The only sane person in a cultish group has to be
careful. She’s always being watched. Any change of
activity will be noticed.
In this excerpt, Leah, now a straw boss over the women in
the group, is looking for a way out of the wilderness. She
slips away to a cave where she previously found an ancient
Leah sent the others out into a windy morning, armed with
sacks and a few kernels of corn. They were to gather any
snared game, then re-bait and reset the traps.
“No arguing. Let Alissa lead. Stop at the spring on
the way back.”
The moment they left, she headed for her cave.
She’d estimated the upright slabs at about four feet
long; the hole must extend two feet deeper than the level
where she’d found her bowl. She scooped sand until
she could haul up a slab and lay it on the ground.
Her fingertips felt something soft. Up came a piece of half-rotted
fabric, on which the bowl had been sitting. It was spread
over a network of twigs whose ends were planted around the
sides of the hole, like an elephant trap.
Whatever was down there had lain undisturbed since the ancients
left. Leah wasn’t sure how to proceed, or whether
she should. But it could be her magic. She pulled the sticks
out, lining them up in the sand, and sat back to listen.
She heard no rumble of earth, no howls. The wind at her
ears seemed to carry faint voices; but she’d grown
used to that.
As she dug, sand and pebbles fell a long way, returning
a deep echo. She stretched out in the sand and hung over
the blackness. The sound of her breathing came back to her.
She ran to her tent for her flashlight, thankful that she’d
been hoarding her batteries all these weeks. The powerful
light swept an arc around the cavern. The upper walls were
steep, lined with rubble. A wooden ladder, crosspieces tied
with sinew, leaned against the side. She made out the floor
of the cave, at least fifteen feet below.
She saw pots. Dozens of them: bowls and seed jars and ollas
lined the walls and covered the floor. Layered under centuries
of dust, each one was filled with corn or beans —
food for hundreds of lean days. The ancients had never cracked
their nest egg.
She leaned farther into the hole, picking out its perimeters
with her light. She saw an ax, propped against the wall
of the cave, its stone head lashed to a wooden handle.
Then she saw the skeleton.