The Village of the Smoky Hills ~ a short story

copyright: February, 2014

Dawn was barely beginning to lighten the eastern sky, and already a mob of people was amassing at the gate.   Some shivering in tattered rags, some cozy in new made rough spun wool, some in a patchwork of hides, and some clad in leather.  There were familiar faces in the crowd and, as always, faces Guthrie had never seen before.  Typically it was the new faces that also wore the rags or the hides, for it meant that they had not had the advantage of the goods that were available at this last outpost of civilization in the north woods.

One by one, the shop windows were being illuminated as the shopkeepers awoke and lit candles. The blacksmiths were already heating up their forges, forming small volcanoes of sputtering lava that cast a hellish orange glow in the darkness.  Everyone was preparing for another day of trading in the village.

As dark gave way to light, one could see the smoke that rose from the eternal fire that roared beneath the immense cauldron that was forever cooking bone broth. The rich smell permeated the air and must have stoked the hunger pangs of those who huddled in the cold, and goaded their eagerness to be within the gate.

As he surveyed the scene the that surrounded him, the same scene that had been repeating itself for almost three decades, Guthrie’s breath became a vapor before his eyes, clouding his vision in punctuated bursts, so that the scene before him that was one moment a cold and hard reality, and the next moment a vague image of something out of a dream.  And so it was that he simultaneously lived in two different worlds, pulsing between a grim reality and misty apparition.

He laughed to himself, more like at himself, for the thought recalled one of his own aphorisms that he had coined, and had so unabashedly quoted in the distant past of the GridTime.  To truly experience the present, one must live in the past, so as to understand what came before, and one must also live in the future, so as to anticipate what is to come. Only by living in the past and in the future can one understand one’s place in the present and respond to it appropriately. 

The village had been a dream, not his dream, but someone else’s that he had resurrected, a dream of the past that they had brought to life. It merged with his vision of the future. And this dream of the past and his vision of the future had merged into the reality of the present.

But in the dialectical flow of the human saga, Guthrie knew that there was another future edging ever closer to becoming the present.  If only he could grasp it better. He knew the past all too well. His past they now called the GridTime, before that was the PreGrid, and they now found themselves living in the age that the villagers  called the AfterGrid. The AfterGrid was in large measure a return to the realities of the PreGrid, except for the memories they all carried with them of what had been. How long would the AfterGrid last? How long would his village last? Was it just a respite before something worse?

Here it was, only mid October, and the weather was acting as if it were late November.  But it wasn’t simply “weather”, for this was the third year in a row that the cold came early. And the last two springs had come late. After years of ever warmer weather, suddenly things were shifting and the growing season was getting shorter every year.  They had been lucky to harvest their crops and produce at all this year. The climate was changing yet again.

His thoughts were interrupted by the metallic creaking of the aging chain link fence that separated the outside world from the shops that formed the village.  The Village of the Smokey Hills was now open for business and the horde flooded in, people rushing to get in line with the shopkeepers they wished to visit.

As always, about a third of the crowd thronged to the blacksmiths’ shops; as always another third formed a long line to the General Store; as always the remaining third dispersed amongst the other dozen or so shops that housed other craftsmen and artisans.  As always, the lanes and shops were heavily guarded.  Amidst the turmoil that age of the AfterGrid ushered in, nothing, and no one, was safe without protection.

And as always, the Gift Shop, a remnant of the materialism and the consumerism that had ceased to exist long ago, had but a couple of customers at the door.  Again he laughed to himself, “disposable income”, we had called it.  What a tragic waste, to trade one’s life energy for something that would be so easily tossed away. As if anything were ever actually disposable.  Well, we all learned that lesson; nothing is disposable now.

Horse drawn carts were now entering the gates, laden with hides and skins for the tannery.  Had this been during the growing season, the carts would have been laden with produce being brought to the cannery. And if it had been spring, the carts would have been filled with wool for the weavers.  Wool and leather, that’s all they had for clothing. They were too far north to raise cotton, but oh, what he wouldn’t give for a nice cotton shirt.  In all of his preparations and purchases of supplies that he had stored away for the village those long years ago, he wished he had better anticipated the demand for cotton cloth.  But he had been too practical in the choices he made.

Guthrie found himself wondering if they still raised cotton in the southern lands. Or had they become too hot, or too dry, or water for irrigation too scarce or impossible to pump?  Were the lands even still habitable? Did anyone survive the turmoil there at all?  He had of course never sent scouts that far south.

He did know about the chaos and savagery that reigned in what had been the metropolitan area of Minnesota.  He worried for the thousandth time if anyone in that urban jungle knew of the small enclave of civilization that he himself had created, prepared for, here in the village. His constant hope was that the horde that scavenged the lower reaches could never make it through all the woodlands of the north.  The land was richer in southern Minnesota, so they could raise more food, though, more often than not, those that planted were not the same as those who reaped.  Covet thy neighbor’s goods, Steal from thy neighbor, and Kill thy neighbor, were the laws of that land.

To the west, the plains people, mostly whites, to be sure, had again taken to following the herds of buffalo, adopting the lifestyle, and the customs, of the native inhabitants. There was some sporadic trade between the village and the buffalo people, but there was not enough trust from either side to establish enduring trade routes or schedules.  “Never reach them from the same direction twice” was the protocol.

The boreal forest stretched to the north and to the east of the village. Once dotted by small towns, cities, and farms carved out of the woodlands, these areas were now largely devoid of congregated people.  For every occupied dwelling there were ten that were abandoned or destroyed.   “Living off the land”, the fall back delusion of most people, proved too difficult in reality.  Without new supplies and tools, life was either too mean to abide or too tenuous to survive.  Thoreau, living in his cabin on Walden Pond, who sought to see if life be mean or not, never had it so grim.  And so the woodlands were sparsely populated by small family groups, by solitary rangers, and by roaming gangs of reavers.

And then there was the Village of the Smoky Hills.  Decades ago, when the GridTime was nearing its zenith, a group of women, who aptly named themselves “the Founding Mothers” had built the original village.

On the heals of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s, the Founding Mothers conceived of an atavistic hamlet that would immerse people into a bygone era in which they could witness the creation of handcrafted wares and purchase them to enrich their lives with something more natural, something more connected to the authenticity of life, than the plastic and electronic objects that filled the homes at the time.

The legend goes that this vision was first conceived at a baby shower, a fitting beginning for this grand venture by women.  The Founding Mothers began building their dream with little funding and ample skepticism and succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings, providing a financial boon to a poor and struggling community.  The village thrived for years, but then eventually interest waned as the electronic and digital revolution provided people with evermore captivating gadgets that drew them ever further away from humanity’s roots in the natural world.  And so the village closed up shop.

For his part, Guthrie tended to believe the legend in its entirety.  He also had some other thoughts about the Founding Mothers. They say that those who live close to nature have an intuitive connection to the animals, the plants, and even to the planet itself.  Mother Earth, it has been called.  He couldn’t help but wonder if those twelve woman and their collective maternal instinct were guided by their connection to the great mother herself.

It was his own connection to the earth that led Guthrie to eventually purchase the village, along with additional surrounding acreage.  What had started out as a whimsical experiment with Shamanism, the fulfillment of an old childhood fascination with indigenous cultures, soon became the consuming focus of his life.   Mother Earth had spoken to him, and, not unlike Noah being given the charge to build an ark to save humanity, Guthrie had been charged with creating a village to save civilization.  Following one premonition after another, he was eventually led to the Village of the Smoky Hills.

Once it was in his possession, Guthrie immediately set about expanding the number of shops from the original six to fifteen. In addition to the blacksmiths, the general store, the tannery and the cannery (he still patted himself on the back every day for storing away all of those cases of mason jars), was the leatherworker, the wood wright, the slaughterhouse , the bakery, the candle maker, spinners, weavers, tailors, bowyers, the distillery, and other crafters. In addition to increasing the number of shops, he had also expanded them, giving  each a second floor to serve as the living quarters for the craftsmen.

He also built a couple of larger dwellings and a row of bunk houses that encircled the perimeter of the shops. Each building on the site had also been equipped with an oversized basement to store the great volume of materials and supplies that Guthrie discretely stashed away.  A dozen sand point wells had been driven into the ground, marked by old-fashioned hand pumps that were scattered throughout the village.   He had even built an “administrative building” that had become the de facto courthouse, militia headquarters, library, and infirmary .  And, in the very center of the village stood the watchtower, a converted forest ranger tower that he had bought from the forestry service.

In every detail he had done his best to make the village look like a tourist attraction, rather than the fortified outpost that his premonition told him it was destined to become.  Even the chain link fence that surrounded the entire compound, one hundred feet out from the bunkhouses, added to the illusion. Standing eight feet tall, he had had it specially made with reinforced, pencil sharp points so that it resembled the wooden pickets of frontier era fort, and then painted brown to complete the effect.

Farforth’s Folly, the locals had dubbed his investment in the failed artisan village.  Far more skepticism, of a far less kind tone, was heaped upon him than was upon the original Founding Mothers.  “Guthrie Farforth, commodity speculator turned tourist speculator endeavors to create a Disney Land for the granola crowd.”, the local newspaper jeered. They were of course right for laughing at his purported venture.  There was no way he could ever recoup all that he had spent.  But this mattered not a bit. What was important was that he remain convincing, to maintain the façade and to hide his actual intent.

Beyond the chain link fence, Guthrie had erected a simple stone wall, just 3 feet tall that had initially served to demark his property line, but now served as the line in the sand within which no one was allowed to build, camp, or even walk.  This provided more empty space between potential threats from the outside and the security of the compound.  Anyone, or any gang of people, entering within that space were easily spotted, and flaming arrows, Guthrie’s recurring fear, would be difficult to hit, or even reach the critical buildings of the village.  A bunkhouse could be replaced, but the tools, supplies, and skilled craftsmen sheltered in the shops could not.

As Guthrie scrutinized the faces of those who were now milling about him, he saw again the unintended consequence of the tourist attraction appearance of the village.  Out of the grim determination and despair that was permanently etched upon people’s faces, their expressions brightened with hope, and even hints of joy, as they bustled from quaint shop to quaint shop, trading for their necessary goods.

More wagons entered through the gates filled with scavenged metal and lumber, anything that could be considered useful. It would all be sorted and stacked in rows between the bunkhouses and the fence, forming another barricade between the buildings and outside threats.  These salvaged materials either used by the craftsmen or stewards of the village itself, or bartered for by visitors who needed it for their own homes.  A few wagons held livestock being taken to the butcher.

It was now approaching midmorning, the chill had left the air and fires were being lit under the enormous kettles in the village square, next to the cauldron of bone broth.  This was the signal for those who wanted to share in the communal stew to bring their offerings forward.  From the visitors the cooks received cornmeal, produce, herbs, meats, and fish and dumped them into the kettles, doing their best to separate flavors and create a different stew in each cauldron.   Anyone who contributed a sufficient quantity of food stuffs was given a token. When the sun reached it’s zenith, the lines would reform, people would hand back their tokens and receive a bowl or two of stew in return.

Given the numbers of squatters who were taking up residence outside the boundaries of the village, overhunting was a constant concern, and the village constantly urged its patrons to only hunt game in appropriate seasons.  As a small enforcement of this, the cauldron cooks were trained to tell the difference between the cuts of meat of wild game from those of domestic livestock. Nothing that could not be identified as domestic or as game in season was accepted into the cauldrons.

The daily squabbling about fairness that had once attended the rationing out of the stews had all but ended years ago.  It eventually became custom that those who had plenty would give to the cauldron as though making a donation, and those who had meager would give what they could; and for these, it might bet the best meal they would have for weeks.

As the line for contributing to the meal was forming, it was then that Guthrie saw the stranger enter through the gates.   There was always some visitor who was there for the first time, and their uncertainly of how to act and where to go marked their every footstep.  But there was no uncertainty in this man.  It was his dress and his bearing that set him apart.  His face was devoid of grimness, but instead he wore an expression of calm, even content composure.  And while leather clothing was becoming more and more the norm, the cut and the look of his vestments were unlike anything Guthrie had ever seen; the leather of his clothing seemed more supple, more form fitting than the best leatherworkers in the village could accomplish.   The other thing that stood out – he looked to be about as old Guthrie himself; while this was not a rare thing, it was also not that common for someone of his age to have survived so well intact.  And the load in his horse drawn wagon was covered by a tarp.

Guthrie gestured with his head to his second in command, Jared, to go greet their visitor.  Jared, accustomed to the routine, slowly swaggered over to the wagon.  Intentionally, by their clothing one could not tell the difference in rank between Jared and his commander, nor between Guthrie and any of his officers.  It gave Guthrie the camouflage he needed to remain anonymous and observe.

Jared stepped abruptly in front of the horse, and gave the standard greeting when an interrogation of a suspicious character was about to follow… “Ho, Stranger!” he yelled over the horse’s startled whinnying.

“Ho yourself”, the stranger replied flatly, as he reigned in the horse.

“What’s your business here, stranger”, Jared demanded, not put off by the visitor’s unimpressed response.

“Heard a man might do some trading here.”

“What you got to trade?”

“Look for yourself; got wagon full of hides.”

Jared purposefully looked up at the men in the watch tower, who then trained their bows on the man in the wagon; the man had followed Jared’s gaze upward but remained unphased by the drawn arrows pointed at him.

Watching all of this from his vantage point near the tower, Guthrie saw something that troubled him.  There was a bulge in the man’s chest, as though we were concealing something under his jacket.  It reminded him too much of the early years after the GridFail when too many men were packing pistols.  But no one had even heard a gun shot for at least 15 years.  Not even the most rabid prepper had managed to put away an infinite supply of gunpowder. People had simply run out of ammunition. Could this man possibly still have a working gun and ammo 30 years later? Was he alone, or traveling with others?

Jared walked to the back of the wagon and threw back the tarp.  Indeed there were a pile of hides and skins, but Jared’s voice betrayed his puzzlement.  “Ain’t like no kind of hides I’ve ever seen”, said Jared, continuing the questioning, “What animal they from?”, he demanded as he hurriedly threw the tarp back over them, as if hoping no one else had seen them.

“That’s a discussion for me and your headman”, replied the stranger.

“Well, maybe I am the headman, mister,” Jared retorted in his most commanding voice.

“And maybe you’re not,” the stranger again replied in his flat voice.

Nothing about this stranger was adding up, thought Guthrie, and other people were starting to notice the interrogation.

Guthrie stepped out of the shadows and strode across the gravel, stopping five yards from the wagon and ninety degrees to Jared’s left. “Bowmen!” He shouted.  The men in the tower redrew their bows. The stranger turned toward Guthrie, met his gaze, and the two men sized each other up.

“We can have that discussion about those hides of yours once you pull that gun out from under your jacket”, Guthrie stated, mimicking the same flat tone that the stranger had used. At this, Jared drew his knife, and boards creaked from above as the bowmen strengthened their stances, but elicited no response from the man in the wagon.

“Fair enough”, the man finally consented. Reaching under his jacket he pulled out a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum that looked as new as the day it was made.  Grabbing by it barrel, he casually threw the priceless weapon into the dust and gravel at Guthrie’s feet.

Guthrie’s eyes never left the man as he bent down and picked up the gun. Checking the magazine, it was fully loaded. Each bullet as shiny and new as the gun itself.  “Off the wagon,” he instructed as he shoved the gun into his belt.  The man did as he was bade.

“Follow me. Jared, bring the wagon.” And so they marched in file toward the administrative building, more eyes upon them than Guthrie wished.  In half an hour, everyone in the village would know that something was amiss, and by this time tomorrow, most of the people in the vicinity would know.

As Jared lashed the horse to the hitching post, Guthrie walked round the back of the wagon, and threw off the tarp once again so that he could get a good look at the hides.  They might have passed for large deer hides, but the coat was thicker and the skin thinner, and there was a paler mane across the front shoulders.   He looked up questioningly at their owner.  Again the two men lapsed into sizing up the measure of the other.

“The name is Guthrie,” he said, extending his hand.

“Carter”, responded the man, taking Guthrie’s hand without hesitation,  “I have heard a great deal about you – ‘the benevolent dictator of the Village of the Smoky Hills,’” breaking into an amiable grin as he delivered that last line.

Guthrie grimaced at the old, and recurring, accusation. “I like to consider myself a ‘social entrepreneur’; I run the best, and the last surviving, tourist attraction in all of North America.” he responded in a voice that made clear he would brook no further discussion on the matter.

This man is destined to be my friend, or the end of my village, or both, Guthrie thought to himself.  He gestured to Carter and Jared to follow him into the building.

Once in his office, seated behind his desk, with Jared standing at his side and Carter seated in front of him, Guthrie got down to business. “So, what kind of hides are those?”

“Reindeer.”

Guthrie and Jared exchanged looks.

“Reindeer? You mean caribou?”

“Nope.  Reindeer. I raise and use them like the Sami and the Siberians. Imported a small herd from Europe years back. It’s gotten to be pretty sizeable now.”

“Why?” Jared blurted.

“Thermohaline circulation.”

Suddenly the pieces fell into place. Guthrie looked at the man as if for the first time, as the recognition dawned that he was indeed a kindred spirit.  Another man with premonitions and a plan.

“The long winter is coming,” said Guthrie, not the least bit sardonically.

A wry smile crept across Carter’s face, “Yes, indeed it is.”

“I hate to interrupt this secret meeting, but could one of you please decipher this code you’re speaking in?” Jared said, more than a little exasperated.

“Sorry, Jared. You are looking at the man who seems to have an answer for the growing lengths of our winters.”

This only evoked a blank look from Jared.

Carter sat up in chair and began delivering what was obviously a well rehearsed speech, “The thermohaline circulation is the combination of water temperature and salinity that affect the flow of the ocean currents.  The current affecting us and our climate, even this far inland, is the gulf stream that flows out of the tropics, traveling north along North America, swinging over towards Europe. What draws the warm tropical waters of the south to the north is the sinking of water off the coast of Greenland.  The salt water there becomes so cold and so dense that it sinks with the volume of many Amazon rivers. This sinking water must be replaced by something at the surface, and so it draws warmer water from the south like a black hole, thus, it’s the pump that forms the gulf stream.”

“But the sinking of these great volumes of water can be disrupted by too much lighter, fresh water entering the system from the melting of Greenland’s icecap and by increased precipitation; it also can be reduced by the salt water itself becoming too warm.  When this happens, the pump slows or stops and the warm waters are no longer drawn northward, and the arctic becomes colder. This sets up the stage for the return of an ice age. In this way, global warming leads to it opposite.  Evidently we have reached this tipping point of the yin and the yang. And so the long winter is coming”.

“And how do the reindeer offer an answer to that? Are they flying reindeer that will carry us south?” Jared lamely quipped.

“No,” replied Carter, grinning more broadly.  “But they will carry us.”  In northern Scandinavia the Sami people, once known as Laplanders, used reindeer as beasts of burden, to pull their sleds. In Siberia the Dolgan people took it a step further; they hitched them to large sledges that carry their tent dwellings upon them, much like the Conestoga covered wagons used by the American pioneers and settlers. They managed large numbers of reindeer for meat, milk, and skins. They herd the reindeer with them as they migrate north and south with the snow pack.”

“Hm…” Jared reflected upon the prospect, “they exist on the margins between the uninhabitable snows to the north and the habitable land south…Much like we are poised here on the margin between the natural wilderness of the environment to the north and the unnatural wilderness of man to the south… “And”, he paused, further reflecting, “we can adopt the lifestyle and the customs of the reindeer herders, just as the buffalo people have adopted the lifestyle and customs of the Native Americans of the plains.”

“Well put, Jared,” said Guthrie, pleased that his second in command was more than a mere soldier.

“Living in the margins like that,” began Carter, picking up Jared’s thread, “we’ll live where most people wouldn’t choose to or couldn’t, where competition for, and pressure on, resources will be at a minimum.”

“How many people can your herd support?” was Guthrie’s first question.

“Not as many people as I have seen in your village today.”

This is of course what Guthrie anticipated.  This was going to be problematic. It had always been his reckoning that the number in the village on any given day represented about a fifth of all those that relied upon it.  Another “diminishment” in the human population was unavoidable. And they had tried so hard to preserve as many lives as possible.

“Choices will have to be made,” said Carter, reading his mind.

“Yes.”

“But it’s not like an ice age is coming next year”, Jared objected, “we still have time to prepare and for your herd to grow larger.”

Carter shook his head, “It’s unlikely that next year will bring a summer that is too cool to melt the winter snows, but maybe it could. Whatever the case, we will need what time we have to form and train a community to live a foreign lifestyle, so that they have a chance of surviving. This could take years.  And as my herd grows, it’s becoming harder and harder to manage it, to keep it secret, and to protect it.   This winter, it’s going to be an early one, is the time to begin the training.   I have twenty people tending my herd right now. I want to take sixty of your people back with me.”

“Sixty?”

“Yes. In family units.  Some couples past childbearing age, some couples with children, and some young adults who have yet not married or have married but have no children. And in the mix there needs to be many different skill sets.”

This was going to be harder than Guthrie had thought.  He would need to give up the best of the community, those of the soundest character, of the hardiest health, and among the best skilled. Those left behind would be the poorer for it, as would the functioning and the civility of the village itself. And those that were sent would be leaving the security of this place and risking their lives on an uncertain quest.  If things turned toward the worst, both populations could end up in ruins.

“You’ll have eighty people total. That’s a lot to be sustained in a snowbound landscape. Won’t that put ‘pressure on scarce resources,’ like browse for the reindeer?” asked Jared.

Carter shook his head, “We’ll split the eighty into four groups of roughly twenty each.  Each group, each tribe, if you will, will travel independently for periods of time. There will be scheduled rendezvous so that they can regroup and provide each other with help and resources, and trade skills, stories, and what they’ve learned.”

“You’ve thought this through,” said Guthrie, flatly.

“Not unlike yourself”, responded Carter, again giving his counterpart an appraising look.

But as the weight of the what Carter was describing sunk in, Guthrie lapsed into a rare cynicism.  “So once again I must gamble the accumulation of my life’s work on a hazy vision of the future.  Once again, if the vision proves faulty, I will have been a fool.  But this time, I’m gambling with people, not money, and even if the vision proves true, the gamble still may or may not pay off; it may or may not save those whose lives of those we place in the wager.  I’m having to double-down my bet.  Just doesn’t seem right.”

“But all of your bets have paid off so far, sir.”  Jared consoled.

To that, Guthrie just nodded.

“And, in blackjack at least, you always get another card when you double-down.”

“What card might that be?”

“In the winters the reindeer people, your people, can return.  We can bring you meat, milk, hides, and whatever else we might be able to find or scavenge that we can spare.  We can trade for supplies that you have.  If there’s a skill your village is lacking, perhaps our craftsmen can aid you while they’re here, and vice versa.  Friends and families can be reunited, for a time.  Each tribal group could visit your village once a winter. Four visits per winter… as along as there are four groups.”

“As long as there are summers between the winters, as long as the long winter hasn’t set in, as long as the village survives.   One day, your tribes will return to an empty village, blanketed in snows that do not melt,” Guthrie lamented.

Again, Jared adopted the role of consoler, “And even then the people will benefit by the preparations that you have made. What few supplies remain by then, if any, will be of help. It will be an outpost, empty and uninhabited, but an outpost nonetheless.”

“There will be supplies,” Guthrie replied with meaning.

This drew looks from both of the other men.

“I have caches that have not yet been opened. And, among other resources,” Guthrie paused, tossing the gun back to Carter, “it’s lucky we have the same taste in firearms”.

“Or,” Carter winked, “perhaps we read the same prepper manuals.”

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Guthrie, Jared, and the newcomer Carter were seated together near the head of one of the many long tables that had been set up for the annual Thanksgiving Feast.  Music played in the background as hundreds of people talked and laughed, almost beside themselves with giddiness at the piles of food that were set out before them.  The yearly joke was that the shopkeepers of the village were fattening them up before the cold set in so they could all survive the winter, because the village couldn’t afford to lose any customers.

Eight holidays punctuated the villagers’ year. Observing the solstices and equinoxes had taken on a practical consideration; now that calendars were scarce and climate controlled dwellings and workplaces no longer existed, it was important to have a sense of where one stood relative to the ebb and flow of the seasons.  These essentially replaced celebrating the old holidays of the 4th of July and Christmas, neither of which held any significance in the turmoil of the AfterGrid.

There were two political holidays. In late summer, the 17th of August, a celebration of the victory over the largest gang of reavers who ever attacked the village, an organized and bloody siege that lasted 2 days.  And there was GridFail in the spring, a day of remembrance for the years of slow disintegration of grid life, the sudden death of a functioning society, and the rebirth of civility that arose around the village.

There was only one holiday left over from the GridTime, Thanksgiving, and this too was Guthrie’s doing.  If any holiday could help mend the frayed hope and reinforce the thin glue that held people together, it was this one.  And so, as extravagantly as possible, the village held a great feast every year, though they had moved it from the late November to late October, which was turkey hunting season.   Since they no longer had the simple luxury of refrigerators and freezers, it was necessary to eat the great birds when they were hunted. This also coincided with the end of the harvest season, and so Thanksgiving became a proper harvest festival, and a moment that they were truly grateful for all the foodstuffs that had been put away for the winter.

As was the protocol, the entire militia was on duty from before sunrise. But the men were not excluded from the feast, but rotated through so that there were always some of them at the tables, enjoying the feast themselves, but also keeping the peace by their presence and always alert to suspicious characters or someone simply getting out of hand.  Their presence at the tables as also served to remind everyone of the rule that no food was to find its way into pockets or other containers. The people were welcome to eat to their hearts content, but could only have so much food as their stomachs could hold.

The feast had started when the sun was a midway from its zenith to the horizon and ended at sunset. After the sunset, the tables would be cleared and removed and the space prepared for the annual dance.

When Carter expressed his concerns for order being kept at the dance, Guthrie had pointed out that  one of the advantages of holding the dance at this time of year, and outdoors, was that the cold largely, though never completely, precluded attendees showing up scantily clad.  “With all layers of clothing people wore, the dances rarely ‘heat up’ so to speak,” he said wryly.  “And, we limit alcohol. No bottles or containers of any kind are allowed in. While we do give each adult two tokens for a drink of our corn mash whiskey,  anyone seen drinking from a bottle is escorted out. So, all in all, our dances are pretty tame affairs.”

Between the feast and before the dance, Guthrie was expected to give his annual speech.  These were always short, and always covered two sides of the same coin – how had the village and its patrons fared in the past year and his reflections on how  that matched up with his vision for the village.  The content of the factual side never came as a surprise to his audience.  Despite everyone knowing essentially how things stood, Guthrie felt their was value in simply restating what everyone had experienced, to give solace, to salve any lingering wounds, and to evoke pride and sense of achievement.

As for the subjective side of this talk, this had taken many forms, some almost drab, some approaching inspirational.  Guthrie felt himself charged with the task of walking the fine line between, on the one hand, of renewing enough hope to keep everyone moving forward with some sense of optimism that their lives could be good.  On the other hand, he assiduously avoided stirring up any irrational exuberance that could never be sustained in the day-to-day toil that life had become.  Just kindle the fire, he always told himself, give them the necessary, but barely sufficient, hope to carry on.

After recounting the facts of the year – the worst flu epidemic they’d seen in years – but only one reaver attack – the general store full of canned goods – thanks to salvagers, blacksmiths still had plenty of reserve metal – “we are entering this winter as prepared and healthy as any winter before”, he was concluding.  As he could feel the crowd palpably relax into reassurance, he launched into a new direction. “BUT,” he jolted them, “we have just experienced the shortest growing season ever. For the third year in a row we have had late springs and early winters.”

“The earth is restoring itself to balance!” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Yes, that’s true,” he conceded, raising his voice over the murmuring crowd. In fact, it was exactly the vision of the earth that had come to him in his meditations since his first talk with Carter. “But, that balance will be restored not in a couple of years, but very likely in hundreds.”

The crowd fell silent as all eyes looked upon him for an answer to the question he had just raised in their minds.

“And the earth regaining her balance will not merely mean short summers,” he continued, “but years in which the snows barely melt, and, eventually, many years without summers at all, many, many years of one long winter.”

For moments the crowd stood in stunned silence. While some eyes remained fixed upon him, searching him for a solution, many eyes turned to stare at the ground. Some eyes turned to their spouses’, some eyes turned toward their children. The eyes of all also turned inward and saw the cold, white bleakness that would one day descend upon them.

A change in the wind shifted the breeze from their right to their backs, and brought with it the rich aroma of the bone broth that had saturated the air and embellished the ambiance of the village for these many years.  The wafting of the scent fell like a breaking wave upon them, and broke the spell.

A woman in the crowd released a cry of anguish and began sobbing uncontrollably. Other cries of despair filled the air. Men and women alike started shouting at him, demanding, questioning, the voices almost reaching a unified chorus of “How do you know!”

Guthrie kept his composure, and motioned the crowd into silence with his hands.

“A few days ago, as some of you saw, and as most of you have heard, we had a visitor to the village who caused a bit of a stir.  This man can explain better than me why we can expect a long winter, an ice age, to descend.  And, just as I was led to prepare for the GridFail, he has been led to prepare for the long winter. But I caution you, just as I was able to prepare for only a small handful of the population that once was, he has been able to prepare for a only small handful of the population that now is.”

Carter’s well rehearsed explanation of the collapse of the gulf stream was clear and convincing enough. No one doubted the possibility, the likelihood, of the scenario he sketched out for them.  And for most in the crowd, the prospect of becoming reindeer herders, living on the margins of the snowpack as they migrated north and south with the season, offered little solace.  Abandoning a hard but stable life in snug cottages for a tenuous life drifting about in an eternal winter was cold comfort indeed.

“How many,” came the shouts from the crowd when Jared had concluded. “How many people can your caribou support?”

“I have twenty herders now, back at my compound.  My herd can support about 80. So sixty of you may join us.”

This elicited more questions, “Who gets to go?” “How will you choose?” “Will there be a lottery?”

Guthrie strode back on to the stage platform and stood beside Carter. “Again, like myself thinking through the needs of the village, Carter has thought through the needs of his caribou tribe. The sixty people Carter can take with him need to blend in with the demographics of his own people; he wants some couples who are over child bearing age, but healthy; he wants some to be young families; he wants some to be young adults who do not have children; and he needs those who go with him to be skilled in different crafts.   I see the wisdom in his plan.  There will be no lottery.  Invitations will be made to those deemed best suited to help his plan succeed.”

The crowd’s mood was becoming ever more solemn.

“How many years does the village have left, before we’re buried in snow?” it was more of an accusation than a question.

“No one can guess.  One year? Twenty years? We can hope that the long winter never comes at all, but we must think as though we can still raise food here, live here, trade here, for only five more years. But we will stay here as long as the weather allows. During that time we will make plans to evacuate and prepare to migrate south.”

The countenance of solemn resignation that the crowd had worn now shifted to one of fear and apprehension.

“I see the dread in your faces,” Guthrie admitted, “it is without doubt dangerous to the south. But we will send out scouts.  We will watch as the southern people who are unable to cope as the weather becomes colder move further south.  Those of us who do not go north with Carter – I am not going north but am staying with you – our only hope will be to become migrants ourselves, ever moving into those areas where the weather has chased out most others, and assimilating those who have been  hardy enough or stubborn enough to stay.”

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

A week later the caravan was ready to leave.  6 couples over 40 years of age.  9 married couples with a total of 14 children between the ages 5 and 10, and 16 young adults made up the company.  In addition to Carter’s horse and wagon, the villagers had another ten between them.   The wagons were tightly packed with provisions and belongings, with room for riders on the very back.

A light snow was falling, large flurries that lingered in the air as though they might never succumb to the earth’s gravity.  The road that led out of the village gate was lined with a throng of people, friends and family to say their goodbyes, and well-wishers who had come to see them off.

As Guthrie sauntered to the head of the caravan he gave the line a wide berth so as not draw the notice of those leaving.  He had spoken with each one of them at length during the past several days and had said his good byes.  He didn’t wish to rehash anything that had already been said.  He did want to repeat himself with Carter, however.

Carter turned just as Guthrie was approaching; he leapt off his wagon and two men stood face to face, a moment of silence between them, then fiercely shook hands.

“You’ve got the keys someplace safe?”

“Yes, for the third time, I’ve got the keys someplace safe.”

“And you remember where the landmarks are to find the cache?”

“Yes, I know where the landmarks are.  You sure you won’t need all those guns and ammunition and supplies?”

“For the third time,” Guthrie mimicked him, I’ve got another one that we’ll be breaking into when we begin our own migration.  I always intended your cache to be for the last man standing.  Never knew who it was going to be, but I’m placing my bet on you.”

Carter nodded.  “Your first visit from the reindeer tribe will be in about in a month, weather permitting. It will be comprised of about five of my people, who have experience with running the reindeer and the sledges, and about fifteen of yours. ”

“We’ll be sure to give them a proper welcome. You won’t be among them?”

“No, I’ve got to build everyone’s confidence that they can do it on their own.  And this way you can get to know the caliber of people your entrusting your people with.  I think you’ll be impressed.”

“Very good.”

With that the two men shook hands again and Guthrie turned and headed back to the village gates.

 *

 

9 thoughts on “The Village of the Smoky Hills ~ a short story

  1. I really enjoyed reading your story. It is very thought-provoking. It makes me realise that although I enjoy growing my own fruit and vegetables, preserving and cooking, and can spin wool, knit, and sew my own clothes, I definitely lack survival skills and would find it extremely difficult to survive in such a scenario. I often yearn for the simpler times of our ancestors, before technology and consumerism took over our lives, and it is sad to think that it would take an apocalyptic event to bring us back to our grass roots.

    Thank you for a wonderful story!

    • Kristah, thank you for the thoughtful comment. This story was written for submission to an anthology of post-peak oil stories. Don’t know if you’ve read much on peak oil, but the hard truth is that we could well be placed back into a pre-industrial society without an apocalyptic event, just the end of cheap oil and the resulting collapse of the economy. It’s a scenario that could easily play out. That is a remarkable set of skills that you have! They would be ever-so-valuable in the future that we could be facing.

  2. This is beautiful, and truthful, and thought-provoking, all in one; although I dare say it is far more tame and amiable in the thirty years of elapsed time expressed than reality ever will be, should we face it in our lifetimes (regardless of cause, or combination of such).
    Even the most die-hard cannot prepare for everything, and those of us struggling just to begin, often become frustrated and overwhelmed.

    Will there be more? It is a good work.

    • Thank you for the review! Yes, this did portray a fairly tame outcome. I am contemplating making this a full length novel; one section that pre-dates this part of the story would depict a more harrowing set of events as people seek to survive at all costs.

  3. I like this! While I was reading this I thought of the Oklahoma land runs in the late 1800s early 1900s. I like built each scene, wonderful detail. I could picture it in my mind! Not that I know what it was like back then but seems you have some premonitions or maybe discerning of times, either way I enjoyed this very much!

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