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September 26, 2022

String

By Sand Pilarski

We lost David last week. As near as we could figure, from the 1998 edition of Reader's Digest Medical Dictionary, it was tetanus, and it was gross, seeing him suffer, the spasms, the drool, the incontinence. He must have got it from tilling the garden he and Barry had dug along the edge of the meadow, or maybe he had dirty fingernails and scratched a bug-bite one wrong time. Everybody freaked out, because David was young and strong and confident about our survival. Now he's gone, buried up on the north side of the pasture, away from the spring and where we live.

David and Barry dug out the house when we came here; God knows how we would have managed to survive if they hadn't been paranoid freaks and ordered how-to books from the library and scouted out this area. They picked this place because it was far from any roads, and had a long, grassy pasture up against the woods. When the hospitals first started turning people away, they came up here with thick sheets of plastic and redwood (shipped from trees in Oregon all the way across country to the hardware store, isn't that a gas?) and started burrowing into the south face of the hill, shoring up and sealing and making a cave that would be cool enough in summer to keep vegetables and warm enough in winter for us to huddle together and not freeze to death.

In fact, we'd probably all be dead if it wasn't for those two. Barry stole the six sheep and brought them here in his truck, then went back for the ram (an animal I hate with a passion) and some kind of feed so that the sheep would hang around and get used to us. His sister Laurie made pets out of them -- that's why we can set them out in the meadow to graze, and at night, they come back in with her. The sweet feed is long gone, but those sheep always hope she'll surprise them with treats.

Monica was the one who got us the chickens. She was dating David -- well, 'dating' isn't really the right word, with so many people dying around us; maybe 'clinging to' David is more apropos. Monica bought a dozen chicks from the feed store in Boreal, and raised them in her living room until David had a hen-house built up here. She and Laurie and Mike were the first ones to live here with the chickens and sheep while the rest of us dithered and hoped the government would step in and save us all.

Mike was a gun man, with a compound bow, a shotgun, some pistols, and a rifle with a scope, plus a ton of ammunition, so he became our security. He slept in the daylight, but stood guard at night. David said we had to get established here as soon as possible, because things would get really weird and dangerous before the end. Mike was convinced, so much so that he hijacked a pallet of boxes of firelogs -- the kind you could burn if you didn't have real wood -- for use as fire-starters, plus a case of strike-anywhere matches. Probably the hardware depot would have fired him for that, but he never went back. He helped David and Barry dig out the storage area for the logs, the matches, and the propane bottles, as those were supposed to be separate from our sleeping cave.

David was right; things got really nasty and surreal at the end. Maybe it was the stink of the bodies unburied when there got to be so many more of them than of the living; maybe it was that there was no radio or TV or internet that made people go crazy. I don't know, and don't care to know. The gang of us on our court that had tried to stick together just piled into the Dewey's van (both of the Dewey's were dead in their bedroom) and set off for our hill.

Obviously, no one had followed us, or else we wouldn't be so ... comfortable here. We had abandoned the van a day's walk from the path through the woods, pitching the vehicle off through a guard rail into a ravine, hiking the rest of the way through the woods in October, freezing our asses off in our effort to go unnoticed by the rampaging looters, each of us packing as much as we could carry.

It worked. Domenic, Laurie, Monica, David, Barry, Mike, Sydney, Jeannine, old Bethie, and I made it through the first two years. We had our sheep and our chickens, our burrow and our hoarded blankets. We did okay the first winter, and then in the spring we planted seeds, in the strip garden under the verges of the trees. Bethie told us what to plant, and how to dry what we planted. She remembered that junk from when she was a kid, when she said her family always had a garden.

Mike and David sneaked all the way back into the city to a gun shop to get a silencer that would work on Mike's rifle, and a night scope. They didn't want any kind of shot to echo through the quiet air and give our position away. Mike stood guard in the good growing weather, not only against the possibility of human intruders, but against the ravaging deer that raided our thin little garden. We got some corn, some peas, some squash ... and so much dried venison that we got tired of eating it. But it did nourish us, as long as we had it along with raccoon fat.

That was Bethie, too, who told us that the deer meat, and the sheep, would be too lean, but the raccoon fat would make it okay. "You eat deer like it is, your teeth rot right out of your head and your bones break," she said. "You need a pig or you get them damn raccoons for the fat."

David and Barry refused to have anything to do with pigs. They said they were vicious if not tamed, and the disease vector was unacceptable, the trichinosis, you know. Bethie was relieved. She'd had a pet pig when she was a girl, and never ate a piece of pork since; she said that a pig was too intelligent for an intelligent person to kill.

Luckily for us, the raccoons found our garden irresistible, so we had a constant supply.

More than anything else we have had to do, I wish I could avoid tanning animal hides. David insisted that we do every hide from every raccoon and deer we killed. He and Barry agreed that in five or six years, we could try contacting people again, and we'd need some kind of trade goods. Animal skins, reasonably cured, would be like money.

"You really think people are gonna be that desperate?" Domenic asked in the dark of the cave where we wadded ourselves together for warmth in the long, cold winter.

"Think about it," David said. "There's hardly any trucks carrying canned goods by now, and if they did try to haul a load, they'd just get hijacked unless they had an armed convoy. The gas has run out by now -- that stuff came in by tanker truck, too. No canned stuff on the shelf, no Keebler cookie shipments from the factory, you know what was happening already! Looters were breaking in every house, you told me that yourself, and there wasn't any safe place to hole up in town.

"If I was going to make a safe place in the city, I'd take a canned goods warehouse and load it with bolts of fabric -- with liquor, with batteries, with as much firepower as I could muster, get an army to stand guard ... like living in a friggin' castle back in the Dark Ages. And along would come some warlord wannabe and take it from me, not caring about what damage was done, just to get a little bit of the goodies for his own army. Those nutcases don't think about preserving stuff for the sake of humanity -- they just want to eat and keep their own selves warm, and to hell with everyone else.

"Dude, we have to wait it out. No more cars, no more ATM's, no more penicillin. Those loonies were torching everything, everything after they cleaned out what they wanted. That's the end of civilization out there. "

Bethie muttered, "It's the end of civilization in here, too, unless you call sleeping in a heap on a dirt floor civilized."

"Shit, Bethie," Barry said from close by. "You think you'da had a twenty-seven year old man snuggled up against you back in the Civilized days?"

"No, Barry, that's what made them Civilized."

I suppose that after a while, we wouldn't mind the smell of the hides, because we didn't smell like the mall perfume counter ourselves. Deodorant hadn't been on our survival shopping list; soap was, but not the scented kind, the antibacterial kind -- we used it for our hands and for scratches and that was it. It was precious.

Too bad it wasn't of enough value to save David.

Value was the second goal of our exile. First, of course, was survival, but David and Barry had planned a re-entry into the outer world. The hides were part of it; the experience of growing vegetables was another, but the sheep were going to provide our barter, in wool, in lambs. The first spring, we ate the male lambs after they were weaned, but the whole garden/tanning/wood gathering/weeding/cursing/crying experience left us behind in schedule, so we hadn't sheared the sheep. This spring the sheep were clotted with wool, and looked like dirty wobbling clouds floating around the pasture. We knew we couldn't put off harvesting wool any longer.

Laurie held the sheep's heads while Domenic and Barry used Fiskars scissors to snip at the wool. Domenic was the "expert" in this -- he'd been a hair stylist back in Civilization. We women wondered why the men took the job of shearing, until the job was done, and we were called into action to gather and twist the wool into little logs, and then bind them together with string. Like just about everything else, the job stunk.

We all stunk. Never before in our lives had we women had hairy armpits and legs; none of us had ever before had to carry the smell of sweat of hard work and fear with us day in and day out. We could tell who was who in the dark sleeping cave just by our smell, like dogs.

Separating each trimmed fleece in half (Barry insisted a year's worth of wool was one unit, and since the original sheep had two years' worth of wool being trimmed ... ) and then trying to wad it into some kind of package was a two- or three-person job. We had to carry the fleeces one at a time from the shearing, then plop it all down on a cleared dirt floor, measure it out, pull it apart into two equal halves (Barry said if we used the fleece for barter our traders would insist on uniformity) and then tie it up. Only before we started, we all realized we had no string to tie up the bundles.

Sydney and Jeannine volunteered the pajamas and dresses they'd packed (the teenaged idiots) and naturally, had no reason to use, seeing as we had no bedroom or parties to speak of, so we cut them into strips and braided them with young green wild grapevines, as suggested by Bethie. That worked, but it was barely enough, and we wondered what we'd use the following spring, when the little ewes were full-sized, and we'd have more than double the amount of wool to harvest and store.

Those two girls were the biggest burden in our group -- neither one had half a clue about how to cook anything, wash anything, observe anything! Bethie delivered a major slapping and kicking on Jeannine when she brought back a big circle of wrapped green vines; she and Sydney were supposed to get grapevines, but Jeannine had harvested poison ivy. She said she thought the leaves looked the same. My God, they were a stupid pair. The two of them were out of commission for a full week while they waited out the drying of the blisters on their skin that resulted from their inability to match a grape leaf with another grape leaf. Why the hell David had brought them along was beyond me, at least for a while.

"You had any since we got here?" Monica asked me, while we tried to pack the fog of wool into compact bundles.

"Yeah, I've had plenty," I mumbled. "Plenty of bites: tick, mosquito, chigger, deerfly, and chicken. I've had plenty of sore muscles, dirt, and days when I was so tired I couldn't sleep at night I was so tired. Plenty of nightmares. Plenty of wishing I was dead instead of surviving."

"You know what I mean," Monica hissed. "Any sex?"

"No. I stink so bad and have so many layers of dirt on me that even a Viking rapist would think twice about touching me." That and the fact that we had run out of toothpaste early on, Barry and David only being able to stretch their dollars so far before we left, and not having had much opportunity to steal five years' supply of it. I knew what I looked and smelled like.

"None of us have, then."

"None? No one?"

"None. When was the last time you ever heard of someone going two years without sex?"

"God. When I was eighteen, I think. I thought I was the only one up here on the outs ... well, me and Bethie."

"All of us. David stopped making love to me when he and Barry decided to run for it. He said he didn't want to risk a pregnancy if we were trying to make a survival camp. But have you ever heard of men not having sex if the women were willing? And don't you think we ought to be thinking about babies if we're going to survive? Unless 'surviving' means just dying of old age without ever having any goodies again." Monica was pale, her lips a papery pinkish-white.

I kept pushing on the wad of wool we were trying to force into the curvature dug out on the side of our storage cave. "Tie that side off, come on, hurry up! This shit is like greasy popcorn!"

She twisted the length of wild grapevine around and around itself, securing the end, then nudged me to move aside so that she could wrap the middle. "When I told Barry that the best we could do for binding this stuff was to gather vines, he told me we were going to have to learn to make string from grass or bark. How the hell are we supposed to do that?"

"I don't know."

"I don't know, either. When I asked him how we could do that, he just said, 'You've got a lot to learn in the next five years, then.' I wanted to slap him."

"He didn't need to say that. We all do." That and a lot more, so much more than we'd ever imagined we'd have to remember or learn or re-invent. We had in mind to live like a Middle Ages society with less than Stone Age skills. We might be able to recreate flint arrowheads -- if only any of us knew what flint looked like.

"But don't you see? We're gathering wool and packing it for barter years from now, and the hides, too. They're leaving us alone so that we can be barter, too. Women who can bear children."

"Bethie can't. She's too old."

Monica swore. "She also knows too much about how to make food. She's a national treasure. I think David loved her more than he did me."

I should have said, "That's ridiculous," but I couldn't. David had made sure Bethie had everything she wanted or said she needed. What was in Bethie's brain about survival was more important to him than Monica's plaintive invitations when he'd come back from the garden or the field for the day.

"In about five years, maybe seven, we'll be able to make contact with other people again. The virus will have played itself out, the gangs will have killed each other, and what's left will be people banded together to try to survive," David had murmured in the dark to help us through our first winter. "Then we can try to join up with others, but we'll have to have some kind of goods to put on the bargaining table."

He'd been speaking of hides, dried vegetables and jerky -- I thought. But suddenly I remembered the shows on TV about lions on the Nature's Way channel -- specifically that if a male lion finds a lioness to mate, with cubs that aren't his, he will kill all of them.

David hadn't wanted us to have children in case we joined up with another group. He wasn't collecting females for his pride, but he wanted them available so that we could join another pack of lions in the future. I could almost hear the negotiations: "We have five females of childbearing age, and one older woman who has a lot of knowledge, three strong men, and a cave-full of dried fruits and rolled wool."

Yes, we could possibly be invited to join a larger group on the basis of that alone.

"No, Monica, he didn't. He and Barry loved us all more than David loved any one person -- David did everything he knew how to do to make sure we kept on living."

"Tough on me, then," she said, and left the storage cave, wiping at her eyes.

The wool was done. I had no further responsibilities for the day. David would have had an extra plan, to make use of the lengthening days, but Barry didn't, at least not yet. So I leaned back on the tied bundles of wool and relaxed, then tensed again and sat up, worrying that I might break the cloth and vine strips that held them together.

I left the storage cave and found Bethie poking at a stew. "Conundrum stew," she said to me. "You have to guess which I put in first, the chicken or the eggs."

"Smells good -- different. Wool's done. Would have been done sooner if we'd had string."

"Look what I found: wild garlic. That's what you smell. I'm sorry, sweetie, if I had thought things through better, you could have tied up that wool with strings made from intestines. We've been throwing away a precious commodity and I never gave them a thought." She seemed genuinely distressed.

The thought at first disgusted me, but then hit me with its genius. Yards of stringy guts half buried in the months past would have made this wool-packing a breeze. "Indians of the Plains were supposed to have used every part of the buffalo," I mused. "Maybe Survivors of the Super-Flu need to figure out how to use every part of the raccoon."

She chortled and stirred at the pot. For a while we said nothing; I just handed her a piece of wood to poke into the fire. "Monica thinks -- and I guess I do, too -- that we young women are some kind of bargaining chip when we go back into the city. Are we just getting upset about nothing?"

Bethie turned and looked at me with hard eyes. "Girl, why the hell do you think I'm here? For my looks? There's only one reason for my share of this cave, and that's what I have in my head. I can't do hard labor, I can't have babies, I can't hunt game, but by God, I can cook just about anything, butcher just about anything, and I know how to sew, how to dry food, how to plant, and what weeds are good to eat.

"If we're to survive, we all have to have a purpose. Two years ago the world stopped being just a cute place to live. My bargaining chip was my brain. Altruism is a luxury in a world like we have now, you make your way with whatever you've got that someone else wants."

Blushing at her scolding tone of voice, I turned and walked away to the edge of the deep grass of the field. Aside from being able to take orders, and being a young woman, I had nothing anyone would want from me. I'd been a waitress, a barista at Jo-Jel's Lattes, and a cell-phone salesperson. I could add, subtract, and use a computer. 'Making my way' would be with a womb, and nothing more.

Back in the Civilized time, I'd always intended to go to college, once I got some money in the bank and knew what I wanted to do. The Super-Flu had overtaken me and all the colleges and put our plans to dust. Well, I had probably about four years before I went to the next 'job market.' I walked back to Bethie and had a look into the pot. It was a mixture I would never have thought to eat two years ago, but the stew looked plenty appetizing now. This was the real string we needed to begin tying things back together. Not firepower, not just heavy labor, not harems ... knowledge.

"Bethie, would you please teach me everything you know?"

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-05-24
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