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 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?