Excerpt from The Smoke

Here’s something I’m working on right now. Thoughts?

The smoke came at night and left by morning. Sectors of the city were covered by it and the people that lived there and who did not escape as soon as the first licks of smoke snuffled at their doors, those too sick to move or too old or those who had given up, stayed in it. Lights flashed in there, people said, and under the fog horns people said they heard a crunching like a dog at a bone. By morning that sector had been changed. Sometimes they were crowded with new buildings, sometimes the previous buildings were destroyed and the ground left flat and shiny as ice. Some days all that was left was a white marble temple to a forgotten god. The people that stayed were gone.

“And you try living in that,” howled Milena’s mother, Petra, when word came that another quadrant of homes, some stacked five on top of each other with no stairs or ladders, had been leveled and replaced an amphitheater made of marble and iron. “They ain’t a rhyme to it and there ain’t a reason and one day the city problems will come to the country and we’ll have the worst of it.”

It was Month Twelve and coming on Candlemas and Milena, eighteen, wondered if they would have enough food to celebrate. She was too old to still believe in Sack Ross and his basket of oranges or old Krampus, the demon of half fog that came for little boys and girls who didn’t mind their parents. Instead she enjoyed the pageants in town, the tale, acted by the younger one, of the birth of the Babe in the fog and the reading of His book of memory. She loved to hear them read about the old cities – Paree, Lodon, Jerusalat – that were taken by the smoke. She loved to hear the story of the Mother who stayed in the smoke and had a Babe. The Babe was the only one who survived the smoke and by his birth the remembering happened and the changes could be borne, a little, even as the smoke burned away the world, replacing the old and needed with the new and unwanted, a builder whose memory and mind was tangled in a net of madness.

Milena was out to feed the chickens in their tumbledown coop. The smoke took most of the wood with it and left only hard materials – iron, marble, stone. It was difficult to get anything to repair, wood being scarce and necessary for fuel. It was a wonder no one had torn down the chicken coop yet. She pulled open the thin door and walked into the warm-cold, sweet-sour smelling space where the chickens fluttered lazily and then settled back onto their plump bodies.

Her farm, five miles from the city, was grey, the fields locked in snow and the house nearly falling down under the strain of ice sheets that covered the wooden roof. Inside it was cosy enough and her mother had already prepared a few beeswax candles for the long walk into town. She knew her mother had kept a few cuts of meat in the cellar and a few jarred peaches for Candlemas dinner but it would not be enough for the Culdesac they shared food with. Come Month Twelve and the Culdesac began hunkering down, closing in, neighbors circulated from house to house by to ask for the communal meal. If the neighbors caught wind of hidden food there would be trouble and, besides, sharing had kept them alive so far. She hoped, at the very least, she would be able to eat a bit of peach.

The Culdesac had been built on an old road that stopped at the end like a bud on a tree. There were only a five houses it on it, two reduced by time and wind and snow to rubble. Two doors down, in a brown house, lived the Mattias family, two daughters and a son and the Mister and Missus. Two doors down from them lived Old Mark. His wife had died a year before and he would need to share food more than any of them. The last house belonged to Rememberer John and his boy, Juno.

Milena pulled her hair back around her ears and pulled her cap down. She was tall and thin, her face like her mother’s and her thick dark hair like her father’s. She had brown eyes and long eyelashes – “like a paintbrush,” said her mother – and she felt self-conscious now that the Culdesac expected her to marry. Rememberer John held the book of families that went back to the first people in the Culdesac. He even had the original sign written in Old English that the Remember said meant “River View Road No Exit Local Traffic Only.” Where the name Culdesac came from even the Rememberer couldn’t tell. He said it was French.

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