I think more post-apocalyptic wastelands (or at least, the smoldering remnants of the Anthropocene) should have old women as the protagonists. “Mould, Dust, Corn” was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (http://needleinthehay.net/).
This story was first published on 19 January 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey-moukd-dust-corn/
Beneath the thin foam mattress the cardboard is starting to rot. Little blooms of mould creep up from the corners, patterns like a living constellation. Linn studies them, her eyes circling and dipping in their gravity wells, the dark spots like burning stars and the lighter more like stains in the general fabric of the universe.
She marvels at the moulds tenacity in the Summer heat.
At length she sits up, as much as possible before her silver hairs brush the box’s ceiling, and slides out into the dusty sunrise.
An orange expanse stretches to the horizon, bisected by the thick black band of the highway and punctuated with scrubby plants. Hunger nips at her stomach. Her mouth tastes like sand, and her sinewy muscles are growing stiffer each day, petrified wood.
She checks the contents of her rucksack. Small white boxes with meaningless words stamped on them, relics from the past. Linn sourced them near the place that used to be called Fremantle, from the salt-crusted carcass of an ocean freighter. Its iron belly open, the beach littered with the useless items; microwaves, televisions, lifeless lumps of metal and circuitry without the lifeblood of electricity to animate them. But she’d found the white boxes, deep in the cavernous hull.
Hoisting her rucksack onto her back, she begins to walk.
Wind whistles gently through her hair, the day quiet and sober. Towering pylons string their way across the hills to the East, standing like sentries. No more electricity. Funny, Linn thinks, that she’d never considered how much everything relied on oil, congealed meat of long dead animals dredged up from the planet’s bowels. All the world’s communications, power grids, transport systems, grinding to a halt. Mass starvation, near-extinction.
Heat rises from the tarmac. Linn bounces her walking stick against her boots, humming a forgotten tune and listening to the birds. Roaming out to anywhere.
Linn stands looking at the yellow-green rectangle, swaying slightly in the breeze. A small patch of fertile land, carved out between sand and clay. A man bent double in the cornfield, a thatched basket on his back. Her stomach growls.
The stranger eyes her warily as she approaches. His face is leathery, sun-scalded and patterned with brown moles.
‘Spare some food?’ she asks, gesturing to the crops with her stick.
His eyes narrow.
‘Got anything to trade?’
She slides her rucksack off her shoulder.
Palms spread open, white boxes with esoteric writing.
The man grunts.
‘Medicine? Thirty years out of date.’
‘It’s better than nothing. Things like this don’t come around very often.’
‘Give you two ears.’
On the horizon a mushroom of dust picks up.
‘Bandits,’ the man mutters ‘usually they come along the highway, so we don’t see the dust. They’ve become emboldened.’
He casts his eye over Linn, her battered clothes and silver hair.
‘You better come inside.’
The bandits stand on the threshold, black teeth and scarves pulled over their eyebrows. One fondles a dirty metal rake, the other a crowbar.
‘We don’t have anything else,’ says the farmer.
Linn watches from the kitchen where another woman sits, sobbing softly.
‘You have a daughter, if I’m not mistaken. Or has she died since last we visited?’
Tendons protrude against the farmer’s neck.
‘She’s gone. She left for the coast.’
Linn looks at the woman’s eyes, puffy and red. Quietly, she gathers her walking stick and slips out the back door.
Cicadas tick loudly. Linn creeps around the building, crouching in the tall grass. She sees the two bandits, and the farmer framed in the doorway. Inhales deeply.
She steps out behind them and before they can turn has brought her stick down across their necks. The two men crumple into the dust.
Linn feels giddy at the sight of blood pooling in the bright sunlight.
‘How can we repay you?’
They sit taking deep draughts of pungent tea. Linn’s eyes wander the room, bare wooden shelves. Spies a thin rectangle with words printed along it.
‘The book?’ the man says, following her gaze ‘really?’
‘If that’s what you want, it’s yours.’
Purple clouds skid towards the setting sun. Linn crouches, brushing aside fallen eucalypt branches. The metal hatch is still intact. With more effort than it took last time, she heaves it open.
Weak electric light from the failing generator dimly illuminates the room. Metal shelves range from floor to ceiling, empty but for a few books. Linn places the new volume, crinkled with water damage, alongside the others.
Casting her eyes around the bunker, her last connection to the past, Linn sees blood in her mind, bright red and wet with life.
She smiles, heart beating, and climbs the metal rungs back into the open air.
I always thought the best way to disappear would be inside a cardboard box, though I don’t know how well they’d survive the end of the world. Cardboard is not the most durable material.
“Mould, Dust, Corn” was a title I came up with when I couldn’t come up with a title. Perhaps you could suggest something better?
Read the rest of the short-list at: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-evacuation-infatuation-award/