After the dinner dishes were removed and cleaned, Hana sat at the kitchen table preparing to start her studies. Her mother had just put another piece of mesquite on the fire and their simple abode was warm against the cold desert night.
Hana was the older sister by several years and, like Dasia, was being home-schooled. Their mother was their teacher, and she was proud of their accomplishments.
Both knew their numbers, could print out words and read – though Hana was far more advanced than Dasia. Hana could read with little hesitation – stopping only occasionally to sound out an unknown word and look to her mother for guidance.
Though still over two years away, her mother wanted to ensure that Hana was ready for the qualifying tests necessary to attend the Alliance’s only school. If admitted, she would be the first of her family to do so.
Hana examined the book her mother had bartered for; it was old and damaged. The title page was stained and the first few pages were unreadable, but the rest of the book was intact. She carefully turned the pages and squinted to read the faded passages and make out the smudged images.
The book proved difficult; she couldn’t understand many of the words and realized that it would have to be explained to her. But, Hana was interested; she wanted to know about the world around her – not only as it was now but how it once had been.
She asked her mother, “Tell me of the old world … the time before the troubles began?”
Her mother couldn’t answer. Her simple response, “You must ask your grandfather.”
Hana was content to do so. Her grandfather knew how things worked; because, in times past, he was a learned man – an engineer. But Hana always thought of him more as a seer – one who could look into both the past and the future.
Hana loved her grandfather, but he was old – very old, and she found it hard to accept some of the stories he would tell about the before times. Hana suspected that his mind was not always right, and she would regard many of his tales as made up fictions – fantastical fictions that could not possibly be.
But even so, she would always listen patiently to him, as if she was the adult and he was but a child.
At dusk, Hana’s grandfather would start a small fire and begin his vigil at the entrance to the cave that served as their barn. He would occasionally speak to the penned animals, but mainly he would just stare into the gathering darkness awaiting the arrival of the stars.
He was quiet these days, the death of his son – her father, had made him so. When Hana interrupted his solitude and held out the book to him, he just looked at it as if it was an alien object from a distant time and place. But then, he reached out for it and held it with an almost reverence.
She said, “Grandfather, can you teach me what the words are saying.”
The old man responded, “It was a long time ago … a time long gone.” And then after a silence, “But, I will try.”
It took many nights for the old man to relay the information contained in the book. He would first read a section, condense it in his mind, and then translate it into stories that Hana could understand.
The book told of a time of great promise with remarkable achievements in medicine and the sciences. But it also told of the end days that were filled with discord, primal fears, false leaders and irrational hatred.
In the midst of this strife, the world was confronted by catastrophes. There were plagues, fires, floods, political upheavals and, finally, the Great War. Altogether they fragmented world governments, decimated entire populations and led to the emergence of a new feudalism reminiscent of darker ages long past.
It was here that her grandfather put down the book, stared into the night and began to speak of how the troubles changed everything – how they affected what was left of civilization and how they affected the lives of their family.
He said, “When your father was alive, he fought against the insanity, but eventually he had to flee with you and your mother; Dasia wasn’t born yet. He crossed the disputed border and pledged his loyalty to the Federalist Alliance over the New Republic.”
“We were assigned this land – a dangerous land so close to the border that no one wanted it. At first, the land appeared blessed as it provided shelter and sustenance, but we were wrong; it was not a blessed land. It was a cursed land as others coveted it, and it cost your father his life while trying to defend it.”
Now, there was a tiredness that appeared upon his face, and he removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture of fatigue. He again gazed into the night as if trying to remember the world as it once was.
He pointed to the sky and said, “The future was so bright then, brighter than the brightest star that ever burned in the sky.”
The old man turned and looked into her eyes, “I am sorry – so sorry for not having taken better care of the legacy that was your right.” Hana reached out and took his hand; she felt the need to comfort him for what was lost.
She said, “Do not worry, Grandfather. Though the road be long, I will find the way back.” Hana then smiled at him and was rewarded to see the anguish in him lessen.
And, as he handed the book back to Hana, he mused, “There was a time, when the stars were within our grasp. I pray that time will come again for you.”