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"And keep taking pictures!"
"After everything disappeared, the buildings, the escape s.h.i.+p, everything," Cal reviewed, "and you, with your wife, found yourself crouching under the trees in what had been your front yard, without any clothes on--what then?"
"That was the beginning of it," Jed Dawkins answered. He looked toward his two companions as if for confirmation. He looked at the three crewmen, at Cal, all sprawled or crouched there beneath the tree at the edge of the clearing. "We thought it was the end of everything," he said in retrospect, "but we found out quick that things had just begun."
Cal nodded. Dawkins had told his tale simply, without fict.i.tious emotionalism, without straining to get the horror of it across--and thereby succeeded. He glanced at his three crewmen, to see how they were faring. Louie seemed to have gained some control over his nerves, and yet the way he sat there staring at nothing showed he was enduring some special horror of his own. Frank Norton s.h.i.+fted his position, pulled a dry stick from beneath the leaves, looked at it resentfully, and tossed it aside. He settled back down and indicated by his expression that now he could be more comfortable.
One grateful fact, the day was warm, the breeze under the tree was gentle, the ground on which they sat was not too wet for comfort.
Except for custom, for modesty, clothes weren't really needed; and perhaps the shock of being without them would pa.s.s. Nudists, on Earth, claimed that one very quickly lost all self-consciousness if no one were clothed; that such was part of the value; that s.e.x, for instance, became less of an issue instead of more because, without concealment, one could see instead of imagining, and the sight more often discouraged than enticed. Cal wondered what the militant moralists would make of the idea that clothes encouraged immorality.
"It was a hard thing to believe," Jed was saying. "It wasn't like a natural thing--like a cyclone, or earthquake, or fire, or flood. Nothin'
like that. Them things a man can understand. Even if he's dyin', at least he knows, he understands, what's killin' him. I never thought I'd hear myself say it would be a comfort to know what you was dyin' of, but, believe me ..."
He broke off and stared in front of himself. His voice took on a note of perplexity.
"Only n.o.body died. n.o.body even got hurt. We was like little kids screamin' at the top of their lungs when they ain't hurt at all--only scared." He looked abashed. "I got to tell you, real truthful," he said, "most of the yellin' came from the men. The women, by and large, was real swell.
"Fact is," he continued, "come to think of it, I don't recollect ever seein' a woman in real hysterics. Plenty of fake, of course. Say she's tryin' to hook some man into protectin' her; or lay public blame on him for not doin' it. Other times, in real danger, womenfolks, our kind of womenfolks, anyhow, they pitch right in and help. It takes a man to make a jacka.s.s outta himself at the wrong time."
Cal nodded and smiled. There was an attempt at a hollow laugh from Louie, as if the shoe had fit. Jed didn't seem to realize it, and made no apology about present company being excepted.
"It wasn't like the aftermath of a storm, either," Jed said, "where you begin pickin' up the pieces to start over. We--we couldn't pick up any pieces."
They couldn't pick up any pieces. In a way, that was worse than the disappearance of things. In a catastrophe, after taking care of those that are hurt, first thing a man does is gather the materials and tools to fix things up again. The women, after soothing them that's hurt, taking care of them as much as possible, first thing they think of is making hot coffee, maybe hot soup.
That was when they began to realize this was more than the desolation following a cyclone or other freak of nature.
Cal wanted to know what happened? Well, there he was, still sort of hiding behind his tree. It was Martha who snapped out of it first, who insisted that clothes or no clothes it was their plain duty to get down to the village where they could help somebody. He'd need other men to help him get things back in shape; she could help the other women take care of the needy.
And still he hung back, ashamed of his nakedness. She scolded him then, pointed out that if everybody was naked, their being naked too wasn't likely to start up a pa.s.sel of gossip.
He gave in to her scolding, because she was right, and came out from behind his tree. It seemed more than pa.s.sing strange to be walking down that slope naked, in plain sight of everybody. Thing that helped was that n.o.body seemed of a mind to stop and stare at them.
Everybody had his mind on his own problems, and then a funny thing happened. Maybe, Jed reasoned, it was seeing that everybody else was naked too. Anyway, the self-consciousness disappeared all of a sudden, and they didn't think any more about it--not right then, anyhow.
By the time they'd got to the foot of their hill and into the crowd of people, he forgot all about it. There was plenty of other things to think about. Martha pitched right in, the way he ought to have done. She was the one who thought of giving the men something to do, get them over their hysterics.
"Why don't some of you men get a fire going!" she called out, as soon as they got to the edge of the crowd. "Something hot to drink is what we need most. Hot water, in case anybody is hurt."
Of course she wasn't thinking straight, not entirely. They didn't have a pot to heat water in. Or maybe she was, because right away he heard her asking other women if any of them knew where there might be some dried gourds. He remembered then an old pioneer trick--cutting open a gourd, scooping out the seed, filling it with water, dropping hot stones into it until it boiled, Indian style.
It might seem funny to city women, always protected against everything, that Martha wasn't more excited, and helpless. First place, she had her man already, and didn't need to put on such a show. Second place, she was a colonist woman, an experimental colonist woman, trained all her life to take care of the unexpected; and for the experimentals something unexpected was always happening.
Under her influence, and maybe a little under his, Jed acknowledged, now that he'd been set straight by Martha's example, everybody began to settle down a little, like they would after the first shock of a fire or flood. It was all over. Now it was time to start picking up the pieces, rebuilding.
Only it wasn't all over.
That's when they found out they couldn't build a fire.
Easiest way, without matches, is to string a bow and twirl a stick in a hole punched into another stick. Next easiest way is to find a piece of flint, strike two pieces together to make sparks and hope one will set a wad of punk on fire. If no other way, rubbing two dry sticks together will do it if you can rub them fast enough, get them hot enough to make the powdered fibers burst into flame. Or if they'd had some of those quartz crystals from the top of the mountain to focus sun rays....
But they couldn't make a bow, or strike two stones together, or rub two sticks together. It couldn't be done. Well, Cal had seen for himself what happened when it was tried. All the men were trying it, and for a little bit everybody thought it was only happening to him, that he must have lost the knack, or something. For a little bit there the men were more worried about how their wife would bring it up for weeks or months, how he had let the rest of the men show him up when it came to building a fire.
One of the men tore it then.
He yelled out that somebody he couldn't see was watching him over his shoulder, that it wasn't meant they should have fire.
Cal looked quickly at Louie at that point of the story. Louie was staring, with mouth open, at Jed; and in his eyes was confirmation of that same feeling. But Jed didn't notice the effect, and went on with the telling.
Everybody stopped and listened to the man, because they were having the same feeling. Jed knew it. Him, too. The crowd might have panicked right there if the man had let it rest, but he started explaining it, the way a man does, and makes himself ridiculous.
He kept on yelling how the men shouldn't listen to the women. That it was in the first Garden of Eden that man had made the mistake of listening to woman; that it was Eve who had egged Adam into eating that apple because a woman was never satisfied to leave well enough alone.
And now, he said, in this new Eden, man was being given another chance.
If he was smart, if he's learned anything at all, this time he wouldn't listen to no woman.
Somebody bust out laughing when he said that, and it kind of eased the tension a little.
A woman said, real disgusted, that if the men was too helpless to start a little fire, least they could do was sc.r.a.pe up some dry leaves because in a few hours it would get dark. Magic or no magic, watchers or no watchers, night would fall, and she for one liked a soft bed. That caused them to look up at the sky, and sure enough the sun, Ceti, was already half way down the sky from where it had been at noon. At least the world was turning and time was moving. That, at least. About three hours had pa.s.sed in what seemed like minutes.
Somebody else, one of the men this time, said why didn't they go a little farther than sc.r.a.ping up some leaves. Why didn't they get busy and knock together some shelters in case it rained during the night--the way it often did.
Now any one of them, man or woman, ought to have been able to put up a small shelter in less time than it takes to tell about it, even without no tools. Break off a limb, or take a sharp stone, dig holes in the ground with it. Take straight saplings, trim them, stick them upright in the ground, tamp in the dirt good and hard, lash them together with vines, lash other poles together to make the frame of the roof, lift that onto the poles and lash them all together with braces. Thatch it with gra.s.s, and there you were.
But there they weren't. They couldn't do it.
Things just wouldn't behave. They dug a hole, and it filled right up again. They couldn't cut down a sapling, because the sharp stone, the only tool they had, would fly out of their hands. They even tried las.h.i.+ng some saplings together where they grew, and the saplings were like things alive. They wouldn't be bound. The vines slithered out of their hands and dropped to the ground, and the saplings sprang up again straight.
Not only that. They could sc.r.a.pe together some leaves into a pile, all right, but when anybody tried to lie down in them the leaves would scatter as if blown by a wind. Only there wasn't any wind.
Some of the women got pretty disgusted with their menfolks. They tried it themselves, and the same things happened. After that, they was a little more forgiving.
A couple more hours had pa.s.sed while they were trying that. The sun got low. People began to realize they were getting hungry, and they began to realize there wasn't any way to cook supper.
Now there wasn't any real hards.h.i.+p, not physical. n.o.body'd been hurt.
Shook up a little, scared for sure. But not hurt.
The river was still flowing good, clean water. All they had to do was go down to the river bank and cup the water in their hands, lift it to their lips; or even better, lie down on the bank and lower their faces into the water. They could do that. It helped a little to know they could.
The wild bushes and trees all around had plenty of fruit and nuts to eat. One thing you could say for Eden, the fruit didn't seem to depend on seasons. There was always something ripe, and plenty of it.
The people wandered off from the village site then, to forage their supper, for all the world like animals grazing in a pasture. They sort of hung together, in herds, glad to be together--then.
By dark they all came back and sat around in a circle, the way people in the wilds sit around a campfire. It seemed funny without a campfire. The darker it got, the funnier it felt. The more you thought about it, the stranger it got. The excitement had begun to wear off, and people were starting to think a little. It got stranger and stranger. In the dusk you could see the same thought in all the gleaming eyes.