A Joseph Castagno short story…
The motorbike vibrated beneath them as Tra picked his way around the larger cracks in the asphalt and the occasional decaying remains of a wayward tree limb, Erie clung to him she wasn’t frightened so much as reassured by her brother’s touch. They didn’t speak, the respirators making it impossible to be heard and although nothing was alive the silence felt oppressive.
The sun glares down with a merciless stare, the heat rippling in waves across the dusty ground baking the remains of the asphalt ribbon stretching to the horizon. The gullies and cricks have long since given up leaving a patchwork of cracked and parched mud. This area once Western Illinois and neighboring Iowa – now part of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Middle States – mostly just referred to as the Middle States – had been at drought status for more than a century. The hulking figures of long dead giant oaks line the road standing as silent sentinels to the surrounding wasteland, their roots searching deep and far straining to extract the long extinct vestiges of life’s elixir. A pointless exercise only death roams amongst them biding its time.
It wasn’t so much that this area was forbidden, there just wasn’t any reason to come here, most of the remaining population was trying to survive on the receding shores of the great lakes – a daily struggle for food and water consumed most everyone. The series of increasingly deadly viruses and the predicted but still unanticipated rapid acceleration of global warming in the first half of the 21st century had finally allowed the radical progressive youth movement to wrest control of local and state governments. The dismantling of the Federal system had followed shortly after. That triumph – the banners, speeches, celebrations and euphoria of presumed equality was short lived and now a distant memory. That isn’t to say the old guard could have done better, but it hadn’t taken long for Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” syndrome to kick in; but even that lawlessness hadn’t lasted – squalor, disease, and hunger are the true lords of equality.
Tra pulls the bike into the shadow of a large oak trunk, the top had been sheared off some fifty feet up, standing he pulls a small bottle from the saddle bag handing it to Erie before taking a small sip for himself. Gently replacing it he spreads the weathered parchment on the ground, “we’re close…” he murmurs mostly to himself.
“How do you know,” she asks with wonder.
He smiles gently, “just a feeling, just a feeling,” he says standing and looking out at the desolate landscape, “it has to be here… great grandfather said it was.” Turning back to her, “come let’s go it should be a short walk that way,” he says pointing.
Erie hesitates for a moment before taking his hand, “lead on brother!” she exclaims with more bravado then she feels.
Time was no longer measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, but by the cycles of the sun and moon, and how many meals in between – but if a timepiece had existed it would have ticked off about twenty minutes. The fine dust eddies like ripples on a pond slowly refilling their footprints; Tra stops and looks back toward the bike and the silent oak hulks now small in the distance, he kicks at the dust, “it should be here…” he says forlornly.
Erie pulls on his hand, “can we go Tra, I don’t like it out here…”
Searching the horizon, he kicks the ground again, “Damn!” he exclaims hopping around on one foot.
He drops to his knees and starts frantically brushing the fine dust aside, “what is it Tra what did you find?” She asks starting to help him. The plaque is bigger than Erie, the raised letters still clearly visible, “what does it say,” she asks – reading wasn’t a survival skill and she had never learned the letters.
Tra runs his fingers over the letters murmuring to himself, testing the sounds out in is head before softly reading the inscription, “It says Christopher Columbus – Discoverer of America 1,4,9,2…”
Erie peers over his shoulder, “is that it?”
He reverently touches the letters again and, in a whisper, “a great new miracle occurred upon the earth… a new continent was discovered…” he pauses for a moment looking around carefully, “a new civilization was born… a new nation was to rise.”
“But what does that mean Tra?”
“Let me read the end,” he says not answering her question, “it was called America… It was to become the birthplace of democracy… it was God’s country…” Tra stands up brushing the fine silt off his knees. “You can never tell anyone about this, understand?” he says grabbing her shoulders.
“You’re scaring me Tra, why can’t we tell anyone? We found it just like great grandfather said we would.”
“This is from the old times E, back when great grandfather was a boy, these are the ‘Forbidden’.”
She clings to his side; every child knew the story of the ‘Forbidden’ the evil ones that caused the revolution and were responsible for the struggle life was now. “Do you think they are all here Tra?”
He looks around in wonder, “I bet they are… let’s see if we can find another!”
The sun is low in the sky and glints off the edges of two dozen unearthed plaques and statues – Tra and E are covered in a sheen of fine dust, “I like his hat…” E says looking around, “what was his name?”
“Robert E. Lee,” Tra smiles, “and the funny looking one over there is “Benjamin Franklin, and this one with the feathers is Geronimo…” Standing up he scans the horizon, “We need to get back E, don’t want to be out after dark.”
“Tra I don’t think they were evil, do you?”
He hesitates before answering, “no probably not, great grandfather always said they were just people like everyone else…”
“Can we come back?”
“Sure… but don’t tell anyone… our secret okay?”