Two: The Handcar

Laura placed a foot on the handcar’s hub and hoisted herself up to look inside the cargo box. For the moment, it was empty. The bed of the handcar had been stained that morning with a fresh coat of pine pitch, and a sweet earthy smell wafted up from the flat oak boards. It would all have to fit in there, Laura thought to herself, everything they would take with them.

Seeing the handcar parked here, right in front of the house, ready and waiting to shoulder whatever belongings they chose to load upon its stout oak frame, it made everything feel suddenly less abstract. Suddenly, the realities of the coming journey were right here before her, resting atop those two wheels and the strong hickory axle running between them.

Laura ran her hands around the handcar’s rims. They were made of bent splits of white oak framed all the way around by iron that Pa had pounded into long flat strips at his forge. Laura tried to imagine the sound they would make rolling across the creetrock of the old Merican number roads.

There had been little enough opportunity for Laura and Mary to take in the momentousness of what awaited them. Ma and Pa had allocated no time for such luxuries. No sooner had the decision been made than preparations began for the departure.

Laura had listened in bewilderment as Ma ran down her list of things needing to be done. Ma’s manner was matter-of-fact, with no trace of the misgivings that Laura had heard during her eavesdroppings. They would settle out in the Wastes, and that was that. When Ma set her mind about something, there was no wavering. There was only planning and preparation and the making of lists.

Getting the handcar ready, that was one thing crossed off Ma’s list, Laura thought as she hopped down from her foothold. Pa had inspected it that morning, staining the wood, mending spokes, greasing the axle. Apart from the streaks of rust around the rims, it looked brand-new built.

Meanwhile, Ma was busy with her needle. Mary sat beside her, watching her work and helping when she could. Laura joined them.

Ma was mending the stitching on Laura’s winter coat. The coat was lined with fox skin, but its outer shell was a patchwork of lectricmade fabrics. Smooth to the touch, those old fabrics would let hardly a bit of rain or snow soak through. The scraps that made up Laura’s coat had all been scavved by Ma and Pa, Laura knew, or else been bought from Rakesh Halfsilver or one of the other scav merchants down at the Laketown Market, for no one knew how to weave cloth like that anymore. Still, as marvelous as those lectric fabrics were, they would not keep Laura dry if they were not sewn good and tight. And so Ma looked over Laura’s coat and Mary’s too, inside and out, making sure every seam was double-stitched and would not come apart on the long road ahead.

When she was done, Ma turned to her buckskin apron and began to sew on extra pockets, where she could keep things that she would want within easy reach, without having to dig through the handcar.

Onto her back would go Baby Grace, Laura knew, wrapped up tightly like a butterfly in a cocoon. Ma would often bundle her up like that when out tilling the garden or picking berries. Laura, who found it difficult to sit still for more than a moment or two at a stretch, could not help but worry about her baby sister’s well-being, cooped up like that for such a long trip.

Laura tried to concentrate on Ma’s sewing, studying her technique like Mary was doing, but before long she was on her feet again. She found herself back on the porch, watching Pa load the handcar.

Into the car’s cargo box went the bundles of furs that Pa had been saving for market. These he hoped to barter for safe passage along the Old Eighty Road or else trade for silver when they reached the market at Davenport. Into the cargo box went Pa’s tools. Hatchet, chisel, and adze. Hewing ax and felling ax. Spade and hammer and goose-necked gouge. In went Ma’s big iron stewpot and her skillet and her wooden stool. Bit by bit, the handcar was filling up.

Eventually, Laura made her way back inside and up to the loft, where her blue carrysack sat side-by-side with Mary’s pink carrysack, both open and empty.

Pa had found those carrysacks many years ago. They were scavved from the ruins of an old Merican marketplace. They were both made of slick lectricmade fabric. The funny little hardmold teeth stitched around the mouths of the carrysacks no longer clicked together properly, so Ma had sewn in buttons to keep them closed. Painted onto the surface of Laura’s carrysack was a faded picture of the Batman in his horned mask, just like in Pa’s stories, while on Mary’s carrysack there was a beautiful woman with yellow hair. Pa said he recognized the woman from other Merican artwork he’d seen but did not know her name. Mary and Laura referred to her as Queen Lovely.

Laura stared down at her bag. They must choose carefully what things they wanted to take with them to the Wastes, Ma had told her. The handcar would be full enough with supplies. If Mary or Laura wanted to bring something with them, they must carry it on their backs. If it would not fit into their small carrysacks, Ma told them, it could not come.

Laura looked around the loft, overwhelmed at all that would be left behind. With a heavy heart, she sat down cross-legged beside her carrysack. Hooking a finger beneath one of its shoulder straps, she pulled it into her lap and studied the images decorating its stiff fabric shell. The Batman stared back up at her. The look on his face was one of determination, his jaw set as he raced ever forward, pumping his muscled arms. Laura felt her resolve strengthen. There was no sense putting it off any longer. She began to pack.

~~~

The next day, Ma and Pa set about digging up vegetables from the winter garden. In summer, the crops stuck up in proud rows in the fields surrounding the little house. There was soy and kale. There was hemp and squash. There were carrots and baicai and sweet blue peppers.

It was winter now, and the fields were nothing but little mounds and furrows, all dusted in snow. But the crops were still there, Laura knew. You just couldn’t see them because they were buried. The best way to keep food from spoiling was to keep it in the ground, Ma always said. Each year when the cold crept into the Big Woods, Pa would cover the plants with mounds of loose earth and leaves so they wouldn’t freeze. There they might have remained until spring, sleeping beneath their winter blankets, had Ma and Pa not decided to pluck them out and see what could be canned or dried or pickled and added to their provisions for the long journey to the Wastes.

Later that morning, Laura helped Ma make soymeal. First, Ma boiled up the soybeans. Then she heated the beans over the stove until they were a faded yellow-brown. Then she showed Laura how to grind the dry beans into flour using a long flat stone. It took them until well into the afternoon. Laura’s arms got so tired she had to stop, and, after that, she just sat on the table with Oprah and watched Ma grind the soy.

There was a man who lived near the Laketowns named Mr. Abdullah who owned an iron machine that could grind soy. It was fitted with a crank and could make soymeal much more quickly than a stone grinder. After harvesttime, Pa would sometimes take his soy crop to Mr. Abdullah to grind, and he would give Mr. Abdullah some of the soymeal as payment. For years, Pa had been trying to put together his own grinding machine, but the metal pieces he molded in his forge never seemed to fit together quite right. Now, there was no time for Pa to make the trip down to the Laketowns, let alone to finish his stubborn machine. Ma had to grind that soy by hand with her stone.

Afterwards, they put the soymeal in a hemp sack and added it to the others that had been stored in the pantry. That made three big bags of soymeal, full to bursting. Those soymeal sacks would keep them fed on their long journey west. Beside them was another sack, smaller but more precious. That sack held their seedsoy. They would not touch that sack until they arrived at their new homestead, for they would need the seedsoy to raise their first soy crop out on the Wastes.

Other vegetables from the garden went into jars, as much as Ma could fit. Kale and carrots and peppers, all were sliced up and packed together inside Ma’s glass jars just as tight as could be. Then Ma added boiled water and salt until the jars were almost full. Then she closed up the jars, put them inside her big iron pot and cooked them until steam shrieked from the tiny holes in the pot’s lid.

Very carefully, Ma took the hot jars out of the pot and set them on the shelf to cool. They were all different shapes and sizes, those jars. Some had been passed down to Ma from her grandmother. Some of them, she or Pa had scavved themselves or gotten at market. Ma was protective of them all, and she would not let Mary or Laura touch them. Objects of good lectricmade glass were rare enough, but a jar with a lid that fit snug was as precious as silver, Ma said.

In all their preparations, they worked quickly, for Pa insisted that they mustn’t delay their departure. Mid-winter was already past. Spring was just around the corner. Pa meant to cross the Mighty Misisip River while it was still frozen. If they didn’t reach it before the thaw, they would need to travel south until they could find a ferry crossing, and Pa did not like the idea of venturing too deep into the Illinoy.

Pa also feared the spring thaw would bring more displacees streaming westward. They would have better luck hunting and foraging and scavving along the way if they did not have to compete with others, he said.

Pa told Mary and Laura that, when he was a boy, the Merican roads had been more crowded and more dangerous. Back then, many followed the old creetrock roads. Some were fleeing turmoil one place or another. Some sought fortune, hoping to strike it rich stumbling upon a hidden bunker or undiscovered ruins, for the scav left behind by the Merican Empire was more plentiful in those days.

Nowadays, the number roads were not so well travelled, Pa explained. Apart from convoy routes like the Great Eighty Road, folks no longer seemed to have much use for the creetrock byways that once linked the countless settlements of Old Merica to one another.

Many of the lesser roads had been forgotten entirely. That was why Pa put such value on the parchment map he had obtained from Rakesh Halfsilver, the scav merchant at the Laketown Market. The map showed all the old number roads between Mishgan Lake and the Wastes, no matter how obscure. Pa hoped that they might have some of those roads nearly to themselves. No doubt they would encounter others here and there, but Pa assured them that the days of vast displacee convoys—and those that preyed upon them—had ended long ago.

Even so, Laura could see that Pa was anxious not to delay their journey west.

“Uncertain times always bring folks out onto the old roads,” she heard him tell Ma.

~~~

Eventually, their provisions were ready. The garden was empty. The handcar was loaded. The day arrived.

They left the door to the little house unlatched. There was no sense wasting a good lock, Pa said, when someone would be along to bust it before long. Laura stood in the clearing that surrounded the empty cabin, trying to put on a brave face. She adjusted the shoulder straps on her carrysack as she watched Pa wheel the car down from the shed to the dirt trail that ran through the Big Woods.

The hide straps of Pa’s beaver hat dangled undone against his chin as he steered the handcar back and forth to make sure it would not roll too fast. A wind blew through the trees. A chill went up Laura’s back, and she cuddled Oprah close to her chest.

Finally, she felt Ma take her hand. Laura looked up. There was Baby Grace, hanging from Ma’s back, cheeks rosy from the cold but otherwise looking cozy and content in her swaddling. Mary clutched Ma’s other hand.

Together, they followed in Pa’s footprints, tracing the meandering tracks the handcar had cut through the snow. The tall trees of the Big Woods rose around them, obscuring Laura’s view of the little house sliver by sliver. By the time they reached the path that would lead them down to the Old Forty-Five Road and from into the unknown, the little house was swallowed up. Laura knew that she would not see it ever again.

 

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