After days of walking into this increasingly barren landscape, they crested a slope near sunset. Beyond the valley below lay a playa, a vast dried-white lakebed, its ends reaching farther than they could see. And its far side was rimmed by a high ridge dusted with snow. The ridge was a series of bulbous mounds, cleanly rounded in the way Bea rarely saw in natural landscapes. In shade now, the mounds themselves were black as coal, and probably in daylight too. But the fine cover of snow took the severe edge from them, and as Bea looked, she thought they resembled old pictures she’d seen of whale backs arcing up just before diving into ocean depths.
“This must be where the Post is,” Glen said.
But they could see no building or structure.
“In the morning, we’ll catch the sun on the roof and we’ll know,” said Juan.
“Let’s get a fire going and eat, then sleep. Then we can wake up and be done with this awful trek,” Val said.
They swept up whatever blowdown they could, branches of sage broken off and dried, a strange orange lichen crusted on many of the smaller twigs, and mixed it with starter pieces they tried to carry with them. The fire smelled medicinal and smoked more than it flickered. They made acorn cakes and heated some smoked chunks of deer, which made the meat almost juicy.
As the last residue of sunlight vanished, Carl called everyone to the fire. He squatted and drew in the dirt with a stick. He said, “There might come a time when we have to split up.”
“Why would we need to do that?” Bea asked.
“I mean it as a what-if question. I think it’s good to think through all the possibilities,” Carl said, whipping the stick into the fire, but it flew through to the other side and hit Dr. Harold.
“Ow,” said Dr. Harold.
“Sorry,” said Carl. “Bea, do you have objections to that?”
“Good. We move as a group now, but we should have a buddy system like we had in the beginning.”
“Can’t we just have our buddies from the beginning?” Debra asked.
“Some of our buddies are dead,” said Juan, whose buddy was dead.
“I’m also worried that different people have taken on different roles and that we each don’t know how to take care of ourselves.”
“Well, we are a group,” said Glen. “So what’s the harm in thinking like a group?”
“Because we might not always be a group,” Carl said again. “And do we know how to take care of ourselves without the others? For example, Debra and Dr. Harold usually identify the poisonous stuff, plants, mushrooms, bugs, et cetera.”
Dr. Harold said, “Carl, I really don’t think—”
“What if you’re on your own and starving? What if there’s only this one plant you’ve never seen before? What if you come upon a water source—do you know how to tell if it’s clean?”
No one answered. Not because they didn’t know but because they didn’t like Carl’s tone. It was a scolding tone, and they were exhausted and wanted to sleep.
“How do you check the potability of a water source?” Val joined in, haughtily and impatiently, trying to mask that she herself probably had no idea.
“Ask the animals,” said Agnes.
Some of the adults chuckled.
Debra crowed, “So cute.”
Agnes frowned. “Ask the animals,” she repeated, lowering her voice as if to create a sense of seriousness. “Ask, Where do you drink from? And then go to where they drink. I want to try a food, I give it to them first. They eat it, I eat it. They don’t eat it, I don’t eat it. Ask, Where are you going? And they’ll tell by going there.”
“It’s a good start,” Carl said to Agnes. “But it’s just a general rule, not a way to live.” Bea saw Agnes scowl at the correction.
Carl continued. “We have different needs and different tools from animals. We have fire, so we can eat more. We have thumbs, so we can hunt better. We have different microbes in our guts, so we can drink from more rivers.”
“Actually,” Glen said, “we can drink from fewer rivers because of our microbes.”
“Well, I can drink from more rivers,” Carl snapped, “so I don’t know what’s wrong with your microbes.” Under the flickering firelight he appeared to be snarling.
Agnes sniffled as though she was crying, and Bea pulled her up and away from the circle. Glen shrugged at her as they went past.
They sat on their bed of skins.
“Are you upset?” Bea asked her daughter.
“No,” Agnes said. “I had smoke in my nose.”
That seemed as likely, if not more likely, than emotional tears, Bea thought. She found her brush in her pouch and ran it through Agnes’s hair. “You’ve gotten very tangled. We need to do this more often.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You’d like it if we did it more often. Most girls like getting their hair brushed.” Agnes’s hair was frilly and bronze. Fern hair.
“Can Carl really drink from more rivers?” Agnes asked.
“Why did he say he could?”
“Because sometimes Carl says things that aren’t true.”
“But even when Glen said he was wrong, he said no, he was right.”
Bea said, “Don’t listen to either of them.” She paused. “Well, you should listen to Glen because he’s family. And because he is a smart man.”
“And Carl isn’t?” Agnes asked, all innocence.
“Well,” Bea said.
“I think they’re both wrong.”
“Oh?” Bea smiled in the dark.
“Yes. The animals are always right, and when I do what they do, nothing bad happens.”
“Next time we’re hungry, thirsty, or lost, I’ll follow you.”
“Okay.” Agnes straightened. She seemed proud.
“We might need to cut your hair.”
“No,” Agnes said.
“Well, short hair doesn’t tangle. And something has to be done about these tangles.” Bea gripped a chunk of Agnes’s hair at its base and then tried to pull the brush through to the bottom. “When in doubt, listen to Glen,” she said. “The difference is Glen loves you and Carl doesn’t.”
“Carl loves me,” Agnes said. “He says so.”
A snag came free and Agnes’s head snapped back.
“Ow,” Agnes said. She touched her head near the loose snarl gingerly.
“Carl says he loves me and he loves you,” she continued.
“Well,” Bea said. She didn’t want to hear about who Carl loved. She wasn’t sure Carl loved anyone but himself.
They were quiet.
“Do you love me?” Agnes asked.
“Even when you’re angry?”
“I’m never angry,” Bea lied. She didn’t want Agnes to see her that way. And it was better if everything Bea did was labeled as love, wasn’t it? Bea yanked the brush through again and Agnes whimpered, “Mama,” and it was such a lonesome sound that Bea stopped. The top of Agnes’s head was a soft smooth dome that ended in a nest of snarls.
Agnes picked up the brush and whimpered her way through her own tangles. “Maybe I could put lard in my hair and it would be easier?” she hoped out loud.
“Sure, you could do that, and the next thing you know the coyotes will be eating your hair.”
Agnes smiled through the pain. “They wouldn’t,” she said almost shyly, and Bea watched Agnes’s face contort, trying to imagine coyotes snuffling her hair.
“They might.” Bea laughed. But she really did think they might. Bea saw the adults rising, moving about, some putting out the fire. The meeting was over and soon everyone would bed down.
She yawned theatrically. “Time for sleep now.” Agnes fought against her mirror yawn, but it slowly crawled out. They lay down, Agnes at the foot. Bea wished she’d come up and sleep in her arms like she had when she was young, but she wouldn’t ask because she didn’t want Agnes to say no. So she waited for the cold rush of air as Glen joined them in the bed, but she was asleep before she felt him arrive.
They could see that this dry landscape ended at the ridge, and like prisoners who’d grown used to a captive life, they began to fear not being in it, this place they’d wanted out of so badly. Bea was looking behind her as much as she was gazing at the towering bulbous ridge. She knew on the other side of it was a profoundly different world. She thought it must be the border with the Mines. The land was mostly in active use, the jobs automated, but she knew there was housing for the workers who were needed. The workers tended to be those who couldn’t afford even the smallest apartments in the City. Who’d been pushed out, priced out generations ago. Now they had barracks or low-cost apartment complexes for their indebted lives. What happened outside of the City had always seemed kind of mysterious. One guy she’d fucked from the Manufacturing Zone told her he got free housing, which was almost impossible to believe. She’d been impressed. She thought he’d seemed proud.
A wild wind was just kicking up when they’d made it to the edge of the playa, so they camped for the night. They still couldn’t see any sign of the Post or other structures. But they did see signs of civilization. Discarded scrap metal and a few wooden electrical poles, the wires long gone, where hawks perched to hunt. A picnic table overturned in the sage. It was weathered almost white and covered in rock tripe, which they peeled off and ate.
Bea sat on the edge of the playa and watched the fine sand of the dry lake kick up in short-lived swirling dust devils, at first excited and then dying down as though realizing there was nothing to be excited about. The ridge rose to her right, and in the far, flat distance tall banks of brown clouds hugged the horizon. Dust storms. They were so far away that she could distinguish the different storms from one another. Three in all. Their front ends curled out like snake tongues, hurriedly flicking to learn where they were. The back ends dragged across the land like sandbags.
Behind her she heard Agnes talking to the birds that were hiding in the sage. Agnes always talked to the hiding animals, even though Bea had explained that they were hiding from her because she was talking to them. “They want to think you don’t know they’re there,” she would explain.
“But I want them to know I can see them. So they know they need to hide better.”
It was not logic she could argue with.
She watched Agnes flitting about the bush, talking a blue streak and flapping her arms, while the birds, now trapped by her daughter’s manic actions, complained back in a high pitch. Incredible. Bea remembered when Agnes could not lift her head off of her bloodstained pillow. Those many frantic trips to the private doctor who lived in the building, the one who took on emergencies for a steep price. All the nights she lay on the floor next to Agnes’s bed, listening to each breath, her own heart stopping when there was a gasp. The number of times tears leapt to her eyes in the too-long pauses between her daughter’s labored breaths. It had been untenable.
She’d never forget the feeling around her conversation with Glen. Sitting at the small round dining table after another emergency visit, wineglasses half full, dinner mostly untouched, pasta still curled around her fork, lying where it had clattered to the table at that sound, “Mama,” through that hacking. The music was still playing, low. Agnes was asleep. Safe. Glen giving his brief history lesson about the convalescence movement that was once common but had been utterly forgotten about. Of sanatoria, of people escaping to far-flung places to get well. To take in the good air. To find health away from the place that ailed them. “What does this have to do with anything?” she’d snapped, half listening, half tuned for sounds from Agnes’s room. He and Bea weren’t married yet, though they knew they would. He was already in love with Agnes. And when he explained fully about the study and his idea, Bea had said, “It seems crazy.” “It is crazy,” he said. “But if we stay, she’ll die.” It came out so flatly, so unequivocal, she felt like he’d slapped her. They stared at each other, not speaking. She thought hours might have passed. She wished that she’d had better thoughts running through her head. Thoughts like, I don’t even need to think—of course that’s what we’ll do. Like, Whatever it takes. But really she thought, So, we have to risk all our lives just to save hers? Is this the rule, or do I have a choice? She looked at Glen and he had that resolute look. That no other solution look. And she knew her eyes were spinning, confused, everywhere. She was thinking of how much she’d looked forward to the three of them being a family here in this cozy apartment. She was thinking about the projects she had lined up and how she wouldn’t be able to do them now. Big contracts that had come in after the magazine spread. A career shift. She was thinking of her own mother and how she would have to leave her. If they did this, Bea knew already her mother would never come. She needed her mother still. Didn’t she? Did her needs not matter anymore? Bea shivered at her cold heart. She hit the side of her head to rattle her humanity loose. To think of her daughter first. She didn’t realize she’d kept hitting herself until Glen gripped her wrist and brought her arm firmly to her side, held her, and she felt the bitter tears on her face for the first time. She choked sobs into his shoulder. This is motherhood? she thought, furious and brokenhearted as she tried to let go of her own self so she could free her arms to hold up Agnes.
The playa dust devils were dancing longer and higher now, and closer to where Bea sat. She smelled dirt in the air. When she breathed through her mouth to escape the smell, her mouth gritted with fine, stale-tasting sand. She looked around. They seemed to be in a fog cloud, or was it already dusk? She squinted, looking for the sun, and saw its hazy imprint high in the sky. She looked toward the far-flung dust storms, and now there was just one large one. The searching tongue had ballooned into a cloud hovering on the horizon. But now the horizon was the whole cloud and the horizon was very close.
She heard tinkering behind her from Debra and Juan making dinner. The rest had spread out for more kindling and for water. She turned quickly to run toward the camp, and there was Agnes behind her, hypnotized by the cloud, her hands making fists at her sides. She ran to Agnes and grabbed her clenched fist, and dragged her along toward the camp. Agnes stumbled and Bea looked down at her daughter. Her mouth was open and moving, and Bea realized she could hear nothing but a roar that had started so soft and risen so gradually she had noticed nothing but an increasing pressure in her ears. She screamed at Debra and Juan, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. They were already running. She slung Agnes by the arm up and onto her back, and ran in the direction where people had gone for water. She looked at nothing but right in front of her feet so she wouldn’t fall and the bushes ripped into her legs as she ran through them. Agnes pushed her face into her neck, her mouth so close to her ear she could finally hear her. She was crying. Bea felt hot tears and saliva on her neck. And then Bea could see nothing and she could not stand up straight and her skin was on fire with the pricks of a thousand needles and the shuddering knocks from stones. She fell over a sagebrush and onto her knees and Agnes flew over her shoulders and her face was one hollow scream but there was no sound over the scream of the wind. Bea crawled, reaching blindly for her daughter until she felt her feet. She pulled Agnes to her and covered her curled, quaking body with her own.
Twigs and dirt and stone whipped against Bea, and the roar became muted so that she thought her ears must have filled with sand. She bent herself so her back would shield their heads, and it felt to her there was a mound of debris around her, blanketing her, as though because they stopped they would be buried alive. She curled tighter around Agnes and gnashed her teeth against the onslaught. And then, mercifully, she stopped feeling anything.
Excerpted from The New Wilderness by Diane Cook. Published by Harper August 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Diane Cook. All rights reserved.