I pulled into our space with a sense of doom averted. The brakes squealed as we came to a stop in the dusty furnace that was central Texas, and Jasmine jumped out. I glanced at the gas gauge for the millionth time — we’d been riding fumes for the last twenty miles, and I kept expecting the rattling engine to die at any moment. The old GMC diesel didn’t like the fuel we’d been feeding it, which was what we could find and afford, and it had started to make terminal noises. It sounded like it had a couple thousand miles left in it, not much more.
The good news was that new cars — well, old cars that still ran — were getting almost as cheap as the scrap price for the old ones, if you kept your eyes open and weren’t too picky. This was our third truck in as many years. When it died, I’d salvage some of the best steel and copper for my own use, then sell the rest to a scrap dealer and use the money to buy from someone else trying to unload his old gas-guzzler. It was definitely a buyer’s market. Those who could afford to, were going electric, and everyone else was making do without.
Jasmine had me back up the rig and angle it just a bit, then gave me the ‘cut’ sign. I shut off the engine, and luxuriated in the sudden silence.
“Get yo’ lazy ass outta dat truck,” Jasmine sang out, and I smiled. She had one of the most authentic Jacobean stage-accents I’d heard throughout the Circuit, which always struck me — and audiences — as exotic, given her dark-chocolate-colored skin. She had a dozen or so other accents that were pitch-perfect. Off stage, though, she fell back into her native New Orleans cadences.
“Just enjoyin’ the quiet,” I drawled back. “The brief quiet, I might add.”
“Gon’ be a lot less quiet wit’ yo’ hollerin’ in pain,” she said, and mimed cracking a whip at me. Not an idle gesture. She could split an apple at twenty paces with a horsewhip, eight times out of ten. But it was a friendly threat; she was as kind as a summer day is long, despite her well-honed tongue.
She’d been on the Circuit almost as long as I had, coming up on eight years. We’d only been together for the last five, but I thought — I hoped — we’d be together for the next fifty.
I sighed, loudly, and got out of the truck to help set up house.
HomeSweet, as we called it, was an old quad horse trailer that I’d picked up for a song and a few days’ handyman work in North Carolina a year after I’d met Jasmine. The old man that owned it had just sold the last of his horses — said he was getting too old to take care of them — and wanted me to help make his place presentable so he could sell that, too, and move to town. Jasmine and I had been fixing up the trailer over the years since, and it was very much our home.
Setup was by now a well-practiced dance.
First out were the “outbuildings,” the three canopies we used for distilling, cooking, and entertaining, which the two of us set up with little fuss. Jasmine went straight to work arranging the outdoor kitchen: she’d taken over after my second attempt to make dinner for her, and neither of us had ever looked back. She loved to cook — her grandfather had owned a restaurant in New Orleans, and she’d pretty much grown up in his kitchen. What she made was always worth eating.
While Jasmine set up the kitchen, I wheeled out my pride and joy — and my livelihood on the Circuit — my portable forge.
Old-fashioned iron-smithing was very popular on the Circuit, and a lot of smiths had portable forges, usually run on some traditional mix of charcoal or coal. They’d argue about historical authenticity, and if they got to drinking, they’d sometimes get into fights.
A few of the better-known smiths could afford propane. I’d heard of one fellow who used acetylene.
My baby was entirely different. She ran on pure ethanol. I called her Rosebud.
When I’d first started to talk about the idea, all the other smiths on the Circuit had laughed at me, and told me I was crazy, and stupid. “You can’t get any real heat out of ethanol,” they’d said. “Hell, you won’t be able to do more than fry an egg with an ethanol forge.”
The thing is, I knew that wasn’t true. You can make common table flour explode. That’s a whole pile of energy released in a fraction of a second, and if you can keep feeding it fuel, you’ll get as much heat as you please.
As an amateur brewer, I knew how easy it was to make ethanol, and sunlight and a fresnel lens or a parabolic mirror was plenty hot enough to distill it. If you didn’t intend to drink the result, the yeast was happy fermenting fruit and vegetable garbage, which was usually free. Making enough ethanol to be useful was a different issue, but again, not caring what it tasted like made everything a lot faster and easier.
The real trick lay in burning the result: it was all about the air to fuel mixture.
I kept tinkering with mixing nozzles that I made on my traditional forge, and a couple years back, I got the flame hot enough to melt pig iron. Last summer, I’d started forging improved steel nozzles using my old Rosebud Version 1.0, and the crowds loved my demonstrations, so I figured I’d reached the point where I could trade away my traditional forge. Which was a good thing, since Jasmine was tired of all the space I was taking up in HomeSweet with two forges, and the stink the charcoal residue gave our bedding during transport.
I checked Rosebud for any road damage, but she was fine. I set up my fermentation tanks and solar still, and brought out my starter batches and the last of my stock of distilled ethanol from our previous gig, just enough to get me through the first week, while the yeasts were doing their thing.
It took about an hour to set up camp to our liking, and then Jasmine made spicy bean quesadillas, New Orleans style. By the time we’d finished eating and washing up, the sun had begun to set: a burning coal casting its last baleful gaze over a baked countryside.
I grabbed a couple of bottles of my best mead — it’s always nice to start things off with good impressions — as well as a bottle of handmade whiskey, and Jasmine and I walked on in to the center of the Faire to meet everyone.
A bright bonfire marked the meeting-place, and people sat around it — at a distance, in this heat — in a half-circle on the upwind side. The Faire wouldn’t open to the public until this weekend, and it was only Wednesday, so the gathering was small.
You could spot the part-timers. They wore mundy camping clothing, hiking boots, sometimes a stylish hat. There were only two here tonight. There’d be a crowd of them come Friday night, before opening on Saturday morning.
The full-timers, like Jasmine and me, were a bit odder. Our clothing was generally much-repaired stage clothing no longer fit for performances. Most of us had well-worn custom-made boots: they fit better than anything we could find in the mundy world, they could be repaired, and we could barter for them. Where the part-timers wore wigs or fake beards and took them off in the evening, we’d sculpted our natural hair to match our stage roles. Nearly all of us wore broad-brim hats, which adds more protection against cool evenings than a jacket, and shade from sun during the day. We also have a look about the eyes that’s impossible to describe, but easy to recognize.
This was a new group for us. I’d never been on any part of the Texas circuit, but Jasmine had wanted to visit relatives in New Orleans, and we’d gotten off our normal cycle, and money had gotten thin. This was the quickest way back into resupply and our normal cycle. I nodded to everyone who met my eyes, and Jasmine and I sat on a log next to each other.
“Welcome,” called out an older fellow with enormous grey muttonchops — entirely anachronistic to both the modern day and the Renaissance, but he looked good in them. He wore what was once a bright red jacket dotted with buttons, which had faded to a dull maroon, and a tricorn hat. “I go by Prester John.”
My eyebrows went up. I’d heard of Prester John — he was a bit of a legend on the Circuit. There’d been an incident somewhere, Colorado I think, and a confrontation with a bunch of locals that had escalated until the local sheriff had shown up. That usually didn’t end well for our sort; local law considered us drifters at best. Prester John had somehow de-escalated the whole thing. Tales of what he’d done ranged from the incredible to the absurd, but the most plausible was that he had connections in high places from his pre-Circuit days, and simply made a couple of phone calls. In my mind, that was even more impressive than the fantastical tales.
Jasmine stood and curtseyed, not a full stage curtsey, but the more restrained — and more refined — version that we use amongst ourselves as a gesture of respect.
“Jasmine Droulliard,” Jasmine said, and sat.
“George Swivert,” I said, as I stood and offered a respectful bow.
Prester John nodded. “Jasmine. Mistress of the whip, and the knife-edged tongue, and the healing touch. Your reputation precedes you, my dear, but does not do justice to your beauty. And George. Aren’t you the fellow with the forge that runs on hooch? They say you’ve made your own steel.”
I shook my head. “Maybe next year. I can shape steel, but I can’t make it. Yet.”
“Well, there’s no shortage of steel,” he said. “Not in our lifetimes. So why don’t the rest of you introduce yourselves to Jasmine and George, and make them feel welcome? And George, I see you’ve brought a couple of bottles of something. Why don’t you send them around? We don’t stand on ceremony around here.”
I sent the bottles on their way, my two year raspberry mead. It’s hard to go wrong with a raspberry mead, but this one had turned out to be something exceptional. Introductions went around the circle, while soft comments like, “Oh, my!” and “God’s Eyes!” and “Holy Shit!” followed the bottles.
In due time, I passed the whiskey around. Prester John coughed, and snorted, and asked if this was the stuff I fed the forge. He made a face and handed it to the next person. I laughed, not in the least offended. Distilling anything better than rot-gut is an art, and not one I’d mastered. It was clean whiskey — no methanol in it. But keeping the heavier stuff balanced is very tricky. Too little, and you end up with pure ethanol, which is nearly tasteless. Too much, and it will try to claw its way back out of your stomach, and out through your eyeballs. This wasn’t quite that bad, but it had some very sharp fingernails. “Oh, my!” and “God’s Eyes!” and “Holy Shit!” followed it around, too, with entirely the opposite meaning from before. But it kept circulating, and pretty soon everyone was singing.
I caught Jasmine’s eye, and winked. She smiled back. This Faire was a paid gig, and gave us a market to sell our goods and services to the mundies, but it was also the trade community that sustained us. Hand-crafted boots were only a small part of it; fabrics, buttons, thread, non-perishable foods, books, and know-how were also traded, by barter. I’d long ago learned that it greased the barter wheels to start things off with a gift of some value, like my better meads. After tonight, no one here would hesitate to trade with us. I’d get a goodly share of barter orders for copper, silver, iron, and steel working, and Jasmine would get good trade for her herbals and some of the more potent medicines in her pharmacopeia. We both had long lists of items we needed, including fuel for the truck. We’d make enough cash off the mundies to pay for necessities we couldn’t barter for.
As the fire died and the party started to break up, Prester John moved around the circle to sit near us. He made small talk for a bit, but it was clear that something troubled him. We both waited for him to work up to it.
“Either of you stay current with news?” he asked, at last.
I looked at Jasmine, who glanced back at me.
“Not really,” Jasmine said.
Prester John’s troubled expression deepened.
“Well, I’ll come straight to the point. Texas is thinking about passing anti-miscegenation laws. The legislature has already put the bill up for debate, and has the votes to pass it. Governor’s on the fence. If he signs it, it’ll surely come to a Supreme Court battle. All of which is neither here nor there. The important thing is that there’s a lot of folk in Texas who support such a dumb-ass thing.”
I was having trouble following the conversation. Anti-miscegenation? What the Hell was that? And why should we care? I glanced at Jasmine, but she’d apparently understood something, because her mouth hung open and her eyes were wide and white.
Prester John could see my confusion.
“What I’m tryin’ to tell you, George, is that there’s a lot of dumb hillbillies in this state who will take offense at a white man bein’ with a black woman. You’re safe here, with us, but best not to make too big a show of affection once the hillbillies show up, and watch yourselves when you leave.”
This Faire ran for six weeks, and it was a lot bigger than most of the Faires in my regular route. As I’d expected, orders came thick and fast. There were three other smiths who set up shop, but my forge was a novelty and I drew most of the business, while the other smiths walked past and gave me the stink-eye. I sweetened matters by turning down high-profit work I could have done, passing it to the other smiths.
The mundies wanted all kinds of copper, silver, and iron work, and I quickly became a favorite customer of the local scrap dealer; I sweetened relations even more by scoring some good scrap deals, then bartering with the other smiths at a loss. Two of them eventually came to me with orders for ethanol nozzles — they wanted to try them out — and I charged top trade and more than made back my losses.
The Circuit folk mostly wanted steel work done, I think because they didn’t believe I could do it. I had to turn most of them down, because working steel ate through my fuel too fast. As it was, I had to buy extra ethanol from the outside every week, just to keep up. They were gracious, and usually asked for the same item in bronze, instead, which I was more inclined to make for them. That’s one of the little things I’ve noticed about barter versus money trade — the mundies always got royally pissed off if you ever told them, “No.” They always took it personally that you wouldn’t accept their money to do exactly what they wanted. The people who traded things they’d made themselves, understood that one man can only do so much in a day.
Jasmine did brisk trade in her medicinals, all for barter, mostly for fresh ingredients. Her remedies were mainly herbals, not regulated by law, and should have been safe for her to trade. But she still refused to sell them to the mundies; she was worried someone might take a turn for the worse, blame her, and set the authorities on her tail. She also had a few recipes that were more potent, and definitely would not be looked on kindly by the law. She wouldn’t even barter for those, but would administer them herself when they were needed, and then gift the medicine if the person needed more. The person so gifted was invariably grateful, and would find an indirect way to repay her.
But what she loved was the stage, second only to cooking. She had a genius for improvisational theater, and she could get right into the theme of anyone else’s skit as a bit player. She gave regular demonstrations with the bullwhip for the mundies, and enthralled them with tales of how the whip had been used in the past, at least half of which were true. Partially true, anyway. She also did Tarot and astrology readings, and gave one hell of a show. She’d use a Caribbean accent with a lot of Cajun thrown in, and she was a skilled cold reader who raised hairs on her customer’s necks and sent them on their way thoroughly convinced their money had been well-spent on a true psychic. She’d tell me about the funniest of those readings as we lay in bed at night, and we’d both laugh and laugh.
There were also several trance readings. She never, ever talks about those. They come on her like a fit, and she will accept nothing for them — not money, not trade, not even gift. They leave her exhausted, and since they are the real hoodoo, they’re almost always very disturbing for the recipient. She’d given me one, years ago, and it had scared the crap out of me: she’d told me things about my family that I didn’t even know. I’d had to call relatives, and they were as spooked as I was, and wanted to know how I’d found out. The reading explained a lot about my family, though, and let me make peace with my brother just before he died. That was how a trance reading always worked: it never revealed anything that someone wanted to know, it was something they needed to know.
Though she loved performance, and I loved working the metal, the best times were our potlucks, which we held under our entertainment canopy. By Jasmine’s imperious order, people were not allowed to bring any cooked dishes, only raw ingredients. Jasmine would look over the offerings, then set different people to work at various tasks, chopping, simmering, whipping, dredging. She played the master chef, and within an hour, we’d have a feast unlike anything these people had eaten in a year. We had space for only a dozen people, but we slowly worked our way through the whole crew, mixing them up in different combinations like they themselves were raw ingredients in a savory people-stew, or separate metals alloyed together into something brighter and stronger than any individual.
Best of all, of course, was that Jasmine and I ate for free.
We spent a lot of time mixing with other folk in their camps, trading stories, recipes, and gossip. Every evening the central meeting fire burned. We’d usually stroll through, just to see if anything interesting was going on — sometimes the musicians would improvise, which was always fun to watch, and once two of them got into a friendly insult competition. When they ran out of things to say, Jasmine stepped in and casually critiqued both of their performances, and in the process questioned their manhood, the improbability that their parents had been of the same species, the competence of the doctor that had allowed them to live, and so forth. She held out for five long minutes, never once repeating herself or resorting to a vulgar word, and without so much as a pause for anything but the frequent bursts of laughter from the onlookers. Both musicians groveled at her feet when she was done, and wrote a song on the spot they dedicated to her, called Queen of Jibe.
The air cooled by imperceptible degrees as the days grew shorter, until we finally needed light blankets at night.
It was a blessed six weeks, and the last weeks of the life we knew.
As Faire closing approached, I tapered off my work, so I could build up a small stock of fuel for the next gig, and Jasmine started to pack away her new pharmaceutical ingredients for travel. This Faire had been a real windfall for her — lots of plants were available in Texas that were hard to find anywhere else, and she’d held out in trade for those rarities. I’d scored nearly a hundred pounds of prickly-pear honey. Honey of any sort was hard to come by any more, but prickly-pear was a real find.
Prester John showed up at our camp one evening, just before sunset. He had a worried look on his face, as usual, and I wondered if he ever stopped worrying. Or maybe it was just the way his face was built.
“‘Lo, Prester John,” I called out.
“‘Lo George,” he said. “You two got a minute?”
Jasmine turned our dinner down to a simmer. I’d adapted her stoves to ethanol with some of my low-power nozzles, and she hadn’t yet stopped thanking me.
“Look,” Prester John said, “I know you two planned to head west, and it’s hardly my place to tell anyone what to do, but….” He hesitated.
“Spit it out, Prester John,” Jasmine said. “You don’ stand on ceremony, we don’ stand on ceremony, neither.”
“You know the Texas legislature passed that anti-miscegenation law. And the governor signed it. A week ago.”
Yeah, we knew. People hadn’t been able to stop talking about it. We both nodded.
“I’m worried there’ll be trouble. For you two.”
“Trouble?” I said. “What kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Prester John admitted. “But the mood is ugly out there. I’ve been gathering news. There’s been a lot of beatings, and some killings. Cross-burning has come back. Cops are mixed up in it. We’re smack in the middle of Texas, and it’s a long way to the border. Any border. I’d like … well, I’d like you folk to travel with us, leastwise until we’re all out of Texas. After that, you can go your own way. It’d make me feel better, and I’d consider it a personal favor.”
“Thought you was headed fo’ Galveston,” Jasmine said.
“Changed my mind,” he replied. “Leavin’ Texas and goin’ north.”
“North?” I said. “It’s nearly Christmas, Prester John!”
His unhappy face grew unhappier.
“I waited too long,” he said, quietly. “We shoulda gone last summer. But that’s spilt milk, and there aren’t any good options left.”
“What you talkin’ ‘bout?” Jasmine said.
Prester John sighed. “The country is going insane, Jasmine. Texas just legalized racism, and people are starting to die because of it. There’s other stuff going on in other parts of the country. Bad things.”
“It’s still America, Prester John,” I said. “We’re not Texas residents, we’re just passing through. They can’t—“
“It ain’t America no more, George,” Jasmine interrupted. “That’s what Prester John is tellin’ us.”
I stared at Jasmine in surprise. She never interrupted people. And I’d never heard that tone in her voice. Not once in five years.
“Yeah, George,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “I’m scared. I’m a black woman in a racist Texas, an’ I’m scared.”
And that made me feel like a damned fool, because I realized I was blustering.
I was blustering because I was just as scared as Jasmine.
We passed the patrol car somewhere just past Beaumont, headed east back into Louisiana.
I still had a hard time believing I’d agreed to head north at this time of year, and with every mile that clocked by under our wheels, I felt more foolish for letting Prester John talk me into it. We’d had no trouble at all, and I wondered if John had gone a little tin-foil-hat loopy. It happens quite a bit on the Circuit — the community has a lot of eccentrics, and we are, after all, on the fringes of polite society, so it doesn’t take much to slip over the edge and start worrying about the Illuminati, or the Communists, or the Tea Party, or some other fictional conspiracy from the past.
Our original plan, Jasmine’s and mine, had been to head more or less straight west into New Mexico, then through Arizona and into Southern California. Southern New Mexico had become Old Mexico in all but name, due to the exiled Mexican Army that had moved north shortly after the marijuana trade broke down, so I’d always gone north through Roswell and up to Albuquerque. John’s information was that the Army had moved further north, and that Albuquerque was now under their control. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I sure didn’t want to find out the hard way.
That left north, through Oklahoma, or east, into Louisiana.
Oklahoma was out. Bunch of religious nut-cases, even by Texas standards, and they’d gotten their panties in a twist about Islam at some point and passed laws deporting all the Muslims from their Christian state. Supreme Court had struck down every last one of them, but not before they’d put up entry-point guards at all the major roads into the state. Called it a highway tax, now, but it was straightforward robbery, and they were mean bastards, too: they’d turn your trailer inside out, and steal stuff while you weren’t looking. Plus, that route would take us into Kansas. Everyone knew about the gunfight they’d had in their State Congress some years back over teaching the theory of evolution in the schools. Since the heat had started to ruin the crops, and then the Ogallala aquifer got poisoned, Kansas had sunk the bottom of the dumb-shit states. It was a huge stretch of nothing, punctuated with dangerous lawlessness. No one went through Kansas if they could help it.
So that left east. Back the way we’d come. Then all the way north to Omaha before we could bend west again.
We were all flush with cash after the Faire, so fuel shouldn’t be a problem. It hadn’t gone up much in the last six weeks. Whether the vehicles would handle the miles was a bit more worrisome.
So we were caravanning, about forty of us in six vehicles including a big yellow school bus, and passed a patrol car parked to the side of the road. I glanced at my speedometer — ten under the limit, since we weren’t in a hurry, and wanted to save fuel. The old highway was almost deserted this time of day: the trucks traveled at night to cut down on fuel evaporation, and there was very little electric car traffic on this stretch. These guys had pulled a crap shift — must have been caught raiding the donut jar in the break room.
About a minute later, I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror.
We were second from the end, so the truck behind us pulled over, and then we did. The patrol car pulled in front of us and stopped. The vehicle in front of us saw the lights and pulled over a long way ahead, but the rest of the group vanished over a small hill. Jasmine got our papers out of the glove box, and I held them in one hand, both hands visible on the wheel.
Two officers got out of the patrol car. They walked past our vehicle, and stopped at the window of the truck behind us. There was some kind of argument, and a few sharp gestures. Then the truck behind us pulled back into the road and drove past us. One of the officers walked back to my window, which was already down. I didn’t see the other officer.
“Please step out of the car, sir,” the officer on my side said. He was white, stocky, and wore mirrored sunglasses, though the day was muggy and overcast. My heart started to pound.
I carefully placed my papers on the dashboard, and got out of the car. The officer made me put my hands on the hood of the truck, and frisked me. I heard voices on the other side of the truck, and then heard the door open. Jasmine put her hands on the other side of the truck. Her eyes were wide and white. I saw the other officer bend and begin to frisk her. Her eyes closed and she shuddered. A single tear ran down her cheek.
“What is in the trailer, sir?” my officer said.
“We live in it,” I said. “Just personal effects.”
“The two of you cohabit?” the officer asked.
“Is that your business?” I asked.
“As of last week, yes, sir, it is.”
“And you are just doing your duty.”
There was a pause.
“Please answer my question, sir.”
A choice reply came to mind, but the words froze in my throat as the other officer calmly drew his gun and pointed it at the back of Jasmine’s head. She must have seen it in my face. Her eyes grew wide in terror.
“Please answer my question, sir.” The face of the officer holding the gun was as blank as a stone carving. I tried to wake up from the nightmare, but the sour taste in my throat, the pounding of my heart, seemed so completely real.
I heard the soft squeal of brakes behind me, then the sound of a car door opening.
“Get back in your car!” I heard the officer behind me shout. I heard more soft squeals and the crunch of gravel.
“I’m sorry, officer, but I cannot do that.” Prester John’s voice was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard in my life. “I am his legal counsel. And there are at least twenty witnesses in that bus behind me, and more in the other vehicles. If you intend to do murder, you will be long into the night burying the bodies.”
The officer behind Jasmine lowered his gun a few inches, indecisively. I could not see his eyes, but I thought I saw fear in the set of his mouth.
“You are interfering with my duty as an officer of the laws of Texas,” the officer behind me said.
“I certainly hope so,” Prester John said. “Precisely what duty are you performing?”
“I am questioning this man.”
“And what is the question?”
“Whether he is cohabiting with this black woman.”
“I see,” said Prester John. “And you believe this to be against the law?”
“It is,” the officer said.
“It is not. The law specifically prohibits miscegenation, which involves the creation of a child as the offspring of mixed-race parents. The woman is not pregnant, and there is no child. You are in error, officer. No law has been broken.”
“You get back in your goddamn car!” The officer shouted. I heard a rustle, and a metallic click. I risked a glance over my shoulder. The officer had drawn his gun, and it was pointed directly at Prester John’s chest. John had both hands raised casually to shoulder level with his fingers spread.
“Are you going to shoot me, officer?” Prester John asked. “Then do so. With both my hands raised and empty, in front of witnesses. Even in this shithole of a state, you will never again walk as a free man.”
There was a long silence.
“Let me sweeten this for you, officer,” Prester John said. “We are leaving the state. We do not intend to come back. No laws have been broken, no shots have been fired, no paperwork needs to be filed. A routine traffic stop. Nothing more.”
Another long silence followed. Then the officer holstered his gun.
“That road,” he said, pointing east. “Don’t stop, and don’t come back. Get your nigger-lovin’ asses and that black cunt out of my state.”
He turned and walked back to his vehicle, and I saw his partner get in on the passenger side. They pulled a tight U-turn on the road, and the tires squealed as they pulled away.
I ran to Jasmine, and wrapped her tight in my arms. She was trembling like a child sick with fever. I held her and stroked her hair and cried without shame until she stopped shivering.
“You okay?” I asked, when she looked up at me.
“No,” she said. “Just hold me.”
Prester John stood near us, staring back down the road where the officers’ vehicle had vanished. We both followed his gaze down the empty road.
“Those men were evil,” Jasmine said. Her voice held astonishment and hatred.
“Yes,” Prester John said quietly. “They are evil.”
He was silent for a long moment, then looked at Jasmine.
“Do you hate them?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Prester John sighed. “Then you take the first steps down the same road they walk.”
Jasmine’s eyes grew wide, and angry. “You tellin’ me you don’ hate ‘em?”
Something terrible and sad entered Prester John’s expression.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I hate them. I hate them with all my soul. That is why I know where that road leads.”
Something changed in me after that. It took a while to identify it; when I finally found the words, it was that I’d lost my homeland. Before that ugly incident in Texas, I lived on the fringes, but it was the fringes of my country. My land. My people, every last, lovable idiot in the lot. After that, I lived in the shadows of a foreign land, full of hostile and evil people who were anywhere from mildly to totally insane.
The landscape grew larger, and more frightening. I’d broken down plenty in my years on the road, but I’d always just hitched a ride to the nearest tow truck, paid with good stories or companionable silence, and marveled at the kindness of strangers. Now, I looked out the windows and wondered how far I’d get before someone took a shot at me, or worse, at Jasmine. My black cunt. The ugliness of those words swam in my head.
Jasmine had been right. This was no longer America. My homeland was gone.
We drove through to Omaha in one long drive, nearly twenty hours straight, in shifts, with five stops for fuel. Omaha lies at the confluence of the Missouri and Platte Rivers, and had not been completely destroyed by the poisoning of the Ogallala, the way the rest of Nebraska and Kansas had. We found a farmer who would let us rest up in his field for a day or two in exchange for some work. It was important to have permission in these parts, what with all the people passing through, trying to find a new place to live. A lot of farmers shot trespassers on sight, and the city cops were worse.
The thought of going back to the Circuit no longer appealed to me. I tried to picture the cosplay, the festival atmosphere, the easy camaraderie, but it seemed like a story read long ago and almost forgotten. All those well-to-do mundies, spending easy money on hand-crafted trinkets and baubles, unaware of their homeland bleeding out under their feet, the corpse despoiled by thugs and thieves. I tried to remember the last thing I’d made on my forge for cash. I couldn’t.
I dreamed several times a night of dinner around the fire with my friends, and then faceless men in mirrored glasses would march in and steal away Jasmine, and all my friends, and all the food, and I’d wake up shouting and sweating.
It was worse for Jasmine. I’d wake in the night to hear her sobbing on her pillow. I’d seen her face, the way she’d closed her eyes and shuddered. The single tear. She would not talk about it, and I felt as helpless as I’ve ever felt. I started to understand what Prester John had meant. I hated that cop, hated him with all my soul, and my hate was dragging me down into the darkness.
Our third night in Omaha, Prester John called a meeting.
“We’re at a crossroads,” he said, “in more than one way. Omaha is in about the center of the country. It’s as good a place as any, and better than most, for figurin’ out where we go next. We’re also between past and future, and the world is changin’ mighty fast. So I’m gonna share my vision, and then you folk can maybe share your own visions, and discuss matters. But we can’t just squat here on Mr. Prescott’s land. We need to make decisions.
“So here’s my vision. I think we need to drop out of sight. For good. World out here is fallin’ apart, and it isn’t gonna get any better in our lifetimes. Everything people depend on — trucks, electronics, governments, money — it’s all goin’ away. That isn’t so bad for us. We’re already livin’ mostly on our own. We just need to make one more step, though it’s a hard one. Worst part of that is we’ll have to figure out how to get our own food. We buy it from others, we need money, and that means we need paid work, and that means we settle down as ordinary citizens. I think I’d rather die. But that’s me. You each might figure different.
“So here’s my plan, such as it is. We head for the Pacific Northwest, walk into the forest, and never come back out.”
Silence greeted this proposal.
“Why the Pacific Northwest?” one of the younger men asked.
Prester John shrugged. “Anywhere we go’s a gamble. But we’ve got another fifty years of warming, and the south is gonna get really bad — not just the heat, but the drought, except where there’s swamps, and I’d bet on malaria and yellow fever comin’ back. Further north will be cooler. Inland gets polar conditions pretty regularly, so places like the Great Lakes or Canada we’ve got to survive bitter cold winters. East and central will have good places, but there’s already people there, and we’d need to settle down and be farmers, and fight for our land. We know that the native Americans lived on the Pacific Coast, and lived pretty well. Bottom line is, it just feels right to me. Any of you have a better suggestion, I’m listenin’.”
The discussion went on for hours, and then Prester John told us to all sleep on it.
That night, I had a strange dream of an angel. It was telling me something important, but I could not understand the language.
I woke up, and found Jasmine sitting up in bed. She was speaking softly, though there was no one else in the room. I tried to understand what she was saying, but the words made no sense. They rose and fell like one side of a conversation. I realized she was having a trance reading for herself, and lay still, so as to not interrupt. The conversation wound to some kind of conclusion, then Jasmine suddenly turned and looked directly at me. She was smiling.
“George,” she said, and her voice sounded like an old friend, delighted to see me again after a long time apart. “Your homeland is not lost. It is simply not yet found. All will be well. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.”
And then Jasmine lay down and closed her eyes, with a faint smile on her face.
When I woke the next morning, I realized I’d decided to follow Prester John to the coast. I told Jasmine, and she smiled and said, “Of course,” like I’d announced I’d decided to eat today. She was easy and playful all day, and when we went to bed, she pulled me close and we made love for the first time since Texas. The hate let go of me, just a little.
About ten of our group said they wanted to head east and try to find a place to settle down. The rest of us decided to make a go of the forest with Prester John. We thanked farmer Prescott for the use of his land, and Mrs. Prescott sent us all on our way with four pies gifted in exchange for the promise that we’d do some good in our lives.
We gave up the school bus to the other group, and thirty of us crowded into five vehicles. We did no more marathon drives, but took the trip in easy stages of four to six hours, through Sioux Falls to Rapid City, then to Bozeman, and then Spokane. Good weather stayed with us: it had been a warm fall, and not a trace of snow on the ground all the way through mid-December. We all knew that we were going wilderness camping for the rest of our lives, and winter snows were just around the corner. We should have been worried sick about what we were going to eat all winter, but somehow, we weren’t.
As we drove west from Spokane, Jasmine started to move her head around like she was casting for a scent. We came to an intersection with a small forest road, and she suddenly said, “Turn. Here.” I glanced at her. I couldn’t tell if she was in trance, but I turned the wheel, and the others followed.
At each turning, she’d look around, then indicate which direction we should go. The road grew narrower, then turned to dirt, then to ruts. We came to a small clearing, and the ruts ended. There was nowhere else to go.
“Are we there yet?” someone quipped.
“We’ll be there when we get there,” I growled, and everyone laughed.
“We’re here,” Jasmine said, “but they’re not.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” I asked, but she ignored me. For the first time, and the last, the thought occurred to me that Jasmine’s mind had snapped, and that she and Prester John had led us out into the wilderness to die. I shrugged it off.
We got out of the vehicles. The air was chilly, but the sun was bright.
“I think we should have a fire,” Prester John said.
“Yes,” said Jasmine. “A fire would be appropriate.”
The others gathered firewood while I dug a safety pit for the fire. Within minutes, we had a fire going.
They came out of the forest as we sat around the fire, almost shyly, though they carried hunting bows and moved as silently as cats.
“We wondered when you would come,” said their leader, a tall, wiry young woman with red hair cut short. “I am Mirabelle.”
And so we met the people of the woods, who took us in, and taught us to hunt, and trap, and fish, and survive in the forested wilderness, and made us family. How they had come to be there is another story, for another time.
And so that is how I found my true homeland, the homeland I had never lost.
Copyright © 2014, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved