Laura stood on the tips of her toes, straining to reach her paintbrush just as high as it would go. Everywhere her brush swished and dabbed, the monster’s creetrock skin glowed like new, protecting the ancient beast from wind and rain and sun.
Among her chores at Happy Valley Orchards Restup and Reptilsoo, caring for the old Merican statues was one of Laura’s favorites.
She wasn’t allowed on the wobbly wooden ladder that Mabel scrambled up and down to paint the high places, but Tobias Goatherd had given her a brush lashed to a long pole. With that pole brush, Laura could reach all the way up almost to the monsters’ knees to coat them with fresh paint.
The paint had a funny smell because it was made from curdled goat milk. Mabel had shown Laura how to make it. Buckets full of milk and apple vinegar had been left out to age inside the shed behind the main house. Laura helped Mabel separate out the curds floating on top and scrape them into another pail. Then they added a paste made from the white powder that Tobias Goatherd made by burning rocks in his kiln. Then they stirred and stirred until all the lumpy curds just disappeared, melting away into a cloudy pool of liquid, smooth as you please.
Then it was time to mix in the colors. Laura liked that step especially. There seemed to be no recipe. It was just a drop of this, a sprinkle of that from the clay jars arrayed on a small shelf in the shed, adding and stirring and adding again until the shade was just right.
The milkpaint in Laura’s pail that morning was a greenish-blue to match the long-necked monster’s skin. When she had coated every last bit of the statue’s legs that she could reach, Laura lowered her brush down, hand over hand. The pole was taller than she was, and she very nearly toppled over as she tried to spin it around bristle-side-down and heft it over her shoulder. Balancing carefully, she squatted down to pick up the pail with her free hand. The milkpaint inside had all but disappeared. Just a faint green film clung to the sides. With pail and pole in hand, she started back up the path towards the shed.
Nearby, Pa was squaring timber to replace some of the old rafters that held up the roof of the main house.
The logs were white ash, which Pa and Tobias Goatherd had harvested from the wooded hills that overlooked the valley. First, Pa would prop a log up in place using piles of rocks. Then, he would climb on top with his adze. Walking methodically down its length, he made deep notches across the top of the log, each an ax head width apart. Then he would hop down and turn the log a half-turn onto its side. Trading his adze in for his broad ax, he would walk along the side. Right in between each pair of notches, he brought the ax down with a great thwack, hewing off chunks of wood in big square chips that flew spinning from the force of Pa’s blows.
As Laura passed by, Pa had just climbed back on top of the ash beams to begin notching another side. Laura waved to him with her polebrush. Pa lifted his adze in a return salute.
So many things needed to be tended to around Happy Valley Orchards. It was a wonder that Tobias Goatherd and Mabel had managed to keep it up all by themselves all these years.
Pa had agreed to stay on just long enough to help Tobias Goatherd repair the roof of the main house and finish digging a new well. The old man had insisted on paying Pa in trade for the work, and soon a small, fat barrel had been set aside next to the handcar. Half of the barrel was filled with salted goat meat. The other half was filled with thick loaves of cheese coated in a hard gray wax.
Tobias Goatherd also said they could take as many apples with them as they could gather. Taking him at his word, Ma had immediately set about mashing and boiling apples until all her empty jars were full of sweet smooth apple butter. When she ran out of jars, she sliced the apples up and spread them out on a blanket in the sun to dry into leather strips. Laura’s jaw ached just thinking about how tough and chewy those apple leathers would be after days and weeks bundled up in the cart, but she knew they would not be so bad after being soaked and stewed.
Pa protested at first that it was all too generous for a few days’ labor.
“I’d have lent the old man a hand just out of gratitude for the hospitality he’s shown us so far,” he told Ma one evening. “It feels like too much. I like the pious old graybeard well enough, but you know I don’t like to feel indebted to any man.”
“It’s not charity, Charles. He needs help, and we need provisions. What’s wrong with that? Honestly, I don’t know what we’d have done if we hadn’t found this place when we did.”
Pa relented. He knew they would need fresh supplies to make it the rest of the way to the Wastes, especially if they chose to bypass the market at Davenport as Tobias Goatherd suggested.
Their trail through Yowa Country had led them further west than Rakesh Halfsilver’s map made it look, Pa had explained to Laura. The road to Davenport would take them many days in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, somewhere due south of them stretched the Big Eighty Road, the ancient convoy route that would lead them to the Wastes. According to Tobias Goatherd, it was little more than a week’s journey from Happy Valley if you could find your way along the lesser-travelled Merican roads.
The old man told Pa of a settlement that lay along the Big Eighty Road thereabouts, a bit less than midway between Davenport and the ruins of Damoyne. Clan Ortega had a supervisory there, and Tobias Goatherd knew some of the guardsmen in the garrison, who from time to time would make the trip up to Happy Valley to trade. He was certain that Pa could arrange with the local supervisor for permission to travel the Eighty Road without having to backtrack to Davenport.
When she reached the shed, Laura put away the pail of milkpaint and her polebrush. No sooner had she finished than Ma appeared, walking up the path from the main house, an empty basket in her arms.
“Laura!” she called. “If you’re finished tending to the . . . those things, why don’t you and Mary pick us another basket of apples. Mr. Goatherd says there’s trees on the west slope of that hill just yonder that may have some ripe ones. Gather as many as you can. Those I can’t use for supper tonight, we’ll dry or else set aside for Mr. Goatherd to use for his cider.”
Laura found Mary at her thread and needle, stitching the hem of a hemp curtain. Laura herself had no patience for needlework. Mary, on the other hand, could focus for hours at a stretch on the fine, precise movements required to make her cross-stich come out straight and even and pretty.
Laura waited while her sister finished up the edge she was sewing. Finally, Mary tied the thread off, in and out and under and through, in a neat little knot you could hardly see. She gave a satisfied nod. Then, together, she and Laura took the basket and set off, past the car spire and the round creetrock ruins that might have once been the World’s Largest Apple, up a path towards the hill where Ma had said they might find ripe apples.
Happy Valley’s apple trees didn’t congregate in one single place. They grew in ones and twos, spread out all across the valley and the hills around it. It was still early in spring, so many of the trees were bare or had only the tiniest of green baby apples clinging to their branches.
But some of the trees produced fruit all year round, according to Tobias Goatherd. These he called jimapples. He told Mary and Laura that all of Happy Valley’s apple trees were descended from orchards planted by Merican farmers long ago. During Lectric Times, he reckoned the Restup and Reptilsoo was filled with jimapples, all grown from special seeds bred through forgotten lectric knowhow. Jimapples were huge and sweet, he said, and the trees were so hearty they needed hardly any water at all.
Some of the trees were still like that, the old man explained, but most had slowly lost their jimmed-up nature over time. They were more fragile than they used to be, more vulnerable to drought and disease and insect infestations. And Tobias Goatherd claimed that with every passing year they produced fewer and smaller apples.
“Going feral I fear,” he had said. “Just like my dear Mabel. That is the way of things, I suppose. ‘What is gathered, God shall disperse,’ to quote the Prophet. ‘And what is dispersed shall in time be gathered anew.’”
The first trees that Laura and Mary came to as they climbed the hill had all been picked clean. Only as they approached the very top did they find a more promising tree. A cluster of ripe-looking fruit sat bunched up atop a branch just out of reach. Laura slipped off her coat and threw it over a lower branch. She rolled up her sleeves and tucked the cuffs of her pants into her boots and started to climb.
“Be careful, Laura,” said Mary as Laura’s boot found its first toehold. “That’s just how you hurt yourself the last time. What will Ma say if you fall again?”
“You know I won’t!” Laura shot back. Being bossed only made her climb faster and more recklessly. “Besides, Ma said I could,” she added, swinging her leg up over the branch and hauling herself up.
This was true. Ma had been fretful about Laura’s tree climbing after the accident, but Pa had convinced her to allow it.
“Let her go, Caroline,” he had said. “The man who burns himself twice on the same hot stove is a fool, that’s true enough. But so’s the man who lets a single misstep scare him off the whole enterprise. I warrant Laura’s a better tree climber now than she was before her fall.”
Laura scooted out onto the branch and stretched her hand towards the apples. They were so big and bright, she thought they surely must be close cousins to the jimapples of old. She plucked them with a twist of her wrist and dropped them down into the basket. One. Two. Three.
Just as she was starting to shimmy back towards the trunk of the tree, she heard Mary’s voice from down below.
“Laura!” Mary said.
Laura expected a warning about climbing so far out onto the branch and was prepared to ignore her sister. But then she heard Jack barking somewhere in the distance.
“Laura!” Mary said again. “Look! Come here.”
Laura scrambled down the tree and dropped to the ground beside Mary. Mary was pointing, and Laura followed the trajectory of her finger out across the valley below.
From where they stood, they could look down over most of the buildings and monuments of Happy Valley Orchards. They could see Mabel perched atop her ladder, which leaned against the statue of the sharp-toothed monster. They could see the clearing where Pa sat hewing beams for the roof. And they could see Tobias Goatherd milking a goat beside the main house.
But Mary was pointing beyond the buildings and the ruins, down the big number road that ran right through the Happy Valley Orchards Restup. On the horizon were two dark shapes. Two men were approaching from the east.
Jack must have seen them too. Laura couldn’t see him, but she could hear his yips, faint but insistent.
Laura turned to Mary.
“We have to go tell Pa!”
She was just about to dash down the hill, but Mary grabbed her arm.
“Laura, wait! Look!”
Pa was standing. Was it to see what had got Jack to barking so? He disappeared behind the main house, where the handcar was stored. When he appeared on the other side, he had swapped his broad ax for his rifle. Now he was walking towards the road. Jack had stopped barking. Maybe he had found Pa. The two men were closer now. Pa stood in the middle of the road. He had seen them.
They saw him too. The two figures paused. Pa and the strangers stood across from one another for a moment, separated by the long stretch of road, staring.
Eventually, the two men began walking again. Laura and Mary watched in silence as Pa turned around and made his way back towards the main house. A few moments later, they saw him speaking with Tobias Goatherd. Meanwhile, the strangers continued up the old number road.
Laura wanted to run down the hill to Ma and Pa, but at the same time she was scared to look away, scared of missing something important. Instead, she and Mary merely crept forward to find a better vantage, crouching behind a rock that overlooked the porch of the main house.
She could see the men on the road more clearly now. One was taller, with a mane of curly yellow hair and a bushy yellow beard. The other was squat and bare-faced. They appeared lightly provisioned. Both wore identical cloaks dyed a silvery gray, with what looked to be identical gray satchels bouncing at their sides. Laura leaned forward across the rock, studying their outlines against the road’s sprawling ribbon of creetrock.
From each man’s left shoulder, a rigid spike sprouted like a sapling. An icy tingle ran over Laura’s cheeks as she realized that the pointed shapes were blades, each attached to the end of a long gun barrel. As the men marched closer and closer, the bayonets swayed in rhythm with their footsteps.
Laura watched them with such intensity that she did not see Ma coming up the path until she was practically right beneath the outcropping of rocks where Laura and Mary were perched.
“Ma!” Mary called out in a hushed voice. “Down on the road . . .”
“It’s alright. I know,” said Ma, as she stepped up around the rocks and sat down beside them, Baby Grace in her arms. “Mr. Goatherd says they’re probably Ortega men from the supervisory east of here, come to trade for cheese and cider. But just to be safe, we’ll stay right here until they leave or Pa says it’s alright to come down. Keep your voices low and try to stay out of sight.”
Ma looked inside their basket, remarking what fine-looking apples Mary and Laura had picked. She handed Grace over to Laura and fumbled through the pocket of her hemp apron for her paring knife, suggesting they all enjoy a slice while they wait.
Laura knew she was trying to distract them. As Ma pulled the leather sheath off her knife and began to cut up an apple, Laura scooted stealthily back towards the edge of the overlook, her gaze drifting back down to the valley floor.
Pa had joined Tobias Goatherd on the porch of the main house. She saw that he still had his rifle, and that made her feel relieved. For a moment, she lost sight of the strangers. But then they reappeared from behind the ruins of an old building. They were within sight of the porch now, and the tall blonde man raised his arm in greeting. Tobias Goatherd returned the gesture.
Grace fussed, and Laura turned her around in her arms so she could rest her tummy against the rock, cradled between it and Laura’s body. Her baby sister gazed down the hill, eyes wide, as if she too were watching to see what would unfold.
The men were climbing the steps of the porch now. Laura tensed. But when they reached Tobias Goatherd and Pa, they stopped. They just stood there, all four of them in a circle beneath the shadow of the porch awning.
The minutes ambled on, and still nothing happened. At one point, Tobias Goatherd disappeared into the house and returned with a jug of cider, which the men passed around. Otherwise, they continued to just stand around on the porch. Laura assumed they must be talking, but she was too far away to hear.
Eventually, Laura allowed Ma to tempt her focus away from the building below by offering her a fat slice of apple. The apple was crisp and sticky as Laura bit into it, the sweetest she had tasted yet, a true jimapple for certain. Ma began cutting up another, and she and Laura and Mary all sat there cross-legged for a time, passing Baby Grace back and forth between them and savoring the delicious fruit. Laura turned occasionally to glance back down the hill, but gradually her apprehension ebbed.
The warm sun and her full belly was beginning to make Laura feel a bit sleepy, when suddenly the sound of raised voices in the distance shook her alert. Laura whirled around and scrambled back to her viewpoint, ignoring Ma as she called sharply to her under her breath.
The figures on the porch were all where Laura had left them, but the scene had suddenly grown more tense. The shorter stranger stood just inches from Tobias Goatherd’s face and waved his arm emphatically. The one with the shaggy blonde hair had his rifle out. So did Pa. There was more shouting.
What came next happened so rapidly that Laura struggled to make sense of it. There was shoving, back and forth, and suddenly Tobias Goatherd was on the ground. Pa was backing away, the barrel of his gun raised. At the same time, a movement drew Laura’s attention abruptly up to the awning above the porch. There, perched on top, was Mabel. Had the mute wildgirl been there the whole time? Laura had not noticed her until that very moment.
Before Laura could even formulate these thoughts, Mabel was already leaping from the porch roof. She seemed to twirl in mid-air, swinging down from around one of the posts that held up the awning to drop down directly behind the shaggy-haired man. No sooner had her feet touched the floor than her arm swung upwards, and for a second Laura saw the glint of the wildgirl’s long saw-toothed knife.
There was a horrible scream. All at once, the stranger was flailing, clutching his neck. At the same time, Mabel was spinning away, pouncing in a single fluid motion at the other man. One moment the shorter stranger was reaching for his bayonet, the next he was flat on his back, the wildgirl on top of him. Pa was shouting. There were more choked cries from the blonde bearded stranger as he stumbled backwards, hands still at his throat. He tripped over the porch railing and tumbled head over heels in a sloppy cartwheel to the gravel below.
And then, as abruptly as the commotion had started, Happy Valley Orchards fell quiet. Laura watched as Pa helped Tobias Goatherd to his feet. Mabel rose to her feet as well. The man beneath her did not.