Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Just Cause

By Jason Offutt

The hot wind pushed David as he walked the narrow path, gripping a line of cable so he wouldn’t be lost in the night. The sand thrown by the wind stung his skin, but he no longer noticed. The sand would sometimes bring blood to the small patch of his face he left exposed to breathe, and maybe it did tonight, but the dry air evaporated any moisture it touched. I may find out in the morning, he thought. If I light the lamp. The satchel over David’s right arm shifted and almost fell, but he didn’t let go of the cable to secure his load. He couldn’t risk being lost in the wind.

David paused, the weight of the satchel made his arms weak and his back ache. His body was old, but how old he’d long ago forgotten. He steadied himself with the steel cord anchored in concrete and hoisted the strap of the satchel back onto his arm. The load was heavy and he knew the thick leather strap would leave a bruised strip across his thin shoulder in the morning. But he wouldn’t see it.

Squinting through dirty goggles, David could see a squat, black shape through the sand. He was almost home. He grunted and finished the last few yards to the cabin.

“Marta,” David called in the darkness as he walked through the sand room and into the small home. The only noise he heard over the wind was a wheeze from the far side of the black cabin. He slowly lowered the satchel to the wood floor and pulled out a bottle. “I’ve brought you some water.”

David’s boots scraped on sand as he walked through the darkness toward the wheeze. No matter how careful he was when he came home to Marta, sand always found its way into his home from the entryway where he left his desert clothes. David couldn’t get away from the sand, but after the years, he was used to it.


Another wheeze.

David felt for the chair he kept beside Marta’s bed and sank into it. He was tired. The trips to the well were almost too much for him. He wondered what would become of him and Marta when the trips to the food drop were too much, too.

“How do you feel?” he asked, although he knew she wouldn’t answer. Marta had been sick for weeks, her breathing becoming thicker, louder, until she couldn’t spend the oxygen to speak.

David reached in the darkness until he felt Marta’s dry, cracked face, cool in the stifling heat of the cabin. He smiled as he stroked her brittle hair with stiff fingers.

“Do you remember when we were children, Marta?” David asked into the darkness as he dabbed water onto her dry, cracked lips. “Do you remember the grass that grew around this cabin? Do you remember the trees and the blue river?”

Marta’s breath came in thick, wet gurgles, like an ancient drainage system clogged with leaves. David patted her vein-strewn hand.

“I know you do.”


A fireball screamed toward David’s head. He laughed and threw up his hands, a wall of water rippling in the air above him. The fireball careened off the wall, dying in a hiss as it fell harmlessly into the green grass. David smiled. He’d won again.

“That makes the fifth in a row,” David called into the pasture that surrounded the cabin. “Aren’t you tired of this game yet?”

“No,” Karl said from somewhere in the chest-high field they would soon have to cut. David heard a giggle in his brother’s voice.

He smiled and pulled his arm back to throw something that didn’t yet exist.

“Then catch this.”

“Boys,” said a voice behind David, the tenor of the word staying his hand. “You need to stop.”

It was Father.

David’s fingers crackled with the static electricity he was pulling out of the air. It would have given Karl a nice shock, but now he knew his hand would ache all day with the unused energy. He brushed his hands on his wool pants, but it just made the feeling of bugs crawling through his skin worse.

Father laid his hand on David’s shoulder. Father was a large man and the weight of his hand, calloused and scarred from a life of work, was heavy on David. David had grown almost as tall as Father, but he felt he would never be as large.

“Karl,” Father called into the grass. “Come here, now.”

David tried to steel himself, but he shook as Father leaned close to his ear.

“Karl is still a child,” Father said as softly as his voice would allow. “But you, you are almost a man. You have been drawing life from the earth. And worse, you’ve been doing it for play. A man knows better. The balance is to keep the plants alive. It is to keep the water fresh. It is life for the earth. It is not for us. When we use up the balance, something has to die. Remember this, something has to die.”

David winced as Father squeezed his shoulder under a hand that worked the land. The big man paused as his hand clenched his son. David thought he felt Father tremble.

“Your mother is sick,” his voice a whisper now. “But I cannot help her because the balance must not be used. Not to make her well, not ever.”

“Mother …” David started.

“Enough,” Father said. “Just show me, and show Karl, how grown up you can be.”

David watched the tall grass, Father’s hand feeling like a millstone on his shoulder. A small section of weaving grass moved against the tall stalks swaying from the wind. A moment later, Karl stepped out of the grass, his shirt blackened from one attempted attack that never made it far past his hand.

“Come here, Karl.”

Karl walked toward his father like his legs were much shorter than they were. He stopped outside Father’s reach.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked.

Father nodded and reached for him, his arms longer than Karl had thought. A hand wrapped itself around Karl’s budding bicep and dragged him closer.

“Yes, you are. But I won’t scold you now,” he said, relaxing his grip on David. “A new family has moved to the valley and needs help building their home. You boys will go. I have animals to tend.”

David knew it wasn’t animals Father had to tend. He’d already fed the livestock. Father had said Mother was sick. He was staying behind to tend for her.

“Yes, Father,” David said, looking into his father’s sad, weather-creased face. “We’ll represent the family well.”

Father smiled and gave the boys a push.

“Just see you get home by nightfall.”

The soup was warm. David turned the cup up and drained it quickly. Everything was warm now. He longed for a nice cup of cool spring water, or maybe a piece of ice. The warm wind of night whistled outside the cabin, bringing sand from many miles away. There were no trees now to block the wind, so it carried the sand everywhere – and the wind was always hot.

“The soup is terrible, Marta,” David said in the darkness, Marta’s thick breathing the only sound to interrupt the wind. “I’ll try to give you some, but don’t blame me because it’s bad. The soup packet was the only thing at the food drop when I arrived. The others must have missed it.”

Or they knew it was bad and left it.

David felt his way along the wall from the dry sink to Marta’s bed, his shoes scraping sand all the way.

“I heard a report on the wireless while I was out to the well,” he said. “A team digging atop the Old Forest has found viable acorns and a few other seeds. Trees, Marta, trees. If they can grow enough trees, maybe the sand will go away.”

Marta coughed.

That sounded like blood, David thought. I must risk the light soon.

David’s leg hit the chair and he sat on the old wooden furniture, left over from the days when the cabin was Father’s. Father may have even built the chair himself, but David couldn’t be sure. So many things had come and gone.

“Here’s some soup, Marta,” David said, scooping some of the watery, tasteless liquid in a spoon and slowly finding her mouth.

“That’s good, Marta,” he said. “I’ll find something better soon.”


The valley stretched for miles. Tall, green trees as thick as hair on a child crowned its sides. Ten families lived there. In the fall four other families visited the valley from the other side of the mountains, bringing apples and dresses and honey and news. The news was never good, it was always of death and the desert growing from someone outside the valley using the balance, but Father had to know everything. He cursed the news to Mother when he thought Karl and David were asleep in the small cabin’s loft.

Karl ran ahead of David as they walked toward the land of the new family. David carried four wooden mugs and a bucket of water he’d dipped from the spring behind the cabin.

“What do you think they’re like?” Karl asked, bouncing along the trail to the river.

“I think they’ll be people,” David said, smiling at his brother. “Or maybe monsters with horns and long noses and bottoms as big as a bear’s.”

Karl laughed and tossed a ball of fire at David’s feet.

“Maybe you’ll like a monster,” Karl said, laughing and kicking dirt toward his brother.

David skipped over the tiny fireball, water lapping from the bucket and onto the dusty trail.

“Karl. Father said you can’t …”

He froze and Karl ran into his back, water splashing from the bucket down David’s leg.

“Hey, watch it,” Karl said. “What’s the …”

David stood in front of what was once a great elderberry bush. The plant was still tall over him but its branches and stem, full and healthy when David and Karl went to the river the day before, were brown, lifeless. No berries would grow from this bush again.

“What happened?” Karl whispered.

“It’s dead,” David said.

“I know it’s dead,” Karl said. “Do you think we did it?”

David stepped past the bush and looked down the trail that was lined with elderberry bushes. They were all dead.

“I don’t know,” David said. “But the elderberries are gone.”

Karl sniffed and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt.

“It was us,” he said, a tear running down his cheek. “Father told us not to use the balance, and I did anyway. I killed the elderberries.”

David gently grabbed his little brother’s face and turned it toward him.

“No,” he said. “You mustn’t think that way. We don’t know what happened to the elderberries. The new people may have used the balance because they don’t know any better. Father may have used …”

A branch snapped. David dropped his brother’s face and turned toward the sound. A girl holding a wooden pail now stood on the river path. Her brown, curly hair ran behind her ears and over her shoulders, cascading down the back of a once-white dress.

She’s beautiful.

David smiled, and thoughts of the elderberries were gone.

“My name is David,” he said, pulling a wooden cup out of his satchel and dipping it into the bucket of spring water. He held it out to her.

She smiled and reached her hand out for the drink.

“I’m Marta.”


David awoke sometime before midnight although the drop alert hadn’t sounded. He sat in his little bed across the cabin from Marta’s, sweat sticking the sheets to his skin. He wondered how long it would take his eyes to die in the darkness, leaving him blind like a cave fish. He smiled. Cave fish didn’t exist. The war had taken away enough of the world’s water, fish probably didn’t exist anymore. Birds and squirrels probably didn’t either. He didn’t hear news of fish or birds or squirrels, but the news rarely talked of anything but the schedule of food drops and the desert.

Marta wheezed.

David propped himself up in bed with tired, sweaty arms. Marta’s breathing was thicker. He ran a hand through his thin, greasy hair and stared into the dark cabin. A kerosene lamp sat on a stand next to Marta’s bed, but David hadn’t lighted it since the day Marta told him she was sick. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air anymore to share it with fire. The war had seen to that.

She coughed again and grew silent.

“I’m going early to the food drop,” David said into the darkness. “I’ll bring you home something good, Marta. A potato, perhaps. The man on the wireless said there are still potatoes and sometime they’re at drops. I’ll bring you something more than soup.”

David rose and moved across the wooden floor, the boots he slept in scraping over sand. He pushed open the thick canvas curtain he’d nailed over the doorway to keep the dust in the sand room. Dust wasn’t good for Marta’s condition. He sat on a board he’d nailed into the wall and pulled on the heavy wool, sand-encrusted clothing that kept the wind from bleeding him.

He hadn’t gone to the drop this early for a long time. People were mean early. David pulled a short-bladed knife he’d once used for hunting off its hook and slipped it into his pocket. Before Marta was sick, she made him leave the knife at home. Now, he had to make sure he made it home to her.

He slowly pushed open the door against the hard wind, the darkness of night brighter than the darkness of the cabin. David missed the day, but the day was different now. It would kill you with its heat.

David felt his way around the side of the cabin until he found the metal cable, then he started his long journey to the drop.


Father took a long drink of spring water before he looked at David.

“You want to marry Marta?” Father asked. “You’ve only known her two months. I’m not even sure I like her father yet. He’s too good at cards.”

David felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. He fiddled his hands under the table until he saw Father smile.

“She is a pretty girl,” Father said. “And smart. Are you sure you want to marry a woman smarter than you?”

David smiled, too.

“Didn’t you?” he asked.

Father laughed and slapped David on the back, almost sending him to the floor.

“Then you’re ready,” Father said. “When is the wedding?”

“Too…” David started, but his voice squeaked.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “If we can have the loft in the barn to live in until I’ve built a home. I’ve already cleaned it and made some furniture ...”

Father put up his hand, stopping David’s words.

“Tomorrow will be good,” he said, his voice growing loud. “I’ll have all the valley here.”

David frowned.

“Do you agree to tomorrow because of mother?” he asked. “Is she worse?”

The door crashed inward. It was Karl. David’s brother spilled onto the floor, sucking the air like he was suffocating.

“Karl,” Father screamed.

Father ran to him and pulled Karl’s face to his chest.

“The news,” Karl whispered through the little breath he had left. “The news is here.”

Father lifted Karl’s face and stared into his eyes.

“What has happened?”

Karl tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. Father put a hand up until Karl caught his breath.

“The war has moved,” he whispered. “The desert is growing outside the valley.”

David started toward the door, but Father grabbed his arm.

“No David,” he said. “You can’t do anything about the outside. You can do something about the valley. We have a wedding tomorrow. That’s what you need to think about.”

David stood for a moment, watching Father comfort Karl, the great man for a moment blocking everything else in his life. He put his hand on Father’s and smiled.

“I’ll go tell Marta.”


Three people stood in the dull glow of a tungsten bulb hanging from the roof of the drop when David slid through the door. He stood in the 20x20 tin shell of a building blinking to get used to the light. He didn’t enjoy the light now. When you’re not used to something, it becomes uncomfortable.

David looked around the room when his eyes let him. He knew these people, Michael, Jennifer and Donnaly. He’d grown up with Michael, and he’d watched Jennifer and Donnaly grow from babies, and he hated them. They took what they could from the food drops. David had a few scars from them all.

“David,” Michael said, shuffling over the sand-covered concrete floor toward him. “The potatoes the wireless talked about. The potatoes are mine. If there’s anything grown, I’m taking it – not you.”

David pushed a hand into his wool jacket, fingering the knife.

“Marta’s sick,” David said, feeling his jaw muscles tense more with every syllable. “I’m taking what I want for her.”

Michael looked at David’s arm sticking in his jacket pocket, then at David’s eyes.

“Sure, David,” he whispered, backing toward the far wall. “Whatever you want.”

David relaxed his grip on the handle of his knife. Nothing was going to keep him from helping Marta.



The summer had grown hotter than David remembered any other.

“Are you hungry?” Marta called from the loft as she saw David walk across the field toward the farm. She’d been at the hay door for hours, waiting for her husband to come home from the small patches of green trees that dotted the valley. Waiting for him to come home with something more to eat than potatoes.

David walked through the stooped yellow grass, brittle from lack of water, his rifle hanging at his side. No meat again tonight. The trees were barren of life as they’d been since the war found its way into the valley. David walked into the dry, dusty barn and crawled up the wooden ladder nailed into the wall, wondering what would happen when all the trees were finally gone and there would be no more wood to use for building.

He crawled through the trapdoor to Marta’s smiling face.

David stood and placed his rifle on the wall rack under the trophy of a buck he’d brought home two falls ago. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I didn’t see anything, Marta,” David said, holding his wife. “I’ve been hunting every day for weeks and we’ve had no meat. We have to have meat.”

Marta grabbed David’s chin and turned him to face her.

“We have potatoes and other roots,” she said, pulling his eyes to hers. “The war hasn’t killed the tubers. We will eat. Don’t think we will starve if animals that aren’t there don’t jump in front of your gun.”

David smiled. She was right. Marta was always right.

“What has happened here, Marta?”

Marta frowned, her limp, sweat dampened curls clinging to the sides of her face.

“What do you mean?”

David slowly released her and walked to the table, sinking into a chair he had built before the trees started dying. A dinner of soup was already on the table. Marta had known he wouldn’t find any game.

“We’ve killed the valley,” he said, grabbing a wooden cup filled with water. “The outsiders grew the desert, but I’m as guilty as them for bringing it into the valley. I’ve used the balance, too.”

Marta knelt beside him, moving the cup so she could grasp both of his rough, dirty hands.

“You’ve done nothing,” she said. “You and Karl played as children. That didn’t create the desert. Throwing fire and water at your brother didn’t kill anyone. It didn’t kill the deer and it didn’t kill the forest.”

David turned his head from Marta.

“We killed the elderberries,” he whispered.

A tear ran down Marta’s cheek, diverted by her smile.

“I was always partial to blackberries, you know?”

David held his wife and cried.


Two more people came to the drop. David didn’t recognize them. Strangers never came to the valley anymore. Since the desert had invaded the valley, there was no need. They were young people, David thought, although he couldn’t see their faces through the scarves that covered their mouths. They held themselves like young people – tall and straight, not beaten down. They stood away from Michael, Jennifer and Donnaly and settled near David. David clenched the knife so hard his hand hurt.

“Why are you here?” Michael hissed at the new ones. “This is our drop.”

One pulled a scarf down to his neck to reveal a narrow chin just sprouting tufts of blond beard.

“Our drop has been shut down,” he said. “We had no where else to go for food.”

“You’d better find one,” Michael said. “Because you’re not welcome he …”

“Michael,” David said, stepping forward, his hand aching in his pocket. “Remember your place. We have guests who are hungry. We should treat them well.”

Michael struck the side of the metal building with a fist, the cheap tin rattling from the blow.

“Why are you saying this, David? Your wife is dying. She needs the food these people will take.”

David relaxed his grip on the knife.

“We all need it,” he whispered.

The light in the building turned red and the whoop of the drop alarm sounded into the night, cutting through the moaning wind outside. David renewed his grip on the knife and pulled it from his pocket.

For Marta.

The building shook slightly as the hum of a motor filled the gaps in the alarm. A metal plate began to move on the center of the ceiling. It crept slowly off the opening of the great pneumatic tube that brought food from a place David didn’t know. He heard the vacuum rush over the drone of the wind and the alarm and food in boxes, cans and bags shot from the tube and landed in the center of the dirty floor. No one noticed the plate slide closed as they rushed toward the food.

David grabbed a can with his free hand, and shoved it into a sewn-on pocket of his wool jacket. He reached for a bag, but Donnaly kicked it out of his reach. He heard a crunch and looked to see Donnaly lying on the floor, blood rushing from his nose. The youth with the blond beard stood over him. David shoved two more cans into his pocket.

The youth stepped over Donnaly’s writhing body as his partner gathered food. He handed David the bag Donnaly had denied him.

“It feels like a potato, and maybe a carrot,” he said. “Tell your wife we hope it makes her better.”


“I’ve made you a new shirt,” Marta said, smiling at her husband as he walked through the cabin door, a bucket of dirty water in his hands.

David sat the bucket on the floor and took his wife in his arms. She clutched a gray shirt in her hand.

“I can’t wait to wear it,” he said, smiling. “Is today a special day?”

Marta wiggled out of his grasp and back to the floor.

“No. Unless you call finding a ream of cloth in a box special.”

David smiled and kissed his wife.

“Then it is a special day.”

He stripped off his sweaty, sand flecked shirt and dropped it to the floor.

“This is nice,” David said, slipping on his new shirt. “Where was the box?”
Marta bit at her lower lip.

“It was in the loft,” she said. “It was your …”


David stopped buttoning the shirt. He pulled a chair from the table and dropped into it.

“It’s …”

Marta pressed her fingers over his lips.

“I know the pain your mother had before she died,” Marta said, reaching to hold her husband’s face, rough from days without shaving. “I know you and your brother watched your father stand helpless over her. That doesn’t mean you should ignore her now. Think of the shirt as a gift from her, not me.”

David pulled Marta’s hands from his face.

“Father couldn’t care for her,” he said, standing and taking her again into his arms. He buried his face in her thick, brown hair and breathed in her scent. “He wouldn’t take away her pain. I won’t ever let that happen to you.”

David pulled back. He looked into his wife’s eyes and smiled.

“Thank you for the shirt.”


The wind was stronger as David neared home, or maybe, he knew, he was weaker. Tired muscles bunched in his arms and shoulders as he pulled open the door to the cabin against the wind and slipped inside. The cabin smelled of sweat and urine, as it had since Marta had become sick. In years past, he could burn a candle to cover a smell, but not anymore.

“I’m home, Marta,” David said. “I’ve brought fresh food and cans. Maybe they’re beans.”

Marta coughed in the darkness. Something had come out with that cough, David realized. Beans and a carrot wouldn’t make his wife well.

He dropped the food onto the sand-covered wooden floor of the cabin.

“I’m sorry, Marta,” he whispered. “I can’t help you with food and water anymore.”

A tear ran across his cheek as he walked toward Marta’s bed. He hadn’t cried in years. He couldn’t afford to lose the moisture in the desert air. David reached the wall and felt his way to the small table next to his wife’s bed.

“I have to see you,” he said as he fumbled with seldom-used matches and lit the small kerosene lamp. Her hair was still brown and full of curls, but her worn, pail skin, yellow in the firelight, was stained in patches from blood. “You’re still beautiful, Marta.”

He forced a smile.

“Just forgive me for what I’m going to do.”

David closed his eyes. Marta was dying. And would it be life without her? He sucked the oxygen-thin air into his lungs with shallow breaths as he strained to find the thing that had once come so effortlessly to him, the thing war and foolishness had drained from the world. There was still balance in the earth, he knew, or everyone would be gone, wiped from a lifeless planet. But how much remained?

David relaxed as his mind met a once-familiar touch. The balance felt cold. He didn’t remember it as cold, but nothing was ever cold anymore. David’s fingers grew heavy as the balance rushed into him, a blue glow of energy growing over the hands that once hurled walls of water at his brother.

I can fix everything, ran through David’s head as the energy of the balance took him over.

David bent low over his wife.

“I love you, Marta,” he said, and rested his blue, pulsating hands on her chest.

Marta gasped under his touch, the thick liquid wheeze slowly becoming clean, steady breaths. Her eyes crept open, but David didn’t know if she could see him.

“David,” she whispered in a voice he never thought he’d hear again. The voice was weak, but clear. “What have you done?”

David brushed the hair from her face.

“I’ve made you well, Marta. We can be …”

The small lamp in the cabin flickered as David felt the balance ebb from his fingers. His shoulders slumped. The balance was gone. He’d taken it all and something had to go. He took one last look at Marta as the oxygen slowly left the air and the small flame died, forcing David’s world into darkness again.

“I …” Marta whispered as her weak body sank onto her bed’s stained mattress.

“Marta,” David wheezed, the hot air of the cabin growing thinner. He found her hand and held it gently. “I’m sorry, Marta.”

Her hand grew limp in his and Marta’s life was gone.

Tears welled in David’s spinning eyes as he kissed his bride’s forehead and lay down next to her, waiting for his turn to die.