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, May 10, 2014

10


Karen tried to wipe the sweat from her eyes, but that seemed to make matters worse. So she stepped to her water bottle, sloshed some water on each eyelid, and felt better. A little more water on top of her head, and tipped onto each shoulder of her new tunic, and she felt better still. She returned to the sawbuck and gripped her end of the bucksaw.

Tomma smiled across to her, and they resumed their rhythmic dance, pulling the saw through a green Douglas fir log toward each other. Errol had discovered they made a good team on tasks of this kind, and assigned them to add to the woodpile whenever they were both available. Karen had spent much of the two previous winters getting in wood, but much of it was done with a sledge and pry bar, tearing down sheds and splintering one-by-fours into usable fodder for the stoves, and it had burned dishearteningly fast. The bucksaw was new to her, but she took to it.

The trick with the saw was never to bear down, never to hurry. They had found each other's pace; they could do this for hours. But sweat built up; no one could deny it was work.

"One more row across the top of the pile, then a real break, 'K?" asked Tomma.

"Do we really use this much wood?" Most rooms on the farm were unheated. As winter approached, everyone gravitated to the big kitchens in the evenings.

"Thirty cords in a winter; no!" he laughed. "Ten, maybe, with the kitchen, the wood shop, and two of the cabins to feed. But not everyone on the Creek has time to get wood in. And we need to push back the trees a ways."

She nodded. Improving security must be combined, whenever possible, with farm work. Clearing land was an efficient use of their time, and she'd helped with that as well, on the Jones and Beemans allotments. Some of the logs had been brought to Ames', and were waiting to be bucked at the sawbuck. None of the logs were very large; the woods to the north were all second and third growth, much of it having sprung up in former pastures.

There had been a sawmill on the Creek back in the last century; but it had run on electricity; lots of it; such power was not to be found at present. As smaller businesses had become uneconomical to operate in the face of competition from corporate giants, the mill had failed, let go its workers, and been stripped of its machinery. Lumber sold in the area after that had come from Canada. When Karen was told the story, it sounded familiar enough; her father had talked about the fallacy of "economies of scale." Goods produced that way were cheaper, he'd said. But with so many unemployed, who could buy?

The mill building was now the Mess Hall. Creekers used it to hold civil and social meetings, and to feed those who had not yet a place on any of the farms. Its kitchen was the largest, and facilities were springing up round it for blacksmithing, smoking meat and fish, tanning hides, and the like. But as much as possible was done on the farms, on the principle of distributed capability.
Cutting wood, for example. Sweat was about to run into Karen's eyes again. She looked across at Tomma, but saw that his attention was turned to the main house, down the slope from the woodpiles. She followed his gaze.

A small boy, whom they both recognized as one of the "runners" whose function was to carry prioritized communications along the Creek, was talking with Juanita, and he was holding the reins of the Creek's one Icelandic pony, which was reserved for the young runners. As they conferred, Mrs. Ames appeared in the kitchen door, and was listening intently. Presently the boy mounted, bareback, and rode off at a measured trot. Mrs. Ames stepped over to the iron pipe "bell" and began clapping it vigorously with the kindling hatchet.

Tomma dropped his end of the saw and stood up; Karen did likewise. Then Tomma picked up the saw, and carrying it in his hand, ran on his long legs down to the farmhouse, with Karen in pursuit. Mrs. Ames stood with arms akimbo, while Juanita stepped forward to meet them.

"Tomma, I will take the saw. It is a General and it is a Condition Red, so everyone that can be spared should go, and go armed and provisioned. I see that Errol is coming down, and my husband. Mrs. Ames and I, we will prepare some food. Carry some also for others. The boys will do watch and watch, and when Vernie comes back from the saddle, I send him him after you."

Tomma turned to Karen. "It's short notice, but ... are you in?"

Two months ago she might well have remained noncommittal, a stance her father had recommended she keep to as long as possible in all circumstances. But as her sweat mingled with that of the others, as she burned her fingers on the ironstone bread pans and Juanita treated them, as she watched green things grow and become food for her body and theirs, she had come to think a home among others would be a good thing. Food and a people, she saw, could be fought for, like her own blood and life for which she had fought more than once.

"I believe I should go with you."

"Fair answer. You'll want all the gear from your corner; meet ya here."

"Her corner" was not in the upstairs room she'd occupied on arrival. Weeks ago she'd moved into one of the cabins. These were made of logs, twelve feet square, with a heavy door and doorbar and no windows, only loopholes. Even the roofs were made of logs, with rare and valuable steel roofing laid over. The cabin covered two sides of the farmhouse from loopholes, and was connected to it by a buried culvert which could be blocked at either end. There were two sets of bunk beds in the cabin, but Karen was the only occupant as yet.

It was good, said Mrs. Ames, that the building should be lived in, to prevent mold and such. Karen liked that its door could be barred, that it was difficult to burn, held a supply of food and water, and had an emergency exit, and she appreciated that she had been let in on the secret of these little forts and had one of them entrusted to her. It was of course very dark with its door closed, but in the cheery fall weather she kept the door open as often as she could, and sat, in her little free time, in the entrance, making and mending such things as needed attention.

Karen now had two sets of "gear" – her original backpack with its fiberglass bow and arrows, re-provisioned, hung on the wall by her bed. Her new "campaign kit" such as everyone else had, stood in the corner. A bedroll, a jerkin, leggings, strong sandals made from old tires, a new and much more powerful bow as tall as she, which Errol had made of Pacific yew, and arrows of cedar, with broadheads made from large steel washers cut in half, re-shaped and sharpened. They were not as accurate as her carbon fiber arrows, but serviceable, and there were twenty, in their own quiver.
She went to her backpack and collected some items unique to herself: her old belt, with its Schrade skinner knife, and a pouch containing, among other things, her monocular, trash-bag "raincoat," and flint-and-steel. Creekers had adopted a style of long, floppy leather or cloth belt that they slipped through two steel rings and then tucked under with a kind of slip knot. She found it awkward, and preferred her old-style belt with buckle and punched holes. She was in and out of the dark room, closing the door behind her, in ninety seconds.

In the back yard of the house, Tomma, Errol, and Mr. Molinero were shipping hefty pack frames brought to the door by Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Molinero. Another, only slightly smaller, was brought for Karen, who sat down, tied her bedroll around the top and sides with vintage clothesline, shrugged into the wool-rope straps, and was given a hand up by Errol. Each dipped a steel, plastic, or aluminum cup in a water bucket on the table by the door, drank it off, and turned to go. Juanita planted a quick kiss on her husband's cheek – anything more demonstrative was held unseemly along the Creek – and Karen barely caught her whisper: "Jeeah go with you."

Mr. Molinero, as the oldest, wore a long thin whistle on a thong round his neck. He led out, with Tomma close behind him. The Creek Road beckoned, dappled with early afternoon sunlight through autumn leaves under a mackerel sky – change in the weather coming.

Tomma carried, along with his bedroll and pack frame and bag, his irreplaceable replica Hawken rifle and a leather pouch on a shoulder strap. The others had bows, like Karen's, all made by Errol the carpenter. Errol also had with him a few basic tools, including a cruiser's axe with a smooth ash handle, tucked into the webbing of his pack sack. All wore stout leather jerkins on the same pattern as that worn by Karen.

As they walked together, they came upon four members of the Wilson household from across the Creek, in getup similar to their own, but with broad-brimmed leather hats. They all carried Errol-made crossbows. The tallest, a man of perhaps twenty in a close-cropped black beard, stepped over to Emilio and shook hands. "Emilio, Tomma, everyone, good seeing."

"Good, Allyn. You know Karen?" Tomma gestured toward her.

"We've met already." Smiling, but suddenly shy, Allyn stood with his hands by his sides.

Karen ended the awkward pause, "Tomma, while you were away I was at Wilson's with David and Raul, drying apples."

Allyn smiled. "Speaking of which, we have some to share, I think." He turned to the others. "Stannin?"
"Oh, yeah." Stannin, a round-faced youth of some thirteen winters came forward with a white canvas bag marked "PNLA Portland 2014." An antique, still serviceable. It was filled with dehydrated apple slices. Karen, along with the other Ames farmers, took a handful, and absently read out the advertising as she did so.

"You can read?" Stannin asked, wonderingly.

"Mmm, these are nice. Yes." Karen had been slow to discover that literacy was disappearing as the second-generation Creekers reached adulthood. There was little to read, so she was out of practice herself; and the educational goals, for now, of Starvation Creek leaned toward agriculture, manual trades, first aid, and marksmanship. An apprenticeship program was said to be in the works, but, so far, it seemed to her everything was still catch-as-catch-can. Karen had herself been put to learning the baking of barley cakes and oat cakes, many of which, rolled in broad leaves, were in her pack frame at the moment.

"Let us move our feet," said Emilio. "I see the Jones and the Holyroods go ahead of us, and they are opening a wide lead."