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.