Old Ladies and the Vulnerability of the Male (CD4)

I remember an old anthropologist telling me how, in the traditional African villages she and her husband studied, the old women were responsible for tutoring the boys in responsibility. The whimsical attitude of these aged ladies, their ability to prick the overblown pride of young adolescent males into so many collapsing balloons, must have done ther young students a lot of good.

In our world, society runs on the energies of youth. The old are outpaced, left in their lonely homes, unable to keep up. Age means, not authority, but vulnerability.  Modern life overlooks the fact that a person with white hair and wrinkled skin has seen it all, thought it all out, stored up an encyclopedia of experiences. If nothing else, age indicates that a person has figured out how not to die.


Califia’s Daughters (4)
By “Leigh Richards” (Laurie R. King )


Kirsten was old, had been old ever since anyone could remember. Ling, who in addition to being the village’s healer was its unofficial historian, had long tried to pin down her age, with limited success, because the old woman made a game of keeping everyone guessing—even her granddaughter Judith didn’t know for sure. The next oldest resident was about sixty-five, having been born during the final throes of what the West called “civilization.” Pubescent when she had arrived, Ruby remembered Kirsten as being gray-haired even then; that would make Kirsten now in her late eighties or nineties; Ling would not bet that she had not passed her century mark.

Although her eyes had dimmed and she often slept now in the afternoons, Kirsten’s hands and voice were firm, and her wits as sharp as ever. As she sat waiting for her audience to settle, the sunlight crept into the passageway that connected the cave with its entrance. The ancient eyes looked past the half-illuminated moving figures, past them and into a time long, long gone.

I am so tired, she thought to herself. I have seen too much, fought too many battles, tasted more adrenaline than one woman ought. Long, long ago I was granted a few sweet years of childhood; then the Troubles began, with images burned into our minds: planes slipping into buildings with a bloom of fire; a city school dead down to the last classroom pet; a small town littered with corpses from a bioweapon. The vocabulary of terror—virus and nanophage, genetic modification and dirty bombs—causing the collective mind to wince back from the horrors, that grinding fear of crowds that seized us all, and our powerful mistrust of all but the simplest of technologies, followed finally by the Valley’s retreat into itself. Riots raging Outside, and civilization’s Destroyers— technophobia gone mad—at the Gates for our last male-fought battle, which saw three of our precious boys bleeding into the earth: my sweet Tony, little more than a child, pounding down the road with a gun in his hand, a David into battle. Only this Goliath killed his shepherd-boy before falling.

Too many sights, too many changes, too many years of chosen blindness—growing crops, raising children—and here we are, yet again counting our bullets and sharpening our arrows while old Kirsten keeps her people occupied and calm.

What pretty stories shall I tell you, my children? she mused. About my mother, maybe? First in her family to go to university (and last, it looks like, for a long time), fought her way out of a bad first marriage (No bad marriages now, are there, my children? We can’t afford them) and through a male-oriented tenure system to establish a department of Women’s Studies? There’s a pretty story for the cave: the bitter joke of feminism, so many strong women fighting for so long to get the merest crust of equality, only to have the world turn around and shovel the entire feast onto our heads. Shall I tell you about equal rights, and we can laugh until our throats hurt?

No; all you want now, my children, is men’s history.

Not the story of Alicia, for three years my very best friend, who came here from being raped by a mob, who whimpered whenever she saw more than two or three menfolk walking together, who finally hanged herself from the walnut tree when she was nineteen. And not how secretly glad it made me at first, for her sake, to hear that men all over the world were dying off.

Oh, my bones ache. How old does a woman have to be, to be allowed to vent her anger? But they sit and wait, needing me.

No; when the time comes for you to hear those tales, when curiosity begins to unfurl like a fern frond out of a fire-ravaged hillside, you will begin to remember the books we all wrote for you, sitting on the library shelves, untouched and waiting. I won’t live to see the day, but never mind.

For now it’s a pretty story you want, my children, not something to trouble your sleep too much. Something to set the mood so we can pretend this is a party, a tale to take our minds off those approaching wagons.

Not a dark story, then. But because I am old and my bones do ache so, there may be threads of dark showing through the light. That I can’t help.

The cavern had quieted, the faces were expectant. Kirsten’s old lungs drew breath and she began obediently as she always began: When I was young…

“When I was young, the Valley belonged to my grandparents, and we always came up for the summer. When school stopped in June we would all come up together for a couple of weeks, before my father went back to work in the city. It took us half a day to get here. We would load up the car the night before— you all know what a car was?” This was a ritual question, and invariably the children would demand to be told, and Kirsten would launch off into a description of the joys and terrors of the great, gleaming steel monster whose rusted shell now lay in the lower orchard, a home for mice and a beloved plaything for the children. “And once when I was a little older than Shawna here we had a car with a top we could fold back, and driving it over the hills to the farm the wind would grab our hair, and I remember how it felt to let my hair fly in the breeze, like some movie star.” (“The movies” and “television” were two other favorite topics with her audiences, although it had been years since the last television screen had gone black, and the Valley’s sole computer in Ling’s infirmary was too valuable to spend on the few remaining discs.) “It took me two days to get the snarls out of my hair,” she laughed a rueful chuckle, “and I cut it all off the following week.”

“How many people used to live here, Grandma Kirsten?” prompted one of the girls.

“Well, let’s see. My grandparents the MacCauleys lived in the big house, and the Escobars had the three houses at the far end of the Great Meadow—I married the son of one of them, Rosario, much later. So maybe twenty people altogether. Of course, when I was about, oh, ten or eleven maybe, my mother brought us up here for good, when the plagues began and the world began to go strange. By the time my womanhood came on me there were thirty-eight or forty of us here, almost as many men at first as women. My mother was here—my father was killed in one of the first Destroyers riots—and Grams and Gramps, although he died soon after we moved up. And of course my little sister and my brother Will. My mother’s two sisters brought their families, and a bunch of Escobar relatives came, and some friends of both families came here too, toward the End. Now, who would you like to hear about?”

Voices called out names—”Gramps,” “your father,” “Aunt Eve”—but gradually the requests for “Will” won out. None of the children actually remembered Will, who had died ten years before, but they all felt they knew the irascible old man whose passion for gadgets and tinkering had given the community all of its most basic machines, from the heavy water-mill machinery to the much- repaired photovoltaic panels that powered Ling’s computer and freezer, and whose stubborn refusal to be “coddled,” as he called it, had driven the women to despair while setting a secret model in the minds of the young men.

“Will, is it?” Greeted with shouts of enthusiastic agreement, her old eyes glittered with amusement at their choice. “Ah, Will. He was a real rascal, that one. Always had bits of string and wheels and clock gears falling out of his pockets, always off somewhere in his mind. We used to tap on his head to get his attention—he’d never hear us otherwise.

“Will was a few years younger than me, and how he loved those early summers up here, more than any of us. It was safe here, you see, and he could run to his heart’s content without fretting about the cars and crazies of the city. Starting at Easter time he’d begin making plans, sketches and drawings, books from the library, talking to Gramps on the telephone—you all remember what a telephone is?” Most of the women present had been to Meijing, but few would have actually used one of the city’s telephones. To the rest it was another children’s toy, a Remnant lump of colored plastic that they took on faith as a variation on the cup-and-string lines of the kids’ forts; nonetheless, all nodded. “So, he knew weeks in advance what he was going to do, and just how long it’d take him.

“Then in the middle of June we’d set off, pack one day and leave early the next morning. Once, when I was very young, it took only three or four hours to get here, but later the roads were bad, and bridges would go down, and toward the end we’d have to circle way south and then come up along the coast to avoid the crazies on the hill. We’d pack a lunch, and we’d drive and drive, and the sun would always be so hot, and the air-conditioning never worked—you know what an air conditioner was? No? You know the refrigerator in Ling’s office, that she uses to keep her medicines cold? It was like that, only it kept a room or a car cool instead of just a box. An air conditioner. Anyway, it was always hot, and we’d sit and wait and fuss and ask, ‘How long now?’ about two thousand times until my parents were going crazy with it, and then finally, finally we’d come over the last hill and see the trees. We’d all shout and yell, even Mom, and when we got down to the creek at the bottom Dad would stop the car and we’d all spill out and run down to the water and splash for about two seconds, and then we’d all jumble back in any which way, and we’d start up the last hill, past the sheds and across the bridge, up the curve, through the orchard, and at last we’d pull up through the gate and under the walnut tree and stop at the house, and there would be Grams and Gramps waiting for us, and Grams would say, ‘̈Oh, you must be fair parched for thirst,’ and we’d all stretch and groan and go off to the veranda, but—who do you think had other things on his mind? That’s right—Will. He’d jump out of the car holding the box of drawings and ideas he’d been saving up and shove them straight into Gramps’s hands, and Gramps would push back his hat and scratch his head and say, ‘Now, what have we here, young Will?’ and the two of them would go off to the workshop back of the barn, heads together, Will’s bobbing up and down and his tongue going a mile a minute, and the two of them would spend the next eight weeks in just that position, bent over Will’s drawings for a new kind of gopher trap or building a wind-powered water pump, or a donkey-powered threshing flail, or any of a hundred other things. The rest of us spent the summer riding horses and swimming and exploring the hills, but Will spent it getting grease under his fingernails and bruising his thumb with the hammer.

“Sometimes, though . . .” The old voice faded for a minute and became reflective. “Did I ever tell you how this cave was discovered?” A few of the older women exchanged glances and shifted slightly in their places, but it was not a bad story, really, just . . . troubling. They did not interrupt. “I didn’t? Will found it. Or maybe I should say, it found him.

“As you know, in those days, when I was young, men were very different. There were a lot more of them, for one thing, so they didn’t have to be so careful. In those days my uncle and Gramps ran the farm, and Grams did the house and the garden. The menfolk made most of the important decisions and, more than that, they did all of the nasty, dangerous jobs, like digging up septic tanks and felling trees and running the farm machinery. Yes, Lilyanne, they did so. Boys ran wild, climbed trees, went hunting with rifles. Girls too, but boys more. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

Again there was an exchange of frowns above the listening heads. This was dangerous ground, introducing ideas that frustrated the boys and reminded the men of their impotence. All the women, including Kirsten when she thought about it, tried to avoid referring to the times when men were men and free to risk their feet with ax blades and their lives by traveling outside the Valley. Reminders made everyone uncomfortable, and there would be repercussions from Kirsten’s suggestions—young boys up in trees, teenage boys with a gleam in their eyes. There was little they could do about it at the moment, though, short of stifling Kirsten’s tale—and the long-term repercussions of that would be worse. Better to let her go, and deal with the masculine urges to adventure as they came along. And have Judith give her grandmother hell tomorrow.

If there was a tomorrow.

“Anyway, Will had been reading up on bomb shelters—they were very popular around then, places to hide in case of a war—as if it did them any good when it did come, trapped underground—but he decided there must be caves up in these hills that we could use. He was eleven, I think, the last summer before we moved up here for good. He left after breakfast, didn’t show up at lunch, and by suppertime everyone was out looking for him.

“I’ll never forget that night. It was so hot, not a breath of wind to stir the leaves and no moon at all, just twenty or thirty neighbors out searching the hills with lamps and torches and flashlights. We could hear each other shouting out Will’s name and crackling through the bushes and calling back and forth, the sounds bouncing around the hills and the lights flickering in and out among the trees, and the old farmhouse blazing with light in the center of the Valley.

“It was after midnight when Rosario’s father found Will, all day and half the night after he’d come across this cave and the entrance fell in on him. Just there,” she pointed, and the heads all turned as one to the raw patch lit by the last of the sun, and stared in awe as at the proof of a god’s passing.

“They got him out and brought him down the hill on a stretcher, a long line of men and women carrying lights, looking like a lit-up caterpillar as they came. He had a broken leg—that was why he always limped, you know? It never really healed properly—and after the doctor’d been and set it, after Will was asleep on the daybed on the veranda, after everyone had been fed and talked off the excitement and then gone off to their own homes, I saw my mother cry for the first time in my life. She was sitting next to him where he lay sleeping. She just sat there, holding her hands together in her lap, looking down at his face all scratched and bruised in the light of a candle, her tears just running helplessly down her cheeks and dripping onto her arms.” Kirsten looked into the distance in silence for a few moments. “She lost two boy babies before Will, and one after. Not one of them got to his second birthday.”

The cave was still, the faces ruddy now with the last of the sun’s rays. The eyes were all focused at a mythic place long removed from sight, when men were free to travel without heavily armed guards, free to risk life and limb doing dangerous jobs, a barely conceivable time when a boy child might wander away from his caretakers long enough to get himself lost and injured. The younger eyes wondered at it, half disbelieving. Kirsten’s hooded eyes watched the faces of the girls and the women as each took a deep breath, their minds coming back to this cave, and she saw how every one of them, every pair of female eyes present, glanced quickly at one or another of their twenty-seven males, from sturdy little Jonathan, asleep in his mother’s arms, to Peter, his beard now more than half gray, and Anthony, ancient among the men at sixty-two. The same every time—a quick glance, a touch of pain, of love, of blessing and fierce protection bestowed. These twenty-seven were the most valuable possessions the farm community had, and also the most vulnerable.

Every person there knew that if the party on the road wanted anything, it would be the Valley’s men.

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