Out of the Badlands: Part 8:
I should have worried about radiation. The thing is, it’s invisible, tasteless, odorless, and—unless you start displaying the acute symptoms like puking up your guts or bleeding out your mouth and ears—you don’t even know you’ve had a bad dose until your sores stop healing and your hair falls out. Low doses can mess with you, too.
The other thing about radiation is that it doesn’t have the urgent immediacy of a shambling, weaving gang of things you used to know as people, trying to corner you so they can bash you into an edible pulp. I’m a survivor, so obviously I avoided becoming dinner. I thought I’d avoided the radiation, too. More on that later.
Before the next wave of rain came, Faustus had guided us to the ranch he’d mentioned before, and we’d settled in. He’d been right about the long walk, a trek made more difficult at first by the sticky mud the rains had left behind, and then by choking dust as the mud dried, and the wind whipped across crazed surfaces.
I thought it was strange that there were no bodies at the ranch. A family had lived there, and the place was remote enough that you’d think it would have been safe from whatever the planes had sprayed on the Terrible Day, and yet there was no one. The house lay as though its inhabitants had, with one mind, simply walked out the front door and not returned.
They had not had the presence of mind to release their livestock, sadly. Rotting blankets of wool lay in corners of a pen near the house, undisturbed bones sprawled beneath them. The mummy of a horse, similarly, the stark white of its jawbone gaping as though reaching for the bite of food that might have saved its life, lay in a stall. There had been parakeets in the house, too. We spent several days removing all these to a distance from the house. The bones burned like wood; the wool burned reluctantly, filling the air with its reek.
Thanks to the recent rains, the cistern on the house was brimming. Faustus climbed up and poured bleach into it. He poured a lot of bleach in, explaining that the chemical didn’t keep its potency long once opened. He wasn’t even sure it was going to do any good.
We didn’t have a lot of options for cooking fuel. There were more trees here than back near the town, but all we had to cut them with was our own muscle power and hand-saws. Faustus began dragging back a dead trunk or two per day and piling them in one of the abandoned pens. I took over at that point, chopping away the branches and storing what I could salvage in the dead horse’s stall. We had to be careful with every swing of the axe, though: one mis-strike, and the blade could take off a toe or bury itself it a shin-bone. After they were limbed, we took turns sawing them into rounds the hard, brutally exhausting way. I used to hear it said that a woodpile warmed you three times. I’m pretty sure it’s more than that.
After a day spent in the ranch’s shop, putting together something I didn’t recognize from a couple of big metal canisters, Faustus appeared in front of me with his creation in his arms and an expression of immense satisfaction. “Here you go!”
“Er, okay. Thank you. What is it?”
“A fuel-efficient stove. Don’t burn that pile of branches. You can put them in here. Even the twigs.”
I peered into the very small fuel chamber. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“I do, or I wouldn’t be here.” Well, that came out harsher than it was meant to, considering I had walked into his life and not vice versa.
He grunted. “I like you, too,” he said.
I blushed. I swear, I never blush. Heat radiated from my chest and face as from tarmac, and I turned away from him. If he noticed, though, he gave no sign. He just set the little stove down at my feet and walked back out of the house. When I went after him a moment later, I saw him heading out for more wood, saw in hand. I took that for my cue, and went back to limbing the ones he’d already brought. It looked like he meant to stay a long time.
Before the rains came again, we went out in search of sheep. At one time, there had been something like seventy-five million sheep grazing our continent. We knew they weren’t all dead, because we’d seen them in the distance any number of times. The trick was getting close enough to catch them. Now, sheep are stupid, but they’re smart enough to know a human walking up to them isn’t a rock, or a bush, and four feet can outrun two feet any day of the week on any terrain.
Enter: lambing season. A ewe might run away from you, but a spindle-legged little lamb won’t, and anyway it can’t. If you pick up the lamb—or better yet, twins—and do a football carry under your arm, the ewe will follow, blatting anxiously the whole time. I wasn’t too worried about finding a ram, personally. The odds were on our side that at least one of the lambs we brought in would be a male, and assuming we could keep any of them alive for any length of time, the whole problem of having a ready and willing male would correct itself eventually.
We brought in four ewes and their five lambs, and almost the first thing I did was put the shears I’d picked up in town to work, divesting the mamas of their heavy wooly burdens. I didn’t know anything about shearing, but I figured anything I did would be better than nothing. From the relief they seemed to feel afterward, I think I was right. I didn’t know anything about spinning wool, and I wasn’t interested in it, but I figured if nothing else, I could use the lanolin from the wool for dry skin, or make comfortable mattresses, or something.
Then the rains came again. The sheep huddled unhappily in the space remaining in the horse’s stall. I fed them leftover hay. I don’t know where the hay originally had come from, and it stood to reason we’d never get our hands on any more, and besides, the stuff was so bleached that it looked more like straw than hay, but the sheep had to eat something.
I rattled around the house, listening to the rain pummeling the roof and keeping busy with repairs. We couldn’t cook inside the house, because the smoke from the little hobo stove, as he called it, was incompatible with the quality of life I’d come to expect from breathing, so one of us had to sit on the covered porch and poke bits of wood in. We also spent a lot of time tediously splitting the logs into small, hot-burning pieces. I saw the value of the hobo stove, but it made me long for the days of just digging up grubs, I can tell you.
I remembered the old days, when after a long day of whatever—working in an office, or waiting tables—you’d go home and vegetate in front of the television set until the clock said it was time to go to bed. There was no television anymore—or radio—or electricity, for that matter—although if we’d had a solar charger, we could at least have charged batteries to run a radio in case there ever was anything to hear, like official voices reassuring us that everything would be back to normal soon. Anyway, by the time the sun went down every day, we were both so exhausted that we washed our faces and the backs of our necks, old-timey style, ate whatever we’d managed to cook up—I was using the grain from the horse’s feed been to eke out the stuff we’d brought from the town until the rains were over and we could go foraging again—so our meals were generally of the ‘gag this down and hope it has calories in it’ variety—and fell into our beds. He had taken the master bedroom. I didn’t care. I was in a kid’s room with cheerful flowery wallpaper. And that was it. We were like an old married couple, sort of.
And then, we discovered we weren’t alone.