Life in the Ashes

Confession and Contrition

Rider's Tale

The air was listless.  The dust on the old road also refused to be stirred.  It seemed to be early Fall, yet the memory of late summer heat lingered.  The sun hung directly overhead, in a sky too heavy with washed out blue.

Horse nibbled some sweet grass, flicking a tail at a lazy fly.  Her rider sat quietly, and the smells were of pine and dust, for they stood and sat beside that dry dirt road, hidden behind a thick stand of young and old scotch pines.  Horse had no thoughts and didn’t even know whether her rider was male or female, although various smells told a story Horse recognized.

For Horse, to graze on the sweet grass, was to live in a now of delight, for the weight of her rider was slight, while the heat was tempered by the shade.  Again, Horse did not know that she was a large piebald mare, or that her rider was thin and tall for a woman - nearly 5 feet eleven inches, and weighing only 135 pounds.  There was a lot Horse didn’t know.

She didn’t know how old she was, or that her rider had raised her from a foal, starting over seven years ago.  She didn’t know the names of anything, and didn’t even know her own name - which was, obviously, Horse, although when rider used that sound Horse responded.  All Horse knew was that her rider was part of her, even in an inward way.

It wasn’t so much that her rider and she shared thoughts, but they did know each other’s emotions in an intimate fashion.  Right now Horse could feel her rider’s anxiety increase, such that Horse herself shifted her weight and hooves a bit, and looked up for a moment, wondering if there was something dangerous coming.  But her rider’s smell wasn’t right - wasn’t cause for worry - they were not in any danger.

The dead stillness in the air waited.  Something was coming.

*     *     *

In the not too distant past, a motor bike was a thing of elegant beauty - a living mechanical horse.  Powerful, savage, - it lifted its rider into a state of freedom and euphoria, often without even drugs.   Yet, coming down that dry hot dusty road, in the direction of Horse and her rider, was a mass of growling, barely functioning, fallen debris of that once upon a time amimalistic and radical mechanical beauty. 

A clump of this former glory, perhaps just over twenty, collected itself in front of, behind and around, a half dozen barely running trucks, pickups and what once might have been an expensive SUV.  Their riders also seemed barely human, tattooed and pierced here and there with bits of metal and bone, clothes torn and worn and a hair style that won its claim to fame by just how intentionally unkempt it could appear.  Whether these riders were male or female or something entirely other - that too was unclear, although whatever was riding down that dusty road, in the direction of Horse and rider, did seem a bit like an comic apparition right out of some demented B-movie idea of post-apocalyptic hell.

Noise came with, and was not so much deafening, but simply out of place.  Too loud for the season and the heat.  The place wanted quiet, and the machines refused to play along.

*     *     *

Rider was dressed to kill, literally.  Her basic clothes - shirt and trousers - were well-made well-cured deer hide, with bits of beaded color and fringe.   Her soft golden brown hair was well groomed, and woven into a long long braid, which was now tucked inside the collar of her shirt.  The earrings she usually wore, and as well the bracelets - each of coordinated turquoise and silver - were off now, stuffed inside one of her saddle bags in order to be out of the way during the coming confrontation.

Each calf-length boot had a six inch knife on its outside, tucked in a little scabbard.  On her back was a sword - a Japanese katana, and in her belt its partner, a tanto.  A well cared for Remington pump action shotgun was in her saddle scabbard.  There was also a brace of 45-caliber pistols in one of her saddle bags.  All was soft leather (mostly deer), fringed and beaded.

Yet, it was the face paint that would frighten her opponents.  Rider’s face was mostly painted black, with red circles around the eyes and mouth - each touch of red suggesting dripping blood at its lower edges.  She wore colored contact lenses too, that covered her whole eye for effect (she didn’t need a correction) - these were a bright yellow inside of which were set cat-like red oval irises. 

*     *     *

The clump of mechanical chaos, that was this particular marauder band, rounded a corner of the dirt road and there encountered a long straight stretch, which was fronted nearest them with a some kind of metal wall, meant to warn and perhaps terrify trespassers.  Their passaged raised dust, and stirred some wind, but the heavy air resisted, and with so little breeze these so tiny pieces of dry earth soon fell back to their appointed places.

The metal wall that barred the road consisted of a number of shoved together and piled up burned and blown up cars, trucks and motor bikes, as well as bits and pieces of human skeletons.  At one corner, - the corner where one might drive around the barrier if one dared, was a pile of human skulls.  In the center of this wall a sign: “On this Path lies a Death you cannot Imagine”.

The clump rode to a staggered and uncoordinated stop, and a couple of people dismounted and walked up to the barrier for a closer look.  Engines were turned off, and groups gathered discussing whether or not to proceed.  They had needs, and up the road further into the surrounding hills were signs of smoke and habitation - places they usually pillaged and destroyed in order to satisfy their own hungers.

As they stood there, indecisive, they heard Horse wicker and snort, as Rider rode her down the road toward the wall from the other side.  The shotgun was out of its scabbard, held in her right hand pointing up, with its stock resting on the toe of her right boot.  Horse walked slowly, giving time for the marauder’s to draw weapons and aim them in her general direction.

About thirty-five yards out she stopped, turned Horse sideways, exposing her left side and revealing the katana strapped to her back.  Her painted face was now clearly seen.  She sat there for a while starring at them, and then turned Horse around, exposing her back and rode slowly away.  The message was clear: don’t fuck with me; and, nothing about you scares me at all.

One of the bike riders raised a rifle, took aim, and there was a soft noise, which would have been familiar to anyone who had experienced combat - the noise of a sniper bullet ripping through the air far ahead of the sound of its going off.  The bullet drove a hole through the face and then blew the back of the head off of the biker with the raised rifle, knocking him ass over backwards into the dust.  The sound of the echo-report of the just fired sniper rifle followed.

The marauders scattered to the sides of the road, or fell to the ground in fear.  A couple of them wet or shit their pants.  By the time they dared to get up, Horse and Rider were far away, rounding the corner at the end of the long dusty stretch of road.  There was dead silence.  The air still barely moved.  But anger and rage stirred the marauder’s emotions, and so they fired up their vehicles, rode around the pile of skulls at the edge of the barrier, and began the last minutes of their lives leading to their inevitable doom.

Quite a few of the people living down that dusty road made it their business to completely destroy such marauding bands, and this one was just one more foolish group, driven by too many uncontrolled appetites while possessing  almost no common sense whatsoever.

*     *     *

As the marauding clump of vehicles rounded the pile of skulls, it slowly gathered tightly together, in part driven by fear.  One sniper meant the possibilities of other snipers, but anger and rage and hunger drove the mob-like mass forward. 

Engines slowly took on speed and the clump spread out a little, until it ran into the killing field in the last fifty yards of that long straight on the dusty road to nowhere.  Once they were centered in the kill zone, trip levers holding back loads of rock and stone caused angle arms of iron and steel to pull up out of the dust of the road more than a dozen lines of heavy duty chain, around which was wrapped tautly stretched razor wire, right before and into the midst of the marauding accelerating band.

The chain based razor wire cut flesh and rubber and grabbed bits of bike and car parts, spilling the bikers, and driving the larger pickups and so forth into each other and over the top of the crashed bikes and bodies now littering the road.  Some of the chains broke, but it made no difference.  The forward momentum was lost - the clump became an exploding spasm of flesh and metal.

For a moment rising dust hid all from view, but as that settled, the moans of the injured began to be heard, and some survivors rose up to stand confused in the killing field.  Then came the crossbow bolts.  If you stood, you got at least two, if not more.  The noise was soon gone except for some moans.  The dead air returned to dominance bearing the weight of not just the sky now, but of death and dying as well.

After a while no one was able to stand  anymore.  Next, into this massive pile of confusion, came a pack of five very large wolf-like dogs.  Their pelts were mostly gray and black mixed together.  These moved slowly, nosing and testing with teeth and claw the piled bodies and debris, growling when something still living was found.  Into the mass of  this field of death next came Rider, having dismounted from Horse.  Both the katana and the tanto were in her hands, as she moved among that gory mess, dispatching with sadness and sympathy any not yet dead into the lands beyond time and space.

The moans grew less, and silence sought to reign once more.  A couple of dozen people stood among the trees in somber quiet, watching the ritual finish to their gory art.

At a certain point she paused, because two of her pack were licking one of the faces - not growling.  That one she skipped, until all the rest were as dead as dead could be.  At a gesture, the wolf-like dogs moved back and away, and she squatted down on her heels besides this body her animal friends found somehow not quite as wrong inside as the others.

He was fat, and older, with patches on his leathers indicating an ancient biker gang - a Hell’s Angel it would seem, from stories now long past.  He moaned, and was not somehow as bloodied as all the rest.  Something had hit his forehead, perhaps knocking him off his bike and into unconsciousness.

He opened his eyes, and looked directly at her, licking his lips.  She pulled a small flask from a side pocket and poured from it some rough home brewed liquor into his mouth.  He coughed and spit a little and then sighed deeply.

Well,” he said, you sure as hell ain’t some fucking angel or some demon either.” 

No, I’m worse”, she replied.

That”, he said, “I do not doubt” and laughed.

He tried to sit up, but she put a hand on his chest and kept him on his back. 

Take your time.  You’ve a big life and death decision to make, and you’ll make a better one if you don’t try to move so fast.  You might have a concussion. “

She got up to move on to other duties, and a couple of her very large wolf-dogs lay down next to him, clearly encouraging him to stay put.

*     *     *

The killing field was next possessed by groups of people, young and old, who moved among the mess picking up pieces of metal, while a tow truck arrived and began to pull the vehicles apart.  It was a bad business - separating metal from body parts, but one that had to be done.  Like Rider each was dressed in quiet earth-like colors - accented with splashes of beaded or crafted art, which had made them essentially invisible inside the tree line on the sides of the road around the zone of death. 

They pulled crossbow quarrels from the bodies, using tongs and wearing gloves.  Blood borne illnesses were still a problem.   Someone started to hum, and others joined in.  There was a reverence in that tune, for what had  had to be done, had not been done lightly.  The marauders had been warned after all.

Those with technical skills began to pile stuff on a flatbed truck that had also arrived.  Nothing was to be wasted.  Weapons the marauders carried were collected, and each body was carefully searched, although no clothes were taken.  After a while there were two piles: one of bodies and one of collected wrecked cars and bikes.  If gasoline tanks had not been ruptured, the gas was also collected.  Medicines and other important items, such as canned food were put on the flatbed, which drove away a couple of times and then later came back for more.  Members of the collective whispered to each other, and some began drifting home.  A folding chair was brought, and the now less-groggy biker was told to sit there while his head wound was looked after. 

Evening was coming, the sun was maybe an hour from setting.  Flies had gathered around the dead, and some crows and other carrion birds also joined the activity.  No one shooed them away, and the pack of wolf-dogs just moved away from the bloody mess of the killing field and lay among the trees in the shade.  The day’s mood changed, and a late afternoon breeze stirred the scene, diluting the smell of blood and death.

He was given some water, and a piece of fresh fruit.  When he tried to speak, the dogs growled, so that was the end of that.  Another folding chair was eventually brought in the returning flatbed, and Rider sat down in front of him, sighing as she did.

I don’t like it that my pack accepted you.  It would be simpler if I just could end you like the others, but they know and see stuff in a different way and I have to honor that.”

He started to speak and she shut him up with a gesture - and a low growl of her own.

Here’s the deal.  If you want to leave, we’ll give you a working bike and some of the stuff that belonged to your friends.  You can go back to the main highway and go wherever the fuck you want to go.

That’s the one option.

The other is more scary in a way, for all  of us.  You take off your clothes, all of them, and then naked you walk to town, thinking about being maybe reborn in this life of yours - becoming something you are not yet.  In town you will be bathed and scrubbed and de-loused and stuff. 

All your hair and beard will be cut off - its a hygiene problem.  We’ll also take your blood and test it.  Then comes for you the really hard part.

You’ll be called before the community fire, still naked.  If its too cold, you’ll get a blanket for warmth.  Then you confess ... all of at ... all the awful shit you’ve done in your whole fucking miserable life.  You’ll talk until you are hoarse.  My pack will guard you, and if you lie or leave stuff out they’ll know - they’ll smell the lies.

When you’re done, there’ll be a vote.  If just one person says no, down the road you go.  You don’t get to argue to stay ... you just go, without a word.  You’ll still get a bike and stuff.  My pack lets you live, the community gets to say whether you will provisionally join us.  If you join us you’ll go to work in the House of Graceful Souls for a year.

You will not be the first individual to come to us on this path ... we’ve done this before.  The danger to us is that you’ll start to pull shit ... make trouble ... not learn.   Maybe hurt someone.  That happens my pack gets to have you.  Then its not down the road on a bike ... its into the woods and they’ll hunt you down and kill you in a way nobody here will give a shit about

This is a hard world now, as you know.  Same with us.  We don’t take any prisoners, but sometimes we find new friends.  That’ll be up to you.

Take your time thinking about this, but once the sun sets you have to decide - the road and a bike, or a long hard risky naked fucking path to a new life.”

*     *     *

A lot of post-apocalyptic movies of the before-time - the time leading to the descent into and through  chaos and anarchy - showed fractured violent communities, where people wore ugly clothes and lived in ugly houses and used ugly speech.  The town of Sanctuary, where Horse and Rider lived, intentionally did the opposite.  It put art at its center - as its heart.  Each person thought of themselves as a work of art, and each living place and each path and each work space was also a work of art.  Even the killing field was seen as a work of art, and those who carried out its details thought of all that destruction and violence as a horrible and necessary ritual work of art.  Death was not taken lightly.

One of the places in Sanctuary built and kept repaired ultra-lite tiny flying one-seat planes.  If you flew over Sanctuary in one of them you would hardly see it at all, because it was so well integrated into the forest and meadows and natural seeming fields.  For example, planted everywhere were the three sisters, as known to the Iroquois Confederacy and other native American ways.   The center was a stalk of corn, right next to which was a bean plant having a vine-like character which climbed the corn stalk, while at the base was a  gourde-like plant such as a pumpkin or squash, spreading its leaves yards outward from the core of corn and bean vine.   Wherever you walked in Sanctuary you would run into the three sisters, for there were thousands of them spread among acres and acres of land and village. 

The roofs of houses were planted as well, with everywhere herbs and medicinals and flowers and such.  Woodworkers and weavers made doors and curtains, many of which had glass, for there was both a glass-works and a pottery works.  Large herds of sheep and goats prowled the outer precincts of the village, all watched and tended by young children and dogs.

Two strong year-long flowing streams ran in and through and near Sanctuary, from which water wheels gave power to turn the granite stone wheel for grinding corn and wheat into flour.  The water wheels also generated electricity, for the now past civilization was not despised as much as harvested for items that should not be lost.

Sanctuary was a town that wove together both ancient and modern arts, for it tried to preserve as much as possible all the knowledge of humanity from the before-time.  At its core was the Library. 

During the last years of the before-time, some far-thinkers saw the coming time of chaos, and prepared for it by gathering as much human knowledge as possible into high density data discs.  These discs, which were of various types and kinds according to the taste of those who created them, were then distributed all over the world, in the company of multiple copies of each disc and multiple hand-crankable laptop computers. 

Search software came with each disc set, that allowed the holder of the Library to find out how to treat such social-chaos related diseases as cholera and dysentery.  Also included was how to create penicillin, or make insulin ... literally thousands and thousands of basic instructions from which one might be able to recreate medicines, and even technology.

As well, all that could be gathered of ancient cultures was included in the Library.  For a time, as different folk all over the world created their own versions of the Library, each individual group traded copies of their material with other groups.  When the final stages of the Collapse drew near, and Internet communication itself disappeared, human knowledge had been saved from the ravages of the ensuing descent into madness, in various degrees in a multitude of places and languages .

Sanctuary itself was intentionally created as a survival home for different people with different skill sets.  Originally there were about 1500 people living there, and since its establishment another 1500 have been added.  One did not have to have a skill, but whether it was Divine Providence or just simply blind chance, multiple kinds of expertise ended up in these forested hills in the San Francisco Mountains near what had once been called the Four Corners area of the United States.

Then, of course, there were the children.  Some showed up by themselves or in groups of two or three.  How they survived to get there, was a miracle.  A few were part of the community from the beginning, and many had been born since  the first in-gathering, as it was called.  More than a few were of the fabled star-children, that the before-time had started to notice.  These were unusual individuals, capable of all kinds of mental and social arts never before seen.  Each such child added something to the community of Sanctuary that could not have been imagined to have existed before.

Rider was nine when she walked in.  Dirty, dusty, starving and wild.  With her came a large bitch of a dog - something part German Shepherd and part Wolfhound.   Huge and fiercely protective of Rider, yet completely docile and obedient as if Bitch (as Rider had named her) was somehow part of Rider’s mind.  The two always lived alone at the edge of the village.  It was when Rider was 12, and first bled, that the real strangeness happened.

That summer she disappeared for three weeks, out and about with Bitch.  When she came back she and Bitch were dragging a large flexible cage made of woven blackthorn branches, inside of which was an actual wild male wolf.   The cage was tight, and the wolf had tired of trying to fight and bite its way away through the thorns.  Rider then built a larger wooded cage for the wolf, and when Bitch next came in heat Rider put the two of them in together.  Once it was clear that Bitch was successfully mated to the wolf, he was set free.

When the pups came (there were five), from the beginning they slept with Rider and Bitch.  As they grew older, the bond was clear.   What Rider felt, they felt.  What they felt, she understood.  They even learned to play with Sanctuary’s growing pile of children, although all the other dogs and cats and animals (and most the humans) kept a clear and obvious distance.

It wasn’t really fear as much as it was respect.  The pack, as they came to be known, had their own way, their own rules.  Once a starving bear had wandered near some sheep and goats, and scared cries from the guarding children rang out in the woods.  The pack was there in minutes, and the bear was chased away, never to return.

On occasion the male wolf - the father - visited.  He’d sit atop a hill nearby and howl at the moon.  The pack would howl too, but never went out to visit him. 

When Rider was 15 she singled out a man, who was not just by reputation tough, but had been an actual soldier - a former marine.  He was with her for a week, and never said a word to anyone later about what they had done or what had been said.  All the same, at a community fire meeting three weeks later she explained her plans for the killing field and why it needed to be built.

They had had some problems before, with wanderers bringing their troubles with them, but up until she spoke that night at the circle-fire,  the community had never felt the spirit of the thing.   No one had ever said what she said about death needing to be beautiful, as well as violence.  Sanctuary was not of a single religious view, although in the before-time many had believed in turning the other cheek.  Hard questions were thrown at her that night, and she stood there before them for the first time in the costume she had made and which she wore when the rite of the art of the killing field was enacted.  That was the first time they saw the swords, the knives, and that makeup on her face.

One of the older wise women had said later that it was as if the goddess of the hunt was among them now, and that when a human being became a predator of other human beings - when they descended and became lost in their animal nature, then it meant they too could be hunted.

Rider, Horse, the pack - prowled the edges of the village, mostly lived  apart, occasionally took a man among them, and seldom hung out with others.  Always had a kind word when about though.  Smiled even - once in a while.  But mostly silent, and watchful and often seemingly gone, except when marauders or troubles came.  Then they were there - the sword of Sanctuary some called her in the stories and in whispers. 

What she really thought, no one knew, and she was not the only very private minded member of Sanctuary.

*         *         *

The former Hell’s Angel decided to try to stay.   When he told Rider and used the word “try” she quoted Yoda: Don’t try, do.  He didn’t get it, and Rider shook her head, and said to some others: This is not starting out good.

A young adolescent boy, with a crossbow hung across his back came up to him and told him to take off all his clothes, and throw them on the fire.  There was already a huge fire in the middle of the killing field, started where gas had spilled, and on which all the bodies and clothes were being burned. 

Around the fire was a big circle of people, adults and children.  Some holding hands, many singing.  One of the older ones said to him to get going to town, calling him “Angel”.   The name stuck, and by the time he’d walked to what seemed to be an edge of the town, several people called him that.

A couple members of the pack followed near by.  Greeting and sniffing all who came toward him, it took a while before he noticed that only a few of the children petted them.  The wolf-dogs nudged him down a path and he could see there was here and there some light, even electrical light - something of a surprise to him - enough to see by anyway.

No one seemed bothered by his nakedness.  They didn’t stare at his body but many paused as they walked by and did look at his face and eyes with some intensity.  Some expressed open hostility on their faces.  A few were armed, but not most.  His feet hurt, and his mind seemed out of sorts.  He wanted badly a drink of some kind of hooch. 

While he didn’t know it, he was being guided to a bath-house, of which there were several dozen in Sanctuary, for that was one of the social arts on which they concentrated - something borrowed from Japanese culture. 

Three older women meet him on the veranda of one such bath-house.  They wore little clothing and took him by the hand and began his outer cleansing.  They were all watched over by a band of adolescent crossbow bearers, and of course a couple of the ever present members of the pack.  Sometimes the members of his guard would change, and a few words spoken in whispers drifted toward him.

Mostly he was bathed and scrubbed and bathed and scrubbed again.  One of the women feed him some hot tea, and a bit of vegetable soup.  They did the nails on his hands and his feet.  They shaved him everywhere and then the hair was gathered up and burned in one of the many charcoal heaters throughout the bath house.  Once the hair was burned scented herbs were added, to clean the air of the smell of the burning hair.

No one really spoke to him.  Some hummed some kind of a tune.  The women looked healthy and fit, and he got an erection at one point.  That brought laughs, but not at him so much as with him somehow.  They understood his consternation, and did not make fun of him.

At one point an older man came in and examined him carefully ... all over.  Had instruments like a doctor.  Took his temperature, his blood pressure, probed his anus, and drew some blood.  Looked in his ears, down his throat, made some comment on his teeth and his breath, after which one of the women brought him some kind of antiseptic mouthwash,  which he was told not to swallow.  That cleaning was done three times before a quick sniff of his breath by one of the women pronounced him barely passable.

Outside he could hear some drumming.  Low and rhythmic - fading in and out.  He was dried carefully, everywhere.   Shown to a cushion chair and told to wait.   He was left alone in a nice wood-walled room, with a view out over the veranda.  A sliver of moon had risen.   The air was cooling, and a blanket was given to him.

Then an even older old man walked in, carrying and leaning on a tall carved staff.  This old man stood over him, looking down and such a look Angel had never before felt.  It was like that way too personal probe of his anus, but went into his soul not his body.  He turned his head away and was scared in a manner that was not like any kind of fear he’d known before.

The newest old man spoke:

You’ve been a little bit physically cleansed.  Only a little bit.  If you stay you’ll diet and be cleansed inside, again physically.  Not to say we don’t have alcohol or drugs or even tobacco, but first you get clean.  Tonight though, starts the cleansing of your soul.  That’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and tonight is only the start.

This is not for us ... its for yourself, make no mistake.  No one really wants to hear what a shit you’ve been, but all the same, its the only gift we can give you to start your new life.  You confess, we listen.  Few will judge you, but some might.  No one here is perfect.  There will be those who have done worse then you can ever imagine, or have ever done.  They in particular will know when you lie, because that’s one of the things they know best about themselves - how to lie.

We get to ask questions.  Sometimes this part of joining us takes all night and more.  Can’t be predicted.  During your first weeks here, if no one sends you to the road, anyone can question you ... anytime.   The pack vouched your survival of the killing field.  They saw there was still some human in you.  If someone comes up to question you, you stop whatever you are doing and answer.  You’ll have two moons during which anyone can send you to the road, if they wish.

The tea and soup we gave you had some medicinals in it ... to help you feel a little less pain, and maybe be a little more awake in your mind.  That’s the only help we can give, and if you need some more during the confession, just say, and we’ll do what we can.  My advice though is that the more truth you speak the better you’ll feel and the more clear will be your mind.  Its the truth that is the key.

One final thing.  You don’t have to tell your story all at once ... but for your own sake I’d start with the things you most do not want to say.  As you look within, notice those - the hard ones.  You start with the ones you most fear to say, then it gets easier.

Now get up and follow me ... your future waits out there, and what is its nature is up to you.

The telling lasted until sunrise.  He spoke, they listened.  The old man had been right - although it took Angel a while to speak of the things he’d done, about which he felt the worst.  But an hour or so in, he did.  He cried then.   No one came to comfort him, though.  They just listened, many leaving the circle-fire and some few of those coming back.

What was strangest of all was when some of his stories led to laughter.  He hadn’t expected that.  It wasn’t like he was telling a joke, it was just that some bad things had this quality of being absurd.  Mostly they were about bad things he’d done to try to impress others, and how he felt afterward when they weren’t impressed.  His listeners saw this folly for what it was - a vanity, not so much evil as foolish - this trying to impress.  They laughed and then he laughed too.

Some people leaving the circle near dawn stopped by and laid a hand on his shoulder.  It was like they were voting in a kind of way - saying: I see you and I know you, you are like me and I wish you luck

When the sun rose, there were just three, human beings that is.  Rider had been there all night, her and her pack.  So too the old man with the staff.  Then the oldest woman of those who cleaned him in the bath house came by and gestured him to follow.

She led him through the town and in the dawn’s light he began to see the scale of the place.  They went up some hills and down.  Across an almost river like creek, on a bridge made of stone.  Through some woods, past some meadows.  People moving  about.  Children running with dogs out toward fenced-in pens of goats and sheep, setting them free to roam the hills further out.  The whole place coming alive in the daylight.

In all his wanderings he’d never seen anything like it.  Happy healthy people.

They came eventually to a group of buildings, clearly interconnected with covered brick walkways, and bits of garden and wooden benches on which to sit.   There too a stirring of life coming awake to the light of dawn. 

This is the House of Graceful Souls, she said.  A short man walked toward them.  He had a funny rounded face, if some folks had seen him before he would have called him a dummy.  It was a Down’s man if one remembered that term from the before-time.  She introduced them.

Angel, she said, this is Heartmender Smith.  This is his place.  He’s the boss and you’ll be working for him.

The dummy smiled that guileless smile - typical for a Down’s, and Angel felt confused.  Smith reached out and offered his hand to be shaken.  Angel shook it, and Smith looked then at the woman and said: He needs sleep, and three days perhaps of not doing.  Rest and food first, then work.  

The woman led him away, down a path, some wooden stairs and through a door and then into a set of rooms, many with beds inside them. 

Can you read?, she asked.

He nodded yes, still confused, but tired enough that a bed looked wonderful.  She led him into a room, and as he sat down on it, she opened a drawer in the bedside stand and took out a little book, covered in leather.  She showed him inside some maps of Sanctuary, of the House of Graceful Souls, and of the rooms where he was.  She pointed out where he could toilet, where was the nearest bathhouse, where there was food.  She showed him clothes in a closet and in a set of drawers.

Sleep as long as you need.  Eat when you need.  Remember if asked questions, answer.  There is no hurry here.  No place to go, nothing to be or do.  If you get us, this is home, the kind of home we mostly only dream exists.

As she turned to leave, she paused in the doorway and looked at him.  My name is Gabriel.  I too am an angel.

With that she walked away, first shutting the door to the room, and he was asleep before his head hit the pillow. 

*         *         *

He woke in the late afternoon, to a small cat licking his face.  Angel looked up to see the door to his room open and an equally small girl staring at him.

His name’s Buttons, she said.  My name is Rachael, but you can call me Racy, that’s what I like.

She walked closer, and seemed to be studying his tattoos.  Nice ink, she said, as she picked up the cat and bounced out of the room, pausing in the doorway like the older woman had.  Bathroom’s that way, she said pointing to his left, and the galley is that way she added, pointing to the right.  She spun in a couple of circles, flashed a grin like only a child can do, and vanished in the direction of the galley.

After going to the bathroom and discovering real working plumbing fixtures, something he had not seen in years, he went to the galley.  It was a somewhat spacious room with lots of plants and glass to let in the light.  There was a table in a corner, and Rider was sitting there waiting for him.  For a minute he almost didn’t recognize her because she wasn’t armed and her face wasn’t painted.  She hooked a finger at him as soon as he walked in one of the doors, drawing him closer.  A couple of the wolf-dogs sat at her feet, but no one else was near that table.

As he approached her she pointed a finger in the direction of the tables full of food and plates and stuff, so he stopped there first ... again surprised by wealth of this place.  For a moment he thought of what a score this might have been for his band, but immediately realized that this place was way too organized and there was no way they’d even have gotten near it.   Once again he realize how lucky he was to be alive.

He started to strut a bit as he neared the table, but a low growl got that impulse out of him right away.  He found he couldn’t look her in the eye. 

She was staring, candidly, and said: When’s the last time you got laid?

He dropped his fork, and tried to mumble.

Not to worry, she said, I’m just trying to point out to you that in this community there are a lot of opportunities for the right man, if he figures out how to be a true man, and gets out of his head the illusion that the best lovers are the young and inexperienced.

She continued: You probably have a lot of bad ideas about women, having been part of that bunch of idiots that just got destroyed.  Here, if the guy pays attention, some true woman might just take him under her wing and teach him how to be a true man.

With that she got up, bused her dishes into the kitchen and with a couple of wolf-dogs following left the room; and left him with his mind spinning crosswise and upside down, which was probably her intention.

*         *         *

Angel’s next teacher was Racy.  His obligation was to tell all to any who asked, and whenever Racy ran into him, which was often as he wandered around, what she wanted to know was the story behind every bit of ink.  He had a lot of tattoos.

She always surprised him too.  He’d be involved in one thing and there she would be, pointing to one tattoo or another, and asking for its story.  Once he thought about fibbing, but just then one of the wolf-dogs was there starring at him, and he knew he had to be honest - that too was part of the obligation.  But how could he be honest to a five or six year old, given that some of the ink-stories were about very bad things he had done, and which normally would have been told in a language he had no desire to speak to someone so young ... so bright ... so innocent.

Inside his soul he twisted and turned and danced and struggled, never realizing until years later what a gift this was, - this demand he confess the things he confessed to an innocent little girl.  It helped later to understand what star-children were, for Racy was one of those - a person others might have called an old-soul, but who was not quite that - more of a fresh soul, so unbound and untied from anything past that simply by being she placed a demand on him that led to inner healing that could have come in no other way.

Of course, Racy was not at all like Heartmender Smith, the Down’s man.  For some inexplicable reason Angel was terrified of him.

*         *         *

We should not assume that the inner life of a Down’s individual is like our own.  We can use the same language and sense in each other similar emotions, but there is more and less there than appears simply because the intellect seems dimmed.

The seer-philosopher Rudolf Steiner described Down’s, and other individuals in need of special care, as for complicated reasons accepting a body that is weaker in certain ways.  Most of us incarnate into bodies that are capable of a normal range of activity, although the karma of certain childhood diseases, such as polio, will often then change that.

But that is how we see from the outside - we see the odd body type.  In the inwardness of the Down’s child, the bright light of normal human thinking, and its ability to grasp abstractions is not present.  This inner light of spirit is “centered” lower in the organism, and the bright light of perception we “normals" experience in our heads, lives in the Down’s Child nearer the heart.

This does not necessarily make them more moral or loving although such is often the case.  The heart as an organ of  perception is more vivid for a Down’s, but this does not mean there is no thinking at all.  It is just not abstract.  It can be very concrete and sometimes quite clever.  When it is clever, the Down’s child will be secretive and perhaps inclined to possessiveness, or to thievery.  The mixture of nature and nurture in their early life is important to the development of a Down’s child.

In the before-time, the Steiner inspired communities were often called Camphill Communities, and sometimes part of what was called shared living.  In Sanctuary, the Library preserved as much of what wisdom had been discovered about those in need of special care during the last hundred years of the before-time.  The ideas and teachings of Steiner and Camphill were well represented in the Library.

One of those shared living families brought Heartmender Smith to Sanctuary right in the beginning.  He was about ten years old at that time.  This meant that right from the beginning those in need of special care had a home in Sanctuary.  Over time this part of Sanctuary came to include all kinds of individuals with special needs, including the aging and the dying.  Hospice care was part of this work, and Heartmender Smith wasn’t even his name in the beginning of Sanctuary.   In the beginning he was just John Smith. 

He volunteered for special needs care, for hospice care, and for all kind of care for those who could not fully take care of themselves.  He visited the ill, read to those who’d lost their sight (although mostly certain children’s stories).  He changed diapers and bed pans.  He was tireless and always of a good mood.   He matured.

It was in his late twenties that people started to notice the effect he was having on certain emotionally troubled members of the Sanctuary community.  People liked to sit with him and just talk.  He was often seen in private conversation with people who otherwise had a hard time sharing their own inner emotional and cognitive life with others.  He listened well and did not judge.  He gave no advice.  Sometimes he hugged, and he was a strong hugger - he held you a long time - wouldn’t let you go, and people who had grief they held on to too tightly found themselves in that embrace and crying.

One day at evening community fire, one of the star children ran through the circle, calling out for someone she called “Heartmender”.   It took a while for those present to realize that she was looking for John Smith, and had in the process of her own unique and intuitive insight given him a true name - something the community later learned to trust as one of the gifts of the star children. 

Eventually Heartmender Smith became the leader of that part of Sanctuary where special care was needed.  There was no election, no formal process.  It was just that people started going to him with certain questions and were finding his answers very practical and deep in an emotional way.  His answer generally felt right, and so it became the habit of the community to place under his guidance all new members.

Again it was one of the star children that called that complicated wandering building, where special needs folk were cared for, the House of Graceful Souls.  So new members of the community were placed in the House, with Heartmender Smith as their guide. 

The old man that had talked to Angel that first night, and advised him about how to first tell the hardest things to tell,  was named by the star children: Teller-of-Stories.  It was Teller-of-Stories that taught about how it was that going first to the House of Graceful Souls helped people understand “washing the feet”.  Helped people understand humility.  You changed diapers.  You washed bed pans.  You cleaned toilets, and washed soiled linens.  You cleaned soiled people that couldn’t clean themselves.

Some people worked all the time in the House of Graceful Souls.  Most everyone worked there on at least a couple tenth-day work periods every year - that day the community  did work that had to be done, and which many didn’t like to do.  Tenth-day work was an idea borrowed from a very wise American writer of the before-time: Ursula K. LeQuin.   A lot of her social ideas from her book The Dispossessed lived in Sanctuary.

Now Angel didn’t know any of this, but he also felt something when he was with Heartmender Smith.  He felt an emotional reality  that he’d spent most his life running from.  He’d hidden his own heart from his own self-awareness, in drugs and sex and violence.  He heart was in hiding, and when he saw Heartmender Smith during his first days wandering about the House of Graceful Souls, he wanted to run away.   Very scary to have to be around someone who just by being who they were made you self-aware of your deepest secret places.

Yet, if Angel was to stay in Sanctuary he could not hide from himself - this he knew without knowing it intellectually.  Sanctuary was very emotionally real - more real than any place he’d ever lived before.   Which was of course what he was told in the beginning - it was a place where the very first step seemed to be surrendering to something, starting with confession.  Angel just hadn’t yet realized how long that time of surrender and confession was to last.

*         *         *

Gabriel snagged Angel one morning.

Time to go to work, she said.

As he walked along with her, she explained that one didn’t start out right away with personal bed care of those that needed it.  Instead, he was to start in the laundry, washing bed clothes and other soiled items.  Later he would graduate to more personal care.  This wasn’t about punishing him in any way, it was about letting him get used to caring for others. 

In the laundry there was only one other regular worker.  Most of the rest were tenth-day folks.  The work was hard, there was a lot of laundry and cleaning soiled clothes and linen required some carefulness.  They used a kind of homemade soap and something that was like bleach, but was not.  Angel didn’t understand any of the chemistry, but the instructions were printed on the walls of the laundry, and everything was labeled and clear. 

He was a bit shocked after about a week there when one of the tenth-day people threw a recyclable container in the burn-garbage pail.  He didn’t say anything, only to find out at the end of the day, that that action had been a kind of test.  A couple of the tenth-day men stayed back and invited him to sit with them at the House galley. 

We threw you a curve ball today, one of them said.  We wanted to see how you would react if we violated a rule. It isn’t like there was a right way to act, we just wanted to see what you’d do, and then ask you why you did what you did.  We’re not trying to catch you out ... we’re just trying to get to know you.

Angel digested that and then decided he was really pissed.  In his past, he would have hit one of them.  Somehow he guessed that really wouldn’t work here.  So he starred at his coffee cup for a while, and then looked at them in a most serious way.

I know you think I’m a fuck up, and the guys I was with were trash, but we had codes - we had our own kind of brotherhood, and what you guys did today, that’s bullshit.  We tease and we joke and we sometimes make the new guy dance a bit, but what you just did to me, that’s serious asshole stuff.

I’m walking around here on broken glass and you made it worse.  I sweated all afternoon, trying to figure out the right thing to do, and now its turns out this was some kind of jackoff test?!?

His voice was rising as he spoke, and others in the galley started looking at the three of them.  He stood up, wanting to run, wanting to throw something, wanting to punch someone.

Next thing he knew there was a tiny hand holding his.  Racy was there besides him.  She looked at the two seated tenth-day men, and smiled what looked a bit like a very feral smile.  They  looked down, and then both stood up, and started to apologize.

This is my friend, Racy said, interrupting them.   Then she put her other hand on one of his tattoos and said: This is a reminder of a guy whose tongue he cut out ... pulled it out with a pliers and cut it off with a hot knife.  Got him drunk first though.  Very kind.  You get to ask Angel questions and he has to tell you the truth.  You don’t get to mind-fuck him.

Several people, near enough in the galley to hear what had gone on, applauded. 

*         *         *

The next morning Gabriel caught him in the galley and told him not to go to work in the laundry, but to wait in the galley - someone was coming to see him.  No, she said, you didn’t do something bad, you did something good.

He was on his third cup of coffee when in walked Rider and the old man with the staff - Teller of Stories.   Rider smiled and the old man frowned.  Both expressions seemed to mean the same thing somehow.

Rider was her usual straight to the point: You know anything about the RV People?

That made him sit up very straight. 

Tell us everything you think you know, the old man said.

Very scary people, said Angel, after thinking about it a bit.  More than 500 miles south of here and maybe west.  Ruins of Phoenix some say.  RV is about how their leaders live in these old million dollar RVs, so can move around if they have to.  Maybe make and sell drugs.  Buy and sell people.  Smart, got a Library like you guys.  Do bad shit with the knowledge though.  Most folks I knew stay as far away as possible from them.  All the stories about them bad, scary bad.  Torture, child slaves, weird religious shit.  You name it.  Supposed to be guarded by an army of cannibals. 

We hear they may be making a move in our direction, the old man said.

Need to send out a scouting party, you and me, and a couple of others, she said.

I know its a stupid question, but why me, said Angel.

You still have the road in you.  You’re the newest guy to come in in the last year.  You still have the right instincts.  That was Rider.

Angel could understand that, but didn’t like going toward the RV.  When we found you guys we was running from the RV.

I know, - the old man.

Silence.  Everyone just sitting there thinking.

Now? said Angel.

Now, said Rider, but have to pick up a few tools and fools first.

*         *         *

It took about 24 hours.  They needed a big truck, that looked like a wreck and ran like a cougar.  Inside the truck was a bike that also looked like crap but which would perform in spite of the fact that the muffler sound and black smoke pouring out the exhaust implied it was near death.

Also inside the truck was an ultra-lite and some electronic gear, one guy to pilot the ultra-lite and the other guy to run the gear.  Rider, Horse and pack went cross-country, with some plans she wouldn’t share. 

Angel drove, and the old man rode in the cab with him.  The two guys in the back sat in old stuffed chairs, and drank beer from the Sanctuary micro-brewery, kept cold in a small refrigerator run off the truck engine.  Angel had two shotguns and a nine-millimeter with him in the cab.  The guys in the back had a couple of assault rifles and a sniper rifle as well.  Both had been marines - some folks said they’d been Navy Seals, but they only admitted to being marines.

Teller-of-Stories had his tall walking staff, and a cigar - a very good cigar. 

The old man gave all the directions.  Sometimes they went on main roads, sometimes not.  Sometimes they pulled off into the trees and waited until something else went by on the road.  Angel couldn’t figure how the old man knew someone was coming, but there was no complaining as they were making fairly good time and keeping out of trouble. 

About three days into the trip, they met up with Rider in some low hills that looked across a vast open plain, dotted with fire lights at night, and perhaps even some electrical lights.  That night they sat around a camp fire, made a good meal of some fresh killed and butchered deer meat Rider and the pack provided.  Everyone shared, including the pack, except they had theirs raw.

The old man wanted to know if there needed to be a lot of killing.

The two marines didn’t say anything, and Angel then understood that it was Rider who was being asked.  She sat still for quite a while, and then said: I’m leaving Horse and One, Two and Five here with you.  Three and Four will go with me tonight.  We’ll be a couple of days walk-about down there, since we can only safely move at night.  I’ll let you know after I get back.

In the mean time, stay out of trouble. 

She looked at Angel: You play cards?

He nodded.

Don’t play with the old man, but those two can’t bluff for shit.

With that, they all bunked down, except for Rider and Three and Four who slipped silently into the night at one point and no one even noticed.

On the trip down the old man had explained to Angel how the pack got its individual names - it was another of those star-children things - a kind of joke actually, because Rider initially didn’t like it.  It had to do with a game they played, that included the pack members.  These children ran around playing some weird version of hide and seek and included in the game the wolf-dogs. 

Since the pack members pretty much all looked alike, only the star-children and Rider could initially tell them apart.  In the game the numbers were used to refer to individual members of the pack,  and after a while the number-names stuck, in spite of Rider’s resistance.

The next morning the old man had disappeared and Tom and Jerry, as the two marines had been named by the star-children, said it was not unusual for the old man to wander off during scouting trips.  They also explained, over a breakfast of bacon and eggs, how they were actually named at birth William Katz and Matthew Maus, and that once they were known in Sanctuary as Katz and Maus, Tom and Jerry they became. 

There was a lot of good camping gear in the truck, given its large size, so the waiting for Rider to return was kind of a vacation.  Tom went fly fishing in the early evening, while Jerry showed Angel how to clean and double check all the guns.

The old man was back after the second night just in time for after dinner dessert.  He brought a friend, another old man, this time a Native America looking guy who said his name was called President Obama.  Some kind of joke, but only Teller of Stories and Obama were in on it.  The two of them laughed a lot.  It was in the following morning that the strangest thing happened.

Rider walked into, camp with Three and Four a little after sunrise.  Obama stood and bowed very low, almost worshipfully. 

Your grace, he said, with a bit of humor like edge.

Oh shit, she said, with the same odd edge in her voice.

You two knock it off, said the old man.

Angel said, how about a little less we have secrets crap here.  If we’re about to go up against RV, I for one need to know you’re not a bunch of  fucking idiots.

There followed a lot of looks and glances between Obama, Rider and the old man, until Rider gave a big sigh and started speaking.  Tom and Jerry were also paying careful attention.

I named Obama “steps in shit” when I was five, ‘cause well he did it once and I was - well I was me.  So with me calling him “steps in shit” he started calling me “your grace”.  I was raised by Hopi, and he was my adoptive grandfather.  They found me abandoned on the Navajo Res when I was about three days old. 

When I was eight, I got mad at them, because they didn’t like Bitch and the wildness I was getting into.  So I wandered off and took a long hike.  Haven’t seen steps-in-shit since.

She laughed then, deep rolling laughter out of joy and power.  She knew who she was and what she was about.  Whatever was next, she was their leader and they would die for her if she needed it.  Toward the end the wolf-dogs joined in with yips and barks and almost some dancing.  Horse rose up on her hind legs and snorted and whinnied.  As they all let it soften away, off not to far there came a howl - the father wolf was out there, and then there were more howls all over the hills around.

Wolves, easily dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wolves and who knows what were with them too.  Then setting moon broke full from behind some clouds, and even Angel knew there was something more going on than anyone of them could give voice to.  The old man coughed to get their attention, and then said to her: So?

The little girl devil left her eyes, and a serious face was there, and she began to speak:

RV’s making an army.  At least that’s what they think.  Playing with fire to my mind.   Too many crazy people coming and joining.  RV leaders must think they can control this horse they’re making, but it isn’t to be.

I’ve seen meetings among those gathering in, the crazies, the cannibals, the marauders, - talking to each other.  Jealous, not interested in being together, ... some of them look with feral hunger on the RV’s camps and hoards and stuff.

But something else in play too ... Some mercs of a kind, dressed like soldiers ... heavy gear, electronics, at least a half dozen armored vehicles with big guns on top.   They do perimeter guard work, watch the crazies and others.  A few have trained dogs, but no match for mine ... still dangerous tho’ ... mostly used to watch the bands, keep an eye out for small thievery, and such ...

One bad bunch grabbed a woman from near the RV group-center, raped her.  Next day the mercs came, took the rapers, castrated them in public and then set them on fire with a couple of those flame thrower things ... ugly, especially the smells ...

If you or your group acts good, the mercs are passing out some new drugs ... people take them, lie down and dream for a while, maybe do some sex, but no violence ... very peaceable drugs ... might be some version of that LSD I used to hear about ...

There’s at least 2500 armed folk out there, with another couple thousand civilians of various kinds.  Plenty of food seems like, along with good water being trucked in from some place. 

I fed number Four some of those tiny tracer spy chips Tom and Jerry gave me, told her to go take a dump as close as she could get to the center ... Did that a couple of times, ... we might get some intel from those ... who knows ... someone steps in it, drives over it, who knows ... maybe Obama tracked one here ....

At that everyone laughed.  Jerry got up and went to the truck and brought out a laptop, while Tom set up some kind of aerial on a pole held up by a tripod base.

Angel asked the questions everyone didn’t want asked ...

What if they move north?  Can we stop them?

Not by ourselves, she said, not by ourselves, and I mean everyone in Sanctuary ... we’re not enough against this.

What then? said the old man, and Obama echoed him, what then?

Bad juju she said, evil shit.  Fight fire with fire.  Anyone does what I’m thinking needs doing is going to have nasty karma from it, nasty nasty karma. 

Jerry looked up from his laptop, he was wearing some earphones.  We’re going to have to fly recon at first light tomorrow, risk them knowing we are out here.   But from the sounds of this something is going on ... noises of people packing up, engines firing up, some singing weird-like war songs ...

We might have to make a quick decision, she said.  Lets wait a while and see if they raise dust from moving in a certain direction, and then you fly over and take a look.

Obama and the old man were full of frowns.  But neither said anything.  Both knew war decisions belonged to those that were going to fight them.  Old men sitting peaceably at home had no business telling others where and when and how to die.

Tom and Jerry got out the ultra-lite and began to pre-flight it.  Rider told Angel to prep the bike as well.  Then she took Obama and the old man and sent them out into the woods, doing something they clearly didn’t want to do.  Angel saw them arguing before they left, and then saw her kind of stand very still, and change somehow.  Become something more.  Hard to describe, but the light around her seemed to shift - like she was there and something else was there too.   After that the old man and Obama had no more objections, and went on to do their tasks.  She went off to sleep in a pile of wolf-dogs, since neither she nor they had slept much in two days.

Evening neared and Tom got on the ultra-lite.  Rider gave him specific instructions.

Go out West in a big loop, first north, flying low, and then West up high.  I want you to find the water trucks, where they are coming from.  Don’t need you to scout the big groups, we can see already today from the dust they are moving north.  Lots of folks besides us Sanctuary types live up there.  They may know about us already ... even rumors be bad enough.  The moon will be full, and there will be few if any clouds.  You should be able to see by that as well.

Regular water for a few thousand people is a big deal.  Its one of the ways they are paying the crazies and such. 

Tom was back about two hours after moon-rise.  The ultra-lite didn’t really need a runway and just floated in motor off over some low trees and landed soft.  By that time, Obama and the old man were brewing something in a big pot over the fire.  Wasn’t food, smelled weird, but not necessarily bad.

Jerry set up the laptop to screen for everyone to look at what Tom’s digital cameras had caught.  The source of the water had been found.  Obama recognized it.

That’s a cistern system some new agers built in the last days of the before-time.  When the monsoons come in July and August around here, they captured all that rain in their cisterns.  Old tech, very good.   Have to process it to make it drinkable though.  Looks like those buildings there are where they filter it, and maybe add some chemicals, although I don’t know where they get the chlorine and stuff like that today.

Everyone looked at Rider.

We are going to poison the water, she said.  Poison the source.  Something real bad.  Lots of collateral damage, there’s children with these folks.  Pregnant women too.  No other way to stop them.  These are hard times, and the RV’s should know by now ... what you sow, you reap.

Tom and Jerry swore, together.  Tom said: I thought I was finished with weapons of mass destruction!  Rider answered back, quickly, in that quiet no non-sense voice she had: More like weapons of mass desperation.

Angel then made a bark-like scared and troubled laugh.  Some part of him thought it was funny given what he’d been up to before running into Rider and Sanctuary.  Obama and the old man just looked way too old, too sad, too unable to stop what has to be.

Rider looked angry.  The pack growled, very low.  Then the wolves in the woods around them started to howl again.  Even the air seemed heavy, and the moon hid itself behind some clouds. 

5,000 people? said Angel.  Just like that, we kill 5,000 people.  Won’t they notice something when people start to die?

Rider looked at the old man.  He spoke ...

Bugs, he said.  Like Dysentery, Cholera, water born illnesses.  Bad bugs.  Parasites from animal shit.  They’ll think the water’s clean, because it comes from a clean source.  Won’t be looking for that kind of attack.  They’ll be rationing water anyway, see to everyone getting a fair share every day.  Some may survive, but those that do will be too ill to help any others.  They’ll all have drunk a couple days worth of these bugs before they even notice the first ones is getting sick.

Obama spoke next:  Those mercs, you think they don’t take care of their own water, have their own chemicals and stuff.  Former military would have all kinds of stuff maybe?

Sure, she said.  But they won’t know who, might look for awhile like some kind of weird play by the RV’s themselves or some one of the other groups.  This makes a kinds of chaos.  That’s were Angel comes in.  He goes with me and Horse and pack.  On the bike.  Does something to make a distraction, while I dope the water.  If I can get to the trucks, one or two, I can also pollute their plumbing systems - how they pump and stuff.  Their guards chase off after Angel, and I sneak inside the grounds where the cisterns are, do the bad things.

With luck they won’t kill Angel and we’ll get him back.  With luck they won’t kill me, but then they wouldn’t survive pack.  Lots of ways this can go bad.  You’ll know soon enough if it works.  Old man can help you travel parallel and watch what happens.

I doubt they’ll get a hundred miles before the whole mass collapses into chaos and anarchy.  We, or you, watch and see if what survives tries to go further north.  You should be able to handle whatever’s left, which I guarantee will not be much, and not be strong or healthy. 

Sobered by these thoughts, they all fell silent.  The fire crackled as Obama fed it some more wood.  Jerry brought out a harmonica, and played some sad songs, some slow-dancing cowboy blues.  Some of the wolves lurking in the woods around them joined in again.  The moon came out once more.

Angel thought he saw a couple of tears on Rider’s face, but didn’t say anything.  What was there to say?  Hard times, harder choices.

*         *         *

The plan worked, mostly.

The guards at the cisterns shot Angel in the thigh with a rifle, a through and through, no arteries or bones hit.  He fell off the bike which decided to suicide and blow up when it crashed.   The guards came out to kill him, but the pack showed up and after a few exchanges of growls and shots, the guards decided where the better part of valor lay.

Rider got inside and did the deed.  The guards left Angel alone figuring he was wolf meat anyway, which enabled him to tie off the wound with part of his shirt and his belt.  The pack led him to a nearby ravine, where he waited for Rider and the night.

He got to ride back behind Rider on Horse, which led him in the direction of certain ideas, but she made it clear that he wasn’t yet a true man, so he best keep those kinds of ideas to himself.

They were a couple of days late getting back to the truck partly because Horse had to carry them both, and they had to do a work around and get ahead of the RV army to catch up to Tom and Jerry and the old man.  Obama had gone home, wherever that was.

There was some beer shared around when it was seen that they had survived.   They followed the army at distance while it slowly and haphazardly traveled up the old interstate highway north from the Phoenix area toward what remained of Flagstaff.   The saguaro cactus desert was giving way to pine forests, near the former Prescott and Sedona areas of Arizona, when the army just stopped moving completely. 

It had been more and more stringing out - elongating - and then it just stopped moving at all.  Parts of it burned brightly at night - people probably burning bodies.  Trucks and other more mobile vehicles broke away, but soon they too stopped.  Kind of like rats leaving a sinking ship, only to die about half a day or so out. 

They debated about doing an ultra-lite flyover, but the old man said no, and when he looked at Rider, she just shook her head yes, and slipped away with Horse and pack in the night, this time dressed in her gear, swords and face paint and all.

Tom and Jerry and Angel took up positions watching.  Jerry unpacked the sniper rifle, just in case.   She was five days moving through the huge killing field.  Carrion birds were everywhere, and the wolves that had followed them drifted close by on their way to the killing field, letting themselves be seen, but made no move toward their camp.

The old man gathered herbs and stuff, taking care of Angel’s wound and then mounted the ultra-lite and took off following the path the pack and Horse and  Rider had taken, and marked.  Through the sniper scope Jerry provided descriptions, mostly of the old man, who kept himself far more visible than did Rider.  The old man was making fires, and the herb smells sometimes drifted near where they waited.

Sometimes they heard singing floating on the winds that came up at night.  Tom said it was Rider, letting out her grief.   The three men drank no beer, hardly talked.  What was there to say?

The old man came back first and set Tom and Jerry to making what he called a “sweat-lodge”.   When Rider came back she had two knife wounds, one on her face.  When they looked at her, she just had one word: mercs.

Jerry wanted to sew the cuts up, and she just shook her head no.  What was weird was that the pack wasn’t with her, and when asked she just shook her head no again.

The old man set them to make the fire for the sweat-lodge and they all four watched her take off all her bloody clothes and burn them in the fire.  Naked and bloody she stood and then broke the pair of swords over a knee, as well as the two small knives she normally carried in her boots.  Later Tom said privately that she should not have been able to do that.  Swordless and clothesless she crawled into the Lodge.

When she came out a couple of hours later, Obama walked into the camp carrying a beautiful fringed and beaded deer cloth dress and some calf-high moccasins, as well as replacements for her usual shirt and pants.  After helping her dress in the dress, he had her sit by the fire and he brushed out her hair and wove it into a long braid.  No one spoke a word.

The next morning the pack arrived, bringing with them about 150 survivors, many children and women, two of those pregnant.   About noon a strong wind came up, and the fires in that huge killing field increased in ferocity and soon the whole desert there was ablaze.  Periodically unexploded ordinance went off, with loud bangs and spitting pieces of burning metal.

It was hard not to see this as beautiful, and when Obama stood tall, facing the fireworks, arms out spread, and sang what had to be a prayer before wandering off again, it was difficult not to feel this awfulness was also something holy.

They were two weeks getting back to Sanctuary, but the ultra-lite had gone on ahead, and over a hundred people, including families,  came down to greet the newcomers and explain to them their possibilities.

Teller of Stories told tales of Sanctuary every night around the campfires as they traveled north.  For the first week Tom and Jerry took game, along with the pack so as to feed everyone.  When the families from Sanctuary arrived, a bit of joy began to bloom, and the shock of recent events started to fade some. 

Mostly people didn’t talk, not even the children.   The one with the most words every day was Teller of Stories.  Here is the story he told the first night on the trail north.  Keep in mind that the way he tells it is as important as the story.

He begins as the campfire burns low, and tired adults and children huddling together get ready to enter the realm of Morpheus - the realm of forgetting. 

*          *         *

Everybody dreams.  Night dreams and day dreams are not the same.  In night dreams I entertain visitors.  In day dreams I entertain myself.  In night dreams the dead visit.  In the day, I am among the living, even when dreaming.

Fantasy is good for the soul.  The before-time died of too little fantasy and imagination.  The story tellers tried, but the number lovers did not listen ... they were too busy counting their gold.  

A spirit-mind wrapped in numbers is cold and has no heart.  A civilization without a heart commits suicide, in one way or another.  Loving numbers is to already be dead to life.

The newly dead will visit us all over the next months.  Out beyond us was a great sacrifice.  Many of you here loved those who died out there.  That love is a warmth they will seek.  They will not be ready right away to leave the earth-time for the star-time.  They will need us, and we will need them.

So in the night dreams we will entertain visitors.

But to do that rightly we have work to do.  To help them and to help ourselves we have to remember, even the things we don’t want to remember.  

In the before-time no one much understood about the dead.  Few believed there was life after life.  So the dead were not important, and the living suffered for ignoring them.  A science of just numbers and no imagination killed civilization as surely as did the gold counters.  So too a religion of stale ideas, frozen in time and space.  

The before-time got old and then died.  We of today live in the in-between-time.  We live after the before-time, but not yet in the new-time.

We live in chaos and anarchy - the burning fire before the new Phoenix rises from the cold ashes of destruction.

For the new-time to come, we have to remember the imagination, and lose our attachment to dead and cold ideas.  So in the next days, once we get to what might become your new home - the place we call Sanctuary - we have to start to remember those who just died.  

So when you get to the campfires in Sanctuary be ready to tell stories about the life you were leading.  Even the bad things, even the horrible and terrible things.  Especially the awful things, the things we most want not to remember.

It will be easier than you think because the dead will come and visit in the night and remind you.  

Some times we call these kinds of dreams: Nightmares.  They scare us, and we might even wake up screaming.  But I promise you, if you tell of the scary dark things that visit in the night, over time they will visit less and less.  

They want to leave, but before they can leave the earth-time to go to the star-time, they need to finish something.  They need to finish finding out who they are.  They got lost in life and didn’t find out who they are, and so when they die they don’t know, and they depend on us to tell them.

The great majority of the before-time civilization didn’t know what a human being was.  They believed we were just things, bits of stuff, bound up in rules over which we had no powers.  We came out of stuff, lived as stuff and then when we died, the stuff fell apart - dust to dust was the old saying.

Problem was the before-time civilization didn’t know how to count things of the heart, or count things of the imagination.  That civilization taught us confusion and unreality, all the time claiming they were giving us reality.  Why did something, to be real, have to be able to be counted?

So there will be work to come, but no hurry to do the work.  It is work because it is hard, although at the same time it is play.  It is hard because we are not used to doing it, not used to living out of the imagination and the heart to the degree we need to so live.  We have to learn to stretch our imaginative and heart-string muscles as it were.

The place you are going - this Sanctuary place - a lot of people there have traveled roads just as hard as yours.  They will know what you have done, and what you have yet to do.  They will help you be patient.   They will help you not do, and teach you how to take time.  They have been lost themselves and are still finding themselves and know a lot about all of that.

While we travel to what might become your new home, there is no need to talk, unless you want to talk.  Rest, day-dream, eat good food, get better.  If you have night visitors, share that or don’t share that.  There isn’t just one way to do this finding yourself.  There is just your way, your truth, your dreams.

Remember though, none of this we have to do alone.  That’s why we are on earth and in same-time together - to learn to share and to be good company.

*     *     *

One night, just before the whole crowd - the new people and the Sanctuary people that had come to greet them - got back to Sanctuary, Rider spoke to the whole group.

Some of the mercenaries were alive when I did the killing field ritual work.  We fought, I won.  A couple didn’t die right away, and I helped them be talkative.  They told me a really scary story.

The RV people weren’t moving North looking for us ... they were running.  Something was coming toward them from further South.  Not in a couple of weeks but surely in a half of a year at the earliest.

It was dark, something connected to before-time drug gangs and ancient Toltec sacrificial rites.   Thousands and thousands of people, needing food and water, and fleeing the growing heat of the warming.  Like a mad army of locusts, stripping bare all the land that it crosses over.

My guess is we have to abandon Sanctuary, and move further North, much further.  My other guess is that that old man teller-of-stories knows something about where to move to.   Some of his stories in Sanctuary hint at this.  I remember in one of his stories there was a place, in northern Oregon and southern Washington, where four now active volcanoes made a geographical cross.  Some place were magic might come to rule one day.

I’m going back to the killing field in a few days.  Could use some help.  I want to turn it into a warning barrier like on our dusty road.  Not exactly the same, but something that might give a pause to the locusts - get their attention and make them think about where they are going and if they really want to get there ...

Tom and Jerry went with her and a couple of dozen others from Sanctuary - veterans, people who knew how to make IEDs and such - bombs and traps - both men and women.  Tough folks.  Determined folks.

Angel wanted to go to, but Racy had come down with the Sanctuary people and told him that if he went he would die, and she didn’t want him to die.  He looked to Rider and Teller-of-Stories and they both nodded.  Made him mad, though.  Made him feel impotent. 

That night Gabriel, who had also come down, took Angel by the hand and with a blanket they went away from the camp and into the woods.  Time to start to teach you how to be a true man, she said.

She was 20 years older than he was, and full of surprises.  When Racy saw them come back to the camp in the morning, she told Angel: Might be time for you to get a new tattoo, something with a grin like the one running all over your usual sour face.


When everyone got back to Sanctuary there was a lot of sadness and anger over the idea that they had to pick up and move.   So much effort and life had been invested, and the community was torn into smaller groups, each thinking they knew best what to do, including some who were planning on not leaving.

The new people - the survivors of the RV debacle - didn’t know what to make of it.  Who could blame them?  The chaos of the time had made it once more into the souls of Sanctuary folk, and their hard won idyllic life was crumbling.  It was as if some kind of vacation from madness was over, and now it was time to once more enter into the struggle with cultural and individual insanity.

All kinds of arguments came and went, including some violence.  Finally the star-children called a community meeting, and that united action - rather unfamiliar and unexpected - started to sober people up.  The star-children requested a feast and a festival as well.  Whatever’s happening it’s time to party, sang Racy, as she danced and twirled through the community for three days, never seeming to stop or sleep.

The mood of everyone changed and the star-children seemed behind it.

The flaring of tempers subsided, work set aside was started up again, people went to the bathhouses, clothes were cleaned and even some new fashions appeared.  The star-children began making remarkable masks, and handing them out to everyone.   Each mask was individual.  The festival didn’t start at a particular time, it just sort of grew - everyone was slowly being caught up in it, and food that maybe needed to be eaten, and not saved or abandoned if they fled, was turned into fancy dishes. 

People who hoarded liquor gave it up.  Some people started giving presents.  The folk from the RV would wake up in the morning to baskets of bright colored new outfits in their rooms.  The star-children promised a drama one night to come - a play they said.

Then Tom and Jerry and the folks who had gone to lay a delaying maze in the path of the locusts got back.  Rider and Horse and pack were not with them.  For several hours the party-mood broke - it had had a quality of mania ... of excessive fake celebration to cover over the anger and the sadness.

Angel and Gabriel were now a couple and brought some folding chairs so as to sit together at the huge community meeting that was called by Tom and Jerry, where they would tell the story that might or might not answer everyone’s burning question: Where was Rider?  

The story was more strange than expected, and Rider had been a lot strange ... for years.   Tom spoke:

The night we were done laying the traps and IEDs and stuff, we had a little party because the next day we were going north - coming home or coming here at any rate.  It was a full moon with a clear sky.

The smell of rot and decay was mostly gone.  Fires we had set and help from carrion eaters had pretty much cleaned the area up.  

Rider had been packing all day, and I noticed she was packing odd, loading  up Horse as if she wasn’t going to ride her.  She’d made a travois too, one of those two pole things a horse can drag in order to carry extra stuff.  And, made smaller one’s for the pack.  We didn’t ask questions - you know how is with her, when she wants to tell you something, she tells you - otherwise no point to ask.

She packed food and water and feed grains and other practical stuff.  No weapons though.  She’d broken her swords and thrown away her guns - you must have heard about that already.  Could have picked up all kinds to replace, just laying everywhere on the ground, but she didn’t.

We were eating around a campfire when she walked up naked as the day she was born, and threw the dress Obama had given her, plus her new regular work duds on the fire.  I’ll try to say it as exactly as she said it to us:

“Going south”, she said.  “Going to be a goddess to some sorry folks.  They need me to help them transform the locust thing to something better.  Might not work, though.  Serious bad people with them.  Magic people.  Dangerous people.  Might be like a war.  I dream of being crucified.  The tree people and the rock people and the four-legged and the winged people - they are all with me.  I won’t be alone.  The thunder and lightening folk too - the storm people - they will try to watch my back.

“Still, the Dark Ones carry the bomb, and some other stuff, some stuff the old science didn’t know was possible.  Got to try to stop them, - if not stop them at least mess with their heads a little bit - make their schemes have holes and weaknesses.   

“Don’t be sad - its why I was born in this time.  With you, I was just getting ready for this - learning, practicing for this.

“Love each other if you can.”

That was the last thing she said.  She turned around and walked away, Horse and pack following her south and into the night.  We were basically speechless.  I mostly still am.  Its one of those things that makes complete sense at the same time it makes you crazy just to know it happens.

Silence settled over the community fire.  No one spoke or moved, until the star-children got up and wearing their personal masks performed their play.  It was all mime - all silent.

Over the next days, the community talked.  The story the star-children told was about them splitting up, and traveling different paths.  Not everyone would go to the same place.  Most would eventually get to the new Sanctuary - up north in the magic place where the volcano cross was.  Teller of Stories told us the names of the mountains that were now active volcanoes, each connected to one of the Four Directions: To the South, Mt. Hood. To the North, Mt. Rainer. To the West, Mt. St. Helens, and to the East, Mt. Adams.

A long discussion was had about what to do with the physical structures of Sanctuary South as it was now being called.  Some folks wanted to destroy it, and others wanted to leave it behind.  Some of that was settled when Heartmender Smith spoke at one of the community fires, and announced he was staying.  Some people should not be moved, and with some grace from the Mystery, this home might survive in a way.

Once that was in the air, the star-children starting planting various kinds of ivy everywhere.   They didn’t explain what they were up to, but soon others caught on.  Nature was being evoked to perhaps hide Sanctuary South.  Some others did smash certain things, and said that if the place looked like a ruin, it might be a good idea in case some few wanted to try to continue to live there.

The road to the killing field was wrecked.  If someone came from that direction all they would find was rusted out cars and other debris common to almost everywhere else.  Explosives were used to make it look like some kind of war had maybe taken place there several years ago.

As different groups got ready to leave, - the first ones were ready in a couple of months time - the wealth of Sanctuary South was divided up.   Cars, ultralights, glass and pottery works tools and knowledge, the Library duplicated, ... if it could be moved and packed it was.  Of course the animals - the sheep and the goats and the cows and the chickens and the horses and the dogs and the cats and the pet birds, and trained falcons and other fauna were spread out among all.   Seeds of course, all kinds of seeds and plant cuttings and such.

If people got heated up over who was to have what, usually one of the star-children, or Teller of Stories or Heartmender Smith would show up and help resolve conflict.  It was hard - leave takings on such a scale could never be easy.

People with different skills organized themselves into what they called guilds.  They spread their knowledge around.  Warriors and weavers and healers and teachers and veterinarians - they all made sure that every group had someone who knew how to do stuff - not just book knowledge like the Library, but practical hands-on knowledge. 

Strange things happened.  For example, every time there was a big group leaving, wolves came to the nearby hills and sang.  Birds too, during the day and night, collected and flew nearby.  Crows especially, and ravens.  Once in a while larger animals, that the community had known were out there and mostly had not hunted, showed themselves at a distance as if saying goodbye.

Even the weather seemed to cooperate.  Nothing extreme, nothing unusual.  Rain, sun, snow, clouds, wind - all mild and normal.  The ivy planted by the star-children grew at a furious rate - for reasons no one could explain, other than that it seemed to be needed. 

The last groups to leave noticed that you had to be far inside the town to even know it was there.   At the end, when no one else was going to leave, there were only about three dozen folk, all clustered around the House of Graceful Souls.  Heartmender Smith of course, plus Angel and Gabriel, and of course, Racy.  A couple of dogs, some chickens and other food sources.

A deep winter had come, there was plenty of fire wood and stored food.  The snows were soft and fluffy, the temperature not too cold.  The House of Graceful Souls could be lived in without anyone having to go outside.

On Christmas Day the pack showed up, seemingly investigating the status of things.  They wandered about the town, nosing into every nook and cranny.   They slept in the House for a few days, next to people.  Then one morning they were gone.

A few years later no one would have been found there alive.  A serious investigation, knowing where to look, might have found some graves, one of which had the name Heartmender Smith on it.  No stones for Angel or Gabriel or Racy, though.  Like the rest of Sanctuary South, they were now one with the wind.

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