David Brin's THE POSTMAN

The Postman sample chapters

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4

     "...They said, 'Fear not, Macbeth, till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane'; and now a wood comes to Dunsinane!
     "Arm, arm, arm yourselves! If this is what the witch spoke of -- that thing out there -- there'll be no running, or hiding here!"
     Gordon clutched his wooden sword, contrived from planking and a bit of tin. He motioned to an invisible aide-de-camp.
     "I'm gettin' weary of the sun, and wish the world were undone.
     "Ring the alarum bell! Blow, wind! Come wrack! At least we'll die with harness on our back!"
     Gordon squared his shoulders, flourished his sword, and marched Macbeth offstage to his doom.
     Out of the light of the tallow lamps, he swiveled to catch a glimpse of his audience. They had loved his earlier acts. But this bastardized, one-man version of Macbeth might have gone over their heads.
     An instant after he exited, though, enthusiastic applause began, led by Mrs. Adele Thompson, the leader of this small community. Adults whistled and stamped their feet. Younger citizens clapped awkwardly, those below twenty years of age watching their elders and slapping their hands awkwardly, as if they were taking part in this strange rite for the first time.
     Obviously, they had liked his abbreviated version of the ancient tragedy. Gordon was relieved. To be honest, some parts had been simplified less for brevity than because of his imperfect memory of the original. He had last seen a copy of the play almost a decade ago, and that a half-burned fragment.
     Still, the final lines of his soliloquy had been canon. That part about "wind and wrack" he would never forget.
     Grinning, Gordon returned to take his bows onstage -- a plank-covered garage lift in what had once been the only gas station in the tiny hamlet of Pine View.
     Hunger and isolation had driven him to try the hospitality of this mountain village of fenced fields and stout log walls, and the gamble had paid off better than he'd hoped. An exchange of a series of shows for his meals and supplies had tentatively passed by a fair majority of the voting adults, and now the deal seemed settled.
     "Bravo! Excellent!" Mrs. Thompson stood in the front row, clapping eagerly. White-haired and bony, but still robust, she turned to encourage the forty-odd others, including small children, to show their appreciation. Gordon did a flourish with one hand, and bowed deeper than before.
     Of course his performance had been pure crap. But he was probably the only person within a hundred miles who had once minored in drama. There were "peasants" once again in America, and like his predecessors in the minstrel trade, Gordon had learned to go for the unsubtle in his shows.
     Timing his final bow for the moment before the applause began to fade, Gordon hopped off the stage and began removing his slap-dash costume. He had set firm limits; there would be no encore. His stock was theater, and he meant to keep them hungry for it until it was time to leave.
     "Marvelous. lust wonderful!" Mrs. Thompson told him as he joined the villagers, now gathering at a buffet table along the back wall. The older children formed a circle around him, staring in wonderment.
     Pine View was quite prosperous, compared with so many of the starving villages of the plains and mountains. In some places a good part of a generation was nearly missing due to the devastating effects the Three-Year Winter had had on children. But here he saw several teenagers and young adults, and even a few oldsters who must have been past middle age when the Doom fell.
     They must have fought to save everybody. That pattern had been rarer, but he had seen it, too, here and there.
     Everywhere there were traces of those years. Faces pocked from diseases or etched from weariness and war. Two women and a man were amputees and another looked out of one good eye, the other a cloudy mass of cataracts.
     He was used to such things -- at least on a superficial level. He nodded gratefully to his host.
     "Thank you, Mrs. Thompson. I appreciate kind words from a perceptive critic. I'm glad you liked the show."
     "No, no seriously," the clan leader insisted, as if Gordon had been trying to be modest. "I haven't been so delighted in years. The Macbeth part at the end there sent shivers up my spine! I only wish I'd watched it on TV back when I had a chance. I didn't know it was so good!
     "And that inspiring speech you gave us earlier, that one of Abraham Lincoln's... well, you know, we tried to start a school here, in the beginning. But it just didn't work out. We needed every hand, even the kids'. Now though, well, that speech got me to thinking. We've got some old books put away. Maybe now's the time to give it a try again."
     Gordon nodded politely. He had seen this syndrome before -- the best of the dozen or so types of reception he had experienced over the years, but also among the saddest. It always made him feel like a charlatan, when his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days... hopes that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a few weeks or months had passed.
     It was as if the seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and the dreams of aging high school graduates to water them. Gordon often wondered if the right symbol might do the trick -- the right idea. But he knew his little dramas, however well received, weren't the key. They might trigger a beginning, once in a great while, but local enthusiasm always failed soon after. He was no traveling messiah. The legends he offered weren't the kind of sustenance needed in order to overcome the inertia of a dark age.
     The world turns, and soon the last of the old generation will be gone. Scattered tribes will rule the continent. Perhaps in a thousand years the adventure will begin again. Meanwhile...
     Gordon was spared hearing more of Mrs. Thompson's sadly unlikely plans. The crowd squeezed out a small, silver-haired, black woman, wiry and leather skinned, who seized Gordon's arm in a friendly, viselike grip.
     "Now Adele," she said to the clan matriarch, "Mister Krantz hasn't had a bite since noontime. I think, if we want him able to perform tomorrow night, we'd better feed him. Right?" She squeezed his right arm and obviously thought him undernourished -- an impression he was loathe to alter, with the aroma of food wafting his way.
     Mrs. Thompson gave the other woman a look of patient indulgence. "Of course, Patricia," she said. "I'll speak with you more about this, later, Mr. Krantz, after Mrs. Howlett has fattened you up a bit." Her smile and her glittering eyes held a touch of intelligent irony, and Gordon found himself reevaluating Adele Thompson. She certainly was nobody's fool.
     Mrs. Howlett propelled him through the crowd. Gordon smiled and nodded as hands came out to touch his sleeve. Wide eyes followed his every movement.
     Hunger must make me a better actor. I've never had an audience react quite like this before. I wish I knew exactly what it was I did that made them feel this way.
     One of those watching him from behind the long buffet table was a young woman barely taller than Mrs. Howlett, with deep, almond eyes and hair blacker than Gordon remembered ever seeing before. Twice, she turned to gently slap the hand of a child who tried to help himself before the honored guest. Each time the girl quickly looked back at Gordon and smiled.
     Beside her, a tall, burly young man stroked his reddish beard and gave Gordon a strange look -- as if his eyes were filled with some desperate resignation. Gordon had only a moment to assimilate the two as Mrs. Howlett pulled him over in front of the pretty brunette.
     "Abby," she said, "let's have a little bit of everything on a plate for Mr. Krantz. Then he can make up his mind what he wants seconds of. I baked the blueberry pie, Mr. Krantz."
     Dizzily, Gordon made a note to have two helpings of the blueberry. It was hard to concentrate on diplomacy, though. He hadn't seen or smelled anything like this in years. The odors distracted him from the disconcerting looks and touching hands.
     There was a large, spit-turned, stuffed turkey. A huge, steaming bowl of boiled potatoes, dollied up with beer-soaked jerky, carrots, and onions, was the second course. Down the table Gordon saw apple cobbler and an opened barrel of dried apple flakes. I must cozen a supply of those, before I leave.
     Skipping further inventory, he eagerly held out his plate. Abby kept watching him as she took it.
     The big, frowning redhead suddenly muttered something indecipherable and reached out to grab Gordon's right hand in both of his own. Gordon flinched, but the taciturn fellow would not let go until he answered the grip and shook hands firmly.
     The man muttered something too low to follow, nodded, and let go. He bent to kiss the brunette quickly and then stalked off, eyes downcast.
     Gordon blinked. Did I just miss something? It felt as if some sort of event had just occurred, and had gone completely over his head.
     "That was Michael, Abby's husband," Mrs. Howlett said. "He's got to go and relieve Edward at the trap string. But he wanted to stay to see your show, first. When he was little he so used to love to watch TV shows...."
      Steam from the plate rose to his face, making Gordon quite dizzy with hunger. Abby blushed and smiled when he thanked her. Mrs. Howlett pulled him over to take a seat on a pile of old tires. "You'll get to talk to Abby, later," the black woman went on. "Now, you eat. Enjoy yourself."
     Gordon did not need to be encouraged. He dug in while people looked on curiously and Mrs. Howlett rattled on.
     "Good, isn't it? You just sit and eat and pay us no mind.
     "And when you're all full and you're ready to talk again, I think we'd all like to hear, one more time, how you got to be a mailman."
     Gordon looked up at the eager faces above him. He hurriedly took a swig of beer to chase down the too-hot potatoes.
     "I'm just a traveler," he said around a half-full mouth while lifting a turkey drumstick. "It's not much of a story how I got the bag and clothes."
     He didn't care whether they stared, or touched, or talked at him, so long as they let him eat!
     Mrs. Howlett watched him for a few moments. Then, unable to hold back, she started in again. "You know, when I was a little girl we used to give milk and cookies to the mailman. And my father always left a little glass of whiskey on the fence for him the day before New Year's. Dad used to tell us that poem, you know, 'Through sleet, through mud, through war, through blight, through bandits and through darkest night...'"
     Gordon choked on a sudden, wayward swallow. He coughed and looked up to see if she was in earnest. A glimmer in his forebrain wanted to dance over the old woman's accidentally magnificent remembrance. It was rich.
     The glimmer faded quickly, though, as he bit into the delicious roast fowl. He hadn't the will to try to figure out what the old woman was driving at.
     "Our mailman used to sing to us!"
     The speaker, incongruously, was a dark-haired giant with a silver-streaked beard. His eyes seemed to mist as he remembered. "We could hear him coming, on Saturdays when we were home from school, sometimes when he was over a block away.
     "He was black, a lot blacker than Mrs. Howlett, or Jim Horton over there. Man, did he have a nice voice! Guess that's how he got the job. He brought me all those mail order coins I used to collect. Ringed the doorbell so he could hand 'em to me, personal, with his own hand."
     His voice was hushed with telescoped awe.
     "Our mailman just whistled when I was little," said a middle-aged woman with a deeply lined face. She sounded a little disappointed.
     "But he was real nice. Later, when I was grown up, I came home from work one day and found out the mailman had saved the life of one of my neighbors. Heard him choking and gave him mouth-to-mouth until th' ambulance came."
     A collective sigh rose from the circle of listeners, as if they were hearing the heroic adventures of a single ancient hero. The children listened in wide-eyed silence as the tales grew more and more embroidered. At least the small part of him still paying attention figured they had to be. Some were simply too far-fetched to be believed.
     Mrs. Howlett touched Gordon's knee. "Tell us again how you got to be a mailman."
     Gordon shrugged a little desperately. "I just found the mailman's fings!" he emphasized around the food in his mouth. The flavors had overcome him, and he felt almost panicky over the way they all hovered over him. If the adult villagers wanted to romanticize their memories of men they had once considered lower-class civil servants at best, that was all right. Apparently they associated his performance tonight with the little touches of extroversion they had witnessed in their neighborhood letter carriers, when they had been children. That, too, was okay. They could think anything they damn well pleased, so long as they didn't interrupt his eating!
     "Ah" Several of the villagers looked at each other knowingly and nodded, as if Gordon's answer had had some profound significance. Gordon heard his own words repeated to those on the edges of the circle.
     "He found the mailman's things... so naturally he became..."
     His answer must have appeased them, somehow, for the crowd thinned as the villagers moved off to take polite turns at the buffet. It wasn't until much later, on reflection, that he perceived the significance of what had taken place there, under boarded windows and tallow lamps, while he crammed himself near to bursting with good food.

5

     "... we have found that our clinic has an abundant supply of disinfectants and pain killers of several varieties. We hear these are in short supply in Bend and in the relocation centers up north. We're willing to trade some of these -- along with a truckload of de-ionizing resin columns that happened to be abandoned here -- for one thousand doses of tetracycline, to guard against the bubonic plague outbreak to the east. Perhaps we'd be willing to settle for an active culture of balomycine-producing yeast, instead, if someone could come up and show us how to maintain it.
     "Also, we are in desperate need of..."

     The Mayor of Gilchrist must have been a strong-willed man to have persuaded his local emergency committee to offer such a trade. Hoarding, however illogical and uncooperative, was a major contributor to the collapse. It astonished Gordon that there still had been people with this much good sense during the first two years of the Chaos.
     He rubbed his eyes. Reading wasn't easy by the light of a pair of homemade candles. But he found it difficult getting to sleep on the soft mattress, and damn if he'd sleep on the floor after so long dreaming of such a bed, in just such a room!
     He had been a little sick, earlier. All that food and home-brewed ale had almost taken him over the line from delirious happiness to utter misery. Somehow, he had teetered along the boundary for several hours of blurrily remembered celebration before at last stumbling into the room they had prepared for him.
     There had been a toothbrush waiting on his nightstand, and an iron tub filled with hot water.
     And soap! In the bath his stomach had settled, and a warm, clean glow spread over his skin.
     Gordon smiled when he saw that his postman's uniform had been cleaned and pressed. It lay on a nearby chair; the rips and tears he had crudely patched were now neatly sewn.
     He could not fault the people of this tiny hamlet for neglecting his one remaining longing... something he had gone without too long to even think about. Enough. This was almost Paradise.
     As he lay in a sated haze between a pair of elderly but clean sheets, waiting leisurely for sleep to come, he read a piece of correspondence between two long-dead men.
     The Mayor of Gilchrist went on:

     "We are having extreme difficulty with local gangs of 'Survivalists.' Fortunately, these infestations of egotists are mostly too paranoid to band together. They're as much trouble to each other as to us, I suppose. Still, they are becoming a real problem.
     "Our deputy is regularly fired on by well armed men in army surplus camouflage clothing. No doubt the idiots think he's a Russian Lackey or some such nonsense. They have taken to hunting game on a massive scale, killing everything in the forest and doing a typically rotten job of butchering and preserving the meat. Our own hunters come back disgusted over the waste, often having been shot at without provocation.
     "I know it's a lot to ask, but when you can spare a platoon from relocation riot duty, could you send them up here to help us root out these self-centered, hoarding, romantic scoundrels from their little filtered armories? Maybe a unit or two of the US Army will convince them that we won the war, and have to cooperate with each other from now on. . . ."

     He put the letter down.
     So it had been that way here, too. The clichéd "last straw" had been this plague of "survivalists" -- particularly those following the high priest of violent anarchy, Nathan Holn.
     One of Gordon's duties in the militia had been to help weed out some of those small gangs of city-bred cutthroats and gun nuts. The number of fortified caves and cabins his unit had found -- in the prairie and on little lake islands -- had been staggering... all set up in a rash of paranoia in the difficult decades before the war.
     The irony of it was that we had things turned around! The depression was over. People were at work again and cooperating. Except for a few crazies, it looked like a renaissance was coming, for America and for the world.
     But we forgot just how much harm a few crazies could do, in America and in the world.
     Of course when the collapse did come, the solitary survivalists' precious little fortresses did not stay theirs for long. Most of the tiny bastions changed hands a dozen or more times in the first months -- they were such tempting targets. The battles had raged all over the plains until every solar collector was shattered, every windmill wrecked, and every cache of valuable medicines scattered in the never-ending search for heavy dope.
     Only the ranches and villages, those possessing the right mixture of ruthlessness, internal cohesion, and common sense, survived in the end. By the time the Guard units had all died at their posts, or themselves dissolved into roving gangs of battling survivalists, very few of the original population of armed and armored hermits remained alive.
     Gordon looked at the letter's postmark again. Nearly two years after the war. He shook his head. I never knew anyone held on so long.
     The thought hurt, like a dull wound inside him. Anything that made the last sixteen years seem avoidable was just too hard to imagine.
     There was a faint sound. Gordon looked up, wondering if he had imagined it. Then, only slightly louder, another faint knock rapped at the door to his room.
     "Come in," he called. The door opened about halfway. Abby, the petite girl with the vaguely oriental cast to her eyes, smiled timidly from the opening. Gordon refolded the letter and slipped it into its envelope. He smiled.
     "Hello, Abby. What's up?"
     "II've come to ask if there is anything else you needed," she said a little quickly. "Did you enjoy your bath?"
     "Did I now?" Gordon sighed. He found himself slipping back into Macduff's burr. "Aye, lass. And in particular I appreciated the gift of that toothbrush. Heaven sent, it was."
     "You mentioned you'd lost yours." She looked at the floor. "I pointed out that we had at least five or six unused ones in the storage room. I'm glad you were pleased."
     "It was your idea?" He bowed. "Then I am indeed in your debt."
     Abby looked up and smiled. "Was that a letter you were just reading? Could I look at it? I've never seen a letter before."
     Gordon laughed. "Oh surely you're not that young! What about before the war?"
     Abby blushed at his laughter. "I was only four when it happened. It was so frightening and confusing that I...I really don't remember much from before."
    Gordon blinked. Had it really been that long? Yes. Sixteen years was indeed enough time to have beautiful women in the world who knew nothing but the dark age.
     Amazing, he thought.
     "All right, then." He pushed the chair by his bed. Grinning, she came over and sat beside him. Gordon reached into the sack and pulled out another of the frail, yellowed envelopes. Carefully, he spread out the letter and handed it to her.
     Abby looked at it so intently that he thought she was reading the whole thing. She concentrated, her thin eyebrows almost coming together in a crease on her forehead. But finally she handed the letter back. "I guess I can't really read that well. I mean, I can read labels on cans, and stuff. But I never had much practice with handwriting and... sentences."
     Her voice dropped at the end. She sounded embarrassed, but in a totally unafraid, trusting fashion, as if he were her confessor.
     He smiled. "No matter. I'll tell you what it's about." He held the letter up to the candlelight. Abby moved over to sit by his knees on the edge of the bed, her eyes rapt on the pages.
     "It's from one John Briggs, of Fort Rock, Oregon, to his former employer in Klamath Falls.... I'd guess from the lathe and hobby horse letterhead that Briggs was a retired machinist or carpenter or something. Hmmm."
     Gordon concentrated on the barely legible handwriting. "It seems Mr. Briggs was a pretty nice man. Here he's offering to take in his ex-boss's children, until the emergency is over. Also he says he has a good garage machine shop, his own power, and plenty of metal stock. He wants to know if the man wants to order any parts made up, especially things in short supply...."
     Gordon's voice faltered. He was still so thick-headed from his excesses that it had just struck him that a beautiful female was sitting on his bed. The depression she made in the mattress tilted his body toward her. He cleared his throat quickly and went back to scanning the letter.
     "Briggs mentions something about power levels from the Fort Rock reservoir.... Telephones were out, but he was still, oddly enough, getting Eugene on his computer data net...."
     Abby looked at him. Apparently much of what he had said about the letter writer might as well have been in a foreign language to her. "Machine shop" and "data net" could have been ancient, magical words of power.
     "Why didn't you bring us any letters, here in Pine View?" she asked quite suddenly.
     Gordon blinked at the non sequitur. The girl wasn't stupid. One could tell such things. Then why had every thing he said, when he arrived here, and later at the party been completely misunderstood? She still thought he was a mailman, as, apparently, did all but a few of the others in this small settlement.
     From whom did she imagine they'd get mail?
     She probably didn't realize that the letters he carried had been sent long ago, from dead men and women to other dead men and women, or that he carried them for... for his own reasons.
     The myth that had spontaneously developed here in Pine View depressed Gordon. It was one more sign of the deterioration of civilized minds, many of whom had once been high school and even college graduates. He considered telling her the truth, as brutally and frankly as he could, to stop this fantasy once and for all. He started to.
     "There aren't any letters because..."
     He paused. Again Gordon was aware of her nearness, the scent of her and the gentle curves of her body. Of her trust, as well.
     He sighed and looked away. "There aren't any letters for you folks because... because I'm coming west out of Idaho, and nobody back there knows you, here in Pine View. From here I'm going to the coast. There might even be some large towns left. Maybe..."
     "Maybe someone down there will write to us, if we send them a letter first!" Abby's eyes were bright. "Then, when you pass this way again, on your way back to Idaho, you could give us the letters they send, and maybe do another play-act for us like tonight, and we'll have so much beer and pie for you you'll bust!" She hopped a little on the edge of the bed. "By then I'11 be able to read better, I promise!"
     Gordon shook his head and smiled. It was beyond his right to dash such dreams. "Maybe so, Abby. Maybe so. But you know, you may get to learn to read easier than that. Mrs. Thompson's offered to put it up for a vote to let me stay on here for a while. I guess officially I'd be school teacher, though I'd have to prove myself as good a hunter and farmer as anybody. I could give archery lessons...."
     He stopped. Abby's expression was open-mouthed in surprise. She shook her head vigorously. "But you haven't heard! They voted on it after you went to take your bath. Mrs. Thompson should be ashamed of trying to bribe a man like you that way, with your important work having to be done!"
     He sat forward, not believing his ears. "What did you say?" He had formed hopes of staying in Pine View for at least the cold season, maybe a year or more. Who could tell? Perhaps the wanderlust would leave him, and he could finally find a home.
     His sated stupor dissipated. Gordon fought to hold back his anger. To have the chance revoked on the basis of the crowd's childish fantasies!
     Abby noticed his agitation and hurried on. "That wasn't the only reason, of course. There was the problem of there being no woman for you. And then..." Her voice lowered perceptibly. "And then Mrs. Howlett thought you'd be perfect for helping me and Michael finally have a baby...."
     Gordon blinked. "Um," he said, expressing the sudden and complete contents of his mind.
     "We've been trying for five years," she explained. "We really want children. But Mr. Horton thinks Michael can't 'cause he had the mumps really bad when he was twelve. You remember the real bad mumps, don't you?"
     Gordon nodded, recalling friends who had died. The resultant sterility had made for unusual social arrangements everywhere he had traveled.
     Still...
     Abby went on quickly. "Well, it would cause problems if I asked any of the other men here to... to be the body father. I mean, when you live close to people, like this, you have to look on the men who aren't your husband as not being really 'men'... at least not that way. II don't think I'd like it, and it might cause trouble."
     She blushed. "Besides, I'll tell you something if you promise to keep a secret. I don't think any of the other men would be able to give Michael the kind of son he deserves. He's really very smart, you know. He's the only one of us youngers who can really read...."
     The flow of strange logic was coming on too fast for Gordon to follow completely. Part of him dispassionately noted that this was all really an intricate and subtle tribal adaptation to a difficult social problem. That part of him though -- the last Twentieth-Century intellectual -- was still a bit drunk, and meanwhile the rest was starting to realize what Abby was driving at.
     "You're different." She smiled at him. "I mean, even Michael saw that right from the start. He's not too happy, but he figures you'll only be through once a year or so, and he could stand that. He'd rather that than never have any kids."
     Gordon cleared his throat. "You're sure he feels this way?"
     "Oh, yes. Why do you think Mrs. Howlett introduced us in that funny way? It was to make it clear without really saying it out loud. Mrs. Thompson doesn't like it much, but I think that's because she wanted you to stay."
     Gordon's mouth felt dry. "How do you feel about all this?"
     Her expression was enough of an answer. She looked at him as if he were some sort of visiting prophet, or at least a hero out of a story book. "I'd be honored if you'd say yes," she said, quietly, and lowered her eyes.
     "And you'd be able to think of me as a man, 'that way'?"
     Abby grinned. She answered by crawling up on top of him and planting her mouth intensely upon his.
     There was a momentary pause as she shimmied out of her clothes and Gordon turned to snuff out the candles on the bed stand. Beside them lay the letterman's gray uniform cap, its brass badge casting multiple reflections of the dancing flames. The figure of a rider, hunched forward on horseback before bulging saddle bags, seemed to move at a flickering gallop.
     This is another one I owe you, Mr. Postman.
     Abby's smooth skin slid along his side. Her hand slipped into his as he took a deep breath and blew the candles out.

6

     For ten days, Gordon's life followed a new pattern. As if to catch upon six months' road weariness, he slept late each morning and awoke to find Abby gone, like the night's dreams.
     Yet her warmth and scent lingered on the sheets when he stretched and opened his eyes. The sunshine streaming through his eastward-facing window was like something new, a springtime in his heart, and not really early autumn at all.
     He rarely saw her during the day as he washed and helped with chores until noon -- chopping and stacking wood for the community supply and digging a deep pit for a new outhouse. When most of the village gathered for the main meal of the day, Abby returned from tending the flocks. But she spent lunchtime with the younger children, relieving old one-legged Mr. Lothes, their work supervisor. The little ones laughed as she kidded them, plucking the wool that coated their clothes from a morning spent carding skeins for the winter spinning, helping them keep the gray strands out of their food.
     She barely glanced at Gordon, but that brief smile was enough. He knew he had no rights beyond these few days, and yet a shared look in the daylight made him feel that it was all real, and not just a dream.
     Afternoons he conferred with Mrs. Thompson and the other village leaders, helping them inventory books and other long-neglected salvage. At intervals, he gave reading and archery lessons.
     One day he and Mrs. Thompson traded methods in the art of field medicine while treating a man clawed by a "tiger," what the locals called that new strain of mountain lion which had bred with leopards escaped from zoos in the postwar chaos. The trapper had surprised the beast with its kill, but fortunately, it had only batted him into the brush and let him run away. Gordon and the village matriarch felt sure the wound would heal.
     In the evenings all of Pine View gathered in the big garage and Gordon recited stories by Twain and Sayles and Keillor. He led them in singing old folk songs and lovingly remembered commercial jingles, and in playing "Remember When." Then it was time for drama.
     Dressed in scrap and foil, he was John Paul Jones, shouting defiance from the deck of the Bonne Homme Richard. He was Anton Perceveral, exploring the dangers of a faraway world and the depths of his own potential with a mad robot companion. And he was Doctor Hudson, wading through the horror of the Kenyan Conflict to treat the victims of biological war.
     At first Gordon always felt uneasy, putting on a flimsy costume and stomping across the makeshift stage waving his arms, shouting lines only vaguely recalled or made up on the spot. He had never really admired play-acting as a profession, even before the great war.
     But it had got him halfway across a continent, and he was good at it. He felt the rapt gaze of the audience, their hunger for wonder and something of the world beyond their narrow valley, and their eagerness warmed him to the task. Pox-scarred and wounded -- bent from year after year of back-breaking labor merely to survive -- they looked up, the need greatest in eyes clouded with age, a yearning for help doing what they could no longer accomplish alone -- remembering.
     Wrapped in his roles, he gave them bits and pieces of lost romance. And by the time the last lines of his soliloquy faded, he too was able to forget the present, at least for a while.
     Each night, after he retired, she came to him. For a while she would sit on the edge of his bed and talk of her life, about the flocks, and the village children, and Michael. She brought him books to ask their meanings and questioned him about his youth -- about the life of a student in the wonderful days before the Doomwar.
     Then, after a time, Abby would smile, put away the dusty volumes, and slide under the covers next to him while he leaned over and took care of the candle.

     On the tenth morning, she did not slip away with the predawn light, but instead wakened Gordon with a kiss.
     "Hmmmn, good morning," he commented, and reached for her, but Abby pulled away. She picked up her clothes, brushing her breasts across the soft hairs of his flat stomach.
     "I should let you sleep," she told him. "But I wanted to ask you something." She held her dress in a ball.
     "Mmm? What is it?" Gordon stuffed the pillow behind his head for support.
     "You're going to be leaving today, aren't you?" she asked.
     "Yes," he nodded seriously. "It's probably best. I'd like to stay longer, but since I can't, I'd better be heading west again."
     "I know," she nodded seriously. "We'll all hate to see you go. But... well, I'm going to meet Michael out at the trapline, this evening. I miss him terribly." She touched the side of his face. "That doesn't bother you, does it? I mean, it's been wonderful here with you, but he's my husband and..."
     He smiled and covered her hand. To his amazement, he had little difficulty with his feelings. He was more envious than jealous of Michael. The desperate logic of their desire for children, and their obvious love for one another, made the situation, in retrospect, as obvious as the need for a clean break at the end. He only hoped he had done them the favor they sought. For despite their fantasies, it was unlikely he would ever come this way again.
     "I have something for you," Abby said. She reached under the bed and pulled out a small silvery object on a chain, and a paper package.
     "It's a whistle, Mrs. Howlett says you should have one." She slipped it over his neck and adjusted it until satisfied with the effect.
     "Also, she helped me write this letter." Abby picked up the little package. "I found some stamps in a drawer in the gas station, but they wouldn't stick on. So I got some money, instead. This is fourteen dollars. Will it be enough?"
     She held out a cluster of faded bills.
     Gordon couldn't help smiling. Yesterday five or six of the others had privately approached him. He had accepted their little envelopes and similar payments for postage with as straight a face as possible. He might have used the opportunity to charge them something he needed, but the community had already given him a month's stock of jerky, dried apples, and twenty straight arrows for his bow. There was no need, nor had he the desire to extort anything else.
     Some of the older citizens had had relatives in Eugene, or Portland, or towns in the Willamette Valley. It was the direction he was heading, so he took the letters. A few were addressed to people who had lived in Oakridge and Blue River. Those he filed deep in the safest part of his sack. The rest, he might as well throw into Crater Lake, for all the good they would ever do, but he pretended anyway.
     He soberly counted out a few paper bills, then handed back the rest of the worthless currency. "And who are you writing to?" Gordon asked Abby as he took the letter. He felt as if he were playing Santa Claus, and found himself enjoying it.
     "I'm writing to the University. You know, at Eugene? I asked a bunch of questions like, are they taking new students again yet? And do they take married students?" Abby blushed. "I know I'd have to work real hard on my reading to get good enough. And maybe they aren't recovered enough to take many new students. But Michael's already so smart... and by the time we hear from them maybe things will be better."
     "By the time you hear..." Gordon shook his head.
     Abby nodded. "I'll for sure be reading a lot better by then. Mrs. Thompson promises she'll help me. And her husband has agreed to start a school, this winter. I'm going to help with the little kids.
     "I hope maybe I can learn to be a teacher. Do you think that's silly?"
     Gordon shook his head. He had thought himself beyond surprise, but this touched him. In spite of Abby's totally disproportioned view of the state of the world, her hope warmed him, and he found himself dreaming along with her. There was no harm in wishing, was there?
     "Actually," Abby went on, confidentially, twisting her dress in her hands. "One of the big reasons I'm writing is to get a... a pen pal. That's the word, isn't it? I'm hoping maybe someone in Eugene will write to me. That way we'll get letters, here. I'd love to get a letter.
    "Also" -- her gaze fell -- "that will give you another reason to come back, in a year or so... besides maybe wanting to see the baby."
     She looked up and dimpled. "I got the idea from your Sherlock Holmes play. That's an 'ulterior motive,' isn't it?"
     She was so delighted with her own cleverness, and so eager for his approval -- Gordon felt a great, almost painful rush of tenderness. Tears welled as he reached out and pulled her into an embrace. He held her tightly and rocked slowly, his eyes shut against reality, and he breathed in with her sweet smell a light and optimism he had thought gone from the world.

7

     "Well, this is where I turn back." Mrs. Thompson shook hands with Gordon. "Down this road things should be pretty tame until you get to Davis Lake. The last of the old loner survivalists that way wiped each other out some years back, though I'd still be careful if I were you."
     There was a chill in the air, for autumn had arrived in full. Gordon zipped up the old letter carrier's jacket and adjusted the leather bag as the straight-backed old woman handed him an old roadmap.
     "I had Jimmie Horton mark the places we know of, where homesteaders have set up. I wouldn't bother any of them unless you have to. Mostly they're a suspicious type, likely to shoot first. We've only been trading with the nearest for a short time."
     Gordon nodded. He folded the map carefully and slipped it into a pouch. He felt rested and ready. He would regret leaving Pine View as much as any haven in recent memory. But now that he was resigned to going, he actually felt a growing eagerness to be traveling, to see what had happened in the rest of Oregon.
     In the years since he had left the wreckage of Minnesota, he had found ever wilder signs of the dark age. But now he was in a new watershed. This had once been a pleasant state with dispersed light industry, productive farms, and an elevated level of culture. Perhaps it was merely Abby's innocence infecting him. But logically, the Willamette Valley would be the place to look for civilization, if it existed anywhere anymore.
     He took the old woman's hand once again. "Mrs. Thompson, I'm not sure I could ever repay what you people have done for me."
     She shook her head. Her face was deeply tanned and so lined Gordon was certain she had to be more than the fifty years she claimed.
     "No, Gordon, you paid your keep. I would've liked it if you could've stayed and helped me get the school going. But now I see maybe it won't be so hard to do it by ourselves."
     She gazed out over her little valley. "You know, we've been living in a kind of a daze, these last years since the crops have started coming in and the hunting's returned. You can tell how bad things have gotten when a bunch of grown men and women, who once had jobs, who read magazines -- and filled out their own taxes, for Heaven's sake -- start treating a poor, battered, wandering play-actor as if he was something like the Easter Bunny." She looked back at him. "Even Jim Horton gave you a couple of letters to deliver, didn't he?"
     Gordon's face felt hot. For a moment he was too embarrassed to face her. Then, all at once, he burst out laughing. He wiped his eyes in relief at having the group fantasy lifted from his shoulders.
     Mrs. Thompson chuckled as well. "Oh, it was harmless I think. And more than that. You've served as a... you know, that old automobile thing... a catalyst I think. You know, the children are already exploring ruins for miles around -- between chores and supper -- bringing me all the books they find. I won't have any trouble making school into a privilege.
     "Imagine, punishing them by suspending 'em from class! I hope Bobbie and I handle it right."
     "I wish you the best of luck, Mrs. Thompson," Gordon said sincerely. "God, it would be nice to see a light, somewhere in all this desolation."
     "Right, Son. That'd be bliss."
     Mrs. Thompson sighed. I'd recommend you wait a year, but come on back. You're kind... you treated my people well. And you're discreet about some things, like that business with Abby and Michael."
     She frowned momentarily. "I think I understand what went on there, and I guess it's for the best. Got to adjust, I suppose. Anyway, like I said, you're always welcome back."
     Mrs. Thompson turned to go, walked two paces, then paused. She half turned to look back at Gordon. For a moment her face betrayed a hint of confusion and wonder. "You aren't really a postman, are you?" she asked suddenly.
     Gordon smiled. He set the cap, with its bright brass emblem, on his head. "If I bring back some letters, you'll know for sure."
     She nodded, gruffly, then set off up the ruined asphalt road. Gordon watched her until she passed the first bend, then he turned about to the west, and the long downgrade toward the Pacific.

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