Cathy idly watched her frosty breath condense on the tarp covering her dugout and snuggled deeper into the huddle of blankets. Vastly pleased with herself, she wriggled in comfort.
‘I don’t have to do nothin’,’ she thought. Nothing to do but lay here and daydream. No farm work. No worry and no being robbed and shot neither. It seemed an ideal situation. In the little log and dirt dugout she had hastily built were neatly stacked boxes of her home canned vegetables, three bushel baskets of apples and potatoes and cabbage and a sack of shell beans. There was room for a toilet bucket and a demijohn of water. She had everything she needed and there was nothing to do but enjoy herself thinking.
She tried to pinpoint when it had all started. Not with the bank holiday, things still held pretty good back then. It was most likely when Leo Grundlach, the township supervisor, came walking up the state road as she waited by the mailbox. She could see the Wallers, down the road near the bend, waiting, too. Mail had come every Monday for weeks now and if there was to be any, she didn’t want to miss it. She was a little antsy with Leo coming up because she was also trying to listen back to the house, to hear if the power came on. Generally they didn’t have it on more than an hour or two, and she didn’t want to miss even a minute, there was so much to do.
“Hey, Leo,” she said politely.
“How do,” he said with a look on his face like this was going to be something she didn’t want to hear. She liked Leo. A polite and respectful man, he was quick to promise anything you needed even though you’d never see it. A consummate crook and politician, he lent distinction to their little hamlet. “Waiting for the mail, I see.”
“Umm hmm.” Cathy was never one to waste words and besides, she could see he was wanting to talk.
“We’re going to have to make a change with the taxes, Cathy. Until they get the bank thing straightened out, the township is going to take taxes in kind. A cord of wood from every household, deliverable by the end of the month.”
“Leo, that’s not fair. You know you commandeered my gasoline two weeks ago for the snow plow. What am I to run the chainsaw on?”
“I know, I know. I don’t expect a woman your age to go at it with an ax. We’ll make an exception for you and let you pay in potatoes. I remember you saying back at the end of summer you had a bumper crop. I’ll send Paul and Johnny over to pick ‘em up this afternoon.”
Cathy thought quick and bit her lip. The township didn’t hesitate to condemn and take any property with unpaid taxes. And with Conyngham’s over across the way growing only hay and field corn, which you can’t really eat, hers was the only farm in the township growing real food. Other than her farm and Conyngham’s, and a scattering of houses, it was just miles of forest and the abandoned coal mine. So they’d seize her property in a hot minute if they could find any excuse.
“That’s fine, Leo. When are we going to get any gasoline in? I can’t run my tractor on air and there’s a crop to put in come spring.”
Leo nodded his head. “That’s true. I put in a request over to the county seat last week. You’ll get your gasoline back when it comes in and we’ll be getting another shipment of emergency food relief. We don’t expect you to feed us all on what you grow. Why, you wouldn’t have any left for your farmstand, would you?”
Cathy gave up on the mail and walked slowly back the lane, paused at the house and veered over to the barn. The barn cats, skinnier than ever, came out crying. It had been a long time since she had any catfood for them, but at least they kept the barn polished free of mice. She pulled back the tarp covering her potatoes; 7 bushel left, not counting the seed potatoes for spring planting. She had understood clearly what Leo didn’t say. He didn’t expect to get any food relief, there wouldn’t be any gasoline and he expected her to feed them all.
Time for action. She moved half of the potatoes and the apples to the old root cellar by the spring. Somebody would remember the root cellar before long, and they’d come for it, but not just yet. They’d be happy with what they got today for as long as it lasted. What would Leo being doing with the potatoes? Certainly not passing them out to the neighbors. No, he’d be feeding his family and Paul his son, the constable and Johnny his son in law, the code officer. His power base would have to be fed and four bushels of potatoes wouldn’t last long. They’d be back for more.
But that wasn’t the day things went haywire. No, things still seemed normal, just every day a little worse than the day before, the way it had been going for years. It must have been late in January when she heard shouting across the way. She pulled back the curtain to watch and listen. It was Larry Bonsell, the other township supervisor, along with four, maybe five of the fire department boys. Larry was fire chief and he was shouting at Leo. Paul came running up quick, his hand on his holster. Johnny came out of Leo’s house, followed by Suzy, Leo’s daughter and the kids.
‘Fire department hasn’t been getting their share of the goods, looks like,’ Cathy thought.
There was pushing and cursing and then Paul ran the fire department boys off at gunpoint. ‘Well, at least they got gasoline,’ she said meditatively, as the fire truck pulled away, screeching. It wasn’t no hour till it came roaring back and the boys jumped off the truck, every one with a hunting rifle cocked and loaded and without stopping they shot Paul and Leo. Leo went down, surprised like, blood oozing from the side of his head. Paul just crumpled. Suzy started screaming and Larry swiveled and trained his gun on her. Johnny quick threw his hands up as the kids started to cry. Everything seemed to stand still for an instant, Leo’s dapper body on the ground and the firemen and family staring in disbelief. Then Larry barked an order and the boys marched Johnny and the rest of Leo’s family off down the road. And from then on things weren’t normal no more.
‘That’s when I knew,’ Cathy thought. ‘That’s when I come up here on the mountain to build the dugout.’ She had always had a way of knowing, seemed like, more than other people. It wasn’t something to be talked about, but it was there. Was it something she noticed first the summer she had told Carl, her husband, that she wanted raspberries planted along the fence at the bottom of the property?
“No, raspberries are a world of work, you have to order the canes and get them in by fall and even if they take there’s thorns,” he said, protesting.
Then winter set in and a long, cold one it was, and pneumonia that spring. By May, when she was out and about, here there was a row of raspberries growing fine and fancy along the lower fence with young raspberries big as thimbles. She ran to hug Carl but he didn’t know nothing about it. He was as surprised as she was to see them.
‘But that wasn’t necessarily anything extraordinary, was it? That could just have been the work of birds, dropping raspberry seeds as they perched on the fence. That’s the natural rewards you reap from being in harmony with nature, right? Let the birds eat your spilled grain, and they’ll do for you? But how to explain the oak tree? Last year she suddenly knew the oak tree was coming down, and she got Carl to move the tractor quick and it wasn’t no half hour till CRACK and then BOOM and the old monster came crashing down. That could have a scientific explanation too, couldn’t it? Like maybe subsonic cracking noises she had picked up on?’ She was always real good to listen and pay attention the way most people never do. That’s how she knew the day before Carl had his heart attack. Tiny details of listening. Of course, by then the ambulance service had gone out of business so there wasn’t nothing could be done.
“I wish I could have taken physics in high school,” she said aloud. If she could only understand time. Time kept nagging at her. The thin wisps, the whisperings of the future that sometimes drifted across her vision. What was that? “I’m not stupid, I ought to be able to figure it out if I just think it through.” Somebody said once, somebody like Lao T’se, that from two facts or from three the whole universe can be deduced. Just marshall the facts. Think it through. She whistled and whirls of her frosty breath drifted across the dugout.
Everything has an explanation. What seems supernatural is very natural if you just understand the science behind it. So what was time? What does time do? It scours away the past, for one thing. Her evil stepfather, no trace of him or his evil remained. Fifty years ago the good and beautiful forest roundabout was a barren moonscape of black coal waste and stripping holes. How quickly the earth healed itself once the mining was abandoned. The good, the permanent is polished by time. Is time a cleansing agent? Does it exist to right the universe? And what about her time sense? It couldn’t just be her, other people had to have it too. Maybe they just don’t pay attention to it.
‘Or maybe they do, and just can’t bear it.’ Do they sense the Big Quiet coming? Does it unnerve them? Maybe they have known all along. Maybe like a spool of thread unwinding, the last bit of thread leaving the spool with nothing to follow, they feel their unconnectedness to the future? That would mean they are sensing their own death. That would explain the drugs and the frenetic attachment to devices, music, tv, anything to blot out the sensing. Cathy could certainly feel the Big Quiet coming, a long time now. Last time she was in town, the noise, the traffic, the commotion of people all seemed as wispy and unreal as an afterimage. It was the Big Quiet that kept bearing down on her. ‘But I don’t feel unconnected. I don’t feel my death coming.’ Strange. What did it mean?
And now Leo and Paul were gone, and the young fire department guys were trying to run things. But guts and a gun don’t give you the skill to govern, to get people to do what you want, to keep them in line. Other people had guns too and were hungry. Cathy could hear gunfire now and then from the comfort of her dugout, bursts of shots ricocheting across the valley, followed by other bursts. Some days it was just a single shot, a more ominous sound, like an execution. Was this how the Big Quiet was coming? Shot by shot until they were all gone? Every man’s hand against his brother? Or was something more to follow?
She would have been content to lay there and work it all out but she heard a faint voice yelling in the distance.
“Mom! Mom! Where are you?”
Reluctantly, Cathy wiggled out of the dugout and trudged down the mountain. Her daughter kept calling but she didn’t answer till she was in sight of the back field. She didn’t want to give her dugout away.
“There you are! Mom, you’re a mess! Where have you been? What’s going on?”
Sandy, her elegant city daughter, was a mess too. Beside Clyde, her husband, she had brought friends, Benny and Anita and their two children. They had enough gas to get a hundred miles on the road, and had walked the last thirty. They were hungry and after hugs Cathy went to work cooking onions and apples, fried potatoes and cabbage. While they ate, Cathy heated water and they all had a good wash. Gathering around the woodstove, they brought each other up to date.
Sandy said things were terrible in the city. Cathy said the same was true, here, too. She told them she had been hiding in the woods.
“We’ll be getting a knock on the door soon. They’ll see the smoke from the chimney and know I’m back in my house. I’m the only one has any food except for anybody who’s gotten a deer. But I imagine they’ve been too busy shooting each other to do much hunting. None of you has any guns, do you? Good. That will save our lives.”
The knock came right then and Cathy politely let Tim Miller and the Peters boy in. Both had rifles and looked angry and scared.
“How’s your mother, Timmy? You remember Sandy from school? This is her husband and friends come to help me farm. Without gasoline for my tractor I’m going to need all the hands I can get. Care to come in for a bite? We don’t have much but you’re welcome to share. Pull up a chair.”
The young men looked at each other doubtfully. Hunger won out and they sat down and ravenously piled into the potatoes. The children stood in silence, staring at the guns propped up against their chairs. Time ticked slow until they were done eating. The Peters boy spoke first. He wiped his mouth on his hand and said, “We got to search for weapons. All firearms are confiscated.”
“Sure, help yourself.” Cathy showed them through the house and asked if they’d like to search the barn. They said yes and went on out.
“That was scary,” said Sandy.
“It’s not over yet. They’re going to argue about coming back in and demanding food. Tim will wind up shooting the other boy. Or maybe the other way around. We’ll have to bury the body.”
“How do you know that?” Benny asked in amazement.
“My mother just knows these things. Keep the kids away from the windows.” Sandy angled herself so she could see out but be out of the direct line of fire.
A shot rang out. Another minute and Tim knocked on the door. “ I got two little kids and they don’t have nothing to eat.” He was red faced and apologetic. “I’m sorry, but Ronnie Peters wanted to kill you and take your food.”
“Yes, I know, Timmy. You’re welcome to everything we have. Of course the children have to eat. It will be lean times for us all till we can get the seed in the ground next month.” Cathy urged the basket of potatoes into his hands. “Thanks for looking out for us, Timmy. Who ever thought it would come to this?”
Tim agreed and left.
“So that’s what passes for order these days? That kid is running things now?” Clyde seemed dumbfounded.
“For the next day or two until somebody takes him out. Listen, you can control interactions with people if you initiate it and set the tone like I just did, so remember and jump in quick to start down the track you want. Or let me do it. Main thing is, we’ll be safe now. And they know they need us at least until we get the crop in. But there’s something else we need to talk about. There’s a big change coming. Can you feel it?”
Sandy nodded. “You been telling us for years. And it’s here now.”
“No, not this. Something more. This is ending, something new is about to begin.”
“I felt it since the end of October.” Clyde shivered. “Something about death, death everywhere.”
“Everybody feels that in October. That’s most likely our genetic memory of the last die-off. El Dia de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead. There’s a reason why the whole world commemorates last of October, first of November. A watery cataclysm that swept an ancient civilization away. It’s in the folk stories of people all around the world.” Anita nodded solemnly.
Cathy agreed. “This is like that. We’re on the cusp of it. And here’s what we have to do. There are laws of the universe, laws as unyielding as gravity. Stay in harmony with the laws. Don’t resort to violence, to threat, to anger. Stay peaceful, work the land. Stay connected, in harmony. Listen carefully. Listen and obey. Our salvation will come from waiting quietly in our place. We will all get through this.”
Sandy said, “My mother has a way of being right about these things.”
“Well, what choice do we have, anyway?” Clyde looked to Benny and then Anita for agreement.
And then as if to make a liar out of Cathy, the next day the old world struck back. Three trucks pulled up in front of Leo’s old house, now Tim Miller’s headquarters, and a bunch of National Guard jumped out. A lieutenant went on in to talk to Tim and when they came out the lieutenant got on a loudspeaker and called for everyone to report for duty in fifteen minutes.
“We’re here to collect your state and federal taxes. All taxes have been transmuted to labor hours at a uniform flat rate. Go get your shovels and report to the Allen mine within one hour. You will receive your labor assignments there. Dismissed.”
“Tim, they want us to work digging coal? Will they be feeding us? Joe is as weak as a kitten and I’m not much better.” Betty Waller had gotten rail thin and Joe looked like he could barely stand up let alone work.
Tim shrugged. “Orders is orders. Who’s to tell them no?” He nodded towards the heavily armed men. He went into the garage and came out with a shovel.
“Women and kids, too.” The Lieutenant ordered him back into the house to fetch his family. Tim looked like he’d like to say something but didn’t dare.
“Let’s go.” Cathy led her family back to the barn to collect the tools. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t see this coming and I don’t know why. Just when you figure it’s over, it gets another little gasp of life. But don’t resist the evil day. Yield and let it roll over you.”
There were only about twenty people left to make the walk back the old dirt road to the mine. Half were kids. They were put to work breaking the scattered boulders of coal strewn about and shoveling the bits onto the trucks. By nightfall they were all staggering and were sent home with orders to report at daybreak. Exhausted and filthy, Cathy trudged up the mountain to her secret stash to fetch some food. When she reached the dugout, wispy filaments began drifting across her vision, whispering, whispering. There was something about the stillness of the place, perhaps the magneticity of the rocks that made this spot a special place where the future leached through like light seeping under a closed door. She listened until it dissipated in the moonlight.
She came back to the house with a sack of shell beans and a grim face. The others cooked while she cleaned up. After they ate she softly said, “Leave everything. We’re going to wait till the moon sets and then we’re going to file out of here, quietly, quietly, one by one and head up the mountain. I have a hideout up there.”
Clyde looked up, worried. “They said they’d shoot anybody who didn’t report tomorrow. I believe them. We can’t hide forever. There’s only one more truck to fill and then they’ll be gone.”
Cathy shook her head. “We have to hide tomorrow. The rock face is going to fall. Not a soul is going to make it out of there alive. I don’t know how. I don’t know if they’re going to try to dynamite or if it’s just a fault in the rock face. But nobody who goes there tomorrow is coming back.”
Terrified and with sore and aching muscles, Cathy led them up the mountain, stumbling over roots and through briars in frigid darkness until they reached the dugout.
“Ah, Mom, it’s just a hole in the mud,” Sandy cried with dismay.
“It is, but it will keep us safe and warm. Now squeeze down through that hole. You first. We’ll all have to sit, there isn’t room to lie down.” And after they were all in, with the branches pulled back into place to cover the opening, she began to talk quietly.
“The way I figure it, at least what I always heard, was that time is a property of the universe. Which means that when the universe was formed, so was time. All of it. I know, I know, it keeps on expanding. But the future exists no less than the present. Think of the universe as a house and the future as a room that you haven’t gone into yet. You know it’s there, the structure is there, but you’re not in it yet. You can’t see what’s in that room. And what you will do in that room hasn’t been decided; it’s up to you. But you can figure out a lot about the room even before you’ve gone in by looking and listening. So listen. Listen with your whole mind. Listen now in the dark with no distractions. Prepare for what you will face when you walk through that door.”
The kids had nodded off to sleep and Anita was yawning when Benny said, “Something’s coming. I feel it. It’s dark and falling.”
Clyde said maybe.
“Is that the rock fall? All I feel is silence.” Sandy was a doer, not a worrier, not a listener.
“The silence I call the Big Quiet. I hear it too. Can you feel the subharmonics of that rock shear? The rock is groaning. You can feel it through the ground beneath us.”
“So that’s not the future, just the ground?”
“It’s both. The one is the other. The future sends out foregleams just like the sun before dawn. It’s a sort of a shock wave, but it’s a low frequency wave. Something you feel more than you actually technically hear. Only now, just at this moment do I understand how we’ll deal with natural disasters in this new earth. We’ll feel them, hear them coming before they get here, in the peaceful Big Quiet. It’s something that can be learned. And there will be no racket, no distractions. Did you hear that? It’s getting louder. Listen!” And indeed, the crackles of the rock face were almost audible. You didn’t actually hear them with your ears, but someplace deep in your head.
They went to sleep one by one after that and worn out, slept late into the morning in cozy dark of the hole. Getting on towards noon, they were awakened by a roar and a long rumble and then the ground around them shook.
“Now,” said Cathy, “We can all go home.”