It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

S T A R V A T I O N  R I D G E


SHE CAME to the river after sunset.
    Much of the water was foaming white here, where she'd come down from the woods, but she could see that the pool upstream, just above where the riffles began, was shallow enough to cross.
    Gripping her staff, a straight, polished length of young willow, she turned upstream, placing her feet carefully, carefully as ever. She had never met a doctor or seen a working hospital.  
    Everything always depended on knowing where your feet were.
    As she came to the still water, she looked long upstream and down, and surveyed the opposite, boulder-strewn bank meticulously. Not that one could tell much among so many rocks, the racket of the little rapids, and the gathering darkness, but any movement, any sound, any appearance of disturbed soil might be a matter for investigation -- or flight.
    She sat down to unlace her boots. She had made them herself, rubber-tire soles, leather uppers, and knew, from the many hours she had put into them, their value.
    Briefly she looked down into the water. A stern, narrow face, past childhood, framed in a coarse halo of brown, almost black hair, stared back at her. Wide mouth, brown eyes, light caramel skin.     
    If there were more light, one might discover freckles round her nose.
    Had she any basis for comparison, she would know that she was tall. She'd met fewer than fifty people in her lifetime, all but one in the last two years.
    She could see caddis larvae among the round rocks: good. Sign of a clean stream. She'd learned to avoid dead areas.
    Pulling off the boots and a pair of socks which had been made from the sleeves of a sweatshirt, she rolled up her trouser legs, stuffed the socks into her boots and hung the pair round her neck.
    Can't travel in wet shoes, her father had said. Cross wet, dry off, travel dry. Wet feet blister. Wet shoes lose their shape. Too much can go wrong then. Wet shoes will squeak, too. You need everything on your side, sight, sound, smell, touch, and time. Everything.
    In forty mindful steps, using her staff to steady her against the numbing, insistent currents, she was across.
    Watching the opposite riverbank from which she'd come, she dried her feet with her bandanna (cut from the same sweatshirt), then got into her socks and boots. Tie your laces like this, he'd said. Over once and then over a second time, then pull. Twice holds better than once and that can matter when you have to run.
    She took inventory without thought, touching her staff, her right front pocket (twice), belt,  sheath knife, backpack, bedroll, bow, and her four precious arrows, three broadheads and a blunt, which were clipped to the right side of her pack, fletches down. The lids were tight on her water bottles in their pockets low on the pack. The bow, an ancient recurved "youth" fiberglass model, was clipped to the left side. Her father had designed the clips, spring-loaded. He'd had a lot of tools and stuff in his little underground shop. She patted her breast pockets. Bowstring, right. Spare bowstring, left. All go.
    Old-fashioned gear, he'd said. Can't go to the stores anymore anyhow, so it doesn't matter. But I used that pack for thirty-five years, so you know it has some staying power. Too bad it's not camo, but it's all a good green, nothing shiny. Shiny is not good. Here, let's break up its outline a bit with this old shoe polish.
    Keeping everything close, she eased down to the water as night raised a mist on the pool. Looking left and right once more, she dipped her hand between two stones. She sipped, looked round once more, and retreated into shadow.
    She'd need to go at least fifty meters from the bank, she thought. Large animals like to work along streams, or along slopes, halfway up to the ridge tops. Right in between, she could bed down, perhaps beneath the long green hands of a cedar. They kept a body dry. With enough care, and enough cedars, she wouldn't need a fire until fall. It meant eating a lot of things raw, but that she was used to by now.
    Good night, Karen, he had said. I'll see you in the morning.

    Those had been his last words to her.