The first time I saw her she was standing on the road, holding a shotgun in an easy grip, which was more or less pointed at me.
I had been adjusting the gear in my bicycle-cum-cart, and could have sworn I didn’t see anything on the road. Then I looked up and met her intent gaze. Unsmiling. It was a jolt, a true shock for me. I may have opened my mouth.
You see, there was supposed to be no one around anymore. Not for many years. They called it the second wave due to a mutation of the virus.
Years ago we thought we had gone through the corona virus. Everything seemed to be about to go back to normal after weeks of quarantine and lockdown. There seemed to be a tapering of the new cases and deaths.
Then came the second wave. This was very devastating, a real world ender. Millions, Billions died. That was years ago. I was resigned to be the last man on earth.
And now this.
At first, I thought it was a tree. It’s because of her green fatigue jacket. My eyes had grown used to not seeing another human being that actually seeing one had became a new experience for me.
I don’t know how long we stood like statues. Then I remembered that you have to greet a stranger the first you meet. So I raise my hand and said “Hi!”
The shotgun rose up in imitation of my hand. Luckily, it didn’t fire. Her answer, which I remember well, was:
“Are you human?”
“Yes” I answered quickly, and added “my name is Nikola.”
“Thank God!” she exclaimed. And the shotgun pointed to the ground.
Then the dam broke. Years of keeping company with only yourself, of not meeting another human, burst out. What’s your name? Where are you from? Do you have others with you? What were you doing? Where are you going? And so on, and so on.
I should have been jumping for joy, and dancing. But I didn’t. It was her manner.
Although she answered the questions readily, she answered deliberately. Carefully. With that tinge of wariness as if she was always alertly watching. And unsmiling.
Finally, an awkward silence. I got tired of smiling at an unsmiling face.
I had thought that meeting the possibly only other human being on the planet would go differently. I was wrong.
The years of indoctrination in civil conduct came up in me. I couldn’t help it. Don’t ask her age. Don’t contradict. Don’t pry into personal affairs. Don’t be forward. Always be respectful in the presence of a lady. Treat all females as ladies.
Then getting on the bike, I asked “I’m heading in that direction. Would you like a ride?”
“In that cart?” She seemed indignant.
“You can move the things inside so you could have a seat. It’s restful after a day’s hike. And it’s much faster than walking.”
She again had that wary look. Sizing things up. Then she said, “Alright.”
She had that practiced grace when she moved. I was fascinated. Finally she settled on a spot sitting on a crate, still cradling her shotgun.
“Don’t shoot me from behind!” My poor attempt at a joke.
“Don’t worry. I only shoot when they’re facing me” and she gave a short chortle. An ungirlish chortle. Was it a joke? Or a memory of someone she shot? I hope it was a joke.
The bike gamely pulled the cart. It was positioned at the front to balance the drag. It was my own design. Unloaded, the bike could pull at a very good clip. When fully laden, it can still carry the burden at a slow rate and so not tire the muscles. The ingenuity of gears!
“Where did you get this cart?” I heard from behind.
Not looking back, I answered “I made it myself.”
“Huh? You must be an Engineer!” She seemed awed.
“No. But I like to read. Lots of books.”
Although it seemed awkward talking to someone from behind, I liked the way she seemed warming up. The wariness and the deliberateness of speech seemed to be thawing.
“What sort of name is that? Nikola? Seems foreign to me.”
“It was given to me by my uncle, whose grandfather worked with Nikola Tesla. He said that he was a great man. He invented the electric generator.” A bit of a stretch, but in practical terms Tesla did invent the generator.
“I know bikes.” She said. “I used to ride with a gang. You know, the motorcycle gangs?”
“I know.” I said. And I also know the motorcycle gangs’ reputation.
She said that they called her “Judd”.
“Isn’t it a guy’s name”
“Hey! That’s short for Judith. But the guys hated it, only my father called me that”
Judith. I like that name. Beautiful and deadly. Just like this Judith.
“I rode with my father. After my mother died, I decided to live with him. At first he wouldn’t accept it, but after seeing that I could fix bikes and deal with the biker’s life he relented. I know how to cook, I can fix bikes, and ride. ”
I nodded, hoping that she saw my action. Her story explains a lot of things. The wariness, the ungirlish chortle, and the shotgun. These are things you develop if you lived with a biker’s gang.
After a while, she said “my gun isn’t loaded.”
“Huh?!” Did I hear it right? Really?
“At first, I always kept my shotgun at the ready, with my thumb near the safety. But after years of not meeting anybody, I removed the bullets. Seems tempting to just blow my head off with a loaded gun someday, you know. So I removed it. It’s just habit to bring it along, I guess.”
My heart went out to her. I know the feeling of knowing that you might be the last person on earth.
What kept me sane was my tinkerer’s mind. There’s a joy in solving a mechanical problem and knowing that it works.
“Can you go to the ridge up ahead? That’s my shelter for the night.”
We went into the clearing. There was a sleeping bag with a built in mini tent on one side and stones laid out where you can cook. And an enormous knapsack besides the sleeping bag.
“This is where you’ve lived?” I asked.
“It’s my second day” she said.
She’s been on the move for years. Sleeping in abandoned buildings, moving around carrying her knapsack which, you’d be surprised, carries an enormous load of things she needs for food, shelter, and the shotgun.
She said the places where she enjoys most are the woods. She hikes enormous distances, stopping when she’s tired or if she fancies the place. Like now. She goes ‘shopping’ for food at the empty supermarts.
The lifestyle is very much like mine, although I stay at houses or buildings for longer stretches, sometimes for months at a time. Moving is actually easier for me, because of my cart.
It’s getting late and I asked if I could stay the night and move off the next day. I can sleep on my cart, with appropriate beddings which I carry for my ‘excursions’. So I can sleep on the road if needed.
For supper she said she had food. I said think nothing of it, I have an enormous supply of tinned food. I found that as long as the tin is good and maintained it seal, the food lasts for a long time.
She cooked for us. There’s nothing like food, even tinned food, being prepared and cooked properly. And coffee!
And Music! My iPod, which is charged with solar panels on my cart, has many genres to choose from. As expected, she chose country and pop rock. At least, we have the same choice in pop rock, although I suspect she would be happier with punk. But who knows if she would have liked it or not, she didn’t choose it when I asked.
It was the first time I saw her really smile with delight. It was a very satisfying meal. I feel satiated, enjoying good company, and a cool breeze. I am contented. It’s one of the happiest moments in my life.
When I woke up in the morning, she had breakfast ready.
“Good Morning!” I said.
“Good Morning!” she answered.
“You know, “ I mused “I almost forgot what it feels like being greeted by another person. It’s been years.”
“Hahaha, same here!”
I was surprised at her reaction. It was really a laugh of joy.
Later, she asked if those packets in the cart were really seeds for vegetables.
“Yes, they are. I am moving to Carmel.”
“Carmel-By-The-Sea? What’s there?”
“I lived there once. It’s a very nice place to live in. There’s the beach. Also, the surrounding area is good for planting vegetables. I studied books, and I think I want to have a try at it. Like in the old days, man grows his food, instead of getting it from a supermarket. A man can grow his food there, and grow old along with it.”
“You make it sound like a good place to be. I feel a little homesick now.”
We were silent, each with our own thoughts.
After putting away breakfast things, she said:
“I have to go to the stream, over there” pointing it out to me.
“Yes, and I have to fix my bike-cart, getting it ready for the road.”
“Wait for me. I’ll be on the road, too.”
So I started getting ready for the road. I arranged the piles. I thought that she could ride with me for a part of her journey, so I prepared a place for her. Just in case.
So I waited. And waited.
Concerned that she was taking a long time I called out:
No response. I came closer, called louder:
When I came to the stream, there was Judith, in all her splendor, standing under a small waterfall.
I gasped. I remember what King Solomon said (Song of Songs 7 NIV 6-9):
“How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples,
and your mouth like the best wine.”
Then Judith, in her nakedness, looked at me. I turned away, but waited.
When she came up, thankfully, she was already wrapped in a towel.
She cupped my chin.
“My dear, dearest, Nikola. You are a true gentleman. And a nerd.” Then she went off.
I stopped, and thought, what did she mean?
Never mind! I ran after her.
“Judith. Would you come with me to Carmel?”
“Of course.” She simply said.