Two: The Handcar

The handcar’s axle was made from strong hickory. Its rims were made from bent splits of white oak and cased in strips of iron that Pa had flattened at his forge.

Laura placed a foot on the car’s wooden hub and hoisted herself up to look inside the cargo box. For the moment, it was empty. The bed of the handcar had been stained that afternoon with a fresh coat of pine pitch, and a sweet earthy smell wafted up from the flat wooden boards . It would all have to fit in there, Laura thought to herself, everything they would take with them.

By the time that Ma and Pa sat them down to talk about moving west, the decision had been made. They would depart in just three days, Ma told them. Laura’s eyes grew big and so did Mary’s. Three days! Mary’s bottom lip quavered, even as Pa took her in his arms and explained what a fine adventure it would be.

Laura listened in bewilderment to Ma as she ran down her list of things needing to be done before their departure. Ma’s manner was matter-of-fact, with no trace of the misgivings that Laura had heard in her eavesdroppings. They would settle out in the Wastes, and that was that. When Ma set her mind about something, there was no wavering. There was only planning and preparation and the making of lists.

Getting the handcar ready was one thing on Ma’s list of preparations, but it was not the only thing. While Pa inspected the car’s axles stained its cargo box, Ma was busy with her needle. Laura and Mary’s winter coats needed fresh stitching. Inside, Laura’s coat was lined with fox skin, while its outer shell was a patchwork of lectricmade fabrics. Smooth to the touch, almost like hardmold, those old fabrics would let hardly a bit of rain or snow soak through. No one knew how to weave cloth like that anymore, so the scraps that made up Laura’s coat had all been scavved out of Merican ruins or else been bought from Rakesh Halfsilver or one of the other scav merchants down at the Laketown Market. Still, as marvelous as those lectric fabrics were, they would not keep Laura dry if they were not sewn good and tight. And so Ma looked over Laura’s coat and Mary’s too, inside and out, making sure every seam was double-stitched and would not come apart on the long road ahead.

Ma also sewed extra pockets into her buckskin apron, where she could keep things that she would want within easy reach, without having to dig through the big satchel that would be slung over her shoulder. Onto her back would go Baby Grace, Laura knew, wrapped up tightly like a butterfly in a cocoon. Ma would often bundle her up like this when out tilling the garden or picking berries. Laura, who found it difficult to sit still for more than a moment or two at a stretch, could not help but worry about her baby sister’s well-being, cooped up like that for such a long trip.

Ma said that Laura might come to wish she could trade places with Baby Grace. Unlike their sister, Laura and Mary would have to walk. Kim after kim, day after day. The handcar would be loaded down enough, Ma said, without little girls piling on top whenever their feet got sore.

Into the car’s cargo box went the bundles of furs that Pa had been saving for market. These he hoped to barter for safe passage along the Old Eighty Road or else trade for silver when they reached the market at Davenport. Into the cargo box went Pa’s tools. His hatchet, his chisel, and his adze. Hewing ax and felling ax. Spade and hammer and goose-necked gouge. In went Ma’s big iron stewpot and skillet and her wooden stool. Bit by bit, the handcar was filling up.

Mary and Laura had to choose carefully what things they wanted to take with them to the Wastes. If it would not fit in their carrysacks, Ma told them, it could not come.

Pa had found the girls’ carrysacks many years ago, before they came to live in the Big Woods. He’d scavved them from the ruins of an old Merican market that he and Ma had come across one day during their wanderings. Laura’s carrysack was dark blue. It was made of slick lectricmade fabric. Painted onto its surface was a faded picture of the Batman in his horned mask, just like in Pa’s stories. Mary’s carrysack was pink. Instead of a batman, the faded image on Mary’s bag showed a beautiful woman with strange yellow hair. Pa said that he recognized the woman from other Merican artwork he’d seen but did not know her name. Mary called her Queen Lovely. The funny little hardmold teeth stitched around the mouths of the carrysacks no longer clicked together, so Ma had sewn in buttons to keep them closed. The bags were sturdy, ready for their voyage west.

Into Laura’s blue batman carrysack went A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals and the wooden bisox that Pa had carved for her, along with a few of Laura’s favorite Merican coins and other choice lectric trinkets from her collection. Oprah was stuffed into the carrysack for a moment but came right back out when Laura decided that the ragdoll would ride in her coat pocket. Oprah could peek her head out then and enjoy the passing scenery with her black button eyes.

Ma and Pa began to dig up vegetables from the winter garden. In summer, the crops stuck up in proud rows all around the sunny clearing beside the little house. There was kale and soy. There were carrots and pumpkins and sweet blue peppers.

It was winter now, and the fields were nothing but little mounds and furrows, all dusted in snow. But the crops were still there, Laura knew. You just couldn’t see them because they were buried. The best way to keep food from spoiling was to keep it in the ground, Ma always said. Each year when the cold crept into the Big Woods, Pa would cover the plants with mounds of loose earth and leaves so they wouldn’t freeze. There they might have remained until spring, sleeping beneath their winter blankets, had Ma and Pa not decided to pluck them out and see what could be added to their provisions for the long journey to the Wastes.

When the last of the soy had been harvested, Laura helped Ma make soymeal. Ma boiled up the soybeans. Then she heated the beans over the stove until they were a faded yellow-brown. Then she showed Laura how to grind the dry beans into flour using a long flat stone. It took them nearly all day. Laura’s arms got so tired she had to stop. After that, she just sat on the table with Oprah and watched Ma grind the soy.

There was a man who lived near the Laketowns named Mr. Abdullah who owned an iron machine that could grind soy. It was fitted with a crank and could make soymeal much more quickly than a stone grinder. After harvesttime, Pa would sometimes take his soy crop to Mr. Abdullah to grind, and he would give Mr. Abdullah some of the soymeal as payment. For years, Pa had been trying to put together his own grinding machine, but the metal pieces he molded in his forge never seemed to fit together quite right. Now, there was no time for Pa to make the trip down to the Laketowns, let alone finish his stubborn machine. Ma had to grind that soy by hand with her stone.

Afterwards, they put the soymeal in a hemp sack and added it to the others that had been stored in the pantry. That made three big bags of soymeal, full to bursting. Seeing them made Laura feel confident about the long road ahead. Those big bags would last them months and months, surely.

Laura asked if Ma could keep on making soybread and frycakes and porridge and all the rest. She wouldn’t have an easy time of it on the road, Ma allowed, not without her kitchen conveniences and with nothing but a campfire for a stove, but she reckoned she would figure something out. Laura knew she would. There was no one more resourceful than Ma when it came to cooking.

Some of the other vegetables from the garden went into jars, as much as Ma could fit. Kale and carrots and pumpkins and peppers, all were sliced up and packed together inside Ma’s glass jars just as tight as could be. Then Ma added boiled water and salt until the jars were almost full. Then she closed up the jars, put them inside her big iron pot and cooked them until steam shrieked from the tiny holes in the pot’s lid.

Very carefully, Ma took the hot jars out of the pot and set them on the shelf to cool. They were all different shapes and sizes, those jars. Some had been passed down to Ma from Laura’s grandmother and grandfather. Some of them, she or Pa had scavved over the years or gotten at market. Ma was protective of them all, and she would not let Mary or Laura touch them. Objects of lectricmade glass were rare enough, but a jar with a good lid that fit snug was as precious as silver, Ma said.

Three days was not a lot of time to do all that needed to be done but Pa insisted that they mustn’t delay any longer. Mid-winter was already past. Spring was just around the corner. Pa meant to walk across the Big Misisip River while it was frozen. If they didn’t reach it before the thaw, they would need to travel south until they could find a ferry crossing. Pa did not like the idea of venturing too deep into the Illinoy, for those lands were said to have come under the control of the fearsome General Rhee and his Army of Faith’s Spear Triumphant.

Besides the problem of crossing the Big River, Pa feared the spring thaw would bring more displacees streaming westward. They would have better luck hunting and foraging and scavving along the way if they did not have to compete with other migrants.

When Pa was a boy, the old Merican roads had been more crowded and more dangerous. Many followed those weathered creetrock byways, fleeing one turmoil or another or else seeking out new and better sources of scav. The wealth left behind after the fall of the Merican Empire had been more plentiful in those days, and a man might strike it rich just by stumbling across the right ruins or discovering a hidden bunker.

But there were more dangers back then as well. Bandit gangs roamed the countryside, preying on travelers and on one another. Nowadays, the number roads were a good deal quieter. No doubt they would encounter strangers on their journey, Pa said, but he hoped they would be few and unremarkable. Still, Laura could see that he was anxious not to delay their journey west.

“Uncertain times always bring folks out onto the old roads,” she heard him tell Ma.

Eventually, their provisions were ready. The garden was empty. The handcar was loaded. The day arrived.

They left the door to the little house unlatched. There was no sense wasting a good lock, Pa said, when someone would be along to bust it before long. Laura stood in the clearing that surrounded the empty cabin, trying to put on a brave face. She adjusted the shoulder straps on her carrysack as she watched Pa wheel the car down from the shed to the dirt trail that ran through the Big Woods not far from the little house.

The hide straps of Pa’s beaver hat dangled undone against his chin as he guided the handcar by its stout wooden shafts, steering it back and forth to make sure it would not roll too fast. A wind blew through the trees. A chill went up Laura’s back, and she cuddled Oprah close to her chest.

Finally, she felt Ma take her hand. Laura looked up. There was Baby Grace, hanging from Ma’s back, cheeks rosy from the cold but otherwise looking cozy and content in her swaddling. Mary clutched Ma’s other hand.

Together, they followed in Pa’s footprints, tracing the meandering tracks the handcar had cut through the snow. The tall trees of the Big Woods rose around them, obscuring Laura’s view of the little house sliver by sliver. By the time they reached the path that would lead them down to the old number road, the house was swallowed up. Laura knew that she would not see it ever again.

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