Pa hacked aside the overgrowth. Then he clanged the flat iron surface beneath with the blunt side of his hatchet.
It was an old Merican signpost. Laura had seen many such signs these past few days, lying by the sides of the Old Thirty-Nine Road. Most were unreadable, the paint having long ago faded to a uniform grey or else been shed entirely from the rust-scabbed frames. This sign had been protected beneath a dense thicket of buckthorn that had grown up all around it, sheltering it from the sun and wind. The words on its face were faded, but they were still visible, white against a pale greenish backdrop.
“Can you read what it says, girls?” Pa asked Mary and Laura.
They could not. Pa had been taught his letters by his uncle, Frederick Ingalls, and he had been trying to teach Mary and Laura. Laura tried to sound out the faded markings on the sign, but the words were not familiar and she soon got stuck. To her relief, Mary fared no better.
“It says ‘Shicago,’” Pa told them, “and this number tells you how far away it is.”
Laura stepped closer, regarding the sign with a newfound awe. The Towers of Shicago were said to be one of the greatest wonders of Old Merica. Pa had seen them for himself as a little boy. He had told Mary and Laura amazing stories of what the ghost city must have been like before it had been abandoned during the Hard Years. Back in Lectric Times, people had lived inside the Great Towers. Those towers were so tall that on a cloudy day you could not see their tops, so tall that you might climb stair after stair all day long without rest and still not reach the highest levels.
Pa had told them stories, passed down from his Uncle Freddie, of long lectric wagons that roared through the skies and beneath the earth of Old Shicago, carrying people from place to place so that no one would have to walk. He told them of great libraries housing every book that had ever been written and vast menageries with cages full of every animal Laura had seen in the faded pages of A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals. Elephants and lions and polar bears and monkeys.
Laura could hardly contain herself, looking at the sign. She bounced from foot to foot. So excited she could barely form the words, she asked if they would see the Great Towers on their way to the Wastes.
Pa shook his head as he tossed his hatchet back into the handcar and hoisted its stiff handles back up to his hips. The sign pointed the other way, he told her, due south. They were going west, towards the Mighty Misisip and then across into the lands the Mericans had called the Yowa.
Laura’s face fell. She had not really thought that she would get to visit the Great Towers, not deep down, but for a moment that old green-gray sign had made her imagination run away, out ahead of her good sense.
“But someday?” Laura said, as she continued down the road, walking in the tracks the handcar made through the snow. “Someday you’ll take us to see the Great Towers. Right, Pa?”
Pa looked back at her and smiled. Someday perhaps, he allowed.
Ma was having none of it.
“You mustn’t tease them with such promises, Charles,” she called back to them from a few meters down the road. “The Ghost Cities are not places for little girls to go playing about. We’ll stay well clear of them if I have any say in it.”
Ma did not turn around or break her stride. Laura had not even realized she was listening.
“Everyone knows the old cities are haunted, Laura,” said Mary, who was walking in the handcar track opposite her. “You wouldn’t want to walk among the Great Towers. Not for truly.”
“I would so!” answered Laura, “I’m not scared.”
She looked to Pa, feeling that everyone was ganging up on her.
“Your mother’s right, Laura,” said Pa. “You know about the cannibal gang on the bridge, after all.”
Laura cheered up then, for the story of Pa and the cannibal gang on the bridge was one of her favorite stories.
“Oh, tell it, Pa!” she cried, trotting ahead of the car to walk apace with her father.
“Oh, no, you don’t want to hear that story again, about the time when I was a bad little boy,” said Pa, though Laura knew he had already made up his mind to tell it.
“Please!” said Laura.
Mary had run ahead too, to walk on the other side of Pa. Even Ma dropped back a few paces to listen. Pa chuckled and shook his head.
“Well, it seems everyone could do with a story to help make the kims go faster. But you girls keep pace as I talk. Understand? This isn’t an excuse for another rest break. Not so soon after the last.”
Laura and Mary both nodded enthusiastically, pulling the straps of their carrysacks tighter around their shoulders.
THE STORY OF PA AND THE CANNIBAL GANG ON THE BRIDGE
“When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, we had to leave the farm where I grew up.
“The farm was in the East, in a place called Upstate. But things got to where we couldn’t stay in Upstate anymore, so we packed what we could carry and headed west, just Uncle Freddie and me. The same as all of us are doing now, I suppose.
“It was a long, hard journey. After many a week of travel, we finally reached the Illinoy. It was a flat country, like the Wastes are said to be, though not so dry and not so sparsely timbered. Eventually, we came to the boundless waters of Great Mishgan Lake, and we began to trace its shores northward.
“And then one day, suddenly, there they were. The Great Towers, rising up out of the flatness of the Illinoy like a single jagged fang. It took my breath away. We’d passed near other Merican ruins on our journey, some of them mighty impressive. I’d seen other ghost cities, seen my share of lectric towers or what was left of them at any rate. But nothing had prepared me for the sheer bigness of the ruins that I saw looming on the horizon.
“Uncle Freddie had visited Shicago as a boy, long ago, way back before the Great Bust. He had told me about how, back then, folks used to work and sleep and eat in the very tip tops of the Great Towers. Yet, as the ruins continued to approach and their height became clear to me, I found I couldn’t believe him. Surely, no one would choose to actually climb those gigantic spires, let alone to live there permanently up among the clouds.
“We veered west of the ruins, but the Great Towers stayed constantly in view, looming closer some days, retreating other days. One night, we camped nearly within their long shadows, on the banks of a wide, slow-moving river. In the morning, instead of striking camp, Uncle Freddie packed his satchel and made for a trading post he’d been told about, which he reckoned lay somewhere a few kims to the east, among the outskirts of the ruins.
“It had been a good many weeks since we’d seen a settlement of any note, and we were starting to run fearful short on supplies. We knew of this Shicago trading post from other travelers we’d spoken to. As you can imagine, it was said to attract a rough sort. There’s not a lot of honest folk would choose to settle beside one of the old ghost cities. Even if a man doesn’t buy into the talk of haints and ghouls, you can’t deny that living in the shadow of all that death and decay, there’s something about it that just doesn’t sit right. It would give me the shivers, I’ll tell you that.
“In any case, this trading post’s reputation being what it was, Uncle Freddie thought it best to go alone. He took with him a few choice trinkets we’d scavved along the road and just enough silver to buy us a week or two of saltmeat or whatever food these queer Shicago folk had for trade. I was to stay at camp and watch the rest of our supplies.
“He warned me many times not to stray from that spot on the river bank. He would try to be back by sundown. I watched him sling his satchel over his shoulders, tuck his rifle beneath his arm and set off.
“Now, at that age, I wasn’t like you girls, who know well enough to mind. Oh, I tried my best to be good. But somehow or other I always seemed to find those misbehaving feet of mine trotting me down the wrong path before I even knew what was happening.
“I looked at the Great Towers in the distance. I thought about all that Uncle Freddie had told me about the old lectric cities and their wonders. Just like you, Laura, I wanted to see the Shicago ruins for myself. I wanted to walk along the tracks of those sky wagons, to hunt for rare lectric artifacts amongst the vaults and tunnels that were said to lie beneath the old city. I tried to mind Uncle Freddie, I truly did, but as I set myself to gathering firewood, I found myself wandering farther and farther from camp.
“The Great Towers on the horizon made me think of the stories Uncle Freddie had told me of Wane the Batman. The towers were just how I had always imagined the lost city of Gothim, where so many of the Batman’s adventures take place. I began to play that I was a batman, fighting off fiends and cannibal gangs.
“There were ruins hidden all over among the trees and marshes along the riverbank. Old creetrock walls and lectric cars and huge iron beams crusted over in rust. As I strayed further and further downriver, caught up in my make-believe, these ruins only grew denser and more striking. Up ahead, the Great Towers were now so close that I could make them out individually, which ones were made of stone and which of metal, which had lost their tops or sides and which were still mostly whole. I knew I’d gone too far from camp already. And I was just about to turn back, when I discovered the raft.
“It was moss-covered and splintered along its edges. It had clearly been sitting there for some time. Yet, when I took off my boots and rolled up my pants, wading into the marsh where the tiny craft had washed ashore, I found that it was still quite seaworthy. I looked upriver, back towards camp, and downriver towards the Great Towers. The temptation was too great. I quickly found a long, flat branch that would serve as a paddle, and I pushed the raft out into the river and clambered aboard.
“My heart was pounding. I felt like Huckfin, the Merican explorer who had sailed a raft all the way down the Misisip, hunting for the whale that had eaten his leg. Using the paddle to steer, I drifted with the current.
“According to Uncle Freddie, that river was called the Shicago River, just like the city that once stood at its mouth. He remembered seeing it in his youth. Yet, when we’d first come upon it, Uncle Freddie had studied it with puzzlement. He had been forced to consult his maps and compass before satisfying himself that it was indeed the Shicago River. It was just peculiar, he said, for he was certain that it should be flowing in the opposite direction.
“Whether Uncle Freddie was mistaken or whether the course of the river had reversed itself somehow in the years since he had last been in the Illinoy, I can’t say. Whatever the case, the Shicago River now streamed eastward, gently but steadily, towards Great Mishgan Lake and straight through the very heart of the Great Towers, taking me and my little raft deeper and deeper into the forest of brick and iron that was now rising from its banks.
“Old lectric buildings drifted by on either side of me. Steadily taller they grew as my raft made its way downriver. Most were mere skeletons, precarious stacks of metal beams with chunks of creetrock clinging to them here and there. The tallest all seemed to be missing their tops. At their peaks, they would suddenly dissolve into a nest of twisted iron threads, so that I could only guess at what their full height might once have been. Yet, even shattered and beheaded, these Merican buildings were grander than anything I had ever seen in my travels. I lay on my back upon the raft as they passed, awestruck.
“There were signs of habitation amidst the ruins. Campfires. Clothes strung out on lines beside the riverbank to dry. At one point, I passed a fisherman casting his net out from the side of a boat tethered near shore. I waved. He gave me a queer look as I drifted by on my ramshackle vessel but otherwise paid me no mind.
“I was drawing closer to the tallest towers, the ones that rose from the very center of the old city. I knew well that I’d let that little raft take me a good deal further than I should. I began to paddle towards shore. Just then, the river rounded a curve and abruptly picked up speed. I stopped paddling and turned.
“Immediately, I sat bolt upright upon the raft. Just ahead, the river seemed to flow straight into a wall. I wiped a hand across my face to clear my eyes of the spray that the river’s current was now kicking up all around me. When I looked again, the wall was still there. It seemed that one of the lectric buildings had toppled straight across the river. Its crumpled skeleton lay there, all the way from one bank to the other. The iron frame sagged, tracing the slope of the riverbed and dipping down beneath the water. I was scared, sure I was about to crash right into it, impaling myself on one of the gnarled spikes that I now saw jutting out this way and that from its battlements. I began to paddle for my very life now, desperately trying to get to shore but knowing I would never reach it in time.
“Yet, as the current swept me perilously closer, I saw that the obstruction was not as solid as it first appeared. The river had eaten away much of the material that touched its gushing water, and boat-sized fissures had been torn throughout the fallen tower. With care, these gaps could be safely navigated, I now saw. I stopped struggling against the current and steered towards a wide, square hole that might once have been a window.
“As I entered the sunken monolith, darkness fell around me, as if my raft was floating through an underground cavern, full of splintered shapes dangling from above like stalactites or like vines from an overgrown jungle canopy. Other shapes rose from the water below, diverting the river’s flow into pools and meandering channels and, much to my relief, slowing the current.
“Above me, a long unbroken stretch of hallway had survived. As I passed beneath, I could make out doors and alcoves. Here and there in the darkness, I saw markings plastered along the sideways walls, full of strange Merican designs and symbols whose meanings I could not begin to guess.
“Finally, I paddled my little raft all the way through the toppled tower, out another window and back into daylight. I whooped and hollered, I was so thankful to have passed through that treacherous tunnel alive. Turning my attention back to the path before me, I saw that the Shicago River made another sharp curve ahead. At the same time, a second tributary, nearly as wide as the first and flowing southeastwardly, joined its force to the flow.
“There, standing sentry upon the north shore of the river fork, gliding into view inch by inch from behind the rubble that loomed above my starboard bow, was an enormous structure. It appeared to be made of giant stone bricks. Unlike the cracked creetrock slabs that one sees about most Merican ruins, these pale brown stones seemed to have shrugged off the passage of years. In crisp lines and precise angles, the stone fortress rose above the devastation all around it, as if perched atop the bodies of fallen enemies.
“It was like a storybook castle. It was nowhere near as tall as the tallest of the Great Towers, which now rose from the river’s south bank, but its every dimension was massive, so large I could scarcely take it all in. Its square stone face sprawled, straight and flat and unremitting, along the river’s edge. Around beyond the corners of its colossal, dust-colored parapets, its adjacent walls stretched back away from sight. This single building covered the land in all directions, big enough to swallow whole towns, whole cities. I had never felt so tiny, standing there on my little raft, a floating speck upon the river, staring up mesmerized at the stone giant approaching around the bend.
“It was then that I first heard the voice. The sound bounced against the castle’s all-encompassing face, echoing all around me as if channeled through a deep canyon.
“’Eat!’’ it cried.
“I looked about, startled. With no clue what direction the voice had come from, I scanned the rubble-strewn banks of the river. But I saw no one.
“I floated onwards, directly beneath the castle’s walls. Looking up, I saw a line of stone pillars guarding the fortress’s front gate. Some were empty, but some were mounted with what looked to be giant heads, forged in dark green copper. I watched them warily, still rattled by the strange voice.
“Then it came again. Closer now, it seemed. Hungry and insistent even as it faded into a dull echo, dribbling down the sides of the castle walls.
“Uncle Freddie’s warnings came flooding back to me. How cannibal gangs were known to make camp among the ghost cities. How the Great Towers were full of dark corridors and crevices, places where those driven mad by the Ague might shelter from the sun’s rays.
“Up ahead, there was an iron bridge. Or what had once been a bridge. Much of the span had collapsed, but a thin spine of crisscrossing iron beams still spanned the river’s width, patched here and there with rope and wooden planks. Tucked in among the shadows of its craggy latticework, I thought I saw shapes, dark figures waiting in ambush.
“Terrified, I began to paddle once again for shore. The dark shapes above loomed ever closer, but I managed to steer my little boat into the muddy shallows of the river just before the water dragged me beneath the bridge’s ominous trestles.
“I dragged the raft up onto land, and, for a moment, I squatted there in the tall marsh grass, unsure what to do. I watched the bridge, holding my breath, listening for the voice. Above the rush of the river, I could hear the Great Towers creak in the distance, their soft laments rising and falling, accompanied by the low moan of wind picking its way through the ruins. Otherwise, all was still and silent.
“I turned around and looked towards the river bend that had brought me here, towards the fork where the two tributaries smashed against one another. With only a mind towards escaping that current as quick as I could, I had found myself on the river’s north bank, with no plan for how to get back to camp.
“Paddling upriver would be slow and tiring, if indeed I could manage it at all. And I was rightly worried that the shifting cross currents of the river fork might defy my limited seamanship. When I had set off on this adventure, my plan, such as I had one, heedless boy that I was, had always been to abandon my boat and walk my way back to where I started, but I had never counted on the river taking me so deep into the ruins.
“Suddenly, I heard a clatter from amid the rubble on the south bank. Whether it was movement or simply the sound of debris settling, I couldn’t say for sure, but it frightened me. As discreetly as I could, I scrambled up the mud embankment, trying to hide behind the ridges of broken creetrock that studded its steep slope.
“When I reached the top, I found myself standing beneath the row of copper heads, each as large as a boulder. Each had the face of a different man, all wearing severe expressions. Their features were eerily lifelike. Atop their high pedestals, they stared blankly towards the gates of the giant stone citadel.
“From afar, the castle’s entrance had seemed small, a tiny cleft notched into the very bottom of the sprawling stone walls. Now, the gate towered over me, a square archway taller than the tallest trees in the Big Woods. Huge metal beams, bent and rusted, lay diagonally across the opening. Its threshold was choked with rubble, spilling out of its mouth like a fiend spewing yellow bile. Beyond was blackness.
“One of the copper heads lay on the ground near my feet, cheek down in the weeds and gravel. I kept my eye on it as I crept past. Even on its side, it was nearly as tall as my chest. It had a pointed beard and serious, sunken eyes. Its dull green skull was cracked in two, and a gnarled, leafless shrub had sprouted in the gap. Twisted roots spilled over the copper man’s brow and curled around his ear. I couldn’t shake the disquieting sense that he was watching me.
“As I looked around, weighing the quickest and safest path back to camp, I was dismayed by how long the shadows of the Great Towers had grown. The sunlight sneaking between the spires was casting dappled patterns over the ruins. A foreboding dusk had settled into the winding alleys and corridors of the old ghost city.
“How had it gotten so late? In the excitement of my adventure, I had lost track of the day. I started to panic.
“I was no longer Huckfin or Wane the Batman. I was a scared little boy. A little boy who had done a very foolish thing.
“And then I heard the voice again. So loud and clear, it spun me around in fright, thinking someone was standing right behind me.
“Eat! it said. Eat! Eat! Eat!
“Beneath the walls of the castle and around its corner, I fled headlong. I passed all manner of strange shapes as I raced through the ruins. Lectric cars of every description, sometimes piled in stacks of ten or more. Giant signs with words and pictures sculpted in metal and hardmold. I ran beneath a sky wagon, still sitting frozen on its elevated track. But I paid no mind to any of it. My dreams of treasure and adventure were forgotten. I wanted only to escape.
“It wasn’t long, though, before I found my way blocked by the river. It was the north fork, the one that had joined its strength to my westerly branch just before I disembarked. Upstream, there was another old lectric bridge. It was wide, wide enough for half a dozen wagons to cross all at once, side by side. And it seemed in fair shape, spanning the whole width of the river.
“Now, Uncle Freddie had told me never to try and walk over any bridge left over from Lectric Times, no matter how solid it might look. Such bridges were like to collapse at any time.
“Besides, by now I imagined cannibal bandits waiting in ambush around every corner. In my mind, I saw them lurking at the far end of the bridge, demanding their grisly toll.
“I decided to swim it. I stumbled down the riverbank and plunged into the cold water. Gasping, I flailed towards the far shore. The current began to pull me southward, taking me dangerously closer to the river’s fork. For a moment, I was terrified I wouldn’t make it, that the second tributary would crash down upon me, and I would be swept out into Great Lake Mishgan. But just before the two branches came together, curling eastward around the castle, my feet touched mud.
“Sopping wet, I climbed out of the river. Yet, as soon as I staggered up from the rushes and onto firm land, that sound once more froze me in my tracks.
“The voice seemed closer than ever. Had my pursuer followed me across the river somehow? Or was this another lookout from the same cannibal gang, calling out to his comrades in that same distinctive screech? I squinted at the bridge, sure that I could see a human figure striding across at a determined pace.
“Once more, I ran, my wet pants slop-slopping against my legs. After just a few steps, I tripped. My hands and knees were skinned bloody, but I barely noticed. I picked myself up as quickly as I could and stumbled onward. Behind me, I heard footsteps. Terrified, I ducked down an alley between two brick towers.
“I found the passageway blocked with rubble. By now, I was crying. I turned around. Through the narrow gap between the buildings, I saw a shadow fall across the creetrock gravel that coated the old streets. The shadow was deformed, neck and shoulders stretched into a slender, asymmetrical hunch by the waning sunlight, but it was unmistakably human.
“I turned back, searching desperately for a way to clamber up the rubble blockade. Suddenly, a hand grabbed my shoulder. Strong fingers closed around my shirt, wadding up a bundle of fabric and squeezing the collar tight around my neck. The hand gave me a rough shake and spun me around. I opened my mouth to scream.
“But then I looked up. A confusing mix of emotions washed over me, for in that moment I found myself staring up into the face of Uncle Freddie. He was furious.
“’So it’s you after all, is it?’ he said, through gritted teeth. ‘When I heard that scavman at the trading post, telling folks of a boy he’d seen rafting down the Shicago River, splashing about in the middle of the Great Towers like a damned fool, I’d not believed it. Not Charlie, I told myself. He’s a deal more sense than that. And yet something told me I should see for myself, just to be safe…’
“I began to blubber some explanation, but before I could get two words out, I stopped cold. Tongue suddenly stiff with dread, I held my breath, my jaw hanging limp and my eyes bulging. It was the voice again, filling the narrow alley with a shrill echo.
“Eat! it cried Eaaaaat!
“Uncle Freddie studied the terror on my face. He raised a curious eyebrow and glanced up over my shoulder before bursting into laughter. His unexpected reaction dampened my panic. Confused, I looked behind me, following his gaze upwards.
“Above my head, a twisted arch of metal scaffolding had come unfastened from one building and collapsed against the other. It hung there, suspended above the alley. Still holding my breath, I listened. I heard a faint scrape of claws against the rusted iron slats. And then I saw a flap of black wings, darting out momentarily from behind their perch.
“Uncle Freddie released me and gave me a clap to the back of my head.
“’I hope you’ve had a grand adventure, Charlie,” he said. ‘Chased through the streets of Old Shicago by mouthy little raven!’
“Well, now I felt double foolish, and I trudged silently after Uncle Freddie, feeling the mud squishing in my boots, all the way back to camp. And when we’d got back, Uncle Freddie thrashed me good with his belt for not minding.”
“So I hope you girls remember,” said Pa, and he stopped the handcar momentarily so he could look at Mary and Laura each in turn. “Never go playing around in ruins.”