Nine: Iron Boxes

Pa left the handcar down by the riverbank. Then he climbed up to join them beside the earthen mound surrounded by birch trees where Ma had chosen to wait. He gave them each a big long hug.

“Seems to me we’ve all earned a quick rest,” Pa said. “What say we stop here for a spell and get our bearings. Plenty of time to find the Six Three Road before nightfall.”

It was pleasant, that spot above the riverbank.  Encircled by the mound on one side and the birch grove on another, they were shielded from the wind that had lashed their cheeks as they crossed the river. Even the snows seemed unable to conquer the little sheltered promontory. Tufts of grass peppered the brown earth and here and there a wildflower. The branches of the birch trees were bare, but moss crept up the sides of their trunks, adding more splashes of color.

Pa brought the stool up from the handcar for Ma, and she sat down to feed Baby Grace. Then Pa pulled out a bag from his pocket. It was full of dry-roasted soybeans.

Dry-roasted soybeans were one of Laura’s favorite snacks. When they lived in their little house in the Big Woods, Ma would make a batch most every week. First, she would soak the beans in cool water. Then, Laura would help her scoop them up with a big slotted spoon onto an iron pan rubbed slick and shiny with tallow. Ma liked to sprinkle the beans with salt and herbs. Then onto the stove would go the pan, and Ma would roast those beans for an hour or more, shaking the pan from time to time, until they were crispy yellow-brown.

Pa told Mary and Laura to hold out their hands like tiny bowls. He poured them each a big pile of soybeans. Laura stuffed as many into her mouth as she could fit. They were salty and crunchy and good, and they made Laura skip happily round and round the skinny white birch trees, grinning through her bulging chipmunk cheeks. Jack bounded right along with her, just as happy as anyone to be safely on the western side of the Misisip.

As Laura skipped past the mound that sat lonesome at the far end of the grove, she stopped. She had not looked closely at that funny little hill until now. She had been too caught up in the excitement of crossing the river and reuniting with Pa and enjoying her tasty snack. Now, for the first time, she saw that it was no kind of regular hill. The sides were too steep. Laura walked along its flat face, the soybeans turning to mush in her mouth. Its surface was not made of rock or soil, she saw, but iron. It was a box. An immense iron box.

The box had tried to hide by blending in with its surroundings. Slopes of moss-covered earth were piled around its bottom, and creepers climbed their way up its ridges and hung down over its top. But, beneath, it was spotted with the same dark yellows and oranges as the stranded iron boat that lay upriver. Its sides rippled in and out like tree bark.

Laura felt Pa walk up behind her. She could tell that he had noticed the half-buried box too. He knelt down to scratch Jack behind his silly bat ears as he regarded the indentations that ran along the box’s surface in neat vertical lines beneath the moss and creepers.

“Well,” he said. “This is quite a box.”

Pa stood. Stepping closer, he banged a fist against the rust-dappled metal. It answered with a hollow bong bong that reverberated through the birch trees and rattled down the bank and out over the frozen river.

Laura held her breath, listening to the echoes die away. Then she let out a squeal of delight. She scurried up the mound to bang her own tiny fist against the metal wall. It gave a curt clang but not much more. She tried again, pounding both fists against its side. For good measure, she also gave it a few sharp kicks.

She was just beginning to coax a few satisfying noises from the box when Pa pulled her gently away.

“Ok. I think that’s enough of that now, Laura,” he said. “Stay close to me, and we’ll investigate just what we’ve got here.”

He took her by the hand, and, together, they walked in a slow circle around the big rectangular structure. When they reached its short side, Pa pushed away the creepers and ran his hand across the metal ripples.

“Hm,” said Pa.

There was a seam running down the middle, but nothing moved when Pa pushed against it. If the box had once had doors, there were no knobs or handles left that Laura could see. Anyway, if they wanted to open it up, they would need to dig away the piles of earth that had built up around box’s base. The ground seemed to have risen up to swallow the box.

By this time, Mary had joined them, standing a wary distance away from all the banging and scraping.

“What’s inside?” she asked.

“Hard to say,” confessed Pa. “And I don’t know it’s worth finding out, half-buried as it is. Most likely scavved clean long ago in any case I reckon. The convoy trail from Davenport is supposed to pass through here somewhere nearabouts. Still, I wonder . . . Let’s us take stock, girls. Follow me.”

He took Laura by one hand and Mary by the other. Jack trotted by their feet. Together, they marched through the grove of birches. Mary and Laura took two steps for every one of Pa’s. Jack took two steps for every one of Mary and Laura’s.

“Don’t stray too far, Charles,” Ma called out to them as they passed.

The ground sloped gradually upwards before falling away. Soon, the trees thinned out, and they found themselves looking upriver. The west bank of the Misisip stretched out before them. They stopped. Pa scanned the landscape.

There was the giant iron ship, standing at a crooked angle a short distance away. From this vantage, Laura could see just how far from the river the poor old boat had gotten itself. Its tail had sunk down below a rolling ocean of shrubs and only its nose hovered above the icy beach, as if straining to find its way home.

She could see the boat’s deck for the first time. It was a lighter gray than the hull, mottled in the same burnt yellows and oranges. It was so flat and so smooth that Laura found herself imagining what it would be like to take her sled up to the tip top and ride all the way to the bottom. As her eyes sledded downward across the deck, to where it crashed beneath waves of foliage, Laura saw that the base was clogged with a great pile of rubble.

They were boxes. From far away, they looked just like the little wooden building blocks that Pa had carved for Laura and her sisters. The messy heap they made reminded Laura of a carefully constructed building-block castle that had just been knocked down.

Other piles of boxes ringed the shipwreck. The longer she looked, the more boxes Laura saw. They were strewn along the riverbank, lying in ones and twos, hiding behind trees or jutting out from under the ice and mud near the water’s edge. You could trace the trail of boxes straight from the boat all the way to back the overlook where she and Pa and Mary stood, Laura thought, following them like the scattered soybread crumbs that Hukfin used to find his way back to his raft after escaping the evil witch’s bunker.

Laura looked up at Pa. She could tell that he was tracing his way along the trail of boxes too. His eyes paced in thoughtful zigzags, silently taking it all in.

“Well now,” he said finally. “That’s a good many boxes.”

They went back to tell Ma about what they’d seen. She and Pa agreed that they would stop a little longer by the riverbank and see if anything of value could be scavved from the shipwreck.

Pa rummaged through the handcar, pulling out tools. Into his satchel went his heavy claw hammer. Into the pocket of his overcoat went his framing chisel. He scooped up a long-handled adze with his left hand and, with his right, his trusty hatchet.

When Pa handed Mary and Laura an empty soymeal sack, they looked at each other with big eyes. They would be allowed to come along and help Pa with the scavving!

Mary on one side and Laura on the other, they followed Pa along the frozen shore of the Misisip, towards the shadow of the stranded lectric boat. Ma moved her stool up to the overlook and watched over them, Baby Grace tucked into the crook of one arm and the rifle in the other.

Mary got to hold the bag because she was older, but Laura didn’t care. She just wanted to see what was in all those giant old boxes from Lectric Times. Her imagination filled with treasures. Stacks of paper books. Big bolts of untearable lectric fabrics. Rows of glass jars with nice snug lids so Ma could pickle all the vegetables she wanted.

As if seeing the wonderful bounty flickering behind Laura’s eyes, Pa warned the girls again that anything of real value would likely have been scavved away long ago. He was looking mainly for metal scrap, he told them.

Pa was always after scrap. Iron was his favorite. By his forge in the Big Woods, there had been a pile of iron scrap. Ma would tease him sometimes when he would return home, sweating and wheezing from the exertion, dragging a sled loaded down with yet another iron door torn off some old lectric car.

“For goodness sake, Charles,” she would scold him. “Don’t you have enough metal for your projects? That scrap heap out back is taller than you are.”

But, to Pa, no two pieces of iron scrap were alike. He seemed to see subtleties in metal scav that weren’t obvious to Laura: which iron would be easiest to shape, which iron would make for the hardest ax head and which the sturdiest nail.

Laura was good at scavving for copper. In the Big Woods, she would often come across old Merican coins and bring them back to Pa. Laura knew that the silver-colored Merican coins had the most copper. The copper-colored coins had the least. That always seemed funny to Laura, but Pa just said that it was a good lesson not to judge things by how they look on the outside.

Once, Pa had heated up one of those copper-colored coins to show her. Its thin copper skin had cracked and a dark silver-colored liquid had dripped out into Pa’s mold. The metal inside was called zink, Pa told her. Zink had its uses, but it wasn’t as valuable as copper, which could be exchanged at most markets almost as readily as silver.

As Pa hacked a path through a thicket of shrubs with his hatchet, though, he explained to Laura and Mary that it wasn’t iron or even copper he was looking for in the big lectric boxes. He couldn’t melt such metals over a campfire. Until he set up a new forge out in the Wastes, iron scrap was just useless weight. It was scrap for casting bullets he needed most, Pa told the girls. In the Big Woods, Pa might make bullets from zink or nikel. He liked to experiment with different mixes and, sometimes, he would even cover his bullets in a hard outer layer of copper. But nikel and zink would be no easier to work than iron while out on the open road, Pa told them. He needed softer metals like lead or tin.

Good soft lead was hard to come by. For some reason, the Mericans had not liked to use it in their various tools and craftworks. But you could find it if you knew where to look. The best place to look for lead was the wheels of lectric cars, Laura knew. If you pried off the iron discs, there were sometimes tiny little lead nuggets tucked around their edges. Whenever they would pass a lectric car, Pa would squat down to look at the wheels. If there were any bits of lead hidden inside, he would pry them off and pocket them for making bullets. Unfortunately, they hadn’t seen many lectric cars of late, and Pa had begun to worry about their supply of ammunition. Laura supposed that was one reason he was so keen to scav through the iron boxes.

The first box they came to was missing a chunk from one of its corners, as if someone had taken a big bite out of it. Pa only had to widen the hole, knocking away a few ragged metal flaps that hung loose, and they could all step right through.

Inside, the box was filled with tall black blobs. They were piled in distended columns that bulged and slouched and leaned against one another. Laura nudged the nearest one with her foot. It was the same black softmold that sometimes clung to the wheels of lectric cars. Looking around, she realized that the big ugly pillars were actually stacks of individual rings, though they were so warped that you could hardly tell they used to be round. The old softmold artifacts oozed into one another, forming shapes like hideous swamp creatures emerging from a bog.

There was a strange, sharp smell inside the box. Pa coughed, pressing his handkerchief to his face, and immediately shooed Laura and Mary back outside.

“Rotting softmold!” he exclaimed, “Pyoo! What a stench.”

The next box Pa had to pry open. That was a good sign, he told them as he banged his hammer against the rusted-out iron rods that held the doors in place. The box hadn’t been opened in some time, perhaps not since the early days after the Bust. Whatever scav lay inside might not be picked over. Once the latches had been broken off, the doors gave easily, creaking apart at the insistence of Pa’s chisel.

But inside there was nothing but dirt and dust, piled as high as Laura’s knees in some places. Some of it rose into the air when the box’s door swung open, escaping in a puff of gray out over the riverbank. A piece of fabric tumbled past Laura. It was stamped with faded green letters and a picture of some sort of bean in a deep reddish brown. Laura tried to pick it up, but as soon as she touched it, it crumbled into nothing.

Pa peered inside the dirt-filled box and tapped his chisel against the door in disappointment before moving on.

They found another box nearby lying at an awkward tilt, half-sunk into the mud and covered over in moss. Its latches were already rusted clean off, but, when Pa tried to pry open its doors, he found they were jammed. Pa worked long and hard to pound his chisel deep enough into the gap to open up a space for his adze. Finally, working with adze and hammer both, he pulled one of the metal doors free.

An avalanche of square black objects poured out of the box and into the mud. One landed near Laura’s foot. She picked it up. It was a screen, a small one, flat as a frycake and narrow enough that Laura could wrap her fingers almost clear around it. Laura wiped the dust away with the corner of her cloak. She had never seen a screen that looked so perfect and new. Sheltered inside the iron box, the little screen had managed to defy the ravages of time. Its rounded hardmold corners were smooth and even. And its polished surface of black lectric glass sparkled in the sunlight, as brilliant as any jewel.

Laura held the screen up. Suddenly a face appeared within the black rectangle. Laura nearly dropped the screen she was so startled by the clarity of the features peering back at her. It was a little girl. Though the colors were dulled beneath the screen’s dark tint, she could make out the nut brown color of the girl’s eyes and hair and distinguish each one of the tiny blemishes that ran across her nose and down her cheeks, some of which were freckles and some, no doubt, merely dirt.

Laura angled the lectric artifact back and forth. Was that really her in the screen’s deep black face? She shook her head in disbelief. The girl in the screen did likewise.

Meanwhile, there was a great commotion as Pa shoveled the screens aside. Eventually, he climbed up over the pile and into the box. There was more clatter from within. Screens came flying out the door, skittering down the heap to join their companions in the mud and reeds. Finally, Pa emerged, drumming his hammer softly against his thigh in disappointment.

For good measure, Pa set one of the screens on a stone and gave it a good smash or two with the hammer. Then he peeled apart the black glass and the hardmold shell. He scraped out the screen’s innards, spreading its little lectric bits out across the stone. He pulled out the thin green slice of hardmold hidden in its core. He flipped it over once or twice, inspecting the metal ridges and tiny lectric threads that studded its surface, before flicking it dismissively into the bushes.

“Junk,” he said with a shrug. “A bit of copper, maybe a trace of silver if you could get at it. But not worth the trouble, not by half.”

Laura took another look at her reflection in the glossy black rectangle. Quietly, she slipped the screen into the pocket of her overcoat, right beside Oprah. It might be junk, but it was just too pretty to leave lying there to get washed away by the Misisip.

Laura saw that Mary had picked up a shiny screen of her own. Following Laura’s lead, she pocketed it. They both smiled at one another, sharing in their little secret.

Further up the riverbank they went. Laura could now see the stranded boat looming up ahead. Soon they came to a clearing where three boxes had come to rest, all facing each other in a tight circle as if they were holding an important box meeting. They seemed relatively undisturbed.

Surely one of these boxes will have some useful scav, Laura thought.

Pa pried open the first box without much difficulty. The big iron door swung open with a groan and a screech, and Pa climbed in. Mary and Laura peeked in after him.

It was dark inside the box. Pa was squatting down, inspecting something big and round that looked to Laura like a giant bird’s nest.

“Well, here’s a find, girls,” he said.

Pa tried to drag it closer to the doorway and into the light. Laura could tell it was very heavy, for Pa could barely lift it, and it scraped along the box’s metal floor as he tugged it haltingly inch by inch. He didn’t get even halfway to the door before Pa let it drop with a heavy clank.

Mary and Laura stepped up into the box beside Pa. Lying at his feet was a mass of metal rope, coils upon coils of it. The rope was as thick as a man’s thumb and stacked nearly as high as Laura’s knees. She tried to imagine how far it must stretch end to end fully uncoiled.

“Not copper,” Pa said. “Iron I’d say. Hard lectric iron. There’s plenty a man could do with a good length of iron rope like that. If only we had the means to haul it. Or to slice a few meters off somehow. Ah, well, no helping it. This fine treasure will just have to wait here for the next scavmen to come along I reckon. A shame. But let’s have a look around and see if there aren’t some shorter iron ropes hiding in this box as well.”

Pa pushed open the other door to let in more light. A hinge broke loose as he did, and the big door nearly swung free entirely before the remaining hinge caught it mid-collapse and held it askew above the shrubs. Mary and Laura wandered deeper into the box to help Pa look for more iron rope. Unlike the other boxes they’d opened, this one didn’t seem to hold one single type of scav. In one corner, there was a stack of iron cabinets with broken drawers gaping open like slack jaws. In another, there was a pile of warped hardmold forms that might have once been chairs or tables. Elsewhere were mounds of other debris in various strange shapes.

Laura stepped carefully over a twisted ribbon of hardmold and around the iron cabinets. It grew darker as she approached the far end of the box, and Laura had to squint long and hard at each object.

“Be careful now, Laura,” Pa called to her. “Don’t touch anything.”

As she came to the back wall, Laura realized that its surface was covered in markings. Words had been scratched into the metal. And pictures, crude human figures arrayed across a rust-covered canvas, etched in ragged lines across the ridges and crevices that textured the iron wall. Peering out from the shadowy recesses of the box, the images had an eerie and menacing feel.

Laura tried to pick her way further through the debris to get a better look. That was when her foot struck something. It was light and brittle and rolled away from her with a hollow rattle. Startled, she stepped to the side and felt something crunch and snap beneath her boot.

Laura froze. She suddenly had a bad feeling in her stomach, though she couldn’t say why. Holding her breath, she let her eyes drop from the carvings on the wall down to box’s iron floor.

Lying scattered around Laura’s feet were bones. Dirt and shadow clung to them, obscuring their shapes, but there was no mistaking what they were. They lay in jumbles of yellow and gray, gathering in denser piles towards the back of the box.

In the furthest corner, some of the bones came together into an unmistakably human shape. The skeleton was huddled against the iron walls, its arms tucked against its ribs in a posture of weary resignation, its knees propped upright, as if it might turn and rise to its feet at any time. Nearby, Laura could make out a second skeleton lying on its side across the floor. Looking around, she could not begin to figure out how all the bones fit together, but she judged that there must be three or four bodies all told. She glanced over at the object she had kicked. A broken skull stared back up at her with hollow misshapen eyes.

“Pa?” she called softly.

He was already there, his hand on her shoulder. Pa let out a heavy sigh. He touched Laura’s cheek and gently guided her face away from the pile of bones, back towards the open end of the box, where, beyond the confines of the iron tomb, a square slice of the riverbank seemed to glow.

“I believe I’ve had my fill of scavving,” said Pa, once he’d led Mary and Laura back into the sunlight. “Suppose we head back up the hill to Ma. Past time we quit fooling about in old junk heaps and focus on the road ahead.”

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