We once called it “California.” The old names, the names lent by Conquistadors, by cartographers, by dime novel authors, the names penned by men whose brittle bones have been long since reclaimed by the hungry earth, these opaque names were scorched alongside the flattering, fatuous lies we told ourselves and each other. Gerrymandering and historical political accident no longer holds dominion in this shattered world of ruin and faithlessness. So it is that I trek not to California in the merciless summer, but to Orchardland.
Before the collapse, before the atomic scorch, I drove through the fens of the deep south a few times. From the comfort of an air-conditioned automobile, it’s pretty easy to miss all the pestilence. At least in early summer, the swamplands of mainland America are rotten with midges, horseflies, mosquitoes, gnats, bats, fat cats, and Jack Sprats. I lived in Florida in the early 90s, so I knew that alligators existed. But seeing one from the comfort of a balcony is a different thing from being treed with no hope for calling for help. Every so often, the largely-deserted South will offer a delightful treat. You see, with the collapse of the mercantile exchanges, textile production all but vanished. Flax and cotton production have long life cycles, so in the bright days of our un-sundered past, farmers would sell future contracts against expected yields. This allowed them to finance payrolls, seed stock, fertilizer, capital expenditures, and all the sundry costs needed to raise a crop. Without properly functioning financial markets, annual agriculture collapsed. Contrast this with perennial production in Orchardland, which still has on-site apiaries and seed on the branch. The farmers who didn’t end up ash and shadows can still keep orange trees running, even without extensive trade networks. It’s strange though: cloth should make for better trade goods than oranges. Cloth doesn’t spoil. Maybe there’s something about the bayou that makes it tough to spin flax into linen.
At any rate, shortly after I parted ways with my traveling companions, I took brief refuge in the decay of what was surely once a golden daughter of Louisiana: a blotchy sprawl of an estate-et-plantation, now roughly converted to homely, diverse cottage farming. Here, some house beans. There, an adorable pumpkin patch in green. Yonder, some maybe, I don’t know, hyssop? There were rabbit hutches, chicken coops, pig pens, and maybe a dozen head of cattle. I scanned the herd, hoping against hope I’d again see the black beast from my dreams. Fortune frowned. Alas.
The graybeard council that ran the joint lent me the night’s use of an outbuilding that for all I knew once contained a meth lab or served as an abattoir (or both) instructed me to stay indoors that night since they would be conducting a periodic rat purge that evening and they didn’t want me in the way. I had to appreciate their bluntness. In younger years, they probably would have deployed a touch of genteel hospitality and made an appeal to my safety or comfort. At any rate, the musty shack was outfitted with a study enough cot and a Korea-era munitions chest for storage. And after a few minutes’ settling in, it appeared to have come equipped with an eight year old kid.
Me: Holy crap, kid. You startled me. What are you doing in here?
She was hunched behind a standing mirror, hiding her face in her wispy, lank hair, eyes cast down, bony shoulders hunched.
Me: What’s your name, kid? And who are you hiding from? And why?
Me: Templeton? That’s an unusual name for a girl.
Her. My name’s not Templeton. His name is Templeton. My name is Anika.
Twilight hadn’t quite began to brush its fingers over the massive willows, but it had recently posted bail and was fixin’ to show up for its daily dust-up at the ol’ corral. Anika was perhaps not quite draped in shadow, but she was at least trying it on, seeing how well it fit. I couldn’t see who or what she meant by “Templeton.”
Me: Why don’t you come out from behind that mirror?
I could just barely make out a quick clench in her hunched pose. I heard a ragged breath and then she hesitantly stood and shuffled into full view. In something between a clutch and a cradle, a snow-white rat twitched curious whiskers in her tiny, grubby hands.
Me: Oh. That’s Templeton, isn’t it?
I saw in her eyes the defiance that only the young and powerless ever seem to muster. It is when we have nothing left to lose that our teeth acquire a keen sharpness. Anika plainly had little to begin with.
Anika: He’s my friend.
She punctuated that last word, lading more freight upon it than ordinary gunwales might bear. By “friend,” she meant no mere companion, but a confidant in a world torn asunder, a vessel for the sacred lore of her heart’s secrets, a warm comfort on cold nights, a tiny symbiote with which to swap weed-strong affection for a few scavenged table scraps. Hints of tears welled at the corners of her eyes.
Anika: You’re not gonna tell anyone, mister. Right?
Me: They told me they were on a rat hunt tonight. Are you worried they’ll do something to Templeton?
Anika: They put the ones they catch alive in the mulch grinder. Templeton never hurt anyone. You can’t tell anyone we’re here. He never hurt anyone.
At this, she really did begin to cry. Sniffles at first, but just as the first great wracking sob was sneaking its way out, she managed to gain a measure of control and keep it at the lip-quiver, shoulder-hitch level. I gave her a moment to recover her composure. Dealing with crying children is not something to which I am accustomed.
Me: Do you know why they kill all the rats?
She hesitated, dried her eyes, and raised her eyes to fix upon me an arresting gaze.
Anika: Rats steal the eggs, they eat the rye and the corn, and they get the pigs’ eyes at night. But Templeton never did any of that. He’s a good boy.
As she stroked her friend’s fur, I struggled to find a way to explain the hunt. I sat down on the cot.
Me: The problem with the rats has nothing to do with the rats themselves.
Anika: What’s that supposed to mean?
Me: Well, every single one of those rats could be as kind and gentle as Templeton over there. They could raise baby rats with love, they could snuggle each other at night, the might even volunteer at the rat PTA…
Anika: What’s a PTA?
Me: Never mind. The important thing is that even if individually, every single rat out there in the fields is, on its own, on an individual basis, a paragon of gentility, the fact remains that the problem is…
I paused, searching for the right word.
Me: the problem is in their ratness. Their group behavior is harmful, even if individually they might be beyond reproach. What your elders want to do is to get rid of the group rat behavior. I think the only way they know of how to do that is to kill all the rats.
Oddly, this didn’t seem to comfort her. I have to admit, I agreed with her retort.
Anika: But that’s not FAIR. How can you hold innocents guilty for group crimes? Templeton didn’t do anything WRONG.
The shouting must have attracted attention. I heard pounding on the door just before it swung open. A sternly bearded man strode in and wordlessly confiscated Anika’s animal. He stomped out with the rat in one hand and Anika’s earlobe twisted in the other.
I lay down on the cot, squeezed my eyes shut and did my best to drown out the sound of both her shrieking and the abrupt death squeal of Templeton as the merciless teeth of the grinder transformed him from a child’s companion into fertilizer. Unfortunately, half-remembered N.W.A. lyrics didn’t prove up to the task.
I left the farm the next morning haunted and ill-rested.