if they survived, would be one possible source, although their stores would have been managed with more attention to variety than to quantity. And there was the Seed Savers project in Iowa. Closer by, there had been a little place in Brixey, over in Ozark County. If they had survived.

Without open-pollinated seeds, even if people survived the obvious ravages of climate chaos, they would not be able to grow anything approaching an adequate supply of food beyond one or two seasons. When hybrid varieties began to revert to their parent varieties, production of edible foods would diminish dramatically. Of course, not all hybrids reverted and some isolated organic or traditional farmers here and there would have been saving their own favorite vegetables and grains.

But how many of them had survived? And how many mouths could they feed while trying to grow out supplies of extra seed for themselves and others? Given the possibility that no more than a few were still around, she observed, the whole question might be moot. Either way, it was just too soon to tell. And without information coming from beyond this valley, she might not know for a long time. She sat up and pulled herself back from the edge, her thoughts focused too much on the larger situation to pay attention to fiddleheads or to keeping her balance on this high ledge.

She heaved a great sigh and stretched out on her side, facing the roadway. Better to gather herbs, catch a few fish, do what she could each day, and let the Great Mother see to the rest. No doubt She had enough on Her hands these days seeing to Her many creatures and Her own dear self without attending to the worries of one stray, carping daughter whose needs for food and shelter were so amply met. Besides, this lonely daughter had been down this particular road too many times already. She placed her palm flat to the earth, in a spontaneous gesture of reverent thanks for the recently calmer days, and started packing up her bounty, getting ready for the long hike home.

The hoof-beat sounds continued to draw nearer. She peered in the direction of the sound but couldn’t see any movement. Cows? No. Horses. Definitely horses, and several of them. It was probably the band of young Morgans she’d released a few months back. Half-wild, they had come and gone frequently from the farm compound in past weeks, torn between exploring and seeking a ready supper. Lately they had been accompanied by another young equine, a slim-withered orphaned horse colt who loped along behind the sturdy Morgans, but with a distinctive gait, possibly a  Foxtrotter.

She stood up to see better. Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she uttered a strangled cry. It was not only hoof beats she was hearing, she realized. She would almost swear she heard voices, as well. She drew a breath, preparing to shout. But then, almost against her will, her hand moved to cover her mouth tightly, stifling any call she might have made. She had no idea who was coming, she told herself fiercely, as her mind warred with itself. It could be salvation; it could be scoundrels. Better to find out, she decided, before whoever it was spotted her. She lowered her body into a crouch and moved along the bluff’s edge to where there was a gap in the greenery and she could see the roadway clearly for some distance without being seen.

At first she was so relieved she wanted to cry. The mounted figure that appeared round the bend in the road, except for his curly red beard, was dressed military-style, outfitted in what appeared to be full desert camo, with a carbine slung over his shoulder. Instead of military gear for his sturdy palomino horse, however, the horse bore a standard Western saddle, complete with lariat, saddlebags, and a large bedroll. Of course, rescuers would use whatever was available, she reasoned. But still she did not reveal herself .

“Paranoid,” she whispered to herself.

Then the second man hove into view and she was glad she’d stayed put on her sheltered perch. He also was outfitted in quasi-military garb, but had added an outlandish headdress of vivid hue. He was still too far away to see exactly what his headgear was made of, but it was not, she was certain, military issue. This man was smaller than the one who preceded him and narrower in the shoulders. He, too, sported a full beard, though his was dark and grizzled. On the roan horse’s rump, behind the saddlebags and bedroll, was what looked like a duffel bag packed very full. It bobbed from side to side as the horse picked its way delicately along the rutted trail.

The third man was hardly a man at all, thin to the point of scrawniness and with only a trace of beard. His headgear, a felt hat with much ornamentation, was no less unusual than that of the man who preceded him, and his military-style clothing was ill-fitting and torn. The gear he carried seemed an awkward assortment of boxes and bags roped together. His horse, however, was a beauty, a tall, high-stepping chestnut-colored Tennessee walking horse. Unfortunately the horse and rider appeared to be ill-matched in more than looks. As the horse rounded the bend and came up on its fellows, it shied at a low branch waving in the breeze and started sidestepping, going off the trail and turning in a full circle before resuming its place in line. The youthful rider struggled to gain control and unleashed a torrent of oaths, while the leader of the group turned to watch.

“You wanted that beast so bad, Davy,” the man called. “Now get a hold on him or I’ll give him to someone who can.”

The young man snarled a reply, which proved a mistake. Before he could get himself firmly seated, the lead rider dug his heels into the palomino’s flanks and was on the boy. The palomino whirled to ram its body sidelong into the taller horse as the red-bearded man stood in his stirrups to reach the youth with his right arm. The quirt in his hand sliced through the air with a hiss to lash at the boy’s face. The blow was blocked by the boy’s raised clenched fists as he struggled with the reins. A trail of crimson marked its passage across the backs of his ungloved hands and in a cut on his cheek, but he made no outcry.

“That tongue of yours is going to get you killed someday, Davy, if I don’t do it first,” the red-bearded man snarled, dug his heels into the palomino’s sides again, and resumed his place at the head of the column.

Almost unnoticed in the fray, a fourth man came into view on the trail, this one the biggest of all, wide-shouldered and black-bearded, his camouflage shirt ripped at the sides and laced together, the sleeves cut out to reveal a grimy white T-shirt beneath. Wherever they’d acquired their military dress, there had apparently been none large enough to fit him. The roughly-fitted shirt was held in place at the shoulders by the straps of bib overalls. Only the tips of his cob-soled boots fit into his stirrups, making the massive man appear to be riding on tip-toe. This last man held the reins of his sad-faced gray horse with one hand, while the other reached backward to pull the lead rope of another horse, this one apparently the group’s pack animal.

But no. Again Moira’s hand had to stifle a cry. There was a woman on the horse but she was not a member of the company; that was certain. Her head was bowed, her body swayed as though she could barely keep herself from falling, and her hands were bound by a rope that passed around her middle, holding her arms tight against her sides. Her clothing was ragged and in disarray. Tied to the cantle of her mount was yet another rope, this one towing a small boy, tied at the wrists, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He stumbled along wearily at the rear of the column. Moira’s hands clenched at the ugliness before her. Whoever these men were, they were no rescuers. They were bandits, perhaps, or worse. Surely she must do something, but what?

The red-bearded leader had passed directly below the outcrop where she lay concealed when he held up his hand, signaling a halt. The trail, narrow to that point as it threaded its way through the forest, opened onto a small meadow that extended several hundred feet to another bend in the road. Beyond that bend and another, little more than a mile away, was the lower entrance to the museum. Could this be the group’s destination? Moira leaned forward, listening intently.

“Let’s take a rest here, brethren,” Redbeard said. “I need another look at the map.” It was easy to see who called the shots in this group.

The second rider, whom she dubbed “Graybeard,” was alongside the first in a flash, swinging down from his horse before the leader could dismount and hurrying to hold the palomino’s bridle while the red-bearded man stepped to the ground and retrieved a much-folded document from his saddlebags.

The youth, whom Moira was already beginning to think of as “No-beard,” stopped some little distance away, dismounted, and occupied himself in tying the reins of his recalcitrant beast to a sturdy low-hanging tree limb. The animal uttered a high whinny, sidled away and gave the boy a wide-eyed look. He may or may not have been a decent rider, but the horse wasn’t used to him, and obviously didn’t like what he’d seen of the young man so far.

The fourth man, who might as well be Blackbeard, Moira decided, reined in his horse behind the other two and dismounted quickly, looping his horse’s reins over a branch before hauling in the lead rope on the woman’s horse. As she came alongside, he reached up, grabbed her around the waist, and dropped her unceremoniously. As her feet hit the ground she nearly fell but he put out an arm to steady her.

He pointed to a nearby fallen log where she might sit. “Rest while you can, witch woman. We’ll soon be to this mill storehouse, or whatever it is, and you’ll have plenty to do.”

She struggled with her bonds as he reached to free the boy’s rope from the saddle. The boy was hanging back, the rope still taut between his hands and the saddle. “Can you at least untie my hands so I can see to my needs?” she asked, her voice hard and bitter. “It’s not like I’d have anywhere to run to out here.”

The man grinned. “I don’t think you’ll run, because I won’t have to chase you.” He jerked on the rope tied to the boy’s wrists, causing the youth to fall. “You know this little devil’s mite wouldn’t live a minute past your going, don’t you?” He knew the answer to his question. “I wouldn’t come after you. I’d just cut his ugly little throat. Want to try me and see?” He gave the rope another jerk, and the boy, who was trying to regain his feet, fell forward again, this time landing with his chin in the dust. The woman struggled to reach the boy but Blackbeard kept hold of the rope around her waist and pulled her to him instead, forcing her backside against his belly as he bent his knees, then straightened, rubbing himself up against her. “Besides, witch, it’s your turn to keep me warm tonight. You wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?” The woman uttered an oath and continued to struggle until he laughed and cuffed her. “Hold still, and I’ll free your hands. You see to yourself and the boy, and I’ll watch.” He laughed again, a low guttural sound.

Moira recoiled from the scene, knowing she should do something to help the woman. But any effort of hers, weaponless, would serve for nothing except to place herself in equal danger. She kept silent and forced herself to watch as the woman, still bound around the arms by the looped rope, helped the boy to his feet and led him to some bushes where they could at least have the illusion of privacy. First she stood between the boy and his captors, her back to him, so he could relieve himself. Then they did turnabout, suggesting they’d been forced to suffer this solution more than once. Moira shifted her attention to Redbeard, who was standing almost directly beneath her, showing Graybeard something on the unfolded sheet of paper. He appeared to be studying a much-used topographical map.

“It should be right up this next hollow here, where it shows the road leaving the river and going up,” Redbeard said, pointing to the spot on the map and then to the river’s bend.

“How do you know it’s the right road?” Graybeard asked, his voice a tenor whine. “I don’t see any museum marked on there.”

“That’s because it’s an old map, doofus,” Redbeard returned, his tone sarcastic. “What it does show, however, is Falling Spring, right there smack in that hollow. That’s where the museum is. My cousin Ed, God rest his pitiful soul, told me about the place just last year. Said they had every tool you could imagine from the pioneer days. And all the old breeds of stock. And seeds out the ass. We find that place and our worries are over. We can set up our own group over here, go out and find us a few more servants for the Lord’s chosen,” he said, gesturing toward the woman and the boy, “and live like the kings of old, Randall.”

“I don’t think Father Lowell will like that, John,” Graybeard said. “He wanted you to just come over here and bring back tools and whatever scavenge you could find. I don’t think he meant for the Chosen to be putting up new settlements out here in these woods. Besides, it’s damn spooky down here in all these twisty little hollows. I don’t like it.”

“Jeezy-Crow, Randall,” the redbearded man said between his teeth, exasperation making his face red, too. “Every damn thing spooks you. It’s about all I can take, having to travel clear across country just to find what we need, and provide leadership, and all the while having to drag this bunch of sissies and crybabies along. Next time, just stay home,” Redbeard said. He turned to his saddlebag and re-packed the map. “Now let’s get these horses watered and get on our way. We should be able to make the place before night. Maybe we’ll surprise somebody and help ourselves to their supper, huh?” He laughed, slapped the graybearded man on the back, hard, and walked a few feet away before unzipping his fly and urinating on a tree. He laughed again when he saw the woman and child staring at him in disgust. “Want some, witchwoman? You’ll have to wait. It’s Becker’s turn tonight.” All the men guffawed at this, even Davy, snorting a laugh through his acne-scarred nose as he tried awkwardly to remount the uncooperative horse.

Moira had seen enough. Behind the bluff’s edge, the ground dropped away into a shallow depression that led away south over the ridge to Pigeon Hollow. With luck and a little stealth, she could make her way back unseen. Falling Spring was these marauders’ target, she realized, and she didn’t know what to do. First, though, she must get away without being discovered. She crouched lower behind the outcropping and moved silently away. A dozen steps and she would be invisible from the trail. But one of those steps dislodged a rock. The men stopped. A stone’s throw away from Moira, a squirrel ran up a tree and began chattering an alarm. The men laughed, assuming it was they who were being alarming. They turned off the road and headed down toward the river. They did not see the silent woman above them as she slipped away from the bluff’s edge and out of sight. Not just she and their prisoners, but the museum, and perhaps the future itself, were in dire peril. She had to stop them. But how?

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Five : Comes The Dark

The storm, if that’s what it could be called, lasted a couple of months. It wasn’t constant, but almost so.  Over time there seemed to develop an odd pattern to the chaos. Fierce lightning. Howling, destructive winds. A turbulent, roiling darkness, with just enough change in density to separate day from night. Short, unreliable respites at dawn and dusk when the winds would slow and almost stop. And like a clock, a dreadful, wrenching trembling as if the earth were tearing itself apart that recurred with terrifying frequency.

It wasn’t until late in January – Moira would never be able to mark the exact date – she began to take notice of a new change in the light, a slight lessening of the overall torment. It was one of those random moments when her terror subsided enough to hold onto a rational thought. But nothing, including thought, could persist in this relentless cauldron of change.

She was now trying to determine if the sun was actually coming up in a slightly new and very wrong direction. The evidence had presented itself on one of those infrequent days when the sun had made a brief appearance in a position near the horizon. It had been a rare sight in past weeks, and even when visible it seemed to peek out furtively, battered and bleeding, burning redly through the ink-black heavens.  The roiling darkness that had replaced the normal winter sky resembled smoke from oil-field fires, only high and far off and carrying no scent on the frigid wind.

Moira had been attempting to count the days or at least the day-long periods of dim light that had regularly punctuated the darkness for more than a month. She wondered if the polar shift or magnetic storm or whatever rumor gleaned from fitful ham radio bursts had actually proved correct. Not that the exploding caldera at Yellowstone wouldn’t have been enough. She had heard through those ham operator conversations, that the fly-by dark planet may have altered course;  had actually struck the earth; that the earth had tipped off its axis or out of its orbit … and on. Doom after improbable doom was offered in a desperate attempt to make sense of unimaginable events. She doubted if anyone knew exactly what had happened except perhaps the folks on the International Space Station, and they, too, had gone silent. She wondered if the villain, whatever it was, had yet done its worst.

Ten days into the new year had been about the last time she remembered hearing a radio broadcast before the regular radio stations went dead. Before that, from shortly after the first quake, the news had been horrific both far and near, with reports of vast areas of land around the Pacific rim breaking up and sinking, whole islands disappearing in the Pacific, and Texas, my God, half of Texas eaten away, along with most of the Mexican Gulf shore. Greenland had apparently shaken off the remainder of its icy skin and, along with Iceland, was alight with volcanic fire. Everywhere, it seemed, civilizations were crumbling under the weight of massive environmental onslaught, with whole areas of the United States and the world simply gone silent. The government itself had clung to life only briefly before it was completely overwhelmed and had stopped issuing bulletins or warnings. The President had urged calm and had begged God’s forgiveness and his people’s pardon for being unable to offer more help. Then he, too, had been replaced by faint static and then silence. There had been no mention of a Christmas parade.

That had been about three weeks ago. There had been only a slight let up in seismic activity since, although few tremors matched that first jolt. The weather was less kind, offering nothing approaching normal. No rain or snow, just increasing darkness and howling, bitterly cold winds with only the small pauses at dawn and dusk, beginning soon after that the last conversation with Rudy Juarez, and unceasing since.

Moira braced herself as yet another tremor made the trees shiver and the rocks groan. She felt like she was in a war zone, constantly under attack. No, she thought suddenly, pushing the thought away. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t about her, but trust some random, lonely human to take it personally. It was the whole planet that was under attack from what seemed now to be mostly self-inflicted wounds. Mother Earth. Her earthly home, and the home of all life, of everyone she knew and loved, every living thing was at the brink of destruction or past it. It was a place her imagination simply could not go.

Still she couldn’t keep her mind from the circuitous questions that had replayed each day since this havoc had begun. What was really happening out there in other places, to people she cared about? How bad was it? Where and how were her family? Her friends? Were any of them still alive? Was it this bad everywhere? Was it worse? Had anyone else survived? And, most important, when might it end? Or would it?

But though she could articulate many questions, there wasn’t a soul anywhere offering answers. Electrical power was inexplicably still flowing from the center’s power plant. But there were no radio or television stations broadcasting on any frequency she could find. The land line, her cell phone, and the satellite telephone had all gone dead. Panicked by her inability to communicate with the outside, she had searched for and found Steven’s small short-wave ham radio outfit and had for a week or more satisfied her hunger for a human voice by probing the dial for distant messages. But before she could figure out how to use the transmitter for messages of her own, to call for help or to inquire about her home and family, the unit had stopped working, or at least had stopped receiving a signal. Perhaps there were no longer any operators broadcasting anywhere within its range, another possibility that didn’t bear thinking about.

Feeling desperate, she had tried the unit one more time and heard a voice. Quickly she had adjusted the tuning and turned up the volume. But the voice was not speaking English, and the message it was repeating in a tired and frightened voice was not being answered. Then the voice had quavered, static overtook it, and it was gone. She wondered if it was the last human voice, other than her own, she would hear. For her sanity’s sake, it was time to stop listening.

Her CD player still worked, but she began avoiding any music with lyrics. She believed she might go mad from sheer loneliness. For she knew she could be, by fluke of her unique location, the last surviving human.

Then one morning she saw the winter sun rising redly and wide, in a direction that was, to her recollection, due east, instead of east-northeast, where it should have been at midwinter. For several days the impossibility of this phenomenon didn’t fully register, and when it did, she wondered if madness had finally arrived.

She was alive but very possibly insane, a notion she accepted with an odd calm. It was a  curious place to be, insanity being, in these circumstances, defined as a sane reaction to experiences that, while seeming almost normal by now, were wholly outside any reality she had ever known. Yet where she ought to have run screaming with terror into the night or thrown herself from a cliff, she was instead fascinated, mesmerized by this bizarre new world. Her senses overflowed with experiences so forceful, so unnatural and yet so impossibly real, that she sometimes stopped whatever she was doing to sit and stare for hours, held in the thrall of the unearthly noises on the wind, the constant trembling of the planet’s skin, the roiling sky in which lights flickered but no birds flew.

There were days in the past weeks when she had been captivated by the noises alone, sounds of a world that seemed in its death throes, with each moment a changing note in a bone-jarring cacophony. From nowhere and everywhere, the earth’s cries filled the air, now in a rumbling bass, now in sharp staccato. At times she wondered if she had somehow stumbled into a new dimension, one containing a fundament gone to jelly and chaff, which incidentally seemed bent on trying to remove itself from beneath her feet at frequent and random intervals. And above all there were the incessant, horrific storms, hail-filled skies and shrieking, twisting nightmare winds that continued to batter and scour the ridge tops to rubble – a devil’s symphony that held her in its trance until she forgot that such a condition was called shock, and she wondered what the information flooding her senses might mean. Was the very earth out to kill her? She didn’t know. It hardly mattered. All things seemed equally possible.

Still, this citadel of earth-covered concrete where she took shelter remained intact. Daily she rallied from insanity long enough to thank its maker and to devise a set of increasingly important rituals – and do the chores, of course.

Small scraps of control held her back from the edge. She worked out a routine to keep her days in order of a sort. Upon waking, she would put on water for tea, measure finely ground corn meal from the mill into a pan of cold water and set it on the electric stove. She would stir until it thickened, feed herself and the dog, who she decided to call Sheba, and begin her morning meditations while Sheba stood watch.

The same quake that had thrown her favorite ceramic teapot off the shelf and shattered it had unearthed a book, a gift from one of her alternative friends and written by a woman named Starhawk. It was called “The Earth Path.” She began reading, finding words that didn’t necessarily clarify what was happening, but gave her small things to do that eased her fears. She soon learned the words for simple ritual-making. That in turn caused her to read more, to rediscover long beloved tomes by writers as disparate as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh. Some days afterward, while rearranging her belongings again after a particularly strong shock, she found a card with a verse in it attributed to some ancient Druidic order, called “The Litany of the Earth Mother.”  For some reason, it spoke to her in a very personal way. She altered it somewhat to make it seem a personal message from her deepest self, and began adding it to her own litany of sacred words..

From her experience in a field that had mixed science with hidebound Puritan culture and almost totally peopled by men, she had already been looking a bit askance at the notion of an infallible God of her Fathers even before the world ended, she thought. Now such notions as those offered no comfort at all. In these strange days when the very substance of things seemed tossed asunder, she yearned for something to bring her literally to ground. She simply hadn’t the strength to invest in a far-off, obviously uninvolved heavenly presence, especially one that had elected to lob a stray planet at her earthly home. In these days when the Earth itself needed such healing, why not call out instead to the God, or Goddess, on whose uneasy belly she was tossed, and by whose breath she was blown to the far corners of her courage. Or so she reasoned, if reason it could be called.

In any event, each morning, after a moment of silence to move her thoughts away from panic, she lit a candle, knelt on a cushion before an altar she’d built out of objects, some from nature and some from gadgets made precious by what they symbolized to her — a broken clock, a vial of spring water, a key — folded her hands and began her prayers. She did not ask a heavenly presence to save her. Instead, she began in a spirit of gratitude, voicing the powerful imagery of the Litany, calling to the Mother of All and struggling to find peace in Her presence:

O Earth My Mother.

Thou of uncounted names and faces,

Thou of the many-faceted Nature in and above All,

All Love and Life fulfilled;

Look with favor upon this humble, precious place,

Grace me with Your Conscious Presence, Remind me of your Love,

Inspire and infuse me with Your Power;

By all the names by which You have been known,

Earth, my Mother, hold me close.

And so the days passed, the winds howled,  the ground trembled and quaked, and she kept to her rituals and held on, as best she could, to her senses. The solid, certain presence of Sheba brought her an odd calm. Sheba was not only female but had been pregnant, which is probably why she’d wandered off from her people in the first place. Now there was a pile of week-old puppies in a box by the heater. The dog stayed inside while Moira did the chores and the walk down the hill to attend to the livestock became lonely again.

One day while she was descending the hill, the wind threw an oak branch that crashed to earth where she had stood only an instant before. She took it for an omen. A person could get killed out here. Worse, they could be almost killed, and left to die slowly and alone.

She resolved that day to free the livestock once and for all, and in doing so free herself from the treacherous daily hike. They’d been happy enough to return to their pens after the sky darkened and the winds grew vicious. But they needed to be able to get back out if she became disabled or worse. She didn’t really know if this was a good idea or even a sane one. But it was the only idea that seemed sensible and that offered everyone, including her, the best chance at survival.

She swung open the chicken house door. They’d have to take to the trees to be safe, but there was ample forage if the feed ran out before she returned. She’d be back to check on them when weather permitted. She filled their feeders, emptied the nests, left the door open and moved on. The cows were still in their stalls, waiting to be fed. She worked out the logic of it in her head as her hands put their food outside the stalls in places out of the weather, and set them free.

She opened the horse stalls, put down some food, threw back the huge barn doors and took down the gates that opened into the wheat fields and lower pastures. It was not as important now to save the winter wheat crop as it was to give the animals access to some kind of reliable forage they could get to without her help. She freed the pigs but left the door to their shelter propped open. They were smart, they would figure it out, she thought as she poured grain into an improvised self-feeder that would keep them going until they got to the woods and discovered acorns. Then she closed and locked the granary door to keep the improvident horses from foundering. But she left open a high window in case the chickens or the small crew of barn mice that fed the barn cats needed a bit of extra protein.

Some of the beasts, such as the yearling horses, fled their enclosure immediately, surging in panic or exuberance out of the corral and through the lower field, finally disappearing over a creek bank. The pigs behaved similarly, bolting from their pen in a riot of squeals and snorts. The chickens and turkeys, noticing their range had increased dramatically, quickly busied themselves scratching up new food sources, singing and murmuring merrily. The rest, well, they must fend for themselves too, she muttered, turning her eyes away from the large sad eyes of the bovines standing at the gate to the pasture, looking puzzled, and the dark-eyed Percherons who continued pulling down hay from the stanchions, ignoring the open doorway behind them. She went back to the central corridor of the barn, climbed to the loft above and threw a couple dozen more bales of hay down beside the barn and stacked the mangers in the loafing shed high. The domesticated livestock had shelter for the seeking, and forage for the taking. They might have to develop a little independence, but they would not starve. It was the best she could do.

She could stay down there in the hollow with her penned charges and see they were kept in regular feed only by giving up the only shelter where she could stay warm through all these storms of air and earth – her apartment at the Center. And she wasn’t that crazy.

For one thing, the outer shells of the structures in the village had the insulating qualities of any building constructed in the 1880s, which is to say, none. And as the restored and recreated homes and farmsteads at the museum were not intended to actually support real families through the winter, even though they’d been supplied with wood burning stoves, there was no store of firewood to heat even one house for more than a small interval of time. There was no food for humans at the farm site, no electricity, and nowhere she could keep warm. In the simplest of terms, she could not live there.

On the other hand,  the center held all the elements essential to her survival, at least so long as her luck held. The electrical system remained intact, providing her and her plants with lifesaving heat and light. Also, she realized with some amazement, at the center was the stock of incredible stores she’d laid in against the museum’s once-far different need as a tourist attraction. Much of it was still piled in untidy heaps that couldn’t be damaged by seismic activity, but it was protected and available for needs that now might stretch not only beyond expectations but beyond imagination. Should her circumstances become permanent, she thought, she was better-supplied than Robinson Crusoe. The realization didn’t exactly comfort her but did help hold blind panic at bay.

The electrical power generated by the small subterranean power plant inside the dam had not so much as flickered during the worst of the blows and tremors. The dam, spillway, and everything in and behind it had survived, at least so far. Even the mill, although its roof had sustained some damage from falling debris from the bluff, was still structurally sound, sheltered as it was by the bluff against whose face it rested. And, incredibly, the bluff still held together and the spring still flowed.

She continued her litany of what-ifs as she walked. With luck, the greenhouse plants could be kept alive indefinitely by the heat tapes at their feet and a battery of grow lights clustered low over their heads. And if summer ever came again, there were the seed stocks – enough open-pollinated plant varieties to grow food for herself and a few animals virtually forever. If the livestock were lucky and possessed sufficient foraging ability, they would all find ways to make it through as well. They were herbivores, after all, and food, even in winter, was available for the finding in the woods and fields.

But that wouldn’t really take care of every situation. So what she would do was this – at regular intervals, say every week or so if she lived, she would return to the village to put out more food for them. It would take a stupefying amount of luck, along with all the cunning and wits they could muster, for any of them including Moira to survive for long in this strange new world. She would have to learn what she could of her new circumstances by experience, and by keeping a meticulous record of events and occurrences, and she was doing that. She had started keeping a journal on day three of this changed era when she realized the earthquakes might not stop for a long time, and therefore just about everything she took to be normal was gone for good. She had taken a sturdy notebook from the office stores and started a daily book of events. It had already begun to come in handy.

For instance, the winds were savage but not constant. They seemed to die down for a while near sunset and to surge back with increasing violence as soon as full night fell. The earth tremors and the deep booming noises were more difficult to predict, but they, too, seemed to follow a pattern of sorts. In any event, she had reasoned, her only hope was to muster what sanity she could and work out a new pattern of her own, a schedule of tasks and responsibilities that she could reasonably expect to maintain. As much as she regretted having to leave the animals to their fates, removing the cycle of daily trips to the village in this vicious weather would increase her survival chances considerably, and actually remove the tie between her survival and that of the animals to some extent. At least she hoped that’s how it would work out. At any rate, it was done. She opened the last gate, threw down the last bit of corn, and headed up the hill.

As bad as things were, she realized, they could still get worse. In the back of her mind, never far from consciousness, was the knowledge that summer might not come at all. She knew about the theorized phenomenon of nuclear winter – described by experts as what would happen when dust from the number of nuclear explosions that might be expected in an all-out war blocked out the sun, resulting in years of cold and dark, with no seasons, no summer growth, and, after a while, no life. It could be occurring now, possibly as a result of what she was sure was widespread volcanic activity. Perhaps, she thought, she was seeing the predicted phenomenon demonstrated first hand, for the forecasted results seemed similar to what was now occurring. This, along with the oddity of the sunrise being possibly in the wrong place, seemed good evidence that the polar shift, or whatever it had been, had indeed occurred. For all she knew, the shift might have thrown the planet out of its orbit. For all she knew, she might be the only human witness to the last pitiful struggles of life on Earth. Actually, it might be time to think about something else, she decided. She turned on her heel suddenly, remembering some detail still unattended to.

The day, what there was of it, was beginning to fade, and the momentary reprieve from the wind was about over. To punctuate the thought, a strong earth shock threw her against a stanchion just as one of the Morgan mares wheeled and bolted through the doorway. She missed by scant inches being trampled. She turned, pale-faced, and made her way unsteadily across the barn lot and resumed her journey on up the hill.

It was time to take up another task. Rudy and his friends had sent supplies against every variety of event, some of which she hadn’t opened yet because they were marked to be opened only in the event of a doomsday scenario. For her money, Doomsday was here. It was time she dug through the mess to see if there was anything that might alter or improve her circumstances even slightly. She doubted it. But she had been stubbornly holding onto them as something of a last hope, in case all else failed. Well, she asked herself, am I not there?

What she found initially was so small and so impersonal that it seemed no help at all. She hoped for and found a satellite phone, but no one answered any numbers she tried. She hoped for emergency numbers, and there were some, but she worked her way far down the list with no success. And she hoped for an indication that help, in some form, might arrive. None was offered. Instead, under another small bundle of iPads, and a supply of sealed rechargeable power packs for them, she found a heavy envelope with a letter containing her official government orders. As she read the instructions and the purpose for including them, it finally hit her just how bad things might be and how much more they had known from the beginning of the scare than they’d been willing to share. Her eyes welled with tears at the introduction, and her fist held her mouth closed against any sound as she read.

“Beloved friend and colleague: If you are reading this, then our time on earth as humans is in grave peril, and you may be a resident of one of our only surviving outposts. We hope with all our hearts it has not come to this. But if it is so, we have taken these steps to secure as much of recorded human history and knowledge as can be stored for the use and understanding of future generations. With damaged systems and reduced resources, it stands to reason that even if populations survive, as repairs are made, some technological advances and the knowledge base upon which they were built must be set aside. Likewise, without computer networks, much communication of knowledge and skills will also be lost. These small units, if powered and used sparingly, should last for some decades. They are keyed to access computers on the space station and other information satellites that circle the earth, as they will continue to do for centuries, although it is not known how long and how well their makers will continue to be able to communicate with them. Some places on the planet may retain these capabilities while others may not. We have done our best to preserve as much as we can. We send this into your hands with all our desperate hopes for your survival, for you are our future. God’s blessings on you.

Moira read it twice, then repacked the computers in their heavy wrappings and carried them down the stairs into the seed vault, where they’d be safe. She didn’t need them, but somebody might, someday.

That had been weeks ago. Uncounted days passed until she was surprised out of a fitful sleep one morning by a ray of sunlight shining on her face.

It was being reflected off the small mirror hanging beside her window – a mirror whose reflective side, she realized later, in a moment of clear thought, faced northeast – reachable, at an angle, by the sun in summer. In winter, as now, it should have been facing the sun edge-on. There it was again, that tiny, insignificant, totally impossible thing. She had noticed it before but had attributed it to her inability to think rational thoughts. Now science replaced suspicion. It was true, what she’d thought earlier. Either the planet had somehow actually tilted on its axis, or else . . . what?

It was not until very early spring that she finally put that phenomenon alongside the other overwhelming evidence that something cataclysmic had indeed happened to the Earth. For one thing, unusual birds, most of them waterfowl, many of them sea birds, were appearing alongside the museum’s resident population of khaki Campbell ducks. Many of them seemed confused, shaking their heads, flying up to circle aimlessly and then landing again. It seemed the tiny grains of magnetite they grew above their noses to guide them during migration must be sending confusing messages. Likewise, no form of electronic communication, which had ceased during the seismic activity, ever resumed; there was still no signal to be had on any communications device, even the short-wave radio.

What begged for an answer was why, now that winds and seismic activity were beginning to subside, did no radio signal, short wave or long, reappear? Why, now that the sun was visible for a little while on most days and weather was becoming more stable, did she hear no airplane’s drone, no beat of helicopter blades. No drone of a truck somewhere. Or whine of a chain saw. Was there really no one left in the world’s wreckage but her?

It was not until the nightmare winds began to soften and she could explore the area outside the compound that she was able to acknowledge the mind-boggling scale of the destruction. She was alone, yes. But how alone? Was there anyone left at any of the nearby towns — or anywhere? What about Springfield? Springfield was a thriving city with a major airport and four television stations. Or Ft. Wood, with its Air National Guard detachment that should be patrolling, looking for survivors. How could it all have just disappeared?

She wondered if she should simply leave the place that had held her safe and strike out in search of civilization. But where to? And how would she get there? After a hike out the driveway to the paved road, she realized there was simply no way to do it. In the direction of the river, a mountain of uprooted, broken, and shredded trees lay across the road where it crossed the ridge top. The other way, where the road had gone through a cut blasted through the nearby hilltop, there was now only a line of pavement disappearing into a new hillside of loose clay and rock. The tremors had sealed the cut, completely obliterating the road. There was no way for any rescuer to get in by the normal access routes. And if the lower road by the river looked at all like these upper ones, there was no way out there, either. She would just have to wait for someone to come by air, or the river.

She exhaled an explosive breath that contained a bitter laugh. And who would that be? Of all the nearby human settlements that might possibly have survived, no one would think to look here. Of all possible surviving humans within rescuing distance, only Steven knew for sure that she had stayed at the museum. Certainly he had vowed to come to her aid, but that was about as likely as waking up tomorrow to find this had all been just a bad dream. Possible, she admitted, but damned unlikely.

All she could do for now was stay alive, keep the museum’s infrastructure intact, and keep her wits about her, such as they were. Even if she was lost in the middle of nowhere, and even if the world had turned completely on its head, there were the seeds and the gifts sent by Rudy and his pals – from food and the other necessities to the computer linkups to satellite libraries. Somewhere, safely stored, were all the tools and information needed to fuel and reboot civilization, if she, or someone, could keep that link alive.

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“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Four: Beyond Reach

 

The following Friday:

As she had been doing frequently since Sunday, Moira was on the satellite phone talking, sometimes to Rudy and sometimes to others unknown, who offered updates and chilling fragments of news from afar, most of it as stomach-churning as the increasingly bitter weather and the smaller but more frequent earth tremors. They all agreed the situation was nowhere near over.

The worst scenario to contemplate was the growing conviction that the caldera, the giant magma uplift below Yellowstone, was likely getting ready to blow its top, an event that had happened more than once, but never within human experience. If that were to happen, the ash cloud would likely turn everything for a thousand miles south and east into an ash-covered desert. For all their fear about it, mentions were brief and soon passed over. It simply didn’t bear thinking about. If that were actually to happen as they feared, most of her partners in this venture would be dead. And the rest, including her, were likely to be, as she was, scrambling to save what was left of the habitable world. She had thought she was being relatively calm as she worked away through the warehouse cleanup, celebrating the things she had thought to stock up on and lamenting the things she hadn’t thought of. For instance, in terms of future defense, although there were four guns on the property, there was only one box of shells each for the pistols, a handful or two for the 12-gauge shotgun, and barely two boxes for the handiest, a .410 gauge varmint gun. That collection did not an armory make. And this morning, when she was walking through the garden area and found a withered luffa fruit with a full seed cavity hanging in a sheltered spot in the fence, she burst into tears. How in God’s name did one prepare for losing Everything.

She’d been telling herself it might not be so bad. Things could settle down and regain some semblance of order. And then last night she had a dream.

In the dream the Visitors Center was instead a large cavern of soft, chalky rock with hastily hollowed out rooms where things were stored haphazardly. Staff members were coming to her, complaining that their salary checks had not arrived. She tried to explain to them that the chaos as a result of the crisis would delay things, but she finally relented and said she would issue the checks herself. She went into an adjoining space where the computers were kept, but found the printers were glazed over with a chalky residue left by seeping water and were becoming part of the rock, and there was no paper on the rude shelf where supplies were kept. When she attempted to turn on a monitor, there was no power, and then the keyboard before her began to disintegrate as she touched it and she was left with only little eroding cubes that had been the keys.

When she awoke, short of breath and heart pounding, she called Rudy, but got one of his staff, who told her the D.C. offices were being shut down due to flooding that was backing up from the Chesapeake Bay into the Potomac. Large portions of the capital were under an evacuation order, including much of the downtown area of government offices. Rudy, he said, was up in one of the mountain strongholds that had been prepared for a possible nuclear attack, making space for equipment storage and organizing that end of the move. The young man, an attache´, was alone in his office, manning the phones, he told her, while dumping computer files into long-term storage. Everyone else was out in front of their building, filling sandbags and trying to hold the water back until all the files were copied and put somewhere safe. “Don’t worry,” he said in a tone that said his words were empty. “We’ll whip this.” She wished him the best and rang off before her voice betrayed her.

After a simple breakfast, she was still nowhere near able to form a plan for the day. Since bone weary was not the proper attitude for starting the day, it must be time for a break, she decided. Throwing on a barn coat, she headed out the north doors and across the parking lot toward the pine thicket. She stood awhile in the lee of the great signpost, soaking up the weak winter sun and inhaling the crisp fragrances of winter. Only a dusting of snow had fallen in the night and it was already somewhat bird-tracked. She threw down some crumbs from breakfast and laughed as the little snowbirds came right up to within touching distance in search of a morsel or two.

Then, looking further, she notice another little bird that remained still. It had apparently fallen from a branch and landed upright, but it was dead. It might have been literally scared to death. The realization struck her straight to the heart, and she gasped at the pain of it and fell to her knees. All in that moment, the truth came rushing in. No matter how secure she might be in this little hidden spot, she was surrounded by the likely deaths of thousands, with millions more facing the same fate all over the globe. In a vision that pictured the earth mother brushing parasites off her belly, she saw among them her family, friends and colleagues, and uncounted strangers she would never know. She mourned them all, crying openly, her sobs turning to keening, the sound one reserves only for the loss of loved ones.

Some time later, when she became cognizant of how stiff and cold she was becoming, she dipped her mittens in the snow and washed her face, stood upright, and headed back to the only home she still had.

She spent the balance of that day in a peculiar agitation, unable to work long at any single chore, not from lack of energy but from an odd inability to think more than one step ahead. After heating her coffee three times in the microwave without ever drinking any of it, she finally sat her self down on the daybed in her tiny apartment and decided to see if she could clear her thinking and calm her mind, her canine companion snuggled tight against her. Within minutes, she fell into a sound sleep and awoke two hours later, refreshed. She would have to work on being able to tell the difference between agitation and exhaustion, she decided. But she’d rather be talking to Rudy. A little after 10 p.m., he called. He sounded as exhausted as she had been, but she drew a laugh from him when she recounted the events of her dream.

“That’s nearly how it is,” he said. “My recurring dream is where I’m riding in an old 1960s-era city bus touring San Francisco. It’s all very beautiful, but when we get to the top, at Coit Tower, we go right through the parking lot, through the fence, and off the cliff.”

“That sounds pretty terrible,” she said.

“That’s not even the scary part,” he said with a wry chuckle. “We never reach the bottom. But I don’t wake up, I just keep falling and falling. And that, too, is pretty much how it is when I’m awake.”

“I get that. I know I’m nowhere near getting the worst of it.”

“Well, kiddo, that was the idea. You’re one of our success stories, so far.”

“Not all of the outposts are faring as well,” she asked.

“You could say that,” he said, and then hesitated.

“I did say that. So tell me.”

“Well, I’m sure our guy in Idaho has some complaints, if there’s anything left of him by now. And we haven’t heard a peep from anybody in California’s coastal range or southern Nevada. Of course, there have been some land movements out there, particularly along the southern end of the San Andreas fault. Satellite photos show the present north end of Baja’s Gulf of California as being just below San Diego. And San Francisco bay is larger by half. Not as much damage as I would have expected, actually. Of course, that may be part of that long slow fall in my dream. There is some steady subsidence in the basin that includes Los Angeles. But no huge tremors. So part of the infrastructure is holding, and people are starting to head out of areas like that in a more or less orderly fashion. Again, there’s not as much panic as I would have predicted. A little like Moses into the wilderness. But of course we haven’t told them everything we know.”

She shook her head. Part of her wanted more details, the rest had had enough. But he wasn’t through.

“The Russians sent up a rocket this morning to the space station. We offered to bring them all home, but all three elected to stay, even knowing this may be the last ship to go up. The Russians are seeing worse damage than we are, and we don’t have another landing pad that’s any more secure. So we shipped them all the food and supplies the rocket would hold. We had already transferred archival files of everything we could think of up to them. You’ve got codes and access links coming to you now, so you can call them for odd bits of info. They’ll be there as long as … well, as long as they last.”

Moira was silent for a while, trying not to betray another surge of sorrow and grief she felt for these brave men and women. Finally, Rudy added, “I know how you feel. But the truth is, we’re all in the same boat. They may be the farthest away, but right now they’re safer than we are. Listen, kid, I gotta go. There’s a bunch more info coming to you tonight on the secure channel. Get on there and get it downloaded. We don’t know how long these links will hold. Better to plan for the worst.”

“Expect the unexpected,” she said, smiling. “That’s become my motto. Thanks, amigo. Hope to hear from you again soon.”

“I’ll do my best. Hang tight.” The silence after he disconnected was deeper than any she’d felt so far.. Whatever happened, it was going to be a long, cold winter.

Meanwhile, given the pitfalls of dwelling on the future, staying in the present tense seemed a more useful if not more pleasant option. As she applied herself again to clearing the chaos in the warehouse, at times the work felt almost like a meditation. This box goes here, that one there, this barrel of axle grease to the toolroom, that pallet of baking soda to maintenance, and so on in a quiet, steady rhythm.

A different strategy was needed for the mystery packages, more of which were finding their way, piece by piece, onto the shelves in the conference room. Each contained a surprise, and not all were easily identifiable. A cataloging system and copious notes had to be created as she worked out what each item might be, and what it might be for.

The multiple thin tablets and their keyboards, most of them vacuum sealed, were easy. Less obvious, for instance, was the long, tubular package of fine metal screening that appeared to be associated with a box of tightly packaged chemicals and another of instruction manuals. By examining the supplies as a group, she soon deduced their function – it was an easily assembled apparatus for making paper from local natural sources of fiber. Another set of boxes contained sets of laboratory equipment for a wide variety of uses related to processing available materials into useable products that might no longer be available from the outside. God bless them profusely for those items alone – tools she’d never have thought of until it was too late. Those went straight to the labrynthian storage vaults.

Other parcels she opened just in time, as they contained more live samples of plants that either were not native to this part of the world – tiny saplings that would grow coffee, tea and a variety of citrus fruits – or plants that were difficult or impossible to propagate from seed. She doubted she would be able to keep the pair of cacao trees alive without severe pruning, for they would undoubtedly grow too tall for the greenhouse. But she thought the vanilla orchids might be happy in the warmest part of the warm room. Several other live specimens were medicinal in nature and might save lives if pharmaceuticals were no longer available. Most precious of these, she thought, were the delicate Asian sweet gums, the Chinese herbs, and the tiny seeds of opium poppies. They had delivered the nearest things to a living pharmacy as one could imagine.

These precious green gifts presented a challenge, though, for they filled the greenhouse past its normal capacity. Fear of more destructive tremors kept her from adding more shelves, so she was forced to transfer some of the plantings, particularly the tree saplings, into tubs that could be rolled on casters to the glassed-in, light-filled lobby of the Center. All would be safe so long as the generator under the mill dam held and kept the heat pumps running. If that went, life would be far less comfortable in a number of ways that didn’t bear thinking about. Best to focus on one potential calamity at a time, she thought. There were many other alternatives that might well end in unthinkable consequences.

As the days grew closer to when the passing “rogue planet” reached its nearest point to the earth, time seemed to slow until she could only work in small segments punctuated either by the ring of the satellite phone or a sudden shudder as another tremor struck. And she noted more than once that she had just stopped in the middle of a task to be silent and listen. The sense of impending doom became more and more overwhelming. And every day the news worsened.

An outpost in the southern Appalachians suddenly went silent, and then one in Nevada and another in the Dakotas. From the still active outposts in the California Sierras and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, she learned that sea levels, which had already reached epic heights from the continuing effects of climate change, were not the only danger to the coasts. Far worse had become the tidal changes caused by the warring effects of the earth’s own moon and the approaching massive space rock, which threw the normal rhythm of the tides into an unpredictable arrhythmia that was making any travel by sea treacherous and unwise. Out in the travel lanes were hundreds, perhaps thousands of freighters and tankers stranded because they could not safely approach the coasts. Coastal residents to the east had mostly been evacuated inland, while populations along the northern Pacific coast were being urged to head north toward Canada or east toward Colorado, but not, definitely not northeast. Public  media continued their assurances that the worst would soon be over. That was one of the possible outcomes, Rudy said. Most of the others were too horrific to consider, and hardly the kind of news to mention to an already terrified populace.

On the private satellite network they shared, more reporting stations continued to go silent, at first intermittently and then just gone. Rudy, speaking from his mountain stronghold in the Poconos, cautioned her with every call that it could be his last. And then one day it was, with less than six hours remaining before the dark planet was to reach its closest pass. She was sure of the time, because they were talking when the interruption occurred. He was delivering more bad news.

“We’re moving everyone we can out of the immediate area of the caldera and sending them north into Canada,” he said, referring again to the ominous signs that the lava dome under southeastern Wyoming might be awakening. “Yellowstone is closed and everyone evacuated, as are all the wilderness areas nearby. Canada is cooperating by expanding their border crossings at Vancouver, Glacier-Waterton and on east to the Badlands.

“It’s frustrating, because for all our efforts, there is still so damned little we can do. If we can get past the next 24 hours with little or no catastrophic events, I’ll be able to breathe again,” he said, with a laugh that had no mirth in it. “Hell, I might even be able to give up my antacids.” She was beginning to offer sympathies for his worries that far outreached hers, when he interrupted, his voice strained.

“Ah, shit. There it goes. I gotta go, kid. You be…” And he was gone. Just like that. And so was the network. A few electronic mutters, then nothing. She stood for a long moment, looking at the phone, stunned. She glanced up at the calendar. It was Dec. 21, just hours before the solstice.

All of a sudden, as though she’d received a strong elbow to the ribs, she began to move, first to the warehouse entrance, where she donned her stout farm coat and boots, and then out the door and down the hill at a run, her dog at her heels. How long would it take the effects of what had to be the worst – the disastrous explosion of the caldera – to reach this sheltered hollow? A few precious hours at most. The animals must have food and water available. The greenhouse and now the windows in the lobby must be reinforced. And she must get herself and her dog to the safest place she could find.

At the barn, she threw open all the stall doors, threw down whole bales of hay and filled all the containers she could find with water. She threw grain around wildly, hoping by doing so that no one would overeat but everyone could find something. She released the chickens and the pigs. And then she was heading back up the hill calling over her shoulder, “Good luck, everybody. I’ll see you when I can.”. As she ran, she began to hear an odd creaking and groaning in deep bass tones, and the ground began an eerie rhythmic shudder, as if it were crawling. She reached the top and threw herself in the warehouse door. She hadn’t imagined the crawling sensation. Everything that wasn’t firmly anchored was moving as if alive.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply until she caught her breath. No point in waiting for things to return to normal. Normal was gone, as was the world she knew. Time to prepare for the world to come. She turned toward the lobby’s tall windows and strode forward into her uncertain future, her dog beside her, a roll of duct tape in each hand.

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“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Three: It Begins

Daybreak on the Sunday following Thanksgiving:

Moira gasped, rising out of a dream in which someone was calling her name. In the dream, she had fallen out of the old rowboat in the pond below the mill and was trying to get hold of the boat and keep her head out of the water. But the wind kept whipping up waves that rocked her and the boat from side to side, faster and faster . . .

She snapped awake to the sound of glass shattering. Her first thought was a wind storm was underway and a limb had hit the greenhouse. But when she tried to get out of bed, something threw her back. And then did it again. My God, she thought as she came fully awake. It’s an earthquake. And a big one.

She grabbed at the bedside clock as it flew from its perch above her head and then had to dodge a rain of books as they tumbled from the same rack of shelves over the bed. She lurched forward again and landed on all fours by the bed, still cringing as objects fell around her. She yelped as she felt something warm crawling up beside her, then realized it was the dog, who was shaking almost as hard as the floor beneath her. She grabbed the dog and dropped beside it, huddling against the bed. Then all was silent. From somewhere she heard a whimper, which stopped as she realized it was issuing from her own throat. The floor gave another shudder and she braced herself. Then all was still again. She heard a low moan, not hers, and reached to embrace her new companion who was still trembling uncontrollably.

“Sshh, sshh, it’s OK, it’s OK,” she said, though they both recognized the lie. She held the dog until its trembling grew less. “It’s all right,” she said again, taking the dog’s face in her hands and looking her in the eyes. “I’m scared, too. But we’re in this together, OK?” She took a deep breath and felt the dog do the same.

She stood shakily and looked around at the chaos that was her apartment. She still clutched the clock. The time, 7:21 a.m. Sunday. First day of the week, but perhaps last day of the world, she thought. She judged the tremor had lasted less than a minute, although it had seemed longer. Her living space was transformed — dishes and groceries spewing out of cabinets, a desk lamp hanging by its cord, books and papers everywhere.

Walls and ceilings, however, had no cracks. This part of the structure at least was intact, which made her smile. She had once compared this hugely overbuilt headquarters to an elaborate bomb shelter. She was regretting her criticisms now.

The Center was a monolith of cast concrete and steel that had been built to survive anything. So said Joseph Beverly, the founding director who had preceded her in her job and who had written the specifications for construction of the massive facility early in his 21-year tenure. The specs had called for a welcome area, introductory exhibits for visitors, space for administration offices, and storage areas. But Uncle Joe had seen and seized an opportunity to make it vastly more than that. Her predecessor had been fiercely passionate about all things Ozarkian. But he was a biologist first, and his overriding passion had been for protection of the unique plant communities and seed varieties indigenous to the area, especially those that had made up the traditional food crops of the pioneers. His mission, according to the Park Service people who remembered him, had been to design and build a front door into the past, to add both nobility and authenticity to the living history museum. He had done that.

But while doing it, he had quietly and without apology built as well a botanical archival facility of the first order. Beneath the Center was a vast, insulated, climate-controlled chain of vaults intended to store heirloom seed samples and relevant paraphernalia, with a hothouse above for propagation and preservation of living specimens. He had overbuilt by a factor that approached logarithmic, reasoning that the way government contractors overspent on materials and labor, no one would notice. In fact, no one had until it was done.

Her vision of the museum’s mission and purpose had not always matched Uncle Joe’s, but at this moment Moira felt so grateful to him that she wanted to cry. He’d meant the building to withstand everything, and it was time for her to go out and see if it actually had.

Her hand flew to the wall to steady herself as the floor shuddered again, and she heard another tinkling sound as another pane of glass shattered. She exclaimed aloud again when she realized that the sound was coming from the greenhouse. She rummaged through the rubble, found a pair of sneakers, and pulled them on. Then she motioned the dog up onto the bed and told her to stay. Moira edged carefully to the interior door, which opened easily, ran down the hall to the greenhouse complex, and dashed across the entryway. Or tried to. A jumble of long-handled gardening tools left propped against the wall were now scattered across the floor and down into the stairwell. She stumbled her way across, cursing the mess. It could wait. Of greater concern were the priceless heirloom plants of all description living next door.

She tugged open the door to the cool room and found it far cooler than it should have been. A gust of bitter winter wind struck her full in the face and she cried aloud as she threw the light switch. One whole section of glass in the long vent windows had disintegrated into thousands of cubical shards and its remains were sagging out of its frame. Like icy gems, the fragments of safety glass glittered in the beds of wintering greens. Worse, the temperature had already dropped to at least twenty degrees below greenhouse normal and was still plummeting as the wind whistled through the broad opening. She surveyed the other sections installed in hinged frames so the greenhouse could be vented in warm weather. There were several ominous-looking cracks and one small section where the pane was missing altogether. A makeshift patch or two might hold for a little while, she thought, but more aftershocks would certainly loosen more panes. Fortunately not all of the panes were regular greenhouse glass. Most of those had been replaced last fall with durable polycarbonate panels. The awning windows had been left as they were, since the safety glass had already survived several hailstorms. No one had given a thought to earthquakes.

All the plastic panels were still intact. And fortunately, she had more. It would take no time at all to retrieve some new sections, cut a patch for the heat-leaking hole and then reinforce the remaining glazed areas with more. Even more fortunate, the work could be done from inside the greenhouse, where she was less likely to freeze her rapidly chilling behind. She turned on her heel, leapt over the obstacles, and jogged back in the direction she had come.

The Poly was in the warehouse, and she’d seen a can of putty in the toolroom. The closest path was through the public area, but entering it, she shuddered. None of the glass-fronted oak cases had actually fallen, although one pair was leaning drunkenly against the north wall. Dislodged ceiling tiles littered the floor like giant snowflakes. Scattered among them were books, stuffed toys and bits of broken pottery from the gift shop. Lots to be done here, but first there was a larger disaster to avert.

She picked her way through the area and attempted to shove the warehouse door aside. She met immediate resistance when it hit something just before the halfway point and swung back toward her. She looked around it to see the obstruction. When she saw, she let the door swing closed, found a chair and set it upright, and sat down, suddenly and completely stopped.

She had expected some chaos but not the mountain of cartons and cans that nearly filled the warehouse. All of the work of her inventorying and filing, gone to nothing. Worse, there was no path through the debris, nor would there be until she cleared one — or waited for a crew to arrive. The polycarbonate panels, stored against a far wall of the toolroom, would not save the greenhouse contents. Not this morning. Finding anything in that mess would be the work of several days. The plants needed her now.

After a moment of thought she stood and headed back at a run, retracing her steps until she reached her living quarters. Once there, she yanked open the door to the utility closet. There above her head on a shelf was another solution, just waiting for her to think of it. As the dog danced around her, delighted at her return, she reached out on tiptoe and tugged down a large scrap of heavy-duty plastic tarp left over from another project, folded and tucked into a corner. A kitchen drawer yielded a roll of duct tape, scissors and a utility knife. The wonders of modern technology, she thought, sometimes just boil down to whatever works.

“Stay,” she told the dog again, and it grudgingly sat as she ran again in the direction of the greenhouse.

Her first priority was to prevent further harm. She hurriedly strung the tarp to cover not just the largest hole but the entire section showing cracks, lopped off the excess and slapped enough duct tape around and across to hold it in place. In a storage cabinet, she found several folded sheets of polyester row cover already cut to the size of the beds. Laying the remains of the tarp aside she unfolded the sheets of spun polyester and spread them out like blankets over the chilled greens. The sheets were used routinely to cover the greenhouse overflow in spring, when bedding plants were moved outdoors to harden off before planting in the farmstead gardens. They would shelter these plants, at least holding the greenery above the freezing point.

When every section was blanketed, the greenhouse resembled the snow-covered gardens outside. Each bed of tender veggies and softwood cuttings was nestled in a cocoon of white, while the taller plants resembled ghostly sentinels in their individual wrappings. The warm room next door was luckier. There was little damage, but she draped her tropical pals with more of the row cover just in case. She shifted from overdrive to a more thoughtful pace, feeling her energy flag as the adrenaline in her system burned out. But who knew what lay ahead? Better to take the prudent way. And there was still a lot of park to examine for damage. She’d feel better knowing that this small corner was, for a time at least, secure. After breakfast she’d make repairs that would hold for more than the moment.

Now it was time to refuel. Amazingly, the kettle was still on the stove, and the burner would still heat. With tea water coming to a boil, she grabbed a handful of grapes, found an unbroken bowl and a box of cereal, and made a quick breakfast. The sugar had spilled but the milk bottle was intact. She added a chunked banana and shoveled in the comfort food, standing with her back to the littered counter. The view out the window was deceptively unchanged. Was the trouble over, or just beginning, she wondered.

Despite her grim conversation with Rudy earlier in the weekend, she hadn’t really expected a tremor of this size, especially here, far from the nearest major fault line, or this soon. She wondered what was happening elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, did she really want to know? She looked toward the television, noted its odd angle perched in the corner on its shelf and reached up to straighten it, but didn’t turn it on. Better to deal with the here and now first, and see to the things she might actually do something about.

In hindsight, she should have been better prepared for this. Of the entire compound, the greenhouse was probably the most vulnerable structure. Hard to prepare, though, for what you can’t really imagine. The mistake had only cost her work and time, so far. It could have been worse. But she was shaken. What else had she failed to anticipate?

For the past two days, news broadcasts had been filled with news, rumors, theories and conjectures about the changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Then had come more stories, these more hush-hush, about alleged movement of the polar ice cap. Other odd occurrences, such as the sudden appearance of hot volcanic mud bubbling up in a field in Russia, and reports of faulty altimeter readings on airplanes attempting to land at airports as widely spread as Omaha, Wichita, Dallas and Oklahoma City, made her begin adding up the score, as Rudy Diaz had done. Every prominent scientist claimed to be the most reliable authority on what was happening, but the truth was, how could anybody know for sure.

Sudden planetary changes were certainly a part of earth’s history; the proof was in the scars and craters scattered across the planet, some of them hundreds of millions of years old. A theory touted in years past blamed some kind of polar shift for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Or a huge asteroid striking in the Yucatan. Either could be so. Whatever it was, it didn’t get ‘em all, though, she thought, managing a wry grin. Some of them lived to be the ancestors of snakes and turtles, probably chickens. And songbirds. So that disaster seemed to have turned out all right, though she doubted the dinosaurs would have shared her assessment.

She pitied the “authorities” whose job it was to keep order and avoid the mayhem people could create if there was widespread panic. It didn’t help that some scientists postured and some in the media still couldn’t resist their wild-eyed, breathless, edge-of-doom prognostications.

Of course, some people were onto the ruse and knew the scientists and government officials weren’t telling the whole truth. They wanted the straight story, but the authorities continued discounting all rumors, albeit with worried faces they couldn’t quite conceal. The situation was being monitored and people should remain calm, they repeated. What else could they say?

It had become increasingly clear to her, and probably would have even without Rudy’s warnings, that some kind of calamity on a planet-wide scale was not only possible but was now likely. On this particular part of the planet, Moira thought wryly, it’s just become damn near certain. But given that, what does one do? She rinsed her bowl and finished off her tea as if it were any normal workday and returned to her repair and reclamation efforts.

An hour later she wedged the last remnant of heavy plastic into place around the broken sections of window, closed the window frames firmly against the plastic and taped around its edges with duct tape. The remaining panels of unbroken or cracked but intact glass she taped with a liberal crisscrossing web of tape, using nearly the entire roll. “The hell with conservation,” she muttered savagely. “I’ve got a whole case of the stuff out there in the warehouse – somewhere.”

But it was much too soon to be thinking about the confusion in the warehouse. With this first emergency over, she’d best get down the hill quickly and see how the animals and the museum’s other structures had fared.

“Not well, but not as bad as could be” was the answer, she realized even before she arrived. She could hear the cacophony of animal and poultry noises echoing up the narrow valley long before the rooftops of the farmstead came into view. She paused only long enough to give the mill a cursory examination to determine if everything was still in its place. It was, except for a display of flour at the mill store that had come tumbling off its wooden shelf and struck a glass display case full of gift items. The case, gifts, and several small jars of honey lay in a flour-covered mound of shards and syrup. A mess, but nothing that couldn’t wait, she decided. Luckily, before leaving for the holiday, the miller had shut down the mill wheel and shifted the chute to one side, allowing the spring to cascade unimpeded in a great waterfall to the pool below. She called the dog away from its explorations and continued on.

Unlike the mill’s water-powered tools from pioneer days, the facility’s electrical plant, located under the spillway at the lower end of the millpond, provided the bulk of power today. The flow of water never stopped. Electrical power to the Center had not been interrupted by the tremor; proof of its wellbeing was in the lights still burning in her apartment. She gave the dam and spillway a cursory glance anyway but saw no damage. The spillway was a reinforced concrete bulwark below which the generator was anchored firmly in bedrock and reinforced with more concrete and steel.

She hurried on toward the shrill chorus of livestock proclaiming their fright and discomfort at the tops of their lungs. The chickens were fine, merely frightened and confused by the shakeup. Their house was standing but had been knocked slightly off its props at one corner, and would need shoring up. The rocks on which the bottom logs rested had shifted, she saw, and the doorframe sagged. She hastily measured out feed and filled their water urns from a well-concealed insulated hydrant. Thank God that pipe hadn’t broken. There were no eggs to be had.

She stepped outside where the pigs shrilled excitedly.

The young shoats were panicked and ran to hide as she stepped into the pen. But they peeked out as they heard her measuring out their ration of cracked corn and wheat middlings into a bucket, and overcame their fears as the grain cascaded into the trough. They oinked and muttered their discomfort all the way through breakfast in a non-stop porcine chorus. But then another aftershock shuddered through the farmstead, causing them to scream in almost human voices as they ran again to hide behind their houses. They peered out at her as she called to them in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help it.”

She sighed and headed for the main barn, where the cattle bawled and the horses were mysteriously silent.

Entering the cattle’s normally cozy home and looking for anything askew, she saw something else that chilled her, although she wasn’t sure the cattle understood its import. The side-to-side shaking that had characterized both the first quake and its aftershocks had pulled two of the loft supports away from their moorings, leaving the section of ceiling above the stalls unsupported. Seeing the tons of hay looming atop the loft floor, she wasn’t surprised they were sounding alarmed, but how did they know? No matter. This qualified as emergency number two and would need to be seen to very soon. She would try to get somebody from the maintenance crew on the phone and get them up here as soon as the roads were clear.

In the meantime, Moira began making soothing nonsense noises and uttering familiar words, speaking calmly and reassuringly to the beasts. She borrowed a heavy hammer and some spikes from the tool crib, set up a tall stepladder and managed to get both posts wedged back into a workable angle and nailed in place. To do more would require house jacks, and she wasn’t actually sure the facility owned any.

Moreover, a further inspection showed that all the loft supports had drifted slightly off-center. She went back to the tool crib behind the granary and got a heavy sledgehammer and more spikes, applying them both liberally until all the posts were more or less centered and secured to the beams above them. Her arms would take some days to recover from wielding the heavy hammer. She had no idea if this would keep things secure if more quakes occurred. But it was better than doing nothing. The barn’s builders had evidently given little thought to fastening the uprights to the beams, reasoning that the weight of the barn would hold everything in place. They also figured that the barn and the earth under it would stay where it was put, she thought wryly.

She scrambled up into the loft to put down more hay and went back to the granary for extra portions of sweet feed, murmuring more quiet words of reassurance as she let the calves remain with their mothers. Usually they were desperate to get in, and their mothers were in desperate need of being milked. Last night’s decision had avoided another small crisis and saved some time as well. She filled their water trough from the barn’s insulated tank, which was wide and deep, and full enough to have stayed in place.

It was time to check on the silent horses. She rolled aside the tall door swinging from its metal track and cried out. Where the south wall of the barn had been, there was an empty space, a cold, biting wind and thin sunshine. A section of the wall had fallen, and the horses were gone.

On closer examination, she determined that the wall might have had some help in falling. The massive Percherons had evidently panicked when the tremor started and had kicked their way free, going straight out the back side of their stalls, knocking loose in the process another section of wall that they shared with the yearlings’ stall. The young horses had also fled, presumably following the massive sable-colored mares. The only horses left inside the barn were the two pregnant Morgan mares who were huddled in the corner of their stall, wild-eyed and panting with fear. She brought them oats and fresh water, approaching them gingerly and staying out of the way of their nervous hooves. After securing their stall door, she threaded her way through the ruins of the barn’s south wall to the adjoining pasture and began calling. Suddenly the dog gave a joyful bark and bolted. Soon, here she came, dancing and weaving, one of the yearlings running before her. Deftly, she guided it into the corral and glanced up at Moira, awaiting instructions.

“Go get ’em,” Moira said, and the dog did.

Nearly an hour passed before she brought three more of the Morgans and one of the Percherons back to the corral. No point in trying to persuade them to return to their quarters when they couldn’t be contained there. Luckily, the corral was in the shelter of the barn and had its own open, roofed “loafing shed” normally used to shelter young animals from the summer sun. It was barely tall enough for the Percherons, but it would shelter the skittish equines from the cold and keep them safe, she hoped. She walked ahead of the horses into the enclosure, using for her lure a coffee can half full of sweet feed. She shook the can, and they knew the sound. With any luck, the remaining mare would return by evening.

Moira had done all she could for them for now. She made cursory examination of the village storefronts along the newly constructed Main Street and noted what needed repair before she began her weary climb back up the hill. Halfway there, another aftershock rumbled, a strong one, setting the frozen trees in motion, limbs moving in a macabre dance as she crouched and tried to keep her balance. The silence that followed was eerie, broken by the distant cry of an animal in fear or pain. The little canine was wild-eyed and panting but never left her side.

Back at the Center, the power was still on, and lights were glowing merrily. She would need the lights when she started to work in the windowless warehouse, sorting out the mess. But before that, she had to answer the phone.

Someone was calling! She was cheered considerably at the prospect of some contact with another human. But where was the phone? She followed the electronic chirping to its source beneath a jumble of books that included, ironically, the telephone directory. Eagerly she pressed the button to connect. Steven’s rumbling baritone was music to her ears.

“Hey, gal. I thought I was about to have to come out there and see about you.” He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Sure is good to hear your voice. How’s it goin’? Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on here,” Steven’s voice sounded shaken, too.

“Likewise. And pretty well, all things considered. It’s a mess, of course. You should see the warehouse. How is it over your way?”

“Not good, but not near as bad as over east. Epicenter’s on the New Madrid fault, from what we hear. No reports coming out of there, but the video coming in from fly-overs looks pretty scary. Memphis took a bad hit, and St. Louis too. All that brick, you know.”

“My God.” Then, before she could think, before she could stop herself, she blurted, “Listen, if this gets worse, I mean, a lot worse, you know, you can come here. Just load up your folks and bring ‘em.”

“Hey, Coach, this will all blow over. I mean, we may not make it to work tomorrow if things don’t settle down right away. But they will eventually. And if you get lonesome out there you just come on into town, or we’ll come and bring you. This ain’t a picnic, but we’ll weather it. We live in the Ozarks, remember? Now, tell me the truth. You need some help out there? Do I need to come on out and help clean up the damage? I will if you need me to. I don’t mind, shake up or no shake up.”

“Absolutely not. There’s no damage here that I can’t handle. There’s just a mess. Right now, your family needs you much more than me. I’m just telling you, Steven. You are all welcome here if , well, you know.”

“You know things I don’t know.” his voice was very quiet now, even grave. It was not a question.

“I don’t know anything for sure, Steven. But I’ve heard some things. And if you need a place … Just don’t forget, OK?”

He agreed, and went on updating her on news from the notoriously unstable New Madrid Fault zone. Though long dormant, it had once been the site of the most severe earthquakes in American history during the period between 1811 and 1813. It was not just one crack miles deep in the earth, but rather a vast network of fractures stretching far and wide from its central point beneath the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Missouri’s “bootheel.” Studies had located cracks beneath the two river basins running several miles in each direction from where they met at Cairo, Ill. The center of the web of fractures ran directly below the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO to a few miles below Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro by locals), where the main fault left the river and faded into a network of smaller cracks. Those ran generally southwest across the Missouri Bootheel, bisecting its namesake, New Madrid ( MAD-rid) County. Both Memphis and St. Louis were located square in the path of greatest danger.
Steven continued talking, filling her in on news from the world outside.

“Electric power went down for a while, right after the first quake. We figured it was probably the power plant over at Sikeston going off-line. They’re pretty close to the fault. But it just came back on a few minutes ago. Local radio news said we’re getting a temporary feed from the coal-fired plant over at Springfield. And Springfield TV said just a few minutes ago that electrical supply was way below normal across the whole grid, and we should be careful to use no more power than absolutely necessary. So we’re looking to see what we can cut back on, and talking to our neighbors. I hear the mayor’s called a town meeting for tonight. I tell you what, though. The city sure is glad it built its new water tank up on a hill and on the ground, instead of up on stilts in the middle of town.”

She mumbled “That’s good.”

“One reason I called was to remind you about the shortwave radio down at the smithy. It’s in my locker. It runs on batteries or regular household current. If you lose power, or if the grid shuts down and local stations can’t broadcast, at least you’ll be able to get some news from the outside.

“What about network news, or stuff on line?”

“Hardly any of that’s working just now. Technical difficulties, they’re saying, but …” His voice trailed off and when he spoke again his tone sounded less certain. “Look, I get what I think you’re trying to tell me. But in all probability, we’re all gonna be okay. No doubt we’re due for some major inconveniences until things get put back together. But hell, that’s nothing we can’t handle. I could still come over, if you need me to help.”

She appreciated his concern for her welfare and his thoughtfulness in calling. She suspected, however, that being cooped up in a small house with three rowdy youngsters for the past few days accounted as much for his devotion to duty as anything else, so she didn’t waver. She was glad she hadn’t pressed harder on the issue of offering his family shelter. He had heard but hadn’t really understood. It didn’t matter. If the worst came, he would remember. She put a reassuring note in her voice.

“You all just stay put. Everything’s fine here. Well, almost. I had to do some repair on the greenhouse, and the horses kind of remodeled the barn a little bit. But there’s nothing that won’t wait. You stay with your family. We may not be out of the woods yet. They still haven’t figured out what’s happening up north yet. And by the time they do, who knows where we’ll be?” She was trying for a note of cheer, but Stephen’s answer sobered her. He had been listening after all.

“The fact is, Moira, I expect we don’t really know where any of us will be by the end of next week, or even if we’ll all be alive. I mean, I’m hoping for the best. I hope I’ll show up for work in a few days just like usual, and all this bad stuff they’re saying might happen will turn out to just be talk. Or it will happen to other people in other places. Or not at all. But there’s nothing sure. I just want you to know that…well, I know this sounds weird, but … if things get really crazy and I live through it, I’ll be there, sooner or later. You follow me? I’ll get out there some way, or send somebody. We won’t forget about you and just leave you out there by your lonesome. I want you to remember that, in case things get hairy. One way or another, I’ll get there, or I’ll send someone.”

Moira knew he meant to reassure her, but his words sent a chill up her back. She was not the only one who faced an uncertain future – it could mean everyone, everywhere on earth. But how many were having to face it alone? She needed to get a grip. If she let any fear show in her voice, he would come now. He had that hero instinct. And there were unspoken bonds between them.

But this was her post, not his. Her responsibilities were to this place, and his were to his family. She appreciated his attempt to reassure her, and she said so. Then she rang off quickly, leaving what was unspoken to take care of itself.

“I’m good, Steven. I really am,” she said. And as she set the receiver down she added, “Take care of your own, brother man.”

Steven’s voice in the phone and his concern for her had taken the edge off her panic. In the days that followed, Moira would have his words to remember, but little else. Meanwhile, it was time, perhaps well past time, to confront the rest of the so-called doomsday stash.

In a corner of the administrative wing that had doors opening on both a conference room and the warehouse, Moira kept a small office that was unlike the one in which she greeted the public. This one was strictly for her own work. Tall shelves, files, tables for drawing and dabbling – her playroom, some called it. It was here she’d had the help bring the mysterious bags and boxes that had begun popping up in her incoming shipments, marked urgent and personal, and not listed anywhere on her invoices.

Most of them were where she had left them, although some had spilled out from under her desk. She pulled up one at random, rummaged in a drawer for a utility knife and sliced open the end of the box. A small seedling with oddly shaped leaves peered out. Instructions were enclosed.

“What the hell…” she muttered. The next box held a stack of wireless broadband cards, sealed in impervious containers. The next, a couple dozen of the smallest, most highly advanced tablet/laptop computers she had ever seen, all of them sealed like the cards. Another held a stash of high tech watches with screens.

“What the hell…” she said again. She was to repeat herself many times before the afternoon was through. And there were still many packages to go, buried somewhere in the pile. Finally a nudge reminded her she needed a break, and so did the dog.

A walk in the snowy woods and a cup of tea later, she felt less alone and more able to face what might lie ahead, at least one step at a time. Having the dog there helped. It needed a name, though.

“What do you suppose might be a good name for a noble beast like yourself?” she inquired.

“Arf,” the dog replied.

“Not very imaginative,” she said.

The dog whined.

“All right. I’ll wait for an inspiration, Ok?”

At that point the dog whirled and took off after a squirrel, making her laugh for the first time in days. “I don’t care what your name is. I’m keeping you,” she called after.

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