Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Ten

As the farm-folk try to harvest, trouble comes from above . . .

Basil and Bethany heard the warning crying out of the emergency radios. “Go disconnect the wind chargers and other outdoor things,” Basil ordered, pulling plugs out of the wall as she rushed across the hallway to throw the master circuit breaker for the farm building. She snatched up James’s carrier and ran out of the farm office and across the strip of yard to find David in the machine repair area. “David,” she screamed. “Unplug everything! Disconnect everything! We have ten minutes before another flare hits the atmosphere.”

“Shit!” He pulled things out of the power supplies while she ran over and turned off the master breaker for that building. She heard David as he called over his shoulder, “Get the house stuff and tell Tildie. I’ll try and warn Da.” He took off at a dead run, heading for the closest harvester.

Basil retraced her steps, dashing to the house to find Karina in the pantry. “Solar flare coming,” she gasped. “Five minutes. Unplug everything. Tell Tildie.”

“Get the house breaker and I’ll catch the others,” Karina ordered, charging off on her mission. Basil set James on the floor, clattered down into the first cellar, and switched the master breaker off, then began throwing the other breakers. She unplugged the water pump and freezer, then trotted upstairs again and started pulling the plugs on the washers. She made it to the kitchen as the first burst of static hissed on her emergency radio. “Crap.” She turned it off and removed the battery, then resumed unplugging everything in the kitchen. At least all the little things are already unplugged, she thought as she panted and twisted, trying to reach that one awkward plug in the corner. She got it, retrieved the (still sleeping) James and sat on the floor, trying to catch her breath. Oh great Lord, holy one, she prayed, Please, please may the men have gotten everything done, please, please Most High, I beg of you.

Karina returned with Kossina, Michael, and the other children. “Tildie heard the warning and had everything powered down, and threw the main breaker on the restaurant. Everything’s already unplugged at the guest house.”

“I sent Bethany to undo the wind charger and outdoor things, and David went to warn the men.” Basil took a deep breath, calming herself as best she could. “Thanks be that Kos insisted on building breakers.”

“And that we started unplugging everything we aren’t using.” Karina adjusted the gas flame on the stove, turning the heat down. “And that we don’t have any guests. The last one checked out this morning. Tildie was just putting everything away and locking the cabinets when she got the message.”

“Mom Karina, what’s going on?” Kossina demanded.

“More sky fires, Kossina.”

“Au-ro-rahs,” Ruth corrected, pronouncing the word slowly. “I learned about them on the video lesson last week.”

Karina rested her hand on Ruth’s head. “That’s right. And we need to be ready to help the men. Basil, please stay here and watch the children. I’ll go finish unplugging everything in the machine shed and double-check the office.” She sighed. “I think the time has come to remove the carpet.”

“Agreed. I’ll start moving things out of the room.” The three women had, after much wrangling, finally decided that they could no longer keep the carpet clean enough now that they had only one functioning robo-vac and no prospects for repairing or replacing the others. As much as Tildie and Basil liked the luxurious carpet, without sweepers they couldn’t keep dust and dirt out of the pile unless they covered the carpet with a protective cloth; something all three agreed was beyond foolish. And moving small furnishings would keep her and the children occupied.

Bethany found Basil just as Tildie appeared and the children finished moving the lightest things out of the way. Tildie clapped her hands together. “Good. I’m going to see if the men need anything. Basil, finish making supper please. Bethany, help her. And start getting the canning and drying equipment out please, Bethany.”

Basil fed James, then rested him on her shoulder and patted him until he burped. Itzak had fashioned a portable pen for the babies and Basil and Bethany moved it into the kitchen, over by the pantry and well away from the sink and stove. They found things for the other children to work on or play with more-or-less quietly. “I’m glad Kos put the water tank in the roof,” Bethany said. “Otherwise we’d be hauling water into the house from the well house.”

“We still might, if we run the tank dry before it’s safe to use the battery pumps,” Basil observed.

Bethany’s face lost all its color. “The batteries! I didn’t unhook them. Did you?”

“No, but before you panic,” Basil did her best to sound calm, “Karina was going that way. Just undoing the main wires and throwing the breaker should have been enough.” Everyone in the family had watched every basic electrical program they could find, and read files, so they understood why as well as what to do. As she stirred the large pot of beans, Basil realized something. “I think I understand now.”

Bethany finished chopping the tomatoes and orange zucchini. “Understand what? Kossina, don’t tease Miriam. I heard Mom Baa telling you to stop twice already.”

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Kossina challenged, fists on hips, chin sticking out. “You’re not my mother.”

Basil grabbed a clean, long-handled spoon lying on the counter, spun Kossina around, and gave her three firm swats on the rear. “No, but she is your older sister and I warned you that the third time today you teased Miriam, you’d get swatted.” Before the surprised ten-year-old could do more than take a breath to start wailing, Basil gently but firmly pushed her into the corner. “Now stand there until Bethany or I say you can come out.”

Basil ignored the pathetic sniffs coming from the corner. Kossina’s brothers and sisters had watched the scene, eyes wide, and then went back to playing. Ruth got a step-stool and helped Bethany stir the vegetables while Basil measured out a blend of maize meal and quinley flour to use for flat-cakes. “Bethany, how much milk was in the can?”

“Almost two liters, Mom Baa.”

“Can I borrow your assistant for a minute? I need someone to get out spices for a custard, and to break some eggs.” Before Bethany could answer Ruth hopped off her stool and came over to help. The older women smiled and kept working. “Michael, I need you too, please.” He set down the printout he was reading and came over.

“Oohh, look at the sky!” The children went to the window. Bethany looked and came back, shivering. Basil didn’t ask.

When Kos, David, Itzak, Saul, Carl, Tildie, and Karina finally staggered into the house under the light of bright blue and green auroras, Bethany and Basil and their proud helpers had hearty beans and roasted vegetables ready, along with several large platters of flatbread and a large custard, and more chopped, boiled eggs to go on the beans. Basil and Bethany had already served the children their suppers and had put the youngest ones to bed. If only we could find a way to run the farm off their energy, we’d never have to worry about the power grid ever again, Basil sighed as she sat down to feed a cranky James. The adults dug into the meal, saying little until the last flatbread vanished. One lone boiled egg remained, and a bit of bean juice. Basil mashed the egg into the juice and ate them while the others finished the custard. She’d had enough already, sampling the spices while it simmered.

“Truly the Lord is good and His mercy is to all generations,” Kos said at last, moving his chair back from the table. “We got the harvester out of the field, and the float too, before the magnetic storm hit. We’ve harvested all the wheat and half the quinley, so we’ll salvage what of the quinley we can by hand.” He shook his head. “But we’ve probably lost the harvester and the float, and one planter.”

Itzak, Kos’s brother, looked down at the table. “I’m sorry. I needed it on the charger to make certain the battery was still good.” He looked up, eyes bright with tears. “I’d left the alert radio in the shed so it wouldn’t get in the way as I worked, and Gomer couldn’t find me in time to give me the warnings. She tried. She got most of the house taken care of. I’m sorry, Kos.”

“It’s done, and if it truly is toasted, then we’ll keep it for parts,” his brother decided. “We’re going to have to make do from here on, I suspect. The grid may not come back up any time soon, and only the Lord knows who else suffered major losses.”

Everyone considered his words. “With that in mind, we’re not going to harvest the potatoes, yellowroot, or other root vegetables yet. First comes the quinley, then we bring the animals down, so we can protect them. Then we’ll start bringing in the roots and tubers. All of them, and building better fences around the house.”

What does he mean, protect the animals? The dardogs and other things won’t be affected by the auroras, will they? Basil burped James, then excused herself briefly to put him back in his cradle to sleep. When she returned, the discussion had already grown heated, and Tildie was chasing Kossina, Ruth, and Michael off to bed.

“You really think people will start trying to steal food?” Carl asked, incredulous. “The Company won’t allow it. They’ll get the synthesizers and transport floats up and running first thing, just like they did last summer.”

Itzak and Basil both shook their heads. “They will try,” her brother-in-law replied. “But if they didn’t get enough spares to replace the replacement parts they’ve already used, it’s going to be tricky. And we had four hours’ warning last time, and we’re at the end of the news chain. This time we got ten minutes. Let’s say the cities had half an hour’s notice. That’s not enough time to get in and disconnect everything, even if you cut power at the main transfer points.”

“And I’m not certain they could do that.” Basil added. “Cut power like that, I mean. From what I recall reading, that sometimes does more harm than good and can trigger a cascade failure and shutdown in the larger grid.” She thought back to the bad old days. “I recall one major power failure while I was still on Deepak’s Planet, one that hit the subsistence districts. Trouble started almost the instant the lights went out, and we ended up having to fight off groups of troublemakers, each housing block for itself. Then idiots tried to harass the repair technicians who came in afterwards. Some sections went two days before peacekeepers came in with the techs and brought the food makers back on line, and it got nasty. In one case infrastructure people slipped in under cover of terror gas.”

Kos knocked on the top of the table, getting their attention. “We are far enough away from the major cities that we should be spared rioting mobs,” he reminded the family. “But that also means that if someone, or a group of people, decides to be stupid, the Company security people likely can’t come protect us. And, may the Lord forefend, the Company might decide that they need our crops more than we do, in order to make up for what is not being synthesized in the cities. They have to supply the cities—the major population centers—first,” he cautioned. “What they can’t find to confiscate, we’ll still have to eat. Should it come to that, which I doubt it will.” But Kos’s tone didn’t match his confident words.


A few days later, Basil mused aloud, “I wonder how much longer the bio-gas will last.” She perched on a stool in the restaurant kitchen, resting after making her fifth or sixth trip to the house with yet another load of canned goods. Tildie had set to work as soon as it was safe to use the windcharger and batteries, preserving tomatoes and fruit, along with anything else that wouldn’t do well dried. Only the absolute surplus went into the freezers, just in case they lost power again.

“According to the pressure gauges, a few weeks if we keep using as much as we are. I suspect longer, since the fermentation and gas production will go on until the weather turns too cool for the microbes to do their thing and they go dormant.” She lifted a second rack of cans out of the big canner and set them aside. “How is the drying coming?”

“I’d guess halfway? I carried twenty vacuum packs of beans, peaches, and apples to the cellar, then shifted some boxes to the attic for us to go through later.” She, Bethany, and Tildie were having to do most of the work: Karina’s morning sickness hit her harder than usual, leaving her too drained to do more than supervise the children. But she’s improving, Basil reminded herself. “Oh, and a dozen packages of sorted herbs, and a dozen of blended.”

Tildie lowered a batch of cans into the canner, added a touch more water, and twisted this way and that, stretching. The women heard twelve “pings” from the cooling rack and smiled: all the cans had sealed. “The Lord surely blessed whoever developed modern canning materials,” Tildie declared. The clear containers resembled glass, but broke much less easily, didn’t make sharp shards if they did break, and the composite caps fit more tightly and held better seals. However, they’d still burn you terribly if you touched them with a bare hand straight out of the boiling bath or sterilizer oven.

“How is your spinning project going?” Tildie asked, tipping her head toward the little mini-spindle that hung from Basil’s belt. A thread of wool led into the bag behind the spindle.

“Better than I’d hoped. Trying to blend the inner hairs is pointless, because once you try to wash them? It curls into a mess. Shahma shrinks less than sheep wool, and I don’t know how to keep them from knotting after washing. But,” she opened her bag and let Tildie peer in at the hands-fulls of longer hairs. “The long, coarse hairs on top of the shahma’s back work well with the neck ruff hair of the sheep. The stuff isn’t soft, but it’s very strong and locks together. I suspect we can use it for heavy-duty things.” She spun a little as Tildie boxed up the cans. “I’ve already traded ten meters to Mrs. Krehbiel for two yards of linen, once she gets her loom reset.”

Tildie made a face. “I’m glad we don’t grow flax or make linen. Those ponds stank something terrible this summer.”

“Didn’t they? Oh, next year, Mrs. Krehbiel wants to borrow one of the girls, either Ruth or Kossina, when they prepare the flax. She has too many boys, and says they’re too heavy-handed to hackle the stuff.”

“Hackle? Stay there. I’ll put this next batch in here as well.”

Basil nodded. “It’s like carding fleece or combing cotton or trilbak, apparently.”

Tildie stretched again and fanned with her hot-grip. “Speaking of sorting out, any word on the men?”

Basil shook her head and wound the cord on the end of the spindle, then drew out another section of hair. “They should be half-way back. Kos and Micah thought that the drive would take longer, since they can only move as fast as the youngest lambs.”

“Ugh. I’m glad you like the beasts, Basil. They hate me.” She excused herself for a moment, leaving Basil to spin and watch the pots. Basil wanted to correct Tildie, but the other woman spoke pure truth: sheep, goat, shahma, cow, horse, donkey, they all acted up around Tildie. The goats Basil could understand: as they’d discovered, goats hated everyone.

The half-dozen goats had been Kos’s idea, and had lasted two weeks before Kos, reluctantly, had agreed to swap them for some construction supplies. After a goat kicked Kossina so hard she had a concussion, dragged the laundry off the drying racks, and then ate a kilo of already trimmed and washed turnip tops, Karina had given her husband an ultimatum: get rid of the goats or his wives would go on strike. He’d blustered, argued, and two days later the goats left. They’d also swapped roosters with the Krehbiels for a few months, to keep the bloodlines fresh.

Tildie returned about the time the cans finished. She lifted them out and set them on the airing tray to cool. As soon as the “pings” rang through the kitchen, she loaded them into the box. “You know,” she said as Basil put away her spinning and got ready to carry the box to the house. “We should also store some things here, hidden in the corners. The guest house too. Just in case we have a fire, or desperation makes someone act foolishly.”

“I’ll suggest that to Karina and see what she thinks,” Basil said. Dividing the supplies made perfect sense to her, but she’d grown up tucking away bits of food and clothing in hidey-holes where her mother’s boyfriends or the domestic organizational monitor couldn’t find them and confiscate them.

“It makes sense, but not now,” the senior wife agreed, brushing hair out of her eyes. “We need to finish so we know exactly what we have, and then shift things. And check with the men.” She managed a tired smile. “Besides, we’ll need their help carrying everything uphill.”

“Good point.” Basil checked on Miriam and James. “Whew, young man, that’s quite a diaper.” She lifted him out of the pen and whisked him off to wash and change. When she returned, Karina had a paper calendar out. “I can see why some people love use-once diapers.”

“Especially the kind you could compost, although those disappeared from the shop five or six years ago, not long after Kossina finished potty training.” Karina looked at the calendar and pointed to a date. “This is today. At the moment, barring major difficulties or the discovery of more vegetables, we should have a lull here,” in four days. “We can do laundry then, if you have enough diapers to wait. And then take a full rest day.” They’d eased up on their work during the Sabbath, but the rabbi agreed that working during the daylight hours in the kitchens would be a forgivable breach, given the situation.

The evening of laundry day, after everyone finished bringing in the last load of clothes, linens, diapers, dish towels and other things, they just sat. They’d even had Miriam carrying things from the racks to the baskets and vice versa, and she fell asleep on the floor beside Basil’s chair. Karina had disconnected every appliance but the water heaters and washers from the batteries and wind charger, so they could use the washers for the heaviest things. Bethany, after some experimenting, discovered the best soap blend to use, and they’d gotten everything done without incident or overflow. Basil noticed Tildie smiling about something and chuckling quietly. “Share?”

“Just thinking about the attack of the suds. It’s funny, now.”

Basil smiled back. “Yes, it is. Now.” At the time Karina thought she’d killed the washer.

Karina opened one eye. “We need to learn how to wash without the washer. As in how to scrub things, and how to clean the light wools Mrs. Krehbiel and Mrs. Schmidt talked about weaving.”

Tildie rocked, as did Basil, both thinking. At last Bethany spoke up. “Mom Karina, maybe the easiest thing to do is wear something under the wool that can be washed more easily, and make bigger aprons. Like the women wore in that drama holo about ancient Earth. Without the jewels and murders,” she added with a grin.

“And we need to learn how to sew clothes of all kinds,” Tildie sighed. “If the worst happens, we are going to be so far down on the parts list, and prices will be so high for manufactured goods, that some things will wear out long before we can buy replacements. Like the men’s and boys’ work pants.” The other three women groaned.

A cloud settled over the room. Basil had not wanted to think about that, about what the last magnetic storm meant in the long-term. She could handle a day, a week, even a month ahead. But what came after harvest and after the flocks returned? What if the cities had been knocked back again? Her mind shied away from the thought. Please Lord may the cities have been better prepared this time, she prayed. Please may parts and supplies be on their way already, and new satellites to watch the sun and the weather.

Karina announced, “But not today, or tomorrow. Tomorrow we rest, and eat milk pudding with bramble berries, and give thanks for what we’ve been able to do, and that no one’s been hurt or gotten food poisoning.” Triumph filled her voice as she added, “And that I pulled up the last squash plant, jumped up and down in it, and hurled it onto the compost mountain.”

“Yeah,” everyone still awake chorused. James waved his arm, blinked sleepily, and dozed off again.

Karina opened her other eye and stood up carefully. “Time for night prayers and bed.”

(C) 2014, 2016 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


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