One: The Big Woods

There came a time when they had to leave their little house in the Big Woods of what was once Wisconsin.

It was a hard thing for Laura to imagine. She had been no older than Baby Grace when Ma and Pa had found it, that little cabin of log and stone, hidden safe among the tall trees in the hills north of the ruins of Greensbay. It was the only home she had ever known.

It was after Pa’s last trip to market that the talk of leaving had begun. Twice yearly, Pa would travel down to the shores of Great Mishgan Lake to trade. He would leave with his handcar loaded up with bundles of furs and their surplus soy crop and perhaps a few blocks of Ma’s handmade soaps, which smelled of lavender and pine and were famous throughout the Laketowns. He would return with powder for his gun and salt to cure their meat and a dozen other necessaries for life in the Big Woods.

But when Pa came back from market that fall, his face had been tense and troubled. Things had changed somehow in the Laketowns. It was no longer the safe place to trade that it had once been. Pa wasn’t sure if he could go back, maybe not ever again.

Ma and Pa tried not to discuss it around Laura and Mary, but some nights, when Laura was supposed to be asleep, she would listen. She would crawl to the very edge of the loft where she and her sister slept and try to scoop up her parents’ hushed voices into the tiny ladles of her ears.

Laura tried her best to make sense of what they said. The trouble in the Laketowns had something to do with the fighting in the East, she understood that much. Boats had always come and gone from the harbors along Great Mishgan Lake, but now instead of trade goods they brought people. Displacees, Pa called them. Laura heard him tell Ma that the Laketowns were full of them. Some came across Mishgan Lake, packed tight into their overcrowded boats. Others came staggering up the old number roads from the Illinoy. Whichever way they got there, all those displacees seemed to be part of what had gotten Pa so uneasy.

“Never known a time when the Laketowners weren’t at each other’s throats one way or other,” Laura overheard Pa say one night. “But this is different. All these newcomers. It’s like a pile of dishes, poorly stacked enough as it is, and someone comes along and wants to balance a whole heap more right on top. Won’t be long ‘fore the whole blasted mess comes toppling over, mark my words.”

There was more, but Laura couldn’t sort it out exactly. Ma and Pa spoke of town councils and taxes and shipping rights and other grown-up things that Laura didn’t understand. All she knew was that things had changed somehow. They were one way, and now they were a different way.

Mary, who knew that spying was very bad, never joined Laura at the lip of the loft, but this did not stop her from badgering Laura to relate every word that had been said. Her pretty eyes, pale blue-gray like Ma’s, had filled with tears when Laura told her that Pa had spoken of leaving the Big Woods.

Mary was older than Laura. She had memories. They were blurry but they were there, memories of a time before they’d found the little house, a time when they had moved from place to place, following the old number roads, scavving and foraging. The thought of returning to that life frightened her.

Laura didn’t remember moving into their house in the Big Woods, but she knew the story of how Ma and Pa had found it. The house had sat all by itself, hidden deep among the trees, far from any settlement. Pa said that it had been built by the parkrangers, a people who had lived in the Big Woods long ago back in Lectric Times. Pa reckoned no one had touched it in many years, maybe not since before the Great Bust.

The house had been well hidden. Its walls had been covered over in moss and creepers. What remained of its roof had been veiled amid a cacophony of branches. Yet, when the overgrowth was cleared aside, Ma and Pa found that the house’s stone foundations were still strong. Its hardwood rafters still stood straight and tall.

Pa replaced the rotting beams with good new timber. He made shutters to fill in the empty windows. Ma sanded down the floorboards and furniture and waxed their surfaces smooth. She hung curtains and set down patchwork rugs. Before long, they had made the little house their own.

Its roof sheltered them from snow and rain. Its stone walls kept out bears and wolfdogs. And there was the big black stove that sat in its middle. That stove was a marvel, Pa always said. It burned wood, unlike the useless lectric stoves that he’d seen rusting away in other Merican ruins, and it burned with such efficiency that it could heat the whole house from loft to pantry on but a single cord. Once Pa had it working again, the heavy stove kept them warm night after night and cooked their suppers atop its flat iron surface.

The stove was not the only treasure the little house had kept for them, secret and safe for so many years. Many of Laura’s favorite things had been found among the scav buried inside. Sealed in the underground room that would become their pantry, Pa had found Laura’s favorite old paperbook, A Children’s Illustrated Book of Animals. Among the rubble that had clogged the loft, they found the picture that now hung above Laura’s bed, the one of an old Merican city at night, its gigantic towers wrapped in amber streaks of lectric light. Even Laura’s ragdoll Oprah was made out of scav from the little house. The doll had shiny black hardmold buttons for eyes, buttons that had, like so much else, been left behind by the parkrangers long ago.

The woods no longer swallowed up the little house as they once had. Over time, the trees all around it had been pared away, further and further from its doorstep. In their place grew rows of crops.

Nor did the little house seem as lonesome as it once had. Within its widening clearing, other structures, like the smokehouse and the forge, had risen up to keep it company. These things, which Laura’s family had carved out of the wilderness themselves, were what made the Big Woods their home, every bit as much as the little house itself.

When Pa first suggested they leave, Laura could tell that Ma did not like the idea at all. Yet, as the weeks went by and the first snows arrived, they talked of it more and more

“Oh Charles, isn’t there some other way?” Laura heard her whispering one night. “We can wait for spring at least, surely. Perhaps things will work themselves out.”

Pa sighed. Laura listened to the pensive scrape scrape as he sharpened his hatchet with a broken piece of lectricmade glass.

“We can’t afford to hesitate, Caroline. Come spring, I expect we’ll find the old number roads near swarming with folks from the East. Things are changing fast, even way up here in the high country. We saw that today for ourselves.”

Pa was referring to the strangers they had seen that afternoon.

For as long as Laura could remember, it had felt as if they were all alone in the Big Woods. There was Mr. Nguyen and his mother who lived a little ways up the creek and Fat Jorge down on the other side of the hollow who sometimes traded work with Pa. There were other more distant neighbors and the occasional passing trapper or scavman who might camp nearby for a season or two before moving on. Otherwise, the sight of other people in the Big Woods had always been unusual.

That had begun to change. More than once already that winter, Pa had encountered strangers when he went out hunting. He would come across their campsites sometimes, freshly abandoned and too near to the cabin for Pa’s liking.

That afternoon, a group had come right up to the little house.

It was Laura who noticed them first. She was outside, making a tiny fort for Oprah out of the light layer of snow that had gathered overnight, when she saw dark shapes picking their way through the trees behind the smokehouse. She ran back to tell Pa.

“Stay in the house,” Pa told her, but Laura lingered on the porch to watch. The strangers had emerged from the woods by then. Laura watched Pa approach them, the long barrel of his rifle resting casually on his shoulder.

Laura counted five adults and three children. They were skinny. Their clothes were dirty and ragged. Pa spoke with them, but Laura couldn’t hear what was said.

Ma stepped out onto the porch a few moments later. Laura could tell that Ma was just about to scold her and tell her to go up to the loft, but just then Pa hollered back to them. He asked Ma to bring a few strips of smokemeat and some old soymeal biscuits up from the pantry. Ma hurried back inside. When she returned, she was carrying a bundle wrapped in hemp cloth. She brought it to Pa.

It wasn’t much, Laura could tell. Yet the strangers appeared to thank Pa politely all the same. Then they turned and left. Whether it was the meat and biscuits that sent them on their way or whether it was Pa’s rifle, Laura couldn’t say.

“Were they fiends?” Laura asked later, tugging gently at the rough flannel of her father’s sleeve.

The strangers’ appearance had been so frightful that Laura thought they might be infected with the Ague, as folks in those days called that terrible sickness.

Pa gave Laura a stern look.

“Do you remember what I told you about that word, Laura?”

Laura remembered. People with the Ague were just people, Pa said. The disease might have stolen their wits and turned their skin a pallid yellow, but that didn’t make them any less of a person than Laura was.

Laura understood that. Still, even Pa called them fiends sometimes, so the reprimand wasn’t really fair.

“Were they . . . did they have the Ague?” Laura corrected herself.

Pa scratched beneath his great bushy beard. They both knew that Ma did not approve of Laura’s preoccupation with fiends. During the outbreak in the Laketowns two summers back, the one that had closed the market for months, Laura asked so many questions that Ma had declared a ban on what she called “fiend talk.”

But Laura knew that Pa seldom offered more than token resistance to her curiosity. After placing his rifle back on its pegs above the door, he sat and lifted Laura up into his lap.

“No, my little Soybean, they didn’t have the Ague. Not that I could tell at any rate. Just displacees, heading west.  Hungry. Tired. Sick in other ways, perhaps. But they spoke plainly enough. Their clothes were dirty and a might ragged, yes, but they wore them same as you or I, isn’t that so?

“But you’re right to be watchful of such things, I suppose. Fiends—folks with the Ague—are very dangerous. You’re old enough to know that. If you see someone with yellow skin or eyes or someone with their clothes all in tatters or moaning or raving nonsense, you must not go near them. You must run away and tell me or your mother as soon as possible. Do you understand?”

Laura nodded, not feeling completely reassured.

It seemed as if the incident had troubled Pa as well, for that night he spoke more seriously of leaving the Big Woods, in tones more urgent than Laura had previously heard. Laura listened from the loft as, down below, his hushed discussion with Ma grew gradually louder, until even Mary was sitting up in bed, her eyes wide in the darkness.

“But the roads again, Charles?” Ma was saying. “With three girls? And Grace still nursing? It’s not safe.”

“. . . no safer to stay,” came Pa’s reply. “Hungry desperate people mean danger, sooner or late. You know that. And what if there’s another outbreak . . .”

“But where will we…?”

“West.”

Laura heard Ma make an exasperated noise.

“I talked to Jim Cordry last I was at market,” Pa continued. “He’d just returned from convoy not two weeks prior. ‘Cording to Jim, Clan Ortega’s lost their territory east of the Misisip, but they still hold the Old Eighty Road, all the way from Davenport to Lildaka. They keep the road open to travelers, those who can pay the tolls. There’s forts that patrol for bandits and . . . and the like. If we can just make it as far as Davenport, we can apply with the Clan Council for safe passage all the way to the Wastes.”

“. . . the Wastes, Charles!” Ma’s whisper rose sharply in pitch. “We’ve spoken of this . . .”

“ . . . It’s more than just showtales, Caroline! I’ve had it from folks seen it firsthand. Reliable folks. They say the rains have come again. Even as we sit here, those with the drive and determination to tame the wilderness are out there, raising up crops, building new lives . . .”

“I don’t know,” Ma repeated. “I just don’t know.”

“Jim says the Ortegas are keen to settle up the west. A hedge against losing their trade routes across the Illinoy, he says. Or maybe just to have a buffer between them and the nomads and Deseretis. Either way, the word is that Old Man Ortega will back the property claim of any man or woman willing to stake out a homestead out on the Wastes and farm it, up to three kims square. I don’t doubt but what plenty of these displacees, those with strength enough to make the journey, will take Clan Ortega up on its offer.

“This could be our chance. If we go west now, ahead of the tide, we may yet arrive before the best land is taken. Think on it, that’s all I ask. These woods have been good to us, I’ll not deny it. This cabin was a mighty lucky find. But maybe we’ve gotten ourselves too comfortable here. A man who digs himself a rut is like to drown in it when the floods come. We’ve always been adaptable, you and me. Resourceful. That’s why we’re still around, when there’s plenty who aren’t.

“Just think on it is all. Wouldn’t it be nice to start fresh, out in the wide open Wastes? To build a new home, one of our own, not one scavved up from another man’s garbage? I hear talk of herds of bisox roaming the plains and flocks of birds tall as a man. The game around these parts feels used up, getting scarcer each year. Out west, we’ll live off the land, free and self-reliant, just like our Merican ancestors.”

As Ma began to respond, Laura shifted her weight, and the loft’s floorboards gave an indiscreet creak. Ma and Pa paused, listening, then lowered their voices. Laura couldn’t make out the rest of their discussion.

By the next morning, though, it had been decided. They would leave their little house in the Big Woods and strike west, out along the old number roads, bound for that vast unpeopled country that folks in those days called the Wastes.

 

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