Look Ma No Hands
(July 28, 2016)
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AFTER THE PRETTY POX
Book One: The Attic
Copyright © 2016 by August Ansel
by Tuli, c. 2052
An after-reckoning about how it shook out.
Supposition, hypothetical, considering everything, etc.
This is how we create a history, as passed from lip to ear. The birth of rumor, legend, long nights around a fire while the moon rises and the log burns to embers.
The quickest way to spread information: telegraph, telephone, tell a secret.
The world came apart.
That may not be true. It may only have been the country. Or the continent.
The cavalry did not arrive. No assistance was forthcoming. Perhaps that means something?
I doubt it.
For a long time the disintegration was recorded. Data was downloaded and consumed. The unraveling was spectator sport.
There was probably a tipping point. One last margin of error, a hair’s breadth, a held breath, right before the moment of no return, an accumulation of trouble, enough to make us stand still, to look around at each other and say we should change this.
That is not what happened.
Who did this, damn it?
Finding a Responsible Party was more important than standing down.
We already knew we were responsible.
For a time, we knew everything, had all the information.
That is not true, either, but we thought it was. I search, therefore I am.
Once upon a time, a hole opened in the great web of connection. The filaments broke loose. The old forgotten quiet poured through.
History is what we remember. Real-story is what we forget.
I can only write a history. But for you it may be a real-story.
I will write.
Not today. My hand fails.
Let us begin with a reminder: Carpent tua poma nepotes.
Your descendants will pick your fruit.
SOMEONE WAS INSIDE. All the way inside, pushing past the overturned furniture and trash she had scattered strategically around the entryway and the living room. Bear, was Arie’s first thought. It had happened before. But there was a quality of hurried stealth. No bear would try to step around the bottles and cans, the old cellophane and silverware, broken glass and dead leaves. Lying face down on the attic floorboards, weight on her forearms, not moving a muscle except to turn her head ever so slowly, Arie hovered, put her ear as close to the slats of the old heating register as she dared. Panting down there, broken and whistling. A person, then. A person in the house with her. Someone frightened. Arie could smell it, without even putting her nose to the grate. The sour, dank odor of a body in extremity, familiar to her as a rat’s nest or a string of possum shit.
“Please don’t.” The words floated into Arie’s ear, a scrim of sound so high and wheezy it seemed like imagination. No longer directly below her. The sound now drifted up from around the corner, in what had been a kitchen. “Hurry. Have to hurry.” Female, probably. Or child. Arie knew better than to look.
Then something else inside, down there. Quick and scrabbling, not minding the debris, claws loud on the wood of the floor, despite its soft and patchy rot. The whistling breath of the intruder, the human, had gone silent. But the fear smell was loud and louder still. The clawed thing panted and snuffled directly under the grate. Arie held her breath until it passed under, following its prey. The sky panel was open above her, had been all day, and the cool smell of evening fell through. Her mandala was visible in the late twilight, a circular labyrinth etched into the attic wall, its path dark where her finger had traced again and again. Lying on the attic floor, silent, she followed the spiraling line with her eyes, outside to inside. Slow breath in, slow breath out.
The growl below became an open-throated snarl. There commenced a great crashing and floundering, things thrown, something heavy cutting the air with a quiet whoosh, a squall of pain or surprise. Arie’s eyes moved through the mandala, now from the center back to the outside. While the animal’s clawed feet tried to gain traction in the debris on the floor, the human made a break for the front door. She made it outside, sobbing. Arie heard and felt the door hit its frame when the intruder tried to pull it shut. But the latch mechanism was long gone, knob utterly useless. The animal slammed against the door on the inside, raging, clawing, biting, effectively keeping it closed for a few extra moments. The woman fled, her footsteps fading in the direction of the gulch. Down in the entryway, the animal commenced a deliberate, clatterous digging.
Arie rose to hands and knees, waited. The instant the scratching ceased, she leapt to her feet. The ladder leaned against the edge of the sky panel. She scurried up two rungs and poked her head and shoulders through the opening in the attic roof, just in time to see the dog racing into the tree line at the bottom of the cracked asphalt cul-de-sac. Dog, not wolf this time. The legs were bulky and not long enough for wolf, tail not a wolf’s heavy brush, but a bald knob, hacked off by a human in the time before the Pink. Presently, two voices rose—the woman’s first, pitching upward until it splintered in some high register. Then on top of it the dog’s bay, smooth and delighted. An immediate response came from all around, a multitude rejoicing. Dozens of canid howls. Scores, perhaps.
Arie stepped off the ladder and laid it lengthwise against the wall, pulled the guy rope out of its spring cleat and paid the cable through her hands until the sky panel dropped solidly into place. She shot the flat bolts through their brackets. The animal singing continued, but was muted now, fading as each voice dropped out of the chorus. The attic was entirely dark. She took a lighter from her apron pocket and lit her way to the work table, set the flame to a stub of candle.
A single shriek somewhere near the river, then silence.
At the basin, she dipped her hands, dipped them again, laving the water up and through her fingers.
“Rest is not mine to give,” she said. “My life is my own.” She put her wet palms against her cheeks, smoothed them back and over the crown of her head. Her silver hair darkened where her wet hands touched. It was the middle of fall by her reckoning. Despite weeks of warm days a chill came at night, one she now felt on her damp skin.
Normally she ate a little something before sleeping, some dried berries and jerky, perhaps a carrot or chunk of flatbread, but she had no appetite. She opened the bedroll and got ready for the night, slingshot tucked into the ammo bag at her right hand, short spear under her pillow. She double-checked the sky panel bolt, peed into the compost bucket. Finally, she stood before the mandala and kissed the null signs etched on her inner forearms. She touched her finger to the outside of the labyrinth and began to trace the smooth rut, back and forth, inward, outward, eyes closed, her breathing slow and rhythmic. Eight times her finger traveled to the center and out again. On the ninth and final circuit, she recited her full catechism.
“I sojourn,” Arie said. The words were old. She was older. They fell from her mouth like polished agates. “I sojourn. My life is my own. I shall not give, neither shall I receive. Rest for me. Rest for the Mother.” She slid into her bedroll, a thick pile of sheets and blankets layered over a plastic shower curtain. All was silence in the attic. All was silence in the rooms of ruin below. Beyond, in the ravaged streets and burgeoning timber, the crumbling buildings and bounteous estuaries, there were only the sounds of the rightful inheritors.
* * *
She slept later than usual. The sun had already cleared the horizon when she opened the sky panel and looked out. An enormous flock of geese passed overhead, plying their northern route. It was early fall and the weather still warm. “October,” she said aloud, then again, stretching the word out on her tongue: “Oc-to-berrrr.” It was another language, a word that connected in her mind to other anachronisms, like “school” and “jack-o’-lantern” and “shoe store.” Odd, since Arie hadn’t attended a school until she was close to grown, nor ever carved a pumpkin—that being the devil’s work—and as a child she only wore shoes that her older siblings had outgrown. “Collective unconscious,” she said. More devil’s work, according to Daddy Mack.
The second rung of the ladder put her barely head and shoulders above the roofline. She raised the binoculars for a quick scan of the street. There was only a raccoon disappearing into a neighbor’s window, into what had been Peter and Rachel’s house, and baby Gabe’s. Gabe—fine and happy when Rachel put him in his crib so she could catch a shower, but five minutes later slumped onto his side, clutching a stuffed penguin and struggling for breath. Rachel came tearing into the street with Gabe in her arms, screaming for Arie. The baby was the first one Arie saw dead with the Pink, the shocking color making his little round face look not only alive, but radiant. They both tried to breathe for him, crouched between the raised garden beds in Arie’s front yard, taking turns. Arie had not taken up the catechism yet, but it rooted in her then, the wisdom of it, as she tried to blow life into her neighbor’s child.
The sky panel let out on the south side of the house. The pitch and angle of the roof created a protected space there. She could ease out, and unless something was directly beneath her in the weedy tangle that had been her backyard, she could not be easily seen. It wasn’t until she was all the way out and moving around that she was visible from the street, so she stepped onto the top rung and emerged inches at a time, watching, listening.
First, she hauled up the bucket and emptied it into the plastic laundry basket that served as her compost bin: meager food scraps, river muck and dried grass. She kept coons and rats from disturbing the basket by adding her night urine. Then she made a quick pass through her checkerboard of small garden boxes. She gathered carrots, a few leaves of kale, some pea pods, munching while she pulled a few small weeds. The soil in one box was especially dry; she dipped into the gray-water bucket and wet around the beets and chard.
That done, she dropped the bucket back into the attic and lowered the sky panel. The ammo bag and slingshot were in her apron pocket, the short spear in her belt. She strapped on a woven carry basket she used for gathering firewood and other bulky collectibles, and crept to the edge of the roof. The yard was still empty of everything but overgrown amaranth weeds and trash. To one side of the decayed chimney was a narrow space formed between the wall of the house and a matted screen of rhododendron, jimson weed, blackberry, and English ivy. She dropped a rope ladder into the gap. Once she was down, the contraption retracted by means of a pulley line; this she threaded deeply into the brush, rendering it all but invisible.
She picked her way out from behind the bushes. She followed an occluded path in the tall weeds and through a place in the chain-link fence where the gate once stood. Most of the windows in the house were broken, some roughly patched with cardboard but most left jagged and gaping. The front yard was also overgrown, the lawn now a shoulder-high prairie. She moved out to the street, watchful, hand on the shaft of the short spear.
It was another beautiful day, with the kind of huge clouds meant to be watched while lying back in a field, looking for familiar shapes. Arie preferred to walk close to the street rather than in it, the shrubs and weeds flanking the hoven and cracked asphalt providing a certain amount of cover. In many places the chunks of asphalt were so blasted and invaded by plants growing up from underneath and from seeds falling or blowing into every microscopic crack, it was already hard to see that it had once been a tidy suburban street, even though it was barely two years since cars stopped driving on it.
The tree line was also much closer than it had once been. It happened. The rains recommenced, city maintenance workers—whose job had been to cut back branches and briars—were dead or disappeared. Now every time Arie came outside, the gulch seemed to have crept a little closer. At the edge of the woods, she went down on her haunches and looked back at the house. It looked utterly derelict: the front door standing most of the way open, broken windows on every side, hugely overgrown yards. And on that open front door, a faded red X painted. Pox inside, that X meant. The Pink Plague lives here.
Satisfied, she took the path into the woods. It had been a packed-dirt thoroughfare when she was a little girl, the favorite way for disk golfers and skateboarders to cut through the trees and into the Cooper Gulch Family Park. A favorite shortcut of derelicts, too, mostly meth-addled homeless who raved back and forth, shouting down a windrow of invisible foes, their skin haggard with sores, their teeth gone or going. That was the neighborhood her grandparents had lived in, a different one than they had moved to in their middle years, but still familiar, still wreathed in a certain tattered normalcy. This version, though, they would not recognize in any particular. Storms had blown over a great many trees, more than a few power poles (which had been trees once, too) and dragged useless lines down into snarled nests. All those entertaining pulses of data and power, all those houses tethered like angular fetuses on twisted umbilici, all silent now. There was more of everything alive, and less of everything constructed by the interlopers. And the interlopers themselves, of course. Not many of those left.
The path showed the outline of the woman’s tracks, where she’d fled from the dog last night, the faint whorls from her shoe soles more pronounced through the toes because she had been running. These were the first human footprints she’d seen in a great while. Close to a year, maybe longer. She uprooted a handful of horsetail and brushed away the mottled prints as she walked alongside in the weeds.
Arie hunched into the underbrush, angling her way south away from the trail until the alder saplings and huckleberry bushes got so thick she was practically on hands and knees. The woods still smelled of summer skunk cabbage, ripe and acidic, and the fading perfume of blackberries, mostly rotting on the branch now—those that hadn’t been eaten by birds and bears. And by Arie, who had gotten gallons this year and reveled in them. Fruit leathers and bowls filled, she with seeds lodged between her molars, fingers and mouth stained deep red. Straight from the bush, the fruit was often sour—they’d used so much sugar on berries before the Pink—but fresh and delicious anyway. She’d even created a rough version of pemmican from a mix of things she half-remembered from a childhood reading assignment: berries, finely minced fat and meat saved from a duck she’d managed to snare, and blanched acorn mash. The resulting pemmican had been chewy and variable in taste, gamey. But edible after having dried in the sun. Thinking about it now made her mouth water.
When she got to a particular stone (one she’d set alongside a tree herself), she turned toward the river and came out very near the bank. Here, in a natural horseshoe clearing that was virtually invisible from up or down the riverbank, she had set four fish snares. It was passive fishing that required neither her presence nor the need for her to get down into the water, like a fish weir or gill net would do. Each snare consisted of two sticks with notched ends. One stick was pounded into the ground, notch up. A willow sapling, connected to the un-notched end of the other stick by a length of monofilament, acted as a spring. Arie would carefully fit the notches together; a bait line trailed out into the water. When the fish nibbled, the notched sticks came apart and the sapling sprang upright, pulling the fish from the creek. If she was lucky, she got to the dangling fish before a rightful inheritor did. Today she’d been very lucky. Three trout hung above their snares, the gills of one still opening and closing as it tried in vain to breathe the air. Water dripped from its tail, making a dark spot on the duff below.
Arie pulled the fishes free and walked several paces down the creek to clean them. She threw the entrails into the shallows and washed her hands, then rinsed the rocks clean of fish blood and any trace of guts. She wanted to leave as little evidence as possible and to avoid luring a hungry animal to her catch. A big-leaf maple was in the process of throwing off its massive cargo of brown and yellow leaves. She picked several that were still clinging to the branches and wrapped the little trout before stowing them in her basket. She returned to bait and reset the snares, hooking the notched sticks with particular care.
She worked her way back to the path and followed it down to the creek. She hung back in the brambles, again squatting and scoping the bank, first south and then north. Satisfied, she ducked under a low-hanging manzanita and out into a miniature meadow. It was risky here—she was terribly visible—but this was an area the rabbits loved. Set around the edge of the clearing, her traps were almost identical to her fish snares, catching small game that ran for the trees when spooked by predators. These required taller saplings to lift the captured animal out of reach of hungry opportunists—dogs, wolves, raccoons. Arie walked the perimeter of the clearing and found the first snare still set. She’d have to relocate it soon, since it had only ever caught a small partridge, one with no more meat under its feathers than a pigeon. The second trap was twenty long paces from the first. Before she got halfway there she could see it was sprung, and hoped for something edible.
But the snare line was empty. She examined the trip wire. In the loop, a bit of sticky blood and scrim of soft fur. So something had been in the trap, but then? Had a rabbit somehow managed to work itself loose? She’d seen one twist and thrash until its ankle was rubbed to the bone by the trip wire, but the slipknot worked too well, tightening relentlessly no matter how slick with blood. Arie held the loop in one hand and looked around at the ground for some clue to tell her where her prey had gotten to.
“I had to take it.”
She turned, the short spear in hand before she was all the way around. The man stood five yards into the trees, both hands slightly raised (and empty, she was glad to see) so that she could see the palms. He crouched just slightly, springy through all his limbs. The look on his face was wary but curious, ready for her. In the fraction of time it took to register his presence, it was clear that he blocked her way back to the path, and even if she managed it he could outrun her. She stood bolt upright, returned the short spear to her belt, and pulled open the laced front of her blouse. The skin over her heart had the same tattoo as her inner forearms: a deep-red null sign.
“I am only a sojourner. Pilgrim, will you give me rest?”
Something flickered over his face. He looked away for a moment, then back at her. “I, uh—” He hesitated for a moment. “I can’t.” He frowned slightly, looking down at his feet, and snapped his fingers. “Rest is not mine to give.” Like giving the answer to a difficult examination.
Arie pulled her blouse closed and rested her hand on the shaft of the short spear. “So where is that rabbit?”
“We ate it for breakfast. Nothing left over, either.”
“It’s your rabbit now, then. If you filch my traps, you’ve interfered a good deal with my journey,” she said. “Reckon the woods are big enough and bountiful elsewhere for you and yours.” She fought a hair-prickling urge to glance around her for others.
“I had to feed the girl.”
“Whose is she?”
He shrugged. “Nobody’s, I’d say, from the state of her leg. Dog-chewed. She may live yet.”
“Not long, likely, if she hasn’t learned to climb a tree to get a dog off her. Others?”
“Only her and me.”
“She’s yours then.”
“Not until I found her, bit that way.”
“Will you keep her?”
“I can’t leave her. She took a fever.”
“That’s your path, I suppose. I have my own. Go off a ways, is my request.” She kept her hand on the short spear and adjusted the straps of her carry basket as she eased to her left, aiming for the path.
“Let me work this bit of dirt in peace, if you mean well. Do you? You haven’t murdered me yet.” Her whole attention was on the shape of him in the corner of her eye and the sounds all around her as she backtracked, one deliberate step at a time, not turning her back, but not obviously watching him as she went.
“But I’ve come for you, Arie.”
How long since her name was spoken to her? A few times here and there during the short days of ravaging, and likely not at all since. She faced him again. “How is it you call me by name?” He took a step toward her, but she lifted a hand to stop him. “Just tell it.”
He cocked his head and blinked at her. “I suppose you wouldn’t know me. I was born six years after you left Daddy Mack.”
She saw it in him, then, in this young man. It was the square set of his face, the eyes narrow as any animal peering out of its den. High cheekbones and thin, straight hair and long beard the color of strong tea. It was his father’s face, made over more kindly perhaps, the mouth set in a straight line rather than fat-lipped and self-satisfied. “So,” she said. “My brother.” She calculated a moment, thinking back at the state her mother had been in when Arie’d left God’s Land. “You’re William.”
“William that’s called Handy,” he agreed. “I’ve come to find you.”
“You’ve found me. It’s no secret where—I’ve been in Granny and Pop’s house since I struck out from God’s Land.”
He nodded. “But no way to know if you survived.”
“I did. And you.”
“Daddy Mack says it’s in the blood.”
“So he lived.”
“He did. Not all of us, though. Some took it quick.”
“Everyone who died took it quick. And the rest?”
“Some gone. Some not gone. Daddy Mack sent me for you.”
“To bring me back there?” She chuffed laughter. “Not on the best day, nor on the worst. I shook the dust of God’s Land off my feet a long time hence, though you’re too young to have seen it happen.”
She held up a palm again. “Arie is enough. I’m old enough to be your mammy, and a perfect stranger.” She turned from him and made for the path. “Go well, Sojourner. You and her. Rest is not mine to give, nor succor either.” She looked back only once. William was moving into the trees. His hair hung down his back in a stringy plait, its pale color blending with the no-color of his shirt.
“Appears you turned out fine,” she said. “A good one, maybe. Not like him.” He ducked into the scrub without another word.
Up the path, a quick scan, and into her yard. She let down the rope ladder and hauled it behind her when she was on the roof.
The three fish were small. She cooked them all on the fire inside. She could have fried them out on the roof; she had a low-slung steel fire pit up there. It sat on a heavy scrap of corrugated sheet metal, and in it she could build a deep bed of coals for cooking, out where the risk of fire was smaller. But right now she wanted to be inside, in the dark of the attic again.
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