chapter 1: life on the edge

Chapter 1

Pa died sometime at the end of summer. A day later, when I stepped outside, the sun must have been at its zenith. The heat washed over my head like a waterfall. It soaked into my clammy skin and I shivered, shedding the cold that had gathered in my bones from the time spent in our mud brick hut; my mud brick home, since pa had died. Pa wouldn’t have lingered on the terminology, he would have shouted at me for sitting around moping while there was work to be done. I imagined him saying, “Don’t just stand there: pump tha’ water or we’ll die of dehydration before we finish washing the wool.” I looked long and hard at his huddled form, which was still in his bed, before I stumbled outside. The cool air of my hut sloughed off me in the sun as I went to face the fields of dried out plants that I had neglected since pa had been ill.

The first thing I noticed was how thirsty I was. The brightness seemed such a contrast to the loneliness I felt in Pa’s absence. The sun made me feel the warmth of company; the light brought to sharp relief the dried earth around me as the sun reflected blindingly off the ground. The world spun, and all my joints creaked as I ducked back into the house to find the water bottles. In my haste to grab the basket that held the plastic and glass bottles, I spilled them to the floor and they bounced and rolled away from me, disappearing into the piles of clothing and trash. As I grabbed at the bottles, throwing each one back into the basket, I found my fingers holding something cold and hard. I stared at the shape in the dim light, not quite sure what I was looking at. As my fingers explored the form in my hand, I realized that I was holding the barrel of a gun. I tossed the weapon into the darkness beneath Pa’s bed.

I finished collecting the bottles and brought them outside; I shook each one but found only empties. I stared out at the mud dome huts that formed the small compound I lived on. I noticed the dry cracked fields, and hunched brown grey twigs that were the remnants of the spring crops, and the bare dirt where the fall crops should have been sprouting. There was no water, not for me and not for the crops, not for anything. Pa would have been livid. It was my job to have water ready, always have water; there was no life without it. In a full panic I stumbled with the basket of bottles to the pump on the south side of the house.

The box that held the controls for the water pump was patched together by spit and rope. It had once been shiny black plastic, but time and weather had warped and scratched it, and the door hung crooked from when Pa had thrown a rock at it last time it broke. Pa could be quick to anger, especially when the pump didn’t work properly. Right before he had left, he had managed to fix the thing. The door that held the controls was wedged shut with a piece of wood because it wouldn’t stay shut on its own.

I yanked out the piece of block and tossed it to the ground more forcefully than I meant to. Even my frustration with inanimate objects reminded me of Pa, but it wasn’t their fault he had died. I had to take several breaths before I went to try the solar well pump so I wouldn’t brake or misplace anything that really mattered. My fingers shook as I fumbled with the switch. And then again, and a third time, but no luck. I shook and poked each piece of the pump controls, then checked the wiring that led from the controls to the solar panels and looked for leaks around the rubber gaskets but the chug that usually sounded when the pump was on never started. I forgot I was thirsty as I tried to fathom what might have broken. It might have been the check valve, the valve that prevented the water from flowing back into the well. If it had broken, the backflow of water would have put strain on the pump, eventually wearing out the mechanism. Or perhaps it was silt, pulled into the system from the bottom of the well causing the pump to seize. These were both issues I could not fix without new parts. I was sweating by then, the irony. With the fear of no water, I found myself losing all moisture through my pores. My mouth felt like sandpaper and tasted of salt.

***

The summer Pa died he took most of what we had grown in the hopes he could trade for the pieces to fix our well pump and new solar panels to replace those we had; at about twenty-five years old, the panels had degraded so much that they barely supported the pump let alone the power to run our water filter. His hope was his friends Jacob and Kai, who lived in one of the cities down south, would have found some new, or newer parts.

As he packed for his journey he reminded me be careful with the pump and to harvest the last of the spring crops. This time took with him most the years’ harvest and the previous years’ dried herb supply. “I’ll get us some new parts. Maybe even a new pump or some new solar panels. Hopefully Jacob and Kai will have scrounged something up.” He didn’t mention that, with the well pump that kept breaking, we wouldn’t be able to plant a fall crop. Since the well pump was unreliable, we had been required to use the hand pump on and off all growing season. It forced us to plant only half the vegetables and grains we usually did. Even with the crops so reduced, the days Pa and I watered with the hand pump lasted from sun up to sun down. Right before he had left, Pa had gotten the solar pump to work again, but neither of us trusted it to last. The pump was often leaky, and a few times in the past, silt had been pulled up into the pump causing it to break and forcing us to replace it. “You’re on your own this summer and you have to finish the harvest by yourself. Don’t trade any work for food, we might run short ourselves.” Pa hugged me tightly for a moment and pushed me away. “I hate to leave you alone.” It was moments like this that reminded me pa loved me, no matter how often he yelled at me about chores.

Before he left, Pa turned to me and took the holster and gun off of his belt. He tried to hand it to me but I wouldn’t take it until he thrust the weapon in my direction. I was still holding it awkwardly to my chest when Pa left with Hanan on his ways south in search of new parts.

The morning pa left the sun had not yet come up, but the dry heat that heralded the summer was already setting in. That late spring day seemed too hot too early in the season, but perhaps I think that now because that was the summer Pa died.

***

I froze for a moment, my hand on the silent pump. I needed to check something but I wasn’t sure what. I looked hard at the solar panels on the biggest dome, and then the small dome next to it. From where I crouched by the pump to the small dome, a pipe ran connecting the well pump to the holding tank, filter, another holding tank, and the pump that lead to the fields. It took me a moment to remember that if the filter system didn’t work I would be in trouble; the water was too salty to drink straight or even water most of the crops with. I could manually fill the first tank from the hand pump, ferry the water to it, and run the filter by hand, but even with that I would never be able to manually pump and filter enough water for even a patch of food for myself. There wasn’t going to be a good rain for a month at least, and the seedlings for a fall crop had to be sown before that if I wanted to harvest before the cold season. Pa had taken most of our stored food and early harvest relying on the fact that we would have the fall crop to sustain us through the next winter.

When I checked the pump that watered the fields, I found that it seemed to work, but without the well pump to get enough water, this was a moot point anyways. Pa said once that people were able to fix or get new parts for their machinery without even leaving their homes. He explained that not so long ago the planet had used oil to fuel the world. This included the large factories that made new parts for machinery and the huge trucks that shipped the parts anywhere they were needed. Without oil the trucks stopped. When the shipping trucks stopped bringing machine parts, they also were no longer able to bring food from far places as well. There had been things like the solar panels we used now, but they had never managed to make them strong enough to fuel the trucks.

After I was certain I would be able to use the filter, by hand at least, I went to the hand pump that was hidden partially by two large Loquat trees. The handle was metal and was once surrounded by a piece wood that protected my hands from the rough cast iron. Since that had fallen off, I used my hat to protect myself.

***

There was a period of time, when I was twelve I think, that the pump worked well. When it broke, Pa had easily been able to trade for pieces to fix it each summer when he traveled south. Pa would always make this trip with Hanan and often with Hanan’s son, Tam; they lived nearby and raised animals. Down south there were more cities, more goods to be scrounged. Jacob and Kai were Pa’s connection and they were the only ones Pa traded with. The ground pump allowed us to pull enough water to pump through the filter, and then from the filter into the fields through pipes Pa and I would lay out each spring and roll up at the end of the fall growing season. These pipes were made of plastic, and every foot or so had holes punched in them to let the water dribble out by the roots of our plants.

Over the next seven years, parts to fix the well pump became harder and harder to find. We were reduced to cannibalizing old pumps to ensure our current one continued to function. Despite all our efforts, it became less and less reliable. Pa guessed our problem was a tie between the old solar panels that didn’t collect as much energy as before, and our crudely fixed pump. Pa begged Jacob and Kai to help him find newer parts, a new pump, but as the years went by there were fewer and fewer parts to be found. The cities were gutted of almost all useful equipment.

The less we were able to rely on the pump the less food we grew. The less we grew, the less we had to trade. It was a vicious cycle that scared Pa and fed his fear of losing control. The gun, which usually lived in Pa’s nightstand, found a new home under his pillow, and for the last couple of years we didn’t hire wandering folk to help with the farm work in our shrinking fields. Pa used to allow the wanderers to use our water pump but during those last two years he would pull a gun at anyone who came near. Our reduced crops made Pa paranoid that everyone was out to steal our crops; he threatened anyone passing until they learned to leave us well alone.

Occasionally, Hanan and Tam would give us a hand when the pump went out and we had to water by hand, but even with their help it would take an entire day to water the fields. This left little time to weed, fix equipment or sleep .I never understood why Pa always pushed so hard to create so much food. We used the extra food to trade for things we could not make like pieces for our pumps, filters for our water and knives, but I often thought that if we only grew food for ourselves then we wouldn’t need so much water. To this day I wonder if pa and I would still be there if we only used the hand pump and grew food for ourselves.

***

The pump creaked stiffly for the first few thrusts, but after I threw my weight at it a few times, the welcome gurgle of liquid reached my ears. Since the filter was only attached to the solar pump and not the hand pump I was using, I had to ferry the water, bucket by bucket, to the filter tank. When the tank was full, I ran the system that filtered the water with a hand crank, turning the handle of the mechanism until my arms cramped from the effort and the water ran through the filters and into the clean tank. The first sip made me gag, but after I drank the bottle slowly, even the lukewarm water felt cool and refreshing in my empty stomach.

***

When Pa and Hanan left, the last of the spring crops were getting close to harvesting. I watched them leave down the scrub slope. Pa’s stride was long and hopeful as he descended the plateau we lived on. To the east of the path he traveled, on a peak across from our farm, the ugly remains of an old concrete building was crowned with a blood red halo of the rising sun.

The summer, as with every other summer Pa travelled, was a lonely one. Early morning watering the fields, afternoons making sure the chickens had water and shade, evenings of weaving clothe. I didn’t know what dangers Pa would face when he traveled south, but my heart still felt painful in my chest. I don’t know why I worried. I was always anxious when Pa left, and this summer was no different.

***

It didn’t take long to realize that, without new parts, I would not be able to fix the pump. This left me with only the hand pump for both my own drinking water and watering the gardening, a feat that seemed impossible; I realized I would never be able to pump enough water to run the farm. I knew enough to fix the pump, but I also knew enough to understand that there was no way to fix the pump this time. That left me with a question: use the food Pa and I had stored for the cold season and try to trade for new parts, or save the food for myself. Besides Jacob and Kai, I didn’t know who else Pa might have traded with down south. I didn’t even know where I would find them because I had never left the farm. I had saved some of the perennial garden from my neglect, but even with this and what food I had left stored, I realized it would be a struggle to grow enough food for myself. It seemed even more unlikely that I would survive when the filter system failed, which it inevitably would. After weighing my options, my best bet was to leave. I would wait until at least the cold season, when the last of the perennial crops were harvested, then I would leave the farm. Perhaps I would become a scavenger like those who used to visit us.

***

The dome huts we lived in were actually a series of mud brick domes scattered around a large central dome where Pa and I did our cooking and sleeping. Beneath the central dome was our pantry where we stored all of our fermented foods. The small dome to the west of the central dome held a place for us to process our food in one half and a tool workshop in the other. Below this dome was the root cellar, the coolest room we had. Pa and I had found a refrigerator once, but with our limited and patchy power supply from the solar panels, Pa had decided it would be too risky to entrust our foods to it. The root cellar had taken a couple of years to be hand dug. It was the first large project I helped Pa with. Later projects included building more domes for our chickens, goats and sheep so they didn’t stay in the main dome with Pa and me during cold nights. My favorite dome was the one I made myself. It was here where worked on my drawings of plants. I would often sit on the roof and watch the sunrise or sunset.
***

The day after I emerged from the main dome, I had filled every bottle I could find with water, even the clean tank in the filter hut. It would last me a day or so, providing enough water for me to drink as well as the plants and trees that I had saved from my neglect. I cleaned the main dome, making sure to leave a wide berth around the red puddle that spilled around Pa’s bed until I couldn’t avoid it any more. I had to do something, I couldn’t just leave him in his bed. I thought I might bury him, but after a full morning and into a blistering afternoon, my neck was burned and I had only dug a bit over a foot into the rocky soil. I dug the spot to the west of our home on a ridge so he could watch the sun set. I dragged his body, wrapped in a blanket I had woven for him two years ago, and tried to place him as gently as I could into the shallow grave. The hardest part was to cover him with dirt; I tried to remember him alive, but the muted thump of dirt on his body is the final memory I carry with me still. I covered the dirt mound with as many stones I could. I hoped the rock cover would serve as both a marker and protection for the shallow grave. I couldn’t bare to think of his body being disturbed by any large cats or oryx. I slept deeply for the first time since Pa had been sick.

I spent the next week seeing what I could scrounge from the dried out crops and nursing the perennial herb garden back to health. Once I had rescued what I could from the last of the spring planting I didn’t bother to plant any new crops because it took all my energy to pump enough water for myself and for the last few chickens that Pa had not taken south to trade at the start of the summer. Days took on a routine, water, eat rest, water, rest again. I found myself slowly gathering my belongings under a tarp outside knowing, though trying not to think about it too much, that I would soon set out south to see what I could find in cities. I slept in my hiding spot, surrounded by the comfort of my charcoal drawings of plants.

***

Pa had been home a week before I even knew that he was hurt. We were working on the last of the spring harvest when I saw Pa relaxing. It struck me odd to find him leaning his back against one of the loquat trees, the arm of his long sleeve shirt, which he wore even in summer, rolled above his elbow. Even in the shadow of the tree, I could see the large red gash splitting the skin of his right forearm. At his feet was a small pile of bandages. When I asked him about it later, he ignored me and dropped a small load of brush in the basket next to the fireplace. He was breathing heavily as if carrying the rush had exhausted him. Before he could stop me, I had grabbed his arm and pushed his sleeve up.

Two days after I found Pa’s injury he was confined to his bed. His head was on fire, and he mumbled incomprehensibly. Despite all the water I had him drink, he rarely had to piss. The gash on his arm showed signs of healing, but like a tracery of veins, red marks ran out like roads from the injury. As Pa’s arm became red and swollen with infection, I abandoned every other task on the farm. I did my best to cool his fever and to keep him drinking water. At the end of the third day, there was a brief respite to his crazy muttering, and he was almost lucid though he could not focus his eyes on me. He told me I needed to survive. As his fever worsened he apologized over and over for dying. I refused to believe him. After four days of a high fever and almost no food, my father shot himself with the pistol while I went to get some food from the root cellar.

***

Two weeks after burying Pa, the first drizzle of autumn rain came and the blindingly bright days of summer were interspersed with days of grey cloud. I was bottling water when I heard a tumble of rocks. The sound was nearby; they must have stumbled over the rock pile next to the main dome. My heart was in my throat and in that moment I understood Pa’s insistence that I carry the pistol. Since burying him, I hadn’t had the courage to pick up the weapon again. I dumped the water out of the bucket to the dirt floor with the thought that I could use the bucket as protection at least. I backed as far away from the door as I could, hoping that whoever was poking around would miss me hidden in the shadows. As the door slowly swung open I wished I had been brave enough to wield the weapon that had killed my father.

When the door was fully opened, I didn’t recognize who was standing there. The sun behind him created a halo and his face was shadowed. His tall frame was stooped from coming through the door. It wasn’t until he asked for some water that I realized it was Tam.

That night, we made a fire outside. I told him my Pa had died. He told me Hanan, his father, had never returned. His mother and younger siblings left while he searched for his father. He has not seen them since. Amongst the bones of his family’s farm, he had found very little; of the animals, he found two donkeys who must have escaped their pen. When I told him I was planning to leave – that I hoped to find Jacob and Kai and trade whatever I had left if they would help me to find a place in the city – Tam asked to join me. I quickly agreed, realizing that between my stores of food and his cart and donkeys we would have a much better chance than if we traveled alone.

***

Tam and I worked hard for three days. We packed as much as we could from my farm into his cart. His two donkeys stayed in the old sheep pen; Pa had taken the last two sheep to trade at the beginning of the summer. We butchered the last of the chickens, and hid the tools and solar panels we couldn’t take with us in the root cellar. We collapsed the building above cellar with the thought that we may return to the farm again.

There was no sun when I went outside the morning we left, but the sky had lightened, the stars dimmed, and the moon hung low. The pale dirt road that led from the farm glowed in the transitional light. With my eyes closed, I heard only the sound of birds. with all the equipment powered by the solar panels switched off and the parts disassembled and put in the root cellar, I could have been anywhere, listening to morning songs. It was a lonely feeling, and for a time I felt disconnected from the earth on which I stood.