Adam's Story: Nanmin Voyages

This narrative, the second part of “Adam’s Story,” continues using the tools of fiction to explore the five themes introduced in my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future.” As with the first installment of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


It took Adam most of three days to walk from Learyville to the coast highway, the main route through that part of the state and the nearest thing he’d had to a goal when he left home for the last time. The first day, leaving as late as he did, he only walked an hour or so before night closed in and he found a sleeping place under the stars. The second day brought him down out of the hills into the Meeker River valley, where the soil was good enough to make farms profitable and an old rail line ran back inland where the markets were. A train was growling its way east as he came down to the valley floor, though it wasn’t much like the trains in the children’s books he remembered; some local mechanic had reworked two trucks and most of a dozen trailers to run on rails, and the wind coming past the rails brought the fried-food smell of biodiesel with it.

Toward late afternoon he stopped at a farm just off the road and asked the farmer if he could cut firewood for him in exchange for a place to sleep in the barn. The farmer, a stocky man with hair the color of gunmetal and overalls that had seen many better days, looked him up and down and asked, “You can chop wood with one hand?” Adam grinned and said, “You’d be surprised what I can do with one hand.” The farmer just nodded, and took him in back of the farmhouse, where an old stump and a cruiser ax showed plenty of signs of use.

Adam spent the next few hours turning big pieces of wood into small ones – nothing new, he’d done the same chore back home for years, and it just took more cleverness to do it well after the accident messed up his right arm. When the farmer came back, he assessed the pile of firewood Adam had cut, nodded again and called him in to supper with the farmhands. He spent the night in a spare bed, and left the next morning with a grand breakfast inside him. As he said his goodbyes and shouldered his pack, the farmer’s wife handed him a pair of sandwiches neatly wrapped in floursacking, and waved aside his thanks, saying, “God bless you, just do something good for somebody who needs it.”

That was much on Adam’s mind as he walked west that day, with the rail line on one side and the river winding back and forth on the other. Tang of salt in the wind spoke of the sea, and old pilings rose from the water, last trace of sawmills and canneries that swung through their own trajectories of boom and bust long before anyone realized the society they served was on the same track. Farms became sparse, and stopped altogether just before the river opened into tidal marsh. The railway ended at a crumpled mess of timber that had been a bridge a long time back, but the road ran on, and a battered sign told him the highway was only a dozen miles further.

Those dozen miles took him away from the river, up into low sandy hills covered with shore pine that huddled down against the sea winds. The whole countryside looked deserted, but as he followed the road he noticed signs of movement off in the woods to either side. Birds fluttered up from among the trees, startled; now and then he saw what might have been a human shape slipping between the trees; once, as he topped a rise in the road, he saw someone half a mile or so in front of him, who saw him at the same moment and hurried out of sight under the pines.

Nanmin, Adam thought. He’d heard about them, back when Learyville still had the odd visitor or two. He made sure his father’s pistol was handy in his coat pocket, and kept walking.

He reached the coast highway as the sun was sinking into offshore fog. A cluster of buildings had been at the intersection once – a gas station, a cafe, and a shop selling tourist gewgaws, all brandishing gaudy signs – but the first two had fallen down and only the last still stood. He paused, decided that the shop would make a better place for the night than some hollow under the trees, and he still had both sandwiches, too. He went to where the door had been, peered into the shadows inside, stepped through.

Movement to one side, flash of metal in the dim light: startled, he scrambled away from it, got the rusting wreck of an old shelf between him and whatever it was. As his eyes adjusted to the light he found himself facing a young woman, Asian by her features, crouched against the other wall of the little shop with a big knife in her hand. Despite the weapon, she looked as frightened as he felt. Next to her lay another woman, a little older, slumped on the floor on a ragged blanket. The sick sweet smell of infection hung in the air.

“Hey,” Adam said, raising his good hand in what he hoped was a nonthreatening gesture. “You don’t need to do that. I’m just traveling – I’m not with the government or anything.”

The woman did not move at all. Eyes narrowed, she watched him, kept the knife between them.

“Do you know any English?” he tried.

After a long moment: “Yes.”

He wanted more than anything else just then to bargain his way to the door and sprint out into the evening, but a memory of sandwiches and the words of the farmer’s wife stood in the way. “Your friend doesn’t look so good,” he said a moment later, then: “Look, I’ve got medicine with me that might help. I can share some of it.”

A terrible uncertainty showed in her eyes. After what seemed like a long time, she moved warily to one side and lowered the knife a little. “My sister,” she said.

He was kneeling beside the woman and pulling his pack off his back before it occurred to him that the other one might stab him once his back was turned. No help for that now. He made himself finish the motion, fished around in the pack for the bottle of tincture old Carol Price had given him, brewed from herbs and raw alcohol; he’d seen it save lives more than once. He set the bottle on the concrete floor, turned to the sick woman, unwrapped the stained cloth bandages around one lower leg, drew in a sudden sharp breath when he saw what was underneath.

“Very bad,” the other said – a statement, not a question.

“Yes.” A ragged gash ran half the length of the lower leg, with pale puffy flesh and a reek of infection around it. Telltale red streaks of blood poisoning ran up the leg from there. Adam took the woman’s wrist and checked her pulse – hurried, shallow, uneven – then touched her forehead, felt fever burning hot under the skin. He sloshed some of the tincture onto the gash, then said, “Do you think we can boil some water?”

“I have no pan, no water.”

“I’ve got both. If there’s dry wood...”

“Yes.” What was left of a wooden shelf, kicked to bits and split up with her knife, made a small bright blaze that got water boiling promptly enough. A souvenir towel from the back of the shop, dipped in boiling water and then cooled just enough not to burn, gave him what he needed to clean the wound, and two more made a new bandage once he’d sloshed more tincture on it. The younger woman got some cool water down the sick one’s throat, with a few drops of the tincture in it just in case. Still, the fever stayed and so did the red streaks.

The younger woman put a few more bits of wood on the little fire, then seemed to slump into herself, as if the effort had burnt up the last energy she had. Still remembering the farmer’s wife, Adam asked, “Do you want a sandwich? I’ve got two.”

That got him a startled starved look that made him wonder how long it had been since she’d last had a meal. “Please,” she said, and took the sandwich, but waited until he took the other before starting to eat. The firelight made her face hard to read; she was looking at him, but what thoughts moved behind the eyes he had no idea.

He checked the older woman once he’d finished his sandwich – pulse the same, fever maybe a little worse – then sat down by the fire again. A long silence passed, then: “You are traveling.” The words were a question, though it took Adam a moment to figure that out. Guessing at the limits of her English, he tried to tell her a little about Learyville and why he’d left it to the bears and the ghosts. The fire burnt low as he talked. Afterwards, she fed a few more bits of wood to the flames, let another silence pass, and then started talking about herself.

Her name was Haruko, Sumigawa Haruko, and her older sister was named Fumiko. They’d both been born in Osaka, went to good schools, and then got evacuated to the island of Shikoku when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, which was why they survived when the war went briefly and disastrously nuclear and Osaka took a Chinese warhead. They’d learned to work the rice fields, since that was the only work to be had in a country spiralling down toward bare subsistence. Still, even after the huge losses from the war, Japan still had far more people than its farmland would support, and eventually they got a polite letter from the government telling them their food rations would be discontinued in the new year and they should make other arrangements.

So they’d found a ship that was being fitted out for nanmin, refugees, and was still taking passengers, bartered their remaining ration coupons for rice and a few other foodstuffs for the voyage, helped sew makeshift sails and scrounge enough fuel to get the ship out of harbor and power the final rush onto the beach, and put themselves in the hands of the winds and currents. The voyage had been lucky; they’d had rain enough to keep the water tanks from running dry, good strong winds, and they hadn’t run out of food until close to the end.

Still, when one of the ship’s makeshift ladders broke under Fumiko and slashed her leg open, they had no medicine to treat the wound, and infection set in. She’d been delirious when the ship plowed up onto the beach, and had to be hauled down the ropes by some of the others, who carried Fumiko up to the old shop and left her and Haruko to fend for themselves. With so little to go around and so many dangers to face, the ones who might survive dared not burden themselves trying to help those who certainly would not; it was as simple as that.

A sudden harsh noise as Fumiko started breathing again broke into the narrative. It was only then that Adam realized she had stopped breathing maybe a minute before. He checked her pulse and fever again, listened to the telltale rhythm as her breathing slowed gradually to silence and then started up noisily, only to slow once again. He knew well enough what that meant, and a glance across the fire to Haruko’s face told him that she recognized the sign as well.

“I hoped – ” Haruko began but her voice broke. Then: “I will pray to Amida.” She moved to sit next to Fumiko’s head, began murmuring a quiet repeated prayer: namu Amida butsu. Only later, as he woke from a doze, did Adam realize that she’d left her knife lying on the floor near the fire.

Fumiko died just as the first traces of morning came filtering in through what was left of the shop windows. Adam gathered from what Haruko said that cremation was the Japanese custom, but that wasn’t an option – “Too much wet in all the wood,” Haruko said – and his folding camp shovel proved sturdy enough to dig a serviceable grave in the sandy soil behind the shop. Afterwards, Adam filled his pack again and glanced at Haruko, wondering how to ask the question he wanted to ask.

She forestalled him. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

Something too faint and fragile to be called a smile showed on her face. “That is a good place, I think.” That was a question, too, but the only answer Adam could think of was to nod and indicate the door with a gesture: shall we?

Outside the sun struggled up out of fog. The coast highway headed off in two directions. “South, I think,” Adam said. “North there’s not much but wilderness for quite a ways.” Haruko nodded, as though that settled it, and they started south on the cracked but serviceable blacktop.

They’d gone no more than a hundred yards when the fog lifted to westward, swirling and tearing open as the sea wind clawed at it. From the highway the land sloped toward the beach down below, and there, with its bow driven up onto the sand, was the vast black shape of Haruko’s ship. Adam had expected a fishing trawler or the like, certainly not a huge container vessel the size of a small town. Nor had he expected to see another shape like it in the middle distance making purposefully in toward the shore.

“Japan has many people,” said Haruko behind him, “and many ships. Not much food. Each year, more will come.”

Adam stood there for a long moment, watching the future approach, until the fog rolled back in and he and Haruko began walking south again.