Adam's Story: Banners in the Wind

This narrative is the third part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the tools of narrative fiction. As with the first two portions of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


Adam and Haruko spent most of the next three weeks walking south along the coast highway, with the sea never far away to their right and a half-empty land to their left. Here and there, where rivers laid down pockets of good soil, there were farms and the occasional village, and people willing to trade an afternoon’s work for a meal and a dry place to sleep. Elsewhere, empty towns huddled against the gray turbulence of the sea – fishing ports abandoned when the seas were stripped of fish, tourist towns long empty of tourists – and those offered shelter, if nothing more.

Twice they’d found places to stay more than a night. One of those was a religious commune, a dozen or so adults and half that many children living all together in a big barn of a place just off the highway. They’d left the city fifteen years back to follow their own revelation, though Adam never did quite manage to figure out what made theirs different from anyone else’s. Still, they had goats for milk and meat, and the two travelers happened to arrive right as the nannies were giving birth, which meant extra hands were more than welcome.

They stayed there more than a week in all, and Adam guessed they might have stayed there for good if they’d had any interest in the commune’s religion. No chance of that, though; Haruko was Buddhist, devout enough to pray the nembutsu every night; Adam wasn’t sure what he believed, but that one little group of people were God’s chosen and everyone else was going to fry eternally for the sin of disagreeing with them wasn’t it. When the last of the kids had dropped, he and Haruko said their goodbyes and started south again.

The second place was harder to leave in some ways, easier in others. Pells Falls was an old tourist town a week south of the commune, still hanging onto life with a fingernail grip; a few old people still had their homes there, eking out a living from backyard gardens. They had plenty of work for travelers, and made it clear that if those travelers were minded to stay, there were houses in good condition they could have for the asking. He and Haruko talked it over late one night and decided against it; the thought of keeping watch over another dying town was more than Adam could face, and Haruko surprised him by saying she was sure there was something better waiting further down the road. The two of them stayed three nights in Pells Falls and then headed on.

It was definitely “the two of them” by then. Throw any two people together in a situation where cooperation was their one shot at survival, Adam thought as they walked south one morning, and you could be pretty certain they’d end up either good friends or blood enemies. Despite cultural differences he wasn’t yet sure he could measure, much less bridge, he and Haruko had managed the first option. Friends, maybe more: he couldn’t be sure of that, hadn’t found a way to ask the question while the future ahead of them was still a blank.

That was much on his mind the morning they left Pells Falls, but by day’s end he had something else to worry about. Before noon, a distant rumbling in the sky sent Haruko bolting off the road. She was frightened enough that it took her several tries to remember the English for “airplane.” From the limited safety of a dense clump of vine maples, they caught glimpses of an angular shape high in the air. During the war with China, Haruko told him in a whisper, planes followed the Japanese highways and shot at anything that moved. She would not leave the maples until long after the sky was silent again.

The same plane, or another just like it, appeared in the sky ahead of them twice more that afternoon. Then, toward evening, while they were looking for a place to camp for the night, they rounded a curve in the road and found themselves facing a line of uniformed men with guns. By the time he was finished being surprised, Adam had sized up the distance; no point in trying to run. The flat expressionless look on Haruko’s face told him she’d already worked out the same harsh mathematics. Lacking any other option, they walked up to the line.

“So what’s all this?” Adam asked, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.

The nearest soldier sized him up, decided he wasn’t a threat. “Cascade Republic Army,” he said. “We’re securing the coast.” Then, when Adam looked puzzled: “You get any news out here?”

“Not for years.”

The man let out a whistle. “You’ve missed a few things,” he said. “Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. Governor Mendoza’s declared a republic here.” He gestured back behind the line; two trucks stood there, each with an unfamiliar flag – white, blue, green in horizontal stripes – painted on the doors. “You’re headed south?”

“If we can.”

The soldier turned, called out, “Lieutenant Corson, sir!” The lieutenant left a clutch of men around a radio next to one of the trucks, and came over. “Couple of travelers, sir,” the man said, saluting. “Let ‘em through?”

The lieutenant gave Adam a much less cursory look than the soldier had. “Name and residence?”

“Adam Keely. I used to live at Learyville, up the coast.”

“How’s Learyville these days?”

“Pretty quiet. Nobody lives there now.”

The lieutenant nodded. “And her?”

That was the question that mattered, Adam knew. If they’d been sent to secure the coast, it would be nanmin they were securing it against. Doubtless he could shrug, tell the truth, and send Haruko to whatever fate they had in mind for the refugees from Japan. In the instant he had to consider the matter, he knew it would be easier to gouge out his own eyes. “My wife Haruko,” he told the lieutenant. On cue, she gave the man a bright smile.

The lieutenant’s gaze moved to her, back to Adam. “I don’t see a wedding ring.”

Before he’d finished speaking Adam thought of Sybil’s ring. “In the bottom of my pack. Didn’t want to draw thieves.”

“Show me,” the lieutenant said.

Adam took off his pack, fished in it until he found the little pouch with Sybil’s ring in it, held the ring up for the lieutenant to see, and then for good measure turned and put it on Haruko’s finger, guessing it would fit. It did. “Satisfied?”

He could almost see the thoughts moving behind the lieutenant’s eyes, suspicions pulling one way, doubts the other, and time and too much work to do casting the deciding vote. “Go on,” the lieutenant said, with a motion of his head back past the trucks. Adam thanked him, nodded to the soldier, and then he and Haruko were past the line. The soldiers around the radio gave them incurious glances as they passed. The sound of voices and the crackle of the radio faded into silence behind them as they tried not to hurry too obviously down the road.

Neither of them said anything until the soldiers were well out of sight. Finally Adam let out a long ragged breath. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad that worked.”

Hand on his arm, the pressure so slight he could scarcely feel it: “Thank you.” Then she looked away. “Should I give you back the ring?”

He’d learned enough of the elaborately indirect way she spoke about important things to guess at the question behind the one she asked. “I think it looks fine where it is,” he said.

“So do I.” Her smile, shy and fragile, woke responses in him that left him dizzied.

Later, as the sun was drowning itself in the sea to their right, they found an abandoned motel with a room still fit to stay in, and made a meal from food the folks at Pells Falls had given them. Later still, they slept, or Haruko did. Adam lay awake for a long time, feeling her warmth against him, the rhythm of her noiseless breathing. For all that, his thoughts were far away.

Washington fell last winter, so no more United States. The soldier’s words turned in his mind, impossible to ignore, impossible to accept.

Until then he had never quite realized how far down the roots of the old secular faith reached into him, how much of the deep places of himself still believed that the troubles would turn out to be temporary after all. Fourth of July parades from his childhood, official speeches watched over the last fitful web connection in his teen years, scraps of a patriotic song Marge Dotson used to sing in her reedy voice, all blurred together into a shape that seemed as permanent as anything human could be. To hear that it was not just eclipsed for a time but gone for good was like looking up one morning and finding that the sky wasn’t there any more.

He thought of the flag that used to fly over the Learyville post office, back when Learyville had a post office, and then of the new flag on the sides of the military trucks, and wondered how many more new banners were spreading in the wind that night. The old patriotic ideals rang in his head, wrapped up in Marge’s voice: O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears... The words brought him up short. When did America’s cities, those riotous patchworks in which alabaster was only one color of many, ever had a shortage of tears? How much of the dream was ever real?

As he moved into the borderlands of sleep, he thought he could see something vast and poignant called America, something made of dreams, stars, songs, marching feet and alabaster cities all jumbled together, tearing loose from its moorings in reality and rising into the abstract night. Maybe – the thought burned at him, but he could not turn away from it – maybe that was where it belonged all along.

Haruko shifted, bringing him back to the moment. He nestled against her as sleep finally took him.