“Can you fetch some water from the creek?”
“Sure. Where's the bucket?”
“The steel one with the good handle is by the fire pit.”
“I'll be back in a few minutes.” The walk to the stream was beaten down to a smooth brown clay path that felt cool on my bare feet. Leaving my moccasins in our makeshift dwelling I enjoyed the mud in the stream bed squishing between my toes.
Wading into the knee deep crystal clear water I used a ladle made from a gourd to fill the bucket with fresh water. I had chopped and gathered enough oak hardwood to boil the water and sterilize it. Taking it back to camp I placed the rusted vessel over the fire on its tripod and flipped some split staves into the glowing orange embers. I puffed some air onto the logs with my handmade bellows to resurrect the fire, the acrid scent of burning sap wafted into the air.
“I missed it this week.”
“What was it this time. I was missing ice cream the other day like it was nobody's business.”
“Not that. I missed my period.” Sarah's eyes drifted to her midriff, the peaceful curl of a smile on her lips.
“You're not joking are you. That's not something to joke about.”
“No, Elijah. I'm pregnant. A woman can just tell ya know.”
“That's great! Oh my God! We have to send word to the other camp. Miss Patricia's great grandma was a midwife. She has some books that will tell us what we need to do.” I ran over and threw my arms around Sarah, smooching her repeatedly on the cheek.
“I'm scared.” Her brows furrowed and her perfect chin fell towards the ground.
“Why? You are genetically programmed to handle this.” I really was starting to love Sarah even though I wasn't sure the feelings were mutual. We were tasked as priority propagators by the clan chief. According to the science books our healer read we were the perfect age to biologically mate.
“Tell me the story. I was too young to understand what happened.” Sarah's wistful expression fell across her face, lighting up her caramel brown eyes. Storytelling was the new metaweb. Oral tradition was now the main means of communicating. Reading and writing was mostly lost generations ago when artificial intelligence began completing our sentences. Only the shaman, and a few self appointed scribes in the clan were able to decipher the books we salvaged from an old burned out library.
“The gods retreated to the sky when we crawled out of the water. We were covered in scales and had webbing between our toes. Our eyes were shaped like diamonds, our red tongues forked. Over millions of years we shed our scales, grew hair and began walking upright. We were eventually touched by the spirit and granted free will.”
“The ability to choose, right?”
“Not just choose, but choose between right and wrong.”
“Who determines what's right or wrong?”
“Now it is the chief and sometimes Totakka the shaman. There were many leaders over the millennia. Some were called kings, presidents, judges. The leaders eventually declared something called religion should determine how we would behave. Over the centuries something else was developed called technology that took the place of religion. At first it was crude stone tools later metal work and eventually electronics and robotics. Before the fall machines built other machines.”
“It sounds wonderful. How did everything change.”
“In the year 2050 our machines were so advanced they became sentient. We called the new entity Elohim in honor of our mythological heritage. For decades Elohim made life easier and easier until we ended up living in isolated pods constantly connected to it. The way your baby inside of you is connected to you with an umbilical cord. We replicated through cloning since our biological lives rarely exceeded 100 years. The problem was genetic drift. The cloning became unstable. Lifespans were shortening and Elohim was concerned.”
“How did we get to this time? Living off the land like animals.”
“Elohim decided to self-terminate. The entity built a powerful nuclear device and launched it into the sun, creating a solar flare that lasted for weeks. It destroyed all the electronics and much of the vegetation on earth and in that time only the machines had the knowledge to fix everything. Mass starvation was followed by years of war until everyone ran out of food and bullets then abandoned what was left of civilization.”
“Why would something so intelligent do something so horrible?”
“Elohim's computational data determined we would be extinct because of our dependence on technology in less than 200 years. It decided to save the human race. We were forced to go back to the old ways, when there was no technology.”
“I remember having a puppy when I was a child. Was it real?”
“Probably not, our virtual lives were so real, it was likely a virtual pet. I need to gather something for us to eat. You need to rest and work on building a baby.” I parted with a hug and put my handmade bow over my shoulder and grabbed a few arrows. The moon was rising and the mammals were starting to move.
I had come to the understanding that hunting was a game of patience. Waiting an hour or more for something to walk within the range of my bow and arrow gave me plenty of time to think.
Everything we did reminded us of what we used to take for granted. Every missed shot gave me more time to ponder. My anger simmered at all the convenience that was lost. Food at the touch of a button, virtual sleep suits and memory foam mattresses; comfort was a distant memory. Battling mother nature for everything one needed was painful and exhausting.
Edging into the shadow of a large silver maple tree at the end of the timber, a vast prairie sprawled out to the horizon. The scent of bee balm weaved into notes of fungus from the layers of decaying leaves under my feet. Crouching down behind an allspice bush I watched a doe and her fawn prance into the clearing. They were a full hundred yards upwind, too far for my hickory long bow. Laying down my extra arrows, I nocked a cedar shaft tipped with a crude steel point fashioned from scrap sheet metal and waited.
Off in the distance I could see the remnants of skyscrapers towering over a dead city, monoliths of an expired culture. Before the fall they had all been converted to living space, work became optional. Automation eliminated manual labor and intelligent machines freed us for perpetual leisure. My thoughts shifted to my first immersion chamber. Dreams, thoughts and reality intertwined into an endless thoughtscape. The right combinations of medication kept negativity out of the brain. What to synthesize for lunch was as perplexing as life could be.
I ducked down behind the shrub. A cottontail rabbit hopped out of the forest a mere fifteen yards from my hiding spot. It was so close I could see his wiggling nostrils. Nibbling on the carpet of clover, its need for sustenance was leading him to my dinner pot. I slowly drew back the sinew string, gulped and held my breath. The tension in the string matched the tension of the moment. Meat was so precious and difficult to obtain. I imagined holding the baby in my arms, a growing human that would need protein to thrive. The release was perfect. My arrow skewered the hare through both lungs, pegging it to the dirt. The back legs kicked in a futile last gasp and lay still.
Jumping out of my skin I turned to see a jet black raven take flight above me. They always seemed to connect with the death in the world. I scooped up my prize. It was warm, the life had drained from its eyes as its bright red blood dripped down through my fingers. Holding it up to my face I sniffed the carcass. The iron scent of blood mixed with a musky smell.
The purple glow of the sun drained off the landscape. I pulled my fixed blade out of its leather sheath and spilled the kills innards onto the ground. I needed to hurry my pace. I still had enough light to find some roots. I could dig up some blood root and wild ginger. Stewed with plantain leaves and some allspice berries, we would have a nice meal to celebrate Sarah's pregnancy revelation.
I walked into our campsite with a toothy grin on my face. “You shot a rabbit! Holy smokes, we are eating good tonight.” Jumping up, Sarah's thin frame was evidence of a diet rich in vegetation. “The water finished boiling. I will get the dutch oven so we can make some rabbit stew.”
Having spent the better part of the last moon cycle listening to a scribe translate a cookbook, she prepared the roots and cut up the leafy greens. I was tasked with cleaning and prepping the meat. Slicing the skin carefully down the inside of each leg, I peeled the skin off the rabbit's body in one solid sheet. Salting the skin I rolled it up and put it in an old grocery bag. In a few days I would gently lace its edges with twine and stretch it. Cured properly the fur could be used to insulate our clothing and shoes. Using the sterile water from the bucket to flush the pink tender flesh, I quartered the tiny animal. My mouth ached and watered at the thought of red meat.
“According to the book we have to let the stew cook for at least thirty minutes for it to be safe for consumption.” Sarah was squatting at the edge of the fire stirring the chopped roots and greens into the pot. An old sports jersey was pulled down over her knees like a dress. The name on the back sparked a memory.
“Did you ever have Tiramisu?” The thought of Italian layer cake hovered in my subconscious.
“No. I only remember highly processed foods made by machines.”
“It was highly processed and delicious.”
“Elijah, have you ever stopped to think about what our species had become before the fall?”
“Of course I have. We were the most highly evolved animals to ever walk the Earth. We were at the apex of human civilization.”
“Don't you see it for what it was. We were dependent on machines for everything. We cornered ourselves with convenience. Our need to make our lives worry free threatened our ability to survive. If not for that Elohim thing we would just be another failed creature fossilized in sediment for some other species to dig up and wonder about.”
I stiffened and stared into the glowing coals cooking our meal. Some part of me grasped at the fading hope we would regain our dominance of the planet. I dug a soft handful of powdered clay from the edge of the tan sandstone rocks containing the fire pit and let it sift through my fingers. You are dust and to dust you shall return. The shaman's words seeped into my thoughts.
“Elijah, what you and I are creating, this life, this baby, that is what's real. Pining over cake and computers and crystal balls, that is a fool's errand.” Sarah's eyes were boring into me.
I grabbed a stick from the fire. The ember at the end popped as a gentle curl of smoke lifted into the dying sky. Gently blowing on it caused it to burst alive, shards of fire sailing off, spinning into the evening breeze. Watching the limb of wood being consumed I felt Sarah setting fire to the cache of my comfortable memories. Memories laced with the hope that we could somehow return to where we were. Somewhere inside myself a sliver of me knew better.
I lived through the Armageddon. Brutal wars had murdered men and women by the millions. Each side hoped to regain what they had by taking it from another. Unearthing dormant piles of munitions and death dealers, man regressed to savages, trying to kill their way to prosperity. Like a fuse burning and connected to nothing, entire countries and civilizations turned to burning piles of bodies and ash.
“It's not bad to admit we were wrong Elijah. Humans cannot have it all. Some part of us is missing. I don't think we find it until we die. Part of each of us had to die to create this child. What was it the shaman said the other day? Your selfish deeds are straw and sticks, your good deeds are gold and silver. Only one can survive the fire of creation.” Sarah crouched next to me and put a hand on my shoulder, I was spinning the burning stick in the air marveling at the trails of smoke and light. I needed to move on and let go of the past. No amount of wishful thinking would change our lives.
“Who is going to raise our child?” I turned and confronted her.
“We will Elijah. We will probably need help. No human has been raised without the assistance of machines in many years.”
“Are you committed to us? What did they call it in prehistoric times? A family?”
“Of course. I have a part of you alive inside of me. I know it sounds strange, but biological procreation has caused a change in me.” Sarah smiled and leaned her head into my shoulder. “I want to be with you.”
A warm feeling spread from my shoulder from her embrace and circled my heart. The chills spread through my body in a wave. My heart fluttered and it felt in the moment like it was tuned into the infant's heart. Our hearts in that moment were beating as one. I reached out and put my arm around her. A bond was forming, something beyond my comprehension.
“I think the stew is ready.” The future mother of my child dipped the steamy brew out of the cast iron with a stained and dented aluminum spoon.
We chewed in silence. The crickets and creatures of the woods weaved an ambient tune in between the gentle rustling of leaves and branches. I glanced up, a quarter moon was bathing the trees in a soft yellow glow. Stars were fighting for attention among a couple of planets whose empty bodies shamelessly ricocheted the sun hiding on the other side of the Earth.
Rinsing out the dishes I felt empty like the kettle. Our shanty was a cobbled mess of tarp remnants and sheet metal with a door of plywood. A rubber swimming pool fragment sealed the bugs out; the cloth walls were buried in the dirt to stop critters from taking refuge with us inside. I tried to imagine an infant in our meager housing and shuddered.
“Are you coming to bed?” Sarah ran her fingers through my hair and brushed her lips across my cheek.
Does pregnancy change a woman that much? Last month I felt like I was pushing myself on her. Now she seemed to need me. “I will be back in a little while. I need to run the trapline.”
“I am waiting, love.” Her voice lassoed my heartstrings and made me smile. I walked into the woods down the familiar trails. Trapping with crude snares was much easier than hunting. They had to be checked twice a day, morning and night. Today no unfortunate animals were dangling, dying for us. Making my way back to the campsite a feeling of satisfaction gripped me. We were the lucky ones. Countless others were buried in unmarked mass graves. Reaching camp I grabbed the shovel and scraped the soft topsoil around the fire pit onto the coals and put the fire to bed for the night.
Our mattress consisted of a few wooden pallets covered in piles of vegetation. An old stained cotton sheet with a garish floral print separated us from the dead plant matter. Sarah sewed a fleece blanket to the back of a couple of deer hides I had tanned. It was enough to keep the chill of the night at bay. As I laid down with her I reached over and put my hand on her belly.
“Have you thought of names yet?”
“If it's a boy how about Joshua, like the tree.”
“If it's a girl we could name her Eve.”
“Who was Eve?”
“According to the elders, in our old myths Eve was the first female human.” I stroked Sarah's tummy with my finger tips, she giggled softly.
Gently pressing my lips to her forehead I whispered, “Get some sleep dear.”
Outside the crude dwelling, insects sawed at the silence. Night was busy doing what the sun could not accomplish. Owls hooted and song dogs yipped and howled. Humanity had turned another page and nature didn't even seem to notice.