A mostly gray-haired man and a boy walked across a barren boulder-field. The boy’s long brown hair streamed to the side as the two of them skipped from rock to rock. They moved quickly and silently, their soft-soled greenish leather boots made no noise, and neither shifted a single pebble as they moved. The wind blew from the west, whipping their thin dust-infused shirts in the hot, dry air.
The man’s face was leathery from years in the sun. His eyes seemed permanently squinted behind the scratched aviator-style sunglasses held to his temples with a leather cord, the stems long-since broken. Despite decades of scraping a living off the land, the man had an easy look on his face, one that proclaimed more happiness than grief in this harsh world.
Thirty years before, the field had been lush, green Minnesota pasture. It had probably been littered with ponds and creeks. Or maybe this was an old lake bed; there was no real way to tell anymore. Anything that would have been an indicator had long since been scoured away. Today it was just part of a large rocky barren. It was already over a hundred degrees, and the sun was not up yet. In another hour or two, they would have to find shelter for the day.
“When I was a boy, this time of year would have been much cooler, and some years there would have still been snow on the ground,” said the man to the boy.
The pair reached the first of the scraggly old trees. “Do you see these trees, Ez? Do you see how the oval-shaped leaves crawl up the branches, lining up two by two? This is a walnut tree. Do you remember eating walnuts last fall?”
“Yea, Pop. I remember,” said Ez, clearly bored with the conversation. His father was certain the boy would much rather be talking about one of the two girls his age in their town. That was not a conversation he was looking forward to having, although he knew he was going to have to have it soon. At least these days there isn’t much need to talk about STD’s and using condoms, he thought.
“Good! This fall, after the summer heat, we need to come back here. This grove will keep us in nuts for most of the next summer while we’re underground. What do we say about nuts, Ez?”
“Where there are nuts, there are squirrels, Dad.” Ez sighed as he spoke, having had this exact same conversation with his father dozens of times.
“Right. Let’s hurry; we need to dig in soon.”
The two of them had been hunting and gathering food all night, and they were tired. The boy’s father had learned years before that hunting during the day was too dangerous. Even in what passed for winter in Minnesota these days, the UV radiation and heat from the sun was far too powerful to be exposed for more than a couple of hours, but that wasn’t the biggest danger. The experimental animals were out during the day.
In this part of the country, they mostly encountered experimental grizzly bears. They were slightly smaller than normal grizzly bears and had a greenish tint to their fur. By the time their prey realized the clever animals hunted in packs and communicated with each other, it was too late. Experimental grizzlies were the apex predators on the planes; that position was no longer occupied by humans.
Joe and his son walked through what passed for a forest in this time, although it was barely more than a handful of trees and some pathetic scrubby vines.
Most of the trees left standing were mature years ago when the ships first came. Many species of trees were dying off, their seeds finding only rock and hardened clay in which to make purchase. Joe’s hope was that one day the trees would rot and leave a strip of fertile dirt where they’d fallen. He collected and stored seeds on these gathering trips, just in case.
Joe had dozens of burrows ranging out from their town, places to stay when he was outside the walls gathering food, each of the burrows stuffed to the gills with supplies and each of them a secret storehouse of seeds, buried in the cool earth, far from the sun.
“When can I go by myself like Willa?” asked Ez, snapping Joe out of his thoughts.
“When you’re sixteen. Until then, you’re stuck with me, pal,” said Joe, tousling the boy’s hair. “Besides, I’d miss you too much!”
Joe broke into a trot, hopping from rock to rock, trying to leave as little scent as possible behind. The father and son moved along silently for the last mile, listening for some sign of game and looking for any wild edibles they may have missed on the way out. They found none and returned to their burrow with the day’s gatherings.
Willa was already there, sitting on the lip of the burrow beside a much larger pile of dirt than they’d left the day before; she’d been busy digging the burrow out to make room for the day’s gathering. Willa was very tall, nearly a foot taller than her father, and very lean. Everyone was lean these days from a life of hard labor. She had long sandy brown hair that she kept tied up on top of her head.
Willa had grown up spending the winters outside their town with her dad. They were foragers, tasked with finding food to feed the entire town. It was, without a doubt, the least desirable job in their society. There were kids in their underground village that had never seen the sun. They were born after the Colcoa came and never felt the need to get out and roam. Those people felt like it was a small price to pay for never having to face the experimental animals or the hard, burning planet above.
Willa thought those people were crazy. After being in the dark underground town for the three hottest months of the year, it was all she could do to avoid running up to the surface to spend two minutes outside in the scorching heat. Surely the sunburn would be worth it. Down in the cool cavern they called home, a reminder of the sun and how good it felt for the hour or two she got to see it every day during the fall, winter, and spring.
“Get anything good?” Ezekiel asked his sister.
“Naw. Just these fish,” she said, grinning while she held up two trout. Each was as long as Ezekiel’s arm and still flopping on the end of the stringer.
“Fish? Where did you find fish? Where did you find enough water for fish that big?” exclaimed Joe, a look of amazement on his rugged face. He sat down on the hard earth and dangled his legs into the burrow, feeling the cool air inside.
“There’s a creek running out of the rocks about twenty miles south of us. You two just went the wrong way! There’s dirt there, Dad. Real dirt. With plants growing in it. I didn’t bring any, but Dad, there were flowers! They smelled so good! Once I got there, I didn’t ever want to leave.” Willa’s excitement was contagious. Ezekiel was grinning from ear to ear, watching his sister practically bouncing while she told of it.
“I also found these berries,” she said, pulling a pouch out of her backpack. “There were tons of them!” She opened the pouch to show off the beautiful red berries, grabbing one to toss it in her mouth.
“Willa, NO!” Joe was staring at the berries in her hand. “Those are poisonous. They are brindleberries. You would be dead within minutes of eating one of those.”
Willa looked sheepish as she dumped the contents of the pouch out on the ground. “No wonder the bushes were so loaded. I should have known. How could a bush right next to a water source have any berries left this late in the season unless they were poisonous? Sorry, Dad.”
“You covered forty miles today?” asked Joe. “What if something had attacked you? How would I ever have found you? I’d never be able to live with myself if I lost you. You know not to go more than five miles from camp.” It was hard for Joe to scold his daughter; he thought she was better able to take care of them than he was, but rules were rules. Out here in this place, not following the rules was what got people killed. It was exactly what got her mother killed.
Willa looked slightly abashed, and her cheeks and chest turned bright red. “Dad, I found moving water. And food. We could spend the next summer there.”
“Can we, Dad? Please? Please don’t make us go back to Red River Falls this winter. I can’t stand another year of being cooped up with nothing to do,” said Ezekiel.
Joe gathered his kids into a big group hug and said, “Let’s not get crazy. The water will probably dry up once the real heat sets in. Do you remember how hot Mrs. Aberfinch’s rooms get? And she’s, what, thirty feet below the surface? Willa, it gets over a hundred and thirty during the summer. The only surface water we’ll find during summer is up on top of the world.” Joe shared their hopes, but he wanted to hedge them, just in case. “Any plants growing there will almost undoubtedly be poisonous or else something would have eaten them. We’ll head out there as soon as it’s cool enough tomorrow and check it out. There may be some things we can take back to Red River Falls with us,” Joe said. “Willa, hand me the fish. I’ll show you how to clean them. I haven’t had trout since I was a kid; this is going to be good.”
Willa handed him the two trout, and Joe stood up. “Come on. We can’t clean these near where we sleep, and we’ll have to eat fast. The grizzlies will smell the fish from very far off.”
The three humans bounced nimbly from rock to rock, keeping up a fast pace for about a mile from their burrow. Willa started digging with her stone knife, and Ezekiel gouged into the rock hard clay with a sharp piece of flint. When they’d dug down about a foot, Joe lopped the heads off the fish, pulling a string of guts and organs from the body cavity.
“See how I cut that? Cut from this fin to here and then around the head. That lets all the guts stay intact. By cleaning them that way, we don’t spoil the fish with waste. Now in the old days, I would have used a really sharp knife to filet these, but since I don’t have a filet knife, I’m just going to scale them.” As he spoke, he scraped from tail to head with his flint knife, sending shiny fish scales into the hole at his feet.
When he was done, he handed the first fish to Willa. ”Be careful, there are sharp bones in there. The backbone runs the length of the fish, so pull the meat off with your teeth,” he said.
The next fish went to Ez, who devoured the raw fish in several huge bites. “So good!” he exclaimed between stuffing his mouth and chewing each bite at least two times.
Willa saved a half of her fish for her dad and handed it to him when he was done filling in the hole. “You take the rest. I’m full,” she said. “You were right. It was very delicious.”
Joe took a bite of the fish, savoring the taste of the meat. Fresh meat was one of the reasons he chose this profession. Even though the townspeople looked down on him and his family as outsiders, he got to spend most of the year with his children, teaching them everything he knew about plants and animals. It was dangerous, but he was good at it. His children were learning the things that would keep them alive when he wasn’t around to protect them anymore.
Suddenly, all three of them froze in place. Something changed in the air around them. Seconds later, the sound of a twig snapping somewhere behind Joe dropped them all flat on their bellies. They lay on the rocks, each facing one another, trying to present the smallest possible target for the bears. Without turning around, Joe said, “Stay very still. We have to figure out their plan. Willa, how many do you see?”
“Three, close together behind you,” she replied.
“Ez, can you see any? There are never just three. They’re going to be all around us.”
“I think I see one,” whispered Ezekiel. Fear was apparent on his face.
“Stay calm. Remember to breathe. I think the three behind me are going to charge and drive us into the group behind Willa. We can’t fall for their plan. Willa, take Ez and run straight back to the burrow. Block the entrance and hunker down for the day. I’m going to lead them off.”
“Dad! No! I can outrun a Griz. You take Ez back,” said Willa, and Joe knew she was right.
“Willa, I need you to keep you both safe. If I’m not back by night fall, come look for me. I’ll be at the river you spoke of.”
“Dad…” Willa protested.
“Do as I say, Wil. I don’t have time to argue. When I have their attention, you and Ez go straight to the burrow.”
Joe leapt up from his prone position and yelled, charging the three green-tinted bears. All three stood up on their hind legs, fully two feet taller than the human. The middle bear growled, and the two on either side dropped down and charged at Joe, and two more broke from either side. He’s the pack leader, thought Joe.
Joe stopped running and started singing as loud as he could.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?”
The bears all stopped charging, looking at him. The lead bear tilted his head, as if it was questioning the sanity of this human.
The pack leader growled softly, and all five bears started advancing. Joe sang the song again, as loudly as he could, charging the bears himself, hoping to break up their plan. He ran straight for the pack leader, arms outstretched. He had a rock in one fist and his flint knife in the other.
The bear reared up as it closed with its opponent, but Joe was faster than the bear expected, bringing his jagged flint-knife down the bear’s face, opening a bright red cut from its ear, through its eye, to the underside of its greenish-brown muzzle. The bear dropped to all fours and let out a loud, low rumbling roar.
Joe wasted no time. He vaulted over the grizzly’s back and ran for all he was worth, away from the safety of their hole, dragging the danger away from his children. He ran north with energy he hadn’t felt in years, out into the barren rocky plain.
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