Some nights the Elder still dreamt of electricity. Blinking strings of colored bulbs on a tree, squares of light shining out of tall buildings, headlights leading cars. Tonight she dreamed about going to a movie theater during a storm when she was young. The screen was so tall, easily fifty feet high, and she bounced up and down in a padded chair while her mother handed out popcorn from a crinkling bag. She could feel the grease of the melted butter coating her fingers. Then, with a loud crash, a wall of the theater was ripped away with by wind.
She startled awake and reached out, fumbling in the shy light of the rising sun to turn on her bedside table lamp. She reached and reached but met empty air. She felt her heart pounding as she sat up and looked around. She was not sure where she was until she saw the patchwork quilt on her bed, the tattered canvas curtains covering her window, the wrinkles on her hands. Then she remembered.
Most days this recollection was a hard one. Not like it was at first. Months convinced they were waiting to die, and many of them had been right. Losing so much they had been dependent on with nothing to replace them. Now the pain was that of other cherished but long-gone memories, the ones you weren’t sure if really happened or were only bits of dreams and stories strung together until they felt real.
Today the shock was smaller. Through her open window she could hear children laughing out in the square accompanied by the sound of hammers striking nails. Today was Thanksgiving morning.
After she rose and dressed the Elder stepped out of her house and breathed deep. The autumn air was crisp and delicious. Wisps of her silver hair wafted around her forehead while the rest hung in a braid down her back. She wore a long dress of blue wool. The wool had come from sheep she had raised herself and had been spun on her own wheel. She remembered how easy it had been Before to go to a store with so many clothes in so many sizes and how no one appreciated the luxury of it all. She supposed that was by design, though.
She was one of the only ones left old enough to remember Before. How big it had been, so uselessly big. Now she concerned herself with her town, and the town concerned itself with her. She lived in a small home off the town’s central square. It had once been the town green, but the grass and clover had long ben trodden to dust. All the townspeople knew where to find her when they needed her counsel, remedies, or sometimes just her company.
The house was made of two rooms, one serving as kitchen, den, and library while the other was the bedroom. She called it her house, but it wasn’t, not really. It was the house of the Elder and had belonged to another before her, a man named Jonathan. When he died, it had passed to her, and when she died, it would pass to another. The Elder was chosen by the people and served the people. It was the greatest honor of her life.
The main square was lined with wagons and carts stacked with food and dry goods. Others who lived further afield had brought cloth or honey from their beehives to barter with and some had whittled toys for the children. There were so many children in the town now thanks to years of good harvests and peace. Some goods were listed for sale, but most were offered freely today. It was a holiday tradition to celebrate a good harvest. The carpenters were constructing the platform and tables where they would share their meal later. The craftsmen made them anew every Thanksgiving morning then threw them into bonfires they danced around at night. It was a reminder of the natural cycle of the harvest, and of life.
As the Elder strolled into the square, her neighbor Mama Jones waved in greeting from a few doors down. Everyone called her Mama Jones because she and her husband looked after the town’s children when the parents needed to be in the fields. She walked over holding a wooden bowl filled with oatmeal out to the Elder.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Mama Jones said.
“And to you,” the Elder replied. She smiled with her lips closed, she only had a few teeth left now. As she brought the bowl to her lips she gasped, and her near-empty mouth gaped in shock. “Is that—
“Cinnamon!” Mama Jones squealed, clapping with glee. “My husband found some on his latest trek out, some peddler he met on the road. We’ve had it for months, saved it up for Thanksgiving. It’s going in pies for the feast, but I saved a bit just for you.”
“You are a beacon of kindness, my dear. May They bless you and your light,” she reached out with her thumb and index finger and touched Mama Jones in the center of her forehead.
“Thank you, Elder,” she said.
“Can I return this bowl to you later? I need to go check on my traps.”
“Yes, of course,” she said before waving at someone over the Elder’s shoulder and wandering off. Mama Jones and her husband ran the general store and he ventured out past their borders once or twice a year in search of rare items and often collecting some pelts along the way. Cinnamon, though! Truly a rare find.
The Elder strolled through the square, waving to children who called to her and nodding greetings at those who had come in from the outskirts. The sun was warm while the ground under her bare feet remained cool. When she reached the grass, she paused and wiggled her toes around savoring the feel of soft blades between her toes. She could see more families coming down the road that led to the square excited for the holiday.
The traps weren’t far from the square and she reached them in a few minutes. They were under a large oak tree with sprawling roots and a twisted trunk. Near the center of the trunk there were the last visible remnants of a metal “no parking” sign that was slowly being consumed by the tree. The curb that had been here once was long gone now, all the concrete scavenged away. There were still some patches of asphalt peeking through vegetation, but it had long been taken over by vegetation, small leaves pushing through cracks and widening them until only patches remained.
The trap pits had been dug years before and lined with bricks and stone to keep the walls from caving in. Some of the concrete from the curb had gone into this effort. The pits were deeper than the tallest man in town and only accessible by a wooden ladder that belonged to one of the carpenters. As she approached, she could hear the distressed cries coming from the pit and smiled. They would eat well tonight.
The Elder had been born into a land of plenty and assumed it would last forever. So did her parents, and so had everyone else. No one considered they could keep on living after the end of life as they knew it.
When she was young, she had never had much belief in her life. Then, there didn’t seem to be anything worth believing in. People had walked on the moon, organs could be grown in labs, life expectancy kept climbing up, up, up. What mysteries were left that people had not been able to solve?
It might have been because her family had held such deep beliefs. They had taken so much of it into themselves that there was none left for her, the last born. It was not for lack of trying. Each weekend was filled by the church: Saturday Bible study and Sunday worship that lasted hours. The night before her baptism she had gotten her first period and was terrified of bleeding into the baptismal pool. Would it be a sin to let Eve’s punishment flow into the water blessed to cleanse that sin from her? Her mother had promised her sins would still be washed away, then explained how to use a tampon in hushed whispers her brother could not hear through their thin walls.
Her favorite days had been the revivals when they got to have service outside under a big tent. There was a band instead of a choir and a stage in place of an altar. The pastor stood on high calling on them all to be saved and to bear witness to the salvation of their brothers and sisters. It was a heady spectacle and if she could not feel belief in the salvation, she at least could feel something with the wind on her face. Row upon row of people would file up to have hands laid on them. Some were seeking healing, others forgiveness, others to be a part of a whole. They cried out first for grace then in the ecstasy of rebirth.
The Elder had only walked in that line once. She thought it might help her feel what the others did, that maybe there was something in that touch. A touch was physical, actual. A touch could be the key.
The pastor was a portly, balding man with ruddy cheeks. He had a gap in his front teeth and sometimes when he preached globs of spit flew through it. He wore glasses that took up half his face, a necktie that seemed tight enough to strangle him, and an alligator skin belt with his all-white suit. When she reached the front of the line, and he laid his hands on her she waited for the jolt of the Holy Spirit passing into her. As the seconds passed all she felt were the pastor’s soft, sweaty fingers over her face. Their heft made her feel like she couldn’t breathe. She thanked the pastor, yelled out in praise of the Lord as those before her had but she never walked to the front again.
The revivals happened more often when the storms started getting worse. She had stopped going by then, had moved into her own apartment and had a job in an office. Her family still went though. Her mother, father, brother, his wife, and their baby twins.
There had always been bad storms where she had grown up, especially in the summer; the thick humidity caused chaos in the skies. But each year they got worse and worse in a way that they had not when her parents were young. Her mother stopped driving because the downpours were vicious and hit with no warning. A tall, healthy tree was blown over and barely missed her building. The landlord had all the others removed because the winds weren’t stopping. Their state had floods while the other side of the country burned so hot rescue teams could not even fly helicopters in to fight the blazes.
Despite it all on and on the revivals went, fervor growing with each passing season. The pastor stood in front and cheered the storms, eyes bright and a sheen of sweat on his brow. The storms were proof, he said, that Jesus would soon return. That the sinners would be washed away in the floods like those who had not listened to Noah or burned like the wicked of Sodom.
Since leaving home the Elder had played around with different things: Buddhism, Quakerism, spells involving cloves stuffed into the rinds of ripe fruit. Not believing in anything made her open to believe in anything, in a way. None of these stuck and she started to feel drawn towards the big tent again. Come back with us, her mother had urged, be saved with us. Enter the tent to enter the kingdom. She agreed to come to the next revival.
The day was cloudy and windy. The parking lot was gravel and as she got out of her car dust and small rocks were blown into her face and got in her eyes. She poked at the whites of them trying to get at the stinging grains. The tent was more crowded than she had ever seen it with nearly a thousand people. Others had the same thoughts as her and were here to hedge their bets, she guessed. There were some faces she recognized from her younger years, and she waved politely if they looked her way. The preacher had already started but not for long, he was still in the invocation and welcoming portion.
She tried to find her family, but the crowd was too big to make people out. She took out her cell phone but had no reception. Winds from a hurricane the year before had taken out several cell towers in the area and they had not been repaired yet. There was an empty picnic table at the back of the tent, just outside the cover of the canvas, and she climbed on it to get a better view. As she did the sky opened and rain thick as sheets began to fall. It was so forceful it nearly knocked her to her knees.
People squeezed under the tent to get out of the rain, and she still had not seen her family. She had some paper towels in her backseat and an umbrella in the trunk, so she decided to run for her car. She would dry off, wait for the rain to ease, then come back to the tent. As she ran across the parking lot she slipped on the loose, wet stones and fell hard into the gravel. She slid forward a few inches and felt the skin on her hands and knees tear with the movement.
When she got in her car she dabbed at her bloodied knees and palms with the towels, hissing at the sting. There were pieces of gravel lodged in her flesh. With her hands slippery from rain and the debris slippery from blood, they would not give. The rain had lessened some though it was still raining hard. She looked through her windows towards the tent. The pastor had improved his lighting set up since she was here last; the beams from the stage lights above him shined out across the field and the lot. Cheers erupted from the congregation, he must have finished his welcome and was into the soul saving now.
The Elder knew she should get her umbrella and go back to the tent. She promised her mother she was coming; she had driven all the way here. But the sting of her wounds and the poke of the small rocks still in them made her mind up for her. She started her car and began to drive home. These last for hours, she reasoned. She would have plenty of time to go home, clean herself up, and then come back before the end.
When she got back to her apartment and her phone connected to the internet, she began receiving weather alerts. Not unusual, they seemed to happen every week now. She glanced at the screen to dismiss the notification as she turned on her shower and froze.
FLASH FLOOD WARNING ISSUED FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES
The first listed was the county where the revivals happened. Her heart began to pound, and she sat on the cool tile of the bathroom and closed her eyes, breathed in slow and deep, exhaled even slower. Reminded herself these were rural counties. They were large and filled with open spaces. Reasoned her way through the anxiety. Laughed at her overreaction. Pulled the gravel out of her wounds with her tweezers then took a long shower.
When she got out, she saw the stream of messages from friends and relatives telling her to turn on the news.
The Elder felt like she could skip as she made her way back to the square. She held two large hares by their freshly wrung necks; she could taste them roasted and smothered in gravy already. She sent two of the carpenters out to the traps to bring in the larger game she was unable to carry and took the rabbits to the big house on the left of the square. It served as meeting hall, tavern, and Inn on the rare occasions a traveler passed through. Every Thanksgiving the owners, Lizzie and Bill Glenn, opened the use of their large kitchen to prepare most of the food. The front room was empty of people but as the Elder walked in, she was met with the smell of fresh baked bread and sizzling animal fat.
“Mrs. Glenn,” she called as she walked towards the kitchen. “I’ve brought some more meat for you.” The door to the kitchen burst open as she neared, and she could hear the chatter of several women from within. A brown-haired woman a head taller than her strode out. Her face shone with sweat from standing over fires and stoves and there was a gray smudge of ash on one cheek. She wore a large, stained apron over her linen work dress. She opened her arms wide and pulled the Elder into a warm hug. Her hair smelt of yeast and warm sugar.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Elder. We aren’t standing on any formalities here, you know you can call me Lizzie,” the woman said. Her eyes were wrinkled at the corners from the smile she wore so freely.
“Happy Thanksgiving to you, Lizzie. I thought you might could use these,” the Elder said, holding the rabbits out to her. Lizzie wiped her hands on her apron before taking them.
“The traps were good to us today; these will go nicely in the meat pies.”
“How was our harvest? I saw some wagons come in but not all.”
“It was a glorious harvest, Elder. One of the best I’ve seen. After today we will get to work drying and canning but we have plenty to get through the winter with some to add to the reserves.”
“What a blessing,” the Elder said, smiling as wide as Lizzie.
“Lizzie,” a voice called from inside the kitchen, “we need your help rolling out the dough!”
“I’d better get back,” Lizzie said.
“Is your husband nearby?” The Elder asked as she turned to go.
“He was helping build the platform but should be in the council chamber by now,” she said before disappearing again into the kitchen.
The Elder walked back through the main room and through a door on the far side which led to the main meeting hall. Lizzie and others called it the council chamber because it was where the village council did most of its business, but she never liked the formality of calling anything a chamber. The council was a small body of the heads of households and herself and most of their business had to deal with finding missing sheep or chickens. Nothing so grand as to require a dedicated chamber. She knocked lightly before entering and found Bill Glenn seated on the table at the front.
The room itself was small with two windows in the far wall. There were several rows of chairs facing the table which served as an all-purpose surface for everything from writing and signing documents to butchering a pig.
Arrayed in front of Bill were the Thanksgiving ceremonials. This included two goblets, a sharp carving knife, and a large platter that the other items were placed on. The platter had been taken from someone’s silver collection for this communal use. The goblets were carved from wood but plated in gold from jewelry that had been melted down years ago. She and Bill exchanged greetings as she gazed at the tools.
“Finished shining them all this morning, Elder,” he said. He was a thin man who was tall but stood stooped as if to hide it. He was treated like the Mayor; though there was no such official post. He was a man who did not demand respect but received it because of his kind spirit.
“They look perfect, thank you as always. I stopped by and spoke with Lizzie. The food all smells delightful. The two of you are the beating heart of our town.” Bill blushed and smiled.
“That is very kind of you to say, ma’am, but I can’t take any credit. It goes to Them, and to you for helping us stay on the path. May we never lose our way again.”
“We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it,” She reached her hand forward and touched her fingertips to his forehead and he closed his eyes. She held the blessing a few moments more then removed her hand. “I have to go and complete my preparations for the ritual, I will be back at sunset.”
Rolling blackouts became common, then they started lasted longer. The hotter summers and harsher winters pushed the grids so far, the government started forced rationing to divert energy to places suffering the worst. How fast the individualism disappeared when temperatures rose and the world began to look fragile, and how fast it came back when the grids died completely. After that it did not take long for the world to shrink and narrow.
Not for the first time the Elder had been grateful she lived somewhere guns were commonplace. She grew up knowing how to shoot pistols and rifles, both hunting and automatic ones. She never imagined she would need to use them to scare off other women to grab one of the few remaining boxes of tampons though.
Once people realized the lights were not coming back on and store shelves would not be replenished, trying to get any supplies was like entering a war zone. After the flood she had moved back to her family’s home. She was the sole inheritor, and the mortgage was paid off. Not that anyone was collecting mortgages now, all the records were on servers no one could turn on. But now the closest grocery store was eight miles away. She did calculations of gas mileage, how many trips she could make with what she had left, what food would last longest without refrigeration. Her apartment had been closer to stores, but her parents had land. Not much, only an acre, but she was only one person.
It was normal now to hear gunfire at the grocery store. She managed to get large bags of rice and dried beans while most frenzied over the canned goods. She grabbed whatever fruits and vegetables she could. Livestock and chicken farmers were raided. Chickens went first, prized for their eggs. There was a small lake nearby and whenever she walked by it there were always people trying to fish with lines tied onto sticks.
She tried to dig a root cellar to keep food cool. The soil was hard clay, and it took weeks of digging to finish it. She hoped for some rain to moisten the ground, make it easier to dig into, but it did not come. The water lines still worked but what came out of the taps was brown and it soon dried up too.
The food she put in the cellar spoiled anyway. It did not get cool enough to keep until much deeper underground.
She dug jagged rows and put potatoes, onions, and apples in the ground. She had never tried to grow anything before. Many nights, sleeping with her loaded rifle by her bed, she wondered if it was worth it to keep trying. Wondered if other countries were as bad as here, what happened to the people on planes when the grids went down for good, was there even still a government?
One day, there was a knock on her door. She grabbed the rifle and tucked a pistol into her pocket. It wasn’t the safest option but better than the alternative. She knew how quickly someone would assume a skinny 20-something girl was no threat if she were not visibly armed. She opened the door holding the rifle to her shoulder, barrel steady. The visitors were a pair, a middle-aged man and woman, who both held up their hands when her gun came into view.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the man had said. He was tall and his skin was tanned and taut from long years of work in the sun. His fingers curled down slightly from arthritis. He looked familiar but it was a small town. Everybody looked familiar. “We know visitors ain’t welcome much anymore, but we mean you no harm. We live about a mile down the way and wanted to let you know about the market.”
“There are some folks there who have goods they’d be happy to trade for some vegetables,” the woman said. She lowered her rifle and the two of them lowered their hands.
As the man and woman led the way, they explained how they traveled for miles knocking on doors inviting others to come trade. They had started the market on their own land, a field their goats used for grazing. The Elder had not remembered how long it had been since the lights went out, and the couple did not know how long ago they started the market.
“Must be at least a year now,” the woman said. Even though she could not have been older than 55 her hair was already white. She wore old denim overalls pocked with patches and dull leather boots. She walked with her hands in her pockets and whistled in between bouts of conversation. “My husband and I, we’ve lived off our land for years already. Grew up out in the sticks, it was a simpler type of life. Didn’t realize how used to luxury people had become. So, we set up the market to try and help. Wes here helps with woodworking and farming, I help with canning and sewing. Little things, but they help people get by.” She glanced at the Elder’s worn clothing. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but it looks like you could use a little help getting by.”
“My family is all gone,” the young Elder said by way of explanation. The woman nodded.
“You’re young for it, but I was too. You’re still alive so you’re a tough one, but even tough ones can’t do everything alone. Name’s Alice, by the way.” The Elder nodded but did not speak because she was trying to blink back tears. Alice started up whistling again and they made the rest of the walk to the tune of Camptown Races.
In time, the market would become the main square where the men had just finished building the platform and tables for Thanksgiving, and Alice would become the first Elder. All Elders who had come after had learned from her, but the current Elder would be the last who had known her. Slowly, over the course of several years, buildings went up around the market. Somewhere to feed people coming from longer distances, or to offer shelter in bad weather. For the weather was still bad and often farmers came from ten miles away then were trapped by a storm. The first Elder and her husband helped teach people skills like carpentry, pottery, canning, sewing, and farming. They had lived off their land for years and taught others how to do the same in exchange for the safety of a fostered community.
She watched out for that community now. They had many hard years, some due to bad harvests and others to sickness. Slowly medicine cabinets filled with pills gave way to ointments made with herbs and animal fat and poultices for wounds. Things Alice helped her learn to not be afraid of but to meet head on, like screaming at a grizzly bear so it would leave your tent alone. Alice had taught her how to believe.
The wind began to pick up later in the afternoon as the Elder prepared in her home. She took a long cleansing bath in cold water and anointed her hair and body with sunflower oil and rosemary. By the light of her fire, she knelt and sprinkled a handful of ashes into her hair. Prayer came easy to her now and she did not realize hours had passed before there was a rap on her door.
Draped in a robe of deep, burnt orange she stepped into the fading light of day. Their population was small, but none ever missed a Thanksgiving. There were a little over a hundred families, many of which she saw only on holidays because they lived on farms and cabins further afield. This is why she loved this day so much, it brought them all together to celebrate. The main platform seated only 50 or so and the rest of the tables were arrayed in a semi-circle around it. The shadows of ruins loomed as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Parents were trying to settle excited children, some with newborns slung over their shoulders. She wished she could greet them all individually, but it would have to wait.
The platform was lit with a row of torches along the back edge which burned high and bright. The table was set with places and large dishes of steaming food were spread across it. In the middle were the offerings from her traps, naked with their wrists and ankles bound and burlap covering their faces. She thought she could her one of them sobbing as she strode up the steps. As she reached the center of the platform and examined the offerings the rest of those gathered sat down and shushed one another to watch and listen.
They were a man and a woman, a married couple traveling in search of the sea, hoping to find civilization beginning anew on one shore or another. They stopped at Bill and Lizzie’s Inn a few nights before. Each of them had worn necklaces with crosses on them, dangling over their chests and glinting off of candlelight in the dim dining room. Bill had told them of the remains of a superstore that still held some scraps of clothing, useful supplies for those walking so far on foot. He gave them directions leading straight into the Elder’s traps, hidden under a tarp coated in leaves. The next day he saw them off, and the day after that went to the traps to shackle and gag them for the feast.
Now the Elder took a torch offered to her by Lizzie and approached them. They each still wore their crosses. She reached up to the man’s neck and tugged on the chain until the clasp snapped. He shrank back as far as his bonds allowed. The Elder turned to her people and dangled the bracelet from her fist.
“The symbols of the false gods have come once more this harvest feast. The symbols of those who taught people to cheer for floods and fires, plagues, and famine. Taught their followers that suffering meant salvation. They shadowed the true path, and it was lost for an age. Still lost, to some, who cling to the faith of the destroyers.” The town yelled and hissed at the strangers. The woman on the table was shaking. “We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it.
“The first Elder here showed us the truth, taught us of the old Gods, They who were here before the usurpers. Their wrath for our people’s betrayal was vicious, but for those of us who are faithful their blessings are bountiful. Since worshipping them so many Thanksgivings ago, we have had good harvests year after year no matter how bad the pests or how heavy the storms. They want to be remembered, and we remember Them. Today we honor Them with our offering.” She nodded to Bill who was waiting behind her. He stepped forward and pulled the sacks off the heads of the captives. The woman looked out on the crowd and screamed, the man stayed silent, but his face was pale and slick with cold sweat. When the people cheered, he turned to her.
“Please,” he said weakly. “Please let us go. We have done you and your town no harm. If you let us go, we will never come here again!” He pleaded. The pupils of his light green eyes were narrowed to pinpricks, the panicked instinct of a cornered animal.
“You have harmed us, you cursed us all!” Someone yelled from the crowd. The Elder held up her hand for quiet.
“Your belief in the usurper gods cost us the world, and this transgression now will cost your own lives. Fear not, for after this you will be welcomed by Them into the realm of the blessed. This is Their path, and we will not lose it again.” She walked to the end of the table where the two goblets were set on top of the platter with the knife in the middle. She picked up the goblets and raised them to the sky: “Come, Holy Ones, come. Bless and prosper this meal; bless and prosper this fellowship; bless and prosper our lives, that justice and love may be the measure of our common witness. Corn and grain, meat, and milk, upon these tables before us. Gifts of life, bringing sustenance and strength, oh Holy Ones, we give you thanks.” Lizzie and Mama Jones stood behind her and the Elder handed each of them a goblet before picking up the knife. This she too held to the sky, saying, “Praise to you, and bless this tool so that again we may be fed with your own body and blood. By your Leave and Supper, we dedicate this harvest.”
The air was still as if the insects and birds themselves held their breaths. The offerings struggled weakly against their bonds; after days of no food and only enough water to keep them alive, they had little fight left. First, she approached the man. Grabbing him by his hair she wrenched his head backwards and in a swift, single motion slit his throat open. His wife, watching with horror, vomited stomach bile onto the table beneath her and sobbed. The Elder held the man’s head steady as he gurgled, and Lizzie moved in to hold her goblet beneath the wound. She stayed until it was filled to the brim with his blood. Then the Elder let go and he fell to the table, limp, and twitching. The last of his blood flowed beneath the platters of food, blessing each item on its path.
The wife shrieked and squealed as the Elder came to her, Mama Jones close behind with the other goblet. The Elder had to fight the urge to chant, “suwee, piggy,” as she slit the second throat. After both bodies were spent, the townspeople rose and sang a hymn of Thanksgiving while the butcher came forward. Bill hurried over with the offering platter. The butcher began to slice both offerings into small portions, stacking the flesh atop the platter. As he finished the man and moved to the woman the people of the town began to line up on either side of the base of the platform where Lizzie and Mama Jones stood waiting with their goblets.
The butcher finished his work and Bill walked off the platform to stand at the center point between Lizzie and Mama Jones. The platter was piled high with the meat of the sinners. The Elder stood above them and spoke.
“We offer these gifts, given to us by the old Gods of Earth. This is their blood, this is their body, which was given for us. Eat of it and remember the path.”
Sara White is an emerging fiction writer working and living in Atlanta. She holds masters degrees in modern history and library & information sciences.