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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Eighteen: Growing Pains

By the fifth year of the Change, the settled territories had established tentative boundaries and developed some idea of how both regional and national governments might work. Populations were still isolated from one another by distance and modes of transportation and when faced with limits and losses to their base of skills and resources, their neighbors were too few and too far away to be counted on. They were coping with the loss of continuity that comes from a long, shared history as they struggled to survive in the radically changed world they now faced.

As a result, their visions of community seldom matched perfectly with folks in other territories. Those who had established locally-chosen rules based on old world notions sometimes struggled to come to a mutual understanding with other groups who had different notions. While most clung to some semblance of democratic rule, many added creative variations that spoke to their particular circumstances and populations but were not easily translatable to people in other circumstances. The Hoppers maintained a peaceful understanding with the people of Falling Spring regarding recreational use of smokable hemp, for instance. But in territories who viewed their use of hemp as an evil drug, it was a different story. When interactions went badly, the Brothers came, freed them from arrest, relieved them of what they saw as a commercial product and just sent them home. It was hard work, but in most cases practical solutions were found that enabled groups to form agreements, either by making adjustments to the rules or by nudging some elements of a population to seek a home with those who were more likely to agree with them.

As the regions were established, those who called themselves The Religious and were called Lidges by others at first sought to lay claim to the entire western third of the island of Ozarkia – from the southern harbor at Theo to the farthest reaches of the uninhabited north. Unfortunately for them, others had already spoken for the parts of that region where pre-Change settlements survived or new ones had become established. Those others were willing to organize enough to form their own regional government but wanted nothing to do with the rigid theocracy adopted by their southern brethren. Among those who asked to be “included out” were a pair of enclaves that held inholdings both east and west of the once thriving but now struggling village of Ava. One was a women’s land trust, mostly lesbian. The other was a clan of avowed anarchists who wanted little association with outsiders, and, in fact, had vowed to reject any form of government that sought to rule them. The small trading post that had sprung up there at the Ava crossroads, composed mostly of a couple of extended families of B’hai, supported and made a connection with both communities, which were the largest source of the post’s livelihood. The resulting scattered community took a vow of kindness toward all who showed them respect, and called it good. They were willing to be helpful and get along, and wished neither to cause trouble nor to deal with the troubles of others, they said.

A dozen miles north, on a high ridge that overlooked the western ocean, more settlers gathered and formed a town from the survivors of the vanished western lands, coming to ground in the remains of the old village of Mansfield. The ragged settlement swiftly grew into a thriving, diverse community that called itself Hilltop. Its success was thought to lie in its location, where the remains of the old east-west highway crossed a north-south highway that once had run all the way from the new south coast far into the northern wilderness, where no one had come from and no one had yet gone – or if they had, they either never came back or weren’t talking about it. The town made its living primarily as a stop-off on the road to other lands, including the coastal settlements that had grown up adjacent to Amish farmland. Travel between those lands, however, required the building of new roads, because the Mansfield Fault had shifted during the cataclysm, leaving towering bluffs in place of the road west. Catering to travelers, Hilltop became a handy location for inns, hotels, and stores of various kinds.
The existence of settled lands at the end of the north road was rumored, but few had traveled very far in that direction. Civilized territory stopped at the abode of the metal miners and landfill scavengers, among them the blond men who passed through Falling Spring on their way between the territories selling their repurposed wares. As their work was hard and dangerous and involved mostly the repurposing of metal, they had taken to calling themselves the Ragtags, and mostly kept apart from others except when they joined the traders in their now twice yearly caravans.

Across the territories, such people as had stayed on or come back to their family holdings were assumed to have undisputed claim to them, while those places that remained abandoned for the entirety of years since the change could be claimed by others seeking land on which to settle.

Some of the logical changes in the overall culture of this new nation could have been predicted by anyone with any training in sociology, or so observed Steven in a journal he was keeping to track the newly forming history of the New World’s beginnings. The Society of Brothers, for instance, had gotten its start as part of a natural process kindled during that first long winter at Glen’s Cave. Glen himself, Steven noted, had come to these hills some years before the Change, seeking the life of a hermit, trying to escape the press of civilization. But the collapse of that civilization had driven him back out into the world, first to explore and then to look for what he could do to help those who survived. The formation of the Brothers had been one major result.

By way of the town meetings, the family dinner gatherings and a host of groups of like-minded folks who formed relationships in families and other alliances, the people of Mumbros learned to heal by talking through their sufferings and triumphs, until they found resolutions. Simply speaking, he said, they honored one another and came to peace. Instead of arguing over what to do in a new circumstance, they thought through the problems as they arose and dealt with them. Over time, and sooner than many would have predicted, a new vision of order, choice, responsibility, and accountability was brought into being at Falling Spring. The emerging vision was a surprise to many.

Somewhere in the fourth year, Steven asked Moira if she was happy at how the community was developing. “I suppose a good part of our emerging world view, as well as our ability to accept changes, was carved out by the hardships of the past. We realized that to survive we had to get along with one another. For a long time we thought we were just one tiny group among the few surviving remnants of humanity. Now that remnant has become a thriving, growing culture. We are now vigorously involved in the work of starting anew. I’m proud of how far we’ve come in such a short span of time.”

Actually, Steven observed, the thing that had finally tipped the balance and had brought the territories together to forge a council with jurisdiction over the whole nation was the problem of random groups and individuals laying exclusive claim to resources that were actually owned by none but vital to all. It was one thing for a territory to try laying claim to a large chunk of what they thought to be abandoned land for their potential future use, as the Lidges had attempted. It was quite another to simply hijack a resource vital to the nation and hold it for ransom.

It had started with coinage. Needing a common medium of currency the council had managed to settle on a currency of coinage based on the dollar. Since there was as yet no way yet to replicate paper currency, an agreement was reached to assign new value to the metal coinage they could garner, and so when bank vaults were breached, making coin more readily available, the territories once again had a common medium of exchange. The problem that developed was one of scalping – there were some few in isolated areas who had seized not just coins but other vital resources, then jacking up prices to the point of outright banditry. A shipment of salt was stolen. Several caves containing saltpeter were stripped of the substance, which was vital to the curing of meat. So agreements were enacted that limited holdings, establishing reasonable property rights, and defining those things that were to be considered as “community property, in the national interest.” Because Mumbrosans and the Burenites to the east were the most prosperous and therefore the most intent on fair dealings with their neighbors, Steven wrote, they were the ones who drove the need for a central authority. The Council stepped into that space and a national government, casual as it was, came into being. During that same period a separate eastern contingent of the Brothers was formed, based in Popular and given a mandate to enforce order and fair play in those areas and beyond.

Moira’s extended family constituted the largest and most influential group of scientists, and so, as promised at that first conference on education, Mumbros was where scientists and students of the sciences gathered for advanced studies. Soon, enough students had completed advanced degrees that in the autumn of the fourth year the University of The Plains established an Institute for Graduate Studies at Falling Spring.

To the surprise of some but not all, one group at the institute immediately put its focus on studying the apparently increasing mental capacities and psychic abilities of the sentient beings, not all of them humans. As they established parameters to monitor and record their findings, which echoed the suspicions and beliefs the first family had voiced more than a year earlier, the researchers verified observations that without any visible cause or pattern, individuals in all the sentient species were developing some unique and identifiable abilities.

Among humans, some had an uncanny ability to track animals, others could find their way through the wilderness without a map or compass, still others could seek out and find salvage, a few seemed to be able to heal minor physical injuries solely through touch. These new abilities were no respecters of gender or cultural roles and so even as more than a few of the men elected to become or remain homebodies, one of the women, then two, then five, had chosen and insisted upon a place among the Brothers and had been accepted after demonstrating their own suitable skills. Some abilities, on the other hand, had been identified as disabilities, when a few sad individuals found themselves trapped by emotional actions and reactions they were unable to control, and had to be cared for gently by the community at large. Results of those studies, as Steven noted, were kept confidential, although observations by the community as a whole became fireside tales, soon developing into a colorful mythology discussed widely, especially in evenings at the Inn.

For all their successes over the past five years in preserving knowledge and skills, many more ordinary talents were still in short supply, and people’s abilities and skills of all kinds became more highly valued. Crafters, especially carvers, sculptors, and fiber artists, began offering apprenticeships so those skills could be passed into younger hands. Even Lon Brixey began encouraging those interested in the brewing, winemaking and the distilling of spirits to sharpen and pass on their skills, encouraging more than one young fancier of chemistry to spend an apprenticeship at Grove Hill. His timing was excellent, because another small upriver settlement in a long valley suited for farming had been gifted with a variety of nursery starts including bundles of fruit tree scions that had been heeled in by Tish and some helpers as she unloaded her cart of rare and precious plant starts. After five years of establishing orchards and vineyards, that settlement was able to supply Falling Spring and other communities with such luxuries as cherries, plums and the first of the bamboo harvests. And, to Lon’s delight, they were just now coming into a sizable harvest of wine grapes. “Go! Do the work! Come back a vintner or a distiller!” He had shouted repeatedly at the students nursing an after-class pint of ale at the Inn. And some of them did.

Another cultural shift underway was the announcement by a few brave men that while they intended to fulfill their duties of maintaining and adding to the still fragile gene pool, they preferred as their domestic companions, as did Toby and Rickard, the company of other men. A few women expressed similar, if opposite, inclinations. No one balked at either notion, though there was some small but heated discussion in some quarters about the possible rifts in the fabric of culture if people started stepping outside their more “natural” roles. That assertion was laughed into silence by a community of people that was beginning to get a new sense of itself. That they were all still human, Moira, as their leader, never doubted. But they were beginning to be something more as well. Enlightened, perhaps. Open, certainly.

But government, even on the village level, was not as simple as some might think, Moira observed after a particularly painful discussion among the midwives that spring. For unknown reasons, one and then a second newborn had arrived suffering serious conditions that had begun inside the womb and that would make life difficult if not impossible to sustain. The conditions were dissimilar: one frail little girl was born with a malformed and barely functional heart; the other infant, a boy, arrived looking perfect, but with lungs that had never developed properly. His every breath was a gasp, and treatment options were simply non-existent for either child. Ellen and Moira had sat with Alice, holding her hands each time as she weighed her choices: to let them suffer their slow way to a pain-filled, frightening end, or to take their lives in her hands and end them herself. And there was a second question: Should they make those difficult decisions on their own, or let the parents decide. As it turned out, whether by fate or the kindness of the gods, neither of those awful decisions came to them. The girl, born to a couple from the bus people, was at her mother’s breast feebly trying to nurse when she gave a sudden shudder and just stopped. Her parents had been prepared for that possibility from the first, and took it in stride, grieving but understanding that their tiny child had been spared much unnecessary pain by that outcome.

The second child, born to free agents Rae Jean Compton and Arthur Slocum, was still gasping when Alice came into the birthing room just off the infirmary. Rae Jean had been ensconced there holding the infant, whom she’d named Amos, for most of the day once the birthing was ended. She was patting him, crooning to him, stimulating his arms and legs, hoping against hope that his breathing would improve. It would not, but she didn’t believe that just now. Alice stepped up beside the bed and put her hand on Rae Jean’s forehead.

“You have to get some rest for yourself, honey,” she said. “I can hold him for a little bit while you nap some.” She took up the infant, said “Hello, little Amos,” and wrapped him in a small blanket she’d heated on the stove in the next room. She sat down in a rocking chair next to the bed and began her vigil.

Rae Jean fell asleep almost at once, and Alice had almost dozed off as well when she began detecting a change in the raspy breathing coming from the small bundle. It was slowing. She looked across at Rae Jean who looked back, her eyes filling with tears. But when Alice offered to hand the infant back to his mother, she shook her head. “Don’t disturb him,” she said.

Slower and slower came the little gasps, until finally he seemed to take in a long, unhurried breath followed by a deep sigh, and the tiny newcomer fell into that deepest of sleeps and was gone. “Sweet dreams, little Amos,” Alice whispered. “Sweet dreams.”

Arthur was summoned from his post outside and the parents wept together, while Alice sought Moira in the greenhouse nearby.

“It’s over,” she said. When Moira gave her a questioning look, she shook her head. “He went on his own. I guess he just wanted to come in and look around a bit. He may be back sometime.”

“If love has its way,” Moira answered.

That night at the family’s supper, medical choices, midwifery and childbearing were high on the agenda of topics at table.

“Couldn’t we have done anything at all,” Steven asked, deep in sorrow at the news.

“If we had any kind of technological sophistication,” Ellen began, but Moira overrode her comment.

“But we don’t. And we won’t. And everything that could be done was done. And at some point we’re just going to have to resign ourselves to the fact that in earlier times it was the midwife’s job not only to catch the baby and see to the birth, arranging the tools, educating the parents, it was also her job to recognize when the fetus or the newborn just wasn’t viable. We’re back to that point. We don’t have a neonatal center. We won’t have one in our lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. All we have here are our skills and our training and our compassion. If reinforcements were coming, they would already be here. It’s on us. The hard stuff should always go to those who are able to deal with it. There’s no one to hand it off to. It’s. On. Us.” Dinner went on from there, but mostly in silence.

This year at Beltane everyone, even the staunchest Christians, joined in the raucous and rowdy celebration of survival, fruitfulness, and, for the first time, real hope for the future. Due partly to the continued separation of the sexes during the winter months for the first years of what had come to be called “new time,” and partly to the continuing evolution of consciousness, there came to be more and more unions of varying degrees of intimacy and variety. An overriding consciousness of the fragility of the gene pool grew into an acceptance of what came to be called pan-families, with women bearing children by more than one father, and men fathering children by several mothers. Same-sex unions were accepted, but refusal to bear or to father children was frowned upon unless there were health or gender identity issues involved. Households formed of small groups of individuals who felt affinities for one another and shared relationships of varying intimacy within them. Likewise, extended families tended to occupy one or adjoining households for extended periods. The only taboos enforced strongly were those against incest, battery, and the abuse of the helpless — anyone caught stepping over those lines was simply shunned and sent into the wilderness to fend for themselves, often with a tattoo applied to their foreheads that proclaimed them a danger to others. It was a lesson that needed little reinforcement after being demonstrated a couple of times.

As for the Brothers, there came a time when their shelter and headquarters turned into a retreat and training center. In this fifth year, the fields, cropland and commodities for export reached a sustainable level. With hunger no longer an ever present danger, the men who had been wintering in the north finally came home for good.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Thirteen: Troubles

Some weeks later, just as the main portion of the village was ending its work day, another lot of would-be settlers arrived, led by a tall, very slim, bearded man who introduced himself as Ephram Larch. He had a haughty demeanor as he scanned the parts of the village visible from just inside the gate, suggesting he was examining the accommodations and finding them wanting.

When asked the usual question about beliefs and world view, he snorted and said, “Truer Christians you’ll never find anywhere.” Behind him on a handsome blue roan horse was his younger self, by the look of him. He was Larch’s son, called Brynner. After him came a young couple, Leatrice and Huck Lewis, in a buckboard wagon loosely filled with supplies, some of them piled to make a bed for Eva Swan, an elderly woman who was Leatrice’s mother. She appeared to be quite ill. Someone had sent for Moira and when she came down the hill, Glen was waiting for her just out of hearing from the visitors.

“I don’t like this bunch, Moira. I saw this fellow up by old Terisita preaching to a little bit of a crowd, pitching hell and damnation and wrath of god stuff. I never invited him nor any of his crew. He must have got wind of us and followed our trail.”

“Well, we may be stuck with him at least for the short term, as it’s too late in the day to just send them out into the wild. We’ll have to put them up for a little bit. It won’t take us long to suss out what they’re made of.”

Glen nodded and started to walk away, then stopped. “We’d best have someone keep watch over them until we know what they’re up to. I can’t help but think that he, at least, has some of his own designs in mind for this place.”

“You know who we might put to the job?”

“How about young Ted? He’s beginning to get his strength back and is looking to be of help. You might have a word with him over supper.”

“Or sooner,” she replied. They parted and Moira drew nearer the conversation by the gate.

Rick had finished his assessment of their needs and was on his way back to the his little house, which also served as the village canteen and welcome shed, to find the village map and see what nooks and crannies might be available to hold the five newcomers. Moira meant to introduce herself, but stopped when she heard the hiss of Ephram’s hoarse whisper.

“I wonder where they got that little nancy-boy,” he spit. “Looks like they could offer a proper welcome, instead of sending out some pervert to paw over the weary travelers.”

She stepped forward. “I’ll be the one to do the welcoming, mister. Although I wonder that you’d be so soon willing to bite the hands that mean to make your dinner.”

Ephram flushed and yanked his hat from his head.

“Beg pardon, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to speak poorly. Where might your husband be, if you’ll permit me to ask?

“Ask away. But you’ll not find him. I’m not here in place of my husband. I’m here representing what’s left of the federal government. And I’d like you to state your business here.”

“You’ve got no man to be in charge? What kind of place is this?”

“It’s my place, mister, and unless you and your friends mean to sleep in the cold dew outside the fence tonight, I suggest you learn to watch your tongue. We’re not a community that excludes people for their differences, unless they make themselves intolerable.”

At that moment Rick reappeared and began to direct the visitors.

“I have a little cabin right at the end of Main Street that’s empty. It’s small, but it will serve temporarily. There’s not much for bedding, but I expect you’ll have some with you. It’s three rooms, so Mr. and Mrs. Lewis can have one, Mister Larch and his son will take the next, and your mother can have a room to herself. I’ll take you there now, then show you gentlemen to the stables. If your mother needs a nurse, we can see to that as well. I’ve already sent someone to tell the kitchen to rustle you up some dinner.” He ushered them away into the gathering dusk and Moira, shaking her head at the bizarre encounter, headed for the farmhouse to propose a new job for Ted. Glen was right to be concerned. She had no idea what the others were about by coming here, but Larch was going to be trouble. Of that she had no doubt.

The next night was meeting night and was attended by all, including the new arrivals. The village’s human population had now grown to 25 and if the newcomers stayed would hit 30. They were now officially full, since no other housing remained except for the summer kitchen behind the farmhouse, and with its vast brick oven and iron cookstove it would not easily be converted from its original purpose.

Now that most of the harvest was in, it was time to assess the community’s progress and shift most of the harvest crew to other tasks, most of them involving construction. Moira called on Eldon to make the first report.

“As y’ know, we’ve been shorthanded at every turn, so things have gone slower than they might have. However, since last week I’ve taken a crew and four wagons up to my old place, and we managed to bring back about half the lumber I had stored up there. We’ll need to start on the school soon. But given the way people keep coming in, we thought it best that the Inn be given first priority. With the foundation work already done and the walls up, we’ll be raising some partitions up on the second floor by end of the coming week to make some sleeping rooms. We can divide up the downstairs as soon as we can decide on what goes into an Inn.”

He asked for help with the design and both Rick and Toby raised a fluttering hand. Toby had a word to say on inns and what they should offer. “Something to drink besides water would be good for a start,” he said with an impish grin. At this a laugh and a cheer went up.

“If enough basic equipment could be salvaged from stores and from what other gathering expeditions might bring, a small restaurant or pub could be assembled so people could sleep and take their meals there,” Ellen commented.

More good news followed as Annie LeBeaux announced the completion of her laboratory. In her report she said she, Ellen, Alice Compton, and Haley Slocum were now working to develop an infirmary/pharmacy/dispensary within what had been the large public space at the visitors center so they could better see to the residents’ ongoing medical needs.

The next report on the harvest, by Toby, was not so encouraging.

“As you know, much of the planting was gotten in late, due to lack of hands to do the work. We’ve been fortunate, as most of you who came later brought some food stocks with you. Still, we won’t know where we stand until all the root crops are in. It’s going to be touch-and-go even at best. As it stands now, we’re just barely going have enough food to get us through the winter. The livestock situation is some better, for we’ve had two good cuttings of hay and are looking at one more, maybe, before frost. But if very many more folks show up, well…”

Just then, Helen spoke up. “One thing we could do, and we’ve already started it somewhat, is use the big kitchen and larder up here to make at least one of the days’ meals for everyone. That way we can better portion out the food and make sure everyone gets at least one good hot meal a day. There should also be at least some food and snacks kept at the Inn when it’s finished, hopefully before winter. We should probably put a food crew together to see the whole thing is organized and efficient, so things don’t go to waste.”

“That’s good,” said Moira. “Anyone who’s interested in helping with that, get with Helen after meeting.” Several nodded, and Eldon raised his hand.

“It sounds like to me, if we mean to be careful with the food and still have room for more incomers, I’d best be starting on a boarding house next, or a dorm, or bunk house. Something. If we could find the right salvage, I could put in a commercial kitchen there, and we could serve a noon meal for everyone down there, with a regular dining room.

Helen quickly whispered in Moira’s ear and she nodded

“If you can put together something sturdy enough to house it, you can take the whole kitchen from up here on the hill,” Moira said with a grin. “The village has far more use for it than I do, and it’d be more convenient for everyone, especially Helen, because she’d have more ready help.” Another round of nods followed.

“Any questions or other issues,” she asked.

Ephram Larch raised his hand. “Where is your church?” he demanded.

Moira hated his tone, but the question was a valid one.

“Well, Mr. Larch, since you’re new here, you probably don’t know much about the history of this place. It has only been a real village for less than a year. It’s actually part of what used to be a small national park and was intended to be a work of living history, demonstrating how folks lived in centuries past. The Park Service staff were building replicas of what facilities would exist in such an old pioneer town, and they just hadn’t gotten to the church yet. But if you’d like one, you’re certainly welcome to help build it. I’m sure we have several carpenters willing to help. And as it happens, we already have a minister.” She had Ray stand and introduced him to the newcomers. He stammered a welcome awkwardly, but was smiling when he sat down.

After suggesting it might be time for those assembled to gather themselves into smaller groups or crews according to their interests and talents, Moira called the meeting to a close and announced that the next week’s meeting would be devoted to the subject of education – everyone’s education – and how to develop best practices for living in the world as it had become. As usual, everyone’s thoughts would be welcomed. Then Ellen brought in trays of cookies pebbled with dried fruit and a spare quantity of nuts. She drew close as she handed Moira a pair of cookies.

“That went well, I thought. How about you?”

Moira grinned and shook her head. “I don’t know. The more I think things are settling into place, the weirder they seem to get. I think we’re going to have some trouble out of that Larch guy. He reminds me a little too much of some other guys we had to deal with once, in the long-ago.”

Ellen’s lips tightened. “Then deal with him we will,” she replied. “I don’t suppose you considered just shooting him when he came up to the gate?”

Moira snorted a laugh that sent cookie crumbs flying, and shook her head yes, then no. “Too many people about,” she choked out, and they both collapsed in gales of laughter. When someone asked what was funny, Ellen shook her head. “It’s a very long story,” she said, and Moira chimed in with a “Too long. Much too long.” For the rest of the evening, they avoided looking at one another because the meeting of their eyes set off more giggles. Evidently, they agreed the next morning, that once grim matter had finally been laid to rest.

It was as Moira feared. Ephraim Larch, despite all cautionary words directed at him, seemed determined to throw up obstacles to virtually every aspect of any plans for the village’s future. First he wanted to challenge the actual structure of community life itself. His general complaint centered around the notion that women were in charge of everything that mattered, and that just wasn’t right. They were making decisions they just weren’t suited to, he said, which Steven and Glen found hilarious. It especially rankled him that Moira was the community’s highest authority, and no argument, even the one that she represented the last vestige of government, would appease him. For her part, Moira had been done with trying to appease him about anything from the time she overheard his first sniping, whispered comments at the gate.

At the next town meeting to discuss, among other things, the principles by which their community might move into the future, Larch had an opposing opinion about everything and Moira soon tired of his interruptions. He first tried to divert the discussion into the need for armament, which was rebuffed. When discussions turned to the need for a school, he asserted that the school’s coursework must be guided by fundamentalist Christian principles. Then he insisted that all subjects other than homemaking should by rights be taught by men.

Moira had had enough. “Mister Larch, I believe you have misunderstood what we are here to do. We are making plans for a school, a school that will address life as we know it. It must serve to prepare those who will come after us to live in that world. It is far, far too soon to discuss what we plan to teach in it, and how, and by whom. We need to move on with the real concerns that face us today.”

He continued sputtering, and she said, finally, “How about this? Next week we will take up consideration of our various belief systems, our attachment to traditions, and the need to accommodate a diverse population. Will that do?”

“No, but I see I’m outranked here,” he snarled. “And as for true Christian traditions versus this ‘diversity’, it appears to me there’s only two traditions here, the true believers and your little rabble of heathens. I’m not sure you should even have a place at the next meeting.”

Moira smiled a broad and very cold smile at that. “I will be the judge of where my place is, thank you. And if I need your advice, I’ll ask for it. Now sit down and hush. We have work to do, and you’re being a hindrance.” Those gathered moved closer in and kept to the subjects before them, and soldiered on to the end of the meeting.

Then came an event the following week, just hours before the next scheduled meeting was to start, that turned the discussion about diversity and traditions and one’s place in things completely on its head. Rick and Toby had just finished serving up morning tea, coffee, and little breakfast buns to the early workers stopping by their small cantina when they heard the sound of singing, many voices singing. And then there was a shout, followed by a whoop of joy, again from many more voices than should be there. Evidently there were visitors at the gate. But when Rick reached the entrance, he could scarcely believe his eyes. This new congregation, if that’s what it was, was possibly the most ethnically and racially diverse group of humans he’d seen since moving years ago from California to the Ozarks. There were eleven of them in all, including, when they’d gotten the stories straight, three African-Americans, two Asians, one Pacific Islander, an Arab, a Sikh and three people of various Hispanic origins. And they were very happy to be there, apparently, because they were laughing, cheering, and all talking at once. By the time Toby had raced up the hill and fetched Moira, Rick had made at least a little headway in sorting out their story.

First of all, they were tourists, or had been, all of them from the St. Louis area. They had been riding on a tour bus just north of Memphis, returning home from the Gulf coast, where they’d spent the Thanksgiving weekend at the casinos in Biloxi. Then the first big earthquake hit. The driver had managed to stop without crashing the bus, but they had been very close to the fault zone. They had exited the bus safely, but had afterward suffered many injuries and some fatalities during their first few days while making their way through some violently disturbed terrain that was never still and was rapidly filling with water. They finally made their way to Poplar Bluff and found food and clean water and shelter of sorts, even though the city, which they insisted on calling Popular Buff was mostly in ruins. They were welcomed after a fashion and some had stayed there. But there were too many of them, and some proved too “diverse” for some, so that portion had decided to move on to what they called “Vanbyren.” Room had been made for them there, but grudgingly, for that town was already overcrowded and resource poor, and when spring arrived and the winds subsided, most had been ready to attempt another trek in hopes of finding either an abandoned town where they could settle together or someplace where they might be better received. They had experienced just too much hostility and suspicion, especially toward their darker colleagues, from those very homogenous, i.e. white settlements, to feel safe, they said. They’d heard rumors of some fabled settlement where it was said people of diverse origins might be welcome, and they had decided to try for it, using a highway map with the little park shown on it. That leg of their journey had taken some two weeks, they said.
Their arrival threw the entire ensuing meeting into chaos, leaving Ephram Larch so dumbfounded he had nothing to say. Instead of wrestling over beliefs, the discussion was on how many rooms at the Inn could be quickly made livable and how soon a dormitory could be finished. Then there was the question of how on earth they would all be fed. Fortunately, along with the newcomers had come a trio of pack animals carrying a supply of foodstuffs along with their meager belongings, so concerns over immediate hunger were assuaged. It was obvious, though, that this was only a very short term solution. The entire flock was bedded down in the cavernous lower floor of the building that was to be the Inn. Sandwiches and snacks were brought down from the kitchen at the Keep, and they got comfortable as Moira explained to them the conditions under which the community was organized. They were thrilled to comply.

As for the meeting, it was decided that further discussion about schooling as well as about religious traditions would just have to wait until the chaos had subsided.

The conflict, however, was far from over. Some who had arrived earlier, the Riggs sisters in particular, had already expressed discomfort over how few “traditional Christians” existed in the population. There were Christians of various sorts among the new arrivals, though, and Moira was encouraged, for Larch and the Riggs girls had now found some things in common with people who at least marginally shared their beliefs. Things should get better now, she thought.

But instead, they got worse, not through anyone’s fault, or from bad intentions, but because of the serious issues that had to be faced regarding their real-life circumstances. Even before the last of the fall harvest was in or the huge batch of newcomers arrived, it was evident there simply would not be enough food to keep everyone fed all winter without depleting the seed stocks to dangerous levels. Without sufficient seeds to replant and enough extra to save against crop failure, they could only delay the demise of the entire settlement. Again it was Glen who came up with a solution, over the first family’s dinner table in the center’s former conference room.

“I’ve enough stored away at my place, in a large, roomy cave below my house, to feed maybe twelve —fifteen people over the winter,” he said. “Plus, the hunting is really good up there. Why don’t I take that many of the single men and boys up there and hole up for the winter. It’s a good shelter, they’d have water and a way to keep warm, for there’s plenty of downed timber to cut. And the cave was used as a hideout during the Civil War, so it’s been worked on to make it a little more homey. We could spend the winter passing around our skills and learn things from one another. And without all us heavy eaters around, you should have plenty on hand to keep the ones who stay. I mean, we could just go up there and bring back the stores, but that wouldn’t solve the drain on other resources or the housing problem.”

It was not the best of solutions, but it might work, the family decided. In fact, town meetings aside, here at the dinner table at the Keep was where most essential policies guiding the community were often formed and refined. They had taken seriously Joey’s notion of calling the massive structure the Keep because they kept not just the seeds there but priceless tools, knowledge, and records – the irreplaceable essentials, in those deep, climate controlled vaults. It also remained the only private meeting place for these few who were charged with keeping order as the population swelled and village life became more complex.

They presented Glen’s solution to the villagers at the next meeting and it was accepted. But when the time came to select who would go, religion, in the form of Ephram, again became a problem. Urged on by him, many of the more conservative Christian men claimed they were unwilling to leave their families “unprotected.” Nor did they want their young men spending months away from their families, especially in the company of those they considered unchurched heathens.

Then Moira caught wind of another, more sinister plan that represented a larger threat to the community. Ted, who was still keeping an eye on the Larches, had heard them scheming over a plot to wait until the other men left, then oust her as the community’s leader and replace her with a “good Christian man.” Not surprisingly, Ephram was both the instigator of the plan and the prime candidate to replace her. She hurriedly called a family meeting at the Keep. Then, backed by Glen, Steven, Joey, and Ellen, she called the villagers together in a special town meeting and spelled it out for them.

“I’m embarrassed that this discussion has to take place at all, but since it appears necessary, let me be as clear as possible. That you were welcomed here at all,” she said, looking pointedly at Ephraim Larch, “is a testimony to our generosity and decency as a family. We had already established our own rules and laws for this place which is in our keeping. If you mean to stay here, then you must respect that generosity as well as our ways. If you cannot abide them, then I invite you to seek shelter elsewhere. I am confident there are other communities more to your liking that would welcome you. In fact, we can provide you with maps to show you the way and loan you the transport to get there. And we could certainly use the space. Then there is the matter of resources. We have already agreed that in order to survive the winter some of you will have to spend those winter months elsewhere regardless of your personal wishes. None of us wish to leave or to send others away. We simply do not have and cannot get enough food for all of us to stay here through the coming winter. In addition, from observing the weather patterns as we head into the fall, we think it’s likely that the violent storms we experienced last winter may repeat themselves. So if we, and you, are to make this move, and do it deliberately, we must begin preparations now. At the first sign of worsening weather, Glen will take the men who have the least attachments here and head north. They will spend the winter months there at his home beside the Jack’s Fork River and return to Falling Spring as soon as the storms abate in early spring. Anyone who can’t abide this arrangement, or who can’t abide our ways, is welcome to choose alternatives. Glen can tell you about a couple of communities that are more – conservative, if that’s what you prefer – and help you to gather your belongings and move there before travel becomes dangerous.”

“I can be their guide and take them there, if they can be ready to go soon,” Glen agreed. Asked to define “soon,” Glen said, “within the next couple of weeks.”

At that, Ephram leaped to his feet.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on here,” he said in a loud, hoarse voice, spitting in his rage. “These women, these witches, are sending us good Christian men off to die so they can have our women and turn them into witches, or worse. They don’t have the right to say what we’re to do. They’re women! They shouldn’t even be allowed to speak. This place belongs to God! If anyone’s going to leave, it should be these godless heathens with their circles and charms.”

Several people looked surprised and some were offended at his outburst, but a few were nodding their heads. He was just getting into the rhythm of his speech when a metallic click caught everyone’s attention. Larch turned to look at Moira and found himself staring down the barrel of her pistol, which was aimed at his head.

“I’ll tell you what gives me the right,” she hissed in a voice no one had heard her use before. “This place is in my care. The responsibility for its survival is mine. I have paid for it in blood. A long time ago, before any of you knew of its existence, I was given the job to protect it. I take my job seriously, Ephraim. I would kill for it. I have killed for it. And I would do it again if need be.” The crowd surged back at the threat and bedlam threatened.

She holstered the pistol and raised her hands, calling for quiet.

“Listen to me. Listen. Do you really think you have been sent here because you’re good Christians, or because you believed we were? Do you not know where you are? This is the last outpost, the last hope, so far as we know, of rebuilding human civilization. Do you think we will let this outpost fall in order to appease your beliefs, or anyone’s? You may think what you wish and go where you wish to think it, but here at Falling Spring we will place our faith in human dignity and intelligence. We will worship the world that has let us live another day here. We will honor our differences and find common ground. And we will care, by any means necessary, for the seed stores in our keeping.
“They, not you, are our future. Without them there will be no future for any of us. If you would like to participate with us in this endeavor, then I advise you to keep your divisiveness and your nasty little egos (she said this last looking straight at Ephraim) to yourself, and join the work. Until and unless we find out differently, we must carry on as if we truly are the last hope of humankind. We don’t have time for this petty conflict over whose God is in charge. Everybody’s God carries equal weight here. If you have a problem with that, then leave. Otherwise, let’s stop this nonsense and get back to work.”

And they did. When Ephram turned back to look at the crowd, it had already begun to disperse, leaving him standing alone. Steven went to him, put his arm around the man’s sinking, dispirited shoulders, and led him off to the stables, where they worked the rest of the morning shoveling manure and arguing philosophy, a combination that caused great mirth when Steven described it at supper that night.

The next day the winds turned colder, and the day after that came the first howling drafts that foretold the arrival of the dreadful winter storms. The men would have to go north, and soon. But first Glen must guide Ephraim and his son, the Lewis family, and whoever else wanted to go, to a fitting home in another settlement. At first the Lewis’s were torn about what to do, because Leatrice’s mother, Eva Swan, was still too feeble to travel. But as if answering their concerns with a practical solution, she passed quietly in that first windy night and was buried the next day up on the knoll with the other settlers, old and new. And so the cemetery gained another, far more peaceful resident than the other recent arrivals. The following morning the little party took their leave without the Riggs sisters, who decided in the end they didn’t want to leave their little farm.

That same evening at the Inn, in a light furnished by the generator at the mill pond dam, the community gathered to discuss when the men should leave, who among them should go, what they would take, and what (and who) must be left behind. The discussion continued until late that night and long into the next lengthening evenings weighing the options.

As they talked, more concerns surfaced, and some frank discussion ensued, some of them out of the earshot of all but the family. When Annie and Alice joined the conversation over dinner at the Keep, the talks on genetics turned to an examination of the existing and probable future human gene pool. Ellen was older than Moira, but still pre-menopausal. If civilization were to be maintained, there would simply have to be more children and every effort made to have them. Also, some elements of conventional morality around the tradition of monogamy might have to be at least temporarily put aside, and that would require discussing it in plain terms with all the villagers – especially the women.

Fearing another confrontation with those who still might be too conservative for such notions, Ellen and Moira began calling women aside quietly, both those still capable of being mothers and those who had enough experience to form a cadre of midwives. They explained what needed to be done. Quietly, in most cases at least, Moira thought with a smile, the long evenings soon became more entertaining for a good many of the community’s residents. Memories were stored that kept quite a few men and women warmer through the winter nights apart.

And children came in plenty through the following summer and early fall.

Evidently some of the same discussions took place in the northern outpost at Glen’s Cave, because several of the younger men returned in spring eager to attempt a closer association with some of the girls of their own generation. Tom Langston took up with Regina Sharp, a young black woman from the bus. Arthur Slocum began courting Rae-Jean. And Eldon Case struck up a romance with Ruthie Riggs after his own mother, Marianne, moved across the hall of the farmhouse and in with John Langston.

Late that following summer, along with several of the village’s women, Ellen had a son, named Latham, after her father. Moira, after much deliberation and worries about not doing her part, finally declined, citing the many responsibilities she had that would be jeopardized by having an infant in tow. Besides, she had adopted the orphaned toddler, Jared, who was growing fast but still a handful. Maybe next year, she said, and Ellen supported her decision. What had started as a ragged bunch of survivors was fast becoming a real, diverse, multigenerational community. This new world was at last beginning to look at its future with some confidence that there might actually be one.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seven: Unalterable Acts

Scratched arms, torn clothing, and a stitch in her side accompanied her as she arrived back at the museum grounds, running all the way. And with every step Moira had been thinking feverishly, examining her options. There was no knowing how much time she had. They would travel more than a mile compared to her scant few hundred yards, and they had been headed toward the river to water their horses when she’d seen them last. But they were coming. Worse. They were coming to loot the museum, to plunder its precious cache of tools and seeds. It could mean the end of things, civilization’s last hopes gone to the hands of craven marauders, terrorists, and so soon. No! She was not, by God, going to let that happen.

As she ran, dodging black haw and greenbriar, wading headlong through vines and brambles, her momentum ripped a path through the tangled understory  filling the steep hollow which at its worst was still the most direct way to the museum. She had already deduced that any kind of frontal assault would be futile. Rifles or shotgun were out – she could not attack them from hiding. That left only her service piece, a .9mm Ruger that was accurate at short range but totally impossible to conceal, and a small .25 caliber pistol, an off-brand “Saturday night Special” inherited from her father, that could fit in her pocket but was accurate about to the length of her arm, give or take. These “militia men” had assault weapons.

Militia men they were, she was sure of it. They had to have come from somewhere within horseback range, and from their language they sounded like the renegade, so-called white supremacists who had gained a reputation in the region as bullies prone to violence. But their compound was far to the west, with miles of rough country between. To her dismay, they had not only survived but had come here with a purpose. Evidently their leaders had seen the chaos created during the past winter as their chance to lay claim to all that was left. Their conversation made it clear they had not come to ask for the seeds but to take them, as they had taken their hostages. Who knew what else they might have already done. And their head man was talking of moving in and staying.

“Over my dead body,” she snarled between clenched teeth, realizing it might be exactly that.

But counting on firepower was out. She would have to stop them another way. And to do that, she had to let them get in close, and convince them she was unaware of their intent – or her peril. How could she do that? Perhaps she should be crazy. That shouldn’t be too damned difficult to pull off.

Her grin was a rictus of pain and defiance as she stumbled in the back door of the center and threw herself at the warehouse doors, which swung open wide and banged against the walls as she passed. She heard Sheba bark from behind her apartment door but didn’t dare respond. Sheba would try to protect her and that would just get herself shot. This would have to be a solo job.

She hesitated, seeing the stacks of boxes, the filled shelves, the well-stocked tool room. If they saw what was here, she was doomed. Stumbling again, gasping for breath, she crossed the warehouse and yanked open the dressing room door. About halfway down was her locker, where she kept the costumes she used to perform in during living-history re-enactments. She threw open its door and put out a hand to steady herself and stop her racing mind and adrenaline-filled muscles. Then off went the uniform shirt and jeans, stopping to pry off her hiking boots. On over the head went petticoats and gingham shirtwaist dress. Tug them down. Tie her hair back with a ribbon. Throw an apron over all, towel her face dry and check the mirror. Transformed, sort of. But for the sweat and scratches, she looked like any old-time farm wife. Could they be persuaded to think she’d just wandered in here and found the place, just another refugee? She’d play her crazy act to the hilt, and maybe they’d let her live. But staying alive wasn’t the issue. The issue was stopping them. And stopped is what they must be. No matter what.

She sat down on the long bench against the wall and pulled her boots back on, thinking furiously. There must be a way.

She could make them a meal and dose them with something. They’d be out long enough that she could tie them up. She was already beginning to smile as her breath suddenly went out in an explosive sigh and she slumped against the wall, grasping the flaw in that plan and any like it. Even tied, they were lethal. They would never be anything else. Not so long as they lived. She could disarm them, but she could not make them harmless. She certainly couldn’t call the sheriff.

She closed her eyes, trying to clear her thoughts, to see if she was missing something. No. They could not be made harmless. And there was no law to appeal to. There was just her. This was the place she had been given to protect, and she was the law. There was no help for it. She was simply going to have to kill them, or die trying.

Moira sat in silence for a long minute. If there were a God in heaven, she was facing a very long eternity. On the other hand, what God would turn these beasts loose on the struggling remnants of civilization? The world they were trying to build was not one where she, or any woman or child or civilized man, could ever live safely.

“No,” she said aloud, shaking her head. There was no choice, or, if there had been, she had already made it. So all that remained were the means. Firepower was not the answer. It would have to be sabotage. And she thought the means for that might be found at the millpond, or, barring that, at the shed where the garden pesticides were stored. Ironic that she’d argued against their use due to the potential of bringing harm to humans. At last resort, they might do exactly that.

There was no more time to waste. She heaved herself upright and was off again at a trot. First stop was the walk-in freezer, where she helped herself to a number of packaged foods pre-cooked for the demonstration kitchen. Into a basket went a round of cornbread, a large portion of bean and beef stew that would fit tidily into an iron Dutch oven, and some stewed tomatoes with chopped onions and brown bread broken up and stirred into them. From a storage bin alongside went a handful of small sweet potatoes to bury in the ashes of the cook fire she would build in the wood cook stove. It was all just good, simple, wintered-over springtime fare of the kind they’d expect. Nothing suspicious.

She left the basket by the back door and went back through the public area to her office, pulled open a bottom desk drawer, and snatched the small pistol from its hiding place, along with a box of shells. At close quarters, or as a last-ditch gambit, it might make the difference, she thought, sliding a bullet into each chamber of the little revolver and checking to make sure the safety was on. She tucked the pistol and a handful of extra shells into the deep side pocket of her dress where it would be covered by the apron, and went back to the warehouse one more time for a can of coffee – and a butcher knife. Then back to the door she went, snatched up the basket, and trotted off down the hill, her gait uneven but determined.

By the millpond she set the basket down again and shielded her eyes from the sun while she peered along the far verges of the water. It should be on the far side, just next to the dam. She spotted it, a withered shrub at winter’s end. but it was not the innocent it appeared. She’d intended to have the hazardous perennial dug out last fall, but the first frost had stopped her before she got someone assigned to the task. The ornamental was dangerous to let thrive adjacent to public areas, although it made an attractive addition to the bluff-side greenery. The problem was, it shouldn’t be here at all. It wasn’t indigenous, for one thing. Some long-ago resident of the hollow had evidently brought the plant in as an ornamental and had put it there at the far edge of the dam so it might escape a killing frost. Of larger concern, it was deadly poisonous.

She held out both hands to balance herself as she crossed the narrow catwalk across the spillway and hopped to the ground on the far side. A few more steps and she was standing before the plant she sought. Only its first tiny leaves were showing, not sufficient for her intended use. But the dried leaves were lethal as well. She rudely chopped at the leafy branches with the butcher knife until she’d knocked the leaves down, then scooped up a hefty measure of last year’s leafy growth, along with several clusters of withered berries. She fingered the leaf shoots. The legendary Oleander, an ancient and treacherous beauty that was deadly to most animals as well as humans. And if the literature was correct, it acted quickly. If she could just get a portion of it down their gullets without poisoning their prisoners, all well and good. She thought how that might be done and smiled a smile that did not reach her cold eyes. She’d make a tea. She wrapped the leaves, berries, and twigs in a cloth, retraced her steps across the dam, and headed for the farmhouse at a run.

The cornbread was in the oven, the potatoes were in the ashes, the pot of chopped leaves and stems was steaming on a back burner next to the bubbling stew and she was replenishing the fire in the wood range with split oak faggots when she heard the whoops and shouts of the men. They must have realized they’d found the museum’s lower gate. “Thanks for the warning, fellas,” she whispered.

Moira paused on the porch and inhaled a great gout of air, twice, then composed herself into the pitiful creature she wanted them to see. Gathering the front of apron and dress in her hands to make running easier, she set off for the gate, which she’d left closed but not locked. Running down the hill, she saw them before they saw her and was almost upon them when she gave a shriek of feigned joy.

“Ayee. Praise God. Thank you, Jesus. Is it you? Is it really my Savior come to take me home? Ah, sweet Jesus, you’ve come for me at last,” she babbled as she ran toward them.

Startled at the sound as well as the sight of her wildly-waving skirts, the horses shied as she’d hoped they might, jostling their riders away from their weapons, making them concentrate instead on keeping hold of their reins and staying upright. She kept wailing and chattering, waving her hands in the air, until the redbearded man, standing in the saddle and wrestling with his dancing palomino, finally shouted her down.

“Good Christ, woman! Shut your mouth. You’re driving the horses crazy. Shut up!” he called this last over his shoulder as his mount circled and reared again.

Moira stopped waving and lowered her hands to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just got so excited. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone. I’m sorry,” she said, hiding her voice behind her hands but continuing to babble. As the palomino turned to face her again, the red-bearded man swung down off his horse. But before he could stop her, she lunged headlong into his arms. Holding him tightly around the waist, she sobbed as though her heart would break. But her tearless eyes peered beneath his arm as she sobbed and met the eyes of the bound woman bringing up the rear of the procession. She leaned, turning Redbeard until his body blocked her from view of the other men but not from the female captive. As the woman came near enough that she could see the horror and fear in her eyes, Moira shifted her head slightly to meet the woman’s gaze head-on and, still clinging tightly to Redbeard, lifted her face so the woman could see her mouthed words. Please, Mother of God, let her understand me, she prayed silently, while her lips formed the words the woman had to hear.

“I know. I know. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Then she had to stop because the gray-bearded man drove his horse between, keeping the women from meeting. But before he did, she saw the woman’s chest rise with a sudden intake of air and her eyes widen, lit with hope. It was the best she could do for now.

Moira bowed her head and brought one hand to her face, hiding her eyes as Redbeard disengaged himself. She drew a rag from her apron pocket and blew her nose noisily before wiping her dry eyes. Then she smiled up at him, hoping he saw gratitude in her face instead of just her bared teeth. “Tell me. Tell me where you’ve come from. How did you find me? Are you here to stay? Will you take me with you when you go? Ah, just talk to me, man. Let me hear voices other than my own.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I will, if you’ll stop your yellin’ and prayin’ and let me get a word in. I take it you’re a good Christian woman. Is that so?”

“God-fearing and baptized right in yon river there,” she said, struggling to remember how the litany went. She’d do better to claim a fundamentalist background than her own liberal Methodist one, but she wasn’t sure she could keep it all straight.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing these wonderful men to my rescue,” she said. She grabbed his arms again and shook them. “You’re the answer to my every prayer. You truly are. But, oh, mercy, I am forgetting my manners,” she said, putting her hands to her face again. “Have y’ all had your supper yet? I’ve got some stew on the fire, just up the hill. Oh, my goodness. Yes. The stew. I’ll need to get back to it before it burns,” she said, turning to go.

His hand shot out and seized her arm in a bruising grip. “Just hold on a minute, missy,” his voice hissed, and for a moment she thought he’d seen through her disguise. But his concern was more for himself. “You sure you’re all alone here?” he asked. “You’re the only one about?”

“Why, of course,” she said, trying not to fight his grip. “I’ve been here a month or more, scared to death the whole time.

“My farm’s just down river, you see, and when the food ran out, and Orville never come back from town . . . ,” she said, letting her fear fuel the catch in her voice. “I had to go somewhere, and I knew they kept food up here. But when I got here, they was all gone. I thought I was the only one left anywhere . . . ”  Her voice broke again as she spoke the truth for the first time, and now there were real tears shining from her eyes.

“Well, you’re not. In fact, you’re one lucky woman. We’re all of us among God’s Chosen. All four of us. You’re among your own again.” She made what she hoped was a joyful exclamation of surprise as the red-bearded man smiled and raised his arm to introduce his three male companions, still mounted, who stared down at her. Beyond them, the woman sat, still tied, and the boy had come forward to cling to her stirrup.

“What’s the matter with them two,” she asked, forcing contempt into her voice. “Did they steal somethin’?”

“Well, she’s a witch. And the boy won’t mind anybody. He’s incorrigible. We’re taking them in to be judged.”

“Witches!” she said and spat on the ground, as in her head she begged forgiveness. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something to do with the cause of all this, if you ask me.”

“I know just what you mean, Sister. Now what’s this I hear about supper? We’ve traveled a long road today.”

“Yes. Mercy, I was wondering why I made so much stew. I thought I was going to have some extra for tomorrow. But, land sakes, I’ve got just about enough to go around.” She glanced hatefully toward the woman and boy. “Don’t know if I’ve got anything fit for them, though. They don’t deserve my good stew. Maybe I can boil up some mush or something for them. Or maybe there’ll be an extra tater or two. I’ll see what I can do.” She turned, gathered her apron and skirt in her hand, and beckoned the men to follow. As they neared the farmhouse, she stopped and pointed toward the barn.

“You gentlemen should find hay and feed and stalls for your horses in there,” she said. “Make the animals comfortable, while I see about dishing up some supper.”

The men dismounted and the black-bearded one walked back to help the woman roughly off her horse. “You can leave them in the barn, too, if you like, and I’ll take something out to them later.” She wanted to get the two prisoners out of the way and have some time to herself to check out her hastily-ordered kitchen.

She got only half her wish. The prisoners were led to the shade outside the barn and made to sit, then their feet were tied and their hands bound behind them. But Redbeard didn’t want her to go off by herself. Despite his friendly manner, he didn’t trust her. Well and good. He shouldn’t. He should be deathly afraid of her, and perhaps somewhere in himself he sensed it. But he wouldn’t, Goddess willing, see his peril as coming from something as innocent as homemade stew.

He watched, arms folded and leaning against the doorway as she set five bowls down from the shelf. She filled one with stew, then stopped, with an exclamation.

“Land sakes, I forgot the spicebush,” she said. She used the lid of the small pot to strain out the solids and poured the poisonous brew into the stewpot as the other three men tramped in from outside and took seats at the kitchen table. She dished up the remaining four bowls of stew, sliced and buttered wedges of cornbread, and dipped up smaller bowls of the breaded tomatoes. But when she began laying place settings, Redbeard leaned forward. “Ain’t you going to eat with us?”

Damn! She put down the last of the knives and walked over to him, placing her hand in the middle of his chest. “I’ll have a bite in a little bit. I’ve got a bowl set aside. But let me get you all served first. You’ve been traveling all day. And, well . . . it’s been such a long time since I’ve served a man . . . I’d like to just enjoy it for a while, if I might.” She smiled what she hoped was a seductive smile and patted his chest, then, feeling the cushion of hair under his shirt, reached a forefinger between his buttons and said, “My, my. Such a furry bear you are.”

Redbeard slid a hand around her waist and drew her to him. “You like furry bears, do you?”

She didn’t have to feign her sudden shortness of breath, only the reason for it. “I do, ever so much,” she said, her voice trembling. “Especially red ones.” Then, as he leaned toward her, reaching to a kiss, she pushed him away gently. “But there’s plenty of time for us to get . . . acquainted, after everyone’s had some supper and gets settled in for the night.” She fluttered her eyes at him. You get to your dinner and I’ll make us all some coffee.” She barely had time to turn her face away from his leering grin before a spasm of disgust shook her. Never mind, she told her body as her teeth clenched in a snarl. Whatever gets the job done. Just do it.

Moira turned back and surveyed the men filling the small farmhouse kitchen, now seated around the laden rough-hewn table. The gray-bearded man was facing Redbeard, and Blackbeard was across from No-beard. Perfect. She urged them to set to. “”Dig in before it gets cold. I’ll have your coffee for you in just . . .” her words ended in a sudden gasp as Blackbeard grasped her buttock in his hand. But before she could speak, Redbeard snarled a curse and Blackbeard’s hand dropped to his side.

“Leave off, Billy. Leave ’er go. Let her see to her cookin’.”

“Well, Gol, what’s with you, John? She yours or something?” There was a long silence, punctuated finally by the black-bearded Billy. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“No matter,” she said. “I understand. You’ve all been away from your women a long time. Just don’t be so . . . rough. All right?”

“Yes’um,” Billy said, abashed. Then there was silence, punctuated only by the scraping of spoons against bowls. Finally, Redbeard said again, “Ain’t you gonna eat?” and she nodded, reaching to pull the untainted bowl toward her.

“You all had enough? There’s plenty here,” she said, looking around the room, bowl in one hand and spoon in the other, trying to make her voice sound friendly, as they all shook their heads that they had. She nodded again and turned toward the stove. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”

A chair scraped back and she turned, seeing Redbeard rise. “I’m going out for a smoke. I’ll check the prisoners while I’m out,” he said and stepped out onto the porch and down the steps into the yard, where the light was beginning to fade. Moira took her bowl and spoon to a small table by the window, where she could observe the men while pretending to season her stew from a crockery tub. Of the three remaining men, two were still cleaning their plates while Graybeard slowly sat back from the table, a pipe in one hand and a small cloth pouch in the other.

Suddenly Davy, the beardless one, coughed, then made a strangling sound. “God,” he said, “I feel sick.” He tried to stand but retched suddenly and bent forward. “Oh, God,” he cried again. “Mama?” and fell forward, sprawling across the table.

“What the hell?” Graybeard said, staring in astonishment and clutching his pipe and pouch. He looked at Moira, then at Blackbeard, who was staring at the top of Davy’s head, which had landed in the bowl of stewed tomatoes and looked bloody. Suddenly Blackbeard’s eyes widened and he gathered himself as if to stand. Instead he roared in pain, reaching toward Moira with outstretched arms and fists that clenched and unclenched. His teeth snapped shut and he snarled, trying again to rise. Somewhere halfway through the movement he stopped, and, like a toy winding down, sank slowly back into his chair, head arching backward until it, and he, could go no farther. Then he was still.

“Youuu . . . you bitch! You – you’ve poisoned us,” Graybeard’s voice rasped as pipe and pouch hit the floor. He was groping for his gun when his breath caught in his throat. He struggled for air, but when his breath came out at last, in a rasping groan, his head fell forward and he did not breathe again.

Moira stood, transfixed at the grisly scene before her, but her head snapped up as heavy footfalls crossed the porch. Her breath came out in an explosive rush as the red-bearded man strode through the doorway and stopped, incredulity in his face and the burnished steel of an assault rifle in his hand. They stared across at each other, then Moira looked away, to the table, where his bowl of stew sat, untouched.

She closed her eyes and sighed, defeat evident in the sag of her shoulders.

“I knew there was something about you that wasn’t right,” Redbeard said. “You were too glad to see us. And you weren’t afraid. But why? Why…this?” he asked, gesturing with the rifle at his fallen comrades.

“I saw you coming. You were treating that woman and child like cattle. And you were going to steal the seeds. I couldn’t let that happen. They’ll be needed if people are to survive.”

“But, Good Christ, woman! The seeds were ours by right. We’re the Chosen. Those seeds belong to us. We’re the ones meant to rule the world to come.”

His gun was hanging in his right hand as he raised his left toward the heavens. He was shaking his head, as if any view of the world to come other than his were inconceivable.  It was now or never. But she couldn’t let it end without answering him.

“No,” she said, raising her left hand, making a fist except for the straightened index and pinky fingers, which made the sign of horns, for rejection, for sending evil back upon itself. “It will not be as you say” She spit the words out deliberately. “Not so long as I can do or say otherwise. The world of take and wreck and ruin is dead. Those who rule this world must earn it.” And while the red-bearded man stared at the sign in her hand, confused, she put her other hand in her dress pocket, raised the nose of the pistol that she hoped would shoot true, flicked off the safety with her thumb, and pulled the trigger. His head jerked only a little, as if startled, and he gazed at her in puzzlement as a flower blossomed in his forehead. She’d shot high, but it would do. She stood calmly, meeting his gaze until she saw the light go out of his eyes and his knees begin to buckle. By the time he hit the floor, she was headed out the door, running toward the barn where the prisoners waited.

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Once upon a time there was another press, called Elder Mountain, the creation of two women, one a writer and one an artist. The artist is no more, and neither is that endeavor, the name having passed on to the Elder Mountain Journal, a publication of Missouri State University-West Plains. The writer from Elder Mountain is now a solo act, and this is her journal.

-m

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