A picture says a thousand words. Write them.
Mission: Write a story, a description, a poem, a metaphor, a commentary, or a critique about this picture. Write something about this picture.
Be sure to tag writeworld in your block!
“It’s poison here, Buck. We need to go back.”
“Back to where exactly? It’s not so bad. A little brown grass. So what?” Buck kicked a clump of dry, rust-tinged sod and shrugged. “We saw fish in the last stream. That’s a great sign.”
“Dirty old tomcod. Wouldn’t eat one,” Anna muttered.
“No, but they’re alive. It’s something.”
Anna dropped back a few paces from Buck, sick of looking at his strained, insistent smile. She ground her teeth, wincing as it touched off an aching molar she’d been trying to ignore for several days. A bad tooth amounted to the least of her concerns at this point.
The hot gray sky stretched featureless, birdless, above them, the flat air weighing on the two young people like a wet wool blanket. It made covering ground all the more difficult as their sweat became useless, their breath fast and shallow.
Fat, red-eyed cicadas rattled their tymbal song from every blade of grass and brittle conifer trunk. Their molted skins crackled under each step the pair took. Anna had heard people talk about the 17-year brood—how large and abundant they were—but was not old enough herself to remember the last time they emerged. Compared to the little golden-brown cicadas that peppered the landscape every summer, this swarm seemed like a godsend. Buck and Anna ate more than their fill of them every day.
“Look, heartstoppers! I told you this was the wrong way,” Anna sighed, spotting the bruise-colored mushrooms growing in the skimpy shade of a few trees. Their droopy conical caps looked like shriveled, veiny organs atop disproportionately willowy stalks. They were not to be eaten or even touched, and they thrived on toxic tracts of land.
Buck said nothing, but chewed his peeling bottom lip. He fared poorly in the sun, being fair and freckled. Anna’s coppery skin certainly grew darker with the summer exposure, but at least she didn’t blister.
“Okay. I see them. I just… Anna, I don’t know what else to do but keep going,” he admitted, running his hands through his tangled, damp hair. “I can’t go back. I don’t know how you can even talk about it.”
“It’s not like I want to. But at least we know what we’re dealing with at home.”
Home lay eighty miles behind them. Fourteen bare, mossy cabins on proven clean ground. Tomato and corn patches, fresh water, a few deer. You couldn’t ask for much more.
Except maybe some people.
They’d burned forty-five bodies before leaving. It had taken days and taxed them beyond all reason. One long blur of coughing, watering eyes, and splintered hands. Feeding, feeding, feeding that fire until every man, woman, and child drifted away on the wind. Anna knew she must have dragged her sister and nieces to the pyre, but did not remember. They’d left without a word when the embers finally cooled, packing hide satchels with greasy pemmican and cornmeal.
“I’d rather eat one of those right now than go back,” Buck hissed, waving at the sickly purple mushrooms. “Everyone knows it’s worse to the south. The river cuts us off to the west. We don’t have a lot of choices. I—ugfh.”
He stubbed his toe hard in the long grass and pitched forward, throwing out his arms to break the fall.
“Oh, you all right?” Anna went to give him a hand and blinked in surprise at what had tripped him. Two narrow parallel bars cut through the turf. Metal. Solid metal.
“Woah, what are these?” Buck said, running a hand over the smooth raised lines that extended off in either direction.
“I’m not sure. They must be old.”
“Yeah, Old with a Capital O,” Buck agreed.
“Is it a road?” Anna wondered.
“No, roads were flat rock.”
“I don’t mean a road-road. I mean like… is it a guideline? From one place to another?”
“Maybe. But why bother with two of them then?”
“I don’t know. But I think we should see where it goes. It seems important. Maybe other people have followed it before. We could find another settlement.” Anna felt her face breaking into a quivering smile, not sure where it came from.
“It’s as good as anything else,” Buck agreed, standing and brushing grit from his knees.
A couple of hours down the metal rails and their surroundings had changed very little. A dark treeline blotted out one horizon.
“Give me a sip of water, will you?” Anna asked. Buck tossed her the skin and she sucked in a couple mouthfuls. She closed her eyes, swishing the warm, stale water over her parched tongue before swallowing. Tuning in to the deafening white noise of the cicada screech, she breathed along with its rhythmic ebb and flow. Each time it faded like a wave from a beach she heard a distant creaking.
“What is that? You hear that?”
“No,” Buck mumbled.
“Besides the bugs. It’s like a squeak?”
They both stopped, peering around. Behind them, very far off, a small shape stood out from the grass. The sun glinted off it intermittently, suggesting movement.
“Now what could that be?” Buck shaded his eyes and squinted at it.
There was nowhere to hide even if they’d wanted to. They stood dead center in the tracks and waited as the shape approached. As the minutes passed and the squeaking grew louder, Anna tried to tamp down the excited flutter in her stomach. She couldn’t quite decide whether to be afraid or not.
It looked like nothing made with human hands. Too regular, too perfect. In front of it, however, swayed a team of large beasts that Anna did not recognize. They pulled the huge thing along the rails at a slow, stately pace.
“What is it?” Anna breathed. “And what are those animals?”
“I think… cows? Cows were bigger than deer. And could pull heavy loads. Maybe there are some left. Do you see any people on it?”
Just as he asked, a figure hopped out the side of the vessel and started jogging toward them. “Stand down!” the stranger shouted. “Who are you?”
“Uh, we’re nobody, really. I’m Buck, this is Anna. Sorry, we weren’t trying to threaten you,” Buck offered, holding his hands up innocently. They stepped out of the path of the metal tracks.
As the figure got closer, Anna made out that he was an older man, deeply tanned, with very well-made clothes. His shirt was woven and dyed blue. He wore leather boots shaped to his feet, not sandals or hide coverings. Anna remembered her grandfather had had boots like that once. A sturdy sling hung from his belt.
“Hell, you’re just a couple of kids,” he observed, shading his eyes. “What are you doing way out here?”
“I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen,” Buck said.
“We’re looking for people. Or a village. Somewhere clean,” Anna explained.
“Not so clean here, I’m afraid. The name’s Henry, late of Eagle Plains. You had to have come from somewhere.” He talked funny. Fast and clipped, accenting words and parts of words that Anna’s people never would have.
“Yeah, well, our settlement… it’s gone.”
“Disaster? Attack? Sickness? How long ago was this?” Henry pushed.
“Uh, six days ago? It was poison. We found a lot of rye growing wild over the hills. The whole village spent days gathering it. We tried it on the pigeons first, of course. They seemed fine. Loved it. Then Rose agreed to eat some—she’s old, see, like fifty, so she usually volunteers as the tester. She was all right after three days. So everyone dug in. Except us. We were fasting in preparation for our wedding. But that never happened. It was the day Rose got sick. And then everyone else after her. They’re all dead.”
“I’m real sorry for that,” Henry said, nodding soberly. “Sounds like you were raised pretty rough.”
“No, not really. We were doing okay before that.”
The man eyed their matching lumpy jerkins, their scars and burns, their matted hair. “Sure, sure. But what was this village like? Did you have a doctor? Keep livestock? Read?”
“Do what now?” Buck quirked an eyebrow.
“Hoo boy,” the man breathed to himself, shaking his head.
“What is that thing?” Anna finally interjected, unable to ignore the strange, tri-colored vessel any longer as it screeched to a halt beside them. The silhouettes of a couple more travelers moved in the windows. The beasts pulling it rumbled and sneezed, stamping their huge hooved feet. Anna had never seen living things so large.
“It’s a tram car.” Henry beamed proudly at it. “Bit of leftover civilization. It’s been in my family for generations. We take care of it and these tracks. We ride them from place to place, mapping clean and unclean land, checking on the welfare of all the major settlements. Trying to find more.”
“Yeah, but what is it?”
“They used to move on their own, you see. No horses needed.” He patted one of the four big brown animals on the rear end. “The tracks had power a long time ago. Or the trams had engines. And they just glided along carrying people. Easy as you please. Of course, there hasn’t been any power or fuel in over a hundred years. And precious little for a long time before that.”
“So it used to be alive.” Buck squinted at the tram skeptically.
“No, no, it had… power. Like everything from civilization. Like the lights and heat and… you know, all of it.”
“I know there used to be lot more people before the poisoning, and that they had big houses and good food. Roads and boats and all kinds of animals. But power? That’s just a story nobody believes. Like flying.” Buck crossed his arms.
“You’ve never seen any of the ruins, have you?”
Buck exchanged a glance with Anna. She shrugged. “Suppose not. Ruins of what?”
“Climb on in there. Ride the tracks with us for a spell and you’ll see.” Henry’s lined face broke into a strange, vaguely sad grin. “Kids, you are in sore need of a history lesson.”