This tale was first published in the e-anthology Things You Can Create.
The Lost Coast circuit was nearly a hundred miles long north to south, but Jake and Ella had come directly over the inner ranges from the limited-way, cutting their usual route in half. Low on supplies, with fewer places to get them each time they came through. So they headed for the river crossing a mile or so in from the coast, where there was a swap-mart by a cable-ferry. It drew trade from the hemp colony, the only one left on that circuit. From the narrow valleys around, settlers came trading hides, honey, or milled timber for smoke, paper, rope and oil.
Jake had his whetstone to sharpen and tools to repair any knife or blade. Ella could sing; she specialized in classical tunes, much favored then as now. Jake played a mouth-harp well enough to back her up, but her voice was the main draw.
Last time they’d done all right in trade: plus supplies, even negotiated some hard-to-find things for their skills. A metal belt-buckle for Jake that could still shine up. Ella got a lucky charm, a jolly red-haired clown of plastic, pocket-sized, improved by some hand with new paint.
But this time there wasn’t a soul on the beaten-dirt plaza above the ferry launch, near the pylons of the was-bridge, or anywhere else they looked. Only rags of mist floating up the river channel, wind whispering in the tall brown grass, and the dark pines sighing to themselves on the hills.
There was a single, roofless shelter at the edge of the plaza; Jake couldn’t remember it from before. Ella stayed close to the van as he unsheathed his knife and pushed open the only door. It shrieked on its dry wooden hinge; she bit her lip as he disappeared inside. And waited, singing softly to herself, Number one is the lowliest number…
“Stone vacant,” Jake said when he emerged at last.
“No contagion sign?” Ella asked.
“Couldn’t find one. Not sickness, I think.”
“They’re just gone then. No one to story it out for us.”
“I guess we shouldn’t stay here anyhow,” Jake surveyed the silent crossing. “And I know His-Shelter Cove is out,” he went on, before she could say it.
The Sons of the Savior colony there was the only settlement on the circuit they avoided. Ella shunned all SOS colonies, even when they were the last holdouts in a place; she’d have them abandon a circuit before stopping in at one. Jake knew she had good reason and didn’t push against it.
They decided to head for a travelers’ camp at the river mouth, to see if they could find people there. Jake goosed the van along the rocky, deep-rutted cart track that bordered the river, where rare old pavement still clung in chunks below the pocked dirt.
The sun was westering when they reached their destination; it was the afternoon of a long, late summer day.
Although the rough company of travelers could unnerve her, Ella particularly liked the beach at this camp. She generally loved to be by the sea, where all roads finished, all busyness was paused. Journey’s end.
This stretch of coast had earned its name, which Jake told her it had even in was-time, when the limited-way that never reached it was unbroken and always filled with travelers. The mountains plunged straight down to the shore, their feet lost in pools of white mist, cool and sheltered from the burnt inlands to the east and south. Deep in the winding canyons there were still some great trees, old giants. They had stood longer than any known settlement, so tall and broad no tools could fell them anymore.
But more than any other Ella had ever stayed on or seen, this particular beach felt like a journey’s end. The cliffs were close and looming; cold fog would float in and hover like a shroud over the river mouth. The mournful cries of birds were the only sound above the waves tumbling and grinding against that stony black shore. Ella felt a huge, slow indifference from it, as if all the comings and goings it had ever seen had made no claim upon it, as if they were a single disappearing instant in its world of deep time. Her songs seemed to fade before it too; it was like a song itself: time the melody, waves and wind the only words.
Jake could handle even the roughest company; he was so quiet and patient he almost never needed to back up his words with his knife. He and Ella would entertain at the camp, freely passing around smoke they’d acquired on the circuit. “More shared, less stolen,” he’d say to her, with a wink.
But no company was there now, rough or smooth, just an empty camp. They parked the van by a disused fire pit marked by a circle of stones, behind a clump of tall brush at the back of the great gray dunes. Then walked to the shore to look at the sea.
Beyond the dunes it lay before them: huge, flat, dull and silver-black that day like a sheet of old metal. Often there was a bitter onshore wind that could bend you double once you were out of the shelter of those dunes. The river mouth sucked in cold air as if it held a drinking tube in its stony lips. But now the air was still, almost warm; the tarnished waves were small and listless. To Ella, the whole place felt as if it were waiting and watching, empty and silent as the old crossing had been.
She frowned. It was two days’ journey on broken tracks back to the limited-way and the nearest settled post there. The old van was okay, time being. It could go a long way on its water engine, although on this circuit they usually fed it oil of hemp. But a hot meal, and stores for their kitchen—what about that?
“O-kay-some-way,” she chanted under her breath as they hiked the beach. A kids’ luck-chant from the tin-house camp up north on the Emerald Coast, their home base. The little clown jounced in her pocket. Consider the lilies of the field, said a voice from her God-school days. She duly considered, but didn’t think it rang so true right then: Someone’s got to toil and spin just the same, or what becomes of us?
Near the water’s edge, broken-off pieces of cliff recalled a was-shore out of deep time. Jake glanced up at the sky and then gestured for Ella to follow his gaze. When she did, she saw big dark birds wheeling high above, like bodies made of shadow. On the ground below them at the waterline, a mound among the boulders was covered in frenzied motion, as if one rock had erupted with furious wings.
“It’s that big,” said Ella. “What d’ya think it is?”
“Might be kine,” Jake replied. “Wild cow. They stray out here sometimes. Fall off the cliffs.”
“Is it too far gone for us?”
He squinted upward. The winged shadows circled, watchful of the battle below.
“I wouldn’t fight them for it,” said Jake.
Ella acknowledged the rightness of this and swallowed her hunger. They walked on, cutting in from the shore to skirt the place. As Jake looked around, wondering if there was any point at all in scavenging such a desolate beach, Ella began to hum, then sing, another of her tunes. Good day sunshine, she sang, almost fiercely.
They’d turned back to the shoreline and were following it when they perceived a smallish lump on the sand ahead, just out of the waves. It was still as a rock, but Ella felt a chilly foreknowledge that it was alive. As they approached they could see it was a seal pup, its pelt still pale and soft. A rare thing, but too young and small to be alone there, lying still. A few flies hovered loosely about its head.
Their footfalls might have roused its last strength. As they neared, the pup lifted its head effortfully and opened a black-pebble eye to gaze at them for a long moment that seemed to fall and settle like a net, holding them all inside it. Then with a weariness that struck Ella to the core, the soft gray head fell back to the sand. The pebble eye dulled and closed; the pup did not stir anymore. Busy flies crowded in: more now, louder.
“Coulda been its ma back there,” Jake said, as they stood looking. “It’s finished now any-road.”
Ella thought of the knife in the sheath at his thigh: its shining, perfect sharpness.
“I won’t eat it,” she said.
“So it’ll just feed them,” he replied, gesturing vaguely back and up.
“I know,” she said “Still.”
“Well,” he considered, “maybe it’s best like that. Settlers don’t fish or hunt this coast much anyhow. Old poisons in the game they say.”
They went on. The terraced cliffs above were dotted with sprays of scrub flowers in hot colors: yellow, orange and purple, softened by the sea-haze. The cliffs stood apart from the dead and dying things on the beach, displaying their bright life as if they had their own sun. But down where Jake and Ella were all was gray and still: sand, rocks, water, sky. They walked on until the seal pup was out of sight.
Jake kept thinking about it, though. “You know, when my Gamma was telling me was-stories one time, she said there was once Po-lice on the Coast for every separate thing – and one was just for hurt or sick animals. If a sick creature was seen, some Po-lice would come and try to fix it. Even all the way out to a place like this.”
“What good was that supposed to do?” Ella answered him sharply. For some reason she’d been thinking about her sister just then. She and Etta were twins whose parents died in a contagion when they were small. One day the SOS had come through the tin-house camp the way they did, looking for orphaned girls. Ella had run off and hid, but they took Etta, and that was the last she’d ever seen of her.
“Nature takes its course,” Ella said, “If it’s dying let it die.” But that sounded harsher than she felt. She thought a moment. “I mean, why save just the one, of anything? If there was so many once…?”
Jake shrugged. “I never could make out the reasons of a lot of was-things—different Po-lice and so forth. Sometimes I like to think about it, is all.”
Ella was silent. Jake was trying to distract her from her hunger, she figured. She was grateful, so she waited to see what else he would say.
“Did I ever tell you my Gamma went in a plane? My Ma’s Gamma really she was. That old when I was a kid, but she was only little then. She never knew where they were headed, but it was a long time flying over desert and dry grass. Trying to get to safety before some war. The last one I guess, since they had no planes to fight another after that.
“ ‘I looked out one of its little windows,’ she told me, ‘and there I was right alongside a great black thundercloud, almost level with its top, big bolts of lightning looping and shivering inside it. Sometimes one would shoot right down to the ground. And I was seeing where it was born.
‘Most of a day went by,’ she said, ‘and still we was flying by the one same cloud. Once another plane passed us, and it looked like a mayfly or a speck of shiny dust against that cloud. With two hundred souls packed inside it.
‘Then, next thing I knew, that cloud was speaking to me. Though it didn’t say much. “You pass now; I abide,” it said, like a thunderclap rolling.’
Gamma thought it meant for her to tell us that, so she did.”
Jake fell silent, and stared out to sea. He bent and picked up a smooth, flat stone, concentrated a moment, then flung it at the waves. It skipped three times and sank.
“Three to go,” he muttered, confirming something. Ella knew there was a philosophy of luck connected with the count; she didn’t understand it exactly. He’d never explained and she didn’t ask.
“It’s getting dark,” she said, looking at the sky. “There’s nothing for us out here. Let’s go back and make a fire, anyhow.”
They tramped through the deep, soft, dune-sand beneath the cliffs so as not to have to go back along the shore where the dead creatures were. Jake was thinking it most likely was the seal pup’s mom those scavengers had been fighting over, but no way to know for sure. Ella was still thinking Nature takes its course. She wondered if in was-times they’d really believed in a rescue from any death that nature intended.
There were long shadows over the river mouth when they reached their camp. But a shadow was moving near the van that wasn’t cast by trees or brush. They peered across darkening ground and Jake opened his sheath as the shadow resolved itself into a man. He came out from behind the van, trying to look as if he hadn’t been hiding. They stopped and stood still, waiting.
“I got food!” he cried out, his voice almost a shriek. “I do! I’ll share!”
“Okay, no trouble,” Jake replied, his voice heavy with calm. “That’s good, meego. We’re hungry.”
He and Ella quickly gathered dry brush and driftwood, their faces set blank as they made the fire. When the flames were high and steady, the stranger edged in from the scrub-bank where he was crouched. He held his arm out at full length, some kind of dried meat proffered on his palm. Jake took it from him.
“More here,” the stranger said, patting his shoulder sack. He took out a piece and tore at it with his teeth, as if to demonstrate the reliability of his intentions. “It’s kine! Clean-kine! No poisons! No worry!” he insisted, his eyes fixed on Jake’s knife-sheath. His gaze had not yet met theirs. “Thin as his own shadow,” whispered Ella to Jake.
They ate little; Ella felt as if her hunger had fled and her stomach was full of water. The meat was tough as hide. They chewed it, and that was the only sound for a time.
“It’s a long road out here, meego,” Jake said finally. “Come far, didya?”
The man was silent. Jake went on as if a response had not been expected:
“We came in via the old crossing. It’s emptied. Wondered what news.”
More silence. Jake inhaled, readying another approach. Then the man spoke, but in a mutter they strained to hear.
“Not seen, can’t say. Came up the beach. Four days. Far today, far every day.” He looked sidelong at the dune-hidden sea and shuddered.
“From His-Shelter Cove, then?” Jake replied, with studied unconcern. There was no other inhabited place along the beach south of there for a hundred miles or more. If a surge had been in, there wouldn’t even have been beach to walk on, only cliffs and mountains, straight up and down.
The man flinched, swallowed, then burst into a rush of speech:
“They comin’ out, see? Any day. From the Cove. Time’s up, Elder says. Like—a-a thief in the night, he says. When you’re sleepin’, prenday? The sinners an’ the faithless, alla them! It’s a prophecy! He said we had to, t-to… But I wouldn’t, I-I couldn’t! Not what they… what he… So I just—got out.”
Jake and Ella kept still, barely breathing. The stranger continued:
“Might be at the crossing they heard, word passed. Cleared out…”
The stranger fell silent. Jake began to search for some words that would spur him to say more. Instead, he leapt to his feet, making them both start.
“This is kine only!” he shouted, gripping his bag. “Clean-kine! That’s truth-a-GOD!”
“’Course. All good, meego. We’re grateful for it.”
“They got to do away with the unclean, see? Stop waitin’ around for the promise-land that don’t come. Poison in the waters, sand creeping over everything, fire and rain… And hemp smoke making everyone forget GOD… They just got to make it all clean to the bone now.”
Ella felt a queasy sense of dread, and a dark idea forming in her mind. The only news she ever had of Etta was that the SOS had given her to five husbands before she died, starved and beaten for a bad breeder. Every camp had heard their speeches on the Judgment to come and trembled, seen them come through like a firestorm, given up their girls…
Then again, four days alone on that wild shore might have taken the man’s mind. He seemed a lost cause; what was true in his talk?
Seen fire and rain, fire and rain, went the old tune. Ella thought Yes. It is like that here.
“This is a Lost Coast for real now, see? Reckoning coming.”
They’d heard that before; they’d both grown up with sermons of reckoning from the God-haunted people who took it on themselves to school the rest in the tin house camps. Ella shook her head: always at you with punishment to come, as if now wasn’t stone hard enough. She hummed another tune under her breath, covering the stranger’s words with it. Country roads took me home. Jake appeared to be listening patiently to the man; he was good at that. But Ella heard no more until the stranger, as if he could hear her voiceless singing, spat out:
“You better get home any-road! Tend the dead. Get back to your place and tend to your dead!” He was staring directly at them now, his eyes shining in the firelight, white all around the pupils like a netted hare. Ella shivered.
“What d’ya mean?” Jake asked.
“I got to go now,” the stranger replied, shrinking back, almost cringing. “I got to be gittin’ on.” He scrambled to his feet and began to shuffle off toward the cart track.
“It’s night,” Ella spoke up. “Don’t you want to rest till morning, then take your road?” She couldn’t really say she wanted him there, but she feared for him nonetheless, setting off on a poorly kept track alone in the dark, among night-creatures.
But the man turned and walked off without another word to them. They could hear him mumbling and moaning to a crowd of shadows as he disappeared.
They kept watch until the fire burned low, to see if he’d come back, but he did not.
“This whole coast is emptying,” said Jake, after they’d been silent a while by the dying fire. “Maybe another migration is on. Off to look for the Emerald Cities again. First the deserts inland, now the coast: the south is emptying.”
“Maybe people are just getting less, period,” Ella answered.
Behind their words was another thing, one they’d been talking around for some time: if they should try to bring another life into this… It wasn’t easy.
As Ella stared into the fading coals, she could see the seal pup raise its head one last, weary time among the busy flies.
They never spoke of it then or after, but she came to believe it was decided then: it would just be the two of them. Ella felt something she couldn’t name: not sorry—more like a rightness, though not a joyful one. Nature was still taking its course, she supposed, but one that had no special pity in it for them.
Reckoning came already, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep. We’re its children.
They slept fitfully. Jake kept watch for a long time after Ella dozed off in the van. She dreamt of faraway voices calling her, great birds with the faces of kine sweeping out of the sky.
In the morning, they drove straight back to the limited-way, giving up on the circuit and heading north again to the Emerald Coast.
When they reached the tin-house camp in the rainy pines, they found out Jake’s dad was dead. He’d fallen in the road while they were on the way; no one could tell them why.
They were hit hard. He’d given Ella a home in the worst time, when she’d lost all her family. He and Jake became all that to her. And later, when Jake and Ella decided to go on the circuits, he’d given them the van—his own, built with his hands long before, when he and other commercial travelers still operated in the south. And always kept the place at the camp for them to come home to.
Stand by me, when the land is dark, Ella sang at the service.
After that, with nothing more to stay on for, she and Jake headed off to the circuits again. But never returned to the Lost Coast.
Three years later, almost to the day, Jake was dead too. Ella buried him beside one of the roads he’d loved to travel. His heart just broke, was how she put it. It had held more than most, like his dad’s. One day it must’ve just got too full and broke.
She drove back to the tin-house camp a last time but found it abandoned. The only man still there told her there’d been some fight that broke it up; then everybody headed off, most of them northbound.
So Ella went north too. She wondered, like everyone else in those days, if the Emerald Cities really existed, if they could be found. But just off the limited-way at the camp here in was-Chayliss, her old van finally gave up the ghost. It might have been the only one of its kind, like she said; none of us knew its workings.
But one thing we do know is that everything’s going to wear out eventually. So Ella was philosophical about it.
Now, on one of our rare fine days like today, you’ll find her sitting outside her van that still keeps her warm and dry, her own tin house through all the years. She’s planted some pretty flowering shrubs around it, and touches up the trim with bright colors, when there’s paint to be found “for a tune,” as she says.
She often tells us how much she misses the coast: the soft air, the smell of the sea, its deep-time song.
I keep the Chronicles here, officially, but I send listeners to her too – anyone who wants to hear more about the southern coast in its twilight. Of course there’s no more commercial travelers bringing news from there, nor migrants either, for many years. It belongs to whatever can bear it now: fire and rain, fire and rain.
But Ella still likes to tell her stories of the old circuits, and the time with Jake, when the years flew. “Even when we were all alone, I was never lonely,” she says.
She still sings too. If you ask, she’ll surely sing you one of her tunes. If you’re lucky, she’ll sing a few. So many was-things gone for good, but we’ve still got these tunes. As long as Ella’s around, anyway.
She sang me such a pretty one the other day! “Older than any other I know,” she said. “I was told it’s about the Emerald Cities.”
It starts out like this:
Someweres, o-over the rainbow…
But I can’t really sing, you know. You have to hear Ella do it.