I think one of the luxuries I miss most from before the virus is sweetness, more precisely, the sweetness of a good, rich, creamy cup of hot coca, or the sweetness of a vanilla steamer, or even a good old-fashioned milk shake.
We don’t have a lot of dairy, and what Paul and I do get is more often goat’s or sheep’s milk. Cattle are just too big to keep here in the valley where the zombies range free. Chocolate…forget about it. That stuff’s worth as much as weed once was on the black market–more than it’s weight in gold. A humble herbalist such as myself isn’t likely to run across any affordable cocoa, much less full-blown chocolate now adays. Sugars, refined or otherwise, are about the same, too expensive for my blood. Even honey, when I get my hands on it, is reserved for medicines and trading. I’m not going to waste it on pure luxury.
Still, about this time of year, I get to craving sugary comfort whipped up in something good and fatty. A few seasons ago, that’s exactly when Liza suggested what has since come to be known as the Insane Journey in search of sweet comfort.
Liza’s one of three year-round residents at our winter camp. She’s an older lady who lived in these parts before the virus struck. She’s a terrier of a woman, ready to go at a moment’s notice and unlikely to let go of an idea once it’s got her attention.
I was sitting by the camp fire sipping a cup of nettle and sage tea in the weak afternoon sun feeling sorry for myself. Paul and I’d had a tiff over something. I don’t even remember what, and he and Harvey had stormed off with a couple other fellas to do some hunting. I was ruminating on how I used to get through days like this, when the PMS was at its worst and the world didn’t seem to be cooperating. Hot cocoa was my go to back then.
I’d tried a lot of the herbs Sadie’d recommended, like motherwort and sage, yarrow, chaste berry, black cohosh…pretty much if it was available, I’d tried it. Most of them helped through most of the year, but in the dark, cold month just after the solstice I was a wreck.
So, there I was feeling sorry for myself and wishing I’d a kept my fool mouth shut instead of fought with my man when Liza sidled up to the fire. She poured herself what tea was left in the pot and sat with me quietly.
The air about her seemed to sizzle, truth be told. She stared into the fire in that way she gets when an idea’s rustling around, like she’s waiting for just the right moment to race out after it.
“You know,” Liza said after awhile. “Licorice root would probably do you a lot of good.”
“Sure,” I said. “I haven’t got any. The last bit I had I used to help Winnie’s girl through that tooth ache a month ago. Besides, it’s cocoa I’m dreaming of.”
“I know it, but girl, you’ve got the changing blues. I can see it a mile away. Even I know licorice root‘s about the only cure for those.”
“You’re nuts,” I said. “I’m too young for the change. I’ve just got the gee-I-wish-that-damed-virus-hadn’t-ruined-my-life blues. That, and maybe a little PMS and a lot of hot-tempered man trouble to feel bad about.”
“I know of a stand of licorice not far from here, not even a day’s walk. I meant to get over to dig some up this fall, but the rain came on so early and hard I never quite made it out. Licorice root would be so lovely in the last of that goat’s milk Kiernan traded me. It’s the mild stuff, that tastes almost what I remember cow’s milk being. I was going to make it into cheese, but there’s not quite enough for the work it’d be.”
“I don’t know,” I said. Of all the women’s herbs I’d tried, licorice root was one of the best for keeping my system moving, including chasing away the stagnant kind of blues that make you feel all weak and miserable about the middle. It was naturally sweet, too. A decoction mixed with a bit of Liza’s goat’s milk did sound awfully nice, comforting even.
“If we get started tonight and camp out near the stand, we could be back by early afternoon tomorrow,” she said.
“I don’t like to up and leave Paul like that. He’s already pissed. Besides, I’m not keen on venturing off into Zombie country without Harvey.”
“The stand’s clear. I’ve never seen any Zs around those parts,” Liza said. Her cheeks glowed, just like they do when she’s all set for an adventure. “We’ll be fine, Honey. I’m sure of it.”
I shook my head. She wasn’t going to let this one go. I knew that. She’d hound me until I caved in. Ferris Bueller had nothing on Liza.
“Fine, we’ll go. Let me put together a pack and leave a note for Paul,” I said.
“Great, meet you back here in 10 minutes. We’d best get started soon. I don’t want to hike in the dark if we can help it,” Liza said.
By the time night fell, Liza and I’d reached the licorice stand. Just like she said, we’d seen absolutely no signs of Zs along the way. We’d made camp and cooked up a tasty little soup, eaten, bedded down, and were feeling mighty good when all Hell broke lose.
I thought I heard a twig crack maybe thirty yards off to my right. The fire popped and snapped. Liza’d fed the fire with a couple armfuls of Douglas fir and a big branch of madrone. I’d heard from a Medicine Man just that summer it was bad luck to burn madrone. It was supposed to be an affront to the Spirit world or something like that. I never went in for superstition, but that night with the fire popping and neither Paul nor Harvey to make me feel safe, my heebie-geebie sense was atingling.
“Do you hear that?” I asked Liza after a scraping of leaves to my right sent shivers down my spine. We’d settled down into our sleeping rolls by the fire and were supposed to be nodding off.
“Go to sleep, girl,” Liza mumbled. She was already off to the land of Nod. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance. I wished I could relax in the woods so easily. I hadn’t slept alone since the virus broke out. Harvey’d always bedded down right next to me, usually pressed against my legs or side but always where I could easily reach out and touch him. I missed his hot, smelly breath.
Sometime after I’d finally nodded off myself, a rustling close by roused me. The fire’d died down to embers and the night was dark. To my left, there was sniffing and shuffling, like someone rifling through my pack. I slowly turned my head in the direction of that sniffing sound. A pair of shining red eyes stared at me from less than three feet away. I froze. I didn’t know if I was looking at a wolf, a coyote, or a wild dog, but I knew it was big. At least as big as Harvey, probably a lot bigger. From my spot all wrapped up in my sleeping bag on the ground, it looked huge.
“Get outta here,” Liza shouted. I have no idea how she managed to get to her feet so fast. She banged the pot we’d used for our tea with a stick. Bits of herbs flew helter skelter. Dog sounds, growling and low barks, rose all around us. Clearly my freeze-and-hope-they-don’t-hurt-us prey animal approach wasn’t going to work. I struggled to get out of my sleeping bag and onto my feet.
The pack was large, maybe 15 in all. They looked like wild dogs and coyotes, kinda a motley crew of hungry canines who weren’t afraid of humans at all. I waved my machete and Liza kept on shouting. They circled, growling and snapping, darting in then jumping out of the way of my machete or Liza’s stick just in time to escape injury. Liza and I stood back-to-back by the fireside, yelling and waving our weapons in vain.
“We’ve gotta do something,” I shouted at Liza after what seemed an hour but was probably more like ten or twenty minutes. “They’re not backing off.”
“I know, girl, but what?”
Just then, one of them lunged at me. He was huge, like a full-grown German Shepard. I stepped back, bumping into Liza and nearly knocking her over as I back-fisted him in the head. He fell to the side, then got up again before I could raise my blade. Another leapt at Liza right behind me. We struggled with the two who’d attacked while the others moved in.
A gunshot rang out somewhere close by. The din about us died down. I wrestled with the monster before me; I could feel Liza still struggling with one behind me. The others backed down. Barking, loud, clear, and surprisingly familiar, erupted just beyond the giant canine I was wrestling with.
Harvey burst onto the back of the beast in front of me. They fell away, a snarling, growling ball of furry fury.
“Get, you mutts,” Paul shouted from somewhere behind me. Another shot rang out. I heard a loud yelp. The coyote under Harvey’s teeth whined and submitted. Liza gasped. The rest of the pack high-tailed it out of there. Harvey released the coyote, and it ran off, too.
“What the Hell were you two thinking?” was the first thing my man said once I’d checked Harvey, Liza, and myself over for injury. Except for a few scrapes here and there, we were all unharmed.
I looked into Paul’s eyes, and the wave of relief and love and gratitude that swept through me was too much. I started balling right then and there.
Paul folded me into his arms, and I hugged him fiercely. Liza and Harvey joined in.
“My Lord,” Liza said after we’d all calmed down a bit. “I sure am glad you two showed up, but how’d you find us?”
“You know Harvey. He won’t sleep unless he’s by his woman’s side,” Paul said. “When we found your note, he started off. I hadn’t even set down my rifle. I had a feeling I might need it more than a pack, so I just followed.”
“You could have died out here with no water, no food, no blankets or protection,” I said. “What were you thinking? I can’t lose you, Paul. I just can’t.”
“You’re a fine one to talk. You–”
“Hey you two,” Liza interjected. “What matters is y’all found us, we beat back the pack, and we’re safe. Let’s clean this mess up and see what we’ve lost.”
It turned out that we’d lost the packet of jerkey Liza’d brought and that was about it. Apparently wild canines aren’t thrilled with dried herbs, nuts, and dried apples, which was the rest of what we’d brought for food. Liza’s sleeping roll was stained with blood from the coyote Paul’d shot. We found its body a few yards away. Paul got to work skinning and gutting it while Liza and I cleaned up the campsite. It was near dawn by the time we all hunkered down. I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Turned out, I was wrong. With Paul at my side and Harvey pressed against my legs, I nodded right off.
I dreamt of a Coyote-Man standing under a Madrone tree. He shook his finger at me, pointed to the tree, then exploded into a ball of fire. A giant Licorice plant brought a bucket of water, poured it over him, and he seemed satisfied.
Superstitions may be kind of stupid, but that dream coupled with the wild canine attack from the night before’d left me rattled. I resolved to leave an offering of licorice root and water at the next madrone tree I encountered. It turned out that branch Liza had found had come from a giant madrone real near the licorice stand, and there were coyote tracks all around it.
“I’m so sorry to have disrespected you last night,” I said as I laid the licorice root at the tree’s base.
“You’re insane. You know that, right?” Paul asked.
“Yep,” I said. Then, I poured half a canteen of water over the root. Harvey signed and wagged his tail.
Insane or not, one of the things that journey taught me was that the true sweetness in life comes from being with the ones you love. That, and it’s wise to heed the warnings of any Medicine Men you encounter.
May You Be Well,
Zombie Hunter C.