With each step, grit rasps more deeply into the soles of her bare feet. Finally, she pauses, sweeps her hand from the ball toward the heel. First right. Then left. Grainy pebbles scatter to the ground. She straightens, wipes her brow with the back of her hand, breathes in, breathes out.
Ahead and to the right a bird sings. Now two birds. Now three. Soon a symphony choruses through the glade.
Thirty years past, her father, a renowned ornithologist, would have told her the names of every feathered vocalist by sound alone . . . whether robin, jay, chickadee, or sparrow. The three of them would stroll twice a day. Going out in the morning before breakfast, then in the evening after supper dishes were cleaned and dried, they went out again. She held his left hand, her sister his right. They moved casually, without hurry and he playfully quizzed them on what they had heard.
She remembers their time together happily – how they laughed, joked, how her father always listened to what she and her sister had to say. After they’d grown and her sister married, she and her father lived in the cottage on their own until her sister divorced and came back. Being around his granddaughter seemed to give her father renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Together, she and her sister watched from the doorway as he strolled along, holding the small child’s hand the same way he had held theirs. The little girl would gleefully try to warble and chirp, mimicking the birds.
The truth of it is, these days, she identifies the birds as simply life.
Often on her journey she encountered skeletons of cows, horses, occasionally raccoons or mountain cats, and far too many once-beloved dogs and cats. For reasons she couldn’t explain, though, all of the plant life remained untouched. The forest quickly overtook trails, houses, and any modes of transportation left behind.
She turns toward the overgrown path winding beyond the glade and hesitates. She knows that if she follows the path far enough, stepping over the weeds and up-heaved bricks, she will come to her family’s cottage. Moss-covered, quarried stone. Roof sagging with age. She visits the cottage, but is careful to avoid bringing attention to it, sleeping each night in a different vacant house or deserted building. It has been illegal to reside in the Reclaimed since the mineral harvesters took over, and even they are trucked in and out daily.
The cottage door is crooked and worm-rotted. If she shoulders it open and makes her way through the four small rooms and up to the loft, her father will be there.
He loved gadgets and was always chasing down the latest technological do-dad. He installed cameras on the perimeter of the cottage, by the outbuildings, and scattered throughout the woods. He used the resulting imagery as part of his scientific journaling, but she looked forward to seeing the livestream with video notes from him saying things like, “that young red-tailed hawk caught a mouse today” or “these squirrels built a nest right next to woodshed.”
That’s how she knew he had been splitting logs behind the cottage when the sun-blast came. She was visiting friends a thousand miles away and had opened the livestream to show them how it worked. Her sister waved lightheartedly at each camera as she passed on her way to town, while the baby lay fast asleep on a quilt in the deep shade near where her father labored.
By the time he could throw down his ax, his exposed skin was blistering. By the time he ran to his granddaughter, peeling. By the time he covered the child completely in the quilt and ran to the cottage, flesh melted from his hands. She would never know how he summoned the strength to surmount the pain and crawl to the loft but he’d sheltered the child there — where no windows could let the inferno of light pour through.
She’d tried to get to them as soon as the sun-blast ended. Her friends piled her into their 10-year-old car and ferried her as far as the city line. They turned back, but she continued, catching rides as she could, but mostly traveling on foot, sometimes creeping through dense underbrush or fording streams when the roads themselves were impassable.
It took weeks.
When she finally arrived she found the cottage abandoned.
Her sister had scrawled across one of kitchen walls in marker, “Dad upstairs. I took the baby to safety.”
She doesn’t know where they went, nor whether they found shelter before the second set of sun-blasts pelted the town itself. She’d hiked there and searched for them, but found only the bodies of strangers. She supposes it doesn’t matter. This deep into the Reclaimed, there is no longer a way to reach them. Like everything powered by electricity, the video cameras had quit functioning immediately.
The Council insists that the sun-blasts have been contained; that there is no longer any threat or reason to fear. Nevertheless, she prays for her family and hopes, perhaps, that they’ll return.
She sighs, brushes hair from her forehead.
Someday she will bury her father in the family plot alongside her mother. She will need to bury the others, too; other folks unlucky enough to be consumed by the sun-blast. She started to do so once, but the vomiting and tears left her body too weak for the duty and her soul too bruised for the rituals. Instead she keeps the bones of the hand that once held hers in the spirit pouch around her neck.
She knows that her father would want to be at rest, and she will give him that when she can.
She nods the promise to herself as she turns from the path home. She cannot stop. Winter here will be long, cold, and dark. She must get to the southland.
High overhead cirrus clouds scratch against the blue sky.
She walks on.