Five: Two Nights Under One Roof

It was splendid to sleep indoors for a change. Their fire heated that old creetrock building right up, and Laura slept warm and cozy.

When she woke up the next morning, it was snowing harder than it had the day before. Through the holes in the roof, the snow came in flurries, settling atop the pile of broken furniture like a snow-capped mountain. After some discussion, Ma and Pa decided that they would stay another night beneath the roof of the abandoned restrant.

Pa said that he had seen quail when he had gone out to disguise their tracks. He would use the day to go out hunting.

Laura and Mary were sent out to gather firewood. Trotting along beside them was the little striped pigdog they had discovered in the restrant kitchen. Jack was a bundle of energy. As Laura and Mary hunted for kindling, he plowed right through the snow. Sometimes, he disappeared beneath the snowdrifts, and all Laura could see were his funny bat ears. Then he would pop his head up like a gopher from its burrow and give them a satisfied look, his tongue dangling limp from his open-mouthed smile.

More than once, Jack saw a squirrel. Then he would bark and give chase. Laura did not think he could ever catch one. Ma had said that there were mice nesting in the rubble inside the restrant and perhaps that’s what Jack had been eating. Laura guessed Jack could catch a mouse, but a squirrel was something different. Jack’s stubby little legs were not made for climbing trees.

They spent all day with Jack. When Laura and Mary had tired him out with playing, he sat beside Ma as she nursed Baby Grace. His big round eye watched them until finally Ma reached out to scratch between his ears and told him what a good boy he was.

When Pa returned, he didn’t have any quail. Instead, he had a fat gray rabbit. He carried it by its hind legs, and its long ears slapped against his knees.

They cooked the rabbit over the fire. Laura and Mary each got a leg. The fresh meat tasted good. Once she had picked off all the flesh, Laura licked the juice off her fingers. Pa let them feed the scraps to Jack, who gnawed happily on the bones.

When they had finished supper, Pa brought out his map. It had stopped snowing outside, and there was daylight coming in through the holes in the restrant roof. Pa dragged one of the restrant’s old tables out into the sunbeam. He straightened out the rust-covered legs as best he could with his hammer and steadied the broken table with chunks of creetrock shed from the building’s walls. When it was as steady and level as it would get, Pa wiped down the yellowed hardmold surface with a rag, and there he unrolled his map.

Pa had bought the map from Rakesh Halfsilver, a scav merchant at the Laketown Market. It was drawn on hide, but Pa said it had been copied from an old paper map, the kind that the Mericans used to use when they would drive their lectric cars back and forth across the Old Empire from the Eastern Ocean to the Western.

Pa had seen the original with his own eyes. These old paper maps were so thin and so cleverly creased, Pa had told her, that they could be folded up and put in your front pocket. But, of course, Rakesh Halfsilver did not keep his paper map folded up in his pocket. It was too fragile and too valuable. The trader kept it pressed flat between two wooden boards in the back of his tent. He only brought it out when someone wanted to buy one of his hide copies, and even then Pa said he was very stingy about letting anyone see it.

Pa said that when his Uncle Freddie had been a boy, folks mostly used their lectric screens for reading and writing and had no need for books of paper or parchment. What paper books they did have, most got burned up long ago in the March Mayhem, when the people living in the old Ghost Cities got so angry they lit those cities on fire. That was why paper scav was so rare and precious and why Laura was always careful and gentle with A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals, keeping it wrapped up safe in its hide cover when it was tucked inside her batman carrysack.

Laura did not really understand how you could read a book with a lectric screen. Screens were all over, of course, so commonplace that scavmen hardly considered them worth collecting. Laura had seen little screens no bigger than a roofing shingle. Other screens were as big as a door frame. Big or small, Laura did not see how someone could write out a whole book onto one of those stiff black rectangles.

While Laura tried to imagine screen maps, Pa smoothed out Rakesh Halfsilver’s parchment map and weighted its corners down with creetrock stones. Laura stood on the tips of her toes, stretching herself as far as she could above the old hardmold table to have a look.

It was a very big map. Fully unfurled, it was nearly as wide as Laura was tall. On it were all the lakes and mountains and rivers that they would need to cross to get from the Big Woods to the Wastes. The map was covered all over in dotted lines. Those lines showed all the Old Number Roads and lots of other, smaller Merican roads besides. Whenever Pa brought the map out, Laura liked to crouch down next to him and trace their journey down along the many turns and forks of the map’s inky web.

Down in the lower righthand corner, there was a little drawing of the Great Towers, standing at the edge of Mishgan Lake. Starting from the Great Towers, Laura ran her finger west along the bottom of the map until she found Davenport. There it was, right where the thick, meandering line of the Mighty Misisip River met the double dashes of the Old Eighty Road. Pa said that nearly ten thousand people lived in Davenport. Laura tried to imagine a town with so many people and found that she could not. The thought of seeing it made her feel excited and, at the same time, a little afraid.

From Davenport, Laura’s eyes tried to trace the old number roads as they twisted and crossed, up up up, through the map’s empty middle and past the letters that Laura knew spelled out “YOWA.” The dotted lines led her back over the Misisip and all the way up into the top corner of the map. That was where the Big Woods were and the Laketowns. On the map, it did not seem so very far between the Big Woods and Davenport. But Laura knew that tracing a road with your eyes was one thing. Tracing it with your feet was something quite different.

Pa’s finger hovered over the map. It came down on a spot halfway between Great Mishgan Lake and the drawing of broken towers that represented the ruins of Twin’s City. Pa tapped that spot. Where his fingernail struck the parchment was a tiny sliver of a lake. Pa reckoned that was the lake that sat beside the village. Of the village itself and the little restrant where they had camped, though, the map had nothing to say. No nearby settlements were marked. If the town ever had a name, it was lost.

Finally, Pa rolled the hide map back up and tied it with hemp twine, tight and skinny. Now it was time to get their things ready. Tomorrow, they would leave early. In the morning, they must say goodbye to their little restrant in the ruins of the nameless village and return to the road.

Before bed, Mary and Laura both sat down by the fire to grease their boots. Ma had made Laura’s boots for her the previous winter. They had thick buckskin soles and tall ankles that came up halfway to Laura’s knees. They were too big, for Ma could not be restitching the leather every few months whenever Laura’s feet grew. But when Laura stuffed the toes with cloth, her feet felt snug and comfortable. They were Laura’s first pair of real, grown-up boots.

Because Laura’s boots were newer than Mary’s, they were a different color. Mary always took very good care of her boots. Over time, they had turned a pretty reddish brown. Laura’s boots were still a drab sandy color. Laura felt a pang of jealousy when she saw the boots standing side by side, but she knew that if she kept treating the leather regularly, her boots would turn that deep dark color eventually too.

Mary set the jar of tallow down between them, carefully unfastening the lid. The jar seemed small compared to the big clay pots of tallow they had left sitting in the cellar of their house in the Big Woods. Whenever Pa brought home a deer, before the meat was carved up to be smoked or salted, Ma would strip off the fat and plop it would go into her big iron stew pot. She would cook that fat all day, stirring and straining. The whole house filled with the smell, which always made Laura and Mary’s stomachs feel queasy.

Once the fat was a pure clean liquid, Ma ladled it into containers, and it became a hard white paste as it cooled. That was tallow. They could use that tallow for all kinds of things. Ma would use it for frycakes and to make her lavender soaps. She would coat pinecones with it to use as kindling when dry firewood was scarce.

Mary scooped up a spoonful of tallow and held it out over the fire to soften it. When it was good and drippy, she dolloped it onto the toe of her boot. With the corner of an old hemp rag, she started to rub the tallow into the leather. Laura did the same, trying her best to copy Mary’s careful polishing motions. Jack trotted up beside them to watch, following their movements with his big black eye, a look of puzzlement on his funny smooshed face.

When the tallow was completely absorbed, Laura and Mary added more. They didn’t stop rubbing until the leather glistened. Laura knew her boots must be kept well-greased if she wanted her feet to stay dry as she walked through the snow.

By the time they were finished, the fire was dying and it was time for bed. Laura crawled over to her bed roll, and Ma tucked the blankets snug around her. From her little cocoon, she watched Pa clean his rifle. After a while, he looked up and gave her a wink. He set his rifle down. Then he went to a corner and picked up his two-string. Laura had not even seen him bring the instrument into the restrant.

Pa pulled his stool closer to the flickering embers of their fire and rested the two-string’s barrel in his lap. Then he picked up his bow and began to play. Softly, he sang. It was one of the old folk songs that Uncle Freddie had taught him. The words echoed off the creetrock walls and mingled with the smoke that snaked out through the hole in the roof. Even Ma set down what she was doing and sat and listened.

And all the roads we have to walk are winding

And all the lights that lead us there are blinding

There are many things that I

Would like to say to you but I don’t know how

 Because maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me

And after all, you’re my wonder wall  

“Play the one about the blackbird,” Laura whispered when he was finished.

“Shhh,” Pa told her. “Close your eyes now, Soybean.” But even as he said it, he was already adjusting the frets on his two-string and feeling out the starting note with his bow.

As Pa began to sing about teaching the blackbird to fly on broken wings, Jack padded up to Laura’s bed and tried to nuzzle his way beneath the blankets. Laura freed up a spot for him and put her arms around the little pigdog. Together, they drifted off into a warm, pleasant sleep.

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