I first saw her walking to me with blood smeared down her arm from briar scratches and dark juice staining her mouth. Her smile was wide and she waved with both arms when she yelled, “I’m Mara!” across the field, like I was expecting her, as if I could ever have expected her. I was there early that morning, along with my brother, to clear the land for winter planting. Mara carried with her a basket full of Queen Anne’s lace, some gone to seed already, pulled up by the root. The sun glinted off the copper badge that marked her as a member of an Ark.
She came near and I stuck out my hand to introduce myself. “I’m Dolly.”
She laughed at my name, but she took my hand. “Like a toy?”
“Like the singer.” But I laughed too. I know I don’t look like a dolly. I’m sturdy and broad where my brother is long and ropy, like I’d settled in the center of our mother’s belly and he’d filled in the space around me. “And this is my brother Johnny. Also like the singer I guess.”
Johnny nodded his head and set to laying a perimeter of kindling. It’d been dry weather for a couple of days, but in the thicket where the blackberries and mint fight for the sky, things stay wet and green and hard to burn. I looked out the corner of my eye at Mara, whose dark curls lifted in the breeze like a dandelion puff, or a storm cloud.
I’m really Dolly like the place, but not a lot of people remember it now. Our mother had been a hurricane refugee in Georgia, but she’d set out for the mountains with a small group of others rather than accepting transport to the midwest. Our father was lost in the storm. Mama made it as far as Dollywood before having to stop for the last few weeks of her pregnancy at a makeshift clinic set up by a militia near an old roller coaster. Once she was back on her feet she made it northeast to Deep Gap and to her sister, our aunt Juniper. Juni lived on the Eastern Continental Divide in the New Watauga Association. Mama died when we were five and Juni raised us after that. It’s Juni who told us about the old singers we were named after, and she still remembers their songs that she learned from her Granny. Juni sings sometimes when anthropologists from foreign universities come through to make recordings.
After Johnny and I got the fire calmed down around dusk, we biked to the community center, tired and smelling of smoke but eager to join the party. When the town heard news of the Ark’s approach a week ago, they started planning a welcome celebration. Our farmers had been successfully growing corn without major fungal infection for a few years now. Seed Savers wanted to attempt to replicate our work, to see whether it could once again be a reliable crop in the Americas, and they were taking samples of native plants that could be used for food or medicine. Deep Gap hadn’t seen an Ark for many years, and the addition of our town to the seasonal circuit was a welcome sign, not only for our crops but also other opportunities for trade.
The solar string lights were on over the community center’s yard and the Ark’s buses were parked around the perimeter. Five of the buses had been converted into mobile greenhouses, and a couple of Seed Savers were giving tours. One bus was a seed library lined with shelves filled with boxes and jars. Sitting on the steps of that bus, wearing a headlamp, Mara was stripping the bolted flower heads into an envelope. Johnny had wandered off to the food table, so I was standing alone, not realizing I was staring until Mara looked up and blinded me with the light. “Dolly-like-the-singer! I see you!”
Caught, I walked over, shading my eyes until she sat the headlamp down beside her.
“Hey, it’s Mara, right?”
“You know it is. How’d your burn go?”
“Just fine, thanks. We’re hoping to plant there this winter.” I stood there half-shadowed by the bus, feeling clumsy but plowing on. “I reckon y’all might help with that.”
Mara dusted off her palms and stood up. “I think so. Do you know where I might find a drink?”
“Sure, we can go —”
“MIC CHECK!” Tom, our mayor, broke through the crowd noise to start the people’s microphone.
“MIC CHECK!” Those closest to him echoed. I was afraid we’d have to wait out a whole speech twice, but a tall blond man ran to the front with a megaphone.
“Ah, thank you! Everyone, this is Lars! Lars, this is almost everyone! Lars is the Head Seed Saver here with the caravan. I’m sure I speak for everyone to say we are so excited to welcome you to Deep Gap!” A round of applause burst out of the crowd and Mara grinned at me. “We heard about your arrival a few days ago and we’re happy to be able to gather together and share this meal that the sustenance committee cooked up for us. For those with larger holdings who have the space, we ask you to come to the head table after you get your fill to sign up to host one of our guests. We hope to make y’all as comfortable as possible while you’re here. Let us know if there’s anything you need. Now, I think the Watsons have some music planned for us and, if I’m not mistaken, Mrs. Greer’s sons are arriving soon with the fruits of her distillery, so please eat, drink, and enjoy yourselves!” Some cheers and whistles rang out as Tom handed the megaphone back. I jumped back into my skin when Mara let out a big WHOOP along with them.
“Do you wanna get that drink now?” I asked.
“Well, that depends, Dolly.”
“Depends on what?”
“You gonna invite me to stay the night?” Her teeth flashed slick in the shadows and I was grateful the darkness would hide most of the heat I felt rushing to my face. She tucked one of her leftover flowers behind her ear, hooked arms with me, and marched us toward a table.
Mara had her own bike in one of the cavernous buses and followed me home. Johnny had skipped out at some point in the evening after I saw him dancing with Mae Ray. Aunt Juni had left a lantern out by the porch for us. Her knees gave her trouble, so she didn’t go into town much, but I knew she’d be glad when she woke up in the morning to find we were hosting. Even though it meant extra food on the table, it’d also mean news from off the mountain and folks seeking Juni out for gossip for a few weeks.
I grabbed the lantern and led Mara up to the loft and pulled back the curtain that divided up Johnny’s space from mine.
“Set your bag down there. I’m gonna go get some fresh sheets. Johnny should be gone all night, and he won’t mind taking the couch while you and your people are here.” Mara dropped her bag and folded her arms around herself. “Are you cold? Here,” I pulled my sweater off and handed it to her. “I’ll see if I can grab an extra blanket too without waking up Juni.”
I scrambled through the house in the dark, tripping over my own feet, searching for sheets and blankets. Her hawk eyes, her unfamiliar beauty, had caught me off guard. I guessed her near my age in years, but beyond me in the things she had seen, the places she had been.
When I climbed back up to the loft, Mara was sitting on the edge of my bed, swallowed by my sweater. I set to making up the other bed.
“Thank you, Dolly. I’m not used to the cold yet.”
“Where are you from? Is it much warmer there?”
“I’m from all over. It’s much warmer most other places.”
“Sorry, that’s a stupid question. I’ve just never left here is all.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that! I was born in Palestine, but I lived for a while in Ireland and Ethiopia before moving to America.” She took a drink of water from her canteen and stashed it back in her bag. “I’m glad I got assigned to this circuit. I’ve heard it still snows here. Lars and some of the other researchers from the Norwegian vault have shown me videos of snow from back home, and it looked so gentle and quiet. I know it’s probably too early to see any while we’re here, but I’d like to see it in person sometime.”
She was right. It does snow here a few times a year, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes there’s enough to pack up extra to sell down the mountain. Mae Ray once told us that rich people set it out in scoops with tiny spoons at parties, if it tests clean enough to eat. But more often it’s freezing rain, which is hell to work through if you have to be out in it.
I could feel her eyes slide into me while I shook the pillow into a pillowcase and rolled up the old sheets for the wash.
“You have the prettiest hair, you know? Like those little Scarlet Nantes carrots.”
I scoffed. “Okay, Gilbert Blythe.”
“Who’s Gilbert Blythe?”
“From Anne of Green Gables?” Mara shook her head and I said, “Sorry, I shouldn’t assume you have the same books—I guess the books we have here are mostly older ones, and I just read it as a kid, it’s not—”
“It’s okay, Dolly!” Mara cut me off, “You need to learn how to take a compliment.” She grinned and stood up from the bed. “Don’t you know how rare color like yours is? Or Johnny’s?” Then she grabbed my chin and planted a kiss on my mouth.
She pulled back before I’d had time to decide if I should close my eyes or not and I choked out, “What are you doing?”
“Kissing you. I thought you might want to. Was I wrong?” She brushed my hair back behind my ear.
“Oh! It’s just, I’m not great at knowing who—what girls want. Or if they’re just being nice.”
“Is it okay?” Mara asked.
“Yes,” I said, and I kissed her back.
When I woke in the morning, I was alone. I could hear voices downstairs. I went down and Mara was at the breakfast table with Juni. Johnny looked like he’d just got in.
“Good morning!” Mara said. “Your aunt’s already made me welcome.”
“You’re up early,” I said, nervous about how long they’d had to talk.
“I’m a farmer like you, you know. I just don’t have a farm.” Mara held up her cup for the kettle as Juni served tea around.
Johnny was smirking at me. “Morning, sis.”
I tried to tame my face. “Morning. You have a good night?”
“About the same as you, I imagine,” he said.
Juni took in Johnny’s grin and my reddening face. She raised an eyebrow but kept her peace and said, “Mara’s been telling me about the Ark.”
“Yes! Sorry again for startling you this morning, Miss Juniper, I forgot you were asleep when Dolly brought me to stay with you.”
“Don’t worry about it! When I heard the caravan was coming I thought we might have guests. Last time an Ark came through I didn’t host but some of you Seed Savers came to survey the farm when a few folks were starting corn trials. You’re very welcome here.” Juni looked at me so I’d know how she meant it and I relaxed a bit.
After breakfast, Mara took off on her bike back to the community center, saying she was going to bring back her kit to take soil samples. I didn’t realize until she’d headed up the road that she still had my sweater. I came back in after waving goodbye and socked Johnny in the arm.
“Hey! What the hell was that for?” he said.
“Don’t be an ass!” I said.
“I didn’t say a damn thing. I’m just glad I didn’t get home earlier and try to go upstairs.” Johnny started giggling while rubbing his sore arm.
“Will you two quit it or go outside? You’re giving me a headache. Johnny, next time you stay out, you and Mae figure out when you’re going to get a place of your own.” Juni started washing the dishes in the sink.
“What about Dolly?”
“What about her?” Juni held his gaze fierce, daring him to answer, until he rolled his eyes and left to go outside. I rolled up my sleeves and went to drying.
“That girl brought the eggs in for you already since you slept in, so you might as well head to town,” Juni said, and I tried not to dry faster. “She’s a pretty little bird. You might want to get that sweater back though. I don’t feel like making you another one, and I know you can’t knit worth a damn.”
“It’s not like that,” I said.
“No? What’s it like then?”
“It’s not like she’s staying. They move around to different places.”
“Well, it wouldn’t hurt you to have someone. I’m just saying. You never bring anyone around.”
“There’s not that many up here to bring around.” The last girl I’d been talking to took up with a soldier and moved off, and that’d been a couple of years.
“You might be surprised, Dollbaby. Hand me back that plate, I see a spot.”
When I set out for town, Johnny was on the roof, cleaning off the solar panels. He yelled out something crude, and I pedaled faster.
In addition to learning about the town’s progress with corn, Mara and the Ark came to the mountains on the cusp of fall for two native plants: pawpaw and ginseng. Mara said people called pawpaw the Appalachian banana, which I’d never heard and thought funny since I’m from here, but then again I’ve never had a banana. She’d never had a pawpaw. They go bad quick and don’t last if you try to send them down the mountain. We had a few trees on our land, so I took her to them a little ways into her stay with us. We sat under the tree after I kicked away the rotten fruits on the ground, and I picked one for her and one for me. While we slurped up the pulp, leaving custardy smears on our faces, Mara dug out the seeds with her finger and lay them in a row on the ground. She picked some of the last flowers on the tree, even though they smell like a dead animal and have the color of old meat too.
The ginseng was a treasure hunt with no map. I told her Juni said it went extinct in the wild when she was young, overharvested by poachers, but Mara insisted on searching. While we spent the day wandering through the forest, looking for the right sorts of shade where Mara said we might be able to spot the red berries, I asked her why she wanted it.
“It’s medicine,” she said.
“I know that. Old folks still talk about people trying to get rich selling it to China. But if it’s gone, or if it only ever grew here and didn’t do okay elsewhere, why do you want to try to find it to put it on the Ark? People can’t eat it like the grains y’all trade around, and it’s not gonna spring up easy like the pawpaw you’re taking with you. Those will grow anywhere.”
Mara stood up from the squat she’d taken to try to get on the plant’s level and stretched. “Dolly, they don’t grow just anywhere. They grow here. And the ginseng, or any other plant we lost that might still be out here somewhere, it might be useful. Perhaps it doesn’t seem important to you, a little splash of red berries in the forest that you don’t see, but there was a reason it was part of creation here.”
We ended that day tired, hungry from only eating forage. No ginseng. Mara went back to her bus and worked late into the evening putting away her collections.
“What’s it like out there?” Because I was young, I thought it an easy enough thing to ask, to pass the time with her. We were lying side by side on my bed, me looking at what I could make out of her face in the pre-dawn, her looking at the rough hewn rafters. She grabbed my hand and stayed silent for a while. Then she asked if I remembered the famine. Mara was living outside of the States when it happened, just a child, but she said what the rest of the world saw was enough to lead her down the path of apprenticing to be a Seed Saver. She paused before asking how bad it had been here.
The famine hadn’t been too long after Mama died. I had blurred memories of food we could get before: the spicy zing of Coca-Cola, the waxy milk in a Hershey bar. I remembered some nights being sent to bed without supper, which Juni said was a punishment for us misbehaving during the day, but which I later realized was a kindness, her way of protecting us from knowing how close to the edge we were. As isolated as the town was, we had grown more so as the population decreased. But with that came a forced self-reliance. Now almost anything we needed we could make here. Juni said that was the way it was for generations before she was born, that the mountains didn’t have a chance to live in the future for as long as other places did. Johnny thought it was the world being made right again. But I told Mara all this and she got angry.
“He thinks it’s a good thing? A good thing that America is like this? People starved to death. You were the richest nation in the world and now you barely have a government!”
“Mara, you’re getting too loud, you’ll wake them up.”
She sat upright and turned around to face me. “You don’t even know, do you?”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were. But you are here simply by a miracle of geography. Nothing else has saved you. I was afraid to even ask you what the famine was like here, but you just miss candy, like a little kid.” She looked me dead in the eye, trying to get me to play chicken and look away first. But I didn’t. I thought about how she was like the anthropologists who came through, wanting our songs and our stories, never thinking about if they were theirs to take and understand. It wasn’t my place to tell about the things Juni had to do to keep us safe, when rovers came through, before the Association could establish roadblocks and what was left of the government realized we had fertile soil to protect. It wasn’t my place to tell about how Johnny got picked up by a militia and the things he had to do to escape and come home.
Mara relented in the face of my silence and dropped her gaze. I asked her if things were still so bad elsewhere, and she softened.
“When I was last in Florida, on the gulf, we were collecting samples of yucca, prickly pear, things like that, and we met a man who had a mushroom growhouse. I don’t know if you know anything about growing them—” I shook my head and had her settle back into the crook of my arm as she went on.
“Well, it’s wildly difficult to do, to cultivate some varieties, if you don’t have the proper sanitation equipment and climate control. I’ve always wanted to add it to our work with the Ark, but it’s just too much to travel with and keep up. But this man had done it. He had the usual food mushrooms and the medicinals, of course. He had a unique energy, you know, people were fascinated by him. And deservedly so. The growhouse by itself was a big deal. But on the morning before the Ark left, the two of us walked down to the water. His commune had cleared a path through the beach and had anchored mycobooms to float on the water. Have you ever seen one?” I had to say no again. I’ve never seen a beach, didn’t know what a mycoboom was. I combed through her hair with my fingers and she went on.
“They’re these sort of burlap tubes filled with straw and inoculated with spores. They float on the water and they eat oil.”
“Yes! And I know—I know it’s a big ocean. But if it works, and we can do it on a larger scale, it means so much. We could even re-introduce fish into some of the waters down the mountain. The creeks could be functional in other places like they are here in the mountain headwaters.”
I lay there quiet in the growing beauty of the world as the sun came up. I lay there wondering what else the man had shown her.
Mara rolled over and wrapped her arm across me. “I shouldn’t have gotten angry. I know you’ve lost people too. There’s just a lot to see, traveling with the Ark. I feel sometimes like what we do, all the trial and error of finding things that will grow, that I’ll never live long enough to see the balance set right. Even though each season matters and builds on the next, you know?”
I kissed her forehead. “It all matters. Tell me one more good thing before we have to get up.”
The Sunday before the Ark left, Juni was waiting for me on the porch after dark. It was the new moon, so we were going for a walk.
“Dolly, is that you? Mara come back with you?”
“Not tonight. She’s working on something.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. I thought she might like to see this.” Juni and I took off across the yard to where the forest began. It takes ten minutes or so to get deep enough in for the full effect, so we had our flashlights on. Juni had her walking stick and would knock it loud against a tree every so often to scare off any animals that might be around. There’s a big fallen log we like to sit on. We put our jackets down and turned off our flashlights.
It takes a bit to let your eyes adjust before you realize it’s not actually dark at all. The small slimy umbrellas, the fat stacks with feathery gills: the mushrooms eating the dead wood glow electric green after nightfall. The bioluminescence blurs the edges of the mushrooms as they push out into the dark. Sometimes, if you’re patient, a few fireflies come out, lonely and mistaking these other creatures for mates. Juni says there’s more fireflies now than when she was young, so some of them must get lucky. I used to try to carry a bit of the foxfire home, leave a dead piece of wood under my bed to peek in on, but there’s only so long it’ll last as a nightlight.
The woods are noisy with frogs and crickets and owls and other animals I don’t know the names of. When we go we sit in silence to let them get loud. But that night Johnny came stomping down the path and soon his flashlight cut through the green glow.
“Dammit, Johnny, come sit and stop bothering everything.” Juni sighed and scooted over.
“I’m trying to! I saw you’d been on the porch and figured I could find y’all out here.”
He fumbled his flashlight off. “I heard from the seed guy at Turner’s farm that the Ark is leaving soon.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“Do you think Mara will go with them?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, dumbass, that’s her job,” I said.
“You ain’t gonna ask her to stay?” Johnny asked.
“I haven’t even known her that long. And where’s she gonna stay? Unless you and Mae Ray wanna share a room with us.”
Juni huffed. “We’ve got room whenever either of you wants to build a place and decide to get out of my hair.”
“You thinking about going with them? See if a vault would take you on for training?” Johnny asked. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew what it held. Of course I thought about it. Even knowing that it might be dangerous. Or that she might not want to keep things going.
“They don’t live like we do. They’ve got work to do. Not everyone is fortunate like we are, to live where there’s soil and water like this,” I said.
“And she didn’t ask,” Johnny said. I couldn’t be mad because he was right. She didn’t.
We sat quiet for a while, letting the glow come back to our eyes. I thought about how Juni was right, Mara would have liked to see this. She probably would have wanted to take pieces back to the Ark, like I used to do with my nightlight. Mara would want to see how long it lasted, to measure its properties, to discover all its uses. She would tell me and then the next time I sat in the green glow of the dark night, I wouldn’t have the quiet. I would be thinking about how to put the Earth to work.
Juni spoke: “I’ve never left. You know, when your Mama moved away, before the hurricane year, I sometimes wondered if I should have gone, too.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. The two of you have never known different, but before there never was really much of anything here for a job until I had to learn to farm. Our parents were gone. I guess it was because it was what I was used to. And eventually I figured it was good to have stayed. When we could still get the internet and the news regularly, I’d see the little kids in cities getting sick or the riots at the grocery stores, and I’d think I did the right thing. Even when it was hard and lonely. But you always wonder what else you could have done.”
When we got back from our walk and reached the porch, Juni said, “I just don’t want you to be alone, Dollbaby.”
“I’m not.” I hugged her and said goodnight.
The three of us went into town together to say goodbye to the Ark. Juni gave Mara a basket with cornbread and jam and told her she could come back and stay with us anytime. Johnny went around to the other buses to pick up the results of our soil viability tests and to swap some vegetable seeds. Mara handed me an envelope.
“Here. I want you to have these.” As she spoke, I opened the packet and tipped a few seeds into my palm. “I collected them when I was training in Ethiopia, at the Biodiversity Institute. It’s a sorghum.”
“I’ve never planted sorghum before.” I rolled a couple of the golden kernels between my fingers.
“Will you try it for me? Maybe in that lower field?” she asked.
“Where the briar patch was?”
“Yes. Where I took your Queen Anne’s lace.” Mara smiled. “You’ve got to wait until late in May because it wants heat, and I do wonder if it’s a bit too humid here for it, but it’s incredibly versatile. You can make a flour out of it. Boil the stalks for a syrup.”
I tipped the seeds back into the envelope and tucked it in my inside jacket pocket.
“The people there call it wetet begunche. It means ‘milk in my mouth’.” Mara pulled me into a hug. I buried my face in her hair and breathed in deep.
“Of course I will. Thank you,” I spoke into her ear and kissed it.
Mara broke away and swiped at her eyes.
“I’ll be back this time next year. You can show me how they’ve done.”
Two days after the Ark left Deep Gap, it started to snow. At first it was dissolving into the mud in the yard, starting the thick layer of muck that would suck on our boots until spring, and I figured the sky would clear up soon but it kept on coming. The next day it had gotten cold enough to stop melting and the pasture was starting to sparkle, getting too bright to look at. I went out to get eggs and the tin roof of the chicken coop was covered. I scooped and scooped into my gloved hands, rolling a ball to the size of an acorn squash until my fingers ached. Inside, I wrapped it in a dish towel and put it in the freezer for safekeeping.
Sally Parlier is a writer and grocery store worker. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, she currently lives in Raleigh, NC. Parlier is the inaugural winner of Redbud Writing Project’s Coppice Prize.