It was a long time before I checked on Smokey. I don’t know when she died. I forgot about her, because of Jimmy. At first it seemed like salmonella, he just doubled over while brushing his teeth, shat himself on the bathroom floor. Then he was gone—911 didn’t answer when I called. Neither did the police. I was scared, really scared, I slept in Elsbet’s bed with her, tried not to cry so she wouldn’t be scared too. I wondered if we would die, but we woke up the next morning just fine. I thought we were lucky.
I don’t know how many people died. A lot. Maybe most. That shit was in everything. And I don’t know either if it built up in the bloodstream or was just a bad batch that poisoned everyone. Probably the latter, Jimmy didn’t eat so much of it, and it was just the one Dr Pepper that got him. But Elsbet and I, we were fine. Our town was small, outside of Boulder, and frankly, we weren’t doing too well before it happened. Knotty or Knice, my yarn shop, Jimmy and I had sunk a lot of money into it, but before everything, with the way things were, it was more expensive to knit your own scarves and hats and sweaters than to just buy them, even the nice brands. Yarn was pricy. And it still was after the corn-sickness got everyone, you just couldn’t buy it with money. Credit cards, and even cash got abandoned pretty quick. You couldn’t eat it, you can’t really wear it. Most of the bills got stuffed into blankets or hats or shoes as padding, the coins melted down for more useful purposes. Barter economy. It just sort of fell into place. At least it did where I was. I don’t know about anywhere else.
There was a lot of theft, in the wake of it all, but at that point we had no choice, it was getting cold already. Another expression: desperate times lead to desperate measures, more true than the others. Sometimes two and two don’t get put together, and sometimes, as I said, the dawn doesn’t break after the darkest part of the night. But desperate times always lead to desperate measures.
People stocked up on food and clothing for free, looted, stole. Not as violent as you’d think, and no one stole my yarn. We didn’t even have a window broken at Knotty or Knice. Target, Wal-Mart, after the first few weeks no one was taking the TVs and jewelry. When we realized how widespread it was it became about clothing, warm clothing, shoes, and old-fashioned household appliances, the kind you could use without electricity. And food. Nothing with corn syrup. You couldn’t be too careful. At least, in my opinion. I saw fools taking soda and Oreos and ketchup, but not me. After we’d cleaned out our local supermarket of meat and produce, and our health food store for cookies and shit that didn’t have the killer corn, we went on a raid to Boulder, loaded up in our Subarus and used precious gasoline to drive down and see what we could get. I left Elsbet with a couple of the other kids who survived, some were older and could be trusted.
There was more to eat down there than you’d think, not a lot of people in Boulder were left, even with their ordinances and bike paths and eco-friendly coffee shops and whatever. Most of them drank Coke, ate unsafe candy, got a shot of corn-laced hazelnut syrup in their lattes, and that was all it took. When we walked into Whole Foods there was a gang of ragged-looking folks raiding the meat case, most of it had gone off but some was still all right, we talked with them for a while but when they found out we were out-of-towners it got a little ugly. After it all, my friend Samantha suggested we see if any seeds were left at Home Depot and there were, we took cucumbers and squashes and broccoli and carrots and everything. I don’t have a green thumb, I traded most of those for food.
I thought we were set, and we were, at first. Our house was old, we had a wood-burning stove, and I kept Elsbet and I in meals by teaching people to knit. I’d made another stop before I’d driven back up home, Michael’s, Jo-Ann Fabrics, took all the yarn they had in stock. There was a lot, people weren’t thinking ahead. Most of it was acrylic, I’d never knit with it before, but it was more about keeping warm than anything else.
So finally people were coming to Knotty or Knice, people who never cared to support me before the corn-sickness. The snows started early that year and a few months in, when their stuff wore out or they just needed more scarves and socks to bundle up in at night, they came. They were quick studies. When the needles sold out they made them out of dowels pilfered from the hardware store, sanded down. Elsbet and I were rich, so much food, we put on weight while our neighbors were getting thinner, but with all the factories shut down and no phones I couldn’t order more yarn when it ran out. I had to get it from somewhere else. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop. Another expression. Or was it a quote? I can’t remember now. Also, if you teach a man to fish. When my yarn ran out, times got lean again, people were frogging their sweaters and re-knitting them. I’d taught them to fish, but I ended up hungry for it.
Jimmy used to make fun of me for not eating meat. He used to laugh and say that humans hadn’t crawled to the top of the food chain just to eat lettuce. But there’s a problem with being at the top of the food chain. I had read an article on pesticides killing birds of prey, they were dying because of farmers setting out poisoned grain to kill rats. The rats would eat the poison and die, and then vultures and eagles and owls would eat the poisoned rats, and they’d get poisoned. Same with sharks and mercury-tainted fish. They were at the top of their food chain, I mean, except for humans, but it wasn’t doing them any favors. Not in the end.
In the end, it didn’t do us any favors, either.
I had started eating meat. I had to. Elsbet too, though she hadn’t ever had it before, Jimmy had been all right with us raising her vegetarian, but towards the middle of that first winter, when we ran out of canned beans and damn near everything else, I traded some knitted stuff for some goat meat and we cooked it and ate it. It had been so long I couldn’t recall if it tasted strange or not, but we were starving, it wouldn’t have mattered. Elsbet hated it, eating animals. I did too. At first. But what can you do? Desperate times. Meat was scarce, though, a lot of animals had died, too, corn in their feed. The ones that survived must’ve been immune, a slight genetic abnormality or something. Recessive traits, I remember doing Mendel’s Squares in biology class. Something like that. But thinking about it I also remember reading something about evolutionary defenses, how onions make you cry because they’re trying not to get eaten, like poison ivy—one-two-three, don’t touch me, another expression—or like skunks. Maybe skunks would be a better analogy here because they’re animals. But I’m not sure. It’s all I’ve got, my only theory, I figured it out for myself.
The way it started was this: I had seen Fred Jones in town, he traded me some meat for a scarf and a hat, he didn’t have time to learn to knit, he was a farmer, his wife had died. Anyways Fred and I got to talking and I told him I was running low on yarn, and he asked if I could spin, he had a bunch of sheepskins and if I wanted to shear off the wool and spin it into yarn I’d be welcome to, as long as he got something out of it. So I went out there.
It should’ve tipped me off when I saw the flock, standing on their hind legs, huddled together, bleating at one another like it was the most natural thing in the world. But things had gotten so crazy at that point it didn’t even occur to me that I should be concerned. I’d seen odder things, everybody had, but the sheep, there they were, standing upright. I wish now I’d asked Fred if that was normal for them. I can’t ask anymore, I can’t speak, only to myself, so it’s too late. I’d ask the sheep, but they shy away from my scent, and rightfully so.
I took the fleece and began to learn to spin it. I had a book in the shop and a few distaffs, spindles, and spinning wheels Jimmy and I had ordered when we thought our shop would be a success. I mean, it was. Briefly. Just not in the way we’d meant. Actually, it wasn’t. Isn’t. Not anymore. It doesn’t matter. I got the hang of it quickly—it wasn’t too hard, really, but everything takes time. I finally had enough to knit some long underwear for Fred and a sweater for Elsbet, and I’d just started on the knitting when the wolf attacked us.
I had been cooking up some of the mutton Fred had given me. The wolf must’ve smelled it, he opened the door with his paw and just walked right in through the kitchen door on his hind legs like something out of a fairy tale, mouth open, tongue lolling, saliva dripping down his chest, I expected there to be a bonnet on his head and glasses perched his muzzle, the better to see you with, my dear. Elsbet screamed and ran, but I shot it with Jimmy’s shotgun, I kept it close by, everyone did, it was just a good idea. I wasn’t a good shot. I clipped its shoulder but it was enough to take it down and then I stabbed it through the heart with my kitchen knife. It was ugly, eat or be eaten, or maybe nature, red in tooth and claw. I threw the carcass outside and calmed Elsbet down, washed off with some hot water and we ate dinner. Then I put her to bed.
I was knitting her sweater when I had the idea—it was a shaggy wolf, and I could spin fur into yarn as easily as wool. I cut it off with the shears, and when I got bored of knitting, I’d spin it. It was coarse, terrible, oily stuff, more like rope than yarn when it was spun, and I decided to make a belt out of it, mine had snapped a month before and I’d been holding up my pants with rope.