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, October 11, 2014

32

Josep walked point.

    Marleena, who'd been tracking the new wolf pack, had smelled a burn. So early in the year, it could not be a forest fire. A tendril of spring breeze, with just a hint of someone's breakfast smoke, had curled itself round a hill, then wreathed across the unoccupied valley to the south, and lapped at the boundary ridge. So it had to be investigated.
Josep took four men with him, all that their tribe could spare, each laden with enough pemmican to get through several days. If it turned out to be nothing, they could look for venison on the way back. Fall venison was much preferred, but no one at Roundhouse would turn down venison at any time. Life had been hard.
    Josep, slim and golden-haired with a suggestion of golden beard, still had a bounce in his step and cockiness in his eye after the winter, which came partly from his youth and his upbringing, and partly from his habit of finding and eating green things even in the dark of the year. If he felt "scurved" and nothing else was available, he would ask Marleena to make up some fir-needle tea for him – which she would do, scolding and fussing, saying that no good could come of drinking from a tree anyone could smell was poisonous.
    As the sun reached down through the gray murk, with another moon of winter to go, the people of Roundhouse had begun to shake loose the cold and to speak with a little more cheer – another winter survived, the Lord be praised. And as they padded along the animal trails across the hills, the men limbered up in spite of themselves. With so much new foliage curling from the buds, and robins and other spring birds already at hand, lilting in the sprouting branches, whose was the heart so sodden with rain that he would not respond?
    But no one whistled. Danger always lurked around the bends in this world.
    The chief danger was Man; all at the Roundhouse knew that. Had they not come together from disparate remnants of pilgrim bands that had been preyed upon and harried the length of the Highway of Death? And each group that had come in had given up tales of horrors – corroborated by several attacks that had reduced their numbers. The few firearms had gone silent, one by one, and the new tribe had perforce leaned to make and use bows and other tools of distant memory. But it had been almost twenty years now; a way of life had coalesced and there had been no new attack for almost a decade. Yet memory of loss and suffering is long. The few children were still told tales of an evil people that had gnawed their way upriver from Port Land and destroyed the outlying farms.
    A huge barn, built of cement on a circular pattern, with a metal roof, had been the tribe's salvation. The Port Landers were ill provisioned and had spent themselves and their ammunition against the thick round wall. This blessed fort, with the hole knocked in the center of the roof for the smoke from the Fire, had become home, as there was room in it for all the valley's survivors of that war. Some there were, now, who hunted, fished, farmed, and patrolled, and had never known a home besides the Roundhouse. One of those, even now, the youngest of their party, trailed in Josep's wake.
    Ranging ahead of Josep, loping along on long legs and circling back from time to time to report her satisfaction with the journey's offerings, a glorious creature served as the party's "point man." In former times she might have been identified as half Irish Wolfhound and half Golden Retriever. With her nose for business she increased the party's efficiency a thousandfold. Named Krall, for the way she had ingratiated herself, dragging along on her belly from child to child in the Roundhouse, tail thumping, she was everyone's favorite scout.
    A brief reconnaissance of the South Valley, which was known ground, showed that no one had taken up residence in the ruined and collapsed houses and barns, or the many fields which had grown up into tangled woods of fir, ash, and maple. Someone had gone through all the buildings long ago, and systematically emptied them out. Leery of ever meeting these people, who must surely have been numerous, the Roundhouse tribe had kept their visits to the place minimal. The vague hope faded that perhaps a lone traveler or small band had made the reported smoke. A decision must be made.
    Josep called a parley and the men gathered together to speak quietly among themselves in a deep thicket of hawthorns, shrouded in old-man-vine. All around them, swallowtail butterflies flitted – it was too early for swallowtails, but that was the way with everything – each year, insects, plants, and all kinds of birds and animals did something sooner than anyone remembered seeing it done. It was as if the great flat world were tilting itself more and more toward the sun, and summer would someday last all year.
    Krall curled in and out among them, fretting – she had crossed the spoor of the wolves. These were not counted a danger. Josep strung his bow, nonetheless, and pulled his fingerless deerskin glove onto his right hand. The others, silently observant, did the same.
    "I am for going to the top of the next hill, for once," asserted their young leader. "All these years we have not looked there. Our ignorance of the place springs from a just caution, but it is as dangerous as knowledge, and over time, becomes the more dangerous of the two."
    "It is so," said the next man, Bolo. A bigger, older, and not unwise handyman, dark brown, with a long brown beard streaked with red and a bush of dark brown hair on his head, with gray at the temples, Bolo might in earlier times have been labeled autistic and left to subsist in some den on food stamps and old movies. But at Roundhouse he had a life, and knew, from things his parents had said to each other, his good fortune. Always he agreed with the younger Josep, but, as Josep was a far-seeing youth, this seldom led Bolo into error.
    The others were less enthused, but no game had crossed their path to distract them from the present mission, and among the men, more so than among the women of the tribe, there remained something of a thirst to see the world. They agreed to push on.
    Late in the day, crossing amuddy opening among the fir trees that was populated with small, gnarly willows, the party came upon the crest of the ridge, among rhododendrons and bear grass. The hill was wooded on the south as well as the north and offered little in the way of a view. But, as here the best human nose among them did detect the hint of smoke that had alerted Marleena, Josep elected to climb an open-grown fir – it had retained its lower branches and could serve as a ladder. Propping his bow against it, he vanished into the tree's canopy, while Krall whined her annoyance at Josep's disappearance until shushed by Bolo.
    The sun had made its way within two hands of the horizon when Josep, sweating, scratched, and spattered with resin and flakes of bark, descended among them.
    What had he seen, they all wished to know.
    Wondrous things.
    The whole valley to the south of them appeared inhabited. There were farms! Perhaps four times as many as the Roundhouse people had once had; maybe more. The fields were small, as at Roundhouse, but surrounded by cultivated hedges; they radiated from a cart track that followed a small river. Furthermore, in most of the fields there were small windmills! – he had watched, amazed, their white sails flitting in the evening breeze. Far to the left there was a long, low building, with activity around it, and traffic of some sort – could it be oxen?! – between there and an obscure place, already in evening shadow, on the mountain to the south. The mountain was much bigger than the one on which they stood, and was bare at its summit. Smoke trailed east from at least ten valley chimneys into the high hills; some spring eddy must have taken it out of its normal way, betraying, for once, the complacent anonymity of the place.
    "With so much farming, it may be these are a friendly people," Josep observed. "Perhaps we should sleep here, and try to speak to someone in the morning."
    But to such an abrupt and momentous decision none of the others, save Bolo, could assent. This matter must be brought to the Fire at Roundhouse. Then, if it was the will of the tribe, a return journey might be made, with an offer of parley. Josep could see the wisdom of this view, and easily assented. But in some corner of his heart, his patience was thin. So much might be learned! Trade might even now be initiated; and the high tide of poverty at Roundhouse might begin to recede at last.
As one, they melted away into the shadows.

:::

Tomma and Vernie each seized one end of the long handles of the log tongs.
    Horses and oxen were needed elsewhere, as the spring weather had come early and stayed long. The gardens were not plowed, but planted from hothouse starts through a yearlong mulch of straw, to conserve water. Such methods were not practical at field scale, and those in charge of barley, oats and wheat favored the traditional moldboard plow, harrow, and manure cart. If weather favored the field hands, as it did this year, the woods hands must supply their own labor unaided.
    The tongs, like a pair of ice tongs, consisted of two long hooked bars of iron, joined together like a pair of scissors, suspended from a wooden rod that extended three feet on each side. Any fir tree from the lower slopes of Maggie's Hill, less than a foot in diameter, might be fair game. It would be cut down with a pair of axes and limbed, then de-barked with an iron "spud," a kind of large chisel on a long handle like that of a hoe, so that the log would slide easily. Two loggers would choose and cut a tree together, then one would limb while the other rested, and the other would spud while the first rested, and then, with the tongs, they would skid the tree down to one of the farms, to be added to a pile near the sawbuck.
In this way were loggers warmed out of doors in all weather, and the farmers and families warmed in the kitchens.
Larger trees were left until a team of oxen could be assigned to the task. New land for farming, should enough labor be found to do it, was added to the Creek's inventory in this way.
    "Left! Go left, dang it!" said Vernie in exasperation.
    "I am!" replied Tomma. "Just do it; I'll stay with you."
    "I can never tell if you're going to, that's the trouble."
    "S'cuz I'm taller and don't take as many steps."
    "Well, bully for you. Oka-a-y, we're going through these huckleberries here, then slip over the ash log and down to the hedge."
    "I'm there; step high, Vernie, there's trailing blackberry all through here."
    "Save your breath."
    "Let's sit down and I'll catch my breath."
    They dropped the tongs and sat in the sunshine. Below them, folks at Maggie's were hitching the big Belgian to a new tooth harrow; far to the right, new smoke rose from the kitchen at New Ames', formerly known as Savage Mary's.
    "Mrs. A. and Mrs. M. have started dinner," noted Vernie. "Last year's oatmeal and some dandelions, I bet."
    "Well, that would be my fault; I let all those trout get out of the trap."
    "Things happen, sweetie."
    "Y'think Karen's gonna make it to th' table?"
    "Dunno, busy, busy gal these days."
    "Yah, don't even know half of what she's – whoa!" Tomma was staring into the slash and brush uphill.
    Vernie was quick on the uptake. A bear, or wolves, or coyotes, or even a cougar would not have provoked such stillness in Tomma's manner. "Arm?" Vernie asked.
    "Yes. Now." Leaving the tongs where they lay, both ran sidehill to where their bows and quivers leaned against a tree, and made cover behind an "ox-sized" log before slipping into their quivers, which also bore their short swords. Vernie watched as Tomma lay down and braced himself to string his bow, then Tomma nocked and watched while Vernie followed suit.
    Vernie came up nocked and ready. There had not been time to don armguards; this was an issue for Vernie, who had a lot of scar tissue on his bow forearm and stood to rip flesh if it came to loosing an arrow. So it goes, he thought. "Whatcha got?"
    "No idea, but it sounded to me like a two-legs on the sneak."
    They stared uphill. For some time, there was nothing; then a crow squawked peculiarly; it was seeing something it neither expected nor liked. Both men drew their fletching back to their cheeks and aimed uphill.
A very large dog, wearing a leather collar, bounded up onto a log, looked at them briefly, gave two sweeps of its tail, and disappeared.
   "What the –" breathed Vernie.
    "Gee, a dog. Cheery-looking and belongs to somebody."
    "Tomma, why is it always you and me that have these alien encounters?"
    "It's not; remember Mo-reen. Keep sharp."
    They waited. The crow continued with its conniption fit. After a long interval, a young man with long yellow hair, dressed in buckskin like Maggie, slowly and deliberately walked to a stump, climbed it, and stood up in full view, both hands in the air, palms out.
    "Hiya."
    "I'll be damned. I guess that means 'parley'," said Tomma.
    "Now what?" asked Vernie.
    "Now you watch the brush really, really good, and if
someone stands up to shoot, put your arrow right through him, is what."
    "You gonna break cover?"
    "He did. That's brave and it asks for trust; if they get me they must know you might get away and raise the Creek on 'em. To prevent that, they would have had to shoot us while we were sitting ducks." Tomma laid aside his bow and shucked his quiver.
    "Ah-h-h-h, I hate this," said Vernie. "Let's hope it's better'n that Lawson fellow."
    "Sharp eye, that's all. Here goes." Tomma stood up and put out both palms. "Hey," he called out.
    The blond youth grinned relief. Either that or he was a superb actor. "Sir, I must admit your friend there really, really scares me, " he shouted. "He looks like he knows what he is doing. I, uh, I am shaking like a leaf."
    Tomma shouted back. "Well, so am I; I don't know how many of you there are but I can feel eyes. I'm guessing I'm covered by some weapons too."
    "Well, everyone must do what they must do. I do not mind telling you I have not done this before. We are a people, as you are, and we have had talks about how to meet you."
    "Umm, well, for starters, don't rush things. We've been through a lot of hell lately and we're a trigger-happy bunch. And, 'course, we don't know but what you've got diseases we don't have, and vice versa."
    "Yes, that makes sense. Suggestions?"
    Without taking eyes off the woods, Vernie whispered. "Tomma, if they're on the level, see if they'll send one rep for quarantine."
    "Sounds good." Tomma raised his voice. "Ahh, so, we do have a procedure in place, and it has worked for us before. Ya got a name?"
     "You may call me Josep."
    "'K, well, I'm Tomma. So, let's say well met, provisionally; are you prepared to come, alone, and stay in isolation in our clinic for two weeks?"
    "Clinic! Is this a city? But I should not pry. So, quarantine. You are very wise. Would I be able to talk with anyone?"
    "Yes, the doctors and maybe a few specialists at first. Then we could see 'bout getting you back home with greetings and who knows, maybe some proposals."
    "May I have a few moments, please?"
    "Consultation, eh?"
    The young man grinned engagingly. "It is wise to travel in company. I will be right back." He hopped down from the stump and disappeared.
    Tomma immediately realized his unilateral exposure and did the same, gasping for breath. "Jeeah, this is scary stuff. Like painting myself with a target and subbing for the archery butts."
    "Tomma, I think there are at least three, with the dog."
    "And a 'people,' somewhere, if they're being straight with us. Presumably not on Decker Creek; we come up snake eyes every time we look there."
    "Next valley over, then; we should have gone to see."
    "Well, can't do everything, y'know. And you're right, somehow it's always you and me, and if we had blundered into dogs who knows how it might have turned out?"
    "He's back."
    Tomma checked; the palms-out stance had been resumed. He clambered up and did the same.
    The stranger called out. "How about an exchange? One to come to our place and one to come to yours?"
    Tomma felt there was an answer to this but felt woolly-headed.
    Vernie saw the difficulty and prompted him. "Tell him we'll set a date; full moon or something, for a second go-round. That we have to consult, too, 'cuz the two of us don't have the authority for an official decision."
    Tomma made the suggestion, and it was accepted with surprising speed.
    "We like it," said the stranger. "If your people agree to meet and exchange visitors, how about we use the little clearing by the steel barn in the valley to the north of here? In, say, six days?"
    Full moon. "I can't guarantee it, here and now, but I know of no reason why not. Assuming it happens, say three people from each side meet, exchange one? We'll have to quarantine our crew when they come back with you; and you might want to do the same."
    A short delay. Then: "This is good. We will be there. Going now; please do not follow."
    "Follow a crew that's got a watchdog? Trust me; nobody's coming up that hill."
    The blond guy laughed a hearty laugh and jumped down from the stump. Vernie caught a glimpse of a large black man, or perhaps mulatto like himself. And then the woods were quiet.
    "Huh." Vernie kept his stance and his lookout, but relaxed his arrow arm a little. "I think that was on the level."
    "That or they are damned good actors. Think I gave away too much?"
    "Well ... that was properly cagey, but they do probably know now that the Creek has no dogs."
    "Damn. Well, didya see that guy that accidentally showed himself?"
    "Yes. Tomma, to me his presence is reassuring; surely these people are not Kluxers."
    "That would be nice; anyway, they're sure not skinheads." Tomma re-armed himself. "So let's wait till the crows calm down; they're our watchdogs. Then one of us can stash the tools under a cedar and we'll hie us home to supper and see about getting word to Hall of this thing."
    Vernie gripped Tomma's shoulder. "Let's do that; I was ready for a short day and this is as good an excuse as any I've seen – in a long time."

:::

Karen of Ridge hiked down the mountain's road in her cedar-bark rain cape. Not that it was raining at the moment, but it might at any time, and there was still a bit of winter's chill in the air. She felt her sword belt pulling around to the left as she walked, and adjusted it with her hand. The cape was twisting as well. This came, she knew, of having a lopsided body. Perhaps she should learn to walk without swinging her hand.
    As she came round one of the hairpin turns in the cart track, she met an ox team huffing up to Ridge. It was led by Yamaguchi, a particular friend. She stepped out of the way, and Guchi led the team past, then stopped the cart beside her.
     "Hey, you," he said. He patted one of the animals on the head, and sat down, leaning against the bole of a bent fir tree.
    "Hey, yourself. How many loads are left?" Karen flexed her knees, but didn't sit; she still felt awkward getting back up, and preferred keeping things simple.
    "It's going to be about six, maybe seven. Savage Mary had a lot of stuff down there."
    "So, we're almost done."
    "Yah-yah. Your family is all moved in now, by the way. The rest of this stuff will be from outbuildings."
    "So I heard."
    "They've kept you up here this whole time; what do you do all day?"
    "Well, a lot of it is reading and recitation; I'm studying chemistry and metallurgy."
    "Has Old Mary got special plans for you, then?"
    "Not this year; we have power for manufacturing, for the time being, so we're going to see if we can make some things we might need, 'down the road.'"
    "Uh-huh, I hear what you're not saying. Some of that is war stuff. Why do you all think that guy's coming back?"
    "Well, I'm the only one who saw him go. Except maybe Mr. Angle."
    "And?"
    "He didn't walk like a loser."
    "Woo, so, readiness regime."
    "'Everyone always prepares for the last war.' We're trying to learn new stuff and be ready for the next one."


:::

It was almost dark when Karen reached New Ames. She'd seen the porch before, of course, several times, but she'd never gone up the walk. There was no railing for the wooden steps, so she took them mindfully, and let herself in by the whitewashed front door.
    "Home? Ho, ho house?"
    "Karen? That is really you?" She heard Juanita's voice from down the hall, kitchen-way. "Come straight back; I am up to here in flour."
    Karen hung up her wide-brimmed rain hat and pulled the thong of her cape. She slipped the buckle of her belt as well, and found a spare nail in the wall on which to hang her belongings. Walking down the dim hallway, she found an open door on the right, and looked in. Quick, small Juanita, as absorbed in kitchen things as ever, stood by a work counter with her hair in a bun and a large bowl in front of her, much as Karen imagined she would find her. The bowl was rotating as Juanita stirred.
    Karen stood beside her. "Hold that for you?"
    For a split second, Juanita seemed hesitant; their eyes met. Karen put into her own eyes an expression that said: I will not be treated as an invalid.
Juanita's eyes replied, no, indeed. "Please, yes. Around to the back. And as I stir with this hand, I tip in a bowlful of flour, so! And the dough is stiffening, so I put both hands to the soup spoon, so. And now it is like old times."
    "Barley?"
    They both laughed.
    "Yes, but Mr. Avery has sent down extra wheat this year, and so in spite of the troubles, we feed everyone easily. Now hand to me the big jar with the veg flakes, and we will put some in – "
    "Turnip greens and kale?"
    "Also beet greens, a little chard, dandelion, cabbage. To keep sickness from the door." Juanita twisted off the lid, poured a half cup of the dehydrated, crumbled foliage into her hand, dumped most of it in, and returned the rest to the jar.
    "So now, it is a little thicker, and the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, and we set aside the spoon. What do you do?"
    "I cover this bowl, and set it out back to stay cool overnight, so as not to rise too quickly, and bake tomorrow."
    "It is so! Our Karen forgets nothing. So do that, please, and come back and we will set table for – eight, I think; make that nine, as there is a guest – bowls! Spoons! Soup, and we can dip in it last week's bread. Yah?"
    Karen pulled the big bowl to her, covered it with its lid, gripped it against her ribs with her hand, and moved to the back door. For a moment she puzzled over the doorknob, then leaned the bowl against the door, turned and pulled the knob shuffling backwards, put her foot in the gap, returned her hand to the bowl, kicked the door open, and carried her burden to the cooling shelf in the back mudroom. Here was yet another puzzle, for the shelf was higher than the one at Ames, but she solved that by discovering a small stepladder .By ascending the ladder and crouching against the ceiling a bit, Karen was able to shove the bowl into place one-handed.
     Where there is a will ...it was slow, it was more work, but all things would have to be done so.
    When she returned, she found dishes and utensils for nine on the counter, and Juanita by the pump, cleaning her arms and hands in a washbowl. Karen set the kitchen table, which was an old one with leafs at the ends, which she puzzled over for a moment, then pulled them out to make room for everyone.
    "See," said Juanita, "you are always at home everywhere! I am still not used to this place; I liked our old farm and kitchen the best, yah? Warm in winter and cool in summer."
    "Yes, the sunken kitchen was the best way. Perhaps we could take up this floor and rebuild more to our liking?"
    "When the farming is caught up, maybe, you think? But when, ever, is farming caught up?"
    Mrs. Ames put her head around the door. "Oh, my, who have we here?"
    Karen felt a shock; Mrs. Ames had visibly aged in the last two moons. "Umm, me."
    "'Umm, me,' she says. "Honey, may I hug you?"
    Hugging was never Karen's strong suit; but she had made an exception for Mrs. Ames almost from the day she'd met her. The large woman came in, with a bit of a wobble in her step, and swept Karen into one long, farm-red arm, handing a basket to Juanita with the other.
    "Here's y'dandelions, 'n some garlic greens, is there time to steam that for dinner?"
    "There is a sunchoke soup, today; I will cut them up small and add them to it and they will wilt in time for everyone to come in, I think, and enjoy."
    "Thank you, dear; I have to sit down! Whew! Karen, girl, stop looking like you need something to do and sit and let me just look at you a bit!"
    "Yes, ma'am."
    "'Yes, ma'am.' That's all I ever heard from you at Ames, but now you're th' biggie, and th' guest of honor, too. How do ya like our new digs?"
    "I'm sure there is more space here than before."
    "They must be teachin' ya politics. It's not as comfy; colder in th' cold, so it'll be hotter in th' hot, I'm thinkin'. Cows wouldn't care for th' pasturage as much, neither."
    "Wouldn't?"
    "Well, Florence up and died on us; th'mastitis whipped us. And th' rest had found homes – y'know; spread th' joy. I'm too tired these days t'do much of that stuff any more anyhow." Mrs. Ames propped her elbow on the table, almost knocking over an empty glass. Juanita brought over a pitcher of water, and moved the glass away unobtrusively. "So – whatcha been doing?"
    "Me? Math, chemistry, metals. We're re-learning how to analyze materials – spectroscopy."
    "Huh? Girl, that's a ten-Amero word if I ever heard one!"
    "Oh – well, Dr. Savage took a prism from a smashed pair of binoculars and mounted it on a frame. I burn known things over a spark gap, observe the rainbow on the wall, and list its "lines" – we're going to try to duplicate some compounds from before the Undoing. It's not quality spectroscopy but we're learning."
    "Ya, well, ya got me, honey. Nita, ya got everything under control?"
    "Yes, Mrs. Ames, the soup is ready and I will ring the bell." Juanita hung up her apron and stepped out the back.
    "Thank you, honey." Mrs. Ames returned her attention to Karen. "They all think I'm on my way out, for cryin' out loud, but I at least offer to pull my own weight. C'n do it, too, if I don't rush it." She looked down at her hand-sewn moccasins. "'It's these fool things; can't always tell where I'm puttin' my feet, in 'em."
    The bell, which was the old iron pipe from Ames, sang under the poll of the hand axe. David Molinero, looking bigger and older than Karen remembered, came in through the door with a load of firewood. He nodded to Karen, who nodded back. It wouldn't do to fuss over the boys, even if Karen were the fussing kind. They were at that age, sensitive to adult scrutiny. And what about me? Have I never left "that age?"
    Juanita, who'd held the door open for him, came in briskly, closing it behind her. "There will be no need to feed the fire; we are done for the day, I think. Drop those in the woodbox and wash up, yah?"
    He did so, morosely.
    Footsteps, with the scraping noises that accompany mud season, began to resound from the mudroom.
    Errol came in, followed by Emilio, Raoul, and Vernie. They greeted Karen, each in his own way, washed their hands and faces and came to the table. A brief offering of the bland, but sufficient, meal was made to Jeeah by Mrs. Ames, at the head of the table.
    "So, where's Tomma?" asked Mrs. Ames, ladling out soup with a shaking hand. Vernie kept his bowl in motion beneath the ladle, so that none would spill.
    "Well, we had an adventure."
    "He's not hurt?" Juanita paused by the stove, where she was fetching barley cakes from the warming shelf.
    "No, he's at Hall, on the phone to Mr. Avery. We've been debriefing all afternoon. We met some people."
    Karen stopped, spoon halfway to her mouth. "So, not Creekers?"
    "No, apparently the valley north of Decker Creek has a group, not so different from us. We only met a patrol, but they say they are about fifty, I think."
    "Please. Tell it from the beginning," requested Emilio.
    "Umm, maybe between bites?" Vernie picked up a cake and held it in the steam from his bowl.
    "That is to be expected; who isn't hungry?" asked Emilio. "The days are longer and we are feeling it in our bones. This farm was somewhat neglected."
    "Okay, and it's maybe the fifth time I've told this today."
    Vernie recounted the encounter with the party from Roundhouse, with interruptions, over the course of the meal. Karen could see that everyone had their own reaction, mostly apprehensive, to the story. What would it mean to make extended contact with a group who had obviously developed a parallel culture, alike but different? Did they have anything, besides potentially dogs, to offer? What about diseases? Points of conflict in belief?
    "You're looking thoughtful." Errol was watching Karen, as the others were getting up from table and moving toward the front room.
    "Lots to think about. Clashing religions, maybe." She rose and picked up his bowl and hers.
    "I'll help clear." Errol began reaching for bowls and utensils as well. "Tell me your own views – I've never heard you make an offering to Jeeah."
    "I think I get what that's about – didn't Elsa Chaney start it? Something about being grateful to the Earth."
    "So it is, but it's growing into a real religion, somehow."
    "But you don't seen over-enthused."
    "Well, I like straight-grained ash for some jobs, curly maple for others. I'm guessing you're a bit like me."
    Karen lowered the bowls into the warm water in the sink, which was mildly foamy from the lye-soap that had been shaved into it. "Maybe so. I was brought up on books and magazines and discussion. One of my father's regular sayings was that one should not seek additional explanations."
    "Occam."
    "You know about him! Well, okay. So I was reading in a magazine about birds."
    "Birds?"
    There was a – a photograph of an albatross chick that had been – raped by an adult male that couldn't find a mate in the colony. And so its neck was bleeding. And the smaller birds, mockingbirds with special beaks, came and pecked at the wound to keep it bleeding, so they could have blood to drink. They had in fact evolved to do this – to live on the blood of raped chicks."
    "An arid island, I presume."
    "Yes! An arid island. Gaia – Jeeah – doesn't provide. The blood provides. What's there is what's there, and what isn't, isn't in it. It's sufficient explanation."
    "Gotcha." Errol, privately pained by Karen's struggles with the washing up, edged across and took over the bowls. Karen seemed preoccupied enough that he was sure he could get away with it.
    "So," she began, looking over her shoulder toward the front room. "Mm, what's with Mrs. Ames?"
    "Parkinson's. Marcee – she's been studying up – told us."
    "Oh."
    Juanita came in from the front room and strode over to the wood stove. She held her hand palm down over the soup, nodded her head in satisfaction, and looked over to them. "Karen, this has cooled enough for our other guest, perhaps you would take him his dinner?"
    "Oh! Was that what the ninth bowl was about?"
    "Yes; he's not well; but insisted on visiting with us so as to see you when you arrived."
    Errol added, unsmilingly, "Upstairs in bed, door at the end. I've got it covered here."
    Karen took the half-filled bowl, with a spoon, from Mrs. Molinero. Why all the solemnity? Well, she would go and see.
A gesture from Errol found her the door to the staircase, and she made her way up toward such light as the landing afforded. Here there was an unadorned hallway, with assorted sacks piled along the walls. These no doubt contained goods from Ames which had not yet found homes. Karen tapped at the last door, which was cracked open, with her foot, then kneed the door open and looked in.
    The room was half-filled with boxes, barrels and sacks. Among them, Karen saw her yew bow and Aleesha's compound bow. In the other half, Allyn lay in a straw tick bed that had been made up on the floor. Outside, the last light was fading from a gray day over Maggie's Hill.

Allyn looked up from his pillow. "Well, hey. I wondered, was I going to be fed." He smiled.
    Karen was struck by two things: one, that she had always liked that smile, for its gentleness. The other was that there was a pervading "sourness" in the air. It reminded her forcibly of the war. "Of course you are. Juanita didn't want to burn your lips, I guess."
    "K, well, c'n you help me sit up? There's an extra pillow."
    Karen knelt and set down the bowl. She arranged the pillows and Allyn, shoving against the mattress with his feet, scrunched himself up to a sitting posture. His right stump flailed to help him keep his balance. The left, which was wearing fresh bandages, he held away from himself, stiffly. Karen reached for the nearby tin-can alky lamp and lit it with one of the ubiquitous new strike-anywhere matches she'd helped design. Then she pulled the bowl closer to her knees and lifted out a spoonful of the soup.
    "Dinner?"
    "Yes, please."
    She gave him a spoonful.
    "Ack. Jerusalem artichoke."
    "'S'good for you. Hang on a second."
    Karen found it difficult offering the spoon from the right, and moved round to the left side of the bed. They spoke between his swallows.
    "Adjustments," observed Allyn. "We learn fast."
    "Mnh. Eat."
    "Yes'm."
    "What's with the bandages?"
    "You never did beat around the bush. Dunno, they can't keep it clean. We tried the pross – pross –"
    "Prostheses."
    " – hook things, and I guess it was too soon. There's stuff going on in this one." He waved his left stump, then blanched visibly.
    "You try too hard. I said, just teach."
    "Well, I was always hands-on." He smiled again.
    She gave him the last bite, and set the spoon down in the empty bowl. Drawing a bit of cloth from her possibles bag, she dabbed at his chin. "So, you came up to see me? Where were you?"
    "Rogers' – New Wilson, I guess. I was working at the old Wilson's, showing the kids how to prune, and came down with fever. Went home, and now I'm just the boy next door."
    Karen's knees began to bother her, so she switched to squatting on her heels. "Didn't you go to the clinic?"
    "Oh, yeah, they've seen more of me than anybody else. 'Sick' of me by now. 'Specially Marcee, I think she thinks I'll give the baby something."
    "What are they doing for the arm?"
    "Everything they can, which is damned little. There's a 'pungent ungeunt', which I think is mostly bear fat, soldier-weed and poppy juice, and lots of comfrey tea. And they say I shouldn't move around too much; the bad stuff travels more in the bloodstream. I had myself brought up here in a stretcher, actually. Everyone's been very kind."
    Was that sweat? Karen felt his forehead. "Damn it. I'm not liking this at all."
    "I was kind of hoping you'd say that. Listen, uh, shit, I don't know how to say it."
    "Just be direct, like me."
    They looked at each other.
    "Okay, I will. What, umm, what time of the month are you?"
    For three heartbeats, Karen said nothing at all. Then she made up her mind. "Be right back."
    "Not going anywhere," he smiled again, radiant this time.
    Karen stood up, crossed over to the open door, peeked into the hall, then turned back into the room, kicking the door shut behind her.