fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Twenty Nine. {fiction}

When I first found out about the Cave People, I was stumped about how they had been so invisible to me for a whole year.

Even though the first cave past mine was a couple miles upstream, how did they know I wouldn’t come that way and see their tracks? Or hear the goats baa-ing and the chickens clucking? Notice the garden, for instance?

And then I saw where the goats, chickens and garden were kept.

The hillside into which their cave entrances were set formed a half-circle around the nearly vertical, rocky slope, forming a large, hidden, fully enclosed oblong bowl on the side opposite the entrances from the river.

This hidden bowl held deep springs, both hot and cold, which provided the water to the caves. A well had been built towards one end of the bowl long before the virus, sporting a hand pump to draw up cold water.

The goats, chickens and horses were corralled at the opposite end of the bowl from the well, but the garden was nearby where it could be easily irrigated. Each of the caves upriver from mine hosted a long hallway from their living and work spaces through the hillside and into this central bowl.

By design, only one tunnel had been built before they had come to live there, to further protect the springs and the bowl from being discovered too soon. The exterior entrances to each cave were much farther apart from the exits into the bowl, like the ends of bicycle spokes.

This construct kept the community as inconspicuous as could be from outside the bowl, while making it easy for them to communicate, work and gather, from the inside. After they had come to live there, they built a livestock tunnel that led straight through the hillside.

During the period of my unknowing probation, they took turns watching for me just below the cave closest to mine, Jeanne and Frank’s, on the river side, just in case I wandered up there. No one said what they would have done if I had come that far, and I didn’t ask.  

“You guys have been here for eight years and not gone to town to see what you could find?” I asked Kate the first night after Tochuku, Frank and Ching Shih had departed on their quest to Silver City. Her pale curls formed an airy nest atop her head, which bobbed as she kneaded fragrant bread dough in a firm, steady rhythm.

While Ching Shih was gone, I would stay with Kate and help her with the goats, chickens and Ben.

“Oh, yeah, sure we did. It didn’t go that well,” her voice quavering as if reluctant to discuss the matter. Knead, knead, knead

I looked at her, raising my eyebrows inquisitively as I chopped a juicy white onion for the stew we were having for dinner. Kate had already tucked Ben into bed.

“Well, the group was ambushed on their way back,” Kate continued, less tentatively, “They had horses loaded with tools, spools of wire and the like.” Kate paused, deep in thought, as she broke the dough into half and set the spongy blobs to rest on a wooden cutting board. She looked up at me, eyes shining with sadness.

“It was Noah, Beto and Michael, Hallie’s boyfriend, who went. Noah and Beto made it away, but not without losing the tools and all. The thieves killed Michael in the fray.”

I stared at Kate. No one had mentioned that Hallie had lost someone after the virus. Not even Hallie.

Kate continued quietly as she plucked a head of garlic from a bowl, popping off several cloves to mince, “So everyone forgot about such forays until just lately. We just concentrated on making our little hamlet as good as possible. Oh, yes, and Uma isn’t Beto’s child, not technically. Michael and Hallie didn’t even know she was pregnant when he left.”

So that explained why they were debating the trip so much. Having come even farther by myself, I had been having a hard time understanding why it was such a big deal, but now I knew. None of the members of this tiny community were expendable, not practically or emotionally. Every risk was a big one, when it included the potential loss of three of their own.

“What else don’t I know? What else has happened since you’ve been here?”

Kate looked down at her hands holding the knife poised against the garlic. Sighing deeply, she resumed both chopping and speaking.

“Well, let’s see… Olga lost a baby. She went into labor nearly full term, but it was stillborn, dead. A little boy. I helped with her delivery, but there was nothing to be done. It’s a good thing she had the other children to care for, or I think she might never have recovered. She’s a natural at mothering, that’s for sure. Fierce as a mama bear, and tender as an ewe.”

We took turns folding piles of colorful chopped vegetables and herbs into the stew in silence while Kate tried to remember more. Setting down her wooden stirring spoon, she wandered around lighting candles as the dark settled outside our small windows. I picked up our mugs of mint tea, placing them at either end of the coffee table where Kate joined me while the pot simmered fragrantly on the stove.

“Ben was still real sharp for a long time after the virus. He was a huge help bringing people together, working together. We were all so scared and traumatized. Somehow he knew how to help us sort out our differences, and figure out how to live together without anyone trying to dominate the rest of us. It was a hard time. I doubt we’d get along as well as we do now without all he did at the beginning.

But he’s changed a lot in the last couple of years. Maybe had some small strokes. He just seems to live in another world now, spaced out all day, having to be reminded to eat and helped into bed.”

I had known Ben as a friend of Grandma Sita’s. Back then, he had been a natural leader in the community, a dynamic force. He often came up with ideas about how things could be done to make life in the village better, from coordinating rides to town, or organizing a work party to fix someone’s roof or whatever.

Instead of the outgoing fellow I remembered, I found a quiet man who stared into space most of the time, as if deeply engrossed in a riveting movie. He usually only spoke when spoken to face-to-face and when the speaker used simple, clear sentences.

“How did Tochuku and Ching Shih end up here? I mean, from Nigeria and Hong Kong?” I was having a hard time imagining it.

“Tochuku had come here to go to school at WNMU, where your mama taught, then he transferred over to Las Cruces to get a PhD. He had won some national awards even before then, so some of us had already heard of him through the papers. It was rumored that Sandia and Los Alamos labs were competing for him before he started his PhD program. He was that good.

He came camping with four friends from school, to show them the Gila. They came out of the forest just as the virus was exploding in the village and the campgrounds. He was the only one of his group who survived. When he realized that the virus was everywhere on Earth, he figured the chances of him making it home to Abuja were pretty slim.

Ben was the one who checked the campgrounds and rounded up Tochuku, Ching Shih, and the three kids whose grandpa had died. Tochuku joined us but kept to himself mostly, at first, constantly immersed in his work developing and maintaining our solar energy and water systems and other tinkering. He wasn’t unpleasant, he just doesn’t have as much interest in people as in his work.

He and Gary moved in together in the farthest cave upstream. Gary could get along with anyone, but I think Tochuku liked the idea of living with Gary since he’s also a scientist, a biologist. They speak the same language, in a way.”

“Ching Shih came as a tourist with her husband…,” she emphasized the word ‘tourist’ and raised her eyebrows at me, chiding me for not considering that possibility myself, since the area had always hosted visitors from all over the world, “… camping in the same campground as Tochuku and his friends.

I guess you know she was a detective on the police force and a hotshot competitor in the martial arts world there in Hong Kong.”

“So what’s the bigger plan? For the community? For the future?” I asked.

“Well, that’s been a sore point. Some feel that we should stay as isolated as possible, others think we should try to find others. Some want to expand our technology, others don’t.”

“It feels so good here. Safe. Comfortable. Just the way it is, you know?” I said.

“Yes. It sure is. Still, what’s going to happen as the kids, children, get older? Not a lot of choices for mates if they stay here. And after another generation or so, there’d only be cousins to marry. Or they’d have to leave to find someone.”

Good point.

“So maybe we don’t have to find others right away, but some day…” my thoughts trailed off.

We sipped our tea in silence, considering.

Then Kate said, “There’s a chance that someone out there is rounding up captives, as slaves. Some of us are afraid we’ll be attacked, maybe taken the way you were. We gotta find out who’s out there and what they’re doing, so we know if we need to protect ourselves.” 

I could see the sense in that.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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