Sep 22, 2019

Promised Land, a new story by Roger C. Lubeck

Promised Land*

The watchers charged through the orchard riding on horses. The uniformed men carried stun rifles slung across their saddles. Kean pressed his body against the apple tree, took a step down his ladder, and used branches and leaves to hide his face.
            A foreman, standing nearby, said, “Whatever you do, don’t run. If they catch you, it’s straight into a camp.”
            Kean held his breath. He wanted to run. He’d been running for five years. Now, at fifteen, he just wanted to stay in one place and work the land.
            A watcher rode up to Kean’s ladder. “You in the tree,” the watcher shouted. “Come down, I want to see your work papers.”     
            “There’s no need for that,” the foreman begged. “I need him; he’s a good worker.”
            Kean could not help himself. He dropped his bag of apples, jumped down from the ladder, and ran. He didn’t feel the blast from the stun gun. One minute he was running. In the next, he awoke and saw an old man in a black suit looking at him through the bars of a wooden cage. Beyond the old man was a row of wooden buildings and a high fence.
            “I am Warden Krill,” the man said. “You have left hope behind … welcome to despair.” The warden laughed, explaining that Kean was in a work camp some ten miles across the border in a prison the inmates called Despair.
            Kean had wandered into the border town of Hope looking for work. A man at the feed store had said that there was a farmer on the western side of the river with fruit trees ready for harvest. The farmer didn’t ask Kean his age or where he was born. Neither did he ask if Kean had a permit to work across the western border. He only asked if he had a pruning knife. Smiling, Kean had pulled a curved-blade knife from a sheath on his belt, being careful to hide the bloodstains on the handle.
            Kean learned that a new prisoner didn’t survive long unless he joined a gang or one of the camp families. He had been in the shower when a gang of western inmates, hardened criminals, attacked him. They would have raped him except a group of Southern men led by an old blind man with one leg declared him a member of the Southern family.
            Kean found comfort with his new family. He worked beside men who spoke the Southern dialect and shared his love for the land. The family patriarch, Kiall, who everyone called the Old One, claimed he had been in this camp for sixty-seven years. He said he knew of no other life, yet he told of a land he’d never seen, a promised land.
            “Tell me about this promised land,” Kean said one evening. The Old One and Kean were sitting in the prison courtyard. A dozen family members, big men dressed in white, sat in a half circle around the patriarch. They were his bodyguards.
            “Ten miles north of here,” the old man began, pointing to a spot on the northern fence, “is a forest so dense, with a canopy so thick, no drone can fly through it. Walk for a week and you will find a range of mountains. The peak of one mountain has snow year-round. On that white mountain a pass leads into a secret valley with land crying out for a man to plant and grow crops. Land where a man can live free. A promised land.”
            “My father talked of a promised land. Is this the same one?” Kean asked.
            “I don’t see why not,” the old man said.
            “I mean to go there after I’m released,” said Kean.
            “Did the warden say you would be released?” asked the Old One.
            “All I did was help pick fruit without a permit. How long could my sentence be?”
            The Old One smiled and sucked on his clay pipe. “Son, the warden owns the land. He gets free labor. You could be here the rest of your life. The only way out is to escape or die.”
            “Has anyone ever escaped?” Kean asked, hoping the answer was yes.
            “Many have tried. Some were caught and brought back. Others died trying. If anyone made it to the promised land, I can’t say.”
            “Have you tried?” Kean asked.
            “The first time, they caught me climbing the fence. They put me in the hole for a month. The second time, I made it to the forest before the dogs got me. I spent three months in solitary living on bread and water. I nearly died.” The old man brushed tears from his sightless eyes.
            “When I got out, the family patriarch told me the guards don’t patrol in bad weather. He told me to wait until the middle of the planting season on a night when the moons disappear from the sky.”
            “How often does that happen?”
            The Old One pointed to the two moons, Jai and Sei, brilliant in the northern sky. “I waited three years. I made it through the forest, and over the first mountain. From its peak, I saw a white mountain with a high pass through the snow and ice.” The old man hung his head. “I was so close, but it wasn’t to be. It took longer than I expected; the snow was so deep, it felt like I was drowning. After two days I was blind from the sunlight reflecting on the ice, and I couldn’t feel my feet. That’s how they caught me.”
            “The watchers?” Kean asked. 
            “No, hunters. Wild northern men wearing animal furs. They live in the high mountains and only come down to western towns to trade.”
            “What do they trade?”
            “They traded me for sacks of sugar and flour and scraps of iron and carbon for their smithy.”          
            “I don’t understand. What does a blacksmith do with carbon and iron?”
            “He makes steel for edged weapons.”
            “What about guns?”
            “They have modern rifles, but they respect the old ways. The men hunt with bow and lance to prove their manhood.” The Old One tapped his cane on the ground. “If you make it past the fence, you must be prepared.”
Kean spent two years getting ready. In that time, he’d grown into a man respected by the family. One afternoon he sat with the Old One listening to the first drops of rain from an approaching storm.
            “Tonight, the moons will be gone from the sky,” the Old One said. “If this storm continues, you must make your break.”
            “I’m having second thoughts,” Kean said. “What is there for me outside?”
            The Old One took Kean by his shoulders. “Are you afraid?”
            “In here, I have a family. I don’t have to run.”
            “One day the family will beg you to lead them,” said the Old One. “If you accept, you will never leave. You must go while you have the strength and will to make it.” Kiall took Kean’s hand. “Promise me.”
            “On my life,” said Kean, hugging the old man.
            Kean made his break the next night. Four of Kiall’s bodyguards helped him cut through the fence. Once he was clear of the outer fence, the men behind him repaired the fence and returned to camp. The Old One had told Kean the family would cover his absence for several days.
            For two days and nights Kean ran across fields and creeks. He hoped the rain would cover his tracks and hide his scent. The forest proved to be slower going. He spent five days squeezing his way between trees and cutting through the dense underbrush with his knife. At the forest’s edge, he erected a shelter and slept for a day before venturing into the open hills.
            Kean started out after sunset using the boulders that littered the steep, treeless, hillside as cover. At sunrise, Kean pulled a thermal blanket from his rucksack and positioned it over a crack between two boulders. He used four large rocks to hold down the blanket corners; adding a layer of dirt and gravel on top of the blanket for camouflage, he squeezed into the opening, pulling his rucksack behind him and slept.
            Kean awoke to the high pitch wiz from a drone. In camp they talked about the drones. No one was sure about the drone’s camera and sensors, but everyone agreed the thermal sensor was the hardest to beat. Kean waited over an hour, his body still, his face close to the ground until all he heard was the sound of bees. He crawled out and positioned the blanket across his back and shoulders like a cloak with the reflective side facing inward.
            Keeping low and always watching and listening for drones. Kean reached the summit, a rocky, treeless ridge with a dusting of snow, near daybreak. The cold sent shivers down his back. In the blue morning light, he searched the horizon for a white mountain. Nothing but an endless series of gray mountains, nothing white.
            He set his rucksack on the ground and cried. “I’ve come so far,” he shouted to the wind. “All for nothing.” In the distance, one of the mountain peaks turned white as the sun’s rays touched its snow-covered slopes.
            Elated and confident he would make it, Kean spent the next three days crossing muddy fields and freezing cold creeks. On the third night, he lay down in a meadow bursting with red and yellow flowers. Exhausted, he crawled under a rock ledge, covered his head and shoulders with his blanket, and slept.
            Kean dreamt about his family. His father Bae and brother Avi were steering their old plow mule. His mother Ria was dropping seeds in the plowed rows. Bae had believed the farm would always take care of his family. However, a year of drought followed by summer fires left little to eat or plant in winter. His father had hoped the spring rains would restore the land. Instead, the topsoil ran into the dry creeks and turned to mud and later to dust. Dust so thick it choked the chickens. That was when Bae started talking about a promised land.
            Bae abandoned the farm and took his family north. In each village they’d ask for work and beg for food. Kean’s mother died of fever in their second year on the road. Two days later, their mule kicked Bae in the head. Kean found him face down in a field.
            Avi and Kean had buried their parents under a single oak in a cemetery outside of town. At their graves, Avi said, “This oak will live forever. It is a silent sentinel guarding our parents. One day I hope to join them here.”
            Avi got his wish. He died in a brawl in the local tavern a month later. Enraged, Kean had buried his curved pruning knife in the gut of the man who had killed his brother. Before anyone could stop him, Kean pulled out the knife, and escaped into the night. He had been running ever since.
            Waking from his dream, Kean heard an animal howling on the wind. Startled, he opened his eyes. The snow on the mountainside glistened in the morning sunlight. Not one howl, but several voices calling to one another. Kean peeked over the ledge above his head. He saw wolves running across the upper slope on the mountain ridge. No, not wolves. Giant men wearing animal skins and carrying spears and bows.
            The hunters raced down the mountainside heading in Kean’s direction. Kean wanted to run—instead he strode up the hillside. He’d sacrificed everything to see the promised land and would not act like a rabbit and let these men put him in a cage. If he had to, he would fight and die as a free man.
            Kean raised his hand in a sign of greeting. A man wearing a wolf pelt, with red and black stripes painted across his face, stepped forward and raised his right hand.
            “I am called Kean. I come from the south.” Kean pointed over his shoulder. “I look for land beyond the mountain. Land I can farm.” He pointed to the mountain pass.
            The hunter looked back to the pass and frowned.
            Kean repeated his greeting, using the western dialect.
            Painted Face spoke to the other hunters in a language Kean didn’t understand. The hunters surrounded him with their spears. Kean put his hand on the handle of his knife. A giant wearing a bearskin threw a leather loop around his shoulders and cinched it tight.
            Struggling to cut himself free, Kean dropped his knife.
            Painted Face, picked it up. The hunter tested the blade, cutting his thumb. He sniffed the stains on the handle as if he could smell the blood.
            “Good blade, southern steel,” Painted Face said in broken southern dialect.
             “We trade. I take knife, you keep life.” Painted Face laughed, as he cut Kean’s bonds.
            Kean grabbed the man’s hand. The knife was all he had left from his family.
            “I have something that is better than a steel blade.”
            Kean held out a leather sack with a drawstring. He opened the sack and held it out to Painted Face.
            “What is it?”
            “Seeds. Enough to feed your families in the winter.”
            “They have turned color.” Painted Face bit into one and spit it out. “They are bad.”
            “They aren’t to eat. You put them in the ground, and they grow into grain to make bread,” Kean said.
            “We are not women. We are hunters. Trade blade.”
            “I must see the other side of that pass.”
            “There is nothing there—snow and ice—you die.”
            “Not if you take me.”
            “No time. We hunt the herds while they are still in the hills.”
            “Then I will go on alone,” said Kean, putting the bag of seeds in his rucksack. “If I survive, I will give you flour for bread when you return.”
            “No, come hunt with us. We need meat for our family. We will talk about the land beyond the mountain and your seeds after the hunt.”
            Painted Face stuck the knife in his belt and handed Kean his spear.
            “Is that a promise?” Kean asked.
             “If you fall behind, we will leave you to die. That is a promise.”
            Painted Face charged off running down the hill.
            Kean shaded his eyes, squinting to see the mountain peak and the pass over the mountain. I’ll be back.
            Kean put the spear across his shoulders and ran after his new family.

*  A short story appearing in Endeavor:  Stories of Struggle and Perseverance, Edited by Tommie W. Whitener, Redwood Writers Press, Santa Rosa, CA, 2019.