Write On!

Sugar and Surprises

In Responses on December 29, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Olivia arranged the tree branches until she was sure not one negotiator could discover her hideout. Her body ached with the nervous tension she held in every muscle as she waited. From her vantage point, she could see the stretch of Main Street where the action would soon take place.

An out-of-towner would wonder if the village were deserted, the way things looked today. There was a time when storefronts were smartly arrayed in seasonal decor, swept clean daily, with brightly painted signs proclaiming “The World’s Best Fudge Here!” or “50% Off All Merchandise – for a Short Time Only!” As supplies had steadily diminished, local shoppers and entertainment became more and more scarce. Now, most windows were so dusty, it was hard to see what might lie behind them, though one would have only been disappointed by empty buildings, long ago scavenged by the more daring villagers. Some windows, broken by said scavengers, had been replaced by chunks of plywood ripped up from floors. Many simply were left broken, jagged edges framing the vacant, yawning chasm within. Used to be one could see the signs of    rodents’ work in these lonely places: piles of rubbish carefully gathered into a corner for a nest of sorts, droppings leaving a pungent reminder that at least some creature had eaten enough to defecate. Eventually even the rats had left the town, deserting a starving civilization in favor of more wild offerings.

One corner of the town remained alive, though the owner of the building did not seem terribly interested in keeping up appearances. The store served whatever purpose was most needed for the day: sometimes a courthouse, other times a livery; on one glorious occasion, a receiving station for a rare delivery of mail and produce from the other side of the mountain range by a determined young man who gathered up his mother’s brother and promptly headed back into the mountains.

Deliveries were nearly nonexistent since the bridge over the pass failed a year ago. No one realized at the time that it would serve as the beginning of the End. A sharp disagreement had risen between the settlers as to who was responsible for repairs. After weeks of dispute, the first snowfall struck, followed by the worst winter the settlers had ever experienced. Days became weeks of snowfall without respite, temperatures never rising above freezing to allow for any thaw. The entire landscape shifted and changed as drifts filled furrows while wind rearranged the powdery top layers at a dizzying rate. People became disoriented and lost in the swirling white, never to be seen again until spring revealed corpses, some only a matter of yards from town.

The remaining villagers held out hope for the spring thaw, new life, and an opportunity to make things right. Floods of epic proportions, brought on by snowmelt down the mountainside, washed away those hopes, destroyed outlying buildings and homes, narrowly missing the heart of town. Avalanches on the higher peaks and mudslides below them made the mountains impassable. There was nothing to do but wait.

Discovery Station, once renowned for its thriving economy and friendly townspeople, lay in ruins. The few villagers left were hungry and bitter They scraped by on whatever they could find to eat in the countryside (some falling victim to poisonous berries), moving more slowly and painfully as the days grew longer and their bellies grew emptier.

Then, one glorious day, came a small sign of Hope. Posted to the door of the remaining storefront was a proclamation of intent: One Cup of Sugar Discovered in Abandoned Building! Each family may send one negotiator to the town square on July 1 at sunup to barter for the sugar and a few other surprises.

Tucked among the bushes today, Olivia remembered with a smile the moment her father had come bursting into the door, fairly jumping into the main room of the house as he hollered, “Supplies! Supplies! Someone discovered supplies! And – and – SUGAR!” His wife, remaining two children, brother, and cousin came running at the news. That evening over their meager mushroom broth, they debated what items they could give up to barter for the sugar – and surprises.

“One week’s time until the negotiation,” mused Mother. “Would that be enough time to unravel my last sweater and knit it into a few new items for children – or some socks? Yes, socks! Surely those would be considered valuable.”

“I can go an extra day’s journey looking for berries,” Olivia’s brother, Troy, ventured. “If I know there is good reason, I can go. Besides, the summer nights are much more mild. I think I could handle a couple of nights, if I brought the sweater – oh, not the sweater. Well, let me think…”

“I am willing to give up my bed,” said Uncle Roy slowly. “I am not much longer for this world – no, we all know it is true. Someone who has hope for tomorrow needs good rest so they can have energy to spare for work. Don’t you try to talk me out of it. A solid bed is a fine commodity, indeed.”

A wagon-load of items accumulated over the week, and eventually Troy became the designated negotiator. Handsome, even a bit winsome, they all agreed he might win over the mystery host with his demeanor, if not his wisdom.

And now the time had come. The sun began to warm the horizon, turning the inky night sky pale violet. The golden glow pressed the deep up, up, up, inviting the handful of negotiators out of the shadows like apparitions rising from the mist.

They gathered, the fifteen men and one woman (everyone knew Jillian would be the fierce representative of her small clan), each leaving a collection of items hidden and protected by family members crouching behind buildings and bushes. For endless minutes, they stared at one another, silent, arms crossed, eyes squeezed into slitted glares.

Eventually the waiting began to wear on each one. Feet started to stamp, heads swinging right and left, looking for the mystery host. The sun was well above the horizon now. What was the delay?

Brock finally broke the silence with an angry snort.

“What is the meaning of this? Why drag us out here with the things we treasure most and leave us standing here?”

“What if the host is wanting to steal our things while we stand waiting?” Andrew voiced everyone else’s current fear, and the circle turned outward as they all looked towards their hiding places. “Why don’t we all just come out in the open? Surely we know what each other has to offer anyway. What good is the all this sneaking and hiding doing us?” Andrew had always been the team player. It took him the longest to succumb to the icy space driven between families as they all had argued over the bridge repair.

“I guess there’s no harm in it,” ventured Gregor. He signaled over to the east, and his wife cautiously came forward with a bundle wrapped in a quilt in her arms. Slowly the others joined her, some with wagonloads like Olivia’s, a few with makeshift packs like Gregor’s, a couple with seemingly nothing at all but heavy pockets.

The group had instantly doubled to 32. The strongest, most able bodies from each clan gathered in, looked each over. These people used to share lives and goods alike. They had loved each other, only a few months ago. Now the chasm formed in the mountains was reflected by the space between each pair. Olivia looked with pain and longing at her old friend Peter. She wished she could just tackle him like the old days when they played together after lessons were complete. She thought perhaps she saw her own wishes reflected in his eyes.

Sure enough, he inched towards her as the others continued to grumble and complain.

“What did you guys scrounge up?” he whispered. She whispered back the offerings. “Socks! What a great idea! They would go well with the shoes we made from scrap leather we no longer needed for the horse we… ate.” He wrinkled his nose from the memory. “We have a few tools that have helped us find food – a spade, and a few others that might come in handy for repairs before the next winter strikes again: hammer, nails, a few pieces of wood…”

As the minutes stretched into an hour, old friends could no longer bear the separation. It had been a long, lonely winter for each family, and now here they were gathered together again. In spite of themselves, people began to mingle and talk, and even a few laughs were heard.

Slowly, the bartering items came out from under wraps as they shared stories of hardship and loss. A dress that was a family member’s who succumbed to severe frostbite followed by fever. Uncle Roy’s bed, one he wouldn’t need as his day was drawing near.

One couple had a loaf of bread, the last bit of flour and oil used to bake it. As this news came out, a near frenzy ensued until Andrew finally brought them all under control with the offering to divide the loaf between them all.

“So long as I can have a tablespoon of the sugar, ” Jillian consented, giving up the treasure. Each one received a few bites’ worth, and the nourishment melted yet another layer of bitterness.

One by one, another shared his or her bartering items until a large collection shocked them all: there, in the middle of the town square, held nearly everything needed to repair the bridge. Uncle Roy’s bedframe offered wood, metal, screws, and brackets. The Rogers offered tools from their blacksmith shop. Socks would keep workers’ feet warm during cold mountain nights.

No one even noticed that the sun had neared the midday mark. The warmth brought by this collaboration, by the birth of a dream between the few able-bodied souls left in this settlement: they would work together to build the bridge. The offer of a cup of sugar was nearly forgotten as preparations were made.

And two days later, the first crew would ascend the mountain while the sun baked the mudslides dry.

Who could have known the sugar would be awaiting them at the top, where the bridge lay complete before them?

As for the surprises… well, those lay in the hearts of villagers: renewed hope, restored relationship, the gift of collaboration once again. And a young man looked across the bridge from the other side of the chasm and smiled as he watched his plan succeed.

  1. So glad I have such a talented friend! Once again you proved that 🙂 loved the intro and small details that put me right in this scene!

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