Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chapter Twelve: The World Gets Bigger Once Again

Chapter 12: The World Gets Bigger Once Again

There’s a great difference between knowing that a thing is so, and knowing how to use that knowledge for the good of mankind. – Jimmy Sangster

“Mateo!” I called again. This time I pointed up which made him look up as he came over in a hurry. It was a small aircraft I could tell that much, but unlike the drones that had come through before. “That’s not what the military sent out,” I told him.

“No, those were drones,” he agreed. “This one is manned and it is most definitely did not start out as military. Please take the children and go inside.” When I opened my mouth to ask why he said, “Just for safety’s sake until we know who and what this is about.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he told me as he cradled the rifle in his arm. “I just want you three out of the way in case something does happen.”

I ushered the suddenly tense and silent children into the house; they always picked up on when danger or perceived danger was near. Without me saying a word Nydia took Neeno and went to the “hiding place” that we still kept stocked just in case. No one had said the war was over but at the same time living like Neanderthal flavored hobbits was bad for morale so we’d made the decision to leave it for emergencies and extra storage rather than our regular sleeping or living quarters. Not every action can be driven by fear if you plan on having any sanity left in the long run.

The plane – it didn’t really qualify as one after we got a good look at it – was doing some kind of very haphazard grid search. Even as untrained as I was I could tell the difference between the precise the drone had “searched” compared to the much more haphazard way the little plane accomplished the same type of act. The pilot spotted our set up and then made a bee-line for the air above our home where it circled a couple of times. Buzzing very low, several somethings were thrown from the aircraft before it took off back the direction it had come from to the east. The somethings broke up and then fluttered to the ground making a royal mess.

I stuck my head out of the screen door and when Mateo was finished looking at what had come down he spotted me and walked over signaling me that it was safe, at least for the time being. Silently he handed one to me and I saw it was a piece of paper. There were three large blocks of writing on it.

Do not have fear, help is on the way! Liberation from your oppressors is imminent. You will be contacted soon. There is no reason for to have fear.

I looked at him and said sarcastically, “Love the new-style grammar. Remind me to add it to my curriculum.”

Mateo shook his head, “La Profesora is not happy?”

“Knock it off Mateo,” I huffed. “You know that kind of stuff irritates me. And just what is this supposed to be about? A little too much drama for my liking.”

He sighed, “Nothing good I’m afraid, or maybe Greg rubbed off on me too much.”

And did that little conversational tidbit open all sorts of mental doors or what? “Blue hats,” I said almost unwillingly.

Calmly Mateo asked, “Why would you pick them rather than say a Venezuela or a Cuba?”

Trying to organize my quick mental jumps into something that I could explain I looked again at the leaflet. “Since I was the one to mention the grammar I’ll start with that. That wasn’t written by someone that spoke English as their first language. ‘To have fear’ instead of ‘being afraid’ is just one of the more obvious mistakes made. Yes, one of the three languages is Spanish but they left out the proper exclamation point at the beginning of the first sentence which leads me to think that Spanish is the writer’s first language either. And last we have that third language used and correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that Esperanto?”

Mateo gave me a funny look, “And how do you know this? Do not take this wrong mi Amor but as a linguist you make a good baker.”

I chuckled unwillingly, “Fine but just because I’m perfectly capable of butchering a language with my mouth doesn’t mean my eyes are blind. Besides I had to do a report in college on George Soros and it turns out that he spoke Esperanto from childhood because his father was an Esperantist.” At Mateo’s look I explained, “Someone who uses Esperanto as a way to communicate and is usually involved in the culture to make it a more widely used language here on Earth.”

“I’ll take your word on that. I certainly don’t recognize it as Spanish though it does appear to have some words … or forms of words … in common with the Latin language. And how does this play into your theory?”

I gave him a look. “And how did this suddenly become my theory? Oh never mind. It just doesn’t seem like something any of the Spanish men that I’ve met would do, you included. You are much more … more … just more, I guess. Dropping flyers isn’t your style, you’d be more likely to land cautiously or depending on the situation come back at a later time but you’d still do more than simply drop leaflets and fly away like you were afraid of something. Dropping flyers is the kind of thing they do during wars to create confusion in civilian populations. And all of that plus the plane itself and the fact that they didn’t act like they knew we were here is what tells me this isn’t our military.”

“I agree,” Mateo said.

“Then why did you …?”

“Because, I don’t want to be the only one thinking crazy thoughts woman. If I am turning into Greg’s shadow I want to at least be in good company.”

I turned up my nose at the backhanded compliment and started to walk away but he caught me around the waist and drew me back towards him. “I do not mean to tease you so much. This does mean trouble Leah. We need to sit and decide what we are going to do about it, if anything. I do not know how to measure their ‘soon’ but I think it best if I spend the rest of the day bringing in as much wood as I can and I will be more careful from here on out to stay closer to the house.”

I nodded, “If you really think it’s necessary I’ll try and harvest everything I can today and tomorrow and tonight we’ll move everything we can back into the hidden rooms.”

“I’m not sure what to think but as you are so fond of saying ‘better safe than sorry’.” He gave me a kiss and then went off with the wagon while I called Nydia and Neeno out to pick up the papers while I finished gathering the grapes and then continued to pick anything that even looked close to being ripe and ready.

That night after we’d put the children to bed we finally faced the situation head on. “Leah I don’t think I’ve ever asked you, did you have problems with the multi-national groups that came in to assist with the recovery?”

“Mateo, I saw so few people and got so little news after Greg stopped showing up that to be honest my world shrunk to our yard. I’m not even sure what you mean by multi-national groups.”

He shrugged, “Basically any country that thought they could get away with it came in and tried to make off with whatever assets and resources that they could.”

“What?! Exactly who was in charge of the store when this was going on? And how could they get away with something so obvious?”

“It only became obvious in hindsight though Greg and people like him had warned of such events being possible and even probable for years before it actually happened. The military units had antipathy for them immediately but could not forcibly eject them without federal approval which they didn’t get despite asking, then demanding it, several times. The groups first came under the guise of foreign aid workers, then in the guise of the UN itself. Supposedly they were helping to move supplies, fuel, and equipment to more efficient distribution points but in reality they were either setting up ethnic or cultural enclaves of their own people to give them a physical foothold on US soil or they were moving it all off shore, most to be sold on the black market back to the fools they stole it from in the first place.”

“But someone eventually figured it out?”

“Oh yes. That is one of the things that precipitated the … let’s call it the shuffle of power … in our government. The three branches still hold titular power per the Constitution but the military are the implementers while war is declared on our own soil. The military and Guardsmen as well as local militias – at least those that hadn’t been disarmed by that point – came down on the multinationals fast and hard but by then the damage was done and the groups didn’t necessarily want to go home where the fighting and economic climate was even worse. Then came the limited nuclear exchange. After that I haven’t heard. Bea and her family had more trouble from the urban dwellers evacuating places like Miami-Dade but it’s possible that some foreign nationals were in there as well.”

I shook my head, upset. “It seems I keep finding out how little I’ve known about what has gone on beyond our street. Even here I kept to myself so much … if it hadn’t been for the strange half warning the Trasks left me I don’t imagine the children and I would be here today. I …”

“Don’t!” Mateo snapped. Then he shook himself and apologized. “I should not have yelled like that. I just … let us not travel that road of might have beens. It was not and that’s all that needs to be said about it.”

Looking in his eyes I saw a bit of the mental chaos he had exhibited when he first returned so I let it go. “Fine. Even with that part of it put aside it still underscores how cut off I was and how cut off we are now. No TV, no radio, no Internet, no newspapers; even if the news was slanted it would still something to sift through for nuggets of truth. We haven’t made contact with anyone in months. Sometimes I feel half deaf for lack of news.”

“Oh Corazon,” he hugged me. It didn’t change the facts but having him understand how I felt made those facts more bearable.

“So,” he said after a moment. “We are still left to decide how serious a threat the man in the ultralight is. And if you will hear me out I’d like to say something first.” At my nod he repeated another of my father’s favorite phrases, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and pray either way.”

After a nostalgic moment I told him, “Agreed. It makes sense given our suspicions but what exactly can we do? Saying prepare is one thing, doing it is quite another.”

“First I want to make some caches and bury them in case we are forced out of our home for a time. It makes good sense anyway so they aren’t just for this event. You’ve saved all of the mylar bags you’ve opened. If I set up an inverter and battery in the kitchen could you refill them with your dehydrated fruits and vegetables and re-seal them?”

“I don’t have any O2 absorbers left but so long as we rotate them on a regular basis … say every six months or so maybe … it should work. Are you going to bury buckets?”

“No. I found a supply of large schedule forty PVC pipes and screw caps, I think whoever lived there was a plumber by trade and the PVC was simply missed by other salvagers because it was partially covered in the back yard by bags of oak leaves like it was nothing but trash. As long as we are careful where we bury them – and I already have a few places picked out – it should be OK. Each section of pipe will be able to stand on its own as a resupply point so take that into consideration when you are packing the food. I really do not want to split our ammo and weapons but in a worst case scenario we’ll need access to new ones if the ones we normally carry are taken away. We’ll still have a lot left so I want to go back to hiding things as we once did. In fact, if there is time and I can find the supplies, could you make more hidden storage?”

“I … well … yes, I suppose I can. I can build it in the bunker walls. I’ll just need better lighting to do the job right.” We hadn’t completely dismantled what had taken me so long to create though we had stopped using it on a regular basis. It wouldn’t take that much to re-secure it nor add to its usefulness.

“I’ll cache some tools as well since we have so many duplicates. I noticed that you still keep backpacks for you and the children. Will you make up one for me? Those are convenient.”

“Already done.” When he gave me a surprised look I shrugged. “Habit I suppose. While you are making a list, we should cache some camping gear. And some first aid stuff too though we don’t have much of that.”

We added a few more things to the growing list including one of the copies of our important papers and we also resolved to cache one of the electronic copies of all of our family media away from the house. This was all on top of our normal work schedule and we fell into bed exhausted each night. I asked, “Is it possible that they will come at night to catch us by surprise?”

“Possible,” Mateo agreed. “But unlikely. We just cannot mount a 24-hour watch and still get everything else done. Besides they will be as handicapped as we by the lack of power and light. And sound carries far on the wind these days. If they follow previous patterns that I heard they’ll probably want to make a show of their technological and firepower superiority and for that we’ll need to see and hear them. They want our gratitude and awe to overwhelm any suspicions we might have. They want to disarm us both figuratively and literally to avoid wasting their own ammo.”

“They’ll try the honey before the vinegar.”

He grinned. “Just so mi Amor. However if we have no other advantage of our own at least they’ve lost the advantage of surprise.” It wasn’t a lot to add to our side of the equation but we took it as any advantage was better than none at this point.

Day in and day out we continued with our plan. I made up meal packets that only needed water added to them for reconstituting – vegetable broth, pasta dishes, bean chowder, etc. – and this was the food to go into the PVC pipes. All totaled we planted a baker’s dozen of caches, added hidden wood piles in case we needed them, and even built a few fall back positions well hidden amongst the ruins around us. Days turned into a week and then the week into three before it happened. I almost missed it except for the clean up.

I was where I was most of the time, running between the garden and my outdoor kitchen. Mateo left before the children even had finished their breakfast; he worried that rain could be on the way. That morning I was canning peanuts and the ever present mist was thicker than usual. I could barely see to the edges of the yard and all sound was muffled and strange. The first clue I had that something was wrong was a series of rapid pops that I recognized at once as automatic gunfire; even if I hadn’t the yelling that accompanied them would have been a dead giveaway. I immediately stopped what I was doing and grabbed the children up and shooed them into the bunker. Nydia knew the drill but I could tell she was frightened. So was I for that matter but it couldn’t be helped. I ran back outside to the continued sounds of a gun battle. I took my pot off the Franklin stove and put the fire out, all the while praying to hear or see Mateo and know that he was well and safe.

I ran back in to check on the children and reassure them that Poppy was on his way home though it would have been more truthful to have said that I hoped it was on his way home. Before running back out I grabbed a 20-guage shotgun that wouldn’t dump me on my backside if I had to fire it. Back out I went, praying a hedge of protection around Mateo. I couldn’t conceive of losing him again yet I knew it was entirely possible. Life was too cruel, a fact I had already experienced, but at least that day I was not its intended target.

Eventually the battle petered to silence. Then two or three single shots followed interrupting the silence before everything fell quiet again. The silence stretched out and out and further out still. Part of me was screaming “enough already, bring it on, let me do something” while another part of me cried “just let it be over.” Then through the fog I heard the odd but distinctive squeak-drag-squeak that one of our wagon wheels had started to make when Mateo pulled home something heavy. From the front gate I heard the all clear question which was a cardinal call. If my response had been anything but a Bob White call he would have known something was wrong. He returned the cardinal call once again and I ran to open the gate.

I was shocked to see a man and young girl in the wagon. Both were filthy and injured. Then wasn’t the time for questions so I help Mateo who was obviously frazzled to pull the wagon around back.

“Leah, the girl she’s … been hurt. I don’t want to frighten her. Perhaps you can …?” It was his delicate way of asking if I could ascertain if she had been abused.

The man was barely holding on to consciousness. I admired his perseverance in the face of what must have been great pain as he helped Mateo to place him in a deck chair but I was puzzled by Mateo’s gentleness and solicitousness towards him. Since the man was all but helpless and the girl barely more than catatonic I asked Mateo if he would be the one to go inside and bring the first aid supplies after a quick stop to let the children, especially Nydia, know he was home and safe.

“I am certain this enemy is dead and that these two are no danger to us … but in case I am wrong …” I looked at him and nodded then surreptitiously brushed the pocket I kept my gun in to let him know I was armed and on guard.

The man’s injuries appeared to be of more immediate concern so I told the girl to sit tight and to let me look at him first. The man said in a quietly sad voice, “I doubt she’ll respond. I haven’t heard her make an intelligible sound since they kidnapped me, and … and I think … yes, full moon to full moon … it’s been a month. If God hadn’t sent your husband I most likely would not have seen another sunrise.”

I thought that seemed an odd way for a complete stranger to phrase it. I started cleaning his injuries and realized he’d been whipped on at least three different occasions plus he had sundry other wounds, some worse than others. “Mister …?

“Bouvier … Yger Bouvier … that’s Y-G-E-R … my parents’ idea of a bad joke. A lot of the times people see my name and pronounce it Eager Beaver.”

His blathering seemed to be his way of dealing with the pain I was inflicting on his already bruised flesh. “But I turned it to an advantage when I was called to the ministry. Seemed to work great with the kids as an ice breaker.”

I raised an eyebrow and gave him my best school marm expression I reserved for class clowns and said, “Seems you try to use it on adults as well.”

He gave me a grimace that was supposed to be a smile before admitting, “Guilty as charged.”

Before I could ask him another question he passed out. Mateo came out then and I told him what I thought needed doing. “I’m no doctor but I think he should be OK if there’s nothing wrong on the inside I can’t see. Aside from his wounds he’s suffering from exposure and dehydration. He seems a happy go lucky type, at least at first impression. I’m surprised he can still joke after what he’s been through. I’m not sure about the girl yet. We can clean them up out here and then make pallets for them in the family room.”

A little voice called, “I can help.”

I looked over to the lanai and saw Nydia peeping out. I turned to Mateo who answered my unspoken question with, “He’s napping.”

Looking back at Nydia and remembering she’d helped me with Mateo and Greg I instructed her, “Make the beds like we had them before in front of the fireplace please. Then get a cool pitcher of water and put it on the counter.”

“Yes ma’am Nonny,” and my little helper was off like a flash.

Mateo took care of the man called Yger and I did my best with the girl but eventually I had to say, “Mateo, take him in please and lay him down. I’m going to take her to the bathroom. This poor kid needs … they abused her and I’m going to try and get her cleaned up and comfortable if I can.”

I pray I never witness such human cruelty again in my life. They’d had at her like animals … they were worse than animals in my mind … and the girl needed real medical care, the kind that was far beyond my ability to give her. I wasn’t the innocent Nelly that Mateo often thought me, even now. When I was at the inner city school abuse of all kinds stared me in the face from the eyes of the kids I taught every day. My church had a ministry specifically for women that served those that had suffered through divorce or through abuse or both. I volunteered for a while at a pregnancy crisis center as well as a women’s shelter. My parents thought it was important that I appreciate the difference between our home and what was out in the world though I don’t think my father at least really knew what I was being exposed to. I knew what abuse looked like even if I had never experienced it to any great degree. Hank was a pussy cat compared to what had happened to the girl and I felt both guilty and angry at the same time. It is so hard to hold something so broken and not know how to even begin to put the pieces back together.

That night I learned that Mateo had been working on one of our evacuation points when he’d heard them coming. One look was all it took. They were a motley crew of misfits.

“It was obvious that they were going to try and charm us first. A small group of them were clean and well-dressed; four of them, very neat and militarily attired though in a piecemeal kind of way. Their insignia didn’t really match what it was attached to.”

Shaking my head I said, “I’m not sure I would have caught that.”

“That was the point Leah. Most civilians wouldn’t. Frankly the only reason I noticed was because we’d had a couple of people try the same stunt when I was on duty at my first assignment and a wiser, more experienced Sergeant was at the gate with me and spotted the discrepancy. They were trying to break in and get some supplies they thought we were hoarding. Anyway, back to this morning … I knew right away it was a scam. There were another ten men that would remain with the two main vehicles while those four would drive a nice looking jeep up to us.”

“Bait and switch,” I muttered.

“More like sleight of hand. Distract with the pretty while the real bandits took up their positions and cut off any chance of escape.” He sighed. “Leah, I just started shooting. It was an opportunity I was unlikely to get again in the face of such a superior number. They didn’t expect it. Then the prisoners - I had not realized there were any at first - added their weight to the battle. When it was done I … ended the misery of those too injured to be saved. Yger and the girl were two of the three survivors to escape with their lives.”

“There was a third survivor?!”

“Yes, but he took the jeep and ran in the middle of the battle. Yger said that he saw him get hit but didn’t know how badly, one of the prisoners but apparently one too afraid to stand and fight. Tomorrow I’ll scout the area a little more and make sure that he is indeed gone.”

Quietly so as not to disturb our injured guests I said, “I saw you bring back what I suppose is the weapons they were using but what was everything else you put out in the barn?”

He answered me just as quietly but with some excitement. “One of the trucks had some supplies in it. The packaged items were only generically labeled so I assume they originally came from non-civilian supplies; maybe they raided a convoy. There were also a few things in there – obviously stolen – such as jewelry which they were dismantling. Gold and silver was being melted into ingots. The precious stones were being removed and separated into small boxes by type and size. It looked like an ongoing operation. There were also a couple of rolled up paintings that had been cut from their frames and were in tubes; I assume they are authentic. And there is a radio! I’m not sure how to work it yet but we should be able to power it. The two trucks are toast; bullets tore through the engine compartment and a couple of the tires. If I have to burn them in place I will but they are under tree cover so I may be able to just throw moss and other tree debris on them and if the grass fills back in they should remain hidden from any but a determined searcher. I’ve already disposed of the bodies by dumping them into a couple of septic tanks.”

Worried I asked, “Are you sure that this is the group that belongs with that ultralight we saw?”

At that point the Yger whispered, “Don’t mean to be rude and interrupt but figure that’s better than eaves dropping and leaving you to worry.”

I jumped a little and the man again apologized before continuing. “Guy in the plane went missing two weeks ago. The group used to be twice the size as it was but they fought and split up when the plane didn’t come back. The other half took three of the trucks and went off to see if they could find the pilot or plane and salvage anything from it, this group refused to hand over the coordinates for occupied locations that the pilot had located for plundering. There was a fire fight resulting in a couple of dead and injured bad guys but they eventually agreed to go their separate ways leaving things exactly as they had been. You were the last location on the list and the cherry on the sundae if I was able to understand them. The other occupied locations had more people but they weren’t near so well set up as you two appear to be. If you don’t mind my saying so.”

Looking him coolly in the eyes I told him, “You may say so but I would appreciate some discretion if you talk to anyone else.”

He grinned, “No kidding. Look, I’m no threat … or at least I don’t mean to be one. You’ve treated me better than I’ve come to expect people in the Outland to.”

“The Outland?” Mateo asked.

“Outland, Red Zones, Hot Zones, No Mans’ Land, whatever you want to call the quarantined areas around the bomb site radiuses. The kids have code names for everything it seems but mostly I think it is their way of compartmentalizing and controlling their fears. If you name something then you have some control over a person, place, or object.”

Mateo looked at me when I said, “How very tribal.” I’d seen the same thing in the highschool where I had taught. You called the kids by their nicknames, their gang names. They didn’t like you to call them by their legally given names because they acted like it was a threat somehow. When I noticed the look on the two men’s faces I said wearily, “Sorry. A double major in history and education can leave you kind of cynical on occasion.”

“Ah,” said Yger. “I thought you must’ve been a teacher of some type. You’ve got the Spock eyebrow down perfect.”

I said, “Excuse me?” But Mateo chuckled in obvious agreement.

Shaking my head I got up and brought some broth for them to eat returning to find Mateo and Yger in deep conversation. As I walked in Mateo explained, “They have three other caches that Yger knows of.”

The man in question nodded, “They probably have more but I only know for sure of the three they made after the main group split up. Basically more of the same that they had in the truck. I’m not sure I can tell you where they are at but they had it marked on maps that were kept in the sun visor of the two trucks.” He took a sip of his soup and the face he made you would have thought I’d given him haute cuisine. “This … is … sooooo … good. Thank you. I haven’t had a square meal in … well, way too long. I really do appreciate this. You didn’t have to bring us to your home.”

Mateo said, “Oh yes we did. I’m no Lot and this isn’t Sodom but I know when hospitality is called for.” He turned to see me spooning brother into the girl’s mouth. She wasn’t eager to eat but she didn’t fight me either. Mateo asked Yger, “The girl?”

The man shook his head sadly. “She was already a captive when I was taken from a caravan that was travelling between refugee camps and was already pretty much in the condition you see her in.” He added quietly, “All of it. It was sickening to have to bear witness …” Yger shuddered. “As soon as I can get back on my feet I want to take her to the main processing camp. They have trauma specialists there on staff. Major Taglione …”

Surprised enough that I almost spilled the broth I yelped, “Major?! It wasn’t that long ago that she was a Captain and before that a Sergeant!”

“You know Major Tag? She’s something else isn’t she?” Yger smiled in just as great a surprise as mine. “Tough as an old boar but strong enough to be kind when it suits the circumstances better. She’s a good foil for Major Dunham who is the type of person that brings to mind chewing on aluminum foil and who wants to have as little to do with the civilians as possible … but contrary to most people’s understanding it is mostly because it kills him by inches to see all the suffering and not be able to do much to alleviate it. They both serve under Col. Kilpatrick who answers to who knows at the moment. I don’t have the security clearance for information that high up.” Yger stopped for a moment and then asked diffidently, as if he’d suddenly become suspicious but was trying not to show it, “How would you have met Major Tag way out here? She’s been desk bound for some time now.”

I simply said, “It has been a while and we aren’t personal friends or anything. How do you know her so well?” It was an answer but gave no details.

“I’m one of the camp chaplains. Mostly I work with the adolescent pods … war orphans, runaways, that sort of thing. I had gone to help another chaplain set up a sub-processing station to help move those that can be moved out of the camps. It’s like pushing fledglings out of the nest a little at a time. Too few people want to go once they find out that they’ll be on their own. It’s the kids and young adults that usually want out when given the opportunity … or that have to be moved out if we find they get credited with too many behavioral incidences … and the Major is trying to get people moved before they get too comfortable and too dependent and become a long term problem for the government.”

Mateo asked, “Is that a concern?”

“Dependency? Oh yeah. Too many still have the idea that when everything is over with they’ll simply be able to go back to buying what they need from the store, getting money from the bank, a paycheck from a job, that sort of thing. The Major likes to encourage the ones that show gumption first, get them started in a business, trade, that sort of thing. With some cooperation from the higher ups she’s been able to get the camp self-sufficient but just barely. They expect this winter to be worse than the last, not because of the weather so much as that people have run through most of the commercially processed foods that were left after the bombs dropped. We need people willing to plan and do the work for their individual families. The government just isn’t set up for providing mass support like it is trying to do right now. They are trying to provide support for some of the major manufacturing to restart but that’s hit or miss based on resources available. Power is also hit or miss depending on damage to the infrastructure and how much electricity was locally produced. Everything from here on out … well, it looks like you two see it and have a handle on it. It’s almost going to be every family for themselves. The main processing camp has three large ag field areas, the smaller processing camps have at least one each for their own needs. The Major, from my understanding of what is being discussed in the staff meetings, wants to set up trade between the camps so that no one camp has to be completely on its own. That way if say Camp 2 has access to blueberries while Camp 3 mainly produces tomatoes or strawberries in quantity, the two camps can come to a mutually beneficial trade agreement. After the camps are taken care of then they’ll be encouraged to trade with any locals that don’t belong to specific camps or enclaves.”

Extremely interested in the concept I asked, “What about grains?”

“That is one of the major problems. The weather change has disrupted food production in all of North America … around the world actually.” The girl had finished her broth and I decided to brush and braid her hair so it wouldn’t get so many tangles in it. She started to relax and droop as I listened to Yger continue. “A surprising number of countries were dependent on exports of food from the US but as of the first nuclear attack all exports were stopped by Congress even if there had been an agreement or contract. Despite that and taking into account the large population decline, the national food reserves are almost gone and what is left is solely reserved for military and for government continuity purposes. All refugee camps in the country were forced to become self-supporting or watch their people die of starvation. Long supply lines just aren’t possible because of the war, lawlessness, lack of fuel, and breakdowns of equipment. There are a lot of no-fly zones so air transport is restricted as well. Florida’s weather change hasn’t been as totally destructive as what has occurred north of the state line but we still can’t grow wheat in any abundance around here. Corn yes, but that was affected by the torrential rains and the late frosts.”

I could see he was beginning to tire and looked at Mateo who told him, “Rest now. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Maybe, maybe not … but if there isn’t at least I know today has been a good one.”

The girl was also asleep sitting up so I laid her down, covered her nearly emaciated body, and then took care of my own children and husband. For the next three days I rarely left the family room for more than a few minutes at a time. I even slept in there because the girl would sometimes wake clawing at her own face in terror though she never made a sound.

It was the third day and Yger had finally gotten Mateo to concede that he could use some help trimming the Confederate Jasmine that had started to grow into the surrounding trees and out into the yard. I was once again trying to encourage the girl – by this time I realized she was either a developed tweenager or a young teenager – to feed herself with only partial success but it was more than she had done the first two days. A knock on the front door startled me as we rarely used it. I had it open to let the house air out. After telling the girl and my own children to be quiet I cautiously walked towards it. What met my eye sparked a temper that could run as hot as Mateo’s.

“What … on … Earth … are … you … doing?!” I picked up the broom from the corner where I had put it after sweeping the front porch and swung it at the red head that squawked and stepped back. “If you do not turn him loose right this …”

A surprised Mateo said, “Leah!” But a hearty laugh from the side of the house stopped me in my tracks. “Well, that answers that.”

“Capt. Tag … I mean Major Tag … Taglione … I mean … Oh my goodness. I … oh dear … are these some more of your puppies?”

That only set the woman off again and I swung to look at the red head and recognized the young man named Decker that I hadn’t seen since I had been pregnant with Neeno. “Um … sorry Decker.”

Instead of being indignant he grinned and nearly shouted, “Hey, you remember me! Major she remembers me!”

“Yes Decker, you’re just that hard for the ladies to forget. Now fetch Ricker and let’s see if we can put Eager here back together enough to transport him back to base.” As Mateo was released from where he’d been held with several guns pointed at him Tag explained, “Sorry about that. This is the first time I’ve been here and seen a man about the place.”

“Speaking of,” I interrupted still a little shook and irritated at what had greeted me. “What happened to being chained to a desk?”

She grimaced. “I escaped. That’s my normal position. Actually I was on my way back from a meeting of other refugee camp commanders and thought I would swing by here to see how you were doing. Imagine my surprise first to see Eager Beaver who’s been listed as MIA and then to see a man in your yard claiming to be your husband.”

“Oh good grief, he doesn’t really go by that name does he?” I asked rolling my eyes.

“Oh yeah,” she laughed. “The kids love him. Speaking of …?”

I turned and called Nydia to come to the door but she surprised me by bringing not only Neeno but leading the nameless girl by the hand. “Nonny, the girl was scared.”

“Oh dear,” I muttered and went over.

Mateo and Yger must have explained the situation because Capt … no Major Tag now … came over and gently looked the girl over. We were all silent when Decker came over to ask Tag something only to stop and stare at the girl before saying, “Hey … I think I know that girl. I … I think she is from Camp 14.”

Tag looked at Decker, “How sure is your think?”

“Pretty sure ma’am. I can check the log of missing persons. Does she have any birthmarks or distinguishing features?”

I said, “She has a strawberry birthmark in the center of her back.”

He nodded and ran off. Major Tag said, “We lost nearly half of Camp 14 a couple of months back. They were raided … sucker punched really … by a group claiming to be from the UN. It doesn’t matter how many times you warn some people, they’ll believe whatever it is they want to believe.” She noticed my significant look at Mateo. “Uh huh and I’ve given my husband a look like that more than a time or two. Perhaps … Mateo was it? … perhaps you would care to talk to Lt. Jenkins … that tall, skinny bean pole over there that barely looks old enough to shave … and Sgt. Weatherstone … now there’s a real man for you … and apprise them of the local situation.” I could tell from Mateo’s carefully blank look that he was still reserving judgment on Maj. Tag though he did as she asked. I suspect however that it was more because he wanted to pump them for information rather than for getting on the lady’s good side.

After he walked away Tag asked me, “Everything OK?”

I looked at her a little surprised that she would need to ask. “Of course … well beyond the obvious I mean. Why, what’s up?”

She sighed and then leaned against the column on the front porch. I asked her if she wanted to sit but she said, “No thank you. Do way too much of that lately or so it feels. I asked because … when soldiers come back from war they sometimes have a challenging time reintegrating with their families. Your husband was away quite some time, you … you learned to live without him, do things without his help, a baby was born.”

Beginning to understand I told her honestly, “It was … challenging … at first but more because Mateo had lived so long just to get home that his health failed him for a bit. He had a hard time believing he had actually made it at first, made worse by the fact that when he first got here … well, it wasn’t obvious I was still home. It shook him up. Shook me up for my prayers to be answer to be honest. There was some adjusting to do but more for me than him. But he’s been a good sport about it all.”

“A good sport?!” she chuckled. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it described quite like that before.”

“Honestly Tag, we’re fine. We’re actually better than fine. I needed him home, it was obvious. I couldn’t keep going the way I was going without some help. And it was obvious he needed me as well. We rebuilt from there. With no undue influence from outside people who might try to lay their expectations on us we’ve managed with only a few bumps along the way.”

She smiled and muttered sotto voice, “Oh good grief, a couple of romantics.” With a larger smile to let me know she was kidding she then asked, “What about supplies? Your set up is even sweeter than it was before … like the covered rows by the way and I’ll likely steal the idea so there … but the weather hasn’t exactly cooperated.”

I thought and then said what the heck, “Grains and sweetenings is what we are the worst off with. We can make do or substitute for everything but that. We’ve seen a few deer – Mateo even brought one down – and we have some pigs that we’ll slaughter once it really turns cold again. We’ve got gator until they hibernate or whatever it is they do. For eggs we have geese and ducks – tell your puppies to watch out because they can be more vicious than watch dogs – though I would love some chickens. Milk is a problem but I suppose it is for everyone at this point since you can’t exactly go pick it up at the corner market. The pecan trees don’t look like they are going to produce this year so that’s out. But we’re managing. Like I said it is mostly grains and sweetenings that worry me long term. The only thing we’ve been able to replace in those two areas are corn … and you can see the challenges of that for a family of any size plus the issue of grinding it into meal … and we’ve found a few stands of sugar cane for the kids to suck on as a treat.”

She nodded, “We’ve got the same issues at the camp. Everyone wants wheat and most of the wheat crop in this country has been destroyed by the weather, compromised by radiation, or intentionally sabotaged by our enemies. What wheat remains is precious and they’ve set aside as much as they can as seed for next season’s crop with the remainder …”

The disgusted look on her face that I saw before she tried to hide it had me saying, “Or has been designated for the elite and the have nots will just have to make do.”

She sighed and said, “I’m not in a position where I can confirm that either way. Another fun fact is that the sugar cane crop down in south Florida has taken a beating. The change in weather patterns brought some pretty ferocious storms that flooding fields and other stuff I didn’t get into. We’ve been replacing it with beet sugar when we can get it from the north, honey, and something called sorghum but the days of white processed cane sugar are over for a while. I’m surprised you didn’t mention tea or coffee.”

“I never was much of a coffee drinker and Mateo doesn’t complain though I know he misses it. For tea I just grow mint and chamomile and things like that.”

She blinked at me. “You make your own tea.”

I rolled my eyes, “I grow it but it isn’t the caffeinated, high test stuff that you are referring to.”

“I’m not talking about that. Seriously, you can make your own teas.”

“Unless you’ve got a black thumb you can too,” I told her laughing a bit at her incredulous expression. “It’s not magic, you just need to know which herbs make the best tea. I like the mints and the lemony flavored ones or chai tea is pretty good when I really need something special. Or I’ll add some dried orange rind to …”

“No … no more. My head is going to explode. Do you know what people would give to be have that back at my office? Drinking hot water just isn’t cutting it for most of us. It keeps us warm and hydrated but that’s about it.”

Tag was called away by the men that Mateo was speaking with and I went over to where Ricker the medic and a woman were examining the no-name girl. “Is she … well all right is a stupid question but is she …?”

The man sighed and said, “Under the circumstances it looks like you’ve done everything for her that can be done for her until she gets to the base hospital. The Chaplain said that he wants to take her back with us. Do you object to that?”

“No. Decker said that he thought he recognized her and if she can be reunited with her family that would at least be something for the poor kid. Um … look … do you have a moment?”

He stepped away with me and I told him what I’d seen while I had bathed her. He nodded. “I suspected as much given what the Chaplain said. We have a pretty good team on base for trauma cases. Unfortunately they’ve been seeing way too much of this kind of thing.”

At loose ends once the medic went back to the girl I turned to find Nydia still sitting on the porch and I went over to her. “I’m sorry Baby Doll. Do you feel left out?”

“No. Poppy is doing business and you were just taking care of the girl. She’s bad hurt in her heart isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said choked up at the childish simplicity of those words.

“She’s worse than Poppy was. Will she go away like Uncle Greg?”

I sighed. “She’s going away but not like Uncle Greg. She’s going where there are some people that can help her deal with her hurts.”

Nydia look at me seriously and said, “Good. Maybe she can find someone like you and Poppy to take care of her.”

“Now that sounds like a good idea.” Tag had come up with Mateo and the other men he had been speaking with.

Mateo had a look on his face that drew my attention. “Leah, Major Taglione would like for you to explain your gardening methods to one or two of their civilian ag specialists.”

I looked around searching for the catch. “And where are these ag specialists?”

Mateo’s lips twitched. “They plan on being back in a week with a crew. They would stay five to seven days, plenty of time for you to play la profesora and teach them what they need to know.”

“Ooooo kay, who let that particular cat out of the bag?” I looked at Mateo with an arched eyebrow that had the group trying not to laugh but he just looked completely innocent yet unrepentant at the same time which made me roll my eyes and shake my head.

He came over and kissed the top of my bandana covered head and said, “I’ll leave you to discuss it with your Major Tag but it is still your decision. If you do not feel up to it …” His open ended statement let everyone know that he would abide by my choice and support it fully. In his eyes though I could see that he was wheeling and dealing and would like me to consider it.

I nodded so that he would know I understood and then turned to Tag and asked, “What all would this visit entail? Would I need to feed them?”

“No,” she assured me. “My goal is to make this a mutually beneficial meeting. An exchange of information and good will that could lead to a trade partnership down the road.”

“What about quartering?”

“They’ll have a hard-side trailer. Technically the Ag guys are civilians but since they’ll be traveling with a military unit we don’t want to get in trouble with the 3rd Amendment. I got enough of the Constitutionalists breathing down my neck without adding to it unnecessarily.” At my surprised look she snorted in a most unladylike manner. “I don’t blame them, agree with them to be honest, but they don’t make my job any easier. Most of them are OK but there are a few that are a pain in the backside and don’t know as much as they think they know; they interpret it to their benefit rather than to the intent of the Founders. They’ve caused as much trouble for their own people as they have for mine. But even the worst of that lot is better than some of the people who think they are the next generation of leaders. If I have to deal with one more so-called community activist I’m liable to forget and just nail all of those agitators to the outside wall.”

You could hear the real disgust and anger in her voice and I was thankful that I wasn’t walking in her boots. Managing my own household was enough of a challenge thank you very much. Fifteen minutes later they were heading out and both Mateo and I had a lot to plan and discuss.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Part Eleven: Filling the Days

Part 11: Filling the Days

Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.
Anatole France (1844 - 1924), The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard



There is a difference to the days when you are working to subsist and when you are working to expand and thrive. Before Mateo came home my days were filled with mostly trying to make ends meet and making sure there would be food on the table that day … and maybe tomorrow. With Mateo’s return not only was I thinking of food for tomorrow but food for the coming winter and next spring and beyond. No longer did I have to worry about being the only one gathering enough wood to keep us warm for the day; Mateo’s longer arms and greater leverage helped to create a wood pile that would last us a month if we didn’t add to it. His goal was six months at a time but that would depend on how cold it got in the coming months.

Mateo didn’t just bring home wood when he went out. He brought home a lot of things I hadn’t even thought to salvage: door knobs and locks; door hinges, light bulbs, the motors out of ceiling fans, all of the gizmos from inside HVAC units, fancy light fixtures, cabinet knobs, mirrors, window shades, door knockers, filing cabinets, copper piping, extension cords, heavy outdoor planters, stacking plastic chairs, folding tables, pool equipment, metal shelving from storage sheds and garages, and so much more as to make my head spin. He stacked the aluminum that I had layered upstairs neatly and even matched up like pieces in case we needed to put them back together for something. At first glance it look like the barn was turning into a junk yard but if you looked more closely you could see an inventory system actually did exist. Mateo has everything organized – nearly over organized if such a thing is possible – and I don’t even like to go into some of the stalls for fear of messing up whatever he is in the middle of.

Early one morning Mateo came running back to the house causing my heart to jump into my throat in fear. His hurried words didn’t help. “Get the children inside!” He ran for one of the large caliber rifles before rushing back down the street towards the canal. My nerves were on edge for several minutes before there was a loud shot that seemed to echo forever. It was another forty-five minutes and I was this close to going to look for him when I saw him coming back to the house out of breath and filthy.

I ran towards him bringing a canteen of fresh water. He guzzled it down and the said, “I give up.”

“Give up what?!” I asked shaking like a leaf from nerves.

“God never does anything by half measure,” was his response.

“Mateo you aren’t making a bit of sense.” In the distance I heard several loud crashes. “Who are they? What do they want?!”

“Who? Oh … oh Leah, I … Oh Dios, my poor Corazon … it isn’t a who, they are a what. And by the sound of them if I don’t figure out how to cage them, they will get away from us.”

The long and the short of it is that a boar, a couple of sows, and some piglets startled Mateo while he was out salvaging. The boar tried to gore him and ran him up a tree for a moment. He was eventually able to lock the two sows and their piglets in a house. The boar tore off in the opposite direction and in the process became bogged down on the bank of the canal with predictable results. The shot was Mateo putting the mortally wounded hog out of his misery right before a gator took him under for the final time by rolling.

It was not fun trying to wrangle the remaining hogs. I finally resorted to pacifying them with some of the garden refuse I would normally have put in the compost as well as a scoop of dried corn mixed in. That did it. They went to town and then settled down to feed their young.

Mateo and I spent the rest of the day using chain link fence that he’d brought home to build two large pens in the only place we had left which was between the pond and the barn. The barn formed one “wall” and then we built the other three walls using an oak tree as one corner and a cyclone fence post for the other. We sank the fence walls two feet into the ground using a trench and then backfilling to keep the pigs from rooting their way out and to keep anything from digging their way in.

We had to finish the upper part of the fence the next day because it took a long time that we did not have much fun in trying to move the hogs from the house to their new pens. Before we did anything else we tagged which piglet went with which sow using powdered, colored chalk. After that we roped the sows and I bribed them every couple of yards to cooperate and follow where we pulled them. The piglets were so young they were practically still attached to their mommas so it was just a matter of shooing them along and trying not to step on any of them when they would run under our feet.

In the days that followed Mateo added more space and a little chute kind of deal that the piglets could get away from the sows by going through. He realized we didn’t need to make it so tall as we had the first pen but he did wind up adding braces to the walls. I left him to it – he was devouring all the books we had on animal care and husbandry – as I had my own work cut out for me; I was adding more garden spaces. Not only did we need more food for ourselves but now I needed to provide feed for all those new hungry mouths that God was sending our way. The pigs got all of the peels and spotted or bruised pieces from the fruits and vegetables, most of the plant tops except for the alliums like onions and garlic, and the stalks of plants once I found out what they liked. I added a small scoop of our dried corn until our fresh corn started coming in, then I cut it down to every other day.

My deciduous trees gave me fruit a couple of weeks late but they did give me fruit … peaches, nectarines, and figs were such a delicious addition to our table that it was hard to hold some back for preserving. I planted new rows of beans every few days and just about worked myself silly trying to keep up with the production’s harvest. The melons gave more than we could eat fresh though I lost several to invading raccoons until I figured out how to keep them out by fencing off each individual fruit as it matured. I had tried putting a container over the fruit but I left one on too long and the fruit eventually grew to fill the inside of the old plastic milk jug. It was a funny sight to see a milk jug shaped melon once I finally cut the container away.

Winter squash, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash … any squash I had seeds for … grew pretty well though they were a ton of work since they spread so quickly. But it was either keep them covered at night or come the morning discover that the raccoons and opossums had eaten them all. I noticed a large Himalayan cat had moved back into the neighborhood … a large, hairy male Himalayan cat … and after that there were fewer baby raccoons to have to deal with. Fewer squirrels too which had been a real pain in the corn patch. Every once in a while I would hear a cat fight so I knew there was more than one around but there was no way I was going to make friends with the thing. I’d made the mistake of thinking he was just a big fuzzball lost and looking for a new home and tried to talk to him one time when I saw him while I was helping Mateo bring in some wood. Uh uh, never again. I actually like cats but I swear this one was part mountain lion or something. It growled at me and since I’m college educated I was able to decipher from all the noise that while I could look, touching would not be the brightest idea I had ever had.

The sweet potatoes did well towards the end of June and a prayer was answered when it looked like the peanuts were also making even if they were going to be late doing it. My potted tropical fruit trees and bushes were doing OK but nothing worth taking out a full page ad for. The strawberry quava, cherry of the rio grande, and Persian limes did the best of all of the potted exotics but I think that is because I took so much care of them in the beginning when I still could.

As June moved into July the rain finally slacked off and the temps consistently reached the low eighties every day but that was still ten to fifteen degrees cooler than it should have been. In one respect it was pleasant but in another it was worrisome, but since it was one of the things I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t do anything to change I did what my mother always said to do and “left it on the altar.” Strangely enough when I did that I was rewarded though it became progressively more difficult for me not to go back and pick it back up and add it to what I already carried around in my worry sack.

God continued to provide. We added some very ugly ducks to our menagerie. And when I say ugly I’m not kidding. None of them matched each other. They are a complete patchwork of other ducks. Some remind you somewhat of mallards and then others drive you crazy trying to figure how what duck species they are most similar to. They are the calicos of the duck world. The drakes are easily the oddest looking as they have very distinctive facial features. The drakes also fight with each other and it is no joke when they do it because they have claws on their toes. The drakes will also fight with other animals and people if they get in the mood so I’m always mindful when the children are out there with me. And I was out with the ducks quite a bit trying to clean up after them, gracious they are messy. Luckily we need the fertilizer so I always have someplace to dump it.

We took over the Nelson’s backyard and even some of Mr. Houchens’ as well as we were running out of room. Three acres may sound like a lot but when you are trying to feed a family year round from what you can produce it really isn’t. The first attempt at the garden expansion was almost a failure. I came out one morning to spy deer raiding the new green shoots. The deer ran off at my scream and just as quickly Mateo came running to me.

“Leah!”

“That … that monster … it was eating my corn!!”

After I calmed down and explained – actually Nydia explained because I was stomping around, ready to pop a blood vessel at the animals’ audacity – Mateo measured and left to collect more fencing. When he came back I was still livid.

“Corazon,” he said trying to soothe my temper. “It is bad, but not the end of the world.”

I nearly turned on him with a snarl but caught myself in time. “Those creatures were taking food out of our children’s mouths!”

Calmly he said, “Yes. And if I get a chance they will become food for our children’s mouths.”

His measured response caught me off guard. Stopped me cold if I’m honest, and left me silent. I thought for a moment and then realized I had only been seeing the negative and not the potential good.

“There are deer,” I said in wonder. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen deer around here.”

“I know I’ve never seen them though I heard when I first moved in that occasionally small ones would come out of the swamp during the dryer months.”

“The ones I saw just now weren’t small. They were White Tails. I know they were.”

Mateo stopped using the post hole digger for a moment and asked, “They were what?”

“White Tailed Deer. My father would hunt them when I was younger before my cousins sold their acreage in Georgia. Momma used venison the same way and as often as most people used beef.”

“Well,” Mateo said after thinking a while. “I suppose it only makes sense that wild life would move into the suburbs after all this time. When I was down in south Florida even the zoo animals could be found wandering around on occasion … although most of them were killed and eaten before officials could come collect them.”

Mateo told me that as the infrastructure collapsed people released their pets to fend for themselves. The same thing happened at petting zoos and eventually large zoos also became compromised in some way, including from bombings, and animals would escape. We both wondered for a bit about Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens but were unwilling to waste time away from our own concerns at home just to satisfy our curiosity. We had enough to deal with without taking on more that had no practical return for us. Any animal still locked up would be a carcass and we didn’t need to go looking for trouble in case other such exotic species were on the loose. I wondered briefly about salvaging for animal feed but soon realized my wits must be begging as at this late date animals would have already found it or likely groups like Capt. Tag’s would have already thought of it and cleaned the place out. I was briefly depressed over a hypothetically missed opportunity but it was Mateo that said, “We have enough for now, no sense borrowing trouble. Once I’ve cleaned out the houses in a one mile radius then we can think about a trip further afield. God has given us quite a bit to manage already.”

Mateo had changed, was changing, and sometimes it was hard for me to keep up. In the beginning he saw church as my hobby. Eventually he came to understand how important my faith was to me, how much I depended on the strength I found in it; he understood the how but not necessarily the why. He never made fun of me, never hindered me exercising my faith and eventually even participated somewhat, but always as a kind of spectator. I was used to him following my lead in that area of our lives, humoring me, going as a family because it appeared to be the right thing to do and because it kept the peace.

But something happened to him at some point to cause a change. He was always the head of our house but on many things our duties and responsibilities were sharply split into categories that were either “his” or “hers” with just a few that were “ours.” These days many more were “ours” with far fewer that could be defined strictly as “his” or “hers.” And one of those “ours” was now our family’s interaction with our faith. The differences went beyond the fact that I no longer had to ask him to say Grace before our meals. It went beyond that I no longer was the only one reminding Nydia to say her bed time prayers; Mateo was actually teaching Neeno to do this as well and all without my prompting or bring the idea up in the first place.

It seemed that as time and events in this life wore at me, even taking my energy to call on my faith, Mateo would stand in that gap for me, for us. He wasn’t a candidate for the Amen Pew yet but he was seeing God’s hand in areas of our lives where my worry and fatigue was blinding me. I would laugh and joke about stuff being Providential, I would even believe it for the most part, but Mateo was really living the faith while some days I only felt like I was playacting it.

He was much less like a string that was pulled almost too taut. He seemed less afraid of his own strong emotional reactions to things and as a result he managed them better and was easier inside his own skin. It used to be that Mateo always seemed to have so much leftover energy that it wafted around him like static electricity looking for a target. Now he used both his mind and body so much that at the end of the day he could actually relax. He had concerns and still made plans, but he no longer worried at them the way he had in the past. He strove to make our lives better day by day and into the far future but he was also content with what we had in the here and now. Some days I felt like I barely made it through the day and was left unable to envision a far flung future.

One such day came when I realized that Nydia’s treasure box was empty. I tried to provide a treat for her every once in a while just because. She helped so much even as young as she was that I tried to recognize these in tangible ways. I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten everything done in a day without her help with Neeno or with toting and carrying things for me. The treats were not anything special or of great value - a new pencil, a new rubber band for her hair, a few pretty beads for her to string and wear, an unused crayon or marker. Rarest of all were the times when I had given her a piece of candy or a safety sucker. She never asked for these things, it was just something I did because I could … only now I couldn’t. Everything was used up or gone. For some reason that fact just broke my heart.

I thought that I would make candies and wrap them like the store bought candies and refill the chest at least partially that way but as I looked over our food inventory I became concerned. I had used as little of all the sweeteners as I could but we would eventually run out no matter what I did … and sooner rather than later. Soon the lack of sugar added to my upset over no candy for Nydia. I thought all day but nothing came to mind. I was almost resolved to use a little of the sugar anyway. I told Mateo but he said, “I may have an idea, give me an hour in the morning before you finish deciding.”

If I had hoped he had found a secret stash of food I would have been disappointed. I was putting breakfast on the table when he came in. “I have a surprise for my girls.”

Nydia and I immediately grew suspicious; the last few “surprises” Mateo brought us had entailed a lot of extra work. “Did I ever tell you how poor my Abuelo and Abuela were? And their parents before them? I did? Good. Did I ever tell you they were so poor they never had store bought candy? No? Well it’s true. In fact, my own mother didn’t have store bought candy until my father bought her some lemon drops on their first date.”

Nydia nodded and said, “That’s like us Poppy.”

I saw Mateo hide a wince. “Not quite Baby Doll,” I told her. “For us the reason we don’t have store bought things is because there are no stores around here.”

Mateo gave me a grateful look for my understanding then told Nydia, “Listen to Nonny, she knows things. But just like Nonny knows how to make do without stores so did my grandparents and after breakfast I’ll show you the surprise.”

We sat down to scrambled duck eggs, squirrel sausage, fried sweet potato cakes, grits, and pan gravy. After the dishes were stacked for washing we followed Mateo onto the lanai where a stick was leaning. I was practically on top of it before I realized what it was. My mouth twitched trying to hide my smile so I wouldn’t spoil things. Mateo took a machete, cut a short section of the “stick” and then using another blade peeled the tough outer skin off of it.

“Here Nydia, taste.”

Nydia just looked at it in her hand. “It’s a stick Poppy. I’m not a baby anymore so I know. You’re not supposed to put sticks in your mouth. We have to tell that to Neeno all the time.”

“This is a special stick,” he laughed since it was true that Neeno was going through a stage where he was gnawing on everything, even me when he nursed though it was less often now that he was on some table food.

Nydia cautiously took a lick and the surprise on her face was so comical I wished I’d had a camera to catch it forever. “It’s … it’s sweet Poppy!!”

Mateo had found a stand of sugar cane that had come back after the cold weather. It is basically just a grass and people frequently used it in their yard as an ornamental. While Nydia happily licked and sucked on her “candy stick” chewing the fibrous center to get the last bit of sweet from each piece Mateo told me, “There is more where that came from; a whole fence row in fact as well as stands in different spots through several of the local subdivisions. I’m not sure how but my mother said that it can be used to sweeten drinks and other things.”

“Let me see what I can figure out. They sold that stuff by the bundle at the farmer’s market. They wouldn’t do that unless there was a way to use it by those who bought it.”

I didn’t have any luck in my mother’s books. Those books were about sorghum which was different from cane although from what I gathered you processed the stalks in much the same way. When I went looking through Mateo’s mother’s and sister’s old cookbooks that I had put away in the kitchen cupboard I kept my own mother’s cookbooks in I did find recipes but only for the juice although once I got Mateo to translate something for me I learned you could use sugar cane hearts like a swizzle stick to sweeten drinks and you could also use them like skewers to grill food on which flavored whatever you were cooking with sweet goodness.

“Honestly,” I said to Mateo one night while I was giving the kitchen a final cleaning before relaxing for the evening. “I’d give a lot to have whatever that thing was yoru sister wrote she used to juice the cane. It was in the edge of the cookbook that I could actually read.”

“Hmmm? Yes, it was my mother’s. It was heavy and I hated moving that thing around for her.”

I looked at him where he was reading and making notes. “You know what she is talking about? Could you draw me a picture of it?”

“Why?” he muttered not really paying any attention.

“Because I want to see if I could replicate it,” I told him patiently knowing he was only listening with half an ear.

He sighed, “Why do you want to do that when it is out in the barn?”

My mouth fell open and I had just found my voice again when his head jerked up. “Está hacia fuera en el granero. Cómo es estúpido puede I ser. ¡Por supuesto está hacia fuera en el granero!”

“English please,” I said at his outburst.

“I’m an idiot Leah. It is out in the barn with that stuff we brought from my sister’s house. I can’t believe … argh!”

“The stuff that you just … um … you didn’t seem like you wanted to go through it. I guess I forgot about it too. You stuck it in that overhead loft.”

“Exactly. I guess I just never wanted to think about … it was not a good time for me. I didn’t want to deal with … all the baggage I was stuck with, figuratively and literally.”

I had known there were things that Mateo wasn’t happy about as far as his childhood went but there are some areas that you just don’t trespass even as a spouse. He didn’t talk about it much and I had to respect his decision.

The next day, with no small amount of work since they had been shoved into a far back corner that was hard to reach, we finally pulled out the crates containing his parents’ and sibling’s belongings that he hadn’t sold at the estate auction. He uncrated everything until we found the juice extractor and then sweating and pale backed away from everything. I asked him, “Do you want me to put it all away?”

He stopped, thought for a moment, and then said, “No. Take it … take it inside and ….” With a very Latin hand movement indicated that I was to do with it whatever I wanted and then he walked away, turned once to say something, looked at the boxes and then turned again to keep walking. Over his shoulder he called, “I’m going to gather wood … and salvage … I … may be late coming home.”

I think that was his way of asking that I put it away before he got back so he wouldn’t have to face so much of it at a time. The extractor was heavy but it didn’t require electricity for which I was very grateful. I dealt with the rest of it as well as I could. The pictures and movie DVDs were put into a couple of tins and then stored with the rest of our family home media. There were awards and such that obviously belonged to Mateo and his sister and niece. I boxed those up and stuck them in my hope chest for Nydia when she was old enough to appreciate them. A few things must have come from his grandparents … some cigar making relics, some really old costume jewelry, a picture where the flowers were made of human hair … and then there were some antique looking kitchen pieces and silverware that I put away in the China hutch. There were a few things that obviously belonged to Nydia’s mother … Mateo’s niece … and I boxed those up and put them in the top of her old bedroom closet for safe keeping. There weren’t a ton of things but it was enough that putting it all away neatly took time out of my other chores. I didn’t begrudge as I knew it would be better for Mateo but I didn’t exactly enjoy myself either. I enjoyed history but even to me it was a little creepy pawing through the belongings of people I’d never had the chance to know and who had had such an impact on my husband.

Finally I went back to gardening which that day was weeding and harvesting squash, gourds, and pumpkins. I also had the beans and corn to deal with and I pulled up a peanut plant and hung it to dry as an experiment to see if the peanuts were ready or still too green. It was long passed Nydia and Neeno’s supper time and both were nodding off waiting for Poppy to come home. When he did I was torn between making him suffer for being so late and worrying me or soothing him because he was obviously already suffering. In the end I decided that some things were best handled with care and I put his plate on the table and put the kids to bed myself. It took a while but finally they did both settle for the night and I returned to the kitchen where the only light came from the moonlight streaming through the one window I hadn’t shut yet.

“How can you see to eat? Let me turn on the solar lamp.”

“Leave it off … please.”

“Do you want any more food? I have another biscuit and …”

“I … I suppose.” I brought it over doing my best not to trip in the dark. “Leah, I’m sorry. I … I didn’t mean to be quite so late. Time got away from me and I went further than I had realized.”

“Mateo you don’t need to …”

“Yes,” he interrupted. “Yes I do. It’s not fair that you have to feel the consequences of … the mess that was my family. But I just don’t want to talk about it now, it’s too … too difficult to explain and they’re all dead anyway.”

“All families are messy, some more than others. You’ve heard how my dad kept us at a distance from the rest of the family because he didn’t care for how some of them acted or raised their kids. But my parents weren’t perfect either. I loved them but if they hadn’t been so prideful and hard headed maybe they … maybe they wouldn’t have died the way they did. And you surely know about … about Hank … so I was certainly no paragon of good judgment back then. If you need to talk I’m here. When you need to let it out I’m here. And if you just want to let it go for a while longer I’m here. Just don’t put it off forever Mateo or one of these days, just like Hank caught me off guard that time at the fair, your memories are going to catch you off guard and maybe make you say or do things that you like the results of even less than you do the memories.”

I turned away to put the wet rag over the drying rack when he was suddenly just there and in my space needing some comfort. As he hugged me I hugged him back. “Mi Tesoro, I will talk about it one day, but not … not now. I have worked so hard to put it all to rest and move on, to find peace with it. Only sometimes does it get tempting to start … what was it you called it the other day? Digging up old bones, that was it. I could feel the old … old feelings creeping up on me. It helped to go work, but it got away from me.”

“Just … don’t make a habit of letting it get away from you,” I told him with another hug. “My shoulders may not be as broad as yours but I don’t break near as easily as you seem to think. Nor will I run shrieking into the night if I find out your family or even you are not perfect. It happens. Now are you finished or still hungry? You put in a lot of hours today.”

He stepped back and leaned against the counter but all I could see was his outline. “I missed putting the children to bed,” he said morosely.

“That’s not what I asked but if you want to put someone to bed then let’s finish up in here and you can put me to bed.”

He gave a surprised chuckle but we did just that. The next morning he was a little sheepish and seemed to be trying to make up for being missing in action the previous day. He started getting under my feet so I carefully but firmly shooed him off to take care of his own tasks so that I could take care of mine without worrying that he was worrying about me still worrying and being upset. He came home for lunch and had bagged another large snake so we had a little unplanned protein for dinner that night. He was getting quite a collection of snake skins that he was stretching on boards he leaned against the barn under the eaves.

“What are you going to do with all of them?” I finally asked him.

“The children will need shoes before it turns cold. I have been reading …”

That’s how so many of our conversations went; a question would be asked and one or the other of us would say “I’ve been reading …” But reading is a lot different from implementing. Sometimes our ideas panned out and sometimes they did not … or at least not the way we had originally meant for them to. This time he was talking about making shoes for the children and repairing mine that were so close to wearing out as well.

“We don’t have any souls for the shoes but I was thinking that I could cut pieces from tires but instead of sandals I could make full uppers from the snake skins somehow. Or perhaps when I finally get one of those deer …”

So many plans. It didn’t matter that we barely had enough time to breathe each day, there was always more to do. There was so much more that we needed to do. We could have easily used two or three more sets of hands but then that would have meant even more work as we had to feed the mouths that went with those hands.

I let the first row of corn to dry but instead of just leaving it in the field I picked the ears and put them in mesh bags that I crocheted and then hung them on the lanai to finish curing. I would do the same to the beans I was allowing to dry. It was getting so that you had to dodge and weave just to get from the screen door, across the lanai, and into the house. At night when I was just plain too tired to do anything else I would sit and shell the dried beans or corn into containers that I would give one more airing to before sealing in an airtight container and putting them in the pantry.

My hand grew even more callused and I started catching everything on the cracked and peeling pads of my fingers. No matter what I did nothing made my hands go back to “lady looking.” I was dark skinned from the sun and wind, my skin was drying out, and I was horrified to notice that I had what looked like the beginning of crinkles at the corners of my eyes. It isn’t that I minded getting older, it was finding out that getting older was so easy to do that it was happening to me before I turned twenty-five. I tried not to be vain but Mateo caught me one day when I threw a rag at my reflection in the mirror. I was horribly embarrassed but he drug the story out of me and then set to convincing me that I was still totally desirable to him and eventually I was able to get over myself but I did start taking more care to wear a hat when I was out in the sun. Neither of us looked the same as we had even a year ago; life had aged us and not necessarily kindly.

It was towards the end of July and I was harvesting a the first few … and late … bunches of grapes when I looked up as a flash caught my eye. “Mateo!”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Part Ten: Year Without a Summer Redux

Part 10: Year Without a Summer Redux

When endlessly before you summer lay
And as in the deep, crimson dusk you stir
Your soul joins with the birds in wistful brood
Crying for lost summer days, for childhood
-Shannon Georgia Schaubroeck


Nydia squealed, danced backwards taking Neeno with her as it darted toward them hissing. Mateo swung at it with the machete he had been using to trim branches but missed. After my initial scare all I could do was grab the small quilt I had brought for the children and toss it over the beastie. Oh it made a horrible racket but eventually settled down in the dark. I looked at Mateo and he at me. Nydia had run to hide behind him and was peeking at the lump it made from behind his hip.

I sat down and then just about had a fit. Mateo asked, “Leah? Are … you all right?”

I finally laughed the laugh that I’d been trying to hold in. “You know how they say you should be careful what you pray for because you just might get it?” At his nod I continued, “Did we or did we not talk about wanting some chickens or a goat or some other livestock a couple of days ago?”

Before I had even finished his lips were twitching. “Ah yes. I had forgotten this.”

“Forgotten what?”

“How you see answered prayers in the oddest things. And pray how, mi Amor, do you plan on caging that mad goose? If he is going to be that way I’d as soon eat him.”

Nydia asked, “Will he taste as good as duck?”

That set me off again and Mateo could only smile and shake his head before going back to trimming the limbs so that we could bundle them and secure them in the wagon better. It felt good to have someone to laugh with. I had laughed with Nydia on occasion but laughing with a child is different than the laughter that comes when two adults are sharing something humorous.

But he was right, how on earth was I going to deal with a crazy goose. I absentmindedly gathered the goose’s feathers that he had lost as he fell out of the tree … more of a bush really since the top had been blown out of it during one of the bombing runs. I decided that I would just pick the goose up in the quilt like it was in a tote sack and hopefully it wouldn’t hurt itself. I knew where I could put it until we could build a chicken yard for it; one of the larger “tree huts” would work well for this, one of the ones without the bees in it. The one that I had discovered the baby grasshoppers in would probably suit the noisy thing to a tee.

As a matter of fact when I did put it in there it pinched my leg hard enough to bruise so I decided to call it Bruiser. I watched for a few moments as it tried to get out and then the mean thing caught sight of the grasshoppers and it found something more to its taste to expend its energy on. The reason that Mateo and I had been talking about livestock was because we sat down and truly faced our predicament. I had been getting by but I didn’t have a fully fleshed out plan for the future. Once Mateo started to get his health and strength back his true personality started to reassert itself. A primary element of his makeup is that he has always been a planner … especially in the financial arena. Once our assets were measured in coins and paper; no more. These days our assets are measured much differently … food, water, fuel, and shelter.

The garden is our stock market where we invest our sweat and assets like seeds. The wood pile is our longer term investments like bonds and a 401K. Water is a return on an investment of work that we then reinvest. The pantry and the house and the barn are our bank vault where we store our wealth. The guns and ammo are our security to keep thieves from taking what is ours.

I know that is a bit oversimplified but I think that is how Mateo looks at it, how he is reintegrating his talents into our lives. He knows what is really important; in his words “God, mi Corazon, y mi ninos which are our future.” But Mateo is not one to sit back. He was raised with a strong work ethic; if you don’t work then you don’t eat. When we first met that work ethic was played out behind a desk; these days his hands and body are as callused and lean as they were once soft and his mind is once again as sharp as it ever was. He is still the same man I married, but he is more as well. And I’m thankful for it.

“Leah, you have created a good base for us to work from. I give you all the credit for that. You took what we pooled our resources for in the beginning and have greatly expanded the return. But we need to be careful that we don’t grow complaisant, expecting the same return for the same input. Anything could happen … bad weather, bandits, the government … anything. We need to expand.”

“Expand?!” I yelped. After thinking it over I said, “Well, I suppose I could add more raised beds to the front of the house. It’s just that I was trying to not be too obvious from the road.”

“No mi Corazon, although more raised beds would not be bad if we can find the materials. What I mean is that we need to diversify.”

“More trees?” I asked flummoxed.

He shook his head in the negative. “Animals. I wish now we had not been so short-sighted as to have eaten the chickens.”

Finally beginning to see where he was going I said, “Well, I’m not sure how I would have taken care of them after the bomb fell. Mostly it was due to lack of feed and the fact that they had stopped producing eggs that we culled them.”

“Yes, we had our reasons but hindsight is 20/20 mi Tesoro. I would give a lot to have them back now. There is no telling when we will be able to replace them.”

I was remembering that conversation as I put the last few finishing touches on supper including the Split Pea Bars that I had made to celebrate getting our first farm animal. Those bars sound disgusting to the uninitiated but they are actually pretty good all things considered. You cook dry split peas until you have a really thick soup and then you add in some milk – I used some of my precious powdered milk – then add in a bunch of other spices and sweetenings and a little flour and powdered eggs. I also added raisins for a little extra. I wished I’d had some nuts to add but we ran out of those a long time ago which was just one reason why I hoped that the peanuts I had planted would make.

Mateo was helping by feeding Neeno which was a job in and of itself now that we were trying to get him to eat some pureed vegetables while Nydia sat the table for the rest of us. “Mateo?”

“Hmm?” he responded while trying to aim the baby spoon at the hungry little mouth that hadn’t quite figured out that you can’t expect a mortal to actually shove something in if it is moving a mile a minute.

Smiling at the sight I asked, “Where do you think the goose came from? I mean, I’ve never seen any wild geese around here before. I didn’t think Florida was really in their fly zone.”

“I was wondering that as well. I think … it’s just a theory … that the change in weather patterns may have driven some birds and other animals off their normal migration paths.”

“OK but that goose doesn’t look like a wild goose, at least not that I’ve ever seen. It is kind of … well … farm-looking.”

Mateo looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Farm-looking Ms. Teacher?”

“Smart aleck,” I grouched back good-naturedly. “Would you prefer farmish or farmly? You know what I mean. It looks like the kind of goose that is normally raised on a far – domesticated – not one that should be flying around loose. Although I suppose domesticated animals can go feral. I know pigs certainly can.”

“Leah, I don’t have the answer. My only real concern at the moment is if the goose is not wild … or feral as you mentioned … then where are the humans that brought in these farmly birds.”

I threatened to throw a wet rag at him which started Nydia laughing before we all sat down to eat. After Mateo said Grace we continued with his train of thought. “We should re-secure the barn. Yes, I know that is a problem but I was already thinking of doing it anyway since we don’t know how many people could be traveling through the area. I would also like to start salvaging more parts from the other houses that remain in this area, particularly windows, doors, hardware, mirrors, lumber … we could rearrange the stalls in the barn so that we can keep it organized as it comes in.”

“And we are doing this now instead of if and when we need that stuff because why?” I asked concerned at the idea of adding one more thing to my already long list of chores.

“In the future I suspect that salvage will be a big business. Perhaps not as big as local manufacturing has the potential to be, perhaps not as big as lumber either, but until commercial industry starts back up people will be very dependent on salvage either for their own purposes or …”

“Or what?” I asked as he fell silent in thought.

“Leah, I know I’m stating the obvious here but there are simply some things that we can’t make. Either neither one of us has the skill or perhaps not the supplies. For instance, while I was gratified to see that we still had all of the ammunition ...”

“Except what I’ve used for hunting gator.”

He shuddered, “Do not remind me. The very idea of you … don’t, the last thing I need is more nightmares ... we’ll talk of your hunting animals big enough to snap you in half later. What I’m saying is there are things like the ammo that we will eventually have to replace. The fewer things that we have to purchase outright the better. We have the precious metals still hidden but you can’t eat them and right now people are more concerned with feeding their families, keeping them warm, and maintaining a roof over their heads. Perhaps some survivalist types in their bunkers and citadels are trading gold and silver but the common man is not.”

“Honestly Mateo, they weren’t that big. The biggest was only a five-footer. OK, ok,” I said when he gave me a look. “So who exactly do you think we are going to be trading with? It has been months since … well, since not long after Neeno was born … that I saw my last military personnel. After that it was those three kids I told you about. Then it was you … and … and Greg. Not a single other living soul.”

“And God put a hedge of protection around you mi Corazon. There are people out there, lots of people, and not all of them nice and friendly. The population of this country … of the world … has fallen quite a bit, probably on the order of a deadly pandemic, but not on the order of ninety plus percent of the human race as was in some of those apocalyptic novels your father like to read. The depopulation however is patchy. In some places you’ll find humans removed completely from the food chain and in others what few people have been lost have been replaced by emigrants from other areas. Your only contact with the outside world came from your Capt. Taglione and you said yourself that she was in charge of a large refugee center some ways from here … though I did wish you knew where. In my experience those refugee centers have as one of their primary goals rehabilitation and relocation of their inmates.”

“Inmates? I thought those refugee camps were sanctuaries. You make it sound like prison.”

“Trust me when I say this Leah, for many those camps are exactly that albeit unintentional ones. They are told when to get up, when to sleep, who they may associate with as populations are broken down into manageable blocks based on age and sex and whether they are single or a family; they are forced to work to help the camp be as self supportive as possible, the food is barely enough to keep the children from crying but not enough to keep the adults from complaining, illness runs rampant and medical supplies and medicines are in as short supply as the food is. Guards walk around with automatic weapons and despite this show of force you have unspeakable crimes committed because you cannot completely weed out all of the troublemakers and criminals. It is not a place I would want my family to be if I had anywhere else to go.”

I had to believe Mateo, he had seen it with his own eyes, and it gave me an even greater appreciation of our home. “I can’t imagine trying to have a baby in that environment. I’m so glad I didn’t give into the temptation of trying to get to one of the collection points.”

“Do not get me wrong, most of the camp staff try and do their best, they are simply overwhelmed and many of them are in the same boat as the refugees; their homes are gone or inaccessible, family is missing, their former jobs are gone and their future is uncertain. Some do take their stress out on the refugees but not most by any stretch. You also have incompetence, too few staff for too many refugees, entitlement mentality on all sides. Some camps are better than others. I was a guard in one that was basically set up for criminals and troublemakers.”

“The one you met Greg at?”

“Yes, and the one before that as well. They tried to move us around so that we would not develop any attachments or get too friendly. I can understand their point but it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been either.”

Knowing Mateo I said, “And let me guess, you told someone that as well.” A sheepish grin was confirmation enough that I shook my head. “You are lucky you didn’t wind up one of those prisoners rather than a guard.”

“I am not stupid Leah,” he said with a grin. “I knew where to draw the line at my … er … helpfulness. And the guards had other ways to make things better when we could.”

“Oh … you didn’t … oh yes you did. Mateo! You could have been in so much trouble … even danger!”

“I said nothing!” he bluffed.

“Don’t give me your nothing. You got involved in something didn’t you?”

Mateo grinned like a naughty school boy. “The less said the better, and it was months and months ago and no longer matters except as a remembered bit of satisfaction.”

“Honestly,” I muttered. Mateo just chuckled and we finished our dinner and I shooed them out to the family room after they helped me to clear the table. I needed space to think and washing the dishes out on the lanai gave it to me.

I loved having Mateo home but it certainly was changing things. I just hoped he remembered that I was just one person that already had several full time jobs. I was glad that Mateo was well enough to start making plans but I worried that he would get a head of himself … and me … and all of the things I was trying to do to keep us fed. After Neeno and then Nydia were put to bed … both going willingly after Poppy read them some story … the subject came back up.

“Leah, now that you have had time to think on it, do you have any idea whether it is feasible that the goose could have flown or migrated since you think it is a domestic bird?”

“Hey, I didn’t teach biology remember,” I told him wondering exactly what he thought was my knowledge base.

“No, but you grew up … different … from what I experienced. You started out with skill sets that I’m still trying to acquire and you have an innate way of thinking of things that is … creative.”

I blushed in the dark but for the sake of argument I conceded, “OK, so I was raised differently than you. Our talents lie in different areas that’s all, though they overlap perhaps more than you admit. But growing up we never had a menagerie of animals, we couldn’t afford them. The neighbors had dogs … oh never mind, I’m getting off the topic.”

“And? Your thoughts on our topic?”

“All right, I have thought about it. It’s hard not to. I’ve seen birds of course, a lot of them once the cats disappeared, but nothing like that goose. I’ve seen ducks, I’ve even fed you roasted duck, but only when there aren’t too many gators in the ponds and canals. Speaking of which, whether you like it or not we need to go on another hunt; we need more meat and the bigger gators have the turtles and ducks avoiding the area.” Mateo sighed unhappily but I ignored it and continued. “I took a look at Bruiser again and I don’t think … think mind you … that he is a domesticated bird, not completely. He reminds me of the ducks that I used to see in the parks with Nydia that were mixed domestic and wild. It is obvious that Bruiser can fly after a fashion; most domestic breeds of geese can’t, they’re too heavy and their feathers are too short. But that bird isn’t completely wild either; he became content to be for all intents and purposes caged up much more quickly than I think a wild goose would that had all of the instincts to fly. The most Bruiser has done is fly, or rather jump with his wings to give him a boost, up into the lower branches of the grapefruit tree and roost once evening starts to fall. Which in and of itself is kind of strange because I didn’t think geese roosted in trees.”

Giving what I had said some thought, “So you think maybe we have a hybrid or mixed breed bird. Do you think there are more?”

“I haven’t got the foggiest idea. In the morning when it is light I’ll look and see if any of my parents’ books have information in them on geese. The Carla Emery book probably does – it is very exhaustive – but I’m not sure it has the information that we specifically need. I’m not sure how geese tend to group themselves as far as their living arrangements go. I’ve rarely seen ducks, geese, and chickens walking around by themselves but I don’t know if that was because of the setting I saw them in or by natural inclination.”

Mateo nodded his head. “It will be interesting to see what you find. Can you tell whether our goose is a male or female?” I had to laugh at that and he smiled. “Yes, I know … wallet or purse. But won’t that determine whether we keep her or eat him?”

“I hope it is a her. If we can keep her fed she might give us some fresh eggs.”

“Er … are goose eggs … uh … do they taste …”

I patted his leg as we were sitting very close enjoying the dying embers of the fire before going off to bed ourselves. “Goose eggs and duck eggs are bigger than chicken eggs. If I remember, duck eggs are about twice the size of chicken eggs and a goose egg is equal to about four chicken eggs. Used to be in the old days that geese and ducks were prized above chicken eggs partly for this reason and partly because they were more self sufficient than chickens. Learned that in St. Augustine on a field trip as a matter of fact. But chicken eggs are really the only ones that you can boil in their shells with good results.”

“So asking for your Deviled Eggs would be out I suppose,” he said disappointed.

“’Fraid so Novio. But goose and duck eggs are great for scrambling which is something I really don’t like to do with the powdered eggs we have left.” We both made a face remembering the few times that I had tried it. “They are also good for baking and sweet breads. The protein is higher as well which is something you need, well something we all need given the work that we are doing. You know, something that just entered my mind, I don’t know if Bruiser turns out to be male if we should eat him for a while.”

“Why?”

“Well, if he does fly and has migrated from out of the area, shouldn’t we be careful that he hasn’t migrated through an area with radiation?”

The look on Mateo’s face told me he hadn’t thought of that either. He kissed my temple and muttered, “Mi brillante Teroso.” Well that kind of led to an entirely different subject and we never did get back around to talking about livestock.

The next day, while hunting a gator … more like shooting fish in a barrel in one of the canals since we took three medium sized ones to the gratitude of all of the turtles and other animals in the area … we found two other geese that looked very similar to Bruiser and were just as cranky and noisy. I don’t care whether geese have teeth or not, their bills can leave nasty pinches that ouch for hours. I also thought to see if we could find a nesting duck but the gators must have pushed them out of the area. Mateo and I added a screened in run onto the tree hut and in the following days the geese were able to leave the hut without us worrying about them flying away. It also gave the birds a chance to get more exercise, stretch their wings, and to forage for themselves. My hope was that eventually they would become so tame that I could let them wander in the garden without having to worry about them flying away.

The high water did cause one problem that got on my nerves. Water moccasins. Surprisingly Mateo had no problems with the snakes and in fact was very good at relieving us of their presence. I found out that he’d learned how as one of the camps he had worked at was right next to a swamp in south Florida. He showed me how the guards would skin, clean, and cook them to add to their meager ration allotments. The swamp was both the reason for his lack of fear of the snakes and his unreasonable dislike of gators.

“We would have some people escape and on several occasions we would find … parts of them … at the edge of the swamp. They’d obviously fallen to local predators, gators being the most common but boa constrictors were another problem. I saw two separate attacks on guards as well. They didn’t allow us any light as we patrolled the outside of the fence in case it drew the enemy and … let us just say that it was gruesome.” It made his dislike of the reptiles understandable but given they were our primary source of large game I couldn’t afford to let his prejudice get in the way.

The workload became such that in the mornings I would stay at home to do most of the gardening while Mateo would walk the neighborhood in search of things to salvage. One day he was gone hours longer than he had before and I became frantic with worry. When he did come home, exhausted but triumphant, I burst into tears and ran inside. It was a bump that happens in most marriages but he had just about scared me to death. He wasn’t a child I needed to monitor the movements of all the time but I was still learning to trust that he wouldn’t disappear on me again.

The days settled into a pattern and as it turned out Bruiser was a male as Mateo had caught him “in the act” so to speak with the other two. The other bit of evidence came from the occasional egg that I found … and never provided by Bruiser. Following the directions I found in a couple of my mother’s books I built nesting boxes, rearranging their pen a bit, and soon I was getting a goose egg from each goose every couple of days until Mateo and I decided to leave them to see if any would hatch.

The weather was often a topic of conversation. Would it rain yet again or would we have a clear day so we could stay dry while we get all of our work done? Would the sun shine enough for the plants? Would it warm up enough for a seeds to germinate? For it to be June in Florida it was still significantly cooler than it should have been; a daily high that rarely reached eighty and only if there was no cloud cover – which wasn’t often – to night time lows that could fall into the low fifties. One day we started discussing how long the strange weather patterns would continue and I brought up a topic that I had been thinking about for some time.

“Mateo have you ever heard of the Year Without A Summer?”

“Should I have?” he asked in return. When he saw the outraged look on my face he said, “Ah, la profesora is about to deliver a lecture.”

“Yes I am. I can’t believe … oh you!” The look on his face gave him away.

“You will remember how many of those historical documentaries you forced us to watch?”

“Hey! You said you enjoyed them!”

He laughed at my outrage. “Of course I did Leah, I’m just playing.”

I snorted my lack of appreciation for his sense of humor. “Well, tell me if you don’t think that it is applicable here.”

“Perhaps you should remind me,” he admitted.

“Hah! I knew it.” But I smiled anyway before starting the history lesson. “The year was 1816. In Northern Europe and much of North America temperatures were reported at historical lows all year long. It was believed at the time by the scientists of the day that several converging reasons caused the unusual weather. First off there was historic low solar activity … spots or what have you. But the largest reasons were atmospheric abnormalities caused by several large volcanic eruptions that dumped dust and gases into the air. This cycle started prior to the year without a summer. In 1812 there were two eruptions, one in Indonesia and one in the Caribbean. In 1813 there was one in Japan. In 1814 there was one in the Phillipines. The largest occurred in early April of 1815 when Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. It had been nearly 1,700 years since the world had seen an eruption that large and it made international news, even in the young USA.”

Mateo sat back, interested in spite of himself.

“The weather event was bad but not necessarily the worst of it. Because of the weather there were widespread crop failures. First there was famine, then food riots. Ireland experienced a typhus epidemic directly attributed to the famine that killed over 100,000 of its people. Fatality figures for places like Switzerland were double what were seen in other years. Crop failures were reported all over Europe and in New England. China experienced devastating rice crop failures. Summer snowfalls were reported even in areas where winter snowfall wasn’t normally guaranteed to occur.”

He asked, “And this correlates how exactly? I understand if you are talking about a nuclear winter yet that isn’t what we are having … the earth encased in snow and ice because the sun has been blotted out by radioactive dust in the atmosphere.”

Knowing he referred to one of the worst case scenarios of nuclear war I told him, “OK, bear with me. I’m trying to put together some of the things Dad talked about, known world history, and what we are experiencing now. We’ve apparently had either a very limited nuclear exchange or sufficient bombs going off that it has thrown enough dust into the air that it has disrupted our weather patterns. That is what Capt. Tag confirmed in her note. My concern is not necessarily what caused the weather pattern change so much as how it correlates to a similar occurrence from history. The year 1816 started out normally in January. By spring the weather was noticeably different from what it should have been. It was also dry enough, long enough to be considered a drought period along with the cold snap. Following the drought above average precipitation occurred which likely correlates to our own current over abundance of the wet stuff lately. Historically, after this period of extra precipitation the weather turned even colder moving into the winter. But, it really wasn’t the cold which was only a few degrees off normal that resulted in the catastrophic conditions but the cumulative effects that were the result of the crop failures; skyrocketing prices and famine which in turned caused fatalities from famine and disease at historically high rates.”

I was gratified to see that Mateo was really listening to me now and not just humoring me.

“The year 1816 was … well, not localized exactly but it didn’t have a total worldwide environmental effect. There were areas of the world that completely escaped any kind of significant effect. Historically it compares to some other events such as weather effects caused by the eruption of the volcano Santorini in 1620 BC I think that all but crippled the Minoan culture; the collapse of the Bronze age by the Hekla 3 eruption in 1200 BC; the weather disturbances caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 535 AD ; the eruption of a volcano in Peru in 1600 I think that caused the coldest weather in the northern hemisphere for six centuries and which likely caused the Russian famine of that same year; the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783 which led to thousands of fatalities in Europe; the severe year of blizzards in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book the Long Winter could very well have been caused by a volcanic winter; and even the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 caused some wonky weather here in the states during the following months.”

“Wonky weather?”

“Strange, unusual patterns … mild where it was expected to be bad and bad where it should have been mild. Now from there we need to move into our current situation now. We don’t know how widespread the bombs were nor how widespread the dust and debris is in our atmosphere. We don’t know if the war continues in places, including more bombs. We don’t know if it is confined to the Northern Hemisphere or if the Southern Hemisphere has also been affected. We don’t know if bombs set off other environmental disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, and who knows what all. Certainly we’re lucky in this area that the canals and retention ponds along the highway have been able to contain the water or at least funnel it away from our home and yard preventing us being flooded out. The swamp has spread, but not appreciably in our direction; I think the earlier drought actually saved us in that respect.”

“I have a feeling you are about to make a point that I’m not going to like,” he said with a sigh.

I nodded. “My point being is that the situation got worse before it got better and that the change in weather patterns lasted more than a single year. I don’t necessarily know that it is going to get a lot worse than what we’ve already experienced as far as the weather goes but I am concerned about the cumulative effect from the results of the change in weather patterns. I do suspect based on previous historical evidence however that it may be another year or three or five before our weather patterns return to what we are used to.”

Mateo was silent for a long time. “I cannot change what God has wrought or man has wrecked … but that doesn’t mean that we cannot do as Joseph did and store up good things for the bad times.”

As soon as he said it some of the pressure that I had felt building disappeared. “So you don’t think that I’m nuttier than a fruitcake?”

He looked at me, blinked, and then said, “I happen to like your fruitcake.” It was so unexpected that I nearly laughed. “No Corazon, I do not think you are crazy. I am not quite sure what to think but I know that you would not risk airing your theory if you did not believe it was possible. And you support your theory well … unfortunately well enough that I begin to see the possible problems ahead of us. But if I remember that documentary, they stated that innovation also came out of that period of tribulation.”

I nodded and said, “Supposedly the lack of oats from the year without a summer drove a man to invent what was to become a precursor of the modern bicycle, it forced emigration into the Heartland of our country as people sought better land to grow things on, and a scientist who experienced the famine as a child began experimenting with plant nutrition and eventually introduced mineral fertilizers.”

“So. It does not have to be all bad … but in order to enjoy the good that comes out of the tribulation we much survive it. It is going to mean work … and taking some risks … but I do not see a choice. Do you?”