Adam's Story: Uncharted Waters

This narrative is the final part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the toolkit of narrative fiction. As with the rest of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the coastal Pacific Northwest sometime during the second half of this century, after the political disintegration of the United States and the end of the global industrial system.


They’d been at Tillicum River most of a month before Adam and Haruko knew for certain that their future lay there, though Adam began to guess the shape of it after the first week or so. Growing up as the last child left in a dying town, he’d studied almost from infancy the art of listening to the words behind the words people spoke, all the things adults didn’t want a child to know about that the child needed to know. Through the long days he spent working in Earl Tigard’s garden, patching his roof, and doing a hundred other neglected chores, he watched the townsfolk watch him, listened to their voices as wariness gave way to familiarity in their greetings and small talk, felt the label “outsider” gradually dropping off him as though the sweat that rolled down his face and back as he put in onions or dug up dandelion roots for coffee made it come unstuck. Even so, when certainty arrived it caught him by surprise.

That day he and Earl helped finish the new fence around the goat pasture the Tigards shared with their five closest neighbors: hard work even by Adam’s standards, and it didn’t help that the goats did their level best all day to extract themselves from the barn and get underfoot, and succeeded more than once. The dinner bell was even more welcome than usual, and afterwards Earl broke out bottled beer from the cellar – local, of course, but the Tillicum River brewery had more than a local market in the days before things started falling apart, and there was talk of selling it to the trading ships that were starting to poke their way up and down the coast again.

Halfway through the first glass, someone knocked at the door. When Earl went to answer it, it turned out to be four people, one familiar face among them: the portly policeman Adam remembered from the town gate. “You’ve met Chuck Babcock,” Earl said, making introductions, “our police chief. This is Cathy Weiss, our mayor.” A woman with iron-colored hair in a bun and the angular face and quick motions of a bird shook Adam’s hand, then Haruko’s. “Juliet Rasmussen, city clerk, and Fred Baird from the city council.” Juliet was plump and smiling, Fred lean and reserved. They found chairs around the living room, took beers from Earl.

“Well,” said the mayor. “You probably know that we’ve had trouble now and then with people from outside, but you probably also know that about half the people who live here came from somewhere else. Earl and Anne have spoken well of both of you.”

“They’re not the only ones,” said Chuck. “You two work hard, you stay out of trouble, and – ” A nod to Haruko. “ – the folks at the Buddhist church ain’t exactly unhappy to have somebody show up and start helping out, just like that.” Haruko ducked her head, embarrassed but pleased.

“So what we’d like to know,” the mayor went on, “is whether you’d considered the possibility of settling down here.”

Haruko’s hand went to her mouth. Adam blinked, and then grinned. “Tell you the truth,” he said, “we’d been wondering what was the best way to ask somebody about that. So yes, please, and thank you.”

“You’ll want a place of your own,” Juliet said, “and there are plenty of those; choose one that nobody lives in and register it with me at city hall, and it’s yours. Some of the things you’ll need you’ll have to buy or work for, but some you can get free – this town used to have upwards of seven thousand people, and a lot of their stuff is still around. The city warehouse is one of the things I manage, so check with me.”

There was more talk, about votes and town meetings and what to do if emergencies happened, but most of it slid out of Adam’s mind just as fast as it entered, pushed aside by the sheer bright awareness that the long trek from Learyville was actually over, and not the way he’d thought it might end, bleached bones along the road somewhere or the long slow fall into one of the big inland cities where so many people from Learyville went and so few survived long. Still, one memory stuck; as everyone shook hands and the visitors got ready to go, the police chief stopped, grinned, and said, “Got something of yours to give back, too,” and handed him his father’s pistol. “You might want to get that cleaned and serviced; we got a gunsmith here, you know, and if we get raiders again you’ll need it.”

The next few days were a blur: choosing a house from among the empty ones on the edge of the inhabited part of town, with a yard big enough for chickens and gardens and no leaks in the roof; going to the city warehouse and finding out just how much tableware and cooking pots, storm windows and furniture seven thousand people had left behind; meeting new neighbors and ending up at the center of a housewarming party where people from a block in every direction brought food and hand-me-downs to help tide things over until the household got going; giving two of Marge Dotson’s asparagus crowns to Earl and Anne as a thank-you gift and planting the others in the best spot of the new garden; holding Haruko as she wept out of sheer relief that her own journey, so much longer and more bitter than his, had ended so well.

Yet it didn’t feel like an ending, not to Adam. One of his new neighbors was a stocky black man named Stan, who spent his days at the docks fitting out a sailboat, a big one, with two masts and enough room belowdecks to carry cargo. Other port towns up and down the coast already had the beginnings of trading fleets, Stan told him one evening. “We ain’t never gonna see air freight again, or container ships, or any of that, but folks still gonna want things they can’t grow where they at,” he said, gesturing expansively. “I don’t know about you, but man, I’d just about kill to get my hands on real coffee, and I ain’t the only one. Head down south and you get to where they grow coffee, chocolate, chili peppers with some real heat to ‘em, all kinds of good stuff. What I don’t know yet is what they want that we got, but that won’t take but one trip to find out. Next spring the Alice May’s gonna be ready, and we gonna give it a try.”

That night, somewhere in the dark hours, Adam blinked awake from a dream: he’d been with Stan on the Alice May, wind in her sails and uncharted waters ahead, while the coast that contained everything he’d ever known drew away into a dark line astern. He lay there for what seemed like half of forever, wondering why the image felt so familiar, until clarity came. He’d been sailing into uncharted waters all his life, since a world he’d never had time to get to know drifted off into memory, and he wasn’t alone on the voyage. As he sank back into sleep, thought blurred into dream, and he was on a boat again, except that the boat was the town of Tillicum River and the sails billowed above its much-patched roofs and makeshift wall; Haruko was with him, and so were Stan and all his other neighbors, the Buddhists chanting prayers amidships, Chuck in his police hat pacing along the gunwales and Cathy Weiss at the helm. The shore fading into distance was heaped with the ruins of skyscrapers, and faces from his past – his father, Sybil, many more – floated pale and silent in the gray waves astern.

When he woke from that, the sun’s first rays were already splashing through his bedroom window and distant voices and the clatter of handcart wheels announced the beginning of another workday. Still, he lay there for a moment before waking Haruko with a kiss and getting out of bed. Uncharted waters, he thought. Would there even be a shore on the other side?

But there was work to be done, plenty of it, and a place to find or make in a home he still only half knew. He started going to the Buddhist church now and again, more because Haruko went there than for any more spiritual reason; still, the town’s six churches played a big part in weaving the community together, and Adam knew that he couldn’t risk being on the outside. The same thinking got him and Haruko to join the Grange, one of the two old lodges in town. All the farmers and the really avid gardeners in town belonged to the Grange, just as the people who worked in the brewery, the other businesses in town, and the city government all belonged to the Elks Lodge. Once he and Haruko went through the elegant little ceremony that made them Grangers, a little more of their outsider status melted away, they were woven more tightly into the net of mutual help that made for survival now that the old and never more than half-kept promise of government help had been broken beyond repair.

The police chief was a Granger, the Worthy Master that year in fact; Adam hadn’t expected that, but then he hadn’t guessed that Chuck nurtured a wild passion for tomatoes, had more than two dozen varieties turning his back yard into a jungle where the local cats stalked like tigers. He also hadn’t expected to find so many questions about the town’s farming economy settled at Grange meetings. Those questions turned more and more on the weather, because the climate was changing: warmer and wetter with each passing year, or so he gathered from the talk.

“One more spring like last one and we’re going to have to let go of the river fields,” Fred Baird, the city councillor who’d come to invite them to stay, said in one such discussion. They were sitting at the long table in the Grange hall’s dining room after the meeting. “Between the rain and the river they’re basically mud until well into summer.” Glum nods circled the table.

“Excuse me,” said Haruko after a moment, startling Adam; she still rarely spoke much in public. “Perhaps you could grow rice?”

“Grain crops haven’t done well down there for years now,” Fred said with a quick shake of his head, but Chuck gave her a long sideways look. “You ain’t talking about field rice, though, are you?” the police chief asked. “You’re talking about paddy rice.” Haruko nodded.

“You know,” said Chuck, “this could get into questions you probably don’t want to answer, so I think we’re all gonna agree that you learned about rice in California or someplace, okay?” Haruko nodded again, a little more uneasily. “Do you know how to grow paddy rice?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I worked in the rice fields for eleven years – in California.”

The word on everyone’s mind and no one’s lips was “nanmin,” Adam knew. Nobody in town ever talked about the refugees from crowded, starving Japan in his hearing: proof enough, if he needed any, that they’d figured out that Haruko came from the wrong side of the Pacific.

“And you can teach us how to do that?” Chuck asked.

“Oh, yes.”

Chuck put his chin in his hand. Adam felt Haruko tense beside him, draw herself up. In a very quiet voice, she said, “If you need help, there are others – from California – who know how.”

Growing up in a dying town, Adam thought, was a good way to learn about silences – big silences and small ones, still silences and loud ones. This one roared like thunder. After a long moment, Chuck nodded, said, “I was just thinking that.”

“Chuck, I don’t know,” said Fred, frowning.

“They ain’t gonna go back home,” Chuck said then, “and they ain’t gonna stop coming. I ain’t saying we ought to just throw open the door, but we’re gonna have to deal with ‘em sooner or later. Might as well be now.”

Another long silence and then, unwillingly, Fred nodded.

Uncharted waters, Adam thought. In the evening above him, he could imagine sails billowing in a wind none of them could feel, pushing the town like the boat in his dream away from the world they knew toward a destination they could only guess at.