Ten: Yowa Country

The days that followed were warm. Laura didn’t need to wear her mittens or her wool cap any more. A few days later, when they stopped for a midday rest on a bluff overlooking a densely forested river valley, Ma let Laura unlace her traveling cloak. Ma folded the cloak up and stuffed it deep into the handcar so that it disappeared, swallowed up among the other supplies.

Laura was glad to be rid of it. She was more than warm enough in her patchwork coat of buckskin and lectric fabrics. Oprah’s floppy cloth head peeked happily out from the biggest of the coat’s many mismatched pockets, glad to be able to enjoy the passing scenery without some cloak blocking her view.

Whenever one of them shed another layer of clothing, Pa remarked again how lucky they were to have crossed the Misisip when they did. Nearly every day now, they crossed another swift stream, its cold waters hissing in delight to finally race free across the land after being cooped up so long off in some snow-capped mountain. By now, Pa reckoned, winter’s failing grip could no longer hold the Mighty Misisip still, and the big river would once more divide east from west.

The lands west of the Misisip were called the Yowa. It was empty country. At times it seemed like they were surrounded by a vast wilderness. Laura would play explorer, imagining herself the first person to ever lay on eyes on these strange uncharted lands.

Pa said this wasn’t so. Trade convoys came this way most every season, bringing goods north from the market at Davenport. He would point out stacks of rocks that the traders had placed to help mark the route. And every time a thicket of shrubs came across their path, threatening to bar their way, they always seemed to find some place where the overgrowth had been thinned, hacked aside by the axes of the traders who preceded them.

Still, the land did seem very much untouched. They followed a trail marked out on Rakesh Halfsilver’s map that wound down through the Yowa. It was called the Six Three Road. Yet, there was rarely any sign of the creetrock that had marked the old number roads on the other side of the Misisip. At first, Laura assumed the old Merican road must be there somewhere beneath the snow, but, as they continued to make their way south and the warm days were followed by more warm days, the last traces of snow faded away, revealing nothing but bare earth beneath. From time to time, they still passed the remnants of an old lectric car or wagon, but if the Mericans had once laid down creetrock along the Six Three Road, it had all crumbled away.

They saw no other people. Pa remarked that the Yowa might make a good place to settle if they could count on it remaining so peaceful.

“There’s a good many folks would like to lay claim to these lands, though,” he reflected. “You’ve got Clan Ortega to the south and the Spear pushing in from the Illinoy. And there’s more than one warlord in the Northlands who likely sees the Upper Yowa as part of his backyard I’d wager. It’d make a man mighty fretful to try and build his home smack dab in the middle. And with the fighting in the East like to get worse before it gets better, all those displacees might just be to spark to light the whole darned tinderbox up. No, the way I see it, we need to head west, away from it all. The Wastes, that’s where our new life awaits.”

Laura was glad when Pa said that. She wanted to see the wild bisox herds and the wastebird flocks and the wide open skies.

At first, the lands on the western side of the Misisp had looked much like the lands on the eastern side. But, as they traveled south, deeper into Yowa country, the woods disappeared, and the landscape became more alien to Laura. In place of trees, there was only grass. It wasn’t soft grass like in the glades and meadows that hid among the Big Woods. It was tall grass, strong and stiff. When the wind picked up, it danced, fluttering around Laura’s waist and billowing in great waves that rolled down one hill and up another.

There were a great many hills in Yowa country. Every day their journey took them up and then down. Then usually up and down again. The hills were never steep, not like the mountain passes that led from the Big Woods down to the Laketowns, but they kept coming, one upon the other. The land bobbed and rolled. Each hill looked the same as the last, rising towards a gentle summit before slumping right back down to where it had started. Laura wished the Yowa would make up its mind.

With no trees around, it was hard to gather firewood, and so their nights grew darker and colder, even as their days were warming up. Pa tried to make fires by gathering handfuls of the tall grass and tying the straws together in tight bundles. Then he’d dig a trench and stack the bundles up inside. It worked, but the fire needed to be tended constantly and produced such thick black smoke that Mary and Laura would soon be coughing and covering their eyes. Ma refused to bring Baby Grace anywhere near Pa’s smoky grass fires.

Eventually, Pa gave up. One night, shielding his face with his kerchief, he kicked the dirt back into his hole, smothering a fire that had developed a particularly unpleasant odor. As he stood over it, watching the embers fall dark, he gave a deep sigh.

“Well, no point in a campfire anyway, I don’t suppose,” Laura heard him mutter. “It’s not as if we’ve anything to cook.”

Pa had found the hunting to be poor on the Yowa’s rolling hills of grass. He had brought down a few birds, but just as often they had flapped away, chased over the horizon by the hollow echoes of Pa’s gun. Pa had grown more careful with his shots, mindful of wasting precious bullets.

Without game, their supplies dwindled. There were more empty pickle jars in the back of the handcar than full ones, and they’d eaten up the last of their saltmeat. They rationed their soymeal carefully.

When they couldn’t get a fire hot enough to make bread or frycakes, Ma would soak the soymeal, and they would have to make do with a cold gruel for supper. Ma sweetened the yellowish mush with a bit of date syrup she had saved away in a secret little jar, but the gruel still tasted chalky and unpleasant in Laura’s mouth.

Some nights in Yowa country, as she curled up under her blankets with Jack and Oprah, beside the empty space where the campfire should have been, Laura felt the slender fingers of hunger wrap around her belly and begin to gently squeeze. She never complained or asked for more. Neither did Mary. They both saw how small the bowls of soymeal gruel that Ma and Pa poured for themselves had gotten. They both knew that Ma needed good nourishing food to nurse Baby Grace and that Pa needed his strength to keep pulling the car over the rolling hills.

At first, Laura worried about Jack. Jack couldn’t eat soymeal. When their saltmeat ran out, she pictured the poor little pigdog shriveling up into nothing but skinny bones beneath his handsome brindled coat. As the days passed, though, Jack proved better adapted to life on the Yowa than the rest of them. He was always rooting around in the dirt around their campsites, searching for fat little grubs and gnawing on the roots of plants.  Sometimes, he would pounce into the tall grass and emerge a moment later with a grasshopper sticking out from under his floppy jowls. It was a meager diet for a dog, Laura thought, but Jack appeared to thrive on it. In fact, as the weeks wore on, he was the only one whose energy and enthusiasm seemed undiminished by the journey.

Pa noticed Jack’s skill at foraging as well, and he was clearly much impressed with the pigdog’s show of self-reliance.

“That’s the way, Jack,” Pa would say whenever he saw Jack scoop up a worm or snatch another grasshopper off its swaying perch. “I hope you don’t expect to depend on anybody else. A body can’t do that. Learn to live off the land, yes sir, you’ll never have to go begging for scraps off another man’s table.”

Once, right after praising Jack on another successful kill, Laura saw Pa turn his back and slip his hand into his coat pocket. He pulled out the silvers that Marco the boy soldier had given him in trade for supplies. Laura saw him run his thumb along their edges, shaking his head. For a moment, Laura didn’t like the look on Pa’s face, but when Pa saw that she was watching him, he smiled and quickly stuffed the coins back into his coat, the stiffness in his jaw instantly banished.

Eventually, even the rock piles disappeared, and there was nothing but tall grass and low hills. Trekking across the Yowa, the days began to blend one into another. Laura began to lose count of how long it had been since they’d walked on the frozen river and found the bones buried in the iron boxes.

Then, one day, they came upon the stone legs.

The Yowa held few ruins. From time to time, especially when the land had flattened out for a stretch, Laura had spied the remains of abandoned lectric plows in the distance, rising like lonely islands of rust amid the grass. There were bigger shapes too, the iron skeletons of yet stranger machines that the Mericans had used to tend their fields. There were no signs of any towns or cities, though, no brick chimneys or creetrock walls.

Then, late one morning, Pa pointed to something on the horizon.

At first, it looked like one of the stone piles built up by the convoy crews to mark their path, but as they got closer Laura saw this wasn’t so. The vague gray form in the distance grew taller. Gradually, it divided itself into two distinct columns, each too thin and straight to be piles of rocks.

Strangely, the two columns appeared to be all on their own. No other ruins surrounded them. They seemed to be the only landmark amid the featureless hills of grass that stretched out in all directions. As they passed alongside the queer monument, Pa set down the handcar to take a closer look.

They were made of creetrock or something like it. One column was taller than Pa, the other a little more than half that size. Both were crowned in shattered residue, a suggestion of greater heights that decay or destruction had cut short. Tangled webs of iron wires, like the fencing around a chicken coop, sprouted from the tops of the pillars and drooped down their sides.

It was only as Laura circled round them, following close in Pa’s footsteps, that she realized what they were. Both columns were anchored to the same creetrock base. Where they met that flat foundation, the bottoms of the columns splayed out into shapes that, though weathered and cracked, were plainly recognizable as feet. Above those feet, Laura thought she could make out the outline of boots carved into columns’ surfaces. Further up the taller pillar, she saw the faint dimple of a knee and the curve of a thigh.

Mary grabbed Laura’s arm.

“Laura,” she whispered in Laura’s ear. “These are the legs of a giant creetrock man!”

The creetrock man must have been giant indeed. In Laura’s estimation, if the rest of him had been built to the same proportions as his legs, he would have stood as tall as a house. Rubble was scattered all around the broken legs. Iron and creetrock. Lying a few meters away, Laura found something that looked like a giant ear. She was crouched down, examining the ear, when Pa called out to her and Mary.

“Come have a look at this, girls,” he called.

Further along, Pa had found an old iron sign, half-buried. It was crusted in a uniform swirl of dull oranges and grays, but Laura saw that the surface was raised in places. The thick iron sheet itself had been imprinted with the shapes of letters.

Pa squatted down and found a handhold. Grunting, he pulled that heavy sign up out of the dirt and dragged it to where they could get a better look. Laura tried to make out the words that had been stamped into the metal, but Mary was faster.

“Happy Vvv. . . V-vay. . .” she said, slowly sounding the words out. “Valley. Happy Valley Or. . . Orchards. Restup and Re-reptilsoo? Five mie. Five mee? G-gaz. Food. Fun.”

Pa was very impressed with Mary’s reading. Laura felt only the faintest tinge of jealousy. She was too eager to know what the sign meant to worry too much about Mary being perfect at everything.

Unfortunately, Pa seemed just as puzzled as Laura and Mary by the sign. He pulled out Rakesh Halfsilver’s map. There was no town called Happy Valley Orchards nor any ruins marked as Reptilsoo. He muttered something to himself as he ran a finger along the parchment. Finally, he shrugged. He rolled up the map and gave Mary and Laura each a playful shake by their shoulders.

“Well, we’ll just have to see what we see.”

Shortly after leaving the giant legs and the iron sign behind, Laura began to notice, for the first time in many days, the remains of an old creetrock road peeking out for short stretches amid the grass. The faint old road led them gradually up up up a hill and then down again. There, where the road levelled off before preparing to climb again, they came to a creek.

The creek sighed and sputtered, as it made its way through the roots and fallen branches of the shrubs that sprouted along its banks. Pa took off his boots, rolled up his pants and waded in. The creek was wide but shallow, and Pa determined that the tall wheels of the handcar would keep their belongings dry. He found a good firm grip on the car’s handles and squared his shoulders. Then he led the car down the bank and into the creek. Its wheels clattered and bounced over rocks as brown water rushed through their spokes, sending up a fantastic spray.

Before they could stop him, Jack dove into the creek and swam after Pa. Laura worried he would get swept away by the current, but Jack paddled fast, and soon he had passed right by Pa and was climbing out, sopping and happy, on the far bank. He shook himself dry and yipped for the rest of them to hurry up.

Laura and Mary and Ma and Baby Grace all waded in together. The water was cold. Laura and Mary both gasped when their bare feet first touched it, but Laura soon got used to it. As she waded across, Laura savored the sensations of the muddy creekbed squishing between her toes and the smooth moss-covered rocks gliding across the pads of her feet.

Laura and Mary had rolled their pants all the way up past their knees, but it did no good. The stream came up nearly to their waists, and they were soaking by the time they reached the other side.

Pa set down the handcar. Up ahead, the faint path of the old Merican road wound between two hills and disappeared from sight. Pa decided that he would scout ahead a ways while Ma and the girls dried off beside the creek. Rifle over his shoulder, Pa marched off and soon vanished behind the hills.

While they waited for him to return, Ma pulled out her stool and found a nice shady spot to nurse Baby Grace. As she was about to sit, she paused and squinted down at something lying on the ground. She picked it up and spun it in her hand. It was some kind of fruit. The round object was squished and blackened, but pink hues were still visible on its leathery skin.

“Mary, Laura, come look at this,” she said. “Do you know what this is?”

They didn’t know. It was smaller than a melon but much bigger than a berry. It reminded Laura of a picture she’d seen in the tattered book of Bible stories that they’d left behind back in the Big Woods. But she didn’t know the fruit’s name.

“It’s an apple,” said Ma. “This one’s old and rotted. But they’re delicious when they’re fresh. When I was a little girl, I lived at a camp for a time. I wasn’t fond of the place, but I remember there was a grove of apple trees nearby. The children would gather them and . . . ”

Ma trailed off. Baby Grace was beginning to fuss, sensing that her meal had been interrupted, but Ma just bounced her absent-mindedly against her shoulder as she looked back down at the apple. She spun it around again in her hand, lost in thought. Then, as if abruptly snapped back to the present, Ma suddenly pursed her lips and gave a quiet “hmmm.” It was a sound that Laura knew well. Ma liked things to be just so. This was the noise she made when they weren’t.

“Odd,” she said. “I should think it’s far too early in the year for apples to be ripening, at least from what I remember. These lands are a deal warmer than where I grew up, I suppose. Perhaps that’s it. Or perhaps it’s just a different sort of apple. Some jimmed-up breed the Mericans cooked up before the Bust.”

Ma scanned the bushes and trees growing alongside the stream, looking for where the apple had come from. Apparently, none of them looked right, because she turned her attention to the hillside.

“There’s some trees up on that ridge yonder,” Ma said, pointing up towards the rise behind which Pa had disappeared. “Why don’t you girls scamper up a little ways and see if there’s any apples to gather. But don’t you go eating anything until you show me first. And mind you don’t stray to where I can’t see you.”

Mary and Laura raced up the hill, leaving their carrysacks at Ma’s feet beside the handcar. Laura felt as light as the wind whistling through the Yowa grasses. Mary looked back at her as they ran. They both laughed, and Laura knew that they were thinking the same thing, how good it was to run free for a change instead of trudging slowly down the road with their belongings on their shoulders.

When they came to the trees that Ma had pointed out, they stopped. Laura saw something lying in the grass. It was big and round, half pink and half yellow. But before she could reach down, Mary snatched it up. Laura scrunched up her face but said nothing. She would just have to be quicker next time.

Mary started hunting around nearby, but Laura saw that there were bigger trees further up the hill. She darted towards them. Up and up she ran. Looking behind her, Laura could no longer see the bottom of the hill where Ma was, and she knew she shouldn’t go any further. But she was almost there now, and those trees at top of the hill looked like they would have lots of apples.

Laura pictured herself marching triumphantly down the hill, her arms piled high with ripe apples. The image put lift into her steps. She bounded onwards even faster.

As the hill crested, Laura was suddenly surrounded by bushes and brambles. She almost turned back, unsure about picking her way through the unexpected thicket, but then she saw three round shapes hiding in the dappled shadows of the underbrush. She dropped down to her hands and knees and crawled towards them.

The apples weren’t as big as Mary’s, and two were a little squishy. Laura stuffed them into her pockets anyway. Then she crawled further, ducking under branches until she found a spot to stand up straight. There, she found herself at the foot of a big tree. It was not tall like the trees in the Big Woods, but its trunk was thick and its branches spread in all directions above her head like the roof of one of the tent stalls at the Laketown Market. Among those wide branches, she saw apples.

They looked small and green and hard, but surely they would be nicer than Mary’s moldy old ground apple. From the second she saw them, Laura knew she simply had to climb that tree. There really wasn’t any other choice.

Laura was a good tree climber, and the apple tree’s limbs fanned out perfectly. She had no trouble hoisting herself up from one to the other. For a moment, she forgot all about the apples, caught up in the thrill of just climbing higher and higher. Before she knew it, she had reached the uppermost branches. Wrapping her arms around an upright bough for support, she looked out.

From up in the top of that tree, Laura could see all around for many kims in every direction. Far below, she could make out the old road that Pa had followed, and she traced it with her eyes as it wound around the hill, hoping to see him.

Taking care not to lose her footing, Laura shifted in her perch so that she could gaze out in the opposite direction.

Suddenly, she stopped, frozen dumbfounded in place, as rigid as another tree branch. What she saw down in the valley on the other side of the hill made her close her eyes and give her head a shake, as if hoping to rattle the scene before her into a more comprehensible shape. Yet, when she opened her eyes, it was still there.

The far side of the hill was steeper than the one she had ascended, and Laura found herself looking down on a wide creetrock road that ran through the valley below. It ran east to west, crossing the smaller road that had brought them south. Directly below her, astride that old number road, were the strangest ruins Laura had ever seen.

First, there was the giant iron spire, taller than the tallest trees in the Big Woods, yet skinny like a soystalk. Lofted high in the air near the spire’s tip were three lectric cars, stacked one on top of the other. The great spike appeared to have punctured the cars right through their middles, skewering them like rabbits over a cookfire.

But that wasn’t all. Standing alongside the great car spike, guarding it perhaps, there were monsters. They were huge. They towered above the other ruins. One creature had a long neck like a snake. The other stood on two legs, its mouth open in a wide grimace, showing off a set of impossibly sharp teeth. Both were a bluish green that glistened in bright contrast to the brick and creetrock buildings that surrounded them. For a terrifying heartbeat, Laura thought they might be alive.

As she stared and the monsters remained motionless, only then was she convinced that they must be statues, just like the broken creetrock legs she’d seen beside the road.  She supposed that the fearsome giants had been erected by the same mysterious builders that had set those lectric cars atop their spire.

Laura wanted to race back down the hill, to tell Mary and Ma and Baby Grace what she had seen. Yet, at the same time she felt transfixed, afraid that if she looked away from the enormous monuments for a single moment they might vanish like a mirage.

Finally, she managed to tear her eyes away and began lowering herself down to the next tree limb. Suddenly, something rustled in the bushes below. Laura paused, her foot suspended in mid-air.

“Mary?” she called. “Mary! You have to come look at this. You’ll never believe it. Not in a million years!”

But the answer that came was not Mary’s. It was not human. From the bushes came a burbling, guttural shriek.

Laura clutched tighter to the tree. She craned her neck around, searching for the thing in the bushes below, but her gaze got no further than the giant monsters down on the valley floor. There they stood, unmoving. As Laura stared at them, her terror mounting, she had the sensation that they were looking back up at her, watching her with their tiny monster eyes.

The rustling from the bushes grew louder and closer. Laura began to panic, imagining all manner of sharp-toothed, snake-necked creatures emerging from the foliage beneath her. Then the cry came again, that same burbling shriek. Laura scrambled through the branches, trying to keep the tree between her and the direction of that horrible monstrous sound.

Part of her wanted to drop to the ground and run, but she was scared to leave the tree.  Grasping the limb above her for support, she peeked around the trunk.

There the creature was, a dark shape hidden among the brambles. Laura’s eyes went as round as saucers. Her palms felt cold and clammy against the tree bark. The limb began to tremble in her grip.

And then a face burst forth from the thicket, a face with flared nostrils and eyes slitted down the middle. And then that terrible burbling shriek once more.

Laura screamed and tried to back away. Her hands slipped, and her footing faltered. A branch snapped.

She fell. Everything went dark.

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