At dawn’s approach, Liv closes the cabin door behind her but does not bolt it. The Scavengers will break in, regardless, once they divine Grandmere’s passing. Besides, she has almost everything she needs secured at her back and waist. Grandmere had made sure.
She scrubs an arm across her face. Her tongue is thick, her eyes gritty and red from a sleepless night tending the fire. Its smoky remains scar a corner of the garden around which late summer fruits and vegetables riot. Above, stars wink then extinguish as the sun rises.
Once, Grandmere had explained the stars. Seemingly tiny smudges of light from unimaginable ages distant. Suspended like bright feathers, yet dense and pulsing like a heartbeat. Our sun is a star, she’d said, but Liv could not reconcile its blinding heat with night’s ice blue and black until Grandmere’s death yesterday. Now, she is both numb and hot with grief.
Unsheathing her knife, she crosses to a tree and cuts several apples to add to the supplies in her sack, then with its dull edge scoops ashes into an earthen jar. She seals it tight and secures it beneath her tunic. Ahead, the path from their door wends through the garden to a narrow opening in the fieldstone wall and the thick forest beyond.
They will come from that direction, Grandmere said, Liv’s soothing tonic slurring her words. Friend and foe. You must be ready.
But how will I know? A lifetime ago, she thinks. I’ve never been farther than the next mountain.
You’ll know, child. You’ll hear me, even after.
Through the thick canopy of trees, footsteps crunch fallen limbs and leaves like bones.
Liv’s knife hand trembles.
Great-great Grand’Mere, at least. Older than the Great Melt and the floods and the Green Fire before. A hundred years at least before Liv’s birth. The settlement that they called home lay scarce and scattered throughout the valley, its population mainly children and young adults. Like hothouse flowers, most bloomed too quickly then faded, still vulnerable to radioactive fallout from that first fatal explosion.
She’d told Liv her stories until Liv knew them like her own blood and pulse. How in the Time Before Grandmere and her schoolmates saw the plumes of fire and ash rain annihilating poison. Even when the other nuclear plants exploded, dominoes toppled by bloodlusting enemies, the children thought it was an adventure. Until their driver vomited a stream of red across the wheel and died, sending their school bus crashing into the woods.
TMI, the ancient woman said. The first one. She lay propped in bed beneath a pile of blankets while Liv crushed berry seeds into a fine powder. Finished, she scrubbed their dust from her fingers and methodically scraped beneath her nails. Mortar and pestle she carried to the hearth, sprinkling its contents into the pot whose steam plastered damp strands across her cheek. Sweat ran like tears between her shoulders. Despite the summer heat, Grandmere shivered.
Don’t breathe it, child. The fumes–
I know, Grandmere. You’ve taught me well. The broth turned dull brown as she stirred. Finished, she hooked the wooden paddle alongside the hearth and studied the flames. TMI? What did it stand for?
I’ve forgotten, if I ever knew. Too Much Information, I always thought. Those men who dreamed of evolution and created bombs instead. Like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Her voice was thin and quavery. Metallic, as if pounded flat and vibrating against the blacksmith’s hammer.
Or Pandora? Another of her Grandmere’s tales. Like an embrace, protection from a bleak and troubling world.
Hunh. Don’t blame her. The gods made that box. Like Eve, everyone blames the woman. They tell you what they want you to know. What about the snake? Everyone forgets the snake.
Liv turned. Childhood’s imagination had danced with lost worlds she ached to recreate. Until Grandmere made her impossible request. What’s a school, she asked instead. What’s a bus? A childhood refrain. Now, she knew the answers as well as her own name. Liv. Both invocation and command.
But Grandmere explained yet again. She and one of the troublemaker boys had taken charge of the survivors. Children like themselves. The youngest five, the eldest no more than twelve.
David, said Liv, smiling. Grandpere. She dragged a stool bedside and sat. His memory was more parent than her own, gone in the first frost of her infancy. They’d developed blood pox, red balloons beneath their skin that inflated then burst and drowned its victims in an inexorable tide. Grandmere had eased their passing.
Who’s telling this story, child? Your time is coming.
She shook her head. I’m too young yet. I can’t–
You’re old enough. Old as I was when the Green Fire roared, eating our city and the ones beyond.
Like a monster?
The worst kind. It belched a green smoke that settled in the water and clung to the air we breathed. Some it killed, some…. Death would have been simpler.
Liv shuddered. The Scavengers, descendants of those corrupted children. By day they slept, drinking the sun. From dusk through dawn, they glowed yellow-green and hunted. Grandmere they feared, their ancient, in-bred superstitions reading her wisdom as sorcery. They skittered like squirrels in the treetops surrounding the cabin but dared not breach its grey-walled boundary. Others…They weren’t so lucky.
The radiation changed us all, the ancient woman said. Me, it made nearly immortal. Once upon a time, when I was a child and not… She waved a blue-veined hand. This.
She coughed and spat into a red-stained cloth. Liv stood and poured water from a pitcher, bringing it to her side. She held the cup to Grandmere’s lips.
She struggled to sit upright. I’m not dead yet, child. I can drink. Though when the time comes….
Liv shook her head. I can’t just–
You can. And you must. She grasped the cup and sipped. Soon. Now, you must listen. I haven’t told the whole of it.
Liv moved the stool closer, setting the cup at her feet. In the absence of the books she’d loved once upon a time, Grandmere had grown adept at reading her world and its occupants. Like a magic potion, her stories from the Times Before and Since burrowed beneath her skin and made her something she would not otherwise have been. The fallout’s conscience and its guide. Its Protector.
Not just me, child. David as well. In the Time Before, he used to hunt and fish and hike our northern mountains with his father and brothers. He taught me at least as much as I taught him. Those who were not turned owed their survival to him.
Even the Scavengers?
Even they. Though we’d much cause later to regret our benevolence. After the Melt, Sunfire dried the lakes and streams and set the woods aflame. Food was scarce, water even scarcer. Everywhere survivors turned to war, the Travellers told us. But here we banded together. David… The old woman’s eyes glistened.
Liv wove their fingers together and settled beside her on the bed. I know, Grandmere. You needn’t speak it yet.
But I must face it. You’ll see, that which is not faced will chase you, sure as the sun rises from the east. She cleared her throat. That they could be so brutal to one so kind… You must be careful, child, when you go. The Travellers will help you, but stay vigilant. The Scavengers are the worst of us in every way.
Liv bit her lip. She could never be as brave as Grandmere. Never as strong.
You don’t know yet what you can do. I was not always as you see me now, child. Bravery is a skill that must be cultivated and strength the fruit it bears.
But what you’re asking…How can I… Her voice cracked. A world without Grandmere was as foreign as the Time Before.
She drew Liv to her and stroked her hair as she wept. There there, child. It’s my time. If not today, then soon. And you must arrive before the snows. Before the Scavengers know I’m gone. I can’t keep you safe, then.
She shook her head. There is no other way.
The broth bubbled in its pot as Liv’s tears slowed then stopped. I’m sorry. I should have…
Should have, nothing. It is I who should be sorry. Look at me.
Liv sat up, drying her eyes on her sleeve. Grandmere’s eyes beneath her wrinkled lids were sea-green like her own.
We are alike in more than sorrow. More than just the color of our eyes. I never told you…. When the Travellers came through last spring, they brought whispers of others. There are more like me, I think. Like you.
Me? I’m not–
You are, no matter your fear. You hear me when I do not speak aloud, as I hear you. Have you never noticed our people’s awe? They are drawn to you, to our stories, as they are drawn to me. You will be an Ancient One. A Protector. You need to find the others. Her lungs rattled as she breathed. Refill my cup, child. Please.
Liv crossed to the hearthside table on which the water pitcher sat. The Travellers, a group of ten or so, had stopped along the path outside the wall as she acted out Grandmere’s stories to the settlement children, bowing to her as they passed. Their reverence made her feel both small and vast. Frightened. Like stones skipped across a pond, sinking, the Travellers had disappeared but lingered in the shadows of her knowing. After, Grandmere grew quiet, studying Liv as they had done. Deciding. Behind her eyes rose the image of the place Grandmere once called home. To where some were rumored to be rebuilding. For weeks, she had drawn its planes in the air until Liv could read the map as clearly as if printed in one of Grandmere’s fabled, long lost books. But this story had no certain ending. Its words trailed off unseen, unknown, like the meandering path from their door.
Not just a path, child. A trail. The Appalachian Trail, it was called. Like a river it carried wanderers from the country’s head to its feet Before. David knew its markings. He led us here, away from the winds. The Travellers use it still. They–
Violent coughing choked her words. Once more Liv offered the cup. This time, Grandmere drank without protesting, head bent, her scalp an oozing blackish red that stained the pillows behind as Liv braced her heels to steady her feeble bulk. Soon, it would be time. She saw herself lift the ladle from its hook, fill it from the pot, and pour.
Grandmere? You said you weren’t always brave. I need to hear the story.
Her gaze tracked the corners of the room, then settled on the hearth. David, she confessed, it’s my fault he was killed. Pregnant with the child who lived, Grandmere who wasn’t Grandmere then but Livvy, tired and sick and weak with hunger, forgot to tend the fires whose smoke dulled the Scavengers’ violent appetites. She and their firstborn awoke to screams. Warnings first, then screams of horror. David’s then hers as first the father then the son were devoured like prey as she watched. I froze, she said. I knew what to do but I could not do it, and in that moment they were gone. Fear became rage. I killed the one with our child’s heart between his teeth. Sliced his head clean off. The others scattered.
She refused to cry, penance for her unforgivable sin, and built a pyre on which she burned their remains. Their mingled ashes she scattered on the mountains David loved, the newborn he would never see strapped to her chest. I bore her that night, to witness my shame. The Scavenger? I dragged his body around our wall to warn the others. And when your great-grandmother was weaned, I hunted them while they slept. I’ve killed them by the hundreds. She turned to Liv.
And you must do the same.
They will come from that direction. Grandmere’s warning beats in time with Liv’s racing pulse.
Fear can also be a fuel, the old woman had said. Let it burn. Liv, she’d called her. No more a child. Her death was like the sleep she’d promised, when she asked Liv to prepare the foxglove brew. And like Grandmere had done for her own and too many others, Liv built a pyre and wrapped her body in a cloth that smoked, then flamed throughout the night.
She tightens her fist to steady the knife and with her other hand retrieves the alcohol-soaked torch Grandmere had insisted that she make, thrusting its rag-end against a glowing ember. It flares with a whoosh whose sparks singe the flesh between her fingers.
The steps grow louder. Friend or foe? The forest hides its secrets.
Body cocked, Liv turns to face the fallout.