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THE FIRST SNOWFLAKE AFTERTIME WAS LIKE NO snowflake that ever fell Before. Cass nearly missed it, kneeling on the matted dead kaysev plants, their woody stalks poking into her skin through the thick leggings she wore beneath her dress. Her eyes had been closed, but Randall had gone on too long, the way people do when they are trying to say something meaningful about someone they didn't know well. After a while Cass grew restless and began to look around, and there, not two feet away, the snowflake drifted past in a lazy swoop as though it had all the time in the world.
Cass licked her cracked lips, could almost feel how the flake would melt on her tongue. Until that moment she didn't realize she had actually doubted whether snow would ever return, much as she'd doubted whether rats or sparrows or acorns or moths would return. She wished she could nudge Ruthie, or even Smokeshe knelt between the two, in the place of honor up frontbut a funeral was still a funeral, and so she stayed as still as a stone.
Maybe by the time they were finished, there would be more snowflakes. A flurry, a drift: the gunmetal sky looked grudging to Cass; there would be no storm today. Besides, the temperature would rise well above freezing by noon. These early snows never lasted long.
Next to her, Ruthie sneezed. Cass wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer. Ruthie had loved the snow when she was a baby. She was still a babythree years and two months, according to the Box's calendar. The month and date were metal numerals hung from nails on a wooden pole, the kind people once nailed to houses and mailbox posts, back when people still lived in houses. Each morning, the first shift guard changed the numbers. Today, it read 11 * 17.
Smoke held Cass's hand, his strong fingers wrapped around hers, and she felt his blood running sure and strong under his skin, circulating through his body and making him strong and back to his heart again, and she said the silent prayer that was part of her breathing itself now, part of every exhale: thank–you–thank–you–thank–you–for–making–him–mine. His touch, his closeness, that was what made her whole; he more than made up for every wrong man that had come along before. She closed her eyes and exhaled the prayer and waited for Randall to finish his rambling eulogy as the five other people in attendance fidgeted and sighed.
"And now Cass will say a few words."
So her turn had come, at last. Cass stood, nervous and hesitant. She gulped air as she took the few steps to the humble altar next to the fresh grave. Sieved earth was piled neatly. Gloria was in the ground, her body covered with six feet of rich Sierra mountain soilDor's grave diggers charged a premium for the full six, what with most folks settling for half that these days. Cass breathed out, then in once more, a rhythm she learned back in her early days in A.A., when she'd been torn between the paralyzing certainty that if she spoke during the meeting she would cryand that if she didn't, she would never come back.
Back then, it had sometimes been all she could manage to say her name. Today she would have to say more. Not for those gathered here: besides Smoke and Ruthie, there was only Randall, standing at a respectful distance and twisting his handkerchief in a tight knot around his knuckles, and Paul, who never missed a funeral, and Greg, who'd spent some evenings with Gloria even after she was banned from working the comfort tents.
And then also Rae, who managed the comfort tents, and probably felt guilty about firing Gloria, since, when Gloria couldn't work, she couldn't buy anything to drink. And that was what killed her, in a wayafter only a few days of forced sobriety she had drunk a bottle of Liquid–Plumr from the garbage hill slowly accumulating on the far side of the stadium's parking lot.
Cass gazed out on the others and swallowed back tears. Smoke had put on a clean shirt, not that you could see it under his heavy work coat. Ruthie wore a little red coat and matching hat that a raiding party had brought back last week. Everyone else was dressed in the usual layers of clothes splodged with stains, the heavy boots. No one looked directly at her, save Smoke. No one gathered here would care if Cass cried for Gloria, but it was important to her that she not be misunderstood, not now, not today.
She trailed her fingers along the scratched wooden top of the small table enlisted as an altar. Someone had brought it back from a night raid, a humble thing whose most appealing feature was that it was light and easy to carry. Cass thought it mighthalf a century agohave been a telephone table, back when phones had to be plugged into the wall. On Sundays, Randall put a cloth on the little table, rested his Bible on top of that. He didn't lack for an audience. Cass didn't begrudge him his followersnor did she begrudge them their hour of peace or solace or whatever it was they found in his words.
Still, today: no cloth, no Bible. It had fallen to Cass to plan the service. No one else offered, and Randall had come to stand in the door to their tent, hat in his hand, and asked Cass what would be right. Gloria had never spoken of God and Cass felt it would be presumptuous to impose Him on her now.
Cass shut her eyes for a moment and exhaled slowly. When she opened her eyes again, Ruthie was watching her expec–tently, lips parted in anticipation. For a child who didn't talk, Ruthie listened to others with great care, none more than her mother.
Cass produced a tiny smile for her daughter. She reached for the string around her neck and pulled from under her blouse the pendant she had made yesterday, and Ruthie did the same. They wore clothespins, the old–fashioned wooden kind, knotted to nylon cord. Cass held the clothespin as though it were a precious thing and considered it, turning it slowly this way and that.
"Gloria and I talked about clothespins once," Cass began, her voice rusty. "She told me about hanging clothes on a line."
Greg, dry–eyed and somber, nodded as though what Cass was telling was a story he'd heard a dozen times. That couldn't have been. Gloria made little sense when she talked; she dredged memories and unfurled them carelessly, moving in and out of time and sense. You didn't have a conversation with Gloria so much as an occasional glimpse into the ill–tended recesses of her mind. There was nothing there to hold on to.
She wondered what memories Gloria had shared with Greg, if they had talked at all. The comfort tents were places of shame; men and the occasional woman slipped in and out of them like shadows, bartering whatever they had for a grope in the dark, an awkward coupling, a muffled cry. Anything to forget the gone world for a while.
Those who worked in the tents usually had no other way to earn. That was the case with Gloria, who was too far gone to raid, to cook, to harvest, to mend or make things, or even offer knowledge that helped. But she had meant more than nothing to Greg.
"She told me about hanging clothes on a line," Cass said again. She cleared her throat. "And she
had someone, once. His name was Matthew."
Gloria had long, thick silvery hair. That, and her faded blue eyes, were the only clues to her long–ago beauty. She was lean and leathery. She'd broken a tooth and on the rare occasions when she was sober she was suddenly self–conscious and tried to hide the gap, barely moving her lips to speak. Her nails were ragged and dirty. Her clothes grew filthy and torn in the days before her death. The last time they spoke, Gloria had answered all of Cass's questions with noncommittal grunts and never once met her eyes. Ruthie had been afraid of her.
"She loved him," Cass concluded. Once, Gloria had loved. That would have to be enough. Cass had said all she knew all that was important, anyway. Gloria never told her anything but his name; if he'd been a lover, a husband, a childhood friend, it didn't matter.
She bent to the earth, the rectangle of dirt raked carefully one way and then the other, crosshatched from the tines. She dug her fingers in and took a handful, then stood up and slowly sifted the earth back over the length of the grave.
She stood back as the others filed around the perimeter of the grave. They knelt and scooped their own handfuls of dirt, even Ruthie. The knees of her tights were smudged with dirtanother stain Cass would not be able to get out. She sighed. Each person shook their dirt back down onto the grave, and Cass wondered what words they said in their minds. Hers was goodbyemaybe everyone said goodbye.
The dirt was sprinkled and still they ringed the grave, waiting. Randall dug in his pocket. "Cass, perhaps you'd like to
He held out a plastic bag, gapping open; inside were dried kaysev beans, dull and brown. Cass looked at him sharply, but for once Randall stared back with a hint of challenge in his expression. Smoke squeezed her hand, shook his head. Smoke stayed far clear of Randall's Sunday–morning services. He had little to do with believers. He even did his occasional drinking at Rocket'snot German's, where believers tended to congregate.
Cass didn't want to take the beans. The funeral practice of sprinkling the grave with kaysev seedit was based in the Bible, the passage in Matthew about the sower. It was a common practice, almost secular by now; a whole new culture of loss, its habits and practices as ingrained as if generations of ancestors had practiced them. It had only been eight months since the Air Force had rained kaysev down from the skies on their last flights, but eight months had been long enough to create new rituals. The plant was meant to feed the population; it had begun to feed their imaginations, as well.
Smoke saw everything through the filter of ideology and he was resolute, and Cass was inclined to agree with him, at least on this. Terrible memories of the Convent were too fresh, the mark its zealotry had left on Ruthie too deep.
God had not taken up residence across the street in the stadiumof that Cass was sure.
But unlike Smoke, she was not ready to declare Him absent. Still, He was an elusive, crafty cipher to Cass, and for now she meant to keep Him distant.
When Cass did not take the plastic bag from Randall's outstretched hand, the frowning man narrowed his eyes and upended it himself, the beans falling to the earth and rolling into the crevices and fissures in the earth. "He that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word," he intoned, his gaze never leaving Cass's face.
Then he stepped back from the grave, jamming the empty bag back into his pocket and brushing his hands together fastidiously. Everyone else followed him, retreating to the cleared area where the service had begun, shuffling slowly.
"And now we conclude our service for Gloria," Randall murmured, the wind snatching at his words and carrying them away, so that everyone leaned in closer to hear. Everyone, that is, but Cass, who picked up Ruthie and edged to the back of the small gathering while Randall raised his hands for a final benediction.
"Man, you are dust," he said, closing his eyes. "And to dust you shall return."
Not for the first time Cass considered that Randall was a fraud, cobbling together bits and pieces of faiths to suit himself.
What did it matter, though? Dead was still dead, and the rest of them were still here.
CASS GLANCED BACK OVER HER SHOULDER AS THEY trailed the others back to the Box. The streets looked clear; there had been no Beater sightings for a couple of days. Randall moved among the graves, straightening the crosses and pulling weeds.
It wasn't much of a graveyardthe plot of land had once been a tiny park wedged between residential streets two blocks from the Box, but the trees that shaded it had died early enough in the Siege that someone had actually taken the trouble to cut them down to stumps and haul them away. Some of the graves were marked with crosses carved from wood, nailed together, finished to varying degrees. One small one was painted white, with tiny shells glued along the edges. Most of the crosses were raw, hastily made, not even sanded.
Some graves, like Gloria's, had no marker at all. For now, the dug and piled dirt marked its location, but it would not be long before the dirt would sink and level and no one would remember where she lay.
Had it been up to Cass, she would have left the few plants that sprouted this time of year. To her mind the reappearance of each plant Aftertime was a miracle in itself, and her garden in the Box had a small square marked out with stakes and twine for each native species she found on her walks. Firethorn, pepperweed, crupina. Each of them once assumed gone forever. Eachthrough what combination of God's will and hardiness and luck she had no ideareturned, pushing through the wasted crust of the forsaken earth.
Greg, Rae, Paulonce through the gates, they slipped off in different directions, not bothering with a goodbye, not even for Ruthie. Cass wasn't sure how much longer she could stay here in the Box, where gloom had settled and quashed her hopes that it was a place fit for raising her little girl. Before, people made an effort for a child, even one as silent and strange as Ruthie was now. Under the hat, her hair was as short as a boy's; in the Convent they had shaved all the children bald. But by spring Ruthie should have enough for a little pixie cut, something more girlie. Cass was self–conscious of her self–consciousness: surely survival was enough of a parlor trick; should children really have to do anything more?
There were no fat Gerber babies Aftertime. There were few babies at all. Starvation and the fever had taken so many, early on; the Beaters claimed many more. Cass knew firsthand how hard it was to look upon a child when your own was gone. But she had been given a second chance; she had gotten Ruthie back, and now she meant to cherish her. She would dress her in the prettiest things she could find. She would give her everything that the battered world could provide.
Ruthie's red coat was a gift from a quiet boy named Sam, who'd lost an eye in Yemen in the Rice Wars. He stopped by Cass and Smoke's tent after a raid and pulled it from his backpack, a soft, finely made woolen coat with carved shell buttons. He wouldn't trade for it, but he had accepted a cup of peppermint tea brewed from the last of Cass's herb garden before a hard freeze took all but the thyme and chervil. Sam wasn't a talker, but he loved Ruthie. He airplaned her squealing through the air, carried her around on his shoulders and let her crawl all over his long lanky legs. Cass suspected Sam had once had a little brother or sister, or perhaps a niece or nephew. Whoever the child was, they were long gone, leaving Sam with a few good moves and, perhaps, an empty place in his heart.