Clair the feral is officially living with us. She’s not quite what I was expecting. It took us two days to convince her to take a bath, and another two to convince her to let us cut off all her matted hair. It’s started to grow back and it turns out she’s a redhead. I almost hate to write that I was hoping it was a woman we found, but Claire is not as womanly as I had hoped. She acts more like a deer than a person sometimes. She jumps at every sound, she’s quick to run away, and as hard as it was to convince her to come inside, it has been dwarfed by how hard it is to get her to come outside with us.
She also doesn’t talk much. We did get her to tell us she was a veterinary student before everything stopped. Apparently, she suffered some injury that kept her laid up for most of the year of the vaccine. She was attending school at a university fifty miles south of the city, but she won’t talk about how she got here. Bip and Bop have taken a liking to her and after a day of initial resistance on her part they’ve taken up residence in her room.
I would love to try and talk to her more but my work load has recently doubled. Ruth brought a 10-gauge shotgun when she came to save me from the cougar. The recoil broke her shoulder. It’s a hairline fracture but it’s preventing her from doing what she normally does. Now she spends her time talking to me, trying to talk to Claire, or sleeping from the large amount of Ibuprofen required to dull the pain. I got off fairly lucky with just some shallow scratches.
Abby was laid up for a week with a sprain in her leg which left me with Lump to do most of the gardening. The last crop is in and all I have to do now is finish the canning of the summer crop and water the fall crop. I also get to cook, so we eat a lot of soup or grilled meat and sauerkraut. Ruth eats as much as she can of whatever I cook. Claire eats anything set in front of her but not if anyone is watching her.
I retrieved the cougar’s carcass later the day it was killed. It felt kind of poetic that we should eat him, when he tried to eat me. I made sure to give Ruth the first bite since she was the one who brought it down. Before all of this I would have thought big cat meat would be gross. Honestly, it’s not bad, it’s a little bland but if I had to compare it to something else, I would have to say it’s like really lean pork.
The meat isn’t the only thing I’ve saved from the cougar. I am in the process of tanning the hide. I’m not sure how good of a job I’m doing. I’m pretty sure I got all the flesh off it. Skinning a big animal like that is a lot of work and the first steps took almost the whole afternoon and it was the next morning before I had it hung to dry. I thought the worst part was over but I was wrong. It turns out there’s a step called braining. There’s an oil you get from the animal’s brain that’s the best thing for tanning. I’m going to spare you and me the gory details, but I now understand why this was a medieval profession.
It was right around the time I was smoking the hide that I saw something odd. Bip and Bop ran out the back door. Claire followed behind them crouched so low she may as well be walking on all fours. She carefully looked around and spotted me working the hide. Using a very indirect path she slowly made her way over, Bip and Bop playfully following along as if it was some big game. She stopped about ten feet away from me. After an intense stare down, she managed to say hello. I returned the greeting. Since it seemed, the conversation was going to take some time, most of it waiting, I decided to keep working on what I was doing. Claire watched me, every few minutes she would get a little closer and Bip and Bop followed right behind her. She got within two feet of me, and I turned my eyes in her direction. She looked ready to run away.
She took a deep breath and asked me what I was doing. I told her about smoking the hide. She looked interested and asked, “Where did you learn about that?”
I told her it was from one of the books I found in the library. I caught a faint glint in her eye. “You’ve been to the library before?”
She nodded and asked, “Are you the one who left the note?”
“That was a dumb thing to do.” She said.
“Why?” I was dumb founded. I thought she would be grateful.
“There aren’t good people out there.” She said.
“I think Ruth’s good people. I hope I’m good people.”
“Then you’ll be dead people if you just blindly trust whoever you find. Why are keeping me here?” She asked.
This question threw me. I told her, “We’re not keeping you here. You can leave if you want, but there’s not much out there. I’d prefer it if you stayed.”
Claire eyed me suspiciously, “So if I left you wouldn’t stop me?”
“Not physically, no. Why would you want to leave? Have we done something to offend you?”
“No, and that’s why I’m suspicious. I’ve had too many people offer help and then try and take advantage of me. If you want something just tell me now. I don’t need you sneaking in my bedroom in the middle of the night.”
My resulting choking had nothing to do with smoke from the fire. “I’m not some monster, and I don’t intend to sneak in your room for any reason. I was hoping someone would stay and help me keep this place running. Especially with Ruth’s shoulder broken.”
“What is she, your mother? Your grandmother?” Claire face scrunched up in disgust, “or are you…”
“No,” I said louder than I meant. “I found her shortly after the power went out. She’s been helping me survive. She does the cooking, and most of the cleaning, at least she did, before she got hurt.”
Claire looked me up and down as if looking for the lie. “You two seem really close for people who aren’t related.”
I shrugged, “She can be a little difficult sometimes, but she’s really nice. She ran a farm with her husband years ago. I don’t like to think of where I’d be without her.”
“You’d be where I was,” Claire said shifting around the fire. “We’re not the only people out there, but I haven’t met any in the city besides you two. That’s why I stayed here, but I met a lot of people on the way north. The world outside this place is different. People aren’t restrained by law anymore, those that are left anyway.”
“Is it really so bad?” I asked suddenly more concerned about my place in the world.
Claire nodded her head. “They call this city the Necropolis now. It’s where most of the vaccinated in the area were sent before the die off. From the smell of that hospital, I can see why. I came here, because they’re afraid to. They think they’ll die if they come too far in. It won’t last forever. They will find this place eventually.”
This news didn’t trouble me as much as I thought it should. “How bad are these people you’re talking about.”
Claire sat down on the other side of the fire. “Some tried to trap me and make me a wife or whore. After that I did everything, I could to stay away from people. A group caught me after that, but another group killed them for trespassing and I snuck away again. Since then, my whole trip up interstate I was tracked. It wasn’t until I entered the city, they stopped following me.”
“I’m sorry it was so bad for you,” I said.
She eyed me suspiciously from across the fire. “How did you survive this place. Every person I’ve seen here is dead.”
I grimaced as I thought back. “I was a shut in. A freelance programmer. I had no reason to leave my house, most of the time I didn’t want to. When the power shut off, well I didn’t really have a choice. Then I found Ruth and she started steering me towards making this little suburban farm.”
“So, the power was her idea?” Claire asked.
“No, I figured that out,” I said feeling an incredible surge of pride. “And the water too.” Claire made a noise that sounded like disapproval. “What is something wrong with that.”
Claire looked down. “No, it just seems too perfect. I haven’t seen any place with power since it shut off. Cars and flashlights sure, but no one with actual electricity.”
“It wasn’t easy…” I spent the remainder of the time smoking the leather explaining my electrical system. I touched on all the intricacies, and various things I had learned. A few times her mouth almost threatened to smile. By the end of my story, I had moved the pelt to a table to flesh and salt it.
Claire followed me and asked. “So, if I stayed, what would I have to do?”
I turned back to her, for the first time I saw some genuine human in her eyes. “Claire, I’m not going to ask anything more than to help me run this place. Ruth has some health problems and I’m having trouble doing my normal work and keeping up with what she used to do every day. If you can help fill the gap, I think that would be payment enough.”
“So, you want me to cook and clean?”
“If you think you can?”
Claire looked at me sternly for several more seconds before quickly walking inside. I figured she had gone back to her room, so I continued working on the cougar hide. By the time I was done it was getting dark. I finished covering the hide with salt and made my way inside to make dinner.
I was greeted by a strange smell. Claire was in the kitchen stirring a large pot. Ruth was at the table giving instructions. “Oh, Bob dear, you’re just in time to try Claire’s first dish,” Ruth said smiling at me. Claire looked over from the stove, she didn’t smile or frown, she just regarded me the way a disinterested animal would and went back to what she was doing. After going to the bathroom to wash up I came back to the dining room to see both Claire and Ruth at the table, a bowl of stew in front of each and one in front of my usual seat.
Ruth told me to take the first bite. I almost regrated my request of Claire when the food hit my tongue. It was the worst thing I had tasted in a long, long, time. I managed to swallow and doing the best I could I turned and thanked Claire for the meal. She smiled for just a second and immediately started eating. The real work that day was choking down that stew.
September 17, 2022