The Condo People

 

“Tell us again about the Old Days.”

The youngest of the youngsters were gathered around Susannah as she sat near the fire.  It was a cool night in early spring, and her old bones stayed chilled these days.

“What part would you like to hear tonight?” she asked.  Sometimes they wanted to hear about life before the “End” and sometimes they were more interested in the adaptation of the community from high civilization to their current simple lifestyle.

“The End!!”  Leris called out.

Susannah had a special bond with Leris, which had nothing to do with blood ties.  They were nearly all related now, after three generations of intermarriage in their small community.  Her bond with Leris was due to the young girl’s interest in learning  —  about everything.  Few of the youngsters wondered much about their little society, except to live each day to the fullest.  They were happy just growing and catching food, eating, and taking care of their other physical needs.  Not so with Leris.

Ever since she had been a toddler, she had followed Susannah around, begging for explanations about everything.  “Why do we hide our fires at night?” and “How do you know that tea made from that plant is good for a cold?”, or “How do these leaves clean dirty hair?” and countless other questions  —  she was curious and the simple answers that satisfied most young minds only made her ask more.  Leris was a deep thinker, and Susannah had ended up taking her on as a sort of apprentice.  She knew that her remaining days were few and whatever she didn’t pass along to the youngsters would be lost forever.  Leris seemed to absorb everything that she heard or saw, and Susannah had not been the only adult to notice that Leris was teaching the younger kids what she had learned.  Leris had a knack for not only understanding complex ideas and histories, but also explaining things so that even the most simple minds could understand the basic concepts.  Her skills would be very valuable to the community in the future.

“Well, listen now and I will tell you about those days again.  David was getting ready to go to work, and Asa and Hanna were playing with our dogs, Merlin and Lucy  —  our Dobermans.  They were the grandparents, with lots of greats, of course  —  of Moondog and Zora, and almost all of our dogs today.”

Van wasn’t born until several years later.  I was scheduled to teach a class that afternoon, and was on the computer, finishing my notes.

David, her late husband, had worked for the state government as a policy analyst, before the End.  Susannah was an anthropologist who had been teaching at a nearby college.  She couldn’t help but be fascinated by the cultural changes that society had undergone after the End of technological civilization, and had tried to guide her community into survivability, using simple tools in place of the technologies that they had lost.  Over the years, as they adjusted to their new circumstances, she had suggested rituals similar to those the societies that she had studied used, to instill a sense of community and purpose in individuals.  One of the most powerful, she felt, was to link past events and people to the present to provide continuity, a flow of life that they could relate to.  Thus, her storytelling.

“Anyhow, there we were, watching television, which was a box that showed people in another place far away who could talk to you in your home.  You couldn’t carry on a conversation with them, or anything like that, but you could hear them, and see images of them.  The person in charge had just introduced a famous person who was talking about the upcoming Halloween festivities.  Then the tv screen went black, the sound quit, and the world changed.”

“By the third day, everybody was concerned.  People were wandering around, asking each other what was going on.  They converged on our home, because David was the president of the Hawk Ridge HOA at that time.  He told the neighbors that he didn’t know what might have happened, but in any case, speculation was useless at that point.  We had experienced blackouts before, some that lasted for over a day  —  but this time the power didn’t come back on.”

“The community had made contingency plans for extended blackouts, so we did not wait for trouble to appear before taking defensive action.  Those who lived near the access road moved their vehicles to block the street, as was our plan for defense.  Then after another day had gone by without the power being restored, they began to chop down trees to make barricades.  There were power chainsaws in those days, and it only took minutes to cut a big tree down.  However, they ran out of gas before they were through, and after that they had to do everything by hand.”  Susannah paused, but none of her listeners asked her about gas or chainsaws, or power.  She usually had at least one toddler who wanted to know more, but tonight they were all quietly listening.

“There weren’t many axes or other tools for chopping down trees in those days, but everybody worked hard, and took turns, and finally we had the access road blocked with trees instead of vehicles, as well as barricades all around the community.  Merlin and Lucy joined with other dogs to patrol the perimeters of the development.  Most of the dogs were tiny compared to our dogs today, but they were loyal defenders, once they learned that that was what their people wanted from them.”

“Just as the final barriers were being put into place, the shopping center below was attacked and looted by people in vehicles coming from the direction of the city.  We quickly set up guards, those who had some experience at shooting.  The sharpshooters aimed at the tires of the vehicles as they neared our borders, and once the lead vehicles were disabled, the rest turned around, preying on less well defended communities.  Those stranded raiders who didn’t go back down the hill were encouraged to do so with well-aimed bullets hitting near them.  One of the cars got hit in the gas tank and caught on fire, which was a great motivator for the rest of them to leave.”

“Other developments in our neighborhood were not as fortunate as us, and some people came to us for refuge.  Those we recognized, or who looked like refugees rather than raiders, were allowed in.  Some of them had dogs, and guns, and a few were organized enough to bring their food supplies and blankets, and other useful items.  Those at the bottom of the hill fared worst, but more of our closer neighbors were able to reach safety with us.  The Spanglers and Minnicks were two of the families that took refuge with us, and became part of our community.  Ramon, Lima, and Strum, you are all their great-grandchildren.  Your grandfather, Russ, was the oldest of those who were children at the time of the End.”

“Once we had all of those extra people, we really needed a steady supply of water  —  the taps had run dry, because the power was not there to pump water up our hill.  We decided to dam the drainage conduit to make a pond that would collect rain so that we’d have water to use.  Sharon and John Horst were civil engineers  —  they were grandparents of many of you, including you, Neal and Maja, and you, Rory.”  Susannah pointed to each child as she named them.  There were many other descendants of Sharon and John, of course, but those three were the direct descendants listening to her this evening.

“They headed the project of covering the culvert with a tarp and then covering the tarp with soil and stones to create a pond, which ran between the our unit and the Longs, who were in the first unit in the next building.  Julie and Ed Long were great grandparents of yours  —   Mairi, Rail, Roma, Haden, and Ansel.”  Susannah was slightly amazed that she remembered their names, but then realized that even if she didn’t get them right, nobody was going to correct her.

“After enough rainfall had fallen to fill the pond, pipes were run from the lower end of the pond and across the road.  The Delacroix’s condo had been selected to become the community hall because it was directly downstream from the pond, so that water flowed down when the pipes were lowered enough for it to do so.  Melissa and Mike  —  your ancestors, Monty and Tara – allowed us all to use the toilet on the lower level of the condo, using gravity to provide running water.  Sharon devised a method for running water to a sink, as well, so that we could set up a kitchen on the lower level, also.  We didn’t care that it had to be boiled before drinking, we were just thrilled to have running water.  Dirty water drained through the ravine to a meadow below, where most of the pollutants were filtered out, and downhill to eventually connect with the creek at the bottom of the hill.”

“Many of the homes in the development were systematically disassembled, because they soon became unfit to live in.  The salvageable materials were collected in one complex, to be used as needed.  The surviving residents doubled- or tripled-up in the units that were usable.  Garages became small apartments, as were the parts of the units that could be closed off for privacy.  Couples had the first choice of living space, and older children, as well as single adults, tended to camp out in the open living spaces.”

Susannah could have gone on and on about the shoddy workmanship, cheap materials, and other shortcomings of those overpriced, poorly designed condos that had been slapped together with no thought of their physical location.  French doors had opened onto decks that faced the broiling summer sun in summer, while during winter the wind had whistled through the uninsulated walls.  The Great Rooms that were all the rage back then were impossible to keep at comfortable temperatures, even before the cost of utilities skyrocketed; and after the End . . . well, that was a whole other story.  She refrained from mentioning any of those things, not wanting to get side-tracked with explanations of what were, to her listeners, alien concepts.

“After the first riots, occasionally we would hear gunshots coming from below, but it didn’t take long for all of the gas to get used up, and few people ventured up our steep hill on foot.  Those that did, soon found themselves facing the dogs, backed by armed residents.”  Someday there would be others who would try to control them or take their resources, but if they remained strong and determined, they might be able to survive as a community.  That was her main purpose in telling the stories over and over.

“The increasingly cold weather as October slipped by weakened many of the residents.  Frequent rainfalls had provided enough water for life, although people were looking pretty grungy by the end of the first week.  Those who needed medicines soon ran out and many of them died that first winter without central heating.  Hunger reared its ugly head too, and nobody had enough to eat.  Already weakened by the cold and hunger, people began suffering from flus and viruses.  Those who died were buried in the meadow below.  Those that survived learned to depend only on themselves and each other to take care of their every need.”

“We learned later that cannibalism was common at first, although this was mainly practiced by roving gangs of renegades  Once winter set in, though, there was little trouble  —  the gangs either made their way south to warmer climates or they perished, once their easy prey was depleted.”

Survivors of the cannibalistic gangs had been few and far between, and suspicion towards strangers meant that few new people were allowed to join new communities, including Hawk Ridge.  One young couple who had climbed the bluffs behind the shopping center carrying an infant and a toddler slung on their backs had been accepted by the Hawk Ridge folks.  Tyler and Amber Weaver and their two children had been captured by a gang of cannibals, who attacked their development down the road a mile or so.  Their captors forced them to pull heavy carts made of pickup truck beds with their rear axles, filled with loot.  One night, when the caravan was camped in front of the shopping center for the night, Tyler had managed to free himself and Amber.  He had found a shard of glass which he used to cut the ropes that bound them.  Trey and Mary were not shackled, so the family was able to escape together.  They did not have the opportunity to free any others, because of the sentries between them and the other captives.  All of their belongings except for a few rags of clothing were lost to them, but the most precious possession, life itself, remained.

The Hawk Ridge patrols had met them at the edge of the bluff after the dogs had alerted their human partners of intruders.  When they saw the ragged family, the community had listened to their tale, fed them, and ultimately decided to allow them to stay.  Most of the people who had stumbled upon Hawk Ridge had not been offered permanent shelter, but had either been eliminated if they were dangerous, or given a small ration of food and water, then sent on their way.  They had been forced to limit their numbers or none of them would have survived those first few years.

“Mara and Mak, you are descended from them.”  Susannah acknowledged those two who were in front of her.  “You have lots of other cousins, and all of you should be very proud of the dangers your great-grandparents faced and survived before finding Hawk Ridge.”

The accounts of the horrors that the Weavers had seen and related to their new neighbors became cautionary tales to every generation at Hawk Ridge.  Their captivity  —  that they were forced into slavery, witnessed rapes and random acts of violence, was traumatic.  The cannibalistic cooking and eating of their fellow captives and the fact that they were aware that it would have been their fate as well, as soon as they became too weak to pull the carts  —  deeply affected both Tyler and Amber.  They produced many children, subconsciously trying to make up for their neighbors’ fates.

The kids shuddered at the thought of people eating other people.  They were used to hunting, to skinning animals and butchering them, and the leap to humans as the game was vivid, and repulsive, in their minds.  Susannah had had more trouble coming to terms with that aspect of the End than had the younger generations.  The never-ending wars around the globe, genocides and insurgent actions, infamous serial killers, and other atrocious acts that had been reported on during her youth and young adult years had shocked her, but these kids had seen far worse up close with few ill effects.  She was thankful for their resilience.

“We had to learn to hunt, because even with pooling our available supplies, we soon ran out of food, too.  Some people fashioned traps for rabbits and squirrels.  There were a few shotguns, rifles, and pistols owned by various residents, but ammunition was in short supply  —  we decided to save those weapons for defense.  Cody Brown had a crossbow, and Dave Spangler, a facilities director back in the old days, made bows and arrows to bring down game.  Suzie Minnick discovered that she had a talent for downing squirrels and rabbits with stones thrown from an improvised slingshot, made out of cloth at first, but later leather, as we still do today. Monty, Loren, Nina, and Lerian – you are some of the direct descendants of those talented folks.”

 

“The dogs were not only good protectors, but many of them had been bred to be hunters, and still had the instincts of hunting animals.  Besides our Dobermans, there were other large dogs, and several small terriers, spaniels, and mixed breeds that we trained to protect the community, as well as to hunt for food.”

“Landscaping at our development had involved the use of chemicals to kill weeds and bugs, so we were afraid to grow food for the first year after the End.  We did grow crops for food the second year, which may have been too soon, but we didn’t know.  That’s probably why the first babies didn’t live, although you youngsters are proof that over the years, the contaminated earth healed itself.”

Several of the youngsters looked at themselves, to see if there was something wrong with them.  They looked ok, and were all still alive, so apparently they were all right.  Leris had read about contamination and genetic mutations in the library in the community hall; residents had combined all of the books that they had at the time of the End, for anybody to use.  She knew that there was more to it than just looking normal, but she didn’t say anything.  Besides, she also knew that when the Elders had begun to plant food gardens, they had insisted that only soil taken from the scrubby woods behind, and uphill, from the development be used.  Although the development had been built on former farm land, the area that had been landscaped was nutrient-poor and laden with toxins.  After so many years, though, their land was healthy and productive again.

Personally, Leris thought that the air itself had been toxic, and the first babies hadn’t lived because they didn’t have enough food, or the right foods, to combat the toxins.  Now ten years old, Leris had been one of the few children in her generation who bothered to learn to read.  As far as she knew, only a handful of her parents’ generation knew how to read, either.  She had gone to Susannah, searching for knowledge of the world she’d been born into as well as the world that had preceded her world.

The toddlers were nodding off to sleep.  Susannah ended her storytelling with a lullaby, actually a slow song by one of the rock bands she’d grown up listening to.  “. . . tis the evening of the day.  I sit and watch the children play.  Smiling faces I can see . . .”

As she crooned, the parents, who had been listening to her tales also, came and gathered up the sleeping children in their arms, carrying them home to bed.  The older children gathered in front of the fire and finished sorting cool season veggie seeds for the next day’s planting.  Susannah got to her feet and joined a group of middle-aged women who were talking in the community kitchen area, in front of another fire.

“Maura, Jill, and Bella will be twelve years old this year.  We need to plan a celebration to commemorate the end of their childhood.”  Ursa, Maura’s mother, reminded Susannah of the conversations they’d been having for a couple of months now.  Not only the girls, but the boys, also, would benefit with some kind of coming of age ritual.  The other women agreed.  They had felt lost as they matured from children to young women, and having a ceremony would help to ease that adjustment.  The young adult women and men had been struggling to find themselves in the barren cultural wasteland that characterized the end of the Old Times.

“Tim, Stemi, Bear, and Mead are also turning twelve this year.” Mead’s mother, Delana, added.  She was a grand-daughter of Susannah, Hanna’s daughter.  “We need to find some way for the young men to take that step into adulthood.”

“I’ve been thinking about this, and reading through my old books.  We could use the summer solstice as the ‘coming of age’ day for both the girls and the boys.”  Susannah had been expecting this conversation.  “I have an idea, which involves them proving themselves in some way, to show that they are mature.  I don’t want them to be risked as in tattoos or other traditions that I know of, but on the other hand they must have a real challenge to overcome or it won’t have any value.

“I agree.  We need something that involves skills, patience, leadership, and excitement.”  Delana was pleased with Susannah’s idea. “What about the girls’ ritual?”

“I want the girls to have the same task.”

“Be serious, Gran.”

“I am serious.  I don’t want our community to fall into rigid roles defined by gender.  There are historical precedents for complete equality between the sexes, and I want us to strive to achieve that ourselves.  So far, we have been very fortunate here, due to our location and the level of chaos in the surrounding communities.  But the day will arrive when other people will come and try to overpower us.  Most likely they will be a male-centered society.  I don’t want to see our women being subjugated by any of them, and if I don’t want anybody else lording it over our women then our men shouldn’t do that either.”

The younger women mulled Susannah’s idea, and finally concluded that she was right.  “Not that our men are likely to try it, but having equality from the get-go should assure that the women have a better opportunity to be independent.”  Delia wanted her daughter, Bella, to be as independent as the women of Susannah’s generation had been before the End.  She was fortunate that her mate, Jeb, had been raised by the daughter of two of the most independent Elders  —  Dave Spangler had insisted that his wife, Jill, and his daughters become proficient in hunting with bow and arrow.  Java, his middle daughter, was Jeb’s mother.  Jeb’s father, Abe, son of Walt and Abby Kominsky, was the community’s dog trainer, and had raised his only child to be aware of taking each dog, and by extension, person, as an individual; not stereotyped by age or gender, or any physical characteristics.  Jeb, in his turn, was teaching his only child to command dogs as her parents and grandparents had done.  He would definitely support the idea of equality.

Susannah got up to go to her bed in a small room in the main community building.  She almost fell over Leris, who was right behind her, listening to everything that was said.  “Come along with me, Leris, you can tuck an old woman into her bed.”  The Elder leaned slightly on the child’s sturdy shoulder to steady herself as she wearily made her way up the stairs.  The walls between the units had been removed, but the passageway was like a maze.  Great Rooms were scattered throughout the long complex, and the rooms and lofts that connected with rooms or lofts in the neighboring units wandered across the second floors.  “I guess it’s a good defensive tactic, having our hallways so convoluted.  Too bad nobody can claim the idea as their own; it’s just the way it was made, for entirely different purposes.”  Susannah found herself muttering more to herself than to her protégée.  Leris listened, as always, eager to learn everything that Susannah knew.

After she had helped the Elder into her room, and made sure she was settled for the night, Leris went back downstairs and outside to another building complex.  She and her family lived at the far end of that complex, and the floor plan of that complex was even crazier than the main complex.  She went inside through a door on the last patio, and climbed up two flights of stairs to a room that looked out over the garage, at the back of the house.

Before the End, the garages had been the front façades of these condos.  The street had curved around a beautifully landscaped commons, according to Susannah.  Leris tried to picture vast expanses of manicured lawn, but couldn’t.  She liked the gently rolling gardens that filled the commons now, and loved to look out at them.  The gardens were visible to her because the homes across the street had been demolished.  There wasn’t much pavement left in the street, either.  She sighed, wondering, not for the first time, why people had lived such strange, non-functional lives.  Not only had they lived that way, but they had genuinely mourned the passing of their old civilization.

Leris remembered when Susannah’s husband had still been alive.  David Epstein had died only two years ago, from an infection in a small cut he’d gotten when he was skinning a rabbit and the knife had slipped.  Although Penny, a registered nurse in the Old Time, had taught their children about germs and cleanliness, and Susie, a Master Gardener, had told them what she knew about herbal remedies, nothing the younger generation did had worked to heal Susannah’s husband.  David was, had been, a powerhouse of activity.  He’d always been everywhere, overseeing every activity around the community.  Maybe the Old Times were better in some ways  —  David wouldn’t have died from an infected cut  —  but Leris thought she would rather live in today’s world.

“““““

In the morning, Leris awoke early and brewed a cup of herbal tea to take up to Susannah.  When she arrived at the Elder’s room, she was at first amused to see that the usually early riser was still in bed.  As she got closer, her amusement turned to alarm, as she could see that the woman was not breathing.  Her skin was cold to Leris’ touch.  Leris dropped the mug and ran down the stairs sobbing.

“She’s dead, Susannah is dead!” she told Hanna, who made her way up the stairs to her mother’s room.  Somebody had gotten Dale, Hanna’s mate, from the fields, where he’d been supervising the sowing that morning, and he soon joined Hanna and Russ, now the oldest member of the community, who had followed Hanna.  Soon, the room was filled with mourners, and Eve, Russ’ mate, started shooing everybody out.

“Go down now, and start heating some water for bathing.” She told Conny and Jon, two more of the new elders.  “And you, Ram, Savin, and Heldan, you can help Van carry your grandmother down to the main hall.  We need to prepare for her funeral.”  The Hawk Ridge community had decided many years ago to cremate their dead, simply because they didn’t have the resources to dig graves.  They had developed a ritual, though, of holding a wake for the deceased, and carrying the body to a pyre beside the pond, lighting it at dawn.

Again, due to material scarcities, they had had to resort to using dried grasses to cover their dead  —  they did not have the supplies of cloth to afford to burn any irreplaceable clothes or blankets.  Suzie had begun weaving the tall grasses in intricate patterns to use as modest coverings for the deceased.  Since the woven covers turned out to be very practical for the living, as well, a certain herringbone pattern soon had become the only pattern for funeral coverings  —  other patterns, dissociated from death, were used for many other purposes in the community.

Once Susannah’s body had been brought down, and laid on a table in the middle of the main hall, people began making preparations for a funeral such as they had become accustomed to.  Those who were not related to the deceased, or who were but distantly related, took care of the community’s daily tasks, and cooked a special meal.  At sundown, everybody gathered to speak of Susannah’s life.  Each person took a turn, and after they had all said something, even the youngest children, they sang some of Susannah’s favorite songs.  Russ then brought out wine and beer, and they toasted to Susannah’s long life and the past; and to the future that she had envisioned, vowing to do their best to live up to her aspirations.

Leris was especially affected by the loss of her mentor, and dissolved into tears several times throughout the night, until she’d collapsed into disturbed sleep.  Elise and Reba, Leris’ grandmothers, took turns hugging and comforting the girl.  Tab, Elise’s mate, steadied her, leading her to a seat near the fire.  Leris’ other grandfather, Wally, had died of something called the flu several winters ago.  Leris’ parents, Berry and Blaise, were sympathetic to the young girl, but neither understood Leris’ bond with Susannah; neither had ever felt the need for knowledge that had driven their young daughter to seek out Susannah’s companionship and tutorage.

After the funeral the following morning, Leris was at loose ends for several days, until one evening the youngsters asked her to tell them stories.  She felt much better after repeating some of Susannah’s tales, and found herself using the exact same words the Elder had used, with the same emphasis and sequence of timing.  She became the community storyteller; they called her, and others like her, the Historian in later years.

Soon came the time of the equinox, which Susannah had turned into an annual celebration.  The Feast had started out as a celebration of the new growing season, during the first spring after the end of the Old Times.  Onions, potatoes, and celery had been planted in pots, and kept through the first year in sunny windows or under skylights, from the supplies of fresh produce in Hawk Ridge at the end of the Old Times.  They had also started radish and other cool crop seeds inside their homes  —  in sunny windows or in front of the French doors, or under skylights  —  to supplement their meat diet, as hunting was their only means of procuring most of their food.  The first dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and other wild foods of spring became part of the feast.  All of these foods had signified to the survivors of that first winter that they could live, and maybe even thrive, in this new age.  As the years passed, they had been able to put away more food for getting through winter, and eventually the Feast came to mean using up the foods left from last year’s harvest to welcome the start of the new growing season.

For the equinox of Susannah’s passing, the community’s cooks spent weeks grinding grains, not needed for sowing this year’s crops, into flours which they used to bake breads and cakes.  They foraged for the wild foods like the Elders had eaten that first year, and harvested the tubs of early crops as the Elders had done, also.  For this Feast, they did not eat meat.

After enjoying the variety of dishes made from dried fruits, nuts, and stored vegetables from their larders, as well as the breads and cakes, the people ate salads made from fresh greens, early veggies, and foraged foods.  They sang and danced, accompanied by the simple musical instruments that they’d fashioned from materials at hand.  They sat around the main hall, in front of hearth fires, drinking and enjoying the company of each other, until the wee hours of the morning.  And Leris told the Stories.

“““““

That spring was a time of many changes.  The new Elders were determined to carry out Susannah’s plans for the next phase  —  developing cultural traditions to satisfy the human need for acceptance and rites of passage.  She had outlined a course of action; each aspiring adult would go through a training period with several dogs, until a special bond occurred between the human and a particular canine.  They would lead a team of hunters to kill a wildcat, and afterwards, the new adult would have a special relationship with that specific dog.

The dog population of Hawk Ridge was crucial to the survival of the community.  Besides the pure-blooded Dobermans, golden retrievers, beagles, and toy poodles that the community carefully bred to each other, there were several litters of mixed breeds.  There had been one male german shepherd in Hawk Ridge in the Old Times, and he had been mated with all of the fertile female dogs, providing a variety of medium to large mixed breed dogs.  The other male dogs had had their genes spread around, also.

Jeb and his daughter, Bella, worked hard at training the yearling dogs, so that the dogs would be ready to accompany the incipient adults on their ‘coming of age’ trials.  This training involved courage on the part of the dogs to face down snarling beasts with sharp teeth and dangerous claws.  They had to be intelligent, fast, agile, and formidable.  They also had to bond with their team leader, because each person who went through this rite of passage would have the responsibility of that dog for the dog’s lifetime.

The trials had been devised to test the young people in several skill areas  —  tracking, hunting, and cooperation were the main criteria, although tool fashioning, skinning, and preserving furs would also come into play.  Each participant would form a team from people in other age groups, lead their group in hunting a wildcat, and kill it.  They would each process the cat’s skin by themselves to keep as a furry trophy.  Because primitive weapons were the only ones available, dogs were essential in tracking and cornering the cat for the kill.

Besides a few bobcats, mountain lions, and panthers, there were also housecats and hybrids who were descended from housecats escaped from human homes or abandoned in the end of the Old Times.  They competed with the humans for meat, and were also known to attack children.  Asa, Susannah’s oldest child, had died from putrifying wounds suffered while protecting his youngest son from a feral cat.

The youngsters of Hawk Ridge had been making trips down the hill to the abandoned stores ever since the second year after the end of the Old Times.  The Elders had explored the shopping center during the first summer, looking to salvage what they could of Old Time supplies  —  tools, clothes, blankets, pots and pans and many other useful items.  While they didn’t prohibit the kids from exploring on their own, they discouraged them with tales of the risks involved.  There could be wild dogs or cats, or other creatures using the abandoned buildings.  Humans could be lurking there, or they might run into venomous snakes or spiders.  They shopping center was fraught with alluring dangers, a sure magnet to attract the young who chafed under the label of ‘children’.

The youngsters always found ways to sneak off to the shopping center to find adventure, but the senior dogs always guarded the kids, unseen.  Aram had been in a group of kids exploring the abandoned buildings when the wildcat attacked him.  Luckily, Asa had not just sent Socrates and Natalia to guard the group, but he had accompanied them, concerned by a ‘hunch’ that he couldn’t ignore.

Aram had grown up with a limp because of his scarred leg, as well as mentally scarred by being the reason for his father’s death.  He had also grown up to be the best cat hunter of the community, and had taught his children and their peers how to hunt down the cats.  His mate, Teal, was one of Leris’ aunts, her father’s sister.  Their two children, Arte and Mara, were still very young.

When Susannah formulated the rite of passage plans, she did so with the knowledge that the kids were creating traditions of their own, but the Elders couldn’t let on that they knew about the forays into the shopping center.  The formal ‘coming of age’ was an important event, but not the most important rite of passage for their young.  It was the one that could be acknowledged, however, and celebrated.

While the plans for the coming of age rituals were being carried out, the youngsters had continued to make their forays into the shopping center.  They had seen strangers one day, although they had not been seen.  Misty had reported this to her older brother and sister, Tim and Mia.  They had in turn told their parents; Sammy, daughter of Asa and sister to Aram, and Milt, who was a grandson of the Weavers.  They had conferred with the Elders, and set into play a plan to find out the intentions of these new people.  While they would welcome new genes into their small community, they were wary of strangers.

The next day, Jeb and Bella went out with some of the pups, as they often did.  They descended the bluffs behind the old shopping center, ostensibly looking for cats.  The dogs  —  two Dobermans, two mostly Dobermans with some shepherd genes, a golden Doberman mix, and a mongrel with genes from every breed to be found at Hawk Ridge, did not sense any cats.  However, they came upon the new scent-trail, and led their trainers to a former development across the almost-obliterated street, once a major artery into the nearby city.  The two humans peeked out from behind a bush as the dogs, led by the mongrel, Tigger, approached a strange man.  The man, startled by the appearance of the dogs, reached for his knife.

Jeb stepped out into the open, greeting the stranger.  The man returned the greeting and lowered the knife to his side.  He did not sheathe it, though.

“These are your dogs?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, they are.” Jeb answered.  “These animals are our close partners.”

“Do you live around here?” the stranger continued.

“Maybe.  Why do you want to know?” Jeb answered.  He was suspicious of anybody or anything new.

“We have just been forced out of our homes, in a section of the city over there,” he pointed in the direction of the city of which Hawk Ridge had once been a suburb, “and would like to settle at the bottom of the hill here.  Those old buildings across the road could be fixed up to become habitable again, and the parking lot cleaned up to use for growing crops.” The stranger explained.

“Why were you forced out?”

“There is a military-type group trying to organize a new government in the city.” He replied.  “They wanted to tell us what we could and couldn’t do, and to take some of our food and supplies in return for ‘protection’.”  He almost spat the word out, he said it with so much contempt.  “As far as we can tell, the only protection we need is from them.”

Jeb wondered if this man was telling the truth.  Susannah, and now Leris, often told stories about the deceitfulness of people, and he knew that he did not have the skills to tell whether the man lied or not.  He decided to play along for the moment, and introduced himself.

“I am Jeb, and my great-grandparents were living near here when the Old Times ended.  There were roving gangs of looters who attacked their developments, but the survivors were able to stay alive by hunting and growing food so that now we have a small community.  We have not known any other people for many years.  What about your people, which you apparently have concealed around us?”

The man gave a short bark of laughter.  “You are right,” he acknowledged.  “We are surrounding you even as you speak to me.”

Jeb allowed a flicker of surprise and concern to show on his face, but waved the man to continue to speak.

“I am Manuel, and I am the leader of my community, formerly the Fulton Manor neighborhood of Cedarville.  We have escaped from the Cedarville Vigilantes, as they call themselves, who really are trying to gain control of the city.  We also have women and children with us  — behind the complex  —  but the menfolk now have you surrounded.  I think that your family and friends would give much to have you back safely.  We need space for ourselves, and I’m sure that your little community  —  whatever or wherever it actually is  —  will suit us just fine.  LeShaun, why don’t you have your guys come out and show Jeb here how hospitable we are. ”

A dozen men appeared at the openings of the dilapidated apartments in the surrounding buildings, brandishing knives and spears.

Just then, an explosion of snarling dogs erupted from behind them, inside the buildings.  Bella had gone up the hill, unnoticed by the others, who were concentrating on the man, Jeb.  She led the waiting Hawk Ridge defenders, who were armed with bows and arrows, spears and knives, and the biggest dogs, across the road out of view, and behind the complex.  The dogs took down all of their targets in the doorways, while the hunters disarmed them.

Jeb and Tigger immobilized Manuel, who still had a look of surprise on his formerly smug face.

Another group of Hawk Ridgers had secured the women and children, a sullen group of filthy, underfed women and children.  They brought them up to Jeb, herded by armed young women and men.

“That’s all of them.”  Erin, Arny, and Vesta led the Hawk Ridgers who had undertaken that maneuver.  “What do we want to do with them?”

“As soon as Russ and the others get here, we’ll have a trial.” Jeb said loudly, knowing that their ‘visitors’ were listening very closely.

Arny went through the belongings of the strangers while waiting for the Elders to arrive.  He discovered leather pouches of teeth, human teeth.  Other pouches contained small human bones strung on braided lengths of human hair, intertwined with teeth.  This group definitely had some explaining to do.  Arny called Jeb over to show him what he’d found.  “No wonder they don’t have any seeds, food supplies, or even animals,” he commented after looking through the packs.  “They’re cannibals, just like the ones that my grandparents, Tyler and Amber, escaped from, all those years ago.  Or, did they just find these somewhere?”

Jeb pointed to the two groups of strangers, many of whom were eying the two as they sorted through the packs.  “Look at their faces.  They are the ones that these grisly trophies belong to, and they know perfectly well that what they’ve done is not acceptable human behavior.  We must not let them live to prey on others.”

Two of the ‘visitors’ tried to edge away, only to find their way blocked by big dogs.  Jeb had them stand in a circle surrounded by armed Hawk Ridgers and dogs, until the Elders made their appearance.  They held a speedy trial, sentenced all of the men to death because of the deception they’d tried to pull off.  After some heated discussion, it was decided to put the women and children on probation.  Time would tell if they would be allowed to become part of the community.

There was more debate on how to carry out the death sentences.  Nobody wanted to be the executioner, but it had to be done.  Russ finally suggested that they must be killed quickly.  The cannibals were encircled by bowsmen, and at a signal, they were all shot at once.  The strangers’ women and older children all screamed obscenities as the bowmen loosed their arrows, so at a signal they reloaded their bows and shot them as well.  Only the youngest children were spared, in the end, because the older ones showed the same hatred as their mothers had.  Life was too precarious to risk harboring people who wished the community harm.

In spite of the unplanned Coming of Age for the entire community, the original coming of age ceremony was carried out at the summer solstice as planned.  Each twelve-year-old had followed Susannah’s proposed procedures for a cat hunt, had successfully led their group and killed a cat, which they then skinned and tanned the hide.  At the ceremony, held at sundown on the day of the solstice, each new adult was dressed in new leather clothing which their parents or other close relative had made for them.  Draped over their shoulders, each one had the skin of their cat.  There were gray mottled or striped pelts, a yellow one, pure black ones, one white one, and the spotted pelt of a bobcat.  Each one told the gathering about their adventure in tracking and killing the cat, thanked their group, and named their very own dog.

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