In a wood in winter, in a cabin at the end of the world, there lived a woman. She kept herself the best she could, though more for the routine of the thing than the possibility of visitors. The last of those stopped a year ago, and now occupied a grave some ways into the trees. Others once lay beside him, though their graves were shallower, and as she’d found, shallow graves make hard work for human hands, and short work for those with teeth and claws. So, she’d spent two days digging the frozen earth with a coffee can that chimed against the soil and stone like a broken spade until her back and shoulders ached and her fingers were torn.
Two things passed her mind as she dug. One, that the man lying in cold state beside her—because she had no other place to keep the staring corpse, and outside among the trees and a creeping bite of encroaching winter was as good as anywhere—was the last she’d ever have between her legs. The other, a small part that pecked and harangued, insisted she was a fool to bury this much meat. And still, she did. Some things were more important than survival, at least in those days. So, she drug him to the grave, and when he slid in with a hard thump, she did nothing to hide her tears or stifle the choked sobs that forced their way from her throat like hatching vipers. She piled the dirt into the hole with bleeding frozen fingers, each handful obscuring pale flesh and hands that still held the memory of her flesh. When the last fistful obscured his eyes, blotting out those milky pupils, and the tears were dry, she went inside to sit beside the fire and sip at her carefully hoarded tea.
She would survive.
Later, when her womb quickened, she thanked God for the miracle, and tried to think of all the things her mother and her grandmother taught her about raising babies. She prayed briefly it would be a boy, for reasons that she refused to admit, and when they insisted on notice, kicked the thoughts from her head with disgust. Even in the midst of a nuclear winter, she would not relive the sins of Lot and aggrieve an already angry God. Not even if it meant the end of the species. Instead, she set about thinking of names as a distraction. Jamie, Jordan, Ashley. All good, all pleasant to the ear. More spilled into her head like eager birds flocking to suet, and she shooed them away. Choose too soon, and she would spoil the joy of discovery.
Needs must, and she prepared in ways she knew were necessary—kept the rifle above the fireplace clean, once used to frighten predators away in sweltering summer months, and again the two-legged variety when the winter came. For a time, she was able to find fox and vole, and did her best to store the meat in a logical way. But logic means little to poor preparation or scavengers better equipped to survive, a fact that wasn’t her fault, but a fact, nonetheless. Soon she found her stores dwindled to a few scraps, and then fewer still as the last of those animals who’d prowled the grounds either moved on to richer lands or fallen to the depredations of radiation sickness, carcasses long past scavenging even by the desperate.
Marion, Cora, Avery.
She would survive.
She moved on, to canned rations, to the few medicines she could coax from abandoned vehicles on the old trail in the few days before the snows set in. The days she didn’t eat, she took vitamins, and the days she ate, she didn’t, stretching what canned goods she could to a week at a time. A spoonful of beans, a handful of peanuts. Sometimes she sang the phrase to herself in the silence, her voice alien and sharp, and would stop abruptly, unnerved. She missed sound at times. On a trek deeper into the wood in the beginning, she happened upon a clearing littered with the bodies of birds, fallen by the score. With their absence, the wood felt like a mausoleum. The trill of a bird, the wail of a siren when she lived in the city, the ever-present murmur of humanity, gone.
These were fleeting thoughts, like a pack of wild dogs afraid to approach those places where men lived. More desperately, her rationing was reaching its end, and hunger encroached on her thoughts, a predator waiting for her to fall. She began to range as far as she dared, though still she avoided the clearing and the few fallen animals she happened across, their fur missing in mangy clumps, jaws rigid in rictus grins. Once, she attempted to walk to the gas station halfway down the side of the mountain. A vicious bout of nausea struck her halfway there, leaving her emptying her guts—mostly thin yellow bile—into the snow, and she stumbled from lightheadedness that swept over her like a wave, twisting her ankle in a hole on the trail. Three hours later—more than twice the time for the trip, she drug herself over the threshold of the cabin and collapsed, weeping and screaming strangled rage into the threadbare rug at the entry. Its rough fibers collected her fury, trapping it inside the Home Sweet Home stamped on the cheap fabric. Home is where you primal scream, she supposed, and that sent her into a fit of laughter that left her ribs and stomach aching.
Another week, and the cold set in deeper. The fires kept little of it away, and she shivered uncontrollably. Skin hung on her frame like drooping wallpaper, and her hips thrust from under the pitiful swell of her belly like knives. Her hair had begun to thin, and she felt at least three loose teeth when she probed with her tongue. Hunger tore at her, a wolf in her breast. She needed to eat. She needed to eat or the life in her womb would mean nothing. Her breasts, which should have been aching and swollen with milk by now, only produced a thin trickle when she attempted to massage the liquid free.
With a pained sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and bundled the best she could in thick wool layers. Outside, wind-driven snow cut at her lips and nose like slivered glass, and bare branches snapped together like brittle bones. She imagined that perhaps they were applauding for the end of all things, and scoffed. Some simply didn’t have what it took.
She was a survivor.
Robin, Parker, Taylor.
For an hour she searched, but a mound of earth once obvious on an autumn floor gave no hint of its location under a blanket of snow the color of crematory remains. Each drift she kicked away only revealed more hard earth, more rock and clay and leaves clad in ice. She screamed in frustration and fell to her knees, flinging snow and a thin scree of frozen pebbles away with her broken can. No use. Even if she could find the grave, the can would never cut the earth. It had petrified in the cold.
The first spasms caught her unaware, and the can dropped from her hands as her back arched in pain. A warm wetness spread through the crotch of her leggings and froze almost immediately to her thighs. Nothing she could do about it. When the contraction passed, she moved inch by inch, hunger and pain forgotten in her drive to get inside. Another contraction. She lay panting in the snow. Another. A scream. Another, the pain like an ocean, vast and wide and deep and crushing her pressing crushing breaking tearing her to pieces ripping the light away pounding sense from her mind.
And then, darkness.
When she woke, it was to the cries of a child. Her child. Her heart. She dug the small bundle from the snow and shuffled to the cabin, head down, the infant clutched to her chest. Was it a boy? A girl? She hadn’t thought to look. She would settle on he for now. Another thought. Had she remembered the umbilical? She half tumbled into the relative warm of the cabin, the child still squalling.
With fingers stiff and nearly black at the tips from exposure, she tore thick layers of clothing away and pulled a breast free, then lifted the child’s head. She didn’t know how long to wait, but as the minutes passed, and the child continued to squall, she tried again. He refused to latch on. She cajoled and pleaded and sang her little ditty—spoonful of beans handful of peanuts he’s got a little penis. She giggled despite herself, then bit it off. A good mother would not laugh. She swayed and hummed through the screams that crawled inside her head, but his lips were cold and hard and he refused to take the nipple. Perhaps he only needed warmth to find his appetite.
She set him on the table, swaddling his chill flesh in her sweater —so cold, she hoped only he had suffered no frostbite as she had—nine fingers nine toes haha I’m just glad it’s healthy, and busied herself with making a thin stew. This would have to do until she could get enough sustenance in her to produce a full flow.
Harley Charlie Haven Tatum.
She clattered about the kitchen. Pot, knife, withered potatoes she’d managed to grow before the earth had slammed shut like a stone door. Meat—so small—but tender, somehow, that she’d refused to eat until the child had come. She set to work cutting, dicing, adding water from the well. Thank God for the well, too deep for radiation and ice. She thought her mother likely to tsk at her intention to feed the child stew. Some might even call her a bad mother. In fact, she didn’t even a name for her child yet.
Michael Stephen Jonathan Dakota.
She rubbed her head, cast off the clump of hair that came away. It didn’t matter. Those people were dead, and she was alive. She was a survivor. She thought of her reluctance to save the meat of her lover what felt like so many years ago and found it interesting in a clinical way. Biological imperative was a beast its own, not unlike the Id, Ego, and Superego. Superego to the rescue! Rescue me rescue me no one was coming no one would ever come again. Her stomach growled, stomping thought out like an errant flame.
She stood on unsteady feet, moved to the stew on the stove. Had she lit that? Had she carried it over? Was it hot already? None mattered. Things you couldn’t remember must not have been important, her mother would have said. She peered at what cooked in the pot. Deep red, with small chunks of meat. Spices from her rack. It smelled like heaven. She dipped a spoon, took a sip. A cube of meat sweet meat cut so neat floated in the bowl of the ladle, and she took a tentative bite, spat out a loose tooth. Where had she found this?
It was sweet and savory, like tender pork. It’s not sauce it’s gravy. No lumps, like grandma used to make! She let out a wild cackle, choked it back in a sob. It had been so long since she’d had real food, and her hunger smashed aside all other concerns. She stood over the pot for a time, sucking the broth and meat directly from the ladle, scalding as the food tumbled down her throat.
Each bite crashed into her stomach like a wave, and though she vomited the first few mouthfuls into a steaming pool on the cold wood floor where wisps of stinking steam rose in questing tendrils, she could not stop eating. Her eyes darted to the bundle on the table. She noted a red stain on the sweater and reminded herself she would need a way to launder the child’s clothing. Mercifully, Carter had calmed. She paused long enough to wonder at her decision, one she’d not been conscious of. She liked that name. Strong. Intelligent. Perhaps he would be an adventurer, or a scholar. Perhaps.
She took another bite of the stew and let it warm her.
She would be a good mother.
She spat out another tooth. No. A bone. Tiny, delicate, stained red by the broth.
She would survive.