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Sixteen years before Ms. Migsdale found the bottle, Mary Laurenson had given birth to a daughter. Mary lay on a double bed in an abandoned farmhouse, clinging with both hands to the brass bedstead. With each contraction, she moaned in pain and fear, but no one was there to hear her.
It seemed to her that the moaning came from some external source, only incidentally linked to her body. She could feel the cries vibrating in her throat, but she had no control over them. She could not stop them any more than she could control the contractions that racked her body.
She was alone. When she had run away from San Francisco, she had wanted to be alone, wanted to crawl away and hide. But she had not imagined the consequences of that action.
She had felt the first contractions early in the evening. Her water had broken at midnight. Now sunlight shone through the window. In the almond trees outside, blackbirds sang and flitted from branch to branch. In the blessed moments when her muscles relaxed between contractions, she could hear the birds. But when the contractions came she could hear nothing but her own moaning and the pounding of her heart.
Her body was no longer her own. For hours she had fought for control, struggling to breathe as she had been taught, to relax between the spasms. Now she gave up, letting her body do as it would. She released her grip on the bedstead and put her hands at her sides, trying to find a position that would free her from the pain. Another contraction, and she gripped the sweat-drenched quilt beneath her, tearing the fabric with her hands.
Her mind was as willful as her body. She had no control over her thoughts. She hallucinated, imagining that her dead husband sat on the edge of the bed, telling her to breathe the way she had learned to breathe in class. What he asked was impossible: her body did as it wished and she had no say in the matter.
"Help me," she sobbed, reaching out to the ghost of her husband. Her hand passed through empty space. "Goddamn you, help me." He vanished, fading into the golden sunlight that filled the room.
Not sunlight, she realized suddenly. The golden light shone from a winged figure that stood beside her bed. She reached out and felt the warmth of the light on her hand.
"I'll help you," the angel said. She felt the voice in her body, like the trembling in her legs and the contractions in her belly. "Let me name the child and I'll help you."
She panted, arching her back with the next contraction. "Yes," she cried. "Yes, help me. Please help me." The warm light shone on her face and she closed her eyes against it.
The contractions came closer together, one long unending rush of pain. She closed her eyes and concentrated on pushing. She felt the tearing as the baby's head came free. Again she pushed, seeking relief from the pain that was ripping her apart.
Relief came suddenly as the baby slid from her body. For a moment she lay quietly. Then the spasms returned as she pushed out the placenta.
She felt the movement of a small hand against her thigh and she reached down for the baby. With a corner of the quilt, she wiped the blood and mucus from the child's face. The girl gasped once, whimpered, then opened her eyes and regarded Mary with an unfocused stare. At last, with her baby at her breast, Mary fell asleep, waking only when the night breezes blew in through the open window.
Mary never gave her daughter a name, calling her "baby" or "child" or sometimes "daughter." She did not know whether the angel would return to name her daughter, but it seemed wisest to wait. Losing her husband and friends to the Plague had made Mary cautious. Naming the child seemed a foolish risk, as if a name would attract the attention of a malevolent universe. Namelessness offered a kind of protection.
When she considered the matter, Mary realized that choosing not to name the child made no sense. But sense did not play much of a role in Mary's life. Besides, the girl really didn't need a name. When Mary called to her daughter, she simply called "Come here." The girl knew her mother was calling her. There was no one else around for her mother to call.
The baby grew up to be a wild, skittish, tree-climbing girl. She roamed the open lands around the farmhouse, chasing the feral cattle that grazed in overgrown pastures. She seemed to have no fear, this child. But then, she had no trust either. Somehow the two seemed linked in Mary's mind.
Late at night, when the girl was sleeping, Mary crept into her bedroom. Her daughter lay on her side, curled up like a fox in its burrow, her breathing soft and steady. Mary unconsciously matched her own breathing to her daughter's rhythm. She gently touched the girl's hand, taking comfort from her living warmth.
On nights like that, Mary waited for something that she could not admit, even to herself. She waited for the bright angel to come and name her daughter, then steal her away. Mary guarded her daughter, falling asleep in the chair by the bed.
More often than not, she woke to find an empty bed. Her daughter had slipped away in the early morning, leaving a tangle of empty blankets. The girl was off searching for birds' nests, snaring rabbits, catching crayfish in the creek, scavenging in abandoned houses for things to trade at market.
When the girl was nine years old, she found the globe in a nearby farmhouse. It was on a shelf of knickknacks, wedged between a metal replica of the Empire State Building and a china figurine of Minnie Mouse. With her fingers, she wiped away the furry layer of dust that covered the glass. Though the afternoon was cool and only a little sunlight filtered through the dirty window to shine on the shelf, the globe felt warm to the touch.
The girl peered through smears of dirt at the vague rectangular shapes inside. When she shook the globe, she saw flickers of movement through the glass.
She moved to the front porch where the light was better, polished the glass on the sleeve of her shirt, and peered inside again. Tall buildings with square windows stood side by side. The tallest of the buildings came to a point, making a triangle rather than a rectangle. When she shook the globe, flecks of gold rose in swirls and showered down on the buildings.
She had never seen anything so beautiful. The glitter caught the sunlight, sparkling like flames. If only she looked closely enough, she thought, she might see people in the tiny cars that stood motionless in the street. She turned the globe over and over in her hands, liking the feel of it. On the black base, raised gilt letters read: "Souvenir of San Francisco."
Her mother had told her about San Francisco. Bedtime stories always began, "Back in San Francisco, before the Plague...." The stories were odd and disjointed, fragments of her mother's life. Bright memories of the Chinese New Year's parade, touched with the scent of gunpowder from firecrackers. Remembrances of neighbors: the old woman with twenty-nine cats, the young man who practiced Tai Chi on the roof.
From her mother's memories, the girl had created her own picture of San Francisco: a place as exotic as Oz, with tremendous hills over which cable cars rolled. She had asked her mother once why they could not go back there. Her mother had shaken her head. "Too many ghosts there. I can't go back."
The girl took the globe home with her, along with the other trinkets she had found: a jackknife with an imitation pearl handle, a deck of playing cards decorated with photos of naked women, a set of embroidery scissors in the shape of a stork. When she got home, she put the jackknife and playing cards with the other things she would take to market. She gave the embroidery scissors to her mother. But the globe she kept for herself. That night, before she went to bed, she shook it once more and watched the gold flecks drift around the towers of the city.
When she was still quite young, the girl taught herself to hunt. Not far from her home was a tumble of concrete slabs, where a freeway overpass had collapsed in an earthquake. The rubble provided a maze of ready-made burrows, and the rabbits were abundant. At first she snared them with cunning loops of fishing line, set in faint pathways that the animals had worn in the grass. When she was a little older she made a slingshot with the metal tubing from a rusted bicycle frame and the rubber from the bicycle's inner tube. With slingshot in hand, she would lounge on a sun-warmed concrete slab, waiting in the soft purple twilight for the rabbits to come out and feed. Even in dim light, she rarely missed.
In a neighboring farmhouse, she found a Golden Book Illustrated Encyclopedia. Though her mother had taught her to read, she liked the Encyclopedia mostly for the pictures, and she carried it home, several volumes at a time. After five trips she had the whole alphabet. On winter evenings she lay by the fire, studying pictures of exotic places and things. In the volume marked W she found pictures of weapons. From a picture she got the idea for her crossbow. She cut saplings from the almond orchard until she found one with the right springiness for a bow. She whittled the stock from lumber that she found in the barn. On long summer days she practiced target shooting in the orchard and became an excellent shot.
In the summer the valley was hot; in the winter the rains came. Each spring the almond trees in the orchard bloomed, and each fall she and her mother gathered nuts and hulled them for market. Before she went to bed each night, the girl shook the glass globe. Sometimes she dreamed of San Francisco.CHAPTER 2
When Danny-boy was eight years old, he learned that art could change the world. The lesson began in an alley off Mission Street in San Francisco. Danny-boy crouched behind a garbage dumpster and watched a man paint a wall.
The man was dancing; his bare feet beat a rhythm on the asphalt. He wore a red kerchief around his neck and a pair of ragged jeans, cut off above the knee. In each hand he held a can of spray paint. His arms moved in sweeping gestures, leaving trails of paint on the red brick wall. As he painted, he chanted in a guttural voice. Danny-boy could not make out the words of the chant—could not even tell for certain that there were words, and not just grunts and nonsense syllables.
A ring of upturned abalone shells surrounded the man. In each shell a clump of herbs burned, sending clouds of pungent smoke swirling through the alley.
Through the smoke, Danny-boy could make out the pictures on the wall. A herd of barrel bellied horse with manes as stiff as toothbrush bristles galloped toward Mission Street. A stag tossed its rack of antlers toward the foggy sky. A curve of red-brown paint formed the great humped back of a bull buffalo. As Danny-boy watched, the man added a slash of red for the animal's eye.
Without hesitation, the man stooped to discard one spray can and pick up another, making the motion a part of his dance. He reached high on the wall and painted birds—or, rather, pairs of curved lines that somehow suggested birds. Danny-boy recognized them as geese, flying in a V-formation.
Fascinated, Danny-boy crept closer, always ready to dash back to his hiding place. His feet must have made a sound on the asphalt, because the dancing man glanced his way, smiled quickly (a flash of white teeth in a darkly bearded face), and gestured to a stack of herbs by the wall.
Cautiously at first, Danny-boy took bits of sage and yerba buena and added them to the abalone shells. The thick clouds of smoke filled his lungs and made him feel a little dizzy. Tentatively, he began to match the man's movements, dancing outside the ring of abalone shells, waving a branch of sage to stir the smoke.
The man painted a meandering blue line. Beneath it, he sketched a school of fish and the enormous body of a whale. His chant changed, growing higher and faster. He painted a herd of deer, another herd of wild cattle. He danced more wildly, sweat glistening on his bare back. He snatched up a can of gray paint and quickly drew a wolf in the right-hand corner of the wall. Without warning, he dropped the can of paint and leaped away from the wall and over the ring of abalone shells, landing beside Danny-boy.
Danny-boy's ears rang in the sudden silence. He stared up at the man, curiously unafraid. Curly brown hair covered the man's arms, his back, his chest. Beneath the hair, his skin was reddish brown, the color of a newly cut redwood. Something about the way he stood—relaxed, yet ready to move—reminded Danny-boy of the wild dogs that prowled the streets of the city.
"My name's Danny-boy."
The man glanced down at him. "Call me Randall."
Danny-boy watched curiously as Randall squatted beside one of the abalone shells and poked at the smoldering herbs with one paint-smeared finger. He picked up the shell, dumped the ashes into his big hand, then rubbed them on his face and body. Glancing at Danny-boy, he said, "Take some. It's good. Purifying."
Danny-boy pulled off his T-shirt and gingerly rubbed ashes on his chest and arms.
"Come," said Randall.
Danny-boy followed him to the stream that ran along Eighth Avenue. Over the years, the flowing water had eaten away the asphalt, exposing the rocks and sand that lay below. Grasses that had taken root between the sidewalk stones grew thick and green beside the water. As Randall approached, a bullfrog leapt from the curb and swam for safety.
Randall splashed cold water on himself and scrubbed his face and chest with a handful of grass. Danny-boy imitated him, shivering a little in the cold. When he had scrubbed off most of the ashes, Danny-boy dried himself on his T-shirt and lay down on the sidewalk, glad of the sun-warmed concrete at his back. Randall sat beside him. Danny-boy studied the man.
"How come you were painting pictures on that wall, Randall?" Danny-boy asked at last.
Randall rested one big hand on the cement and turned to examine Danny-boy more closely. "We need more game around here. Buffalo, deer, fish. We need better hunting."
Danny-boy frowned. "What does that have to do with pictures on the wall?"
Randall plucked a grass stem and nibbled on the end of it. He hesitated for so long that Danny-boy thought he might not answer at all; then he said, "If I did it right, the pictures will bring back the game."
"Yeah?" Danny-boy considered the idea for a moment. "You think so."
Randall tossed the grass stem aside. "I think so." He shrugged.
"I'm only one-sixteenth Cherokee. Raised up in white man's schools. The stuff I know about this—it comes from here." He patted his hairy stomach. "I may not have done it right. But I think I did."
Danny-boy frowned, considering Randall's words. "If you want to bring back those animals, why'd you paint a wolf then? Nobody wants more wolves around."
Randall smiled suddenly, showing his white teeth. "It's a signature of sorts," he said. "Besides, I wouldn't mind having a few more wolves around. Just a few." He grinned at Danny-boy and Danny-boy grinned back, though he didn't quite understand the joke.
Danny-boy had grown up in San Francisco. He was born a few years before the Plague, but his memories of those early years were hazy. He remembered the plush rabbit that had been his favorite toy, and his mother's hands lifting him when he fell on the playground and skinned his knee. Other than that, his early past was a blank.
After the Plague, a middle-aged woman named Emerald found him wandering in the street and adopted him. His name came from a song that Emerald liked to sing.
Emerald's grasp on reality was tenuous at best. Sometimes she believed that Danny-boy was her own son, and claimed that she was a holy virgin and he was the new Messiah. At other times she remembered who she was and where she was, and she told Dannyboy stories about the world before the Plague.
Excerpted from The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy. Copyright © 1989 Pat Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 8, 2010
I came across this book by accident, but am glad that I did. "The City, Not Long After" by Pat Murphy is the story of survivors of a plague that has killed most of the population. The residents of San Francisco are artists, while outside the city there is an army ready to invade the city. The protagonist is a young woman with no name who enters the city to warn them. It is easy to see that the theme of this book is to make art not war. I found the story intriguing, the characters appealing and the writing splendid.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.