In the middle of October, mother lead us into the city. Our family took one hundred and twelve head of cattle and twenty horses that were for sale. My older sister and her husband drove the cattle. My younger sisters lead the horses. It was my job to keep us and all the animals watered.
"Shelby," she'd say, "them animals get thirsty, I'm going to brand you and sell you." She said it in a real threatening manner, with her forehead wrinkling all up. I did my job well, what with the finding, fetching, filtering, and feeding of water, so she had no need to worry, but this was my first trip to the city and maybe she thought I would get distracted by the sights.
The city was far different from our homestead share. The old buildings were tall and there were streets, but some of the streets were canals that flowed out into the ocean. Mother didn't talk much other than when she had to make a business transaction or give us chores, but she did talk about the city a bit. This is what she said.
"The city," she said, pointing her finger at us, "is a vile old place. Now it is a place of business, and we will conduct ourselves accordingly, but disease still festers there. You must be aware of what you touch. Do not touch the other people if you can help it. You do not know who is a disease carrier. There are also toxins and poisons, so be sure to filter the water twice. Shelby! Are you listening?"
"Yes, mother," I said.
"Girl you're going to be the death of me. The city, it is a place to be feared, and we shall not linger past the market week."
That's what she said about it. She didn't say what the toxins and poisons and festering diseases were from. People still lived there year-round, so I figure it can't be that bad, but I don't know because I'd never been to a city before.
So that day in October we rode in, and the cattle were calm though the wind was cold and blowing. There were other folks going by on their business, and the closer we got to the city, the more people there were and the more excited I got. And in the late afternoon when the sun was getting low and our lips were cracking and our cheeks were red, we came to the gates. We had to show our papers and the documents for the cattle and horses to a man in a wooden box and once everything looked right to him he got out and lifted the gate barrier and we went in single file, which took a while. And beyond the gate were the tall buildings.
There were large hills of broken cement that young children and wild dogs seemed to live on or in and they stared at us as we passed. Mother clicked her teeth when she saw them. Past the hills were the bigger buildings made out of cement. They had no outside walls, except that the people living inside them put up blankets to feebly block the wind, and rope to keep themselves from falling out. At the bottom of the buildings, if the streets weren't flooded, there were businesses. The proprietors called out their wares, and the children ran up to us with handfuls of goods. Mother was tight with the money and we knew not to enter into any frivolous transaction.
In many of the buildings fires burned. I suppose they were the hearths and heat and reading lights at night for the people who dwelled within the buildings. There was much chatter and happiness among the people I saw. The way that mother described the disease in the city I'd thought everyone would be miserable, hacking, and with shrivelled limbs. This was not the case.
We slowly paraded our way towards the marketplace, and mother paid the marketman so we could berth our livestock and bed down for the night. It was all done quite quickly since the marketman had a large corral free and prices were up so he was eager to accomodate us so he could get his sizeable cut of the transaction fee the next day.
Mother wouldn't let us roam and see the sights. I think this bothered my older sister and her husband more than the rest of us. They had been living apart from us for more than a year, but the rest of us were used to being under her constant watchful eye. So instead we bedded by the corral and since it was a clear night we had a good view of the tall buildings.
I did my watering chores, while everyone else prepared the evening meal or set up camp. I was at the far side of the corral when I heard a great booming sound as loud as a tornado bearing down. And then I felt pressure on my face and I was knocked off my feet. There were screams of many people and the cattle got distressed and found a way to break out of the corral and I was lucky it was not me. By the time I'd got up they'd mostly emptied out and then a wall of gray dust charged towards me. I barely had time to close my mouth when it enveloped me.
It stung and it was dark and there were still people screaming and I didn't know what happened and I was afraid of the cattle. I remembered which way the markethouse was and I followed the corral railing until I found it and I crouched in the corner and hoped it was a safe place.
The dust worked it's way into my nose, my mouth, and my throat, and it hurt and made me ache. And my eyes hurt too but I couldn't rub it out. The screams died down and I stopped hearing the hooves of the cattle. They were gone and I was sure mother would blame me.
The dust snowed down and the air cleared eventually. There were great sandy heaps of the gritty dust, like the burnt bones of man or animal. The bucket of water I carried with me was heavy mud. I could see well enough to make my way through and across the corral and I did.
Back at the camp everyone was safe, but they were a sight, looking as they did like pillars of ash with blinking wet eyes. Mother was spitting. My youngest sister was crying.
"Building a couple streets away collapsed," said mother. "Them poor people. The marketman said that there were several thousand living there."
"How'd they all fit?" I asked. And mother looked at me with her forehead wrinkled.
"They fit them in sideways," she said. I think she thought that might be a reasonable answer and I knew enough not to ask her more.
"All these buildings will come down," said the marketman, "and there will never be more of the kind of people that will build them back up."
"Shouldn't have built them in the first place," said mother. I think she was a little irritated that the marketman was lingering around, probably hunting for a free meal on top of his corral and transaction fees. "The city is festering with disease and poison! It attracts it."
The marketman looked even more distressed than he already was. He wiped dust from him face and said, "well!" Then promptly walked away.
And then at my feet I saw a one-armed doll. It was hand carved and had patched clothes. It was the type of doll passed down from one child to another. I knew that it came from the building that collapsed, carried on a wave of the dust, and then it dawned on me that the thousands of people inside had been as real as me.
I carry that doll with me now. It will go to my children when they come to me, and I will tell them the story of the day in October when we went to the city to sell the animals.