Dawn is just breaking over the mountains above Tully Island, when Verity wakes to the gentle press of Buddy’s paws. He’s on his hind legs looking down at her, brown eyes bright with love and determination. Languidly, she smoothes his furry brow, accepts the challenge. They both know he will not give up: he’s hungry. She inches away from her husband, careful not to disturb him.
Verity feeds the dog and two cats, then the chickens. She finds a good harvest of still-warm eggs, nestles them in a basket lined with wool. Then, still barefoot in her flimsy wrap, she climbs the path to the boulder overlooking the lake. Having wolfed down his breakfast, Buddy races ahead. In this moment most mornings greeting the rising sun, Verity breathes in the spiritual strength she needs for the day. Peace is rare in this increasingly intense world of 2148 with the planet on its knees. Little is sure except day-to-day duties, and the love that sustains the remaining humans.
From up here she can make out increasing activity around the docks, the first fishers prepping their boats and nets before heading out for the day. But still missing is Jake’s hardy 30-footer that was due to return yesterday. Where can it be, with her neighbor Jake and his sons, gone now for more than the three days they planned foraging for coveted items like knives and glass? She turns around to rest her eyes on the comforting sight of her little cabin, built out of mud and old tires, that has sheltered her and Vance and their daughter for so many years. Years of struggle and worry, years of love and gratitude. Buddy nuzzles her hand requesting a petting. Verity obliges, teasing, “Okay old man, you deserve it.”
Back in her kitchen, Verity has chicory coffee and cornbread ready for Vance and Willow when they shuffle in, still a bit groggy with sleep.
Vance hugs her, all the bulk of him engulfing her slim frame like a refuge. He says, “My dearest sweet thing, good wonderful morning!”
Willow chomps cornbread, announcing, “Got to get over to take Annie out today. We’re calling her Annie now because of the “A” embroidered on her shirt. I think I’ll show her the fish pond.”
“Super,” says Verity. “She’ll like that.”
“But you know, Mom, she doesn’t get excited about anything much. It makes me sad.”
“You’re doing a terrific job with her,” says Vance; “So proud of you.”
“She loves going out with you, the Clements told me so,” agrees Verity. “She’s just still in a state of trauma.”
“After almost a year? I wish we had a clue what happened to her!”
“Let’s not think about that,” growls Vance. “Look on the positive side. Jake found her and rescued her, and we’re making her well. That’s what counts. She’s a plucky little thing, mark my words.”
“You’re doing great,” adds Verity, hugging her daughter’s thin shoulders, thinking Willow at sixteen already too serious, too grim. She’s had a fairly peaceful childhood, but knows far too much about the devastation everywhere else.
The deadly plagues that erupted worldwide in the late 2090s spared Tully Island. Tucked in the northernmost corner of Lake Willoughby in old Vermont, Tully already knew how to hide from the world. So, the island folded in on itself; nobody left; nobody was allowed to land. Only a few elders can remember when strangers ever came. As a result, when the plagues had passed, Tully kept to its insular ways. The last radio contact was now distant memory. More and more, Tully folks fear that other human beings must be gone from the earth.
Today Verity has orchard duty, picking and sorting apples. But commotion around the docks just before noon rouses everybody to alert, and her team gathers to look down from the hill on the action. There’s Jake’s boat, to everyone’s relief–but there are too many people on it. Disbelief is paramount. How can there be five people on the boat including Jake and his two sons? Two more men, they ascertain as the boat pulls up to the dock.
There’s no time or motivation to call up the militia, which hardly exists any more anyway. Verity spots Vance leading a group of councilors towards the docking boat. Jake alights and greets them, they confer. The sons follow, helping the strangers who seem very weak, stumbling at times. One is tall with white-threaded hair, the other younger with a thick black beard. They seem far from threatening, but nobody knows how to deal with someone they haven’t known all their lives.
Now Verity discerns Willow in the crowd, arm protectively around little Annie, both of them shielded by an anxious Mrs. Clement. Her teammates concur when she begs leave and runs down the hill towards her daughter.
That evening, Buddy is the first to dine so he won’t be a nuisance, and now serenely stands guard in the kitchen while the rest of the family cooks. Willow at one end of the table is messily and distractedly making applesauce, at the other end Vance chops potatoes; Verity hovers at the stove mothering fish stew. Of course, there’s only one topic of conversation.
Vance says, “They’re bunking in the old barracks for now. All they want is food and sleep, you can imagine.”
“They came from so far away,” breathes Willow.
“From so far north,” agrees Verity. “Canada. As far north as you can get in Canada.”
“They had to walk,” Willow puts in, “After they lost their sled dogs.”
“Plus, they lost the other two guys,” Vance reminds them. “It’s a wonder they’re not dead, too.”
“And there’s a whole other group of actual people where they come from,” Willow cries, gesturing wonderment with her spoon. “People like us!”
“That,” echoes Verity, “is the miracle.”
But the greatest miracle of all happens a week later. Tully Island will be telling the tale to their school children for years to come. The whole community has gathered on a cool October evening for a celebratory feast on the shore. The two strangers are seated with some of the councilors, including Vance. Mrs. Clement brings little Annie over to sit with Willow and Verity.
“She kept pointing over here,” fusses Mrs. Clement, “So she insists on being with her favorite friend. Hope you don’t mind.”
Annie cuddles next to Willow, a hint of smile glimmering in her small pale face. She’s still very thin, a restless, nervous, unpredictable child. She has yet to speak one word, though she clearly understands what’s said to her.
Vance stands up to introduce their guests, “My fellow citizens of Tully, all of us are grateful and proud today. Thanks to brave Jake and his boys, we have rescued two good men from far away. When we thought there were no more of us on this earth, we found we have brothers and sisters.”
Verity, smugly admiring her hefty, charismatic husband, also keeps a watchful eye on Annie, with surprise admitting how well her daughter comforts and guides her little charge, as wisely as any mother. Willow’s not a child any more, she admits to herself. While it saddens her, Verity accepts with new relief that she no longer has responsibility for her child. Her awe is compounded when she notes the handsome young man that has emerged from behind the bushy beard. Introduced as Rufus, he looks to be about nineteen, his open, intelligent face with strong but sensitive lines. Well, she no longer has to fret that there are no appropriate young men for Willow. This last thought makes her nervous, to her own chagrin.
The other stranger, introduced as Ander, is an imposing man in spite of his stringy white beard, because of his alert and regal bearing, and kind of hypnotic focus. His ocean-blue eyes seem to look beyond the living. With difficulty, using a cane, he gets to his feet to address the crowd. “My heart is singing today,” says Ander, in a voice both hoarse and resonant. “Discovering you wonderful people is such a precious gift.” He pauses to control his emotion, does not hurry on until he’s ready. “Fellow human beings, you have suffered as we have in our frozen village, and here we are together, beginning life on earth anew. Our two communities march into a future of respect and hope, the greatest respect, the greatest hope. Thank you for…”
Ander stops abruptly, staring wild-eyed into the crowd. Then he staggers towards them, pushing aside anyone objecting, shouting, “Stellina! Stellina!”
Verity is about to jump up to put herself between him and the girls, but then he suddenly stops and holds out his arms. Little Annie fiercely pulls away from Willow and launches herself forward, screaming, “Papa!”
The two embrace in one euphoric knot of love.
Kitty Beer is the author of Resilience: A Trilogy of Climate Chaos. My degrees are from Harvard and Cornell. I raised my two children in New York, Montreal, and Munich. I am loving and tolerant, but I like to speak truth to power.