(This is my entry for Jason Heppenstall's deindustrial scifi contest. And please see below for news of my novel Lifeline.)
by Catherine McGuire
Merridel woke to the sound of chickadees chorusing beyond
the shutter. It was another gorgeous spring morning, but Merridel, in her
autumn, couldn’t find the usual swell of enthusiasm. Recently, the days seemed
to drift by, each one the same. Then she remembered—Jarvis should be coming
through today! She had to get the library order ready.
Quickly but quietly, she put on her knee-length green tunic
and knitted stockings, leaving Julia asleep in their featherbed. Some days she
envied her partner’s job: being mayor didn’t start till well after dawn. Honestly,
neither did librarian, but an early start meant she didn’t fall as far behind.
Merridel paused at the alcove shrine to give thanks for
another day and ask Gaia’s assistance finding the right path. In the kitchen,
she made do with oat bread and hard cheese—it was too much trouble to pump
water. But she packed slices of dried meat and a small bag of dried mint. She
could heat tea water later in the solar cooker she used to make book glue, if the
sun cooperated. She washed her face and combed her unruly salt-and-pepper curls,
examining her face in the polished tin mirror, for once glad the metal was too
dim to show details like wrinkles.
They lived in a cob duplex two blocks from the library, and
shared a vertical garden with neighbors. This time of year, the canted shelves
for plantings were still empty except for some wintered-over garlic and kale,
but espaliered cherries and plums were flowering along the fence, and their
perfume finally pushed Merridel’s mood up. She loved spring, but this year she
feared she couldn’t muster the energy for its many obligations. Group plowing was
so much fun, as was the scion swap—a chance to meet with townsfolk and other
towns. But all the little tasks—weeding, watching for bugs, protecting from
frost—took more and more energy. She tried to shake off her negativity and
picked up her pace.
At the end of the gravel lane, the merchant shops began:
candlemaker, weaver, wool store, and the Mercantile taking up half of the far
side of the street. Merridel noticed Lars unloading his bright green
single-wheeled goat cart; the brass milk cans fit compactly on both sides of
the large wooden wheel. And Sahra was walking up with three racks of eggs
balanced on her head for Abas, who was happy to allow consignment where he
didn’t buy outright. That reminded her to bring down her latest batch of scrap
paper notebooks and quills – there was a surprising market for them. She waved
to Sahra and held her breath as the girl waved back—she’d never be able to
It was just after dawn, but she could hear shutters thumping
open, the humming of people at their prayers, the squeaky wheels of the compost
cart as it did the morning pickups. Other early blooms spread their perfume,
mixed with dust and the sharp cut-cedar tang from the carpenter’s workshop on
the next block. Merridel loved this time of morning, before Salvage Grove got
too busy, noisy and dusty, when she could believe she had a chance of getting
through her whole day without falling behind.
When she reached the library, she pulled the large iron key
from her pocket and fought with the old lock. She’d asked the Council twice
already to fix the complicated mechanism. One of these days she’d have to saw
through a window shutter to get in! One of the first shingled cobs put up 50
years ago when the town was founded near a prime resource site, it had survived
well, but like Merridel herself, it was somewhat worn. She crossed the main
room by feel, avoiding low shelves of books, a pair of round tables with their
straight chairs, and the small cart with wheels that allowed her to re–shelve books
without wearing out her sandals. She reached the desk, and leaned in to turn
the shutter pole—as she cranked the brass rod, the roof shutter mechanisms slid
open and dawn outlined the room.
It was only 10 x 20’, a small collection of books and some old
sheets of paper too fragile to handle. There had been so little salvaged from
the first chaos, when the unimaginably long supply chains and power lines broke
and every area was cast out on its own. The cities’ tall steel and concrete
towers had become deathtraps—salvagers still found bones in the rooms. Those
who fled from the cities started from scratch. The few ancient survivors
refused to talk about it, and everyone had agreed to put it behind them. There
were no books in here that detailed the destruction—those who’d tried to save
history were far more concerned with finding paper versions of the vast
information that had been on their magic machines. There were a few books of
warnings, but half of the items didn’t make sense—don’t let GMO corn mix with
heirloom? Avoid low EMF frequencies??
Merridel tried to focus on the task at hand. Jarvis came by
monthly with his wooden printing press compactly stowed in his hide-covered
cart. He would stay the day to print up marriage certificates, birth certificates
and the like, but for books like Merridel’s, he’d take the aging copy and have
it reprinted next time. She was looking forward to seeing Growing Winter Vegetables again,and she had to be sure she had all the pages of the herbal text that had finally
fallen apart from overuse. About half the books here were handwritten—she
employed three scribes—but some books were popular enough that getting five
copies per order was worth the cost. If paper and ink were more available,
there’d be no limit to how many books Jarvis could print! She suspected he
printed extras to sell to other libraries, since he always brought a few new
books to entice her with. But not only did she have a limited budget, this town
was strict about info. One of the deadliest problems of the Oil Culture was too
much information—it had confused, agitated, and ultimately destroyed them. Now,
only recognized facts were allowed to be circulated, and only sustainable
processes shared. There were no unlimited resources; paper and ink were allocated
only to the most useful words.
A clattering, huffing noise from the street sent her to the
front door. As she leaned out, she saw most of the other shopkeepers doing the
same. At the end of the road, a cart was jerking forward slowly… without horses
or mules. Squinting, she recognized it as Jarvis’, and wondered whether he had
somehow put his cart before the horses. But there was steam coming from the
back, swirling up into the sky. Just as the thought machine entered her mind, she saw Raul on his bicycle heading down
the street to meet the printer.
“Oh, turd,” she muttered, closing the door behind her and
hurrying up the street. She met up with them just as Raul was ordering Jarvis
to shut off the motor.
“You are hereby ordered to cease and desist the use of a
prohibited device,” Raul began. Merridel stepped closer and put a hand on the
diminutive hawk-faced teen’s shoulder. Thankfully, he shut up.
“Jarvis—I’m very glad to see you,” she said hurriedly, “but
I’m surprised not to see Bucky and Ebony.”
“We had a bad patch over at Glory,” Jarvis said, leaning down
from the bench. He was only a little younger than Merridel, sunburnt to
mahogany with wrinkles that could almost be woodgrain. His hair was snowy and
he wore his ink-stained uniform: a white cotton cap, blue denim overalls, and a
pale green linen shirt. “Nearly the whole town’s nags died of something, and
mine too, since I was there. But some clever gent got me hooked up with a wood-gas
engine and away I went.” He grinned; the gaps in his teeth made her wonder, as
usual, how he managed to chew his food.
“Wood-gas engines are machines, and thus are prohibited
within town boundaries,” Raul insisted. “He needs to be gone within the hour.”
“And he will be, Raul. Especially if you just let us get our
business done.” Merridel regretted her sharp tone, because the boy was just
doing his job. But she needed this printing! “He’s going to park in front of
the library and he’ll be gone within the hour. Thank you, Raul.”
She gestured to Jarvis to keep going and she waved at all
the busybodies who were still gawking from their doors. And she resisted
putting her fingers in her ears as she returned to the library, even though the
sound was really obnoxious. She’d never heard anything so ratchety before. The grist
mill’s waterwheel was loud but soothing, the rasp of hand saws could be
annoying, but this was like the Death of Metal. As the cart passed, she saw the
metal device: two upright cylinders connected with pipes and a small box—steam
was coming from the top of the pipes. If this
was what machines were like, no wonder they had been prohibited! Raul was speeding
off in the direction of the City Council building, so she knew who’d be coming
She’d have to do business with Jarvis in the street or
neighborhood children would be all over the cart. She waited until the old man
had gotten off his bench before she started. “Jarvis, I’m surprised you didn’t
remember this is a sustainable town,” she said, having to shout. “And it does say on the signs at the edge of
“Well that just shows y’all don’t understand—if this horse
plague comes through, y’all will be left without transport,” he retorted. “Unless
y’all can push your own carts.”
“Let that go for now. Do you have my printing?”
He reached behind his bench and pulled out a wooden box,
opened it on the bench and handed over one sheet after the other—Merridel was
thrilled to see the sharp, uniform letters cleanly printed on each page. And
there were fools in town who wanted to call Jarvis’ press a machine! Luckily,
since it was hand-powered—basically a wine press with a tray of metal letters
beneath—it passed as a tool. As she checked to be sure no pages were missing—a
bit tricky, since they were laid out for folding into signatures—she was
disappointed to see that some of the paper was lumpy, not the usual good
quality. It might be harder to bind and get them to lie flat. But Jarvis didn’t
make the paper, and it wasn’t bad enough to reject them.
“They’re well printed, as usual,” she acknowledged. “I’ll go
get payment, and I have another book for you. Wait here.” As she hurried inside,
she wondered if she would lose this herbal—how could she get it if he couldn’t come
back? I suppose I could meet him at the
edge of town, she thought, rummaging around in the cashbox for five brass dollars,
then picking up the wrapped herbal.
Outside, Marshal of Peace had arrived with two guards. Thoma
was a tall, thin man with thick black hair that brushed his shoulders, a wide,
crooked nose, mud-brown eyes under bushy eyebrows and long gnarled fingers that
were constantly active, brushing or picking lint. He was acting as if this was
some kind of contagion! It wasn’t like someone could copy an engine like this
with one glance.
“Good morning, Thoma,” she said, forcing cheerfulness.
“Jarvis was just leaving.”
“It’s a good thing,” the Marshal replied, his scarecrow body
radiating scorn, his caterpillar eyebrows arched. “We’ll just escort him out of
Merridel fumed, but there wasn’t much she could say.
Instead, she turned to the old man, thanked him profusely and said, “Next
month, let’s meet down at the Inn outside of town.”
“But what about my certificates?? There’s lots of people
waiting for me…” He glared around Thoma and the two burly guards for a moment,
then sagged. “Y’all be sorry,” he said, and got back onto his cart.
Merridel didn’t watch him roar down the street with the
guards trotting to keep up—she went back inside and stared at the new printed
sheets without seeing them. She certainly wouldn’t argue that a machine that noisy had no place in town—imagine
a half-dozen of them roaring and sputtering down the streets! But it wasn’t
just Jarvis—lately, several itinerant merchants had been caught with
“contraband” and disinvited from town. Salvage Grove had started out scrambling
like every other town, but in the last 25 years had settled into a
manual/passive system mandate. And as others rediscovered bits and pieces of
the Oil Culture, Salvage Grove was fielding one conflict after another.
The door opened suddenly. She spun around, but it was only
her copyists—Dora, Lilluan and Yallow, almost interchangeable teens with the
stylish multi-braid hairstyle and long tunics of blue and white checks. Only
their elaborate embroidered belts distinguished them. They were chattering
excitedly and Dora called out, “They caught a machine inside town! It was
noisier than a metal bedframe falling down stairs!”
“I know,” Merridel said dryly, “that was our printer—so no
more books or certificates until we find someone who uses a horse and cart.”
“Oh no!” Lilluan wailed, “I was getting my choice certificate
“Well, you could probably catch him if you run,” Merridel
said dryly. “They can’t stop you outside of town. Though he’s probably angry enough
not to do business.”
“Don’t worry, Lilluan,” Dora said, patting her arm. “Rita
does a gorgeous certificate and she even paints tasteful little pictures of the
tits and groin.”
“I know, but I can’t afford her! It would be at least six
dozen eggs or a whole brass dollar! Jarvis prints them for a couple pennies.”
“Yeah—he has the whole thing set up except for the name and
sex, and he hammered those lead pieces in and printed it out faster than I
could pull out my coins,” Yallow agreed.
Merridel shooed them over to their desks, and adjusted the
mirrors to maximize the incoming light. “If you three practiced your
handwriting, maybe you’d get business
doing calligraphy certificates. Today I will be happy with legible copies.”
She heard Dora sniff in disdain but she ignored it. The
foolish chits were so distracted with dances, weddings and preparations for the
spring festival that she’d be lucky to get any work out of them today.
She went back into the tiny one-window closet she called her
office, opened the shutter and adjusted her own mirror, trying to focus on her request
for town funding, but Jarvis and his crazy machine invaded her thoughts. She
could understand Council not wanting townsfolk using the dangerous machines from
the Broken Time, but surely they were cutting their own nose off to insist
anyone, even their trading partners, be “pure handcraft.” And what happened to “the
varied ecosystem of ideas”?
She looked up as the front door opened and the sound of
laughing children filled library. This would be Ronnie’s fifth-grade class, in
for the geography lesson. Maps were some of the things just too expensive to
reproduce, so it was easier to come to the maps. She went to her doorway and
waved at Ronnie as he ushered the children around the tables and retrieved the
two large atlases from the oversize shelf. She enjoyed watching them ask
questions about the world, even though these days answers were “scarce as silk”.
Still, landmasses didn’t change, and if their society didn’t die off from
famine or plague, someday they might actually reconnect with the lands across
those giant oceans. It was a mind-boggling thought.
Her apprentice Suberry had come in with the class and was
processing the books that had been returned yesterday. A quiet, shy young
woman, she was a perfect match for a library. She nodded at Merridel and kept
on with her work.
Merridel shook herself out of her woolgathering and gathered
up the manuscript pages. The bindery was an adjoining room, not much bigger
than her closet office, but with a slanted, glass-paneled roof to maximize the
light, and chest-high tables to minimize bending. She’d had the wood turner
make a small bookpress and a stitching frame, and she mixed her own glue, using
mucilage from the Rosedale renderers. It was finicky work, but she enjoyed it,
and enjoyed the result even more. She wished she could afford leather, but
Shereen’s fine-woven linen was durable enough. Over thin wood boards, it made a
beautiful book cover, especially with the title batiked on.
Again and again Jarvis’s noisy cart and Thomas’ scorn played
in her head. She started making mistakes—cutting the waxed thread too short,
folding a page slightly crooked. And the sun kept ducking behind clouds, making
an uneven light.
I can’t afford to mess
this up, she thought, and set it aside. Impulsively, she decided to send a
message to the librarian of Rosedale—Jarvis would head there next. As far as
she knew, Rosedale wasn’t nearly as strict, but it was worth warning Laurel.
By now the streets were full of life—the shop fronts were
opened and tradesmun were working on their crafts while keeping an eye open for
shoppers. Shereen had brought an upright loom to the front beside the open
double doors, while behind her Denio tinkered with her four-harness shuttle
loom. He seemed to be replacing some of the reeds, and as Merridel wandered
over for a closer look, he straightened up with a guilty look on his face.
“Morning, Merridel,” he said. Was he shifting to hide
“Were you finally able to repair the loom?” she asked. Now Shereen
had turned and was looking at her also. Was she imagining some slight
“It took a while, but yes,” Denio answered, brushing himself
off as he came out to the sidewalk. “Now Shereen will be able to get some good
“Aye,” she chipped in, “once it’s warped, I do a couple
yards a day, and I’ve got five people waiting for summer linen.”
“Well, you do fine cloth,” Merridel answered. She bent over
to examine the blue/white striped linsey woolsey half-finished on the frame.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a brown paper wrapping by the other loom—the
printed label read: Bamboo Reed
Manufacturers, New Chitown. So Denio had purchased those reeds; probably
machine-made. That’s what he was hiding. Not that she cared. She nodded
brightly. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Use the light while it’s strong.
Merridel picked up her pace and then ducked into the
telegraph office. Marcia the operator grinned up at her without losing the flow
of the message she was tapping out. Merridel waited, looking around the tiny
office flickering as sun danced through clouds overhead, sending shafts in and
out of the light well. Behind the half-wall between the desk and the front
area, there was only the operator’s desk, a hand-drawn map of the telegraph
route linking a dozen towns, and a filing cabinet. On the half-wall were scattered
small framed wax boards to write out the messages. And to think they used to
throw away whole garbage pails full of paper with only one side printed,
sometimes only read once! She picked up a thin stylus to compose her message.
Maybe she should ask Laurel to report what Jarvis said about the encounter—she
might have to bring a small gift to him next month. At a penny a word, would it
be easier just to set up a meeting with Laurel at the seedling market next
week? Yes, and that would be a good excuse to go. She wrote up her request,
finishing just as Marcia ended the transmission. The young blonde lurched to
her feet, rounded with a pregnancy that should be ending soon.
“Morning, Merridel,” she rasped. Some childhood throat
illness had almost destroyed her voice, so few were surprised when she ended up
learning the telegraph and also assisted the teacher with the deaf language
classes. And she had married the deaf bakery assistant, one of many who were
born impaired, the result of hidden poisons that were a “gift” of the Oil
“Good morning, Marcia,” she said. “When is the happy day?”
“Should be near Equinox,” the girl croaked. “That’s eight
“Put it on the library account, if you don’t mind.”
She was in a thoughtful frame of mind as she headed home for
lunch. Obviously she wasn’t the only one having to contort themselves to work
around town strictures. Maybe there was another Revision coming—the last one,
20 years ago, caused a third of the townsfolk to move away, after they couldn’t
agree on how many parts separated a tool from a machine. Granted, in the gray
areas, it was sometimes difficult to tell. The doctor’s foot-pumped bellows,
used to help those with lung flu hang on until the body healed itself, had
several very finicky parts and some had protested, but the blacksmith, whose
father had been saved using the lung-pump, argued that it was no different than
his own bellows, only smaller and more delicate. In the end, they’d agreed to
allow it. Now perhaps there’d be an argument about whether to import
machine-made parts, as long as the town tools were hand-constructed and
She was surprised to find Julia at home, removing a pot of
hot soup from the rocket stove. Two bowls were set on the table, and plate of
bakery rolls on the counter. Julia’s coppery brown ringlets bounced forward on
her high latte cheeks; long lashes hid her brown eyes as she pursed her lips in
“How is mayoring going today, love?” Merridel said, leaning
for a peck on Julia’s cheek. Her partner only came up to her shoulder, yet
somehow towered in the relationship.
Julia put the pot on the table. “Funny you should ask that,”
she began. Merridel tensed. She couldn’t have heard about Jarvis so soon?? But Thoma
could never resist bragging about his little victories. “I heard you had an
unusual visitor today.”
“No—just the printer. It’s true he came without his horses.”
“And you prevented them from escorting him out?” Julia asked
as she ladled out a tomato corn soup that Merridel had put up last fall.
“I did not! That little bicycle bully insisted Jarvis be out
of town within an hour and our business barely took ten minutes. And then Thoma
marched him out like he was a leper.” Merridel fumed—she had wanted a quiet
meal to help digest the morning. This was making it worse. She dipped a hunk of
bread in the soup and nibbled it. “Look, if you don’t mind, could we not fight
over our meal? It’s lovely to see you here.”
“We weren’t fighting. At least I wasn’t. But fine—” Julia
waved her hand and change topics. “What should we get for Allen and Aruna’s
“I think Allen had his eye on the apple punnet over at the
Merc. We might be able to afford that.”
“I’m not worried about the tradecost—my brother only gets
With luck, Merridel
thought, since Allen was one of the Divine’s great curmudgeons—never met a
person he couldn’t argue with. She hoped Aruna knew what she was getting
“Another thing,” Merridel said. “Jarvis mentioned today that
the horses of Glory died of some plague. It took out his two also. You should
look into that—we don’t need something exterminating our work horses.”
“I’ll get Marcia to telegraph—with luck it was just some bad
feed or water. Though we might have to ban visitors from Glory for a while.” Julia
dropped her spoon and cursed—she was more tense than Merridel had seen her in a
“How could we tell? Without medical tests, we’re guessing.”
“We can still make good guesses. For example, if the dead horses
didn’t consume the same things, or if the illness spread in a way that
That was one of the things that made Julia good at her job.
She was logical and good at detail. Merridel was just good with her hands, and
often found herself arguing both sides of the question without coming to any
conclusion. She almost told Julia about the imported reeds, then stopped
herself. Julia didn’t need anymore trouble.
Merridel finally got down to work after noon, letting the
rhythm of bookbinding settle her nerves, listening to the whispers and giggles
of the fourth grade English class as Suberry read them an old story of an
orphan boy named Huck. She had just put the first two signatures into the
stitching press when the front door slammed open and a moment later, Nurmi, a
messenger boy, paused in the doorway to catch his breath.
“Mayor says… Mayor says to come…” He was gasping. Merridel ran
“Is she at the Council offices?” Divine Grace, not at the doctor’s
Nurmi nodded without speaking, and after a quick glance to
be sure nothing was left in a dangerous state, she raced around him, out the
door and down the street.
She was winded before she arrived at the City Council office
four blocks away. It was one-story cob-built, filling an entire block. Merridel
waved to the town clerk and hurried back to Julia’s office, a 20x20 room well-furnished
with deep window seats, a plain pine desk and four straight-back chairs set
around an oval table. There were bookshelves with the bound records of Council
meetings arranged chronologically. Nothing looked askew; no blood on the floor—Merridel
took a deep breath and took in those assembled: Julia, Thoma, the engineer’s
apprentice Dale, his parents and two members of the Council, Venkat and Mare.
She frowned and stepped inside.
“We ask that you be Witness, as a town member,” Julia said
quickly. Her partner’s expression was a blend of real panic and phony
officialism. Beside her, Thoma looked smug; the council members looked skeptical
at her “convenient” appearance. Dale was looking down, his straight black hair
obscuring his face. His parents, both about his shoulder height, seemed
confused and angry.
So this was some kind of infractions hearing. Merridel’s
chest tightened—16-year-old Dale was a brilliant lad, but forever tinkering
where he shouldn’t be.
Thoma announced, “Dale Affray, you have been charged with an
illegal machines act contravention, which carries a penalty of 500 dollars or
three months field labor.”
Merridel gasped, and Dale looked up, protesting, “It was
just a few brass rods! I didn’t make anything different. I just connected—”
“You created a machine to circumvent manual labor,” Thoma
interrupted. “By making the bike- powered thresher work on its own. Do you deny
Dale’s father groaned and Dale looked down again, and
shrugged. “No… But all I did was connect it to the grinding wheel by the river.
If water can power the grainmill, why can’t it power our thresher? We’re all
getting tired of that bicycle job.”
“It’s not for you to decide, Dale,” Julia said. Merridel
winced—Dale was a boy with a good heart, a sharp mind… and no sense. But this
punishment was too much!
“If I may speak?” she tried, but Julia waved refusal.
“Witnesses can only witness, please you,” she said formally.
Merridel fumed—why was I called here
then? She could’ve grabbed anyone off the street. She paused and considered
that. There must have been a reason—Julia
wanted her to see this. But what could she do??
She knew Julia couldn’t step out of her role and take sides,
nor could she impart secrets from Council meetings—but as a Witness, Merridel was
free to draw conclusions and make citizen complaints. And it certainly seemed
to warrant that. Was Thoma taking his frustrations out on the boy, after
today’s incident? Or worse—was Thoma starting to get a little crazed in his
anti-machine stance? But if she was going to make a complaint, she needed to
know more about the situation.
“As Witness, I am allowed to request more details of what I
am witnessing,” she said firmly, and was answered with Julia’s smile. She must
be on the right track.
Thoma looked thundery, but he recited from memory, “Defendant
was discovered with a threshing machine powered not by human pedaling, but by a
series of brass rods that extended from the pulley belt out along a field and
down to the river, to the gristmill mechanism.”
“I saw it in an old magazine about oil pumps,” Dale
interrupted, “all I did was attach rods that reproduced the motion at a
distance. If the gristmill is an acceptable use of water power, then attaching
it to the bike pulleys can be—”
“The defendant will be silent!” Thoma bellowed. Definitely
taking his job too seriously. Maybe she needed to start a campaign to elect a
new peace marshal.
“This Witness is minded that the penalty for abuse of office
is removal,” Merridel said sharply, continuing, “Thank you for the information,
you may proceed.” If he was going to act like Generalissimo Machismo, she could
get formal, too.
He stared at her for a long moment, then turned to Dale. “As
this was a first infraction, I have decided to fine you 100 dollars or one
month field labor.”
Dale looked at his parents, blushing deeply, then looked at
Thoma. “I don’t have money, so I’ll do the labor.”
Merridel filed out with the others, torn between talking
privately with Julia and not pressing her special status. There’d be time
“Where did he get such information, I wonder,” Mare said,
holding the door for Venkat, teasing, “Age before beauty, sir.”
“And it would be impolite, I suppose, to suggest we are of
an age?” he replied, grinning. “Merridel—could this information have gotten
past your Guild?”
“I’ll have to look into it—it sounded like he was stating
there was no new technology—just
connector rods. I definitely will investigate further,” she assured them, then
hurried back to the library.
The Editorial Guild had been feeling pressured recently,
reading through newly-excavated material quickly in order to get it on the
shelves. Merridel hated the idea of censorship, but if it was going to happen,
she wanted to be on the committee. Perhaps they had overlooked something? But
if Dale was accurate, he was implementing a variation, like the small bellows.
What had gotten Thoma’s back up? On impulse, she ducked into the Mercantile—if
anyone knew, it would be Abas—the town gossip.
The store was one of the few timber buildings, crammed with
old and new merchandise, on shelves and piled on the floor. Merridel paused to
let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light created by pas-sol bottle lamps
inserted into the ceiling. Abas had a few window mirrors, but piles of
merchandise blocked the light. The left side of the huge room was salvage:
bottles, chairs, wheels, hoes—all of the excavated metal, plastic, glass, etc.
that was still usable. The right side was new, with sections for food,
clothing, raw materials, furniture and tools. Abas held court in the middle,
behind a square wooden counter that guarded valuable items that might tempt the
foolish to fast-finger them. The shopkeeper was scolding his apprentice Marva,
shaking a small wooden box of broken glass. She waited until he had sent the
girl into the back room with the command “not to break anything else”, before
“Good morning, Abas, may the light of the Divine shine on
you,” she said, bowing slightly.
“And on you. How may I help our librarian today?” Abas
leaned forward; his 5-foot frame made the counter chest-high, but he had the
energy of a baby goat or a tightly-wound clock spring. Jovial, but Merridel
would hate to work for him.
“I’m wondering if you’ve gotten the mucilage from Rosedale?”
“Alas, I think not, but I will look.” He led her to a shelf
containing powders, pastes and small brown glass bottles of the few chemicals
allowed to be imported.
“Did you hear the noise when Jarvis arrived?” she asked.
“One would have to be deaf to miss that! Has the printer
sold his horses for mucilage?” he joked.
“He said there was a horse sickness in Glory.”
“The Divine spare us! What we need are those magic potions
that cure sickness—have you found any of those in your old books?”
“Not yet, although we are always looking for new allowable
solutions. Thoma got rather huffy about Jarvis today.”
“Between you and me, Thoma is afraid of losing his
position,” the shopkeeper replied, tapping his long nose and winking. “I have
heard the Council wants to create a Department of Innovation to investigate the
new discoveries that have been cropping up recently.”
“And Thoma wouldn’t be included?”
Abas shook his head. “He would focus on keeping the peace
“I’ll bet that would feel like a step down,” she commented.
It would be enough for him to increase enforcement to impress the Council.
Merridel assured Abas there was no rush on the glue powder, and returned to the
library, needing to think.
She wasn’t in favor of another committee—Divine knew, there
were enough already! And Julia would likely be required to sign off on minutes,
at least—more work. But maybe Thoma’s increasing belligerence worried the
Council also. Was there such a thing as doing one’s job too well? Some nearby towns “ruled from the rear”, allowing citizens
to use anything and only forbidding what proved harmful. They seemed to be
doing alright, but Merridel had read enough old manuscripts to know that approach
had its dangers. Where was the balance?
She checked the shelves in the science section, familiar
with most of the books and papers, but unfamiliar with Dale’s project. Finally,
in a thick, hand-scribed manual, an illustration of rods extending between odd
devices caught her eye. She scanned the words and although not mechanical-minded,
got enough to agree with Dale. This was a variation on pulleys, which were
fully allowed. Thoma had overstepped when he accused without first checking the
details. But how had Dale gotten this? Merridel didn’t remember seeing him in
the library. In any case, a complaint was warranted. And maybe that new
committee was needed.
That evening was an Outreach Guild potluck; Julia, as mayor,
would attend. And Merridel, as partner, should at least make an appearance. She
sighed—she wasn’t much for politics. But outreach to other towns, to wandering
tradesmun, would affect Jarvis and the other situations. Thoma was sure to be
there. So after work, Merridel trudged back to the Council offices. The buffet
was in the largest chamber, with its yellow-washed plaster walls and simple
concave molding. The west-facing windows were radiant and the lightwell
provided more illumination. Tables were pushed against the walls and chairs grouped
in small circles, already full of Guild members and guests. Even though it was Spring
scant-time, there was a savory variety of preserved foods along one table.
Merridel’s mouth watered at Vencat’s pickled beans and Albas’ spiced salt beef.
The Guild was hosting Fuller’s Bend, an even more
restrictive town—all Church of Christ Survivor—10 miles upriver. The Bend representatives
were identically dressed in indigo tunics, wide pants, cropped hair and no body
adornment. Merridel knew they frowned on transfolk, because several had moved
here before coming out, but the lack of clothing and grooming differences—the
men were clean-shaven—almost gave them a uni-sexual look. Except for the hefty
gray-haired woman with enough bosom for three. They were solemn as they chatted
with Guild members, not straying far from each other. “Circling the wagons,”
they used to call it.
Before she could fill a plate, Julia tapped her on the
shoulder and gestured her into the adjoining scribe’s room.
“Thoma is threatening to invoke another Revision!” Julia exclaimed,
on the edge of tears. “I don’t want the town pulled apart on my watch!” She
sank into a chair, and put her face in her hands.
Merridel patted her shoulder uneasily. “Rumor has it that
he’s being eased off technology decisions. Is this about power?”
“Ha!” Julia burst out, then realized Merridel wasn’t punning.
“I can’t tell if he’s just self-important or really an ideologue. Either way,
he’s threatening to ruin my tenure.”
Merridel was more worried about the town than her partner’s
status. She liked things the way they were. But that was the problem, wasn’t
it? Things never stayed the way they were.
“It’s true that traders are using or selling some new
devices—the horseless cart, the cold box on the butcher’s wagon, the solar
fresnel welder… that scared the heck
out of me!” Merridel said.
Merridel shrugged. “Maybe some traders found a
mechanic-minded town. Maybe some town miles from here has revived a steel mill
“You need old
power for one of those!” Julia picked up and tapped a quill against the side of
the writing desk. Merridel hadn’t seen her this anxious since their wedding.
“I wish I could tell you why now—but they’re showing up, so we
have to ask: do we use them or not?”
“That’s the town’s decision.”
“Of course. But you and the Outreach Guild provide the info
for the vote.”
“You as librarian, also. Can’t you find some fact that will
get Thoma off my neck? Dammit—look over there!”
Through the door, Merridel noticed Thoma by the keg in the
corner, gesturing with one hand as he lectured nonstop, clearly trying to
convince Venkat of something.
“He’s sidestepping proper channels!” Julia exclaimed.
“Definitely out of bounds,” Merridel muttered. “I’ll go tell
Venkat that Winter Gardening’sback.”
She’d barely stepped into the room when the main door opened
and Dale, Yallow and a red-haired boy stepped in. Their faces were set in tense
frowns and at first Merridel thought there’d been an accident. But Yallow pulled
a small notebook from herpocket—Merridel
recognized her own work—and in a hog-calling voice announced, “We would like to
address the honorable Guild members, their respected guests—”
“What’s this all about??” Thoma rushed over, his hand raised
to grab Yallow’s shoulder.
Julia’s voice cut through the surprised babble, “I am minded to hear her out.”
Thoma turned in shock, took a deep breath, then pursed his lips.
His eyebrows nearly met over his nose; his frown would’ve won Old Granny status
at any fair.
With a panicky glance, Yallow continued, softer now that she
had the group’s attention. “We respectfully ask the Guild to add two seats, for
citizens between the ages of 16 and 19.”
“There’s a proper meeting for this!” Venkat protested.
“But you won’t put us on the agenda,” Dale countered. He visibly
“And you’re making decisions that will affect us more than
yourselves!” the redhead added.
And this morning I was
worrying about things being too routine, Merridel thought.
“Actually, I believe a discussion like this should come to
the General Counsel, where all citizens are represented,” Julia said.
“The youth aren’t,” Yallow retorted, then looked apologetic.
Merridel was impressed—she’d thought her scribe was a shallow young thing. But
apparently she was interested in town affairs. Maybe she had found the info for Dale?
“We’ll give you a half-hour at the next meeting, and take it
from there, shall we?” Julia said smoothly, walking up to shake their hands. “I
appreciate your alerting me to an issue I wasn’t aware of.”
She escorted them from the room, and immediately the chatter
grew loud. Merridel heard “… nerve of them!” But also “… have a point. It’s
their future…” Guild members apologized profusely to their guests, who looked
both disapproving and smug. Always good
to know another town has it worse.
She suddenly realized Thoma had left. She hurried to the
front hall; Julia and Thoma were arguing—obviously Julia was trying to stop him
from slapping an infraction on the young folk—breach of peace, or being young
without a license. Merridel bit her lip to keep from grinning. It really wasn’t
“Machines lead to destruction!” Thoma was saying.
“Only if they’re used badly,” Merridel interjected, walking
over. “They’re just sophisticated tools.”
“No—they do something to the mind,” he argued, gesturing furiously.
“Once you have a capability beyond human abilities, you cannot help but use
it.” He faced them. “Did you know they used to take hearts out of bodies and
put others in? My grandfather told me.”
“Divine spare us! That’s impossible! Why??” Julia exclaimed.
“It was possible
then,” he told her. “And why? Because they wanted to live forever, and they
found out that stealing someone else’s heart gave them a few more years. I
heard rumors—not that I believe this—but some people were trying to turn
themselves into machines, or put themselves in a machine, thinking that they’d
Merridel shook her head—she’d seen some very old magazines,
with horrible pictures, but it still seemed impossible. She’d assumed those
were the famous horror stories the Oil Culture enjoyed.
“And people walked around with metal hips, knees, or whole
legs made of machines,” Thoma continued.
“But in any case, Dale had no intention of anything—”
“It’s a slippery slope! The reason we instituted sustainable
labor was to avoid being helpless without machines. And now they want to
overturn our well-thought-out rules!”
“All we know is that they want to be part of the
discussion,” Julia said. There were spots of red on her cheeks; Merridel knew
she was close to saying something she might regret.
But Thoma was oblivious. “Besides, it disrespects the divine
complexity of Gaia,” he continued. “In order to have machines you have to have
“Square-cut…?” Merridel was puzzled.
Thoma gestured impatiently. “In order for machines to work,
they had to cut things to the same size; they had to toss and waste anything
that didn’t fit—and that included humans!”
“But without some
standardization, things like Morse code wouldn’t be available, and surely you
don’t think that—” With a sinking heart, Merridel realized Thoma did think that was too much.
“People should just tell each other—dots and dashes take the
life out of the message,” Thoma muttered.
“Without telegraph, we’d have no warning of bad weather,” Merridel
argued. “That storm warning last Fall saved lives, and we got a lot of the oats
more securely stowed.” Something crystallized in Merridel’s thoughts. “Thoma,
you’re trying to avoid making mistakes.”
“Of course I am!” he said scornfully.
“But that’s not possible. ‘To err on the side of caution’ is
still to err. And Gaia’s plan is
dynamic —what was right today isn’t always right tomorrow. So our rules have to
shift as things change.”
The door opened and Venkat stuck his head out. “The formal
presentation is starting,” he said apologetically and ducked back in.
“I need to be there,” Julia said. “This discussion will
wait.” She glared at Thoma, then left.
Merridel faced the Marshal. “I researched today—Dale was correct,
and you’ve abused your power. You should’ve asked me to check the details.”
His face flushed. “You’d have been on her side,” he said
“Side? Taking sides? You can’t keep the peace with such a
“You’ve seen the photos of the ruined cities! You of all
people, Merridel, have seen the images of destruction. Why would you risk another disaster like that?”
No one wanted that, of course, but it was like being
terrified of rainstorms because someone had been hit by lightning. And Denio’s
hiding the reeds was like a child avoiding Mother’s eye… what had gotten into
folks?? Something was seriously skewed. Something Thoma had just said niggled
at her—when you have capacity beyond
human abilities you can’t help but use it. That was true of authority as
“Thoma, you can’t unilaterally change the rules we’ve set. You
have a choice—rescind Dale’s punishment or I file a complaint. But perhaps you’re
correct, and it’s time for another Revision.”
His face lit up. “Do you… mean that? Julia thinks—”
“I’m a citizen; I have my own opinions. It looks like enough
has changed that all of us need to
discuss this, not just a committee.” And
there’s no guarantee your opinion will win, she added silently.
“I look forward to your lending your voice to the motion.”
He paused, then added, “I’ll reverse Dale’s infraction tomorrow.” To her
relief, he left by the front door.
Merridel paused with her hand on the chamber doorhandle. No,
she couldn’t face the rest of that—she needed quiet and solitude. Julia would
That evening, as they were sitting on the back porch with
glasses of berry wine, picking out constellations, Merridel told Julia about
“So Dale wasn’t at fault at all?” By the flickering oil
lamp, she saw the relief and triumph in her partner’s face—this was why Julia
had wanted her as Witness.
“No—Thoma was overreacting because he’s worried about all
the new devices. Too much too fast.”
“That’s why I said we needed the committee,” Julia said,
then put her hand over her mouth.
“I understand—that’s Council business. But like you said
tonight, about a bigger forum being needed… I think it’s time for, well—for a
Julia almost spilled her wine. “You don’t know what you’re
asking!! It could overthrow everything!”
Merridel patted her hand. “I do know what I’m asking—I’ve read the transcript of the last
Revision. But I’m seeing the cracks already—love, you can’t hold back change
when it’s ripe, anymore than you can stop a bulb from pushing up through the
soil in spring. Like I told Thoma, you can’t avoid mistakes, you can only make
your best choice and accept the consequences. And who knows? You could go down
in history as the wise leader who led us to the next phase of recovery.”
Julia was silent for a long time, and Merridel braced
“Well, maybe Thoma has a point,” Julia said. “Maybe one of
our criteria for judging would be how much waste something created—it’s not
efficiency if it doesn’t use resources well. But if it does, and it saves some
“Saving labor in one area frees us to do something else that
might be just as important. There must
be a balance between extremes, and if we’re careful, we can find it.”
“At least we don’t have the temptations of the Oil Culture—those
days are gone forever.”
“And we aren’t foolish enough to think that Divine resources
are ‘free’, and therefore valueless,” Merridel said. “And if we stay small
enough to know each other, we’ll realize that everything comes from somebody’s labor, and therefore we won’t
disregard it. I hope.”
Julia smiled at Merridel. “That’s one thing I love you for—you
have a wonderful way of putting things together.”
Merridel was surprised. “You’re
the one who’s logical and good detail,” she protested.
“But you have… what did they call it? Intuition. You’re good
at putting things together differently. I’ve always been impressed with that.”
together differently? Merridel was amused and pleased. And it certainly
looked like this next year would be far more interesting than she’d imagined. Change
and stasis, like breathing in and out. A process Gaia had created, that they
needed to honor. She savored the wine and watched the ancient, ageless stars,
feeling the wind’s breath on her cheek.
The After Oil 5 contest ended without an anthology, so The Balance Within is now out to other publications.I hope you'll check out my stories in recent issues of Into the Ruins https://intotheruins.com/blog/ and MYTHIC http://www.mythicmag.com/
Another new short story, Root and Branch, has just been accepted by Into the Ruins for the upcoming (May 2017) issue. I hope you have subscribed to that wonderful magazine, as well as MYTHIC - both good reads!!