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 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."