Death comes in many colours, Hannah thought as she gazed across the valley at the emerald green rolling hills. Early this morning she had stopped at the massive burial mounds before continuing to the small mountain whose peak she was now sitting on. The sign posted beside the mounds read, “Upon these hills lie twenty-seven thousand dear souls. May their atoms find the best part of the universe.”
Her journey to this place had taken her through the prairies where she had driven by many cairns of brown, grey, and gold when they were covered by canola flowers. One watery burial place had been sky blue and reflected the moon's white crescent, she had rested an hour beside its cool waters. After her lunch she had read the plaque which told the story of the town of Jackspring and how they had widened an existing gully so they could inter their seventy-two thousand dead. Now many years later the waters had slowly filled it making the grave into a pretty little lake jumping with trout. The lake thrived but Jackspring, like so many other towns,was long gone. Only the dead remained to keep watch.
Dangling her feet over the edge Hannah watched eagles lazily circle above the vast stretches of trees and grasslands while the pungent smell of growing things permeated the air. “It’s a cornucopia of green,” she said out loud. The sound of her voice blew away in the wind. She took another long swig of her water bottle before pouring some over her head and onto her face. It had taken her all morning to hike up the old trail to the top of Elk Mountain, her Gram’s mountain. The last two kilometres had been almost vertical and had left her sucking air with every step. The wind had quickly dried the sweat on her forehead and face making the skin prickle where the salt dried. But, as usual, her dark hair was still clinging to the back of her neck like heavy wet noodles.
The day was growing hotter as she sat on her flat rock, only the cool breezes sweeping up the side of the mountain kept her from seeking shade. The sky was a brilliant blue and so clear she could see for kilometres down the long narrow valley until her greens faded to misty grays. Shading her eyes she stared back across at the dark hills where twenty thousand nameless, faceless, dead lay. Keeping watch, she thought.
For two days as she had crossed the empty expanses of prairie she had watched the mounds of the dead grow taller and taller while she drew closer. She did not have the time to stop at them all but even so a litany of inscriptions proclaiming the emotions of the people left to deal with the aftermath were everywhere. “Here lie our families. Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Forty thousand died, they leave behind a shattered town.” “Seventeen thousand died for no good reason. The town of Bridgetown remembers.” “This site is dedicated to the 83,000 people who perished without warning. May they rest in peace.” “This wall holds the names of the two thousand buried in the soil nearby. We pray that the winds of time can wash away our grief. ” It had been with an intense sense of relief yesterday that she had crossed the province's boundary into the mountains.
Here, in her valley, this site, these mounds, had been a part of her life forever. They did not hold any of the gloominess for her which the other memorials had.
In its hay-day the Blue River Valley had been burgeoning at the seams, it had been home to over forty thousand people. Less than a year later the population had been halved. Five years later only five hundred or so still called it home. Today, more than a half century later, the numbers were still in the low hundreds.
Five ghost towns still stood waiting for people who would not be coming back. The shattered remains of the valley folk had just packed their possessions and abandoned their homes and businesses, most returning to the places where they may still have some family left. As a child Hannah had always covered her eyes as they drove down those empty streets, she didn’t like seeing all the eerie vacant houses peeking out between overgrown bushes and trees, their black windows leaking loneliness into the surrounding spaces. Today those same streets felt like home.
The remains of her lunch sat beside her on the ground and already a small troop of ants were busy removing the crumbs. Hannah rolled her jacket into a makeshift pillow and lay down on the grass and closed her eyes, but the sun still painted the inside of her lids red. She fumbled around for her sunglasses and pulled them on with one hand, the other she kept curled protectively around the small ebony box at her side.
She let out a contented sigh, the walk down will be much quicker, she did not have to hurry. Hannah shifted herself trying to find a more comfortable spot. But the rock warmed her back even more and the sweat soon had her shirt sticking to her skin. She listened to the hum of insects and the buzz of cicadas as they busily continued going about living their lives and ignoring her.
The hum reminded Hannah of that day five months ago, and five hundred kilometres to the east, the day that she had been keeping vigil with her mother beside her grandmother’s hospital bed. The blinking monitors humming their monotone song in a low subdued timbre gave Hannah a sense of hope although her grandmother’s usual rosy cheeks were a frightening shade of grey. Her beautiful white hair lay greasy and lank against her tiny shrunken skull. The smell of disinfectant didn’t mask the underlying sickbed odour.
“Fifty seven years ago today I was in this exact hospital,” Gram’s voice sounded sloshy around the edges, like she was trying to breathe through water. "Fifty seven years ago today I gave birth to your mother right here. Mind you I was two stories down.” her voice faded out of focus as did her gaze. “It was the best day of my life. And the worst.” Hannah’s mother had reached out and taken the old lady’s hand giving it a tender squeeze.
Gran looked up into her daughter’s eyes and smiled. “I don’t know how I would have ever had the courage to go on if it hadn’t been for you. It seemed like the horror of that time was never going to end. One hundred and twenty babies were born that day. It’s hard to believe now, but back then that was normal.” Gran reached up and patted Hannah gently on the face. “By that evening sixty of those babies were dead. Sixty! I will never forget the fear in me. Never. My heart just wanted to beat itself right out of my chest. Like there was a small animal trapped right here,” she pulled Hannah’s hand against her thin rib cage. “I had your mother at six o’clock in the morning. She was perfect. All dewy and soft. She had the prettiest little pink lips. Just like a baby doll. I fell asleep the happiest woman in the world and woke up to a nightmare that just never wanted to end.” She closed her eyes, the corners of her mouth turned down, her pale cheeks emphasizing the bones on her face.
That was when I knew she wasn’t ever getting up from that bed, Hannah thought. She had looked at her grandmother and saw her death written in every pore, in every wrinkle, in the dullness that her eyes had become. Hannah remembered how her mouth had gone dry while at the same time tears glittered unshed in her eyes.
“I called Charles as soon as I found out what had happened in the nursery. I wanted to get you out of this place as fast as I could. It was like the world had become one of those horror shows they were so fond of back then,” Gram said, waving an emaciated hand about. “Half of the night staff did not come in. No one knew what was going on. There were so many dead babies. Most of them were just lying there already turning…no one knew what to do. I walked right into the nursery and scooped you up and hurried away. No one stopped me. The one nurse who had been working all that whole awful day told me that dozens and dozens of people were showing up in the ER bringing in their dead. Mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, fathers, grandparents, children - babies. All dead.”
Hannah looked over at her mother and they exchanged sad looks. Their family had been one of the lucky ones. Hannah knew the story well. Grandpa Charles had packed up his young son, his newborn baby girl, and his wife and had driven as fast as their old car would go to get to his father’s ranch. Ryder's Ranch. There in the remote foothills of the mountains they had hunkered down and watched in terror as the world shattered itself to pieces. Six months later Hannah’s great grandfather, and four of his children were dead as well as three and a half billion people worldwide. Where there had been twelve Ryders, only six remained, Gran, Gramps, her mother, her uncle Relly, one great uncle and her great grandmother.
“Hannah, I want you to bring me back to Blue River Valley and scatter my ashes into the wind from the top of Elk Mountain,” her grandmother said.
“Mom why don’t you let me...” her mother immediately volunteered.
“Teresa my love, you know you can’t. Not now. You have to stay here and do what needs to be done. Hannah knows the way. Besides she probably spent more time at the ranch then you have.”
“Don’t talk like that Gram, the doctors will have you back on your feet in no time,” Hannah said. But everyone knew that no doctor would be able to help the regal old lady now. Less than a day later her Grams had peacefully passed away in her sleep.
“Mom I’ll be fine. It’s only five hundred kilometres. If I don’t take too many stops I can make it in a day…”
“No!” her mother shouted, startling her. “I mean - no,” she said more softly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea you driving in there at night. Stop and rest somewhere close, but not in the mountains for the night. Promise me you'll drive into the mountains in the morning. Okay?”
“Why what’s the big deal?”
“Hannah, just promise me you’ll wait until morning to drive into the mountains. Okay?”
“Okay mom. I’ll wait until morning to drive through,” she gave her mother a quizzical look. “Will Uncle Relly be there?”
Her mother put her hands on Hannah’s shoulders then moved them up to smooth down her hair. “I spoke to Relly yesterday and he’s expecting you. He said to tell you that Abby was going to be home in a couple of days so you two can spend some time catching up.”
Hannah gave her mother a big smile. “That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time. I haven’t seen Abby for almost two years. Not since before they moved to Ameritain. Is Max going to be with her?”
Her mother shook her head. “No Max couldn’t get away, apparently the elections are taking up a lot of his time, seems that his company is building stages all over Ameritain. Every candidate wants one of his or her own.” Her mother pulled out a large roll of bills and pressed it into Hannah’s hands. “Your going to need this,” she said.
“Mom. I’m good. Really, I don’t need it,” she tried to hand her mother the money back. But as usual when it came to her mother it was impossible to refuse anything, and in the end Hannah had taken the money, given her mother a kiss, and drove away.
Suddenly she heard a sharp snap behind her which sent her twisting and ducking at the same time. “Holy shit,” she said and dove for her backpack.