The sound of the girl’s quiet crying penetrated the walls of the little cabin. Miranda made her way to the makeshift guest room that she and Fern had set up in her sewing room and gently pushed open the door.
The soft sobs continued unabated as Fern tossed and turned in her bed, then evolved into mumbled pleading, “Mami, Papi, don’t leave without me. I’m coming. Don’t leave…”
Tears rolled down Miranda’s cheeks as she listened. “It’s alright, little one,” she whispered, “we’ll get you back to your family.”
Xipilli hopped down the hall, his claws making a rhythmic rasping noise with each awkward bounce. He rubbed his face on Miranda’s knee with a little mewling sound. “Hello, my prince.” She stroked the top of his head, wondering how he would react to the trip. It had been a very long time since either of them had wandered far from their mountain home.
Before the plague, and before Xipilli, she and Jorge had driven to Odessa more than a few times to visit Jorge’s sister. The three of them spent hours together taking photos of the giant, painted Jackrabbits that dotted the town. Miranda had given up wondering if Jorge’s family survived when she had given up on going into town. Now the thought rose again. Could Liana and her children still be alive?
No time for that now though.
Miranda had gone as far as Las Cruces for supplies several times in the first few years after the sickness, so she was familiar with the area. She and Fern would start along the old US-180 road. Most of the roads hadn’t been maintained after the plague decimated the population. It wasn’t suitable to drive on anymore, but it still made a great walking trail as long as she kept her mind on where she was putting her feet. She and Fern would be able to follow the I-10 highway from there, then they would turn on to the 1-20 near where Fort Davis used to be.
By her calculations, the walk from her cabin to Odessa would take between two and three weeks, but with her memories and Fern’s map reading skills, Miranda was fairly confident that they would eventually find their destination. She just wasn’t sure what exactly they would find when they got there.
“Come on ‘Pilli. It’s time for bed. We have a lot of preparations to make in the morning.”
Preparations took less time than Miranda expected. Fern was an extremely competent and resourceful young lady, making Miranda’s blindness no obstacle at all when Fern was around. The girl’s experience with her older sister made her an ideal companion for the blind. She was meticulous about keeping things off the floor, and she was always careful to put things back exactly where she found them, so Miranda was as unhindered with the child in the house as she had been when alone.
Xipilli, on the other hand, was not so happy about all the extra activity. Instead of sending him hunting once, as she usually did, Miranda sent him out searching for prey three times the morning before they planned to leave. He eagerly took off the first time, bringing back another fat jackrabbit, but was more hesitant the second time. The bird ate the innards of the second rabbit as eagerly as he had the first, but when Miranda blew her whistle to send him hunting a third time he squawked in protest as he flew off once again. It took him almost an hour to return with his quarry this time.
Miranda held her hands out, expecting another jackrabbit to land in her arms. The animal that landed in her arms was much heavier than a jackrabbit, however, and she fell to the ground, the carcass landing heavily next to her. Xipilli screeched at her from the tree and took off before she could send him hunting again.
“I didn’t know he could catch a big ol’ beaver!” Fern ran over to Miranda to help her up from the ground. The beavers had been getting larger over the last few years, and the one Xipilli had dropped on Miranda was a good seventy or eighty pounds. Miranda hadn’t realized he could catch a beaver that large. The meat from the rabbits and the beaver would make plenty of good jerky for the journey.
“Oh no! Your whistle!”
Miranda’s brow furrowed as she carefully reached for the pottery whistle. The clay was both sharp and rough on her fingers as she touched the broken instrument.
Miranda smiled sadly as she ran her fingers over the fragments of the intricate design on the whistle. “My husband made that for me, probably a year or two before you were born.”
“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” The girl sounded genuinely distraught. “How are you going to call Zipply home now?”
“Oh, no, honey,” Miranda chuckled, “it’s alright. Help me get this big ol’ beaver into the cabin and I’ll show you one of my secrets.”
The two of them wrestled the beaver into the house and prepared the carcass. Once they were done, Miranda picked the broken whistle up off the counter.
“Follow me.” She led Fern to her bedroom. No one other than Xipilli had seen Miranda’s bedroom since the plague. Revealing her room was a little uncomfortable for Miranda, a little exposed even. It was strange what time and solitude could do. Simply presenting her bedroom to Fern had her as anxious as the day she had worn her first bikini as a teenager. She took a deep breath, then pointed to the rustic, wooden bureau in the corner of the room. “See the dresser there? Jorge made it with his own hands, just like most everything in this cabin.”
Miranda realized she’d never mentioned her husband’s name to the child. “My husband’s name was Jorge.” Miranda gestured towards the dresser. “Go ahead and open up the bottom drawer.”
Fern slid open the drawer and gasped. “There are so many!”
“Jorge always made sure I had everything I needed, even when I didn’t know I would need it. He made about a hundred of Xipilli’s clay whistles. There are only about half of them left, though. I broke a lot of them in the first few years.” Miranda replaced her broken whistle with a new one, dancing her fingers across the new design.
“You should bring extras on the trip!”
Miranda laughed out loud. She had all but forgotten the exuberance of youth; it was nice to be reminded. “I think that is a great idea young lady, and do you know what else?”
“I think you should have a Xipilli whistle of your very own!” The small gasp that escaped Fern’s lips made Miranda a little sad that she couldn’t see the girl’s wide eyes and shining smile. But she knew that they were there and that made her happy beyond reasoning.
“Are you sure? Will you teach me to use it?”
“I think you are responsible enough; I’ll start teaching you the patterns tomorrow.”
Fern squealed in joy and jumped up and down. Miranda couldn’t imagine being that excited about anything anymore. “Go ahead, pick out three. One for now, and two spares for the journey.”
Fern squealed again and began digging through the whistles. “What are these cards in the back? They’re pretty!”
“My tarot cards. Jorge’s mother left them to him in her will, but he didn’t use tarot. I used to use them before I went blind. Looking at them helped to give me peace and comfort. Knowing they are there still does.”
“We can’t leave them. Wait!” Miranda heard Fern’s footsteps scampering down the hall, and then the creak of her door as she went to her makeshift room. It was a few minutes before Fern returned. “Look here!” Fern took Miranda’s hand and placed something in it. It felt and smelled like soft, tanned leather, although she smelled something else as well. Herbs of some sort. Perhaps sage?
“What is this?” Miranda asked.
“My sister made it as a medicine bag. I have three, but this one’s the biggest. I think it’ll fit your cards.”
“I think you may be right!” Miranda felt around the leather until she found the opening and slid the cards into the little girl’s medicine bag. Fern was right, the cards fit in the bag perfectly. Nimble fingers deftly placed the strap of the medicine bag around the older woman’s neck. It hung an inch and a half below the whistle. It was perfect.
Miranda wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“Why are you crying?” Fern asked, sounding uncertain.
Miranda made sure to smile towards her. “I feel so happy that it’s spilling out all over. I can’t see the cards anymore but now I can keep them close at least. Your gift makes me very happy, Fern-frond.” She touched the whistle, feeling the smooth edges of Jorge’s design, then touched the soft leather of the pouch. She took in a deep breath of satisfaction, then reached her hand out to Fern, “Let’s go finish getting ready for our journey tomorrow.”
The sun dropped below the horizon and the jerky was cured and dried before Xipilli finally made an appearance again. Fern and Miranda were cleaning up the dishes from food preparation when they heard his screech from the back porch, demanding to be let in. Miranda opened up the back door and he hopped over the threshold, making a disapproving squawk as he waddled back towards the bedroom in a huff.
“Well,” said Miranda, “I guess it’s time for bed. It would be best to get an early start. We’ll have better light.” If Miranda had been traveling alone, she would have traveled by night when she was at an advantage, but the darkness would be a hindrance for the girl and for the eagle. It would be safest to leave at first light.
Miranda and Fern had been walking for several hours by the time the sun was at its zenith the next day. It was a good day for walking. The sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly, which gave a little extra definition to the dark shapes that made up Miranda’s world. She smiled as the little girl prattled on in front of her, reciting the names of the people from her village and telling stories about her family.
Many of the stories were about Uncle Marcos. It seemed he had truly been a good man—and an even better uncle. Sometimes Fern would get a hitch in her voice talking about Uncle Marcos, then abruptly change the subject. Miranda silently mourned for the young life lost. To have survived the plague with his sight, then succumb to simple gravity. She wondered how many people were huddled in small villages like Fern’s, learning to coax plants from the ground without the help of timed sprinklers or huge electronic tractors. No drones patrolling the sky, protecting crops from fire, hail, and flocks of birds; no antibiotics for the livestock; smartphones and game consoles set aside in favor of shovels and rakes. She wondered how many of the villages even had experienced doctors or healers. It had been so long since Miranda had seen any other people, she had given up on imagining what it might be like to have friends and family—a community—again.
Xipilli called out from above and Miranda blew her whistle in response. He was no longer used to traveling and had been checking in frequently since they left. At the beginning of the trip, either Miranda or Fern would have to blow their whistles every five minutes or so to keep him calm, but he only required reassurance once or twice an hour now.
“Fern, do you know any stories about how your village started, stories from before you were born?”
“Oh yes! The mamis and the papis tell stories every night, but on the full moon, one of the Abuelitos or Abuelitas tells us stories. They are from a long, long time ago— when the world was crowded.”
“How many Abuelitos and Abuelitas do you have in your village, Fern?”
“There are four Abuelitas and two Abuelitos, ‘Lito and ‘Lita Lopez, ‘Lito and ‘Lita Unser, Abuelita Gates, and Abuelita Namingha.” That was a few more names than Miranda had been expecting.
Human-kind survived had worse conditions in centuries past, perhaps giving up on homo sapiens as a species was a bit premature after all.
“Each of the Abuelitos and Abuelitas ran from the city, which was full of people who were struck down by The Great Sickness. They took what was left of their families and they left the rot and destruction behind but not their memories. In the mountains they found something better than they had left behind, they found each other. Together they worked with their children and their grandchildren to build something strong enough to outlast the end of the world.” It was obviously a tale Fern had heard recited many times before.
“It was my Mami and Papi, and Mami and Papi Gates— they were going to the big town first. None of us kids have been to the big town ever, we just heard stories about it.”
Fern continued chattering for hours, sharing the history both herself and her village between sips from her canteen and bites of jackrabbit and beaver jerky. Miranda let her imagination wander as the child spoke, letting her mind give shape and form to the people that Fern described, making them her own family in some small part of her heart, a family that she suddenly found herself missing. The stories the child recited told of life, laughter, and community, and Miranda was so immersed that she didn’t even notice how quickly the time was going by until a cold breeze made her shiver. There were no real shapes in her sight now, only darkness and the random, abstract images that her mind created in the absence of visual stimuli.
“It’s getting dark.” Miranda said “Xipilli doesn’t see well in the dark. We’ll need to settle down for the night. Soon.”
The girl stopped abruptly. “We walked by a cave about ten minutes ago. Can we sleep there?”
“I brought the high hammocks for sleeping, to keep us up off the ground.” Miranda replied. “Can you find two strong trees that are fairly close to each other?”
“Yes!” Fern ran a few steps away, stopped suddenly, then ran back to Miranda to take her hand, “This way!” She took Miranda’s hand and set it on one tree trunk, then led her to the second tree trunk and put her hand on it. “Will those work?”
The trees were about twelve feet from one another and thin enough to tie the hammock rope around, but thick enough to support their weight.
“Yes, Fern-frond. These will do nicely!” Miranda started to remove her pack off to get her camping hammock but froze as she heard the deep howl of a wolf, then another in response. The sound chilled Miranda to the bone. Fern instinctively moved closer to Miranda. The pack was on the hunt.
Miranda wasn’t sure they would have enough time to tie up the hammocks before the pack descended on them. “Fern,” Miranda hoped that the little girl couldn’t hear her voice shaking as she spoke, “I can’t protect us from wolves if they find us.”
“What about Zipply?”
“He’s more help in the daytime when he can see. He would have a hard time defending us right now.” Miranda took a deep breath. They could either try and shimmy up the trees and tie the hammocks before the wolves got closer or continue walking in the dark to find a spot that they would be more able to defend. Either option could save their lives, or end up costing them.
Readers voted that Miranda and Fern would attempt to get the hammocks up in the tree before the wolves reached them!
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