“I remember…” Grandma starts the nightly ritual around the campfire. During the day, talking about Before is Forbidden. We get a whipping, or worse, if we get caught. Adults who talk about Before get worse than a whipping. They get Banished. Leaving the safety of the group is a death sentence, for sure. Well, probably.
Grandma says nighttime is different, though. At night, our hearts and minds yearn for what has been lost. Those are her words, I don’t talk that fancy. She says we need to remember who we were to know who we are. That one kind of makes sense to me.
Some of the smaller kids think Grandma’s stories are grand, fine magic. They don’t believe Before was a real time. They say they do, but you can tell they don’t. To them, the world has always been this way.
“I remember when we had clean fresh water, hot or cold, at the touch of a finger. All we wanted. So much we wasted it, flushed it away. We filled huge tubs with hot water, to soak our bodies in and to clean them. We filled much bigger tubs outside, to make swimming pools. We had so much clean water we made ice, to put in our drinks, especially in the heat of summer.”
Grandma chuckles, a bitter rather than joyful sound. “We didn’t have to strain and boil that water, either. It was as crystal-clear as a droplet melting off an icicle in winter. Tasted so sweet, but we paid that no mind, either. We usually put stuff in that water to add different flavors.”
“We had machines, too, to do things with that water. Washing machines to wash clothes; others to wash dishes; still others to wash automobiles. They made portable machines so we could wash off entire buildings, and even the streets. All with that sweet, clean, pure water.”
I glance around the fire. The little ones are all rapt, mouths open in identical “O” shapes, horrified at the waste of all that water. That’s Grandma’s point, of course. All her “I remember…” stories point out the waste that was Before. The waste that caused the After we live in now.
Grandma grins now, an evil-looking leering face in that flickering light. It’s only Grandma, but I’m a little scared, too.
“We had so much water… You know what we did? We went to the bathroom in special bowls of that clean water!”
That is too much. The little ones gasp, giggle, even shriek. Finally, one calls out to Grandma. “How can anyone be that stupid, Grandma? Everyone knows about water. It’s… water. We can’t live without it.”
Water is rare, in these days of After. It’s always dirty, only a question of with what, and can we clean it enough to use it for something. Grandma has many clever ways to clean dirty water. She always chants to us, just because it looks clean, doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink. So after it looks clean, we always boil it.
I was ten years old, when everything changed, so I remember Before. It’s getting fuzzy now, more like a dream than real. It’s hard to hold on to the details. When Grandma talked about swimming pools, I remembered her teaching me how to swim, in her own swimming pool. It seemed big as an ocean to me, and we spent hours in it, every time I came over to her house. She always said “yes” when I asked her if we could go swimming.
She was so patient with me, not like Mom and Dad, never pushed me, always let me go at my pace. She taught me how to dive, too, and how to float upside down, and sit on the bottom of the deep end, and all kinds of other stuff I can’t do now. No water is safe enough to play in that way.
“People are stupid, my darling. Put the truth in front of their faces and they turn and play games with deadly consequences. That’s why we’re in the After. No one appreciated the miracles they had every day. So we lost them.”
I wonder about what she told us. Are we stupid? I don’t like to believe it. She calls me “savvy” in that special tone of voice she only uses with me. Then she ruffles my hair and says I’m too much like her.
“You’ll have to lead them, if something happens to me. You’re the only one who knows how to think, and that’s the only thing that will save us now.” I never have the guts to ask her to explain what she means. I hate it when she talks like that, though. I don’t want to imagine life without Grandma. She’s always been there. Even Mom and Dad relied — rely! — on her like that.
I wished I hadn’t remembered Mom and Dad. Grandma tells me to not give up hope, reminds me they are both trained athletes, strong and able to endure hardship. She says they will come back. As long as she believes, I can still hope.
Then an idea occurs to me. I can go talk to the River Rats, see if they’ve heard anything. Grandma isn’t very fond of the River Rats, though she accepts them. She calls them “inevitable,” and a “necessary evil.”
They climb up on the structure of the bridge, scurrying up it like rats, and they perch up there, and watch. Up so high, they can see all the main roads for miles around, and any river traffic, too. They all report to some big boss or another, I don’t ask and they don’t volunteer. But they know all the latest gossip. Some of it is even accurate.
Grandma says news travels like it did in the Olden days. She admits the usefulness of the River Rats, but she hates when I talk to them. Maybe she’s afraid I’ll be tempted to join them. She’s crazy, I’d never leave her. Besides, none of those kids seem thrilled, and I’ve noticed that none of them are above 13 or 14 years old, and most much younger. Again, I don’t ask why. Suddenly I realize I’m missing Grandma’s remembering, and listen closely again.
“I remember power at the touch of a button. Light up a dark house at night! Cool a hot house in summer, heat it in winter. Instant heat, to cook your food. Instant cold, to preserve it. No one had to wait for anything, it was always there, and taken for granted. So they lost it.”
With a frown, I agree with Grandma. People are stupid, for losing everything the way they did. Now we live in this uncertain world of After. There is nothing like instant power or clean water. Strangers can’t be trusted. Food is scarce, so is water. I go back to listening to Grandma.
“I remember music at my fingertips. Any music I wanted, any time I wanted. Orchestras, choirs…” The little ones look puzzled at those words. Grandma notices, she always does. “Orchestras are large groups of musical performers, grouped by type of instrument, and directed by a conductor. Choirs are groups of people, grouped by tone of voice, who sing together.” She starts over. “Music like singing and guitars. Flutes and fiddles. Happy songs and sad ones, songs for dancing, songs for everything in life, and death.” She looks at the children, who seem satisfied.
“I remember a world where everything moved too fast. Everyone was too busy, no one had time for one another. No one cared, everyone was out for number one. No one looked to the future, to what was happening to our world, to ourselves… And then it was too late.”
“Always remember, children, always. What we do has consequences. We must care for each other. While we can’t change the past, what we do is changing the future. We must make sure they are changes for the good.”
With that, she smiled. “Who wants to start the music?” She looks over at me, and I nod. I duck to the cabin to fetch my guitar, carrying the violin — no, the fiddle — for later, for the dancing tunes. Grandma is right, she always is.
Even now, in this world of After. Music shares our emotions, tells stories, stirs us up … Grandma says music is the thread that stitches us together. I remember that.