Jemma and Sam were hungry. Their day of hunting had been unsuccessful. They’d scouted for rabbits, but found only berries which they were afraid to eat until one of the Wise Ones pronounced them safe. Instead, they ate leaves; it helped fill their painfully empty bellies for a little while, but they knew leaves wouldn’t last long. They were both growing, or trying to, and they were hungry all the time.
The elders made food stretch as far as possible, often going without so the young ones could have more. Everyone looked forward to summer when they’d plant seeds carefully hoarded from last year. The resulting plants tasted delicious, although the elders said they were different from what grew in the past, just as the children were different with their extra fingers and webbed toes.
Sam and Jemma joined the group at the fire, hoping to be distracted from their gnawing bellies. One of the Wise Ones was always there tending the flames, and at night everyone sat in a big circle for warmth, companionship, light and safety.
“Shall we look at it again?” Jemma asked. She didn’t need to specify what.
There was only one book in their settlement, although they’d heard rumors that other tribes had more. They planned to visit those places as soon as the Wise Ones said they were old enough. Fascinated by the stiff covers and thin sheets full of little black shapes, the children studied the book for hours. The Wise Ones could tell what the shapes meant, but no one else could. Still, the children liked to hold the book in their hands and think of the stories held magically between the frayed covers. Best of all was when the oldest Wise One, who said his name was Leo, would talk from the book.
“I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country…”
Leo said the name of the book was Robinson Crusoe, and what he was doing was reading. That meant he knew what the black shapes meant. Sam and Jemma could recite much of the story right along with Leo, but reading it for themselves was something they’d never even considered. All their daylight hours were spent foraging for food.
What little they knew about life before Now came from Leo. He told them about a place called a city where millions of people – millions, how could that be? – lived in structures higher than the tallest trees, so tall you couldn’t even see the tops on cloudy days. The children agreed between themselves that Leo might have made up that part. He told about people with skins all different colors, colors like midnight, dandelions, snow. Those people once lived right here, he said, in this place where Sam and Jemma and their tribe lived.
“What happened to them?” Jemma asked.
“They fought with each other,” Leo answered.
“Oh, some didn’t like where others came from, or their skin color, or their language, or what they believed.”
The children shrugged. It made no sense, but that was adults. You could never figure out why they did things.
There was only water where Leo said the city had been, but occasionally something would surface. Once it was a huge green hand that Leo said was made of metal. When it washed up on shore, he had the children touch it and they marveled at the texture and density. Everyone gathered to look at the hand before the rising water took it again.
One day Sam and Jemma were hunting on the edges of the great water when they stumbled on an object hard, jagged and flat. Cautiously, they touched it.
“Metal,” they said, nodding wisely.
It was covered in slime, but when they rubbed their hands over it they saw there were shapes like in the book. Panting with effort, they carried it to Leo.
“What does it say?” they asked.
Leo was silent for a long time. Then, haltingly, tracing the letters with his finger, he read,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The children didn’t understand why Leo wept.