~ Gila National Forest, 2131 AD ~
A gentle breeze drifted through the window and played with Miranda’s hair as she brushed it. Her hair had grown coarser over the last few years. She suspected it was long and white now, the way her Grandma Rose’s hair had been. When Miranda was young, she had visited her Grandma Rose every summer. The world had been such a busy, bustling place then, still full of promise and hope. Now her world was shadowy and quiet.
Her cabin in the woods had always been remote, far from the noisy cars and construction that people had once associated with human civilization, but there had still been sounds to remind Miranda of modern technology. The hum of electrical lines overhead and the steady whoosh of airplanes as they traveled from one side of the country to the other; the music from her radio or the steady drone of the television playing in the background. All of these were silenced now.
She touched her fingers to the pottery whistle she wore around her neck.
She changed from her light cotton nightgown into her daytime clothes—a loose shirt, a pair of coveralls, and sturdy work boots—then she picked up the bucket that sat by the back door. The smell of the evergreens was so potent as she opened the door that she could almost see them towering above her in her mind’s eye. She stopped at the threshold and listened carefully before stepping outside. She didn’t want to startle either the large elk that populated this mountain or one of the many predators that ate them. The only sound was that of the gentle wind blowing through the trees.
She counted the six steps to the old-timey pump that Jorge had installed in the backyard. The cold feel of the metal comforted her as she filled the bucket with fresh water. Jorge had built the cabin for her as a wedding present, fifteen years after tela pulmonis had swept through the planet, taking seven hundred and seventy-three million lives with it, his parents included. He insisted that the cabin be able to sustain them off the grid. No electricity, no indoor plumbing. A wood stove for cooking and heat, a composting outhouse, and an old treadle sewing machine, so that she could sew, even without electricity.
She missed her husband even more than she missed her sight, but she took comfort in the fact that he was still taking care of her, more than a decade after he was gone. The civilizations of the world had failed, Jorge had not.
She brought the bucket of water into the house and poured some of it into the cast iron pot on the stove before heading back into the yard. She looked up towards the sky, judging the position of the sun by the angle of the light that made it through the curtain of her blindness. The position of the sun told her it was late in the morning, but it would be at least an hour until the sun reached its zenith. She put her clay whistle to her lips and blew. Three short bursts, one long, then three more short bursts. Time to come home.
She looked up toward the sky. Sometimes she could see the afternoon light dim a little as Xipilli flew between her and the sun. Not today. Today he landed heavily in the tree behind her.
“What did you bring me?” A good-sized bundle dropped into her outstretched hands. Soft fur, long ears, strong back legs. It would be jackrabbit stew for supper tonight. “Nice job ‘Pilli.” She skinned and dressed the animal, leaving the guts for her feathered companion to feast on, then took the remaining carcass inside for her own supper. When he was done eating he hopped in through the back door, and let out a high-pitched screech, calling to Miranda. She put on her leather glove and let him step up on to her arm. She smiled at the familiar weight as she lifted him up to his perch.
Miranda had thought Jorge was crazy when he volunteered to raise a harpy eagle for the raptor rescue in Silver City. Harpy eagles lay two eggs each time they breed, but they only raise the first chick who hatches, typically ignoring the second. It wasn’t until they had become incredibly endangered, only a few thousand left in the wild, that someone in South America had come up with a way to remove the second egg, allowing rescuers to raise the chick by hand. Despite her reluctance, Miranda had fallen in love with Xipilli as soon as he pushed his way out of the egg, all wrinkled and featherless, covered in downy white fluff. She and Jorge had taken turns feeding him and caring for him as he went from an adorable downy chick to a feathered toddler with a ravenous appetite. As he grew, they taught him to hunt prey the that lived in the forests of New Mexico, usually marmots, jackrabbits, and prairie dogs, instead of the monkeys and sloths that he would naturally hunt in the rainforests of South and Central America.
Their original plan had been to transport the bird to South America when he reached maturity at three to five years old, but he was only a year old when the tela pulmonis bacteria re-emerged, much more dangerous than before. Xipilli still had his juvenile plumage when she and Jorge had fallen ill. His call had been the first thing she heard when she had awoken, and it was his presence that gave her the strength to bury her husband instead of following him.
She tossed the rabbit’s pelt to Xipilli, smiling at the sound of his beak snatching the skin out of the air. She imagined his plumage was much more dramatic now.
Miranda got the woodstove going and finished preparing the rabbit for her stew, then sat down in the rocking chair to wait for the water to boil. She shut her eyes and let the smell of the smoke and the crackling of the fire transport her back to the days before her sickness- when she and Jorge had been so happy.
Her daydreams were interrupted by a sound that she hadn’t heard in a very long time. The echoing thump, thump, thump of someone’s knuckles rapping on her door. She felt elation and fear in equal measure. The thought of hearing another human voice was almost unbearably beautiful after all this time. She hadn’t spoken to anyone but Xipilli in years. She had stopped going into town for supplies when she had been accosted by another desperate survivor. Xipilli had come to her rescue, but she knew that if the man had been armed the encounter could have ended very differently.
She stood up and moved towards the enticing reverberation of the knocking on the door, stopping short with her hand on the doorknob. The blood pounding in her ears was so loud that it drowned out all other sounds.
Reader votes dictated that Miranda opened the door, rather than leaving it closed.