Erig inched closer to the campfire.
“Get back.” Ma poked at him with the stick she used to stir the fire. “You don’t take mor’n yurs.”
He scrambled back but he was cold, so after a moment he inched back in. “Tell a story, Ma. Bout the old days.”
She eyed him, graying eyebrow raised.
Erig knew she saw what he was doing but forms were satisfied, so she let him stay.
“Yeah, Ma.” Erig’s sister, Kony, pushed her brushy hair out of her dirty face. “Tell us a story.”
Ma looked at her current mate, Harld.
“Go ahead.” He scratched the long scratch on his rib cage. Erig was with him when another man tried to steal the whitetail deer they’d just brought down. Harld had squared off against the man and after the scratch, hit the man with a rock and brought him down, then smashed his head to mush. Erig felt bad about the man’s family but he shouldn’t have tried to steal their food.
“Tell us about the falling rocks, Ma.” That was Erig’s favorite story.
The woman nodded. “Kay.” She poked the fire again and added another stick. “It was back in my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s day. The world was different then. People lived in big buildings and never went hungry.”
That was Erig’s favorite part. What kind of world had it been where people weren’t hungry all of the time?
“How big were the buildings?” Kony sat forward. The buildings were her favorite part. She hated being wet and cold.
“You’ve seen the ruins.” Ma spit in the fire. “Taller’n trees, they were. Taller’n ten trees, some of ’em. And people rode around in machines. And machines carried them up and down the tall buildings. People went to the moon and back, and to Mars.”
“Tell us about the clothes, Ma.” Erig was fascinated with the clothes part of the story.
“No one wore leathers. Everyone wore clothes that came from oil or chem – I –kals.”
“How’d they do that, Ma?”
She sniffed. “I think my Ma made that up. I don’t know no way to make clothes from oil. And who knows what them chem – I – kals were.” She waved her hand, shoo’ing away their questions. “Anyway. One day, in my great, great, Ma’s time, huge stones fell from the sky. They smashed the big buildings. They splashed into the lakes and oceans making the water boil. The rocks made big holes in the ground and animals and people were killed from the shock of it all. Dust rose in the air,” she raised her arms high above her head. “Water, too, that rose up from the oceans. The sky went black and the sun was hid for years.”
Erig nodded. “The cold time.”
“Yep, the cold time. The snow came and seemed like it would never leave. Anyone left alive,” she stopped, interrupted.
“Like the great, great!” Kony broke in, excited.
“Yep, like the great, great, anyone left alive didn’t know what to do or how to hunt. They’d never had to do it. But even if they did, the animals had been kilt, too.”
“How did she live?” Erig shuddered. He knew the answer.
“The way anyone lives.” She looked at her two living children, then her mate. “You eat what there is to eat and fight when you have to fight. Your great, great, was a hard woman, my ma told me. She ate the dead when she had to. She was twenty-three when the stones fell, never had wanted for a thing before that. She was lucky, she told my Ma and my great Ma. She had been outside of the city on a road trip. She said she cursed the day.”
“I’m named for her, ain’t I, Ma?” Kony sat up and tossed her hair back from her shoulders.
“You are. A girl needs to be tough. Mabey her name will bring you her toughness.”
“You’re lucky,” Harld spoke for the first time. “Most kids don’t know nothin’ bout the falling stones, or about their old family. Your Ma is tough too. Lookit her! Thirty-two winters she numbers and still strong.”
Erig studied his Ma. Her black hair was stringy and mostly white. Her arms were thin to the bone but stringy with muscle. Wrinkles covered her face and he knew that in the mornings, she stifled the groans that came when she rose from her pallet in the tent.
“What will we do now?” Erig was curious. “What about the rumors, people getting together and living together, planting food.”
Harld snorted. “What’s it been, seventy, eighty, winters since the stones fell? If gettin’ together in towns worked, I’d’a thought it would’a happened before now.” He picked up a flat stone and began to whet a piece of steel he’d found. He needed a new knife. “It’ll never work. It’s fine for family groups, like me and my uncles and brothers to band together to hunt and to overwinter, but strangers!” He spit into the fire.
His Ma poked the fire again and Kony wrapped her skinny arms around her knees. They all stared into the small fire. Erig wondered what it would be like to grow plants that didn’t run off or fight back. To have lots of food stored for the winter. To not kill other people for a deer.
Ma stood up. “I’m goin’ta bed.”
He watched as she staggered a bit while walking to the tent. This next winter was going to be hard on her. Erig sighed. He’d have to do more for his Ma. It was a tough life after the falling stones.
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