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Folk of the Fringe

Orson Scott Card


  Orson Scott Card

  To Robert Stoddard: For music together, for journeys apart, always searching for the narrow road.

  In America's future, when society has collapsed under the weight of war, civilization lives on among those folk whose bonds of faith or tribe or language are still strong. These interweaving stories tell of people who are far from the center of these tight-bound communities, finding a life for themselves along the fringe.

  1: West

  2: Salvage

  3: The Fringe

  4: Pageant Wagon

  5: America

  Author's Note: On Sycamore Hill

  Afterword by Michael Collings


  It was a good scavenging trip eastward to the coast that summer, and Jamie Teague had a pack full of stuff before he even got to Marine City. Things were peaceful there, and he might have stayed, he was that welcome. But along about the start of August, Jamie said his good-byes and headed back west. Had to reach the mountains before the snows came.

  He made fair time on his return trip. It was only September, he was already just west of Winston—but Jamie was so hungry that kudzu was starting to look like salad to him.

  Not that hunger was anything new. Every time he took this months-long trip from his cabin in the Great Smokies to the coast and back, there were days here and there with nothing to eat. Jamie was a champion scavenger, but most houses and all the old grocery stores had their food cleaned out long since. Besides, what good was it to scavenge food? Any canned stuff you found nowadays was likely to be bad. What Jamie looked for was metal stuff folks didn't make no more. Hammers. Needles. Nails. Saws. One time he found this little out-of-the-way hardware store near Checowinity that had a whole crate of screws, a good size, too, and not a speck of rust. Near killed him carrying the whole mess of it back, but he couldn't leave any; he didn't get to the coast that often, and somebody was bound to find anything he left behind.

  This trip hadn't been as good as that time, but it was still good, considering most of the country was pretty well picked over by now. He found him some needles. Two fishing reels and a dozen spools of resilient line. A lot of ordinary stuff, besides. And things he couldn't put in his pack: that long visit in Marine City on the coast; them nice folks north of Kenansville who took him in and listened to his tales. The Kenansville folks even invited him to stay with them, and fed him near to busting on country ham and sausage biscuits in the cool of those hot August mornings. But Jamie Teague knew what came of staying around the same folks too long, and so he pushed on. Now the memory of those meals made him feel all wishful, here on fringe of Winston, near three days without eating.

  He'd been hungry lots of times before, and he'd get hungry lots of times again, but that didn't mean it didn't matter to him. That didn't mean he didn't get kind of faint along about midday. That didn't mean he couldn't get himself up a tree and just sit there, resting, looking down onto I-40 and listening to the birds bullshitting each other about how it was a fine day, twitter twit, a real fine day.

  Tomorrow there'd be plenty to eat. Tomorrow he'd be west of Winston and into wild country, where he could kill him a squirrel with a stone's throw. There just wasn't much to eat these days in the country he just walked through, between Greensboro and Winston. Seems like everybody who ever owned a gun or a slingshot had gone out killing squirrels and possums and rabbits till there wasn't a one left.

  That was one of the problems with this part of Carolina still being civilized with a government and all. Near half the people were still alive, probably. That meant maybe a quarter million in Guilford and Forsyth counties. No way could such a crowd keep themselves in meat just on what they could farm nearby, not without gasoline for the tractors and fertilizer for the fields.

  Greensboro and Winston didn't know they were doomed, not yet. They still thought they were the lucky ones, missing most of the ugliness that just tore apart all the big cities and left whole states nothing but wasteland. But Jamie Teague had been a ways northward in his travels, and heard stories from even farther north, and what he learned was this: After the bleeding was over, the survivors had land and tools enough to feed themselves. There was a life, if they could fend off the vagabonds and mobbers, and if the winter didn't kill them, and if they didn't get one of them diseases that was still mutating themselves here and there, and if they wasn't too close to a place where one of the bombs hit. There was enough. They could live.

  Here, though, there just wasn't enough. The trees that once made this country beautiful were going fast, cut up for firewood, and bit by bit the folks here were either going to freeze or starve or kill each other off till the population was down. Things would get pretty ugly.

  From some stories he heard, Jamie figured things were getting pretty ugly already.

  Which is why he skirted his way around Greensboro to the north, keeping his eyes peeled so he saw most folks before they saw him. No, he saw everybody before they saw him, and made sure they never saw him at all. That's how a body stayed alive these days. Especially a traveling man, a walking man like him. In some places, being a stranger nowadays was the same as having a death sentence from which you might get an appeal but probably not. Being invisible except when he wanted to be seen had kept Jamie alive right through the worst times of the last five years, the whole world going to hell. He'd learned to walk through the woods so quiet he could pretty near pet the squirrels; and he was so good with throwing rocks that he never fired his rifle at all, not for food, anyway. A rock was all he needed for possum, coon, rabbit, squirrel, or porcupine, and anything bigger would be more meat than he could carry. A walking man can't take a deer along, and he can't stay in one place long enough to smoke it or jerk it or salt it or nothing. So Jamie just didn't look for bigger game. A squirrel was meat enough for him. Wild berries and untended orchards and canned goods in abandoned houses did for the rest of his diet on the road.

  Most of all a walking man can't afford to get lonely. You start to feeling like you just got to talk to some human face or you're going to bust, and then what happens? You greet some stranger and he blows your head off. You put in with some woodsy family and they slit your throat in the night and make spoons out of your bones and leather bags out of your skin and your muscle ends up in the smokehouse getting its final cure. It led to no good, wishing for company, so Jamie never did.

  That's why he was setting by himself in a tree over the chain-link fence that marked the border of I-40 when he heard some folks singing, so loud he could hear them before he saw them. Singing, if you can believe it, right on the road, right on the freeway, which is the same as to say they were out of their minds. The idea of making noise while traveling on I-40 was so brazen that Jamie first thought they must be mobbers. But no, Winston and Greensboro had a right smart highway patrol on horseback, and these folks was coming from Winston heading west—no way could they be mobbers. They was just too dumb to live, that's all, normal citizens, refugees or something, people who still thought the world was safe for singing in.

  When they came into sight, they were as weird a group as Jamie'd seen since the plague started. Right up front walked a big fat white woman looking like silage in a tent, and she was leading the others in some song. Two men, one white and one black, were each pulling wagons made of bicycles framed together with two-by-fours, loaded with stuff and covered with tarps. There was two black girls about eighteen maybe, and a blond white woman about thirty-five, and a half-dozen little white kids. Looked like a poster pleading for racial unity from back before the plague.

  These days you just didn't see blacks and whites together much. People looked out for their own. There wasn't a lot of race hatred, they just didn't
have much to do with each other. Like Marine City, where Jamie was just coming back from. There was black Marine City and white Marine City. They all pretended to be part of the same town, but they had separate police and separate courts and you just didn't go into the other folks' part of town. You just didn't. It was pretty much that way anywhere Jamie went.

  Yet here they were, black and white, walking along together like they were kin. Jamie knew right off that they couldn't have been traveling together for long—they acted like they still trusted each other, and didn't mind being together. That's how it was for the first few days of traveling in the same company, and how it was again after a few years. And seeing how careless they was, Jamie knew for a fact that they'd never live a week, let alone the years it'd take to get that long-time trust. Besides, thought Jamie, with a bitter taste in his mouth, some folks you can't trust no matter how long you're together, even if it's all your whole life.

  The fat lady was singing loud, in between panting—no way was she getting enough breath—and the kids sang along, but the grown-ups didn't sing.

  "Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked."

  The song went on like that, the same thing over and over. And when the fat lady stopped singing "walked and walked," some of the kids would smartmouth and keep going, "walked and walked and walked and walked and walked and walked," until Jamie was sure somebody'd give them a smack and tell them to shut up. But nobody did. The adults just kept going, paying no mind. Pulling their bicycle carts, or carrying packs.

  Not one gun. Not one rifle or pistol, nothing at all.

  This was a group of walking dead people, Jamie knew that as sure as he knew that the kids were all off pitch in their singing. They were coming to the last border of civilization between here and the Cherokee Reservation. They were going to sing their way right off the edge of the world.

  Jamie didn't have any quarrel with himself about what to do. He didn't give no second thought to it. He just knew that their dying might be in his reach to stop, and so he reached out to stop it.

  Or rather stepped out. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and slid out along the limb that hung over the chain-link fence, then dropped. He scooped up his pack and shrugged it on, then walked on down the embankment. Five years ago it was mowed nice and smooth all year. Now it was half grown with saplings, and it wasn't easy getting through it. By the time he reached the freeway they were a hundred yards on, still singing. A different song this time—"Give said the little stream, give oh give, give oh give"—but it amounted to the same thing. He could hear them, but they hadn't even heard him rustling through the underbrush, noisy as can be.

  "Good evening," he said.

  Now they stopped singing. Those carts stopped moving and the kids were scooped up and most of them were scrambling for the edge of the road before the sound of Jamie's voice had quit ringing in the air. At least they knew enough to be frightened, though by the time a mobber was talking to you, there was no way you could escape just by running. And not one of them had pulled out any kind of gun, even now.

  "Hold on," said Jamie. "If I meant to kill you, you'd be dead already. I've been watching you for five minutes. And hearing you for ten."

  They stopped moving toward the shoulder.

  "Besides, folks, you were running toward the median strip. That's like a chicken running from the farmer and jumping into the cookpot to hide."

  They all stayed where they were, except for the black man, who came back out to the middle of the westbound lane. The fat lady was still there, her hand resting on one of the bicycle carts. She didn't look frightened like the others, neither. She didn't look like she knew how to be scared.

  Jamie went on talking, knowing how his easy relaxed voice would calm them down. "See, the mobbers, when they set up to bushwhack folks, they never attack you from just one side. You run to the median strip, and you can count on finding even more of them down there waiting to catch you."

  "Seems you know a lot about mobbers," said the black man.

  "I'm alive and I'm on the road and I'm alone," said Jamie. "Of course I know about mobbers. The ones who didn't learn about them real fast are all dead. Like you folks."

  "We aren't dead," said the fat woman.

  "Well, now, I guess that's a matter of opinion," said Jamie. "You look dead to me. Oh, still walking, maybe. Still singing at the top of your voices. But forgive me if I'm wrong, I kept thinking you were singing, 'Come and kill us, anybody, come and take away our stuff!' "

  "We were singing 'Give said the little stream,' "said one of the kids, a blond girl about ten years old maybe.

  "What he means is we should've kept our mouths shut," said one of the teenage black girls. The skinny one.

  "Which is what I said back at the Kernersville exit," said the one who looked like her bra was about to bust from pressure.

  The black man shot them a glare. They looked disgusted, but they shut up.

  "My name's Jamie Teague, and I thought I'd give you some advice that would keep you alive maybe five miles farther."

  "We're still safe enough here. We're in Winston."

  "You just passed the Silas Creek Parkway. The Winston Highway Patrol doesn't come out this far too often. And once you pass the 421 exit, they don't come out here at all."

  "But bushwhackers wouldn't be this close in to Winston, would they?" said the fat woman.

  People were so dumb sometimes. "What do you think, they wait out in the middle of the wilderness, hoping for some group of travelers who managed to fight off every other band of bushwhackers between here and there? The easy pickings all get picked close in to town. Didn't the highway patrol tell you that?"

  The black man looked at the fat woman.

  "No, they didn't," he said.

  "Well then," said Jamie, "I think you must've offended them somehow, cause they know the interchange at 421 is just about the most dangerous spot to walk through, and they let you head right for it."

  The fat woman's face went even uglier. "No doubt they were Christians," she said. She didn't spit, but she might as well have.

  A sudden thought came to Jamie. "Aren't you folks Christians?"

  "We always thought we were," said the white guy. He was still at the side of the road, his arm around the blond woman. He talked quiet, but he looked strong. It was almost a relief to have the white guy talk. It was weird to have a black man do most of the talking when a white man was in the group. Not that Jamie thought it ought to be the other way. He'd just never seen a group of both colors where a black man was the spokesman.

  Now the black man interrupted. "Thank you for your advice, Mr.—Teague, was it?"

  "It wasn't advice. It was the facts. The only safe way out of town for a group your size, since you need a road for them bikes, is to go back to Silas Creek Parkway, go north to Country Club Road, and head west on that. You can hook onto 421 farther west, and it won't be so dangerous."

  "But we're going on I-40 all the way," said the fat woman.

  "All the way to hell, maybe. Where do you plan to go?" asked Jamie.

  "None of your business," said the blond woman. Her voice snapped out like whip. She was a suspicious one.

  "Every overpass on the interstate is taken by one group of mobbers or another," said Jamie. "It's shelter for them, and easy to find their way back after raping and killing their way through the countryside. Even if every one of you had a machine gun and those carts were full of ammo, you'd be out of bullets before Hickory and dead before Morganton."

  "How do we know that's true?" asked the blond woman.

  "Because I told you," said Jamie. "And I told you because it was plain you didn't know. Anybody who knows that stuff and still uses the freeway must want to die."

  There was a pause, just a bit of a second where nobody answered, and it came into Jamie's head that maybe they did. Maybe they actually kind of halfway hoped to die. These were> definitely crazy people. But then, who wasn't, these days? Anybody st
ill alive had seen terrible things, enough to push sanity right out of their heads. Jamie figured sanity was barely hanging on to most folks by their ears or hair, ready to drop off at the first sign of danger, leaving them all loony as—

  "We don't want to die," said the white man.

  "Though the Lord may have his own private plans for us," said the fat woman.

  "Maybe so," said Jamie. "But I haven't seen the Lord doing many miracles lately."

  "Me neither," said the blond woman. Oh, she was bitter.

  "I've seen a lot of them," said the white man, who must be her husband.

  "Let me tell you about miracles," said Jamie. He was enjoying this—he hadn't talked so much in ten days, not since he left Marine City, or Camp Lejeune, as they used to call it. And Jamie was a talker. "If you folks keep going the way you're going, the next ten miles will use up your whole lifetime quota of miracles, and you'll be killed by mile eleven."

  The black man was believing him now. "So we go back to Silas Creek Parkway, head north to Country Club, and go on out of town that way?"

  "I figure."

  "It's a trap," said the blond woman. "He's got a gang of mobbers on Country Club, and he wants to steer us that way to get bushwhacked!"

  "Ma'am," said Jamie, "I suppose that's possible. But what's also possible is this." Jamie unshouldered his gun and had it pointing right at the black man in a movement so fast nobody even twitched before he had the gun set to shoot. "Bang," said Jamie. Then he pointed the gun at each of the grown-ups in turn. "Bang, bang, bang, bang," he said. "I don't need no gang."

  Jamie didn't expect their reaction. One of the children burst into tears. One of them was shaking. A couple of kids ran over and hid behind the fat woman. All of them had such a look of horror in their faces, staring at Jamie like they expected him to mow them all down, kids and all. The grown-ups were worse, if anything. They looked like they almost welcomed the gun, as if they expected it, like it was a relief that death was finally here. The black man closed his eyes, like he was expecting the bullet to be a lover's kiss.