One: The Big Woods

There came a time when they had to leave their little house in the Big Woods of what was once Wisconsin.

That cabin of log and stone was the only home that Laura had ever known. She had been no older than Baby Grace when Ma and Pa had found it, hidden safe among the tall trees, up in the untamed hills beyond the Laketowns and the ruins of Greensbay.

The talk of leaving had begun after Pa’s last trip to market. Twice yearly, Pa would travel down to the shores of Great Mishgan Lake to trade. He would leave with his handcar loaded up with bundles of furs and their surplus soy and perhaps a few blocks of Ma’s handmade soaps, which smelled of lavender and pine. He would return with powder for his gun and salt to cure their meat and dozens of other necessaries for life in the Big Woods.

That fall, however, when Pa returned from the Laketown Market, he said that things had changed. It was no longer the safe place to trade that it had once been. Pa wasn’t sure if he could go back, maybe not ever again.

Ma and Pa tried not to discuss it around Laura and Mary. But some nights, when Laura was supposed to be asleep, she would listen. She would crawl to the very edge of the loft where she and Mary slept and try to scoop up her parent’s hushed voices into the tiny ladles of her ears.

Laura tried hard to sort through what they said. The trouble in the Laketowns had something to do with the fighting in the East, she understood that much. Boats had always come and gone from the harbors along Great Mishgan Lake, but now instead of trade goods they brought loads of desperate people. Displacees, Pa called them. Laura heard him tell Ma that they were flooding into the Laketowns by the hundreds, packed tight into their overcrowded boats or else staggering up the old number roads from the Illinoy.

The displacees had thrown the communities around Mishgan Lake off balance, it seemed, though Laura didn’t exactly understand. Ma and Pa spoke of town councils and taxes and shipping rights and more grown-up things that were all too much for Laura to keep straight. All she knew was that things had changed somehow. They were one way, and now they were a different way. And now they had to leave the Big Woods.

Mary, who knew that spying was very bad, never joined Laura at the lip of the loft, but this did not stop her from badgering Laura to relate every word that had been said. Her pretty eyes, pale blue-gray like Ma’s, would fill with tears whenever Laura told her that Pa was talking again of leaving.

Mary was older. She had memories. They were blurry but they were there, memories of a time before they’d found the little house, a time when they had moved from place to place, scavving and foraging. The thought of going back to the roads frightened her.

When Mary was small and Laura was smaller, Ma and Pa had come across the little house. It was all by itself, hidden deep among the trees, far from any settlement. Pa said that it had been built by the parkrangers, a people who had lived in the Big Woods long ago back in Lectric Times. Pa reckoned no one had touched it in many years.

They found the house covered over in moss and creepers, but its stone foundations were strong. They found the remains of its roof veiled amid a cacophony of branches, but its rafters stood straight and tall. And sitting right in its center had been the big black stove that heated the house from loft to pantry and cooked their suppers night after night atop its flat iron surface. Pa had replaced the rotting beams with good new timber, and from then on the roof of the little house kept them warm and dry, while its strong stones kept out bears and wolfdogs.

Many of Laura’s favorite things had been found among the scav buried secret inside the little house. Sealed in a chamber underground, in the room that would become their pantry, Pa had found Laura’s favorite old paperbook, A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals. Among the rubble that had clogged the loft, they found Laura’s favorite painting, the one of an old Merican city at night, its gigantic towers wrapped in amber streaks of lectric light. Even Oprah, Laura’s ragdoll, had shiny black hardmold buttons for eyes, buttons likewise scavved from among the belongings that the parkrangers had left behind.

Over the years, Ma and Pa had cleared the woods around the little house to make room for the garden and the smokehouse and the forge. They had made the little house their own and carved out a home for themselves in the Big Woods. Leaving it felt unthinkable.

Laura could tell that Ma didn’t like it either.

“Oh Charles, isn’t there some other way?” Laura heard her whisper one night. “We can wait for spring at least, surely. Perhaps things will work themselves out.”

Pa sighed. Laura listened to the pensive scrape scrape as he sharpened his hatchet with a broken piece of lectricmade glass.

“We can’t afford to hesitate, Caroline. Come spring, I expect we’ll find the old number roads near swarming with folks from the East. You’ve seen how things are, even way out in these parts.”

Laura knew what Pa was referring to. Strangers had been seen in the Big Woods of late.

It was a change. The trail that ran by their little house was far from any convoy route. In seasons past, they would hardly see another soul besides Fat Jorge, who lived on the other side of the hollow and sometimes traded work with Pa.

More than once already that winter, Pa had encountered groups of strangers when he went out trapping. He had come across campsites, freshly abandoned and too close to the little house for Pa’s liking. The Big Woods did not feel so secluded as they once did.

One afternoon, shortly before the first snows arrived, Laura had seen figures picking their way through the trees behind the smokehouse. She had run back to tell Pa.

“Stay in the house,” her father had told her, but Laura had watched from the porch. She watched her father approach the strangers, the long muzzle of his rifle resting casually on his shoulder.

Laura counted five adults and three children. They were skinny. Their clothes were dirty and ragged.

She heard Pa holler for Ma to bring a few strips of smokemeat and some old soymeal biscuits up from the pantry. When Ma emerged from the house, scolding Laura to go up to the loft as she passed, she was carrying a bundle wrapped in hemp cloth. It wasn’t much, Laura could tell. Yet the strangers thanked Pa politely all the same. Finally, they turned and left. Whether it was the meat and biscuits that sent them on their way or whether it was Pa’s rifle, Laura couldn’t say.

“Were they fiends?” Laura asked after the strangers were gone, tugging gently at the rough flannel of her father’s sleeve.

Back then, the sickness was known as the Ague, and no one knew what caused it.

Pa gave Laura a stern look.

“Do you remember what I told you about that word, Laura?”

Laura remembered. People infected with the Ague were just people, Pa said. Their affliction might have stolen their wits and turned their skin a pallid yellow, but that didn’t make them any less of a person than Laura was. Laura understood that. Still, even Pa called them fiends sometimes, so the reprimand wasn’t really fair.

“Were they . . . did they have the Ague?” Laura corrected herself.

Pa scratched beneath his great bushy beard. They both knew that Ma did not approve of Laura’s preoccupation with fiends. During the outbreak in the Laketowns two summers back, the one that had closed the market for months, Laura asked so many questions that Ma had declared a ban on what she called “fiend talk.” Yet, Laura knew that Pa seldom offered more than token resistance to her curiosity. After placing his rifle back on its pegs above the door, he sat and lifted Laura up into his lap.

“No, my little Soybean, they didn’t have the Ague. Not that I could tell at any rate. Hungry, yes. Tired. Sick in other ways, perhaps. But they spoke plainly enough, did they not? Fien—folks with the Ague—lose their words first thing of all. And tattered their clothes may have been but these poor travelers wore them all the same, isn’t that so? Most important, they did not try to harm any of us, did they? Folks with the Ague become uncommon hostile. Very dangerous. If you see someone who looks like they might be infected, you must remember to stay away. Do you understand?”

That night, after Mary had blown out their candle and welcomed darkness into the loft, Laura heard Ma and Pa talking more seriously about leaving the Big Woods.

“The roads again, Charles?” Ma whispered. “With three girls? And Grace still nursing? It’s not safe.”

“. . . no safer to stay,” came Pa’s reply. “Displacees coming straight up to the house now? Hungry desperate people mean danger, sooner or late, Caroline. You know that. And if there’s another outbreak . . .”

“But where?”

“West.”

Laura heard Ma make an exasperated noise.

“I talked to Jim Cordry last I was in the Laketowns,” Pa continued. “He’d just returned from convoy not two weeks prior. ‘Cording to Jim, Clan Ortega may have lost their territory east of the Misisip, but they still hold the Old Eighty Road, all the way from Davenport to Lildaka. They keep the road open to travelers, those who can pay the tolls. Their supervisories patrol for bandits and . . . and the like. If we can just make it as far as Davenport, we can apply with the Clan Council for safe passage all the way to the Wastes.”

“. . . the Wastes, Charles!” Ma’s whisper rose in pitch and volume, forcing even Mary to roll over and lift her head. “We’ve spoken of this . . .”

“ . . . It’s more than just showtales, Caroline! I’ve had it from folks seen it firsthand. Reliable folks. They say the rains have come again. Even as we sit here, those with the drive and determination to tame the wilderness are out there, raising up crops, building new lives . . .”

“I don’t know,” Ma repeated. “I just don’t know.”

“Jim says the Ortegas are keen to settle up the west. A hedge against losing their trade routes across the Illinoy, he thinks. Or maybe they just want a buffer between them and the nomads and Deseretis. Either way, the word is that Old Man Ortega will back the property claim of any man or woman willing to stake out a homestead out on the Wastes and farm it, up to three kims square. I don’t doubt but what plenty of these displacees, those with strength enough to make the journey, will take Clan Ortega up on its offer.

“This could be our chance. If we move west now, ahead of the tide, we may yet arrive before the best land is taken. Think on it, that’s all I ask. These woods have been good to us, I’ll not deny it. But the land here feels used up. Game gets scarcer each year. More people fighting over less. And now with the troubles in the East spilling over into these parts . . .

“Wouldn’t it be nice to start fresh, out in the wide open Wastes? To feel like we’re building a new life, one of our own, not one scavved from another man’s garbage? I hear talk of herds of bisox roaming the plains and flocks of great flightless birds, tall as a man. We’ll live off the land, free and self-reliant, just like our Merican ancestors.”

Not long after, it was decided. They would leave their little house in the Big Woods and strike west, out along the old number roads, bound for that vast unpeopled country that folks in those days called the Wastes.

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