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.
Of all 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 Laura 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. Laura had helped Mabel make it. First, buckets full of milk and apple vinegar were left out to age inside the shed behind the main house. Laura had watched Mabel separate out the curds floating on top and scrape them into another pail. 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 bristle-side-down. When she had managed to balance the long polebrush across her shoulder, then she carefully 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’s 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 saluted him with her polebrush. Pa lifted his adze to return her 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 two small barrels had been set aside next to the handcar. One was filled with salted goat meat. The other 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 for apple butter, 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 him 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.
Apparently, their path through Yowa Country had led them further west than Rakesh Halfsilver’s map made it look. The road to Davenport would take them many days in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, somewhere due south of them stretched the Great Eighty Road, the road which would lead them all the way to the Wastes.
Tobias Goatherd told Pa of a settlement that lay along the Great Eighty Road, no more than a week or two journey from Happy Valley if a person knew how to find their way along the lesser-travelled Merican roads. There, the old man said, they would find the local supervisory for Clan Ortega. Some of the guardsmen in the supervisory’s garrison would make the trip up to Happy Valley to trade from time to time, and Tobias Goatherd was certain that Pa could arrange with the 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 can set aside for Mr. Goatherd’s next batch of cider.”
Laura accepted the basket from Ma and set off.
She found Mary on the porch of the main house. Mary was 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, her movements always fine and precise so that her cross-stich would always 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 started up the path that wound through the ruins, past the car spire and the round creetrock shell that might have once been the World’s Largest Apple, up 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 tiny green buds clinging to their branches.
But some of the trees produced fruit all year round. Laura had heard Tobias Goatherd call these jimapples. According to the old man, all of Happy Valley’s apple trees were descended from orchards planted by Merican farmers long ago. During Lectric Times, he reckoned the land around the Restup and Reptilsoo had been filled with jimapples, all grown from special seeds bred with forgotten lectric knowhow. These jimapples would have been huge and sweet, he said, and the trees that produced them so hearty they would have needed hardly any water at all.
Many of the trees that grew on the hills around Happy Valley still had some of these qualities, inherited from their jimapple ancestors. But Tobias Goatherd lamented that most were slowly losing their marvelous lectric traits over time. In the decades since he had settled among the ruins, he told them, he had seen the valley’s apple trees grow ever more fragile, more vulnerable to drought and disease and insect infestations. And with every passing year they produced fewer and smaller apples.
“Going feral I fear,” he had said. “Just like my darling 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.’”
Laura thought about the old man’s words as she and Mary went from apple tree to apple tree, basket in hand. The first trees that they came to had all been picked clean. Only as they climbed further up the hill, with the ruins of Happy Valley growing small below, did they have better luck. By a rocky outcropping near the hill’s summit, Laura found a promising tree. Hidden among its leaves, she spied a cluster of ripe-looking fruit, all 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 if we let a single misstep scare us off the whole journey, we’d never get anywhere. I warrant Laura’s a better tree climber now than she was before her fall.”
And so Laura climbed. When she reached the branch she’d set her sights on, she locked her legs beneath her and reached out for the apples. They were so big and bright, Laura 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 her sister’s gaze down the hill, out across the valley below.
The outlook where they stood offered a perfect view of the ruins. From there, Laura could see the brick walls of the Reptilsoo and the circular foundations of the World’s Largest Apple and the field where she knew the axman lay hidden among the weeds. She could see Mabel perched atop her ladder, leaning against the statue of the sharp-toothed monster. A short distance away, she picked out Pa, still hewing beams for the roof. And, beside the main house, there was Tobias Goatherd, milking a goat.
But Mary was pointing beyond the monuments and the buildings, beyond Mabel’s ladder and the clearing where Pa stood swinging his ax. She was pointing towards the far side of the ruins, towards the big number road that ran along their northern edge. There, Laura saw two shadows, stark against the sprawling ribbon of creetrock. Laura squinted at them. Attached to the shadows were two men, following the old creetrock road westward towards the ruins of Happy Valley Orchards.
Jack must have seen them too. Laura couldn’t find the little pigdog, 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 going somewhere. His stride was swift and steady. Was he going to see what had got Jack to barking so? Laura watched him disappear behind the main house. When he emerged on the other side a few moments later, he had swapped his broad ax for his rifle. Now he was walking towards the old number road. Jack had stopped barking. Maybe he had found Pa, Laura thought.
The two strangers were closer now. When Pa reached the road, he stood there, looking east. Laura could tell he had seen the men.
They saw him too. The two figures paused. From across the long stretch of road that still separated them, Pa and the strangers regarded one another.
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 kept approaching, closer and closer.
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 sat at the very edge of the overlook.
She could see the men 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. Laura cupped her hands against her brows to shade her eyes, studying the figures as they marched down the old creetrock road.
To the left of each man’s head, there was a spike, sprouting rigid from his shoulder like a pine 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, 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 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 Ma was trying to distract them. As Ma pulled the leather sheath from 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 and Tobias Goatherd were on the porch of the main house now. Laura saw that Pa 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 had left the old number road and were making their way down one of the dirt paths that led through the ruins, past the Reptilsoo and its monstrous guardians.
They were within sight of the porch now, and the tall blonde man raised his arm in greeting. Tobias Goatherd returned the gesture.
Baby Grace fussed then, and Laura lifted her from her lap to shoulder. There, Grace clung to Laura’s tunic and twisted her head to look down the hill with her big baby eyes, 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 with a fat slice of apple. The apple was crisp and sticky as Laura bit into it. It was 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 towards Pa on the porch, 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 perch overlooking the valley floor. Ma whispered sharply to her to come back and keep still, but Laura couldn’t help herself. She had to see what was happening.
The figures on the porch were all where Laura had left them, but the mood communicated by their bodies had changed. 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, movement drew Laura’s attention 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.
Laura had barely begun to formulate these thoughts when Mabel leapt from the porch roof. She seemed to change direction in mid-air, as she swung from one of the posts that held up the porch’s awning, twirling around it to drop down directly behind the blonde, 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 Mabel’s 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 he 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 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 lying beneath her did not.