by Bob Sojka
“Don't never forget, it were snowballs done it. It weren’t no nookular nothin’, no germs, no geehaddies, no globular swarming, no quakey shakes, or nanobots. None o’ them. It were millions of giant snowballs. They come poundin’ down with tails of fire.”
Rough gritty hands on the ragged thighs of his smoke-scented insulated overalls, Jake leaned toward the circle of small fry gathered round the crackling fire’s warmth. Their mouths hung open under sauce pan eyes as he told of the Shatter Flood. It was probably the last time he’d ever tell this story. He grinned back at them with wry pleasure.
This would be his last winter. He was no longer crucial to clan survival and unable to feed himself. Soon enough he'd be sent across the river and left to die. It was a harsh rule, but necessary for the clan to endure. No exceptions.
No use appealing. After all, Jake made the rule when he was nineteen-- fifty years and a hundred ghosts ago. The first one sent across the river was Wooly Joe, the last clan member to actually know a few folk still alive that had been young when the snowballs came. Wooly Joe-- Jake’s pa.
Jake tasted a salty drop that had run down the rills of his weathered face and through the tangled forest of his beard. It dribbled off the edge of his upper lip and slid onto his tongue. He wondered if it was sweat from the fire’s heat or a long withheld tear.
Jake figured that some probably took pleasure knowing the rule would soon play out against him. But they didn’t know what Jake knew about living an entire life keeping ghosts alive. He became the custodian of the stories of all those he had condemned. It became a duty as profound as making the decisions.
As the years passed he developed a knack for pulling up old memories. Even though many were memories of other folks’ stories, they’d come to feel like his own. Some were fuzzy incomplete memories, but he treated all memories as sacred, meant to be preserved by telling them over and again.
“Millions of icy snowballs,” he opened an outstretched hand above his head, “only big suckers. Big enough to...”
A fist sized snowball whizzed past, barely missing his face, smacking into the pile of empty cans that fanned out from the wall behind him-- artifacts of the civilization washed away by The Shatter Flood.
“Snowballs like that one?”
Buster ran behind the fur clad pack of kids to hide in one of the floor’s potholes. He giggled and squealed as Jake, in pretend anger, hobbled after him amid the clatter of cans. He masked his pain, scooped up the moldy rag doll child, and carried him upside down before the circle, laying him across his knees.
Jake and the mutts, as he called the grungy pack, were all about drama. He swung his arm high for effect, then nuzzled his prickly beard into the soft stinking skin of the eight year old’s neck as his hand descended to his tickle spot. Laughter gushed from the wriggling youngster, spilling into the darkness beyond the campfire.
The night air huffed amid the slumped concrete slabs and pillars, creaking the doors of the rusted karzntruk hulks that they slept in to hide from wolves and the babbling nomadic aykay bandits from the southlands. The ancient parkungarge caves stored the clan’s hoard of pickings from the youztabee times that they’d defended since the Shatter Flood.
Jake was old now. The clan still deferred to him, respected him and mined his memories. But since his injury the previous summer, he was unable to hunt, keep up on foraging treks, or properly man the defenses. He could barely grub out roots, bulbs and asparagus, or pick berries after his fall. Soon there would be little charity-- none if the winter was harsh. Once his larder was depleted, the young bucks who’d sired the mutts would take him away.
Meanwhile, Jake guarded the mutts when the clan scavenged in the limestone bluffs above the river or attacked squatters in their valley. Sometimes the young bucks and their women tossed him scraps from these forays, but nothing he could store. Even the women would sweep Jake aside once he became a drag on their mutts’ survival.
Buster was nearly out of breath from the tickle torture.
“Say uncle, you shaggy mutt.” Jake growled the words.
Buster protested a final wriggled protest, and then gave in. The mutts jigged around the fire. Buster lay exhausted on Jake’s lap.
“So, where was I?”
“Snow balls,” shouted Shasta. “Big ones.”
“Yeah. The telly-skopes tellied they was acomin’, but...”
“What’s a telly-skope, Poppa Jake?” said Wart.
“They’s the skeye-balls that seen through the night and tellied the everywhere clans in the youztabee times what was acomin’ from the way-far-away sky.”
“That’s it Wart. Flyin’ eyeballs in the sky.”
The flabbergasted mutts drew closer to Jake and the fire.
“How’d they telly the everywhere clans?” said Shaker, Wart’s red-headed twin sister.
“They talked telly-skope talk to the telly-phones and telly-visions-- the licktrick stuff of the everywhere clans.”
“How could flyin' eyeballs talk?” said Missy, “Did they have mouths? Eyeballs with mouths?”
“You’re the bright one, Missy. No, the telly-skopes had licktrick stuff inside their eyes that tellied messages to earth licktrick stuff with licktrick tellypathy.”
“Wuh was it mmm...muh...mmmagic?” asked Tom in breathy amazement. The shy fourteen year-old was big for his age, but always held back, embarrassed to speak.
“There ain’t no magic!” Jake stood abruptly, forgetting Buster on his lap, who thumped onto the frigid concrete. Jake's tone sharpened. How he longed to cut away the superstition and belief in magic that had grown like tumors among the mutts. His memory was deep enough to know they were confused substitutes for real knowledge.
“Magic ended even before the youztabee times. The everywhere clans were smart." He rapped his head, glaring at the mutts. "They traded it in for real wonders-- licktrickery and kemikills and,” he paused, rubbing his nose on his tattered sleeve, “and sigh-hints.”
The burden of being the only survivor who really grasped what had actually been lost overcame him. Decades of anguish ignited his speech.
“The snowballs exploded away all the everywhere clans and their licktrickery and kemikill fack trees. And the sigh-hints couldn’t work without it all. When the snowballs kept acomin’ and explodin’, they turned to so much water and rain all the world over that it drowned the everywhere clans-- the ones that weren’t exploded straight away by the fiery rocks inside the snowballs. It was bad times everywhere.”
He bellowed. “Fire and water at the same time-- they ate up the youztabee like a squirrel caught by a pack of winter wolves. The Shatter Flood weren’t like the flood in the long long ago Scritcher times. There weren’t no good ship lollypop to save no one, man nor beast.
"Just a few lucky high-grounders hung on. Fighting started everywhere to keep what little was left. None of the well-taught folks from the big fancy youztabee places that got ate up by the hungry growing oceans made it to safety. The giant Mrs. Hippy become a shallow inland sea with islands here and there, a few big ones, like ours. Our kin folk and a few others holed up here, fought off marauders and hung on. Soze, years and years after, when the sky calmed down, a few clans got started again. But the most important knowin' was all lost. All lost!"
He raised both arms above his head with clenched fists.
"When Wooly Joe told me the stories when I was a mutt, he always thought some of the smartest youztabee folk must of survived somewheres, but no one 'cept a few of the bandits has ever come over the river to our side. In the wet cold that come after the Shatter Flood, there ain’t never again been nothin’ like in the...”
Jake paused his rant. He’d never gotten so carried away before. Fear and confusion covered the mutts’ faces. He sat back down.
“I seen licktrickery a few times when I was just a little mutt. There was still some few gizmos that worked. Not enough to be of help any more.” He spoke slower, hushed. “But it all died before I had mutts of my own. My mutts was your mom’s and dad’s mom’s and dad’s.”
“Why did it die?” asked Missy, voice cracking.
“Coz the fack trees all died straight away. They's what used to feed the licktrickeries what they needed to keep ‘em alive. And other stuff died, too. Once upon a time things was put down in licktrick letters. When the licktricks all died, the licktrick letterin’ died with it. My old pa...”
“Wooly Joe?” asked Shaker.
“Wooly Joe.” He nodded and winked at Shaker and continued. “He told me there was once...” He paused, looking into that fog in his head that memories walked out of from time to time. “Wri-ting....” He carefully pronounced writing, as if two words. “Once there was writing-- letterin’ without the need of licktrickery. He showed me. I kept it my head and wouldn't let myself forget. I practiced scraping letters in the dirt and such. It’s important, and its why I been teachin’ a few of you the letters.”
“But letters is hard to make and remember,” said Wart.
“Ain’t hard,” said Missy. “It’s fun if you’re smart.”
Jake watched the boy-mutts hold back their resentment. He let himself be lost in thought a few seconds as the mutts argued. His eyes watered. He remembered when he was a mutt and the girls grew tits, and how in some arguments you knew you were right, or stronger and could have your way. But you held back, saying otherwise because you wanted them under a blanket, even when you were too young to know what to do with one under a blanket. The fascination of boys with the curves and soft voices of growing girls was the one constant Jake could track across his journey through time.
Well, maybe not the one constant; there were still greed and hate and fear and power. Generosity, love, and compassion had come under suspicion in a world of ice and water, desecrated by fire and flood, and crowned with stink. He knew this even though he’d never been taught all the words. The memory of the first girl he bedded was displaced by that of a frail man limping across river ice, disappearing behind a curtain of snow, waving his orange hardhat-- Wooly Joe.
Jake blinked himself back into the moment.
“Someday,” he said “you might find letters writ before licktrick writing. They was put down in them days in what was called books.”
“Put down how?” asked Buster.
“Writ with marks from writing sticks and special machines. It was writ small on thin skins of something.” He scratched his head. “Not skins. They looked like skins, cut to squares and they was made into books by tyin' 'em together on one end soze you could keep ‘em in order and flip ‘em over to look at. But the thin skins was called somethin’ else.”
“Why ain’t there no more books?” asked Shaker as she sidled up to Missy.
“Coz they rotted when they was wet and burned easy when they was dry,” said Jake. “Easier than trees or fallen leaves.” Jake’s head snapped up. He looked into some unseen space over his head. “Leaves. Leaves and... wait. It’s comin’. Payjuzzs. And they was made of somethin’ called paypurr. Books had these thin payjuzzs made from the leaves of paypurr.”
“What kinda tree is a paypurr?” asked Shasta as she joined the other two girls, pulling little Holly and Zeb along with her.
“Don’t know,” said Jake. “My pa never said, and I never seen one. But it musta had real smooth leaves to make the books. I guess they’s all gone. The forests went with the explosions and fires and floods. Forests is comin’ back slow, but I still ain't never seen any trees with leaves like the payjuzzs. Might be they weren't from around here. But here’s the important thing, mutts. What's writ in books is what makes 'em valuable. Hiztrees. Them's stories about the youztabee folk and what they did. And big long stories that would take a week of campfires to tell. And secrets.
"You ever find a book, you guard it; bring it to me, or if I’m gone, give it to one of these I been teachin’ the letters. A book’s worth more ‘n a loaded aykay.”
“No way,” said Wart. “Only another aykay stops an aykay bandit. And they been known to eat people. How’s a book gonna stop an akay bandit or teach me a razorback call, like pa done around the campfires? We like the stories you tell, Jake. We don’t need no books to tell stories. No wonder they burned ‘em up. Tellin' stories is easy. Makin' cooking fires and stayin’ warm is hard work.”
“Sound just like your old man, Wart. Dumb as stone.”
“He’d whoop you, if I told him you said that!”
“I say it to him about twice a day.”
The mutts sniggered and Wart simmered down.
“So, what does make books worth so much?" asked Shasta.
“I’m the onliest one as still can read the letters good for meaning. And I know the most about the youztabee time, so I can figure what to make of what’s writ.”
Wart and the mutts looked unconvinced.
Jake went on. “They’s worth so much coz they ain’t just campfire stories. There’s more tricks and secrets in a book than gets told at a hundred campfires. Knowledge enough to crawl back to there.” Jake pointed at a hole in the wall where a fingernail moon could just be seen slipping from behind a cloud.
“Folks of the everywhere clans traveled there, to the way-far-away sky. They did it usin’ the secrets in books. Who knows what else books can teach.”
Tom, big for his age, stood from his seat of blue and orange plastic crates. He raised his hand. The top crate clattered into some cans scattered nearby. He hesitated and whipped a diffident glance toward Missy. He so rarely contributed to conversation that everyone, including Jake, paused in anticipation.
“I...I, I, I...I, uh, I...”
“I yi yi yi yi,” taunted Wart.
“Shut up,” said Jake, grabbing Wart’s collar, shaking him into silence. “Let someone smarter ‘n you talk.”
Tom’s face flushed crimson.
“Talk, boy. Don’t let this son of a dumbass shut ya down.”
“I swear I’m tellin’ pa,” said Wart.
“You sure you know who that is?” said Missy. Even Shaker smiled.
Tom, glancing again at Missy, held his open hand toward Jake as if he were about to give him something. It was one of Tom’s enigmatic gestures that substituted for speech. It meant something like, have patience with me, or hear me out, this is important.
“Go on Tom. We’s listenin’.”
Tom curled his finger at Jake, beckoning him closer. He grabbed Jake's collar and leaned into his ear where, with his stuttering, he whispered as quietly as he could.
“I, I, suh ssseee... suh ssseeen books. Lotsa books.”
Jake’s head whipped around to stare into Tom's eyes, which widened to twice their size. Jake suppressed the urge to grab the boy. Tom spooked easily. He needed a gentle touch. When calm he could accomplish things the clan’s adult males were incapable of. Jake knew that Tom could focus, concentrate, think. He made toys for the mutts and cooking gadgets for the women. From wood and scraps of metal he fashioned new tools and weapons. And Tom and Missy, working together between flirtations, had begun to learn how to read.
Tom would disappear for days, then show up again unannounced, usually uncommunicative, withdrawn into his impenetrable shell. Sometimes he returned with useful bits and scraps from the youztabee time, unearthed somewhere during his walkabouts.
“Tom, lad, you sure about this?"
Wart was clawing his way closer to eavesdrop. Jake pushed him back as best he could with his foot.
"You ain’t just atryin’ to please old Jake?” he whispered to Tom.
“Puh... p p p paypurr p p payjuzzs. And vuh...v visions on the p p payjuzzs. Nuh not just luh letters.” He was gasping now, rocking back and forth. It was more than he’d spoken in a week. His eyes darted between Jake and Missy. Wart's eyes narrowed as he struggled to hear the secret he knew was passing between Jake and Tom. Tom's lips pulled tightly together, he nodded vigorously.
“Where is the books, Tom?” Jake placed his hand on Tom’s shoulder. Tom gestured. He chopped his hands together once, his sign for a full-day hike, then swung his arms in wide arcs, his sign for around, behind, or over something. Then he pawed at imaginary ground, meaning in a hole or cave or something of the sort.
“Can you take me there?” Jake’s eyes fixed on Tom’s.
Tom broke Jake’s gaze and surveyed the pack of mutts. His eyebrows pinched together and he slowly swung his head from side to side.
“I understand. You don’t want them along.”
Wart threw a can against the wall.
Tom tilted his head at an angle, then hesitantly raised a finger toward Missy.
“Me and Missy’s okay, but not the others?”
Tom looked at his ragged boots and nodded almost imperceptibly.
The quiet was nudged aside by distant barking, then voices. The adults were returning. Women’s laughter filtered up, a sign the trek had been successful, no one killed. There would be extra food, scavenged treasure, and bragging around the fire. In a minute Jake’s place would be supplanted by young bucks eager to tell their stories.
Jake swung an arm out to snare Wart. He pulled his face in close to Tom's and his own.
“Listen here, you mutts.” Jake’s eyes drew stern. “Not a word of this. If we find what Tom says there is, I can make you mutts top dogs in this clan. You know what that means? First share in the hunt. Warmest karzntruks to sleep in. Come thaw season you little peckers’ll have first pick of the girls when breeding clans visit. So, tie knots in your tongues. You hear me?” He was too excited to even consider what other implications such a discovery might have.
As the clan climbed into the parkungarge cave, Wart broke free from Jake and turned to shout. Missy, who had been staring at him as Jake spoke, reached out and cupped her hand over his mouth. The other mutts seeing Jake's stern look tackled Wart as well. On the bottom of the pile Missy, eyes twisted upward toward Jake, warned Wart what she’d do if he made trouble.
“Hey, what’s all this?” said Turner. He grinned brightly at the tumble-pile of mutts as he met the edge of the fire’s light.
“Boys,” said Missy. “Always wrestling. How was it pa? Tell us what you found.”
Two days later dawn brought open sky. The endless northwest wind had eased around, bringing relative warmth from the south. Snow lay in north-facing shadows and slopes, but there were still bare patches. Jake knew fresh weather fronts usually held for two to three days.
Anticipating clear skies, he packed a rucksack with dried meat, rope, a spade, and other tack, and hid it just beyond the entrance to the parkungarge cave. The cache also included his crossbow, a machete, three large knives, and the ancient revolver and eleven bullets that no one in the clan had ever seen.
He visited the hovels where Missy and Tom lived, and asked each of their pa’s permission to take them hiking for a few days. He lied. He made an excuse of wanting to look for late bulbs and roots before the ground froze. It would take a little longer than usual. He had to go slow, was afraid of falling again and needed the mutts help because of his injuries. He added that he wanted to show them his special harvest spots so they would know about them for the future. He was afraid of falling again and thought the mutts could help.
Actually, he knew they expected him to starve soon anyway. So, he was confident that saying he’d show the mutts his private patches of roots and bulbs would be worth a few days without them to their parents.
“You sure you can manage this, Papa Jake?” Missy put her hand softly on Jake’s aching hip.
“I’d rather die trying than wondering. Ain’t no never mind. Either way I’ll be sent over the ice this winter or put adrift on the river by thaw season at the latest,” said Jake. Tom nodded and lifted Jake’s rucksack to his shoulder.
The trio left the parkungarge cave while the grey sky had only a blur of pink along the horizon. They headed opposite the direction that Tom had indicated in front of the other mutts. After twenty minutes they doubled back above the cave, out of the clan’s view, on rocky high ground that would leave no tracks.
It was mid morning when they reached the river. They followed it north until noon, twice as long as it normally took to reach the fallen and partially submerged bridge. Jake felt increasingly uneasy the farther they hiked. The western shore where they were headed was a no man’s land, but that just meant no one had put up a big enough fight yet to claim it permanently. It didn’t help that his injured hip screamed with pain. And aside from his physical pain was the heartache at seeing the sight where he had set so many others adrift.
Tom pointed to the submerged section spanning a slack portion of the river. The main channel had largely shifted east many miles upstream after the pummeling of ice meteors and decades of flooding in the aftermath. The shift created the protected island where their valley lay. You could cross here, but Jake knew it meant getting soaked and risking quicksand. They were near the spot where Wooly Joe had floated off to the far side of the river-- ghost country, dangerous, filled with aykay bandits, forbidden.
Tom gestured to follow. At the base of the bridge he wedged his body between a large stump and the abutment, then pushed. The stump leaned onto its side revealing a flaccid pile of what Jake first took to be animal skins. Half an hour later Jake and Missy gingerly stepped with amazement into a small inflated raft as Tom steadied it.
Once across, it was another two-hour’s agonizing walk across the bluffs that channeled the river. At the crest they overlooked an enormous debris field-- all that remained of a sizable town before The Shatter Flood. Jake and Missy had never seen the likes of it. Jake was about to express his astonishment when he saw Tom’s prideful grin.
“So, this is where you go off a-wanderin' for salvage is it?” said Jake.
Tom nodded, indicating the entire vista with an outstretched arm and pointed finger. Missy laced her arm around Tom’s and touched the side of his face. Tom signed at Jake to come look at something. A few yards away was a chest-high tree stump. Crudely scratched into the bark was an arrow pointing down-slope, and the letters WJ.
Jake swallowed hard as he contemplated the letters.
“Are there more like this'n?”
“Sun’s goin’ down in a couple hours, Tom,” Jake said after a long pause. “We’ll need shelter soon. Are we near where you seen the books?”
“B buh buh books and sh shelter,” said Tom.
“How close? My hip’s killin’ me.”
Tom held up one finger, tilted his head, then a second.
“One or two hours,” said Missy.
Tom put a finger over his lips and then crossed his wrists.
“We need to be quiet and careful,” said Missy.
Tom paddled his flat palm-- maybe.
They descended the sunset side of the bluff among rotting trees, brambles, snags of wire, fencing, and mix-mashed debris and charred detritus that was once a town. The going was slow.
After nearly an hour, the path-like remnant of a meandering road gradually emerged from amid the obstacles they’d been picking through. Jake sheathed his machete. He had distributed the knives at the start of their trek, but now he removed the cross bow and quiver from his back, notched an arrow and handed them to Tom. Then he pulled the revolver from the rucksack, loaded four bullets, and rotated the cylinder to an empty chamber.
“You remember what I showed you this morning?” Missy nodded. “Under your jacket, stuff this between your belt and belly,” said Jake. “Don’t use it unless someone’s real close. It ain’t accurate, and them bullets is real old. But if me or Tom can’t protect you, this’ll give you a chance. I’m keeping back some bullets in case someone wrestles it away from you. It’s okay for us to reload, but not them.”
Tom took Jake by the sleeve and led him a hundred yards to a new marker. Another arrow and WJ were chiseled into a stone pillar, barely visible, overgrown with lichens and moss. A lump rose in Jake’s throat.
They followed the arrow to a shallow stream. After a quarter mile, marks on a large rock directed them up a steep incline leading to an overhanging tangle of bushes and debris a hundred feet above. It was a struggle, but with Tom and Missy’s help Jake made the climb. At the top, hidden from view, was a rusted section of corrugated metal covering a hole. They squeezed into the opening which broadened into a dim passage that ended at a hinged metal door.
It was nearly dark now, with barely enough light to navigate the passage. Tom muscled the door until it groaned open and the three entered the room beyond. Three dimly visible skylights were heavily overgrown with vines.
“Wuh wuh wait.”
There was rustling in the dark, the clacking of steel on flint, then light. Tom stood before a table, touching the wicks of a pair of candles to a small pile of tinder. Then he raised one to the mantle of a gas lantern. Jake's jaw nearly fell to the floor. He hadn't seen the bright light of gas lantern since he was a mutt.
The light revealed a sprawling structure that had escaped major damage from The Shatter Flood. It was organized into piles-- piles of tools, rusted piles of canned goods, and piles of material that Jake could not begin to identify. Many items were protected in transparent plastic boxes, or wrapped in thin plastic sheeting that had begun flaking away here and there at stretch points.
As Jake walked gingerly through the open space, he made out side rooms with windows to the main room; these too were filled with treasure. The biggest treasure of all was an alcove stacked floor to ceiling with books and boxes of paper.
“When did you find this place?”
“Suh summer,” said Tom.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Why should he?” said Missy, “They’d punish him for crossing the river, or attracting aykay bandits.”
“But he told you, eh?”
Missy evaded. “They’d just ruin it all. They ain’t smart like Tom,” she said. “Or like you, Pappa Jake,” she added, a beat later. “Is that it, Tom?”
Tom just shrugged again. Then he motioned to Missy to wait, and pulled Jake to a door in the corner. Jake followed with some apprehension, given the fearful look on Tom’s face. Tom stopped short of the door. He pulled the frayed cap from his head and pointed at the door, indicating Jake should go in alone.
Shadows fluttered with the flame of Jake’s candle as the door swung open. He stepped inside to give the wavering light a longer reach. This room was small. The contents suggested it had been someone’s living quarters. There was a pile of black and white-speckle-covered notebooks on a table. One was open, with a pencil at the crease between pages. There was a musty smell in the room and evidence of rats. As Jake pivoted to take in the contents along the wall behind the door, he nearly dropped his candle.
There, beneath the dusty remains of a blanket on a ragged leather couch, head on a cushion, lay a withered corpse clutching an orange construction hardhat to its chest. Jake slumped to his knees and cried.
A full minute passed before Jake realized that Missy and Tom had joined him. Missy stroked his thin hair as Tom gently patted his back. Jake was still rocking back and forth on his knees sobbing. Tom’s lantern erased the initial surrealism, forcing the scene back into harsh reality.
“Sorry mutts. Guess you figured that’s my pa, eh Tom?”
Tom stroked Jake’s back.
Jake had lived uneasily with the ambivalence of his decision all these years. At nineteen, he was made clan leader. They were starving, walking skeletons. His father had taken ill. Jake worried that the whole clan might sicken and die. His father had actually been the one to suggest the rule to Jake. Wooly Joe told Jake to announce it as his own, so that if others needed to be set adrift he would have the weight of his father’s example to back him up.
Wooly Joe was a wise man. Twice more that winter Jake walked sick or injured clanfolk to the water’s edge. The clan avoided cannibalism and found new determination amid austerity. They all survived, but a piece of Jake’s heart died.
Tom brought the open notebook to Jake. He pointed to the lines on the last page. They were printed in neat block letters until the final few words, which tilted down to a smudged period. Tom tapped a word he recognized, J-A-K-E.
JAKE IS A FINE BRAVE MAN. I HOPE OUR PEOPLE FIND All
THIS SOMEDAY. TOMORROW I FINISH MARKING THE CRATES.
Jake was about to say something when a loud crash from the outer room startled them. They grabbed the lantern and hurried to investigate. As the room brightened, Wart was stumbling amidst stacks of shovels and piled books, sobbing uncontrollably.
“What are you doin’ here?”
“I told pa you was mockin’ him. He was real mad. We followed you. When you took your raft across we fussed and fussed looking for a log to float across, but had to give up on that."
“Where’s your Pa?”
“He drowned.” Wart bawled. His chest heaved like a bellows.
“He drowned! At the bridge. Quicksand. I didn’t know what to do!"
Wart told his story in short sentences, gushing the words out like water spurts from a pump.
"I tried to pull him out with a branch. But couldn't. By the time I give up on him you was long gone. I didn't dare go back over the river. I had to track you. In the dim light. I ain't a good tracker. I was so scared, Papa Jake. I thought I'd never catch up to you.”
Wart was wet and shivering. He started crying. Jake wrapped his arms around the eleven year old.
“Let’s get these wet togs off, mutt,” said Jake. His heart sank, thinking that his brash remarks had led to a needless death.
“Come morning we best see what here’s worth carrying home, to show ‘em the value. The clan can come back for more. I reckon a high price has been paid now. They'll want to make good on it."
The next morning enough light seeped through the skylights to take stock of things. The warehouse, or storage facility, or shipping depot-- whatever it was, was built into the side of the bluff. In the march of time since The Shatter Flood, fallen trees, brambles and weather-tossed debris had blocked access to it and eventually camouflaged the intact portions.
Wooly Joe had apparently spent weeks, maybe months opening crates and sorting treasure. His notebooks indicated the medicine he'd found had brought back his strength for a while as he chose to hole up for the winter. Some of the debris suggested he'd trapped rats and squirrels and birds. He'd fashioned a small cistern that collected water from a leak in one of the skylights.
His notebooks also had a full inventory, with instructions about which boxes to take first in case it couldn’t all be moved. Apparently it had been his intention to attempt a return to the clan if he could regain his strength.
The stored food was all worthless now-- too old. It's likely not much of it wasn even any good when Wooly Joe had found it. In fact, bad canned food might have been what killed him when his other food sources began running short. Whatever it was, his health never returned enough by spring to make the trip back home.
Jake and the mutts found several backpacks Wooly Joe marked as most important. Their contents were inventoried on notes Wooly Joe had painted inside their flaps. Jake could read some of it. There were jars of medicine, first aid and survival manuals, books on crop and animal husbandry, plant identification guides, English and Spanish dictionaries, a compact world atlas, razor blades, matches sealed in water-tight jars, and guns. The most curious of all was a book of hobby projects packed with rolls of wire, boxes of magnets, magnifying glasses, packets of galena crystals and a variety of metal foils.
There was also a weird partially constructed contraption on the table next to Wooly Joe’s notebooks. Beside the device was a nearly decomposed pamphlet with the name Greenleaf Whittier Pickard under a man’s picture. They didn’t have time to figure out what it was, but Tom convinced Jake that if it was important enough for Wooly Joe to be working on, that maybe they should bring it along and see if the books or notebooks held a clue when they returned.
Jake’s hip was worsening the longer they rested, and he worried the weather would deteriorate. So, on the third day, their food gone, each mutt carrying a heavy pack and new firearm, the four set out an hour before dawn to return across the river.
They carefully covered their tracks, sweeping them with willow branches whenever on bare ground. At each of Wooly Joe’s markers, Jake had the mutts hide or obscure the marks with rocks, mud or vegetation. By noon they reached the bridge overlook. Jake was limping badly, and in the west, fat dark clouds carried the promise of snow by nightfall. They rested briefly below a scuppernong patch with a few sparse mottled brown leaves, eating what seedy raisins the birds and raccoons hadn’t taken. They were just rising to descend the bank to Tom’s raft when Wart saw a glint of sunlight reflect from something at the top of the bluff.
“Looky there, Pappa Jake.”
As he pointed, they heard the report of a rifle and the whiz and crackle of a round zipping into the brambles behind them. They jumped to their feet and scrambled toward the raft.
Jake, forced to lag behind, became the rear guard by default. As the mutts pulled the raft from its cover under branches along the shore, he fired his AK-47 at the glint above their position. Immediately there was return fire from the glint and two other positions on his flank.
“Get in the raft and get across.” Jake’s yelling drew another volley from their attackers. The raft was crowded with the three mutts and their heavy packs. He heard the distinctive sucking sound of bullets stabbing the water.
“Hurry Pappa Jake; get in,” said Missy.
“I ain’t acomin’,” said Jake as he pushed the raft with his foot. Wart and Missy started paddling despite their distraught expressions.
“N n nuh NO!” Tom shed his pack and leapt into the frigid river. He slogged ashore in four muscular strides, grabbed the old man by his waist and dragged him to the raft, shoving him in as bullets zipped into the water around them.
Missy and Wart began paddling again with Jake hanging half-in half-out of the raft, and with Tom swimming behind, pushing. As they neared the halfway point, their attackers emerged from a break in vegetation at the shore. Now that they were visible, Missy pulled Jake’s AK from the bottom of the raft and returned fire. She took aim, fired, and nearly fell into the water from the recoil. As she righted herself she let out an exalted war hoop as she watched one of the attackers fall.
At the same instant there was another rifle crack from shore, almost instantly followed by a dull thud and “ugh” from Jake. A red puddle oozed onto the soft gunnels over which Jake had been slung. Another shot followed in quick succession that slapped into the undulating floor of the raft causing a pencil of water to squirt head high into the air, threatening to slowly fill the raft.
“Look!” Wart pointed to Turner and a handful of clan folk racing to the eastern shore. They let fly a volley of crossbow bolts, which, though not capable of accuracy across the river, discouraged the attackers from attempting a crossing. Missy fired a few more shots for good measure before the AK jammed from the hang fire of one of the aged rounds.
As the raft reached shore, Turner took up one of the other AKs. His firing, though inexpert, drove home the message that the clan had won this skirmish. The attackers stopped firing and withdrew.
“Are you dead, old man? Or do we have to drag you back with us?” said Turner, trying to prod the spunk that had kept Jake going since his accident the past summer.
“Leave me,” said Jake. “I been dead a long time now. There ain’t nothing I can do for you no more. It’s my rule. Leave me.”
“There's the clan rule against lying too, old man. Wart told us about the treasure hunt. About the letterin’ and secrets in books.”
"I'm sorry, Turner. I only lied to protect folks from stampeding like scarred antelope."
"Ain't talkin' about that lie, old man. I mean the lie that you ain't got nothin' worth savin' you for. You lost your share of friends with your cussedness; that's a fact. But we ain't done emptying your head yet. And if Wart weren't lyin' we need you for readin' what you found. You musta found something, right?"
Turner pointed at their heavy packs.
“I can't even gather a mouthful of nuts on my own now. These mutts can read it all to you.” Jake’s eyes indicated Tom and Missy, who were shaking their heads vehemently. Jake let out a gasp as the men on shore began hauling him from the raft.
“If you’re already dead you won’t eat much anyway," Said Turner. "And if you’re lying about that too, we’ll make you read for your supper.” Turner motioned to the clan folk to gather up the raft and the gear. He hugged his daughter, then leaned down and picked up Wart who was crying again.
“I’m telling you one last time,” said Jake, seeing Wart’s tears, “Leave me.”
“Last time? Good,” said Turner. “Now I’m telling you. You ain’t the leader anymore. I am.”
“But the rule.”
“I changed it. It ain't a rule any more. It's a choice. One I ain't made yet.”
In the days that followed, the clan folk tended Jake’s wounds. It had been so long since Jake had had a woman of his own that Turner asked his wife Caitlin to care for him. She tolerated Jake’s hard edged façade and, with the help of the medicine the mutts brought back, he was making progress with his wounds. Over the long dreamy hours, as her winsome presence lit his soul more brightly than the fat-lamps lit the long winter nights of the room, he taught her the alphabet song, which he remembered Wooly Joe teaching him as a mutt.
When she sat beside Jake’s bed, he coached her reading of the handful of children’s books that Missy had stuffed in her pack. Caitlin smiled at the stories with the enthusiasm of a mutt hearing her first campfire tale. Her slender fingers traced the oversized letters and she gently wiped her palm over the artwork as if to more deeply assimilate the wonder of the books-- the wonder of the “vision payjuzzs,” as Tom had first described them to her.
Tom spent his every spare minute with Jake, when Jake was well enough for it. Together they read Wooly Joes’s notebooks and began examining the other books for their content. The “visions” on the payjuzzs, or pictures on the pages, as they learned they were called, helped them learn anew many concepts that had been taken for granted by the folk of the everywhere clans before The Shatter Flood.
Even little Wart managed to come around. It took a few weeks, but when word got out about the children’s books, he, Buster, Shaker and the others gathered around Jake’s bed while he taught Caitlin and helped her read to the mutts. There was a reddish covered book with a gangly cat who wore an absurdly tall boldly striped cap. The cat spoke in mind bending tongue twisters that made them all laugh and demand multiple readings every night. They learned new words and came to know the real words that were the origins of their corrupted dialect, laughing at how the words had changed.
Tom told Jake about Turner’s plan to go back to Wooly Joes’s treasure at thaw season. But what pleased Jake more was Wart forgiving Jake for the teasing that led to his father’s death.
“Tom, he made me green eyed.” Wart said. “I wish I kept the secret, like you said, Papa Jake.”
"I wish I weren't such a crotchety old fool," Jake offered back with a tear.
"You ain't no fool, Papa Jake. Sometimes you was mean. But sometimes you had to be. To protect us against..."
"Against what, Wart?"
"Against us ourself, I guess," said Wart, hanging his head.
Jake put his rough hand under Wart's chin and lifted it so their eyes met. "I was fool enough for all of us, Wart. I forgot to protect you against my own cussedness."
The two wrapped their arms around each other. A warmth passed between them that rivaled the glow from the nearby stove. The snapping and popping of the embers spoke for them, making words unnecessary for many minutes.
Things were going well until the night of the solstice celebration. The cold and draftiness of the parkungarge caves was difficult to combat in the large truck trailer that Turner’s family had converted to a home, even with its potbellied stove.
Jake became feverish and weak. In a matter of hours his situation turned desperate. Jake tested Caitlin’s ability to cope as she struggled between the need to keep him warm against the winter’s cold and at the same time ease the discomfort of his burning fever. She searched the pages of first aid books and did her best to read the labels of all the medicine bottles, searching for a way to make Jake better. But if the answer was to be found among these limited sources, she hadn’t learned enough reading yet to understand.
As he slipped in and out of delirium Jake watched Tom fiddling with the contraption he had retrieved from Wooly Joe’s table. Missy was at his side softly singing an old mountain folk song about a mother telling her little baby to hush, with the promise to buy her a mocking bird as a reward. At the other end of the truck trailer house Tom worked late into the night, stopping occasionally to bring Jake a few sips of water, then returning to his work table.
Long after most of the family was asleep, Tom unexpectedly rushed to Jake’s side. He carried the contraption and the hobby book with him. As he sat next to Jake he waved the book in front of Jake’s burning eyes. Jake looked at a picture of a wire coil with a slide-bar and needle, connected to a simple foil diaphragm, but could make nothing of it. Tom placed the contraption close to Jake’s head and began sliding the needle back and forth over the wire coil.
Faint snaps, scratching sounds, and hisses seeped weakly from the foil diaphragm. Jake’s perception of the room around him was gradually dissolving into swirls of color and star-like sparkles. The pops and zips reminded him of sparks from the campfires and stories he had heard and later passed on to others. He heard the voices of Wooly Joe and Sarah his mother. Then another voice spoke, almost as from a dream.
“This is Mars Colony Lander Three, Mars Colony Lander Three, broadcasting hourly to North America at one hundred sixty two point four five MegaHertz. Latitude thirty nine degrees forty five minutes North, Longitude one hundred five degrees zero minutes West...”
“What is that?” Jake whispered. He tried lifting his head but couldn’t.
“Kuh crystal, ruh radio,” said Tom. “Luh lictrick.”
“Wart, Buster, Shasta,” said Jake, barely moving his lips. They weren’t there, but Jake waved his hands at the dim space beside his bed as if he could see them.
“Pappa, Ma, listen,” Jake said to the spectral family he saw standing around his bed. His eyes swam, searching among images, trying to sort the real from the imagined. He felt Missy’s hand on his cheek. Jake’s eyes cleared momentarily. He was no longer entirely sure whose touch was comforting him. He whispered Missy’s name, and when she leaned in closer he reached for her delicate smooth fingers and softly pulled her hand, laying it atop Tom’s.
Wooly Joe’s notebook slid from Jake’s blanket to the floor as Jake exhaled a protracted breath while attempting to speak.
“They come back... to find us, help us..." Jake's eyes widened. He sucked in air with all his strength, frantic to tell them more. "...like I knowed... prayed they would. They didn't forget...”
The next breath gurgled into his lungs as pain painted a stormy swirl of desperation and delight across his face. His chest slumped, carrying his final words.
"...Us...didn't forget us..."