I call myself Kestrel. This wasn’t always my name, but people are who they need to be. That’s the way the world is now. I don’t remember when it was different, what it was like before the Worm. I was young when it came and changed my life forever, all of our lives, swooping down on us like some kind of judgement from above. The way some people talk, you’d think that’s what it was. There’s some people who think that it was our fault, the plague that came and reduced everything to ruins. The Worm came through the water we drank, wriggled up our veins to our brain and lodged in there. Then it grew in your brain and it took you over. I don’t know the details exactly. I know most people died because of it. My parents died of it. Most everyone did. There’s people left, of course. We didn’t go extinct, obviously. But not too many of us are left.
Some people didn’t die of it, even if they had it. Some of them wandered around, not quite alive anymore, not quite dead. We called them zombies, but they weren’t zombies, not really. They weren’t dead. They didn’t crawl up out of graves or anything like that. They got a high fever and started yearning for water and their eyes turned red and they cried blood. That’s how you knew they were going to die, if they started bleeding from their eyes. But they weren’t zombies. They were just sick people whose brains weren’t theirs anymore. Some of them broke under the pressure. We called them cracked. They went crazy and killed and if they so much as scratched you, you’d get the Worm too.
If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that the Worm is gone now. No one has gotten the Worm for years and years. It went away with the world it destroyed. The older people who remember what it was like to live in cities and cars and televisions and all that stuff, they talk a lot about why the Worm happened and why it vanished. It’s as if they believe that if they could just figure out why it happened, maybe then it would have some reason to it. Some people, especially the older ones, they won’t stop talking about it. For them, I guess, it’s like it happened just yesterday. But it was like ten years ago. Most of my life, really.
I don’t care as much about the reasons for the Worm as the older people do. I don’t think it would change anything if we knew why it happened. It wouldn’t bring back my mother or my father. The older people are more angry about the Worm than we are, us younger ones. Some older people say it was made by some governments. Some say the Russians did it. Some say it was just some bug in the Amazon that wouldn’t have hurt anyone if we had left the forests alone. Truth is, no one knows much about it, just that it started in Brazil and came north. I’ve seen people kill over whose fault it was. But I’ve seen people killed for all sorts of things. It doesn’t mean anything, really. People kill each other. That’s what people do. That’s why you have to be careful. That’s why you have to choose who you are carefully. You have to think about it, plan it. Think how people see you, what they see, and if they might think twice before trying to kill you. You have to make them think twice. That’s what Eric is always telling me. Think. You have to think a lot. So I changed my name to Kestrel so I sound a little more dangerous.
You are who you are to survive. You become who you have to be. You change. You adapt. I don’t know who I’ll be tomorrow.
I just know I’ll be who I have to be.
I live in a place we call the Homestead. Except for winter, I like it here. The Homestead is just a patch of land south of the lakes. On the maps we have, we live in the State of Maine, but there’s no Maine anymore, not really. That’s just a meaningless bunch of squiggles on a map now. On the Homestead, there’s a farmhouse with faded gray clapboards and two big barns where we keep all the animals. Around the farmhouse are the fields we work so hard to clear and hoe and plow. At first there was only one field but over the years we cleared two more, one behind the farmhouse and another to the west. I still remember how hard that was. We worked until our hands bled and our bodies were like knots of pain. One of us, an old guy named Jim, he worked so hard, he just wasted away and died one day. He died right out there in the fields. I remember that quite a lot. How he just sank down on one knee and then fell to the side. By the time we got to him, he was dead. Thing was, when he died, his mouth opened wide and when he fell, it was like he was biting the earth. It was horrible. It didn’t look peaceful at all. That was back before we really understood what we were doing. We had some bad winters then. Better not to think too much about that or about Jim.
The Homestead is green and has trees by the river and in the summer, the fields outside turn golden. There’s trout in the Rill and bigger trout in the lakes above. There’s deer all year round. A lot of deer. A few of us have learned to hunt them with bows. We have guns, but we save the bullets. Ammunition is hard to come by and we can’t waste it on deer. I can kill with a bow if I have to myself, but I’m not very good at it. I need to practice, but I’d rather do most anything but shooting arrows at deer. Some say I have a soft heart, but that’s not true. I like deer, that’s all. I’d rather shoot a man than a deer. Deer don’t get nasty and cruel like men do.
About five or six years ago, we started building log houses because the farmhouse got too small for everyone. We built them on the hill above the farm so we could have a good look toward the south. Over the years we’ve built ten houses and one lodge. We call it the Village. We should probably have a better name for it than that, but we don't have much time to sit around and wonder what to call a few houses on a hill.
The houses are pretty badly built. We had to completely rebuild the first few ones we tried. But the new ones aren’t nearly as bad. We’ve learned a lot about how to build log houses, how to fill in the chinks, how to build on stone foundations, how to build so that when the cabin shrinks over time, which it will, the doors don’t get stuck. We still have a lot to learn though. Franky calls it “relearning” because people had this all figured out once, how to live without electricity, directly from the land. Franky likes that term, “relearning,” and he uses it whenever he can.
There’s 43 people in the Homestead, and I could name each one of them and tell you their stories. They come from all over this area, Boston, Portland, Quebec. A few of the children were born here. We even have a little cemetery, but there’s no bodies buried there, only ashes and a big boulder where we carve people’s names. After the Worm, we always burn our dead. We put all the ashes of our dead in the cemetery and the flowers that grow there are strong and bright and beautiful. We have a library. We have music and dances when we can. We play games. We ski in the winter, swim in the summer. We have guns and knives. We try to keep people safe. We try to keep each other alive.
The Homestead is my home, and I know I’m lucky to have a place I can call that. A lot of people don’t have that. They live wandering the world, scrambling to survive, scavenging for whatever the old world left behind. They come sometimes to the Homestead to trade. They have metal and tools and toothpaste. A lot of plastic trash that we trade for anyway. Their eyes are hollow. You can tell by looking at them that they have lost something important inside. Like they’d kill you just as soon as be your friend. They’re wild. You can tell just by the way they look in the eyes. You have to learn how to see that in this world. You have to be smart with people or you’ll end up dead. Every once in a blue moon, we trade with the wild ones and then make it clear they have to move on. They have to be followed and watched to make sure they don’t turn around or report to some gang. You can’t trust them. They are lost people.
Sometimes someone comes and we trust them and let them stay. We watch them very carefully, but usually they’re okay. They start working like everyone else, and they bring whatever skills they have to help us. These are the lucky ones, like me. I know I’m lucky to be here, to have these people at the Homestead who trust me with their lives and I trust them with mine, even the ones I don’t like much.
I’ve lived here most of my life. I could say I’ve lived here all my life because I don’t remember much before we came here. I don’t remember much of my life before the Worm. Sometimes I dream of a woman with long, wiry dark hair, hair that I loved to touch, to feel in my hand. In my dream, she’s singing, but I can’t hear her voice. It’s more like a feeling that she’s singing. And she’s holding me but I can’t feel her arms around me. All I can feel is her hair in my hands. And I have a feeling in my dream, a feeling I never have in life. It’s like being in warm water, suspended, floating, and there’s sunlight all around me and there’s nothing wrong in the world. I’m pretty sure the woman singing is my mother. That’s all that’s left of my life before the Worm.
The Homestead is a great place. It’s changed a lot over the years. The Homestead used to be just the farm and the fields around it. Then more people came, people we could trust. Over time we grew and we began to build the Village. We’re still building it. From the Village, we have a pretty good idea of what’s around us. I remember there used to be trees on the hill, but not anymore. We used those trees for houses or to burn in the long winter months. Now we have to drag trees uphill from the forests to get wood. But it’s worth it for the view.
This view. I’m sitting on the side of the hill, just below the Village, looking down at the farm. The river we call the Rill runs down to my left, down past the backfields and eventually into another river. The farmhouse is down there. I can see smoke coming from the chimney. The cows are out to pasture, and I can see Cyrus working on a fence. Even from this distance, I can tell it’s Cyrus. The way he moves. He’s slow but powerful. Like every move he plans before he makes it, like the way a big horse moves. It’s creepy in a man. Sort of endearing too, if you get to know him. I don’t think I’ve heard him say more than ten or twelve sentences my whole life. I like that about him. He’s quiet like me. Pickle, our new dog, is right next to him. Strange how dogs decide they like someone and stay with them. I wonder what it is. What they sense. Strange that he should have picked Cyrus. Maybe I’m a little jealous. I’d like to have a dog. I’d like to be chosen.
In the fields in front of the farmhouse, the fields we call, imaginatively, the “front fields,” I can see the goon squad. That’s what I call Crypt, Gunner, Rebok, and Pest. They’re always together. Just a bunch of adolescent boys. Real pains in the ass, but innocent enough. They do more than their share of work, although we have to check it all the time because they have the attention span of fleas. They’re arguing about something, as usual. Even from here, I know the figure standing quietly in the back is Pest, the youngest. He’s watching. There’s something about the way he’s standing, like he’s satisfied, that I’m sure he’s behind the fight. He might be the youngest, but he controls that group. Pest is only about 12 or 13, but he’s a little spooky when he looks at you. When Pest gives you the eye, you know he’s thinking about something. I don’t mean to make him sound evil. He’s not. But he’s spooky smart.
As I watch, I see Matt come strolling in and call out to them. They stop fighting and go talk with him, all of them except Pest who stays where he is. Matt’s an older guy, just joined us a few years ago. He’s bald and always sad. Even after he laughs, he gets this guilty look on his face, like he’s ashamed for being alive, and then he walks away. Lots of the older people are like that. They’ve lost too much, I guess, and they’re like surprised and guilty that they’re still here and so many aren’t. I have this idea that Matt used to laugh a lot. His face has the wrinkles for it, and in those couple times I did see him smile, all the wrinkles matched up for just a moment before he remembered he ought to be miserable. We don’t know much about Matt. It usually takes a few years for the new ones to really begin to trust people again. Then they let us know who they miss so bad, they feel guilty for breathing. They get a little better after that, but they never get totally better. Even the best of the older ones have their moments, their days. It’s like they break down to their core and can’t do anything but mourn whatever it was they lost. I’m glad I’m not like that. I’m glad I’m whole and not so fragile. I’ll be lucky if I stay this way.
Whatever Matt said to the boys seems to have worked because they’re shaking hands and Rebok is hugging people, because he’s a hugger. Then it’s back to work. Just another day in the fields for those boys. Hope they don’t screw up. We’ll end up fixing it.
I take a long drink of water. It’s nice and fresh and cold. I wish I brought more bread with me, but I wasn’t hungry then. I am now. I reach into my pocket for my apple and bite into it. It’s a little old and grainy, but I don’t care. It’s kind of sweet and I like it. It’s been sitting in the root cellar for months, it’s pure luck it tastes like anything. I finish it off quickly, watching the boys turn the earth with hoes. Matt has joined them with a wheelbarrow full of manure from the barns. Unpleasant job. I’ll probably be doing it tomorrow. As long as it’s not chicken shit, I don’t mind. Chicken shit, I don’t like. Cow manure is almost pleasant, earthy. But chicken shit invades you like ammonia. I almost gag just thinking about it.
There’s still snow in the corners of the field, I notice. And under the trees. It’s still pretty cold. Cold enough for winter jackets. The wind coming up from the south has got a little bite to it. Like a puppy’s bite though. No longer the frightening jaws of winter, that’s for sure, when a wind comes up across the fields of snow and ice and makes you feel like you’ve inhaled pure death and you cough it out. Freezes your snot in your nose. I shiver a little, thinking about it. Then I sigh because winter is broken and spring is here and down in the cellars under the farmhouse there’s jug after jug of maple syrup and bags of maple sugar. Soon it’ll be warm enough to wear t-shirts and we’ll swim in the lake. That’s when I love it here the most.
There’s the sound of a door shutting, and I turn around toward the houses of the Village. It’s Diane, coming out of her log house. Her kid, Amber, about 10 years old or so, follows behind her. Diane sees me and waves and I give a wave back. She and Amber walk down the path toward Franky’s house, I imagine. They live together, even though she’s like twenty years younger than him. Franky is a great guy. He likes to tinker on things. He calls it “puttering.” He just goes around and fixes things and makes things for us and is generally a good help to everyone. I like Franky because he whistles. He whistles while he walks but not when he works. When he works, he gets a concentrated look on his face, like the whole world is just in front of him, complete concentration. I wish I could do that.
Sometimes I wonder what Franky sees in Diane, but maybe I’m just jealous. I mean, I don’t like Franky, not in that way, but I don’t know, I’d like it if he liked me more. Everyone likes the attention of people they admire. I do admire Franky. I go with him sometimes, hoping to learn from him. He lets me too and I hand him tools and sometimes he asks me what I think, which I really like, but I usually only shrug. What do I know? I wish I could be of more help than I am. No one calls me for help. You won’t ever hear anyone say, oh, you know what this problem needs? Kestrel. We need Kestrel. Well, unless they want me to find Eric, but other than that, I’m just, I don’t know, Eric’s girl.
But Franky is busy all day, every day. Everyone wants Franky around. And Diane is so, well, not to be mean, but she’s like the apple I ate. She’s bland and boring and kind of mushy and soft. I don’t eat the apple out of pleasure, that’s what I’m saying. I feel like Diane is like that. She came here about five years back or so, with two kids, Amber and Curt, who’s just a couple years younger than me. They came from Boston with the usual hellish story. I remember when she came here, she was as near to death as you can be without dying. She was like bones and skin and not much skin. She didn’t even talk for the first few months except to say thank you for everything. She looks better now, but still has a kind of frailty about her, like she’d crack into a thousand pieces if you said the wrong thing. She’s tall and slim and has scraggly blonde hair that she keeps long even though long hair is such a pain. I keep my hair short for a reason. It’s a pain in the ass when it’s long.
I guess I sound kind of harsh toward Diane. I don’t mean to be like that. She’s not bad. She’s just, well, damaged. She never smiles and even though she’s only in her early thirties, she looks really old. She looks tired all the time. I can tell life is very hard for her. Not the stuff that’s hard for all of us, like the fear of starving or whether or not there’s some marauding gang on the horizon. I mean just normal stuff. Like cooking and washing up and getting out of bed. She’s like on the edge. I mean, she’s just hanging on. I think sometimes Franky’s with her because he likes to tinker. Maybe he thinks he can fix her the way he can hang a door level or patch up a hole in the wall. Franky’s a great guy and very handy, but not so smart, really, when I think about it. I don’t think you can fix people. People have to fix themselves. I’m not even sure that can be done either. Sometimes I think who we are is like a wild horse and we’re just riding it as best we can, hoping like hell we don’t fall off. Diane is a person who can’t hang on very well.
I watch Diane walk around the hill and out of sight and then I turn back to the fields. That’s when I notice the horse and cart. I watch for a while, my heart beginning to pound. I put my hand on my knife just to make sure it’s there. I have to have it with me all the time. And it has to be sharp. I feel the hilt and breathe a little easier.
But it’s no stranger. I recognize the horse before the rider.
And riding the cart a little awkwardly, stiffly, in that gangly way that he has, is Randal the Vandal. I get up and start running!