Canticles for a New World
by Bill Kowaleski
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“People approach!” the sentry shouted from his wooden tower.
Later, Marcus Hannegan would remember every hour of this day, the day he first saw the Platte Islanders. He’d remember that it was the first day since last spring that he’d seen frost on the prairie grasses, that it was the morning when his wife had told him that their son had not returned from yesterday’s hunt.
He pushed himself from the rough wood table, pulled open the thatch door of his sod hut, and limped through dusty alleys, dodging chickens and dog feces, toward the gate. He was soon joined by a dozen or so of the teenage boys who served as the settlement’s makeshift militia.
At the gate stood Bear, draped in his bison skins, his crossbow slung over his left shoulder, his filthy, black-bearded face defiant as two sentries struggled the wooden slab open. The relentless wind whipped dust into Hannegan’s eyes, forcing him to pull down the cowl of his scratchy robe.
Four men wearing long, gray-green robes flowing in the breeze stood five paces from the eye-high wooden fence that surrounded the compound. They were young and short, with flat features, olive skin, and straight black hair. All four displayed their hands and touched their foreheads indicating peaceful intent.
Bear lowered his bow and did the same, then said, “I lead Omahatown. State your business, strangers.”
The tallest and oldest spoke. “I am Lieutenant Manuel Ortega from the Platte Island Commune. Our leader, Commander Miller, proposes that you visit us to discuss an alliance.”
Bear broke into a broad grin. He turned to his soldiers, then to Hannegan. “An alliance,” he bellowed. “Why? So that he can steal our women? So that he can take these fine young men into his army? Why do I need an alliance with anyone?”
Hannegan sidled up to Bear and whispered into his ear, “Sir, perhaps it would be advantageous to at least explore this suggestion. It’s always best to know...”
“Leave us!” Bear shouted in a voice Hannegan thought could carry all the way back to Platte Island. “We have no need for your alliances here.”
Ortega walked forward, a sad look on his face, until his chin nearly touched Bear’s. He whispered so that only Bear and Hannegan could hear. “Then I am instructed to inform you that we will conquer your sorry little collection of huts, this so-called Omahatown, and you will become our subjects.”
He spun crisply. His companions did the same. As they marched away, Bear shouted, “I should have you all killed.”
“No!” Hannegan grabbed Bear’s arm. “They have great power, weapons like no one else.”
“I should have you killed, my cowardly priest,” Bear snarled. “But how do you know about these Platte Islanders and their powerful weapons?”
“Surely, sir, you have talked to the traders...”
“I do not waste my time gossiping with thieves, preacher!”
“Of course, sir. They tell me that there are many people on Platte Island, and that they have electricity like the Days Before. Some have seen powerful rays that turn attackers into skeletons in seconds.”
Bear scratched his beard and stared into the sky, now darkening with the roiling clouds of an approaching storm. Finally, he said, “Traders will say anything to spin a good story. I only believe what I see.”
* * *
Hannegan hobbled back to his hut, where Jennifer was cleaning away the remains of their breakfast. He smiled and wrapped an arm around her. He had come to care for her very much, though their union had started strictly as an alliance of survival. She had needed a protector, and he had needed someone to watch while he slept.
His thoughts wandered back to those days, the days when the plague was at its peak, when the dead lay everywhere, for there were far too many to bury and far too few left alive. Food had become scarce after the trucks and trains stopped.
He’d watched survivors looting stores, shooting randomly, raping women and sometimes boys. He’d met her in a supermarket while raiding the meat locker. Her two attackers had given him his limp, but he’d hurt them even more. They’d retreated, bloody and frightened.
“You know how to fight,” she’d said. “They never had a chance.”
“Yeah, I do. Are you alone?”
“My family is dead, three days now. Everybody. I don’t know why I didn’t get sick. Why am I still alive?”
“It’s like that. No disease kills everyone, not even a disease engineered by the military, like this one. I lost my wife, my two sons, and almost my entire congregation. But I never even got a sniffle.”
“You’re a minister?”
“I was. But now I’m just a guy trying to survive, and my days in the Marines are sure working in my favor right now.”
She’d looked him over, her eyes lingering on his strong chest, his stubbly blond beard hiding a square jaw, his intense, blue eyes. She’d pressed against him. “You’d make a good husband. Do you need a wife?”
He’d laughed. “Might be the first time there’s been a proposal of marriage before the parties have even exchanged names. I’m Marcus.”
He’d taken a good look. She was perhaps five years younger than he, maybe twenty, a willowy, fair beauty with long golden hair, wearing torn, tight jeans and a snug-fitting satin jacket, soiled and askew. He’d taken her hand.
“Since I’m a minister...”
And they had survived, somehow. Omaha and its suburbs had become a massive field of death, littered with bloated, decaying bodies. From what they’d heard on the short-wave radio, every city in the world was the same. They had to get out, into the countryside. But how would they eat, where would they shelter? They had walked west until the yards became bigger, the houses farther apart.
In the parking lot of a strip mall on the edge of exurbia, they had happened on a group of people, maybe fifty in all, who welcomed them. Some were happy to have a minister, but not everyone. It would always be a source of tension as the group migrated into the countryside.
They eventually found a bend in a small stream ideal for farming and established the compound that Hannegan and his wife had now lived in for twenty-five years.
* * *
His wallow into the past was broken by another cry from the sentry. “The visitors return!”
The gate opened to Lieutenant Ortega, his two hands before him, a body between them, face down, naked except for a bison-skin loincloth. He bent to one knee and lay the body respectfully before the gate. “I thought he might be one of yours.”
Frigid raindrops splatted on his head as Hannegan dropped to his good knee and turned the body. Animals, probably wolves, had torn flesh from the torso. The joints were stiff in death. But the face was one he could easily recognize. It was his youngest son.
His eyes filled with tears. He looked up. “Thank you. It is always best to know.”
Something broke in him. So much loss, and for what? To go on living in Omahatown under Bear’s thumb? He stood, and motioned Ortega closer, then turned both ways, looking carefully, though he was sure Bear had already left with his hunting party. He leaned into Ortega’s ear and whispered, “I will come to your island. Tell me the way.”
Marcus always saw Bear as a crude brute who had muscled his way to the leadership of Omahatown by sheer force. But Bear showed surprising sympathy when he learned of Hannegan’s loss.
“Marcus, my friend,” he said, a hairy arm around Hannegan’s shoulders. “If there’s anything I can do for you, anything at all...”
“Yes, sir, there is. My wife and I wish to take some days away, wandering, gathering our thoughts. We will return when our grief has abated.”
“Certainly. I will assign you two warriors to ensure your safety.”
Hannegan thought carefully. The warriors could report their movements but, without protection, they might well not survive.
“Thank you, kind leader. Perhaps my two remaining sons could accompany us?”
“They are my generals,” said Bear, “I cannot be without them. But there are two young recruits who I’m quite sure can protect you.”
“Of course,” said Hannegan. “We will go at dawn tomorrow.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kowaleski