“After 2012” – Chapter Two

Just then, a dove flew over their heads
Just then, a dove flew over their heads

* Chapter Two *

The White Dove

Early one morning when a fog began to evaporate revealing ever more detail in the scene below, Diane crouched by a large tree at the crest of a hill and strained her eyes for any movement in the thinning mist.  Their water had run out and she could just see the river but fog still shrouded the other side. Then the girls awoke.

“Morning Mom,” said Amy with a yawn as she crawled out of their shelter. “What are you doing?”

“Morning Amy, I’m waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

Then Julie stood up and saw the river.  “Hey, look guys, we’re here! Let’s go fill our canteens.”  She started to walk out of the trees but Diane pulled her back.

“Wait Julie, I can’t tell if anyone’s down there.  Just wait.  See if you can see anyone…, you too Amy.”

“Aw, Mom, we haven’t seen anyone in a couple of weeks and my canteen’s empty.  I’m really thirsty”

“Just a few more minutes; that fog is lifting pretty fast so just wait.” They were quiet for awhile and then Diane sighed, shook her head and said, “Nuts!”

“Nuts… what’s nuts Mom… what’s wrong?”

Diane knelt down and put her hand on the tree.  “Look girls, you see this?  This tree is normal on this side and burnt on the front. And now that the fog has thinned, I can see a grey ash looking stuff all over the ground down there. It’s… well, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s stuff to stay away from… radioactive or something.  We’ll have to go farther upstream to get water.”

“But Mom, it’s just down ––”

“No buts Julie!  It’s time to go.”

They walked just inside a tree line along the crest of a ridge that wound its way into the foothills of a mountain range. Everything down to the left had been seared by intense heat but the forest on the right looked reasonably unscathed except for broken trees and snarled brush.

“Hey Amy…, what’s radio –– uh, radio-whatever mean?” asked Julie.

“She said radioactive.  I don’t know, poison I guess.  Come on, keep up!”

When a couple of branches snapped back and hit her, Julie stopped and whined, “Walking through all these bushes sucks. I’m going out there.”

“Julie, I don’t know… Mom said –– Ouch!”

“What Amy, what happened?”

“I just got poked in the leg by that branch. That hurt!” Then she stopped and whispered, “Okay Julie, let’s sneak out there. If we’re quiet, maybe Mom won’t notice.”

“Okay but let’s let her get ahead of us a little more.”

“Yeah…, cool, good idea.”

They waited a few seconds until Diane disappeared in the brush ahead and then snuck outside the tree line to the open field. Walking on the flat ground was much easier and they giggled and snickered until Diane suddenly jumped out at them from behind a large tree and yelled, “BOO! The girls screamed and lost their footing.

“Oh-my-gosh Mom,” exclaimed Amy. “Why’d you do that?  Julie almost fell down the hill!”

“Yeah…, geeze…” added Julie as she got up off the ground, “that was really mean!”

Diane stifled her laughter. “Okay, look girls, what if that had been a bad guy huh? I know it’s harder to stay in these trees but you can’t just walk out there where anyone… uh, like someone who’s not very friendly…, can see you.  Just stay behind me. Maybe we can stop up there.”

“Oh, alright!” they grumbled. “Come on Amy,” whined Julie, “you heard her.  We have to stay hidden from all those people down there… yeah, right… as if…!”

At the top of the hill, Diane stopped. “Okay…,” she breathed, “this looks good.  We’ll rest here.”

 “About time,” exclaimed Julie, “but I’m still thirsty!”

Sadness flooded Diane’s thoughts as she glanced back at the scorched ugly countryside.  Trees, magnificent trees that once hung heavy with fruit and lush green leaves, now stood naked; mere blackened skeletons of their former selves.  Wispy grasses that once swayed in the drifting summer breeze were all but gone, swallowed up by the dirt and debris of countless fires and explosions.  Even the mosses and flowers were charcoal black and the animals, the birds, there were none to be seen or heard. The once beautiful land had been completely consumed by man’s insanity.  She breathed long sigh and shook her head in disgust.  “Make some cover by the base of that big tree and wait for me girls.  I’m going a little farther.”

“Why Mom,” asked Amy.  “Where are you going?”

“Not far, I just want to check things out.”

“Is it okay if we sleep while you’re gone?” asked Julie.

“Okay, but make sure you’re hidden.  The stream curves to the right past this hill and that whitish-grey ash stopped a short way back. Maybe I can find some water up there so you girls get some sleep while I’m gone.”

For a few minutes, she rested while the girls made a pine branch lean-to and after they crawled out of sight, she left. Ten minutes later she saw something glisten in the sunlight.  Water… Is that a stream?  Her pace quickened as she approached the lifesaving liquid. A clean stream, it’s clean!  She looked around.  There’s no ash on the ground, no one in sight, it looks safe.

She washed weeks of dirt from her hands and gingerly tasted the water.  It was cool, clean and tasted safe.  She drank, filled two canteens and drank some more.  This looks like a great spot.  I’d better get the girls. When she got back to the lean-to, her children were fast asleep so she swapped the full canteens for two empty ones and went back to the stream.  A half-hour later she returned.

“Amy, Julie, come on, wake up. I found clean water.”

Amy sat up and rubbed her eyes.  “Huh…? Oh, water… WOW! Hey Julie, wake up!” In a flash they were both gulping as fast as they could.

“Whoa, whoa” cautioned Diane!  “Slow down!  Take it easy.  Drink slowly!”

“Whew” breathed Julie!  “That’s good!  Where did you find it Mom?”

“On the other side of that hill… now, relax.  Drink a little bit at a time and later, we’ll go up there.  It looks like a good place to stay tonight.”

Later, they picked out a spot near the stream where clear water flowed out from the rocks and set up camp.

“Girls, I think we should stay here for a few days to get our strength back.  I can’t drink any more but I’m still thirsty.  I guess that means I’m really, really dehydrated.  You two make a lean-to.  I’ll check the surrounding area and then maybe we can all get some sleep.”

That side of the hill that had not been incinerated and she could see withered looking stalks in the furrows of a field a short distance away so, early the next morning, she took a backpack and went to investigate.  When she returned, Julie crawled out of the lean-to. “Where’ve you been Mom?  We woke up and you were gone!”

Diane just grinned, opened the backpack and dumped potatoes and carrots out on the ground.  “Look what I found!  Let’s wash them and eat.”

Later that afternoon, Amy asked if they could stay in that spot until “things got back to normal”.

“Sorry Amy, when winter comes, this place will get very cold so we can’t stay here for long.”

“But Mom, we built a lean-to.  We’ll just make it bigger…, and we can make a fire to keep us warm.”

“Ha! Right! And what do we do about food?  That field only has a little bit left and, by winter, it’ll be gone.  No honey, we’ll stay long enough to eat and drink all we can but then, we’ll have to move on.”

A week later, they filled their backpacks with all the potatoes and carrots they could find, filled every canteen, drank as much as they could, and then continued on their seemingly endless trek.  Wild berries, mushrooms, potatoes and carrots became staples of their diet and there always seemed to be just enough to keep them alive but, eventually, the terrain changed.  Hills became steeper, climbing more difficult and their progress slowed to a snail’s pace.  Diane’s feet, legs and back ached and climbing over that last ridge had done her in for the day. “Okay girls,” she sighed, “let’s stop. Whew!”

“Here…? That looks like a better spot up there Mom.”

Sorry Amy, I just don’t have the energy to climb that cliff. This’ll have to do for tonight.”

There was no place to set up a lean-to so the girls curled up in the crevice of a small outcropping.  Diane smiled at their peaceful expressions and pulled her diary from her tattered coat.

We managed to find enough apples and carrots for a few more days but I’m not sure what we’ll do then. At least we’re together and no one is attacking us.  Amy told some funny stories last night and we all laughed.  It was fun. We never had time to do that before all this happened. I don’t know what else to do except keep going and hope we can find someplace where people are not tearing each other apart. Maybe we’ll get lucky.

The next day, they managed to climb up to the flat area Amy had seen and, once there, they discovered an old dirt logging road through the woods.  Diane’s map didn’t show it but it was much easier to walk on and she decided to follow it.  Three days later, she awoke in the damp, cool air, shivering.  Summer was turning to fall making the nights chilly and food even harder to find.  She sat up, rubbed her eyes and suddenly, Amy came running out of the woods with two handfuls of raspberries.

“Look, Mommy, I found these berries and brought them all back. I wish there were more but at least we have these. Come on, let’s eat!”

As they savored the sweet taste of each raspberry, a lone dove, white it seemed but covered with soot and ash, landed right in front of Amy and just stared as if to say, “I’m hungry, too.”  She had only three berries left, but felt compelled to offer one to this disheveled bird.  It devoured the berry and stared at Amy.  “More please” it seemed to say. She ate one berry and gave the last one to the starving bird and then, a very, very strange thing happened.

The dove picked up the berry, flew a few feet away, dropped it, and again looked at Amy, waiting.  She tip-toed toward the bird, but as she got close, it picked up the berry and flew a little farther. Their little game continued until they both disappeared into the forest.

Julie put the cap on her canteen and saw that her sister was nowhere in sight.  “Hey Mom,” she said.  “Where’d Amy go?  I can’t see her anymore!”

Diane jumped to her feet.  “Oh my gosh! She was over there playing with a bird. Come on, we have to find her.”

They grabbed their packs and quietly traced Amy’s path through the blackened trees.  A few meters into the forest they could see her and the bird still playing the same game.  The dove was acting like a dog leading its master somewhere and Amy was happy to cooperate.

“Where’s she going Mom?”

“Shush Julie” Diane whispered.  “I don’t know, but this is the first living thing we’ve seen in weeks.  Let’s see where it takes us.”

The dove led them through the woods and up the side of a very high steep hill littered with fallen trees, burnt bushes, and broken stumps.  It was a struggle to climb over the slippery rocks and loose dirt, but when they caught up to Amy at the top, they were greeted with a glorious view of puffy white clouds and clear blue skies over a beautiful valley that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Climbing that hill had exhausted Diane and she just stood for a moment, staring and inhaling the fresh clean air. It felt good in her lungs and the warm sun on her soot covered face felt even better.  She closed her eyes and said thank you to whomever might be listening to her thoughts.

“Mommy, Mommy!  Look!” the girls screamed.

“Yes, I see it.  I really do see it!  It’s beautiful!  Boy, I hope this isn’t just a mirage.”

Julie looked curiously at her mother.  “A what?”

“Mirage honey” she answered with a chuckle. “It’s something that’s…, well, never mind.”

There they stood.  Three blackened soot covered ragamuffins in torn tattered clothes mesmerized by the beauty before them.  To the left were high, snowy mountains only slightly visible through the many miles of clouds and mist. To the right, the hill upon which they stood ran on, seemingly forever, gently sloping down to the valley below.  Beautiful peaks and rolling foothills continued in a serpentine line that disappeared from sight over the horizon.  Diane was captivated.  She looked behind and saw the ugly blackened hill they had just climbed, then forward to the beautiful untouched valley.  The difference was night and day!

“Can this be real?” she exclaimed to no one in particular.  There was no answer from either of her girls.  They were as enthralled as their mother but a moment later, Amy pointed to something way off in the distance.

“Hey Mom, see that…, way out there?  It looks like a building or something.  Maybe someone lives there.”

Diane and Julie held their hands above their eyes and squinted trying to get a better look at a structure in the center of the valley.  A long high ridge midway between it and them hid most of it from view and, from that distance it was impossible to tell if there were people present.  However, it appeared to be either an enormously large castle or the edge of a city. The silhouette of several towers rising from various points along a high perimeter wall was fairly clear against the backdrop of the distant terrain and it was obvious that there was more than could be seen from their location.  Diane knew it might contain food and shelter but wondered if it would be like every other city they had escaped.  For a few moments she just stood there gazing at it, wondering what to do.

“Mom, it looks like a city.  Do you think it’s safe?”

Diane put her hand on Julie’s shoulder.  She was elated to see such a beautiful scene but still worried about thugs.

“I don’t know Julie.  Remember the crazies we escaped from?  We don’t know if anyone’s there, and if there are people, we don’t know if they’re friendly or not.”

Amy sat down on a rock.  “What do you think we should do Mom?”

“I’m not sure honey but, at least from here, it doesn’t look all blown up.”

Suddenly, the dove flew back to Amy, dropped the last berry into her hand, flew a little farther down the hill, and waited. “Mom, I think that bird still wants us to follow her.”  She got up, ate the berry, and started walking.

“Wait ––” started Diane, but Amy was already on her way.  She glanced at the ugly scene behind, then ahead at her daughter casually walking down the hill. The valley was sunny and bright and showed no signs of war so, with a shrug she said, “Okay Julie, come on, let’s follow Amy and the bird and check this place out.”

They followed the dove down the long hill over brown grass, past barren trees and across the long flat plain closer and closer to the unknown structure in the center of the valley.  It flew ahead, then waited and flew again. When they rested, it would peck at the ground or sit quietly in the sun. When they stood up, it would repeat its fly, wait and fly routine. This went on for hours until the ridge they saw from the hill loomed squarely in their path.

“I hope we don’t have to climb that thing” said Amy as they got close. “It’s huge!”

“Yeah,” snickered Julie, “but your bird friend seems to know where it going. Maybe it’s taking us to a bus stop so we can ride the rest of the way.”

“Yeah…, right, as if…! Look at that thing! It’s as high as the Empire State Building and I can’t even see where it ends. We’re stuck!”

Diane looked up at the smooth sheer cliff. “Well… we’ve followed the bird this far. Let’s just see where it takes us.”

“Oh come on, there’s nowhere to go Mom. We can’t get over that thing.” Amy cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Hey bird, you know we can’t fly don’t you? You know… fly…? We can’t do it! How are we going to get over that thing huh?”

The bird jumped up, flew around Amy’s head and straight toward the sheer face of the ridge a hundred meters away and then, it seemed to vanish right into the rock. Amy’s jaw dropped. “Hey, did you see that? Mom, Julie…, it disappeared. It’s gone! Great, now what are we ––” Suddenly, the dove reappeared, flew back toward them, turned around and disappeared in the same spot.

They stared at the cliff and said in unison, “That’s weird. That’s really, really weird!” And, as they looked at each other in surprise at the unrehearsed statement, the dove reappeared, landed on the ground and waited. “Well, well, it looks like your sister can talk to animals after all Julie! Guess we’d better keep going huh!”

They walked toward the bird and rounded a vertical column of rock that hid the entrance to a narrow winding pass with high smooth walls that made them nervous about where it would lead and what lay in store.  For over an hour they walked over relatively flat ground making good time although, it was quite eerie to know that the only way out was back or, hopefully, forward.  Suddenly, Amy, who was several meters ahead, yelled, “Hey you guys… look.  We made it through!”

The pass opened up onto a wide flat plain and Diane stopped and dropped her backpack.  “Wait a minute, girls…  I just have to sit down for a while.”

Once again, they could see their objective and that sight, a possible place of refuge, gave them the will to continue on toward the tiered stone wall in the distance.  But first, they rested.

Diane sat on the ground, leaning against her backpack and massaging her aching legs.  The dove flew back and landed a couple of meters away and waited.  Diane stared at it for a moment and said, “You’re taking us someplace, aren’t you?”  The dove didn’t move.

“Come on Mom,” said Amy sarcastically, “birds can’t talk!”

“Yup, you’re right, well… except for parrots maybe.” Amy made a sarcastic face and sat down. They rested for several minutes and then Diane took a long breath and stood. “Okay…, let’s get this show on the road!” The dove immediately flew about twenty meters ahead and landed.

Julie slapped her sister’s shoulder. “See Amy…! That bird understood what Mom said!”  Amy picked up her backpack, stuck her tongue out at Julie and headed toward the dove.

Side-by-side they followed the bird across a long flat field.  There were no remnants of exploded bombs or fires but everything around them looked quite dead, or at least, in some kind of hibernation. The whole area had the feeling of having been abandoned long ago.

Diane wondered about the condition of the terrain.  It looks like the middle of winter but it’s not cold.  Maybe a drought caused this.  If there’s a stream or river… if we can stay for a while… we might be able to…  Suddenly, she screamed, “Oh-my-gosh!” stopped dead in her tracks and put out both hands in front of her daughters!

“What Mom” Amy asked.  A tingle of fear rose up the back of her neck as she looked around.  “What is it?”

“Wait a minute, girls! I’m not sure this is safe. It looks really strange.”

“Why, Mom, what do you see?”

“It’s what I don’t see Julie. Why isn’t there anyone here?  What killed everything?  I don’t like it.”

Amy looked around and shrugged. “Aw, Mom, look… that bird is okay, and it must be leading us somewhere. Besides, it’s better than those burnt trees in the forest. C’mon, let’s go. Can we? Huh? C’mon…!”

Diane realized that they had very few choices and sighed. “Well… okay Amy, maybe you’re right.  Guess I’m just being paranoid.  Let’s go.”

A few more hours of walking took them to a long wooden bridge that spanned a deep dried up moat and connected to an open gate in a high stone wall.

“Wow” exclaimed Julie.  “This looks just like the pictures in one of our schoolbooks.”

“Yeah” added Amy sarcastically, “that was that King Arthur guy’s book wasn’t it? Or was it one of your kindergarten fairy tales?”

“It wasn’t a fairy tale Amy!  It was in history class!”

“Was not…!”

“Was too…!”

“Girls…,” yelled Diane interrupting their argument, “stop it, shush, both of you!”

As they crossed the bridge, Diane could hear the girls whispering to each other behind her.  “It was history!”  “Nuh-uh, was not!” “Was too!” They continued arguing until they passed through the opening of the giant gate and then, they all stopped and stared.

“Holy buckets!” exclaimed Diane. “Look at all those buildings!  It really is a whole city but…” She looked around.  “…where is everyone?”

The scene was straight out of a medieval storybook of knights and kings, but was completely devoid of people and was absolutely quiet.  No sound, no wind, not a thing could be heard.  The absolute silence was very unnerving but the dove was calmly waiting just ahead. “Come on girls,” said Diane shaking her head, “I think the talking bird still wants us to follow her.”

Still using the same fly-wait-fly routine, the mysterious dove continued leading them through the square, down the streets, along walkways and into a large garden.  It was filled with perfectly manicured hedges that formed a complex labyrinth of patterns on both sides of a wide, flawlessly graded driveway that looped in a circle around a beautiful but inert fountain at its end.  Thereafter, the gravel surface spanned out in front of the open doors of a palatial mansion and then branched to the left and to the right into two large parking areas, presumably for guests.

It was easy to visualize partygoers arriving by the means of their day –– be they automobile or horse drawn carriage –– and having chauffeurs or servants open their doors before parking the lords’ and ladies’ rides; easy to visualize, yes, but there were no lords or ladies in sight.

Although everything looked neat and clean, there was no color.  The leaves of the hedges were brown and lifeless and there were no flowers or plants to be seen.  Perhaps it was some leftover Hollywood movie set.  That was the only explanation Diane could come up with.

“Is there anyone here?” they called out but there was no answer and still, no sounds of any kind save the echo of their own voices resounding through the empty buildings and walkways.

They walked up the driveway and through the entrance into a large foyer that had obviously not been cleaned for a very long time. How long has this place been empty? Diane wondered as she looked around.  Suddenly, there was a flutter of wings as the dove flew away.  She jumped, looked up and said, “Oh… Well… thank you, I think…” as she watched the bird disappear in the sky. “Well… that was interesting. Leading us here like that was really strange.”

“See Mom, I told you it was taking us somewhere!”

“Ha! Yes you did Amy, yes you did. Well girls, there’s something weird happening here that I really don’t understand, but right now it looks like we’ve found a place to stay and, after having come this far, I’m not going to question it. Let’s have a look around.”

In the next room, they stared at medieval streamers and battle shields sporting various coats of arms that hung between massive wooden beams topped by beautifully handcrafted arches curving up and across intricately painted ceilings. “Holy buckets…! Look at this place” giggled Diane. Tapestries, portraits, candelabras, sconces, candles waiting to be lit and elegant furniture waiting to be used completed the magnificent scene.

“Wow, Mom, this must have been the home of a king!” exclaimed Julie. “I wonder if anyone’s still here!”

Diane yelled, “Hellooooo…!” But, just like outside, there was no answer. They continued their exploration and soon discovered another room that had the biggest fireplace they’d ever seen.

“Way cool. A fireplace! These people must have been really rich!” said Amy.

She was probably right, but Diane was more interested in setting up a place to rest. After walking over thirty miles, she was exhausted. “Okay girls,” she said with a sigh, “we have a place to stay tonight and a fireplace that looks serviceable so go gather some firewood.  Oh, and girls…, don’t go too far away.”

After the girls left, she sat in a large overstuffed chair, put her feet on an ottoman and rubbed her legs. “Oh wow, it feels good to get off my feet.” She leaned back and that’s when she noticed, “There’s no dust on this chair. It’s clean! That’s weird.” She lifted the cushion. It was clean. “This looks brand new! How can that be?”

Clean furniture was a curiosity but just then, a cool breeze blew in from the open doors in the foyer. “Brrrr…, okay, it’s getting cold, and dark. Where are those girls? I’d better go find them.”  But, just as she stood up, they came skipping through the entrance singing and laughing and pulling a burlap sack full of apples, potatoes, carrots, onions and other edibles.

“Wonderful! You found food but, where’s the wood?  Didn’t you find any?”

They looked at each other, giggled, and replied, “Come on, Mommy, come and look at what we found!”

Out the front door, down a walk and around a corner, there was a huge, neatly stacked pile of ready-to-use, seasoned firewood.

“Wow…, great job girls!  Come on, let’s each take an armful into the house and then look for some kindling.  It’s getting cold!”

Their next trip produced dried bark and small branches that were easily ignited with the striker hung by the fireplace.  It was sort of like camping, but inside a huge mansion, rather unique, by anyone’s estimation.  While the girls tended the fire, Diane went back to a stream Amy had found a little further up the hill and filled their canteens.  The water was gloriously clear and the tiny stream seemed to sparkle in the shadows of the setting sun with a life and energy that said, “Drink and I will rejuvenate you.”  Water and food, what treasures they were!  Now they could have a real family dinner, inside, for the first time in months.

Baked potatoes and fresh juicy apples; not what they would have eaten before the war had ravaged their home and turned their lives upside down, but now it was a feast for their empty stomachs. They were still penniless vagabonds eating someone else’s food in someone else’s house, and they owned nothing of any value, but they laughed and joked as they sat together feeling reasonably safe for the first time in so very long.  It was good to finally relax for a while.

After eating to their hearts’ content, they arranged makeshift bedding near the warm, crackling fireplace.  Large wide pillows from the furniture served as mattresses and soft wool comforters became their blankets.  Diane pulled her coverings up over her shoulders and heard Amy say to Julie, “See, kid, there really is someone watching over us. And besides, Mommy wouldn’t let anything happen if she could help it.  We’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

And on this night, as Diane listened to her daughters whispering, she realized that their long journey just might be over.  This could be their new safe place and she allowed herself to relax, just a little.  All her pent-up stress evaporated and tears of emotion ran from her eyes.  She quietly cleared the lump from her throat, wiped her cheeks with a sleeve and fell asleep in peace for the first time in what seemed to have been an eternity.  Somehow she knew Amy was right.  They would be okay.

###

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