by Travis Perry -
The four grandchildren lay next to one another on the fiber mat on the cave floor, wrapped around by two thin blankets. While they slept sound after their first meal in days, bug leg soup, Elsa reevaluated her life. She couldn’t hunt forever; there was no doubt about that.
She seemed immune to ash lung; she thanked God for that, unlike her son and daughter-in-law, both now dead. But her strength had faded from what it used to be and she wasn’t getting any younger.
Hunting had changed, too. Once mainly the livelihood of families determined to strike it out on their own and be independent in this harsh land, it had become a commercial enterprise. Hunting bugs, taking parts back to the new camp in Adagio with all its tents for paid shipment to Zirconia or up to Avenir, was a business that paid poorly, poor enough that usually only desperate souls turned from whatever they had done before to hunt bugs here. But it used to be, it never paid at all. It used to be that nobody came here from elsewhere. Back then, none of the hunters had fancy weapons like those scytheguns…
Hunting had changed, continually filled by a fresh pool of hungry young men. An old woman just could not compete.
Tears streamed down her face when Elsa understood what that meant. She would have to abandon the cave, an ancient lava tube into which her great-grandfather had hewn out a door by hand. The family would have to move into the tents of the new camp, with all its crime and debauchery. Lord, lord, oh lord, please give me the strength.
In the morning she hauled up a fresh bucket of water from the well carved out by decades of work by her grandfather. A hot spring filled the well, so the bucket steamed in the cool morning air.
The youngest child, Misha, age 5, was already awake and beaming at her with joy. “Dear child,” she said, kissing the curly locks of his head.
She woke the other three, having them wash their faces and hands in the warm, mineral-bitter water. They ate the breakfast she’d warmed of leg soup. By then the bucket water had cooled enough for drinking, and all of them took long draughts.
They loaded up all their kitchenware—the pot, two knives and a ladle, and bugshell plates and bowls. Elsa added the household goods, the one precious family Bible, the blankets, the mat, and the cannon, along with a single old spear. The children carried each one a portion of the goods, but Elsa reserved the heaviest thing, the cannon, for herself.
After the long walk of nearly a whole day from Tube Hill, tears rimmed her eyes to see the beaten-up tents of Adagio, their new home. She sold most of their goods, especially all the metal. She found work cleaning the tavern floor, in exchange for paltry broken pieces of bugshell, even though her people had always frowned on all forms of liquor and any association with it.
She labored late into the night, exhausting herself in the twilight hours, forming shells’ bits into little bowls and plates and smaller items. She exchanged her few goods for bigger pieces, enough to eat off of, and with discipline and diligence, there was enough left over to sell to the Zirconia Trading Company about once every other week, many dozens of hours of toil for a few small copper coins.
She saved her coppers and her one silver piece, struggled to trust the Lord to not worry about camp robbers and what the hunter men might try to do to her one granddaughter, and prayed and prayed and prayed for her grandchildren every waking moment and sometimes in her dreams. The grandchildren helped her in her labors, even though none of them knew why she was working so hard to save coin.
Insight, from the Lord no doubt, had told her that she would not live long enough to see the grandchildren reach adulthood. She had to provide for them past her own life, even if the life she gave them would be strange, dangerous even.
All the copper she saved, all the continual ache and pain of her endless handiwork, all served one purpose: to pay the passage to send her grandchildren to the orphanage in Zirconia.