My second attempt to use the tools of narrative fiction to explore the deindustrial future, this story is set half a century after “Christmas Eve 2050.” Once again the subject is an American family’s experience in a world after peak oil. Between the two narratives, several more cycles of catabolic collapse, involving civil war, epidemic disease, and the onset of severe climate change, have transformed the physical and cultural landscape, with more changes in sight.
Bits of windblown rubbish clattered down the street as Molly reached for the doorlatch. She’d been at church most of the day helping get ready for the solstice ritual, and come home now only because the boy would be back from school soon and would need some getting ready himself. For that matter, she had a few preparations of her own to make, and one more than anything else. She opened the door, closed it quick behind her to keep dust out.
Once inside she took off coat and dust scarf, shook out hair the color of old iron, brushed dust off her hands: no water to spare for washing them, not since autumn rains all but failed this year. Still, the little two-room shack was as clean as dry rags and a meticulous eye could make it. The few furnishings she had—table and two chairs, cooking stove, cupboard, washboard and washtub—glinted in the vague light from the four small windows; not a spot of rust on any of them, and not because the blacksmith who made them used some fancy metal, either. Good plain salvaged iron kept if you took care of it, and it didn’t put a burden on Earth Mother or stray into the extravagance that got Old Time people in trouble with Her.
Knowing the boy would be home soon, she went into the bedroom right away, stepped past the two iron bedsteads to the room’s far end and unlocked one of the trunks there. Homespun was good enough for everyday but holidays called for better. She considered, chose a dress the color of Earth Mother’s own good green, set it on her bed. That would do. A small box inside the trunk gave up a pair of earrings with bright stones—her mother’s, worn only on special days these twenty years now. Then, from the bottom of the trunk, she pulled a package wrapped in coarse brown cloth. Her hands shook a bit as she set it on the bed next to the dress.
A few minutes later, dressed for holiday, she came out of the bedroom and put the package on the table. Clatter of the latch told her she was just in time. The door flew open, letting in a cloud of dust and a boy, brown-haired and barefoot, in clothes that had seen many better days.
“Earth’s sake, Joe, shut the door!” she chided. “You’ll let all the dust off the street in with you.”
“Yes’m.” Abashed, the boy pulled the door shut, submitted to a thorough dusting with the cleanest of the rags. “There,” Molly said. “How was school today?”
That got her a sullen look. “I don’t want to go any more.”
She said nothing, pursed her lips. “I don’t,” the boy repeated. Then, in a rush of words: “Pacho doesn’t have to go to school any more. He works for his brother the savager.”
“Salvager,” she corrected.
“Everybody says it ‘savager’.”
“You can say it however you want with your friends, but at home we speak good English.”
Joe gave her an angry look. “Sal-vager. That’s what his brother does, stripping metal in the towers, and Pacho helps him. He says his mom’s happy ‘cause he’s bringing money home.”
Another look, angry and ashamed at the same time. “Because he’s bringing money home. I bet I could make as much as he does, ‘stead—” He caught himself, glared at her. “Instead of sitting in old man Wu’s house and learning stuff that doesn’t matter any more anyway.”
So, Molly thought, it’s come to this already. “It matters more now than it used to, back in Old Time. You look at Pacho now, and you think he’s got a trade, he makes money, and that’s the end of it. But all he’ll ever be is a salvager. You deserve better.”
He said nothing, met her gaze with a hard flat look. That angered her more than anything he could have said. “You think school doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “You don’t know how many times I cried because I didn’t get to go to school, or how many times I did without because the jobs I could get without schooling paid barely enough to live on. And I promised your mother—” She hadn’t meant to bring up Linny, now of all times, but no point in trying to unsay it. “I promised your mother you’d get an education and I’m not going to break that promise.”
Joe looked away, his face reddening, and Molly berated herself inwardly for mentioning his parents. That had to sting, though Earth Mother knew there were plenty of families in the same case these days, young and old with no blood relation living together under one roof after plague and famine and two civil wars finished with the people they called family beforehand. At least she’d known Jeff and Linny back when Joe was born, had changed his diapers and fed him goat milk from a bottle often enough to feel like some sort of family.
Only one way to mend things, she decided. She’d meant to wait until after church, but that couldn’t be helped. She went to the table. “Come over here. I want to show you something.”
He came after a moment, still looking away, trying to hide the wetness on his cheeks. Molly unwrapped the package, revealing an old book and a long thin shape in a case of cracked black plastic. “What’s that?” Joe asked.
“Take a look.”
He picked the case up, gave her a wary glance, opened it. The slide rule caught the light as he took it out, numbers still readable on the yellowing plastic. “Hoo! Where’d you savage this?”
She let it pass. “I didn’t. That belonged to my brother Joe. When he died in the war, the army tried to send his things to my mother. We were in the refugee camp by then, but one of the families who stayed behind in our neighborhood kept the package for us until the fighting was over and we came back. And this—” She pointed to the book. “This was just about the only thing that didn’t get looted from our apartment. It’s one of Joe’s schoolbooks, and it teaches how to use a slide rule like this one. You need to stay in school so you can learn to read it.”
“I can read better than anybody in my class.”
“You can’t read this.” Meeting his angry look calmly: “Try it.”
That was a gamble—she couldn’t read more than a few words out of the boy’s schoolbooks, for that matter—but as he flipped through the pages and his shoulders hunched further and further up, she knew she’d won it. “Tom Wu says you’re a better reader than anyone in your class, too. That’s why it’s important for you to stay in school, so you can learn to read this and books like it. Do you know what my brother was going to do with his slide rule? He wanted to be an engineer, before they drafted him. He wanted to make solar engines.”
“Like the old rusty ones by the mill?”
“Yes. Nobody knows how to build them any more, or even how to make the old ones work. Maybe you could figure that out. People would be glad to get electricity again, you know.”
She watched his face, waited for the right moment, as dreams collided somewhere back behind his eyes, Joe-the-salvager against Joe-the-engine-maker, Joe-the-bringer-of-electricity. “That’s why,” she said, “I decided to give these to you.” That got a sudden look, wide-eyed, no trace of the old sullen anger left. “But,” Molly went on, holding up one finger, “only if you promise me you’ll stay in school. They would be wasted on a salvager. They should go to someone who’ll learn how to do something with them.”
Joe opened his mouth, closed it, swallowed. “Okay,” he forced out.
“You promise you’ll stay in school? All the way through?”
Molly allowed a smile, indicated the book. “Then they’re yours. You can keep them in your trunk until you know what to do with them.” He picked up the book and the wrapping cloth, gave her an uncertain look, as though half expecting her to take them back. “While you’re putting them there,” she said then, “you should get something nicer to wear, too, and quickly. We shouldn’t be late for church, especially not on solstice day.”
“Yes’m.” He started toward the bedroom, stopped halfway there. “Didn’t people use to give each other presents on solstice day?”
Memories jabbed at Molly: the apartment she’d grown up in, full of soft furniture and the glow of electric light, scent of a big holiday dinner wafting from the kitchen, new clothes every year and Christmas stockings with real candy in them, and the look on her brother’s face when he got the slide rule that Christmas when she was eight. People had so much back then! “Yes,” she told the boy. “Yes, we did.”
His face grew troubled. “But wasn’t that wicked?”
“No.” Was it? She pushed the thought away. “There was plenty of wickedness in Old Time, all that extravagance, and next to nobody sparing so much as a thought for Mother Earth. But I don’t think it was wicked for my mother and father to give Joe a slide rule.”
Joe took that in. “Then this’ll be my solstice present,” he announced, and took it into the bedroom.