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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work"
This poem came out of the February 2, 2021 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] erulisse and Anonymous. It also fills the "Cactus - Endurance" square in my 2-1-21 "The Language of Flowers" card for the Valentines Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] janetmiles. It belongs to the new series The Daughters of the Apocalypse.

Warning: This series is post-apocalyptic. It contains many distressing images and topics, although this poem is generally positive. Highlight to read the detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes alternative names and spellings, the aftermath of apocalypse with a greatly diminished population, past loss and trauma, young people struggling to get by in a world with almost no elders left, alternative families, rude language, whining, resentment, awkward relationship dynamics, high-tension gender interactions, jerryrigged necessities, frank talk about hygiene supplies, past accidental poisoning, abandonment issues, culture shock, and other mayhem. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read.

"Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work"

[Cold Moon 29, 15 A.E.]

Catcher was beyond exhausted.

She had passed exhausted
long about sunrise when
Fan Woodward's daughter An
had come wailing into the world.

Now that An was firmly latched onto
Fan's breast, with her father Trey
proudly standing guard, Catcher
could set up the laundry and
then collapse into her bed.

The muneys were lucky that
the Clearwater caravan had been
passing through. Fan was tiny,
with narrow hips, and it hadn't
been an easy birth. Mother and
child had come through fine, though,
so Catcher called that a success.

"Come on, get off your lazy ass,"
Catcher said, swatting Maggot
with a towel. "There's a ton
of laundry that needs doing."

"Fuckya," the boy said,
his thick Afta accent
making two words into
one. "Ass women's work."

"Then I guess you're
a girl today," Catcher said.

She wrapped a hand around
his wrist -- still too skinny by half --
and dragged him toward the tubs.

Cleaner had set them up yesterday,
teaching people how to pipe water
from the roof catchments to the tubs,
then out to water the gardens.

Cleaner's daughter Dibble
looked up and waved as they
approached, busy helping
her mentor Digger spread
manure over the raised beds.

The fresh hot manure would
rot down, raising the temperature
of the soil underneath so it could
be planted earlier in the spring,
meaning an extra crop of lettuce.

In the Aftermath, people needed
every bite of food they could get.

"But why I gotta do laundry?"
Maggot whined, kicking a tub.

"Because you refused to help
deliver the baby, and you're
the only one who got any sleep
last night!" Catcher said. "Now
less whining and more working!"

"Aight, aight, I'm comin' eddy."
Maggot grumbled under his breath,
but he helped Catcher and Cleaner
heave dirty sheets into the wash tub.

Catcher's sister Stitcher and
their grandmother Alma came out
with more armloads of towels.

"Tell anyone who brings
baby clothes that I'll do
some mending after I've
taken a nap," Stitcher said.

"I'll pass the word," Catcher said.

She looked at Maggot, groaned, and
corrected his grip on the wash paddle
so that he wouldn't get blisters.

"Lemme go, I'm fine!"
Maggot snapped.

The kid was as prickly
as a cactus, but he had
the endurance of one, too.

Catcher couldn't bring herself
to regret saving his life, even if
he was a pain in her ass now.

In the Aftermath, every life was
precious, no matter how annoying.

The creak and crunch of wheels
on the gravel path announced
Wheeler's arrival. "Well, if you
don't want to do laundry, then
you could help me trade tampons
with Strawflower. We got a lot of
them down in Ganja Weed,
and they're really valuable."

Doc Holly had pulled together
a commune of mostly black women
and started up a tabletop factory,
first making medical supplies and
then adding sanitary supplies.

The reusable cloth pads and
diapers had been a hit, but
tampons were even better.

"Ugh, no," Maggot said
with a grimace. "Laundry."

"Your loss," Wheeler said
as she pivoted neatly on
her wheels and rolled into
the garden to find Strawflower.

Maggot shoved harder at
the wash paddle. "I hate
this," he said. "I should
be out huntin' with men!"

"Laundry, liturgy, and
women's work all serve
to ground us in the world,
and they need not grind us
down," said Mother Mary Clara
as she joined them. She was
the elder of the commune.

Maggot stared at her. He
was young enough -- born
right around the End -- that he
hadn't seen many old people.

Mother Mary Clara was so old
that she'd reached menopause
before the End, which had
probably helped prevent her
from dying of the Grunge.

That chemical weapon had
targeted people in their prime,
especially the muscle men,
and few adults had survived.

Most survivors had been children or
teens, which was why so many spoke
After English rather than Before English --
there hadn't been enough adults left
to teach them the real thing.

Catcher had been lucky that
her grandmother had found her
and Stitcher after their parents
had died from the Grunge.

Alma had also adopted Cleaner,
Digger, Forager, and Wheeler.
Hunter had come along later.

"Ground?" Maggot echoed,
tapping a foot on the dirt.

"Ground can mean soil, but
it also means feeling steady, so
you don't fall apart when life gets
hard," said Mother Mary Clara.

Maggot tucked his chin against
his chest. "Uh huh," he said.

He'd lost his whole band of
brothers when he almost died,
because they couldn't wait for him;
there was no food left in the area,
which is why he'd eaten something
poisonous in the first place.

Maggot still wasn't fitting in
very well with the caravan, but
they wouldn't abandon him --
and not just because they'd
been paid in guns and ammo
for the burden of healing him.

He might be a dumb, whiny
manchild but he could work
when he put his mind to it,
and they couldn't afford
to waste people anymore.

"Our daily tasks, whether we
perceive them as drudgery or
essential, life-supporting work,
do not define who we are as
women or as human beings,"
Mother Mary Clara went on.
"The old world forgot that, and
it wasn't always as good as
some people like to say."

"That's true," said Alma,
and now everyone was
staring, because of course
Before was better than After!
"You and Stitcher were too little
to remember fleeing Syria, Catcher,
but that place was a pit of hell."

"There were so many people,
they thought they could afford
to fight," said Mother Mary Clara.
"That kind of thinking broke the world."

"Guesso," Maggot said, looking away.
"Druther be huntin' though. Wonder
if the armey might take me on?"

Just then, Hunter and Forager
came out of the woods with
some of the local armeys.

Hunter had two rabbits
slung over her shoulder,
tied together by the legs.

Forager had a basket filled
with bark and tree buds,
her backpack bulging with
little bumps of acorns.

Maggot brightened.
"Hey, bruh!" he called,
looking at the armeys.

Then his jaw dropped.

The leader, Travis Woodward,
had his infant son Tevin strapped
to his front in a camo carrier.

As Maggot stared, Travis
stepped up to the wash station.
"What news, Catcher?" he said.

"Fan delivered a baby girl, healthy,
named An," said Catcher. "I'm
just setting up the laundry before
I head back to my housetruck."

"Go, go," Travis said, grinning.
"Let me just switch Tevin to
my back, and I'll stir the wash.
He'll love the motion from that."

Maggot looked crushed.
Clearly the armey here wasn't
like the one he'd grown up in.

"Cheer up," Travis said, patting
Maggot on the shoulder. "There's
a new baby to celebrate -- we'll
break out the spruce beer tonight!"

Maggot perked up a little at that.
"Brew's good," he said, nodding.

Catcher gave a jaw-cracking yawn.
"Thanks for taking over, Travis,"
she said. "I should probably
lie down before I fall down."

As she headed to her housetruck,
the thump and swish of laundry
was joined by Mother Mary Clara
lifting her clear voice in liturgy.

From the house, a baby's cry
rose in sweet counterpoint.

Women's work was never done,
but it made life worth living.

* * *


This poem is long, so its character and setting (maps, vehicles, glossary, the Grunge, animals) notes will appear elsewhere.

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