It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

7

At the house, dinner proved to be a small wooden bowl of soup, made from leftover egg, kale, onion, tomato and barley, washed down with more of the weak mint tea, with a hint of wild ginger. If Karen hoped to get fresh barley bread, there was none in evidence.

"Enjoy," said Juanita, with laughing eyes. She had seen Karen's furtive survey of the kitchen. "We have for dinner what we had for lunch, only less of it, and usually simmered in the water. When there is more milk, maybe some of that, too, though usually early in the morning. Lunch is the big meal." She stepped over to the open firepit of the stove and threw on a couple of pieces of hardwood.

"Where is everyone?"

"Errol is making axe-handles I think, and so he has not been here for his bowl. Sometimes he does not come. The boys have eaten and run, and my 'oldest' is helping Mrs. Ames in the barn; it is long daylight yet so we do what we can at this time of the year."

"Yes. The dark days will be coming soon enough. 'Oldest?'"

Juanita laughed out loud, a sound that lifted Karen's spirits. Father had not been one to laugh, and laughter that she had heard on the Eastside had been meant to intimidate.

"Ah, you know they were born together; Emilio seems so proud of this. Well. Raul appeared first and then David; so we have a first-born and a second born. David is on the lookout."

"Oh. Is that the big box on the wooden pole?" Karen had noted this upon her arrival, but had not known what to make of it.

"It is so; and why not give to me your bowl and then I will show you where to take your things for the night, yes?"

This proved to be upstairs in the main house, in a room with a slanted ceiling and a dormer window looking east. Very tiny; but Karen liked it right away.

The floor, walls and ceiling were painted white with something chalky but cleanly. The door, she noted with approval, could be not only bolted but barred from the inside – and not from the outside.

There was, by the door, a small, very dark wooden table with one drawer and on it an aluminum pitcher of water and a steel bowl. A towel-rack had been affixed to the table and hanging from this was a clean cloth cut from some fabric of bygone days, with pictures on it of blond children and a small curly-haired dog, all jumping at a multicolored ball.

A small mirror hung on the wall above the table. Karen gave herself a quick peek. That somber face with its wide mouth. She grimaced: teeth still good. She'd learned to cut twigs, chew the end, and brush with them. Hair every which way, as usual. She was less weathered than she had been; the freckles were more prominent. A few scratches and the many insect bites she had sustained in the mountains were healing rapidly.

In the drawer was what must be a rare and valuable thing: a tallow candle, hand-dipped. For emergencies, she was sure. Also she found a block of lye soap. She had indeed come to civilization!
Karen moved to the window and opened it. She stepped out onto the roof, covered with large cedar shakes like the other roof she had seen. This must be how everyone coped with the inevitable failure of many of the old-style roofs.

The breeze had stopped. Sun shone, beneath clouds that had formed in the west, on the slopes of the eastern hills, splashing the endless forests pink and orange. Karen could see that from here, if necessary, she could run down across what must be one of the downstairs bedrooms, and leap to the ground. She'd have to throw her pack first, or her legs might not bear the landing well.

To her right she could see the tall power pole with its added structure, resembling a very large birdhouse of small peeled logs, assembled log-cabin style. Iron steps, of a kind she had seen on such poles, ranged up to a trapdoor from a point about ten feet from the ground. Someone must take away a ladder for the occupant.

A hand waved to Karen from a tiny opening. She waved back. Looking around near at hand, she could see that the fences around the compound were kept clear of vegetation, and were tall. Some thought, at least, had gone into defense.

But she remembered Father's maxim: defense, other things being equal, loses. Surely these Creekers, who had lasted seventeen years, one more than she had been alive, had more ideas than she had yet seen. Perhaps one could sleep soundly here.

She climbed back in and closed the window. Whatever had happened here, there had been a clean exodus. Cows and chickens had remained behind uneaten, and the windows had glass! Luxury unheard of.

Across the room she found a tick mattress stuffed with straw, spread with a blanket crocheted from woolen yarn. Small, but there were two other blankets at the foot of the mattress, made from woven wool, one dyed green, the other red. Very nice! By the mattress stood an earthen pot with a matching lid and a steel bail; this must be the "facilities." A "night soil" people; of course, they must use everything. Corncobs in a smaller pot stood by, and a little pile of old cotton cloths. Thoughtful! Someone had already considered monthly flow; but hers had passed a week ago, while she was in convalescence. Which reminded her of how tired she was, still.

Karen unpacked her backpack, inventoried everything, stroked her bowstring with a lump of beeswax, then put everything back together. The bow, being fiberglass, needed nothing.
Yes, she would sleep here, tonight, but with boots on. One never, never knows. After all, it is a wooden house.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

6


Emilio was proud of the farm's achievements. He explained the pasture rotation, of which Karen had heard before, and showed her the chickens in their movable sheds.

"These things are made of 'chicken wire' and PVC pipe, as there was a lot of both available when we began to farm here. The chickens were running wild; the ones that could breed on their own had done so, and so that's the kind we have. It is a mix, now, of Banty and Araucana, we think."

The names meant nothing to Karen; chickens were new to her.

"If we did not have the wire, we would have to find a way to make enclosures, and to bring in enough food for them. If they continued to run loose as they were doing before, there would be many lost to hawks, wild dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and bobcats. Even the eagles seem interested."

He led her through a gate in an overgrown fence to another pasture, and here were the cows. The shadows were lengthening, and temperatures were dropping a bit in the afternoon breeze, and so the cattle were getting up from the shade and lazily moving toward a water tank, re-purposed from a hot tub, near one of the small windmills dotted around.

"These are a few Devon-Dexter-Whiteface cows. There were Devons and Dexters here when we got here. The Devons were a great surprise; I am told they were rare even before the Undoing. The only bull we could locate for them was a Whiteface. He makes them too much beefy but we get some milk, and some young steers we butcher, and it is a big help. The rest pull farm implements and carts. What we would do here if the people who lived in this valley had killed and eaten everything and then left, I do not know. It is a wonder there is so much to work with."

Emilio waved at the fence line behind them. "The wire is irreplaceable, so we are encouraging hedges. This is blackberry, wild rose, black hawthorn, red grapes, and yellow plum trees mostly. Blackberries, plums, rose hips, a little firewood, and ... rabbits."

He smiled. "Down the valley there is a lady working to domesticate and raise these rabbits. They are not a domestic breed, but we must start somewhere."

"Wasn't there something about a disease in cottontails?" asked Karen, who had read this in an old magazine.

"I have heard that, too, but we have not seen a problem yet."

Emilio knitted his brows. "It has been do-what-we-can and not do-what-we-should, here. There are it may be close to two hundred of us. All food is life. It is not enough muscles here to raise enough food, and yet too much muscles to feed. So we forage and hunt and fish, as the things that live here have increased since the Undoing. The weather seems different, too, than it once was, and there are crop failures. We all work very hard. This has been our best year."

"The failures ... is that why this is called Starvation Creek?"

"Oh – ha ha. Apropos, no? but no, it is named so on an old map. You see the long mountain there?" He pointed to the fir-clad ridge, with its long spine of exposed rock at the top.

"Mm-hmm."

"Of course; you were there before. I am told that long ago a shepherd was caught there in deep snow with some of his flock, and so he could not come down for a long time and to live, he ate some of the sheep, which made his boss angry. But what could he do, eh?" Emilio smiled again, and Karen felt herself smiling in return – a new sensation for her.

"How many years have you farmed here?"

"I am a late arrival myself, but I understand it is seventeen years, this thing. A few people, then more. To farm without diesel or gasoline – not so many knew how to do it. There were a few books, and some elders can read. The rest has been the hard school."

"Experience."

"Yes, and many mistakes. It is not a certain thing, all this work. Failure of a crop, and where will we get enough seed?"

Karen thought of all the "foraging" she had done in abandoned cellars and pantries. A vanishing resource. "There must not be any canned goods any more; not after seventeen years." They walked down toward the next hedge.

"That is very correct, and I see you understand the implications. You have traveled, and so you must know what it is that some people will eat when all of the foods, the crops and the animals are gone."
This was very direct, but it was a fact and facts were to be faced.

Karen was not sure what could or should be asked, but the thought of the two young men, risking their lives, perhaps, to look and listen in the woods upstream brought a question to her lips.
"You say you came late. Did Juanita and the boys come with you?"

"No, I met her here. Raul and David are fraternal twins, and they are natives, born here." Emilio smiled again, but grimly, thought Karen. "When I came to the Creek I was younger than they are now. Late means there was already an established ... "

"Community?"

"An excellent word, I thank you. When I say it has not been easy here, I do not say that it has not been good. It has been so very good, thank-you-Jeeah."

Karen did not ask about the last phrase. Father had taught her to be leery of religions above almost all else, and this sounded like religion.

Emilio opened another gate and they stepped through and stopped. Karen could see acres of broad-leaved plants before them, and a little way farther on, another frame house with a barn, a trailer house and two of the little log houses on either side. Vegetable gardens surrounded the farmhouse, and smoke rose from a mud-and stick chimney added on to the back. The roof of the house had been done over in large cedar shakes.

Emilio turned to Karen, his eyes like dark pools, shining. But there was in them no smile.

"I was, maybe, nine or ten. We do not know. I was found by the Captain in a cage in the encampment of some bandits who were testing the Creek's defenses, over to the west. And my memories from before that do not come to me."

"You were ..." Karen felt the back of her neck grow cold.

"I was to be food, yes. But those particular bandits are no more, mh? So. Over here, we have pumpkins, beets and comfrey, for the cattle in the winter, and it is the responsibility of the Jones household. Beyond Mr. Jones is the Beemans place, oats and buckwheat this year, and a few sheep. And so on, all the way down to the 'mess hall', or Hall, as it is called. But I do not see the boys, though I can see where they have been cutting the comfrey, so I think we will go back now."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

5

"Dr." Tom Chaney, an Elder of Starvation Creek, sat across his "desk," a large oak dining table, from one of the most intense presences he'd ever encountered. He hoped he could will the nonchalance he affected into something like truth; she'd not have much tolerance for insincerity. If any. That hopelessly wild black hair, short because she'd kept it so with that sharp skinning knife, framed a calm face, but seemed to express a wildness coiled within, like a cat's. The morning sun poured golden through the glass between tied-back chenille curtains and onto the floor in a corner.

"I want to thank you for your co-operation in the last week. It was hard for us all; but you seemed to understand about quarantine, which certainly helped a lot."

Karen, dressed in the (washed) clothes in which she'd first come among the Creekers, took in the room without taking her eyes off Tom. Mrs. Ames' kindly face and person, which sat relaxed in a chair beside Karen's, was a help. Karen was not yet prepared to sit alone in a room with any man, even one whose to whom professionalism apparently came first.

"It's all right; my father had told me expect as much most anywhere. Or ... worse. Generally I have seen worse."

"Have you given thought to where you wish to go next? We can escort you to our 'borders', if it is what you wish."

"I was trespassing, I know. But ... you see how it was."

Tom nodded to the window, beyond which lay the mountain, where maples amid the dark firs had begun to shade, in the soft light, into their first touches of autumn color.

"Well, consider your circumstances at the time. After such a journey, with so few provisions, any one of us would have done the same." He watched as she considered the question that had been asked.
"I know that ... that as one who travels, that I shouldn't ..." Here she looked as if she might stammer, which he did not expect from one so self-possessed. What must it be like, to have grown up underground? And then to have to apply rote learning to such different surroundings? To attempt to speak courteously to courteous strangers, with no background in the ways? Tom could wait for her to find her words.

She began anew. "I am mine, and all of you are yours. So I want to ask, to ... to ask. It doesn't ..." She looked to Mrs. Ames, who seemed anxious to encourage.

"Honey," Mrs. Ames patted the arm of Karen's chair. "do you wanta get to know us enough to find out if you'd like to stay awhile?"

Karen's body visibly relaxed a little. "Well, that's close enough. I mean, to begin with, you've all fed and cared for me for days; shouldn't I do some work or something to make a return? And then I might know more about what I could do next."

Tom leaned back in his chair and laughed. "You'd like some chores, maybe study us a bit. I think something could be arranged. We can share enough, about us, that it would help inform your decisions, and yet not share so much as to make you a danger to us should you choose to move on. Something like that?"

Karen thought this over, then nodded.

"Very good," said the doctor. "You should know that, of course, there's been a council over your presence among us, and that what you're requesting is much the same as what we decided was our hope as well. Is that about right?" he looked to Mrs. Ames.

"You got it," she said. "Karen, if you'd like to put up with me for awhile, I'm bettin' we'd find plenty for you to do, 'n some young people to meet, too."

"Put up with?" Idiomatic speech was still a difficulty for Karen.

"Girl, it's like you was raised in a bottle! Why don't we grab your stuff and we'll go over to my place 'n have some eggs and broccoli?"


Mrs. Ames' place was several miles east of the infirmary and one of the last that Karen could see in that direction, as they approached.

Agricultural fields seemed to be laid out to left and right from the road in narrow strips, each with its own access gate along the road, with perhaps a small log bridge across a ditch. Fruit and walnut trees lined the road, and blackberries and grapevines had been ecouraged along all the fence lines.

Wooden frame houses along the valley appeared to have been built, in the old times, about every quarter mile. Some of these had metallic "mobile" homes close by, and a few outbuildings and perhaps a barn. New structures, often of logs, clustered round these, so that the valley's population density was concentrated along the road, which was devolving into an oxcart path. Many places, farther from the main road, had been abandoned and then salvaged. Often only a cluster of oaks with lilacs and flowering quince showed where someone had lived, or a line of utility poles that had long been stripped of wire.

The area was becoming a village.

Karen began to recognize what Creekers looked like, as they met a few along the road. Men and women alike wore trousers and tunics that looked homespun from wool or some other spun yarn or thread, in earth-tone solid colors, and cut to simple patterns. Sheath knives were much in evidence, along with belt pouches. Most often they pushed or pulled old metal or new wooden wheelbarrows or carts, laden with early fall produce, or carried hand tools such as scythes, forks, or hoes.

People appeared, like some in old National Geographics Karen had studied, to have a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This was rare in Karen's experience; something had happened, in the early days of the Undoing, to many who were not white. As someone of mixed background herself, she knew it was significant. Whatever terrible things had been happening to non-whites elsewhere had not happened here. Some stopped to chat briefly with Mrs. Ames and to greet the newcomer. Others simply nodded and passed on by. Only one couple had children.

Small children had been, to Karen, such a rare sight that these she studied with interest. Like their parents, they were black, with eyes brown as hers, but much darker skin. The boy and girl, half her height, were as shy as she was herself, and hid behind the woman, who looked to Karen to be no older than she. All four of the family carried buckets of blackberries.

"Gettin' 'em in for th' winter, hm?" asked Mrs. Ames.

"We are," said the young man, who must be the father, for both children resembled him closely. "We were late getting out for the berries, as the house wasn't done until last quarter moon."

"An' you're in snug, and you'll keep warm?"

"There isn't much wood in the pile yet, and what there is, is green; and there's little food, but we can eat at the mess hall and stay warm there in the winter if we have to."

The mother joined in, with a rich, high voice and an accent new to Karen and beautiful to her ears. "We will be picking apples along the road all tomorrow, and some pears are left; should we bring you some when we come for the milk?"

"You do that; we're out of everythin' but what comes straight from th' cows, but these two c'n shake some butter out for you, I bet." She beamed on the young ones, who grinned back. "An' pick some kale, too; there's lots."

All took their leaves from one another, walking at what seemed to Karen a slow and deliberate pace, but she found this appropriate. Her backpack, though it had only gear in and on it and no provisions, was heavy to her after the last week or so of inactivity, and dug into her narrow shoulders; her legs felt rubbery and she was footsore. The sun, too, was higher now and very warm, and sweat began to sting her eyes.

Mrs. Ames could see the young woman's difficulty. "How ya doin'?"

"I'm all right. My strength must be down."

"I should think so; we're almost there and we'll go straight to the kitchen."

The house was one of the frame houses and was surrounded by a barn, a pumphouse, a chicken shed, and two of the little log cabins, with another under construction. In a field beyond, Karen could see a few cows; "red" ones of different sizes. The day was already hot in the fields, and most of the animals had taken to the shade of trees along the fence line.

Smoke was drifting from a steel chimney at the back of the frame house toward the creek and upstream, fading among cottonwoods.

"That'd be Juanita; she's got th' fire up for some baking and a bit of lunch."

They walked on a grassy path round to the back, and entered the kitchen through a small mudroom filled with boots, shoes, coats, straw hats, and tools.

The kitchen was a step down from the mudroom, as its floor had been removed and the ground beneath leveled and cobbled – cooler in summer, and able to support the weight of an earthen stove. This room had once been several rooms: a kitchen, a pantry, a hallway, and one of several bedrooms. Walls had been knocked out to accommodate a full-size milkroom as well as the rammed-earth stove and oven. The stove had a sheet-steel top with round "eyes" for frying pans, of which several, along with saucepans, hung from hooks suspended from the ceiling. Shelves held dozens of glass jars of various types, labeled with words like "coriander," "dill," and "marjoram." Ropes of onion and garlic hung along the walls, along with tied bundles of lavender and mint.

A young woman, perhaps a few years older than Karen, crouched by the stove, putting short round sticks into the fire with one hand, and shaking a large steel frying pan over an uncovered eye of the stove with the other. Satisfied with the progress of her fire, she turned to greet Karen. She was, to Karen's eyes, like herself: darker than most of those she'd met, with black hair, brown eyes, a slim face with a wide smile, but with a rounded figure, though very much smaller than Mrs. Ames. And she was wearing a dress --which was something Karen had never seen except in pictures – with a full-length apron.

Karen did not know words for "spring dress of chiffon with pleated skirt detail," nor "embroidered roses," but she found the effect pleasing. Perhaps it was the smile.

"Hi, I'm Juanita Molinero. Hungry?"

Interesting smells, some of them new to Karen, filled the air. Karen shed her backpack and leaned it against the wall next to a table laden with creamery equipment. "Yes. I'm Karen."

"You are Karen!" Juanita laughed. "Is there any one who is on the Creek and who does not know you are Karen?"

"Is that th' eggs and broccoli?" asked Mrs. Ames, grinning.

"It is the eggs but the broccoli is all gone for this year, so it is the eggs and the kale, the onions, and some tomatoes. The frost was very light and so I think maybe it is a few weeks for the tomatoes yet."
"Here, Karen," directed Mrs. Ames. "You c'n wash up a bit 'n that bowl by th' sink, 'n if you'll set out plates, cups, and forks for – seven?" – Juanita nodded – "I'll go ring th' bell." She disappeared through the mudroom door.

"Bell?"

"It is a music for the hungry. It will bring my husband, my children, and Errol. The others are elsewhere. Tomma and Vernie, they make sure there is no one coming from up there." She nodded up-Creek, toward the foothills of the Cascades.

Where I came from. A patrol. Karen stepped across to shelves stacked with mismatched dishes
A clanging commenced. Mrs. Ames was beating a suspended length of iron pipe, which they had passed on the way in, with the poll of a hatchet.

In a few minutes there were seven washed faces, and seven washed pairs of hands, at the long table in the middle of the kitchen. Though it seemed to Karen hot with the fire still going, everyone else seemed comfortable enough, and the casserole passed from hand to hand, the bowl growing lighter as it stopped at each plate. To drink, there was water, flavored by being left in the sun with peppermint leaves in it. Animated talk seasoned the food.

Errol was introduced, but Karen could not form much of an impression of him. Sandy-haired and rangy, with even more freckles than herself, he was the farm's carpenter, and was working on the new cabin. Much of his work he did alone, whether in construction or woodcutting in summer, or in a skylit room in the barn in winter, creating wooden tools and handles and clogs; she gathered he did not regard it as loneliness but blissful solitude.

Karen was shocked at how old Juanita's children were. Two boys, they seemed almost teens and were already seasoned farm hands. Their father, Emilio Molinero, with a round cheerful face and a sparse beard, explained that he was in charge of finding enough fodder for the cattle and getting water to the pastures and to the cattle as well.

"We have really, here, two seasons, the rain, that is winter and spring, then the sun, which is summer and fall. So there have been many, many days of sun and the grass turns brown and the Creek runs low, and though there was irrigation equipment here when people arrived, there was no way to make pressure."

"Electricity." Karen had read about electricity, but she had yet to see its miraculous powers. 

"Exactly, what was in the wires we do not have.. But we have some smart people down the valley here, and they have turned old dead machines into new machines that use the winds, and so we get a little water. Also some we pipe down from a pool in the Creek that is higher up than here. With your permission I will show you."

After the meal, Karen helped Juanita with dishes while Mrs. Ames and Mr. Molinero conferred as to the afternoon's chores. The boys would spend the remainder of the day cutting comfrey for the cows and mucking out the barn; Juanita would prepare dinner and also she had bread rising in the oven ("flat barley cakes; there is not in them so much wheat as we could wish"). Mrs. Ames would visit the chickens and then rest, and she would milk the cows when the boys brought them to the barn.

"You take th' grand tour with Emilio, Karen, and if ya'll help Juanita when ya get back, that'd be dandy," said Mrs. Ames.

Karen walked with the cattleman to the gated pastures. As this was what she had been bidden to do by her friend Mrs. Ames, it must be ordinary and appropriate, and she would endeavor to regard it so. She also felt naked without her backpack, with its bow and her few arrows, but understood this was a different kind of life – something like, perhaps, what her father had known, before the Undoing. If it was unsafe here, no one seemed to think so – though she remembered that Tomma and Vernie were out there in the woods to the East, listening and watching – for what?