Rebecca Day

A Strong and Sudden Thaw Chapter 1

There’s an old scenic view about halfway up the mountain, alongside where the old highway runs. The signs are fading, of course, and the pavement’s cracked and ruined, invaded years ago by roots of the scrub pines reclaiming what men stole from them back in the Before. There used to be a fence, a low barrier of iron-grey metal put up by the old people, but it’s gone now too. My Mam always told me not to lean on that fence, and she was right, because one day late last summer, after a torrential rain that left us all knee-deep in cold black muck, that twisted metal fence went right over the edge. Just following after our whole world, I guess, plummeting over the edge into the abyss. Or at least that’s what Grandmam says, and she ought to know, as she remembers the Before times. She tells stories that make the old world sound like spun sugar candy you get at the Harvest Fair. Rich and sweet, but destined to crumble away at the first hard rain.

But to me, the land is still sweet and the old scenic view a touch of heaven. I can’t imagine how those old people in their metal wagons could have ever seen anything so fair as those far distant accordion-pleated ridges littered with the skeletons of trees, stark and bleached, reaching silently skyward in a useless appeal to the heavens, the patchwork of fields and red-roofed farmhouses, and soft clouds like the wool of our flock blending with the smoke from the chimneys to rise on the thermals.

This fall day, there was hawks riding the thermals, too, swooping lower now and again to spy out a mouse or ground squirrel. That time of year, game’s hard to find, for hawks or for humans. But as I watched, the big one—the male—stopped, and I could see him hanging there, waiting and watching. Then he descended, spiraling down into the valley while his mate screamed in triumph.

Heavy wings beating the air, the male rose again, and I could see he had prey in his talons. Grandmam says it used to be that you couldn’t even see into the next valley over because the air was so heavy with smoke and such from the machines. I can’t fathom that. The air’s always been clear, and mostly so cold and sharp it cuts you when you breathe, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, as in those old times I wouldn’t have been able to see the hawks in the valley like I do.
As I watched the birds take their prey off to their young, a shadow rippled over them and across the valley. I looked up, and above the hawks, so far distant in the sky that they seemed as toys, I saw the dragons. Still alive—so the posse had failed. Pa had figured they would.

Those dragons. There’s a mating pair like with the hawks, or at least that’s what we think. Jerzy Dodd, our hired man, claims there’s three, maybe four, but Master Burke the School says he’s wrong as dragons are territorial, not pack animals, and if there were three, the two would turn on the third and kill it. Unless the third was a baby. We figure there will be babies. That’s one truth you can’t ignore, male and female together eventually leads to babies, as true for dragonkind as humankind.

We’re not sure where they came from, but Jerzy was the first to see them up in the high hills while he was tending our sheep. He’d gone behind a tree to—well, you can figure out what he was doing—heard a frantic panicked bleating and come running to find four sheep, one clutched in each cruel talon, winging their way upward to the top of Pine Bluff Ridge.

Of course nobody’d believed him. Pa figured he was making up tales to cover his own irresponsibility, and that the four sheep had really been taken by wolves or fallen into a crevasse and lost. But about two weeks later, the dragons lifted young Lorna Massie straight out of her playpen in the yard of her very own house. Lorna’s mam had been hanging out the wash, had gone in for some extra clothespins and come out right in time to see the dragon, bigger than the Massies’ whole house, scooping little Lorna up. She flung a pickaxe at the beast, and a scale had fallen off.

Well, everybody believed then. Jane Massie was a no-nonsense sort of woman, not the type for flights of fancy, and besides, there was that scale, green-gold and leathery, on display down at the school plain as the nose on your face. Lorna was gone, the scale was there. Added up pretty neat, folks thought. And then there were other sightings—for a while it seemed that you weren’t somebody in our town if you hadn’t seen the dragons.

Got to the point where folks was keeping their children so close that you’d think it was dead winter, not the middle of a fairly mild Indian summer. Still, you couldn’t blame them. Bigger folk could spot the dragons and take cover, but the children hadn’t a chance. I think that’s where the old stories about virgins come from. In the olden days, anybody old enough to get out of the way was likely married off already. It was the young ones that got picked off.

So Sheriff Fletcher got a band of men together, and formed a posse to kill the dragons. About a week back they set off up the mountain, all grim and determined. My Pa and I watched them go, standing near the burying ground with Burke the Digger.

“Doomed to fail,” Pa said, shaking his head as the line of men trudged by. Sheriff Fletcher had deputized Mister Zack Tyree to lead the group made up of three claim farmers from the south part of the county that I didn’t know; Curtis Henslow, who kept chickens; and Mayor Casteel’s do-nothing nephew Elmer.

“Elmer Casteel gets within fifty yards of a dragon, he’ll shit himself. Tyree’s the only one can hit the broad side of a barn, and he’s got but one arm.” The Digger spat sideways. “Should’a taken you, Brock. Hell, even young Davey here could handle himself better’n that bunch.”

“Didn’t ask me,” Pa had said, and that was true. It was also true that my Pa was the best hunter in the valley, and everybody knew it. We always had meat on our table, even in the darkest winter, and he could track darn near anything that walked. Grandmam used to say it was a mercy the Ice had come, because if Pa had had to live in Before, he’d have been lost. So I wondered why he wasn’t invited to join the dragon hunters—made no sense at all.

On the way back up the hill to our place that day, Pa had opined that, with the exception of Mister Zack, who’d likely been the sheriff’s choice, the posse had been selected to give Elmer Casteel a chance to cover himself in glory so he could win a rich wife and maybe get out of Mayor Casteel’s hair and quit asking for money all the time. Now, seeing the dragons still flying high above me, I wondered if the mayor had managed to solve his problem in a more permanent way. Money don’t do you much good from inside a dragon’s belly.

The dragons circled a few more times, then headed south. I pulled my jacket tight, wishing it would be truly warm, like in the stories Grandma told about Before. But it wasn’t, and wasn’t ever like to be in my lifetime. Those old days was a tale whose end had been told.

#

Dusk was already coming on by the time I was in sight of home. Our cabin sat atop a middling sized hill, and all the lands around it sloping down to the creek and a good ways beyond were Anderson lands, and had been since before the Ice. The sheep were back from the summer pastures now, and I could hear the sounds of the bells that marked them as ours. Jerzy was herding them into the barn, an unsettled cluster of dingy white bodies bleating and baaing as I passed.
The sheep were Mam’s. She managed the flock and paid Jerzy’s keep and the shearers in the spring from profits she got off the wool, which she sold in bulk to Perkin Weaver and sent to the cities in trade. I hate sheep. My sisters love them. All three of them adopt a new lamb each spring as their own special pet. Not me. Sheep are stupid—I’ve seen a flock of sheep follow their bellwether into a gully in a storm. The whole flock would have drowned if I hadn’t been there to help Jerzy drive them out. Pa says I’m like him in that—he don’t like sheep much either, though he likes the money they bring into the house. He says sheep and people are alike, mostly. I don’t know that I agree, but he says I just haven’t lived long enough yet.

“Boy, is your Mam mad at you, David,” Jerzy called after me. “Says you and Benny C was supposed to be wintering in the herbs today. Benny C had to do it alone and he ain’t shut up about it all afternoon!”

His sing-song voice faded away as I trudged the last few steps towards the cabin. He was right; I’d forgot completely. The herbs could have waited a day, though, or Ruby could have helped Benny C—it weren’t like bringing herbs into the greenhouse was man’s work. I’d have to sweet talk Mam, court her with the brace of rabbits I’d snared. Steeling myself for an argument, I noticed a strange horse tied up to our barn fence. Company. There weren’t any way Mam would berate me in front of company. Sighing with relief, I swung the rabbits over my shoulder and pushed opened the door.

Smoking oil lamps blazed everywhere and the long table was set out with Grandmam’s old china dishes over a plain white cloth. Grandmam says our cabin would have been called tiny back in the old days, but I can’t fathom that. It’s got a large common room where we do our living, then back behind are two goodly bedrooms, one for Mam and Pa, and one for Grandmam. A ladder leads to a loft above the common room where there are two more rooms, one for boys, and one for girls.
Because our place was built in the Before, there’s a bathroom indoors too, but it don’t work proper no more. We wash up in the tub, hauling water from the fire, but for our other needs, it’s the outhouse in back. Grandmam says our place was originally a vacation cabin for Pa’s family. I’m not sure what that means, really. She says it’s like a house you only lived in sometimes, but I don’t understand that—if you don’t take care of your place year round, it’ll fall to pieces pretty fast. I guess things was different then.

While Grandmam tended to the fire, Mam was working at the big black cook-stove, sending Delia and Ruby scurrying around like chickens with their heads cut off, fetching and toting and setting out food. Benny C was nowhere to be found, probably hiding in the barn pretending to do chores, sulking about me. Pa was seated at the table talking to the guest—Mister Zack Tyree, his sleeve pinned up at the elbow to hide where he’d lost his arm. So the posse was back, then.

“David, where have you been?” Mam spun around from the fire and almost struck Delia with her wood stirring spoon.

I held out the rabbits in mute apology. She shook her head and sighed. “Lord, you’re your father’s son. Take those skinny little coneys out to the larder and mind you hang them high, you hear?”

She weren’t mad, then. That’s what she always said when I come home, as though after hunting more than half my life, I’d forget to hang meat out of reach of scavengers. If she’d been mad, she’d have just taken the rabbits herself. I went out to the lean-to that served as our larder and strung up the rabbits. I’d skin them later and we’d have rabbit stew tomorrow.
Coming back into the warmth of the cabin I caught the smell of something roasting in the oven: mutton, I thought. When I said I hated sheep, I should have said I love them…served with new potatoes and fresh mint. The aroma was mouth-watering, and I was suddenly starved.

Mam lifted the speckled roaster from the oven. “Can I help?”

“Oh, just stay out of my hair.” Mam shook her head. “Go on and sit with your Pa and help make Mister Zack feel at home.”

Mister Zack was talking as I slid onto the bench next to Pa. “…and I’d not have credited it, Brock, if I’d not seen it with my own eyes. Big as houses and covered in scales.”

Pa shook his head. “And you say your rifle didn’t penetrate the hide?”

Now, that surprised me. Mister Zack Tyree was what Mam called a proper gentleman. He had a huge spread of land to the south of town and a house that would’ve held three of ours, which had been in his family since a hundred years before the Ice or more. His rifle was dead-on accurate and gorgeous to boot, all inlaid with fancy silver.

“Do you mean your silver rifle, Mister Zack?” I asked.

“Yes sir, David, that’s exactly what I mean.” Mister Zack leaned back in my Pa’s chair, stretching his one full arm and his half arm behind him. “I got off three rounds point blank and you’d have thought my bullets were cast out of rubber, not lead.” He leaned forward and grinned sort of wicked-like. “That fool Casteel had one of those new army guns and the bloody thing jammed six ways to Sunday.”

Pa nodded. “The more moving parts you get on something, the more things go wrong. Like I’ve told you, Zack, in these times we’re best off using older guns with simple actions, things we can fix ourselves without factories and trained gunsmiths.”
I’d gone to school with Elmer Casteel—he’d been a few years ahead, but we’d read the same lessons sometimes as he wasn’t the brightest wick in the lamp. “What did Elmer do then, Mister Zack?” I asked, curious.

Mam was setting steaming dishes of food around us and from the corner of my eye I saw Benny C slip in from outside. He sidled up to me and poked me hard in the back, but I ignored him, so he went off towards the fire to warm himself.

“When his gun jammed—and I might add that the dragons had not even deigned to notice our presence to that point—Elmer, brave scion of the Mayor’s line that he is, threw that expensive firearm into the air and flew like a bat out of hell down the side of the mountain. He tripped on a root, twisted his ankle, and sliced up his lip.”

Couldn’t have happened to a better man. “Good.”

“David!” Mam’s hand reached out and cuffed the side of my ear, but not hard enough to hurt.

“Sorry, Mam.” Though I weren’t, not in the least. I turned back to Mister Zack, who looked for all the world like he agreed with me. “Is Elmer okay?”

“Not to hear him tell it. He made two of those claim farmers carry him in a litter all the way back to town, and he went straight to the healers. Was a bit put out when he discovered they were both upriver delivering a baby.”

Mam was herding the younger ones to the table, settling Delia and Ruby on their bench. They squeezed together to make room for Benny C, who’d normally have sat by me, but Pa was there since Mister Zack had taken his chair. The baby was missing.

“Where’s Almond?”

“She’s down with a sore throat and fever,” Mam replied, spooning out rich helpings of roast and potatoes onto the china plates. “And speaking of healers, you can take her down the hill to be looked over tomorrow.”

It weren’t a request, so although I’d planned to go check the traps in the morning, I just nodded and waited for the plates to be filled. Mister Zack and Pa had stopped talking, too, and Mister Zack was eyeing the food hungrily.

“May-Marie, that smells divine. Beef pot roast? I haven’t had roast beef in a dog’s age.” I remembered that Mister Zack, being a widower, would be mostly left to his own devices when it come to meals.

Mam smiled and the compliment lit up her face brighter than the oil lamp hanging down over the table. My mam was a beautiful woman once, or so Grandmam says. I think she’s still beautiful, with her thick honey hair and green eyes, but she’s tired all the time and her face looks all washed out and grey from all the work she does. “And you won’t be having it yet tonight, I’m afraid, Zack. It’s mutton—I’m culling some of the rams before the true cold settles in.”

“Well, whatever it is, it looks and smells delicious. And it’s food I didn’t have to cook, so I’m thankful for it.” Mister Zack tucked his napkin onto his lap.

“Zack, we’d be honored if you’d give the blessing.”

We all settled to quiet then as Mister Zack cleared his throat. Better him than me—I hated giving the blessing, especially when we had guests. Speaking out loud, talking to folks more than one at a time weren’t something I was particularly fond of, and hadn’t been since I was back at school and had made a complete fool of myself during the Fall Recitations every single year. Plus, I wasn’t half sure there was anyone or anything listening to our blessing anyways. Not that I could say that to Mam, though.

“Thou who hast brought us safe through the rigors of the Ice and hast seen us to prosperity in this new time, look favorably upon Your children here assembled. Bless us with warmth and food and health. In the name of God. Amen.”

“Amen,” we all echoed, then for a while the only sounds was the unfamiliar chinking of silver on china. It was an odd sound—our everyday plates were wooden, carved by Pa. I expected Mister Zack Tyree ate off china plates every day of his life, and Mam would have been shamed to offer him dinner on ugly wood trenchers.

Though I tried not to stare as that’d get me sent to the barn for the rest of the meal, I watched Mister Zack from the corner of my eye. I’d never seen him eat before, but had often wondered how he managed it with one arm. It was a sight to see—he alternated fork and knife so deftly you’d have thought he was a whole man.

“So, Zack,” Pa set his fork down. “You never did tell me how you managed to run those dragons to ground. Must have been a wonderment of tracking. No offense to you, but I didn’t think you had those sorts of skills.”

Everybody’s eyes were on the guest, and I was glad Pa had brought the talk around to the dragons again, and I could see the younger ones were as well. They’d been shielded from a lot of the talk, but were curious about the beasts, as was natural.
Mister Zack laughed. “No offense taken, Brock. I’m a fair shot, but I couldn’t track an elephant if it was fifty feet ahead of me with a sign tied to his ass-end. No, we ran across a small flock of goats—Brant McNally’s, I think it was—completely untended, and Casteel came up with the idea of herding them out into open ground and waiting. Worked like a charm—that boy’s got a devious mind.”

“That seems awful cruel to those goats. They weren’t doing nothing to warrant such treatment.” My sister Ruby had a soft place in her heart for animals—all animals, probably even dragons. I really hoped Ruby married a town man, because if she had to survive on a farm doing her own butchering, she’d starve.

“Ruby!” Mam glared down on her like icicles. Children were mostly seen and not heard at the table, or else they weren’t seen nor heard and ended up eating cold leftovers in the corner.

“No, May-Marie, it’s a fair statement.” Mister Zack turned to Ruby. “Don’t fret, Miss Ruby. Those goats were old. Likely it was their year to be butchered in any case, and they went quick and for a good cause.”

“Didn’t work, though,” Pa observed.

“Oh, it worked, all right. The dragons came; we just didn’t have any weapon that would do the job.” Mister Zack helped himself to seconds. “I tell you, Brock, I don’t know what it’s going to take to kill those things. They’re gigantic and damn near armor plated.”

“Giants.” Grandmam had kept close to the fire as was her custom, not joining us at table. “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

Mam gave her a sharp look, then turned to me. “David, take your grandmam a plate of vegetables.”

I picked out the tenderest of the potatoes and carrots and put them in a small bowl. Grandmam took it, but made no attempt to eat, just sat staring into the fire, clutching onto the bowl for dear life.

“…will have to wait till spring now, I’m afraid,” Mister Zack was saying as I got back to the table. “No point taking chances with the weather.”

Pa was scowling. “Another five months of those damn things making off with the best of our flocks and driving the game away. We never had dragons in these parts before the Ice, damn its frosted soul.”

“Brock, please, language—” Mam started to say, but Grandmam interrupted.

“Frost giants. It’s Fimbulvetr; it’s the cold before the end. Three ages of ice, then fire-giants will meet the frost-giants, Fenris Wolf will be released and the World Tree will be cut down.” She looked fretful, holding her plate close to her as though one of those frost giants was lurking behind her to snatch it away.

“Fire giants would be a blessing right about now,” Pa said mildly, looking across the table at Mam, who rose and led Grandmam away to her bedroom. “Sorry about my mother-in-law, Zack. She’s getting on in years.”

“No need to apologize.” Mister Zack dismissed it with a wave of his one hand. “She’s the only person left in this area who remembers Before. I think she’s entitled to a little eccentricity. Though I admit to being curious as to what she’s talking about.”

“It’s from her Bestamor, her own Grandmam. She was Danish and used to tell Gramdmam stories about them. Legends about their gods,” I replied, staring down at the remnants of my plate. I loved listening to those stories, had begged over and over to hear about Loki and Thor and the rest when I was a young child. In school we’d learned the myths of the Greeks, but I’d never taken to those stories quite the same as to Grandmam’s. Those old Danish people knew a thing or two about cold. No half-clothed nymphs and satyrs in Odin’s hall.

“Ah.” Mister Zack nodded, then got up from the table.

Pa stood up too. “David, I’ll see Mister Zack to the road, then join you in the barn for night chores.”

Ruby and Delia started in clearing the supper. Benny C would take a plate out to Jerzy, then he and the girls would get on with their school work. I was mighty glad those days were past for me. The only part of school I’d liked was the reading, and I could still borrow books from the school’s meager lending library to my heart’s content. Of course, I’d read them all ten times over before I’d ever left the schoolhouse, but at least now I wasn’t expected to recite on them, I could just read for the joy of it.

Full dark had fallen, and a bitter wind sprung up from the west, carrying away the sounds of Pa and Mister Zack talking as they walked towards the Old Road. Our barn lay nestled into a fold of the hill, partially protected from the wind and rain and snow. Pa had built it, and it was solid and cozy, a home for the sheep during the cold months, and for Pa’s horse Lightning and a small flock of chickens. Jerzy had a room in the back of it with his own hearth. I wouldn’t have minded a place like that for myself someday, when I was grown. Mam spoke at times of building me a house when I married, but I didn’t like that sort of talk much and would always turn the color of winter beets when she’d go on about it.

Marriage meant girls, and girls were trouble, and boring trouble at that. All clothes and cooking and begging to walk out with you, then when you finally gave in and went, they’d nothing at all useful to say. Joey Matthias said it didn’t matter none, as girls weren’t there to be talked to, and he’d go on about full breasts and tiny little waists and how fine they were, but I couldn’t fathom it at all. And now Joey was getting married to some claim farmer’s daughter not two years after we’d left school. No, that weren’t for me.

I started in on my evening chores slowly, banking the barn fires so the animals would stay warm and safe, blanketing Lightning, and securing all the heavy wooden shutters. It was important work, especially this time of year when a freak storm could burst upon us at any time and the animals could freeze if the fire was left unmade. And if not made well, the fire could get out of hand and the barn and stock could burn.

Behind me, Pa came in and started pitching hay into the troughs. The larders were full now as harvest was behind us, and the scent of the hay mixed up with the stale sweat of the animals to tickle my nose. It was a home smell, a comfort smell like the roast mutton had been, and having Pa beside me, even though, as was his wont, he didn’t speak at all, that was comfort too.

Going off to a house of my own, with or without a wife, would mean an end to this. It would be change.
Oh, the seasons changed, with winter coming hard on fall, and then spring fighting tooth and nail for a toehold come April, but those shifts were temporary, and one chilly fall night was the same as any other, be it last year or the year before going back to before I was born. My leaving so that it would be Benny C who’d come out here every night and work beside Pa, that was for keeps. And what was happening to Grandmam; that was for keeps as well.

Pa must have somehow sensed my thoughts, for he stopped working and started stroking Lightning’s brown flank. “David, when you take Almond down to Healer Findlay tomorrow, you might ask her if she could ride up and have a look at your grandmam.”

I nodded. The chickens settled into their roosts and the sheep called softly to each other. I wondered, did they talk? Did the old ewes tell the young lambs stories about sheep gods and ram heroes?

“May-Marie won’t say anything, not to you, not even to me, but she’s worried. Sarah’s over one hundred years old, it’s natural for her to be declining, but it might be there’s something we could do to make her comfortable.”

As she’s dying. I heard his unfinished thought. Grandmam’s body had been frail for long as I could remember, but till recently her mind had been ever clear, and her wit would stab into you like sharpened steel. I closed my eyes and tried to picture our cabin without her in it; her chair empty and the fire tended by Delia or Almond. No. That was a change I couldn’t conceive.

“Pa—”

He shook his head. “Just talk to the healer, David. That’s all you can do. People die. It’s a fact of life, whether we like it or not. Your Grandmam’s had more years than most. Be thankful for that.”

He gave Lightning a precious lump of store-sugar and murmured soft words to her that I couldn’t make out, then left me alone to finish my work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: