Part 9: To Learn Again the Old Songs
Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa's free to read the holy books?
As I continued to just stand there Mateo started to come apart again, “No … no … you must be here; we must be together again. Leah, my Leah. No … no … no …” Then he started crawling towards me.
The other man, the amputee, grabbed him and held fast. In gritty tones that were closer to what I remembered them being than Mateo’s cracked voice was Greg said, “It’s Leah all right … but maybe you ain’t noticed that she’s got a gun aimed at us.”
“Leah?” Mateo asked pathetically. “Are you still my Leah? Are you real?”
I finally found my own voice and said, “I swear, if you are an illusion ... if I’ve finally cracked … you are going to be in so much hot water.”
Greg snorted but Mateo, still obviously not completely connected to reality, crawled over and placed his head into my lap as I lowered the rifle and bent down. “I can now die in peace.”
I shook him close to having my own mental breakdown. “Don’t you dare die! Not now.” I looked over at Greg who was staring at me as if he too wasn’t sure if I were real. “Greg?”
“Yeah. It’s me. Guess we both look some different since the last time you saw us.”
A dry click was the only sound my throat would make for a moment. Then I managed to swallow and said, “More than likely rain will come again soon, the air still feels like it anyway. We need to get you two into the house but we’ll have to walk around to the back. Can you make it?”
He said, “You mean the leg? I’ve made it this far haven’t I?”
“How far is far?” I asked as a deep rumble could be heard off in the distance. Mateo twitched at the sound but Greg didn’t have a chance to answer; big, fat rain drops began to fall threatening to drench all of us. Using the spear as a crutch Greg followed me as I hurriedly led a still mentally dysfunctional Mateo around and into the lanai. He kept muttering under his breath about finally being allowed his day of judgment and that we’d be together again in Heaven.
Once we got to the patio Greg stopped for a moment until I snapped, “Please don’t start that old stuff again. It is still too cool and certainly too wet for you to sleep outside and if the pattern is what it has been the rain will be coming down so hard in a few minutes that you won’t be able to breathe.”
I got both men inside and in front of the fire where they shivered and jerked using precious energy they didn’t have to spare as their bodies tried to warm. Neither men had what looked like any body fat on them a far sight different from when they had been taken from me. Mateo panicked for a moment when I tried to step away but I told him that I had to check on the children. “Of course! Of course! They’re in Heaven too. Let them know I’m coming.”
I shook my head in shock and near tears though I was still managing. In all the ways I had ever imagined Mateo coming home or us meeting again nothing like this even came under consideration. Mateo had always been so strong. It nearly terrified me to think what he could have experienced to break him like this. I rushed to the bedroom and Nydia flew into my arms. I hugged her tightly. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to tell her that Poppy had come home but I couldn’t see how it would do her any good to see the condition he was currently in.
But in the end I couldn’t lie either. I explained the best I could but added, “Darling, Poppy is … not feeling well. He … he doesn’t even quite look like himself.”
She was not ready to believe me, “Then how do you know it’s him. It could be the boogerman dressed up like Poppy.”
“No Sweetie, I know the difference. But … but … he’s … it’s not just …” I stopped on a sigh. “Nydia, I don’t know how to explain it exactly. It is Poppy, it truly is … and the other man is his friend Greg … but they’ve both … they’ve both been through a lot. I don’t think they’ve had anyone to take care of them like we’ve been taking care of each other.”
That clicked for her I think bringing to mind the children we had met. Peering through a crack in the door and then looking back at me, “God was supposed to take care of him.”
“He did Sweets. He guided him back to us. But … but I think there were people that didn’t want him to make it and maybe he saw some terrible things. He’s … he’s fragile and not … not thinking right. Please don’t let it scare you. It is … it is just going to take time to fix him up. OK?”
And time it did take. For nearly a week both men did little more than sleep and eat. I started them on a very bland, liquid diet of watered down vegetable broth but even that was too much that first day; I should have started with a little rehydration fluid of a little sugar and salt. When they did manage to start holding down the broth I added garlic and greens to it though I strained it out before serving them. Eventually I left the bits of garlic and greens in there and once I was sure they could keep that down without any harm I started giving them soft foods by grinding cooked vegetables using the old baby food grinder I still had from when Nydia was an infant.
I cleaned them both up as far as they would let me; Greg eventually climbed into a tub of water himself but I had to take care of Mateo nearly as much as I did Neeno. The initial few days if Mateo woke and I wasn’t there he would get upset all over again though he never quite made it to the wailing stage as he had outside the gate. The first time he did this it frightened Nydia so much she almost refused to go near him again; but, once it penetrated that I hadn’t gone far or so long as he could see Nydia, he was calm or at least calm long enough to allow me to complete whatever task I was doing.
After Nydia got over her fright she decided that she had to take care of Mateo. I also caught her trying to tell him about everything that had happened while he was gone. I’m not sure how much he took in, it was mostly the sound of her voice and her animated company that seemed to captivate him. She was the one that he first allowed to try and brush his hair and when the long stuff proved stubborn he allowed her to cut out the worst tangles that looked a bit like dreadlocks. I was horrified to realize that both Mateo and Greg had fleas and more than a couple of ticks and took all of one day to rewash all of the bedding and anything they had come in contact with as well as making them both soak in a medicated bath in front of the fire. Nydia was also the one that Mateo allowed to trim his nails back so they didn’t look like ragged, dirty claws at the ends of his almost skeletal hands. She got him to wear some of his old casual clothes though they hung on him so much they looked like they came out of a charity barrel rather than out of his own closet. Greg was far less cooperative but eventually Nydia teased him into letting play nurse on him as well.
As Mateo … well improved isn’t the word I would use … as Mateo stabilized, Greg seemed to deteriorate in direct proportion. He only ate because I nagged him to. He wouldn’t let me look at his stump to see if there was infection, but if there was there wasn’t any signs that I could see … no odor, so ooze … so I decided to pick my battles. Eventually I pestered him in to sitting outside for a while each day hoping the sunshine and fresh air would wake him up. It didn’t help but it didn’t hurt either. It also gave me time to find out what had occurred after the last time we had seen each other.
“Got caught in the same net as some scavengers we were battling with when I turned my ankle; guess I wasn’t as young as I wanted to pretend to be. Was sent to a UN prison camp by the Blue Hats that caught us; stinking pigs. Literally hell on earth is the only way to describe that place; it definitely wasn’t being run by American standards. Oh there were a few that tried to do things humanely but most of ‘em were too angry about being stationed where they were to do much more than take it out on the population in the camp. Don’t even know how long I was there, days started to all run together. Was starting to lose it when the bomb was dropped. There was a quick evac of the camp – honestly surprised they thought to do anything for us since we were considered criminals and infidels for the most part – and the group I was in was marched to a civilian detention facility, this one being run by the Florida National Guard. One of the guards there turned out to be Mateo.” He sighed and shifted, obviously still in some pain. “He was still the man he used to be then, maybe even a better man as what he’d seen had hardened him, toughened him up, but it hadn’t broken him like it had some. Things started falling apart at the camp not long after the group I was with arrived. Supplies were low and then a fever of some type went through both the prisoners and the guardsmen populations. Things went from bad to worse and then they eventually shipped those of us still living way down to South Florida. It was by train and all I could think of was the Jews being taken to the death camps during WW2. I was right, it wasn’t no better down there though I don’t think it was on purpose so much as there just wasn’t a lot of anything to go around. Food was short, weather was changing, people were dying from lack of simple nutrition and basic medical care. Too many people living in too small of an area and most too scared to leave knowing that they didn’t have the skills to make it in the world without help. Then another small bomb was run ashore near the camp we were in and everybody panicked, and not just the civilians either. Mateo and I hooked up and then we ran … he’d gotten into some trouble trying to get me sprung and had been on disciplinary hold … eventually running into a military unit that let us tag along.”
I could tell he was tired so I made him drink a mug of broth and a cup of juice. He snorted but still nodded in appreciation before continuing. “What you gotta understand Leah is … Matt never quit thinking of you and Nydia … nor the baby either though I’m not sure what he felt about it. I could see him getting’ all wound up the closer you got to when it was supposed to arrive and then … he just … he just had to click it off and wouldn’t talk about that part very much. We stayed hooked up with that military unit until we got close to where that friend of yours lives … that Bea. Talk about a pistol.”
“Bea … she’s still …?”
“Alive? Yup … and then some. That girl has some vinegar going through her veins I’ll give her that. It took us a while to find them but Matt, he wouldn’t give up. He was totally convinced that you’d be there with them. Wouldn’t let himself believe anything else. Couldn’t seem to bring himself to believe anything else. When we finally got there and you weren’t there. I swear I heard something break inside him.” He finished drinking what I’d given him and then eased back against the chair cushion like he wasn’t quite used to that kind of comfort and wasn’t sure he liked it. “The only reason we ran up on ‘em is that there was this fight see … between the people already living in the swamp area and folks that were flooding the place escaping from the cities. Mateo and I both were shot when we got caught betwixt ‘em. Matt not so bad, me …” He pointed to the missing part of his leg. “Matt ran into one of Bea’s brothers and he got us out of there and took us to their place. Bea nursed us and Matt did what he could to pay ‘em back. He wanted to leave but the weather kept getting colder and Bea asked him if he wanted to die on the road or did he want to finish healing so that he could go find you. We waited as long as he could stand to but about the beginning of March he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – be put off anymore.”
I gave him some space to get his thoughts together. It wasn’t a story that could be pushed. He was staring off into space and I couldn’t tell if the story hurt him or not. Finally he nodded and continued.
“We couldn’t exactly travel fast, either one of us. Several times I told Matt to go on without me but he wouldn’t leave me. I’ll admit it would have been a death sentence; scavengers would have had my bones picked clean in a pair of seconds, and turned out it was a good thing we stuck together. We must have been the only thing moving north towards Tampa. I swear it was like swimming upstream at times. Waves of people were heading south trying to escape the cold weather. Food was scarce and what little bit we had was stolen from us more than once.”
“Stolen … by the military if you can believe that. Or at least that’s what they claimed to be. Fed us a meal and then kicked us to the curb. We took the machetes off a couple of corpses we run across. Used ‘em to make me a new crutch. It cracked and broke right before we come up to your gate which was why I was using the spear.”
“What have you been doing for two months on the road? It took you two months to walk that distance?”
“Remember I said we couldn’t travel far with my leg. We’ll we weren’t exactly eating much neither. You have any idea how good you’ve got it? I ain’t never seen nothing like them things you’ve got back here. And them things you’ve built over the trees? Those ideas come to you in a dream?”
“Out of a book. And God blessed me with the means to do what I wanted once I started working towards the goal. And He got you here as well but even with your injuries … didn’t someone give you a lift? Two injured men on the road …”
“Leah, I’m tellin’ you there ain’t too many folks around this part of Florida. And those that are around are bad off. They’ve got enough trouble keeping they’s own selves up outta the dirt much less picking up a couple of scraggly men they don’t know but might be scavengers or criminals or carrying sickness. We ran into another Guardsmen unit right around Port Charlotte and they kept trying to warn us off everything between the Gulf and Port Charlotte, Dundee, and Spring Hill … like a giant sea monster had taken a bite out of the west coast of central Florida. Kept saying anything left in that area was dead or dyin’. Matt near caved in on himself until this red-headed boy comes along and says that ain’t strictly true and starts telling this story about this woman living on her own outside of Tampa in this big ol’ house. ‘Nother one says that ain’t nothing but a tall tale to give people hope and him and the red head almost get into it until this big man comes along and tells ‘em to knock it before he knocks the two of them off. Matt then goes to talk to the red head for a little while that night and came back swearing up and down that it had to be you. I kept trying to tell him that he shouldn’t get his hopes up but you know Matt when he’s got the bit in his mouth. We had to be real careful with food and water, not that there was much of either. The way things looked and how there weren’t no people … it started to unhinge us both a bit but we were holding on. Ceptin’ when we got here and thought … well Matt just finally lost it.”
“You mean he was OK until he got here?”
“OK? Naw, neither one of us been OK for a long time but he was holdin’ it together. I swear I was sure you was a ghost when I first saw you myself. I still ain’t too sure I ain’t trippin’.”
I stood up, my compost bucket full, and told him, “Well I’m sure. You’re here and now that I’ve heard your story I want to know why you’ve come this far and suddenly given up?”
“Wha ..?!” he starts, trying to act all innocent.
I gave him look for look when he finally said, “All right. You want to know woman? I’ve lived through being at the bottom of the barrel before and I swore to myself I’d never go there again. I don’t want to go back to being that person, living that way, walking around like … well like you just never mind ‘cause you wouldn’t understand. I could say I don’t understand why you haven’t given up. Look around you. What is there left worth living for?!”
“Well ain’t you funny,” I told him reverting to my parents’ way of talking when we were home alone. “After that story you just told me? After telling me how lucky I am? And you got the nerve to say there ain’t nothin’ to livin’ for. You got rocks in yore head boy?”
I’d caught him off guard. “Yes, I’m talking to you, you irritating, contrary, stubborn … kind, generous, and faithful friend. Greg, I don’t know if Mateo would have made it this far if the two of you hadn’t had each other to lean on. But you’re here now, in a place I’m not just giving you but that you’ve purely earned. And there is food for your belly and a fire to warm you … and a child that has started to call you Uncle Greg and another that will as soon as he learns to talk. If you hadn’t helped me, taught me, looked after me in the beginning I’m not sure I would have been in a place to come as far as I have. I know you are the kind that doesn’t like the idea of owing or being owed so let’s call it a chance to simply create a partnership. You’re family as far as I’m concerned. If you can’t hack the idea of staying in one place forever at least stay long enough to heal and get your bearings. Please. Give it a try, at least for a while.” You know you can talk to some people until you are blue in the face, have the best of intentions, even love them, but if they aren’t willing they just aren’t willing. Sometimes people break in ways that you can’t see and that can’t be fixed.
The rain continued to come down off and on every day. The swamp was as deep as I had ever seen it, well above the old high water marks on the cypress trees. The ponds filled up. The canals were close to being full and water stood in odd places everywhere I went to collect wood. Mateo tried to come with me once but the utter destruction of the neighborhood – so out of sync with his memories – and getting wet in a short downpour left him so weak in mind and body that I had a difficult time getting him to wake up enough to eat his supper later in the day. I worried that if the rains continued this pattern for much longer we’d be dealing with flooding of Biblical proportions but thus far our yard stayed high and dry and the pond collected most of it and then overflowed back into the swamp. I didn’t know how long that would last and I worried about our septic drain field. I worried about my garden as well but where the covers had protected the plants from the cold before, now they protected them from simply being beat into the ground by the rain.
The beginning of the third week Mateo started coming around. He was lucid a full ninety percent of the time though he still watched us all with hungry eyes. Greg and he would talk a lot though I was never really privy to what they said. I don’t know if they were falling back into their pattern of trying to protect me from everything or if it was simply habit from their months of survival and avoidance of other people that might try and stop them or do them harm. Not that I believed they thought I would do them harm; in truth I believe that they underestimated me. Since we hadn’t really discussed how I had survived – I was not sure Mateo was ready to talk about it then – they didn’t know how strong I could be, how strong I was.
As it was they sat around all but goggling at the amount of work I did each day and kept trying to make each task easier with their suggestions. They tried to rework the chore list, reorder my schedule, and tell me I was doing things that could be let go ‘til later or not doing things that needed to be prioritized and done now. They even came outside to “help” in the garden though I hand to undo almost half of what they did. Both men were still weak, unbelievably so, but that didn’t change them from trying to take charge. They tired easily and still slept a lot but not nearly as much as the first week and as a consequence were underfoot all the more for it. I could do my chores without Mateo breaking out in a cold sweat because he didn’t have me in visual contact but that didn’t mean I could count on him not scheming to figure out some way to spend every waking moment in my company.
Eventually though he was less frantic about it, less obsessed, and his face no longer looked like a paranoid’s death mask. Finally both he and Greg submitted to letting me cut their hair and trim their beards. Nydia had cut great chunks out already and it was a challenge to do the job properly without leaving them looking like badly sheared sheep.
Then the day came that I heard a beautiful sound. Nydia was “entertaining the men” and was singing for them some songs that I had taught her all the while doing a little dance she made up. Mateo was holding Neeno watching with all of his might. It was strange, Neeno had taken to Mateo faster than Mateo was connecting with his son. I continued to give him time and my patience and it was working. Mateo was learning to believe in the reality around him and not just in the desires that he had built up in his head. Nydia was really going to town, putting her whole heart into it and when she was finished Neeno laughed out loud … really laughed, one of those baby giggles that is infectious. Then Nydia laughed at Neeno’s laugh and then the two men for whatever reason couldn’t hold back laugher of their own. Oh I was so happy. I could see Mateo healing before my eyes, not just physically but mentally.
Dinner that night was a good one. I had caught a duck – nasty, cranky thing – with an old fishing net I had found, wrung its neck, then cleaned and roasted it. It wasn’t a big duck but it was big enough that we could all get a taste and I saved all of the fat to be used later. After dinner I changed out of my regular apron all the time to protect my clothes and into the heavy plastic one that I wore to clean the kitchen with and then after I was done and as it became night time I changed back but immediately noticed that something was wrong. The LCP was gone from the apron’s pocket. I rushed into the family room but the children didn’t have it. I opened my mouth to cautiously ask Mateo if he had seen it when I noticed Greg was not in the room. At that same moment there was a loud and echoing “pop” from the backyard and I told Nydia to stay there with the baby until I said otherwise and then I flew out the back door.
It was already getting dark behind the barn and I nearly tripped over him. It was light enough however to see his face when I really looked and the bile rose immediately in my throat. I nearly screamed when a hand went across my mouth.
“Don’t look Leah. Now swallow … swallow I say. Breathe … breathe … breathe. Now can you keep it down?”
I nodded and he removed his hand from my mouth. I realized that Mateo … my Mateo, not the broken man that I had found at the gate … was back.
“Go in the house.” When I tried to turn and object he said more forcefully, “Go in the house Leah. I … I will tend to this.”
Lord help me I took the coward’s way out and scurried back to the house. Butchering and dealing with animals’ remains was one thing, dealing with … with what was left of Greg was quite another. Mateo was outside for some time. When he came back in he dropped the security door and then turned to find me rocking the children both of whom were asleep. I looked at him and he came over to lift Neeno then stopped. “I am … dirty. I will wash up while you put the children to bed.”
I was tucking them both in when Nydia woke up and said, “Did Uncle Greg go to Heaven?”
I looked helplessly at Mateo who had just returned to the room and told her, “Yes.”
Her little eyes were too old for her face as she said, “Oh.” Then she started to panic. “Poppy … Nonny … you can’t go … don’t leave me …”
“Hush,” I told her gently but firmly. “Poppy and I are right here. We’re right here Love.”
It was but a moment before she fell back to sleep. I’m not sure if it was force of habit or what but I turned and buried my face in Mateo’s chest, seeking his strength. I don’t know how but he found strength to give me. He wrapped his arms around me and we rocked each other while the embers in the fireplace died low, sharing our strength back and forth until I couldn’t tell where his began and mine ended.
“Why? I thought he was doing better? I thought …He seemed …” I shuddered unable to finish the sentence because to say it was to admit that I was wrong. So wrong in fact that Greg could get my gun and shoot himself in the head rather than to stay with us. Was I then wrong about Mateo as well? I jittered in fear at the very thought.
“Shhhh. It isn’t your fault. Greg … for lack of better words to say it with … Greg made his choice. I don’t know why so we will have to let God deal with that. I won’t let him or his memory … for all that I’d come to love him as a brother … contaminate this place, us, what we have. He knew he had a place to stay as long as he wanted. I told him and he told me you said the same thing. I learned long ago that trying to change some people’s minds is like trying to hold the wind. It was hard to see unless you knew where to look, but Greg ran scared most of his life. He had reason to for a while, he was in a very bad place and was a broken man, but once he escaped that bit of his past he seemed to put everything he had into running from something. Remember that cloak and dagger act with the conspiracy theories? And then fighting what he thought was a losing war he was too afraid not to fight in.” Mateo shook his head sadly. “We need to rest.” I wanted to object but one look at his face and I realized Mateo was nearing collapse again. We lay down together, the first time we had slept so close since he had come back.
Sometimes the why’s in life are never answered. In the days that followed Mateo slowly regained his strength. There were times when shame would almost overwhelm him due to his physical weakness and finally I put my foot down and told him that he would not ruin his health by trying to get stronger too fast.
“You are bossier than you used to be mi Corazon,” he said one evening as we sat and talked after the children fell asleep.
Upset a bit I said, “I don’t mean to be bossy. I suppose I’ve gone too long having my own way and being the only one that I could count on.” When Mateo winced I quickly told him, “That wasn’t your fault and if you’ll use sense you’d know it. Maybe I needed to go through it – some of it anyway – so that I know that I can stand on my own two feet if necessary. I’d never really had to do that before, for a while there I wasn’t sure that I could. Give me some time to get used to having you around to count on again. I’ll try and not baby you too much, I know you don’t like it, but I’m just so glad that you are home and I want you to do everything to get well, whatever that takes.”
He got a decidedly male grin on his face, something else that had been returning slowly but apparently surely, “You make me feel like anything is possible.”
“Anything?” I whispered.
After a brief hesitation he said, “Perhaps … perhaps not anything, at least not tonight. But soon Leah … soon.”
The truth of it was that I had gotten used to being my own boss and it was a little difficult … ok, more than a little … to stop being the boss. I was accountable to no one but God and myself and perhaps I had grown a bit arrogant. Mateo wasn’t a child and it wasn’t right that I talk to him like I would talk to Nydia. He was a man, I needed to treat him as one; even if he was weak, and recovering, and not quite understanding or able to appreciate all of the effort and pain and work that I’d put into keeping us alive all of these months without him.
As I went over my feelings I realized that I had a little anger in there that I hadn’t realized; perhaps more than a little. With the realization didn’t come total understanding but at least I was seeing a little more clearly. None of what I went through was Mateo’s fault, I really did believe that … do believe that. I was never a fatalist but neither was I one of those drama queens always bemoaning my life and doing nothing about it. I knew I couldn’t force Mateo to stop trying to shove me back into the same mold I had been in before. To make it work and stick – these new strengths and weaknesses that we both had – I would have to show him and get him to work in partner with me.
I started by asking him if he was feeling up to going over what I had done over the time he had been away. I told him I hadn’t wanted to bother him with it before but I’d had no adult to talk to and I trusted him to help me clear my head. I could see his reluctance and it hurt a bit but regardless of how he felt he agreed that it was time.
We talked almost through the entire night and then almost the entire next day as well. I couldn’t have done any work outside anyway because of the horrible storm we had but at the end I was as exhausted as if I had been working without break for days. Mateo was simply overwhelmed and shut down for a while. I left him sitting near the fire while the children played … Neeno had begun to pull himself up and creep from place to place holding on to things which meant putting him in Nydia’s old play yard for safety’s sake. I on the other hand had no choice but to get up and prepare a meal. I was nearly falling asleep watching the stew pot on the fire when I felt someone come sit by me. My first thought was Nydia and I jerked awake not wanting to chance her getting burned trying to help but it was Mateo.
“I am capable of doing this small thing Leah,” he said in a tone of voice that let me know he was trying to hide his hurt that I would assume he was so incompetent he could do it.
Ignoring his near petulance I said, “Sorry, I thought you were Nydia. She sometimes wants to stir the pot but I always worry she’ll burn herself.”
“I’m not Nydia.”
“No, you’re not. And if you truly don’t mind keeping an eye on it, I need to go wash my face.”
I got up and did what I needed to do and then on my way back through the kitchen I picked up the bowls and silverware and brought them with me. The stew was quickly ladled out and we ate though my appetite wasn’t good.
“You are upset,” Mateo said.
“I’m just rung out. It happens. I can go a long time unless I sit down and start worrying at it – not that we didn’t need to talk – but … it does take a lot of energy to go through it all again. I haven’t even started to show you the planting and harvesting calendar I have made up, the inventory … I don’t even know if you’ve been in the pantry and garage to look at how things stand.”
He sighed, “I saw the gator hides in the barn when I was looking for a shovel to … to deal with Greg’s remains. They didn’t register. They should have.”
I shook my head, “You had other things on your mind at the time.”
“But I do not now. I must stop burying my head in the sand. I knew that … logic told me that … Oh my Leah, mi Corazon.” He put his arms around me. “I knew that it would have been difficult for you, I simply was running from how difficult. And to see that … bah!”
“Bah is the sound that sheep make and I don’t speak sheep. What has you so upset of a sudden?”
He snorted an unwilling chuckle. “You will think me crazy but the truth is it … upsets me … to think you’ve been able to do so well without me.”
This time I snorted in a very unladylike way. “Oh please, look who is talking. Mister I was shot, got sick, and walked hundreds of miles with the only intent to get back to my wife and children. Unlike you I had food in my stomach and a roof over my head every single day. I could not have done that I don’t think.”
“Oh no, you only had our son by yourself in the middle of a nuclear disaster which you also managed to survive without my help,” Mateo said while rolling his eyes.
I couldn’t help it, I laughed. He looked at me affronted for a moment then joined in though more quietly. “Listen to us,” he said shaking his head. “But truthfully Leah, from here on out I do not want you to bear so much of it alone. I would like to look at your inventory and your pantry.”
“Not mine, ours. The inventory is the one we started together at the beginning of all of this, I just continued it. And the house was yours to begin with so don’t even go there either. Um, you do realize we still haven’t named our son?”
“What? I assumed …”
“Assumed what? Besides, you know what assuming will get you,” I answered him cheekily because I was so embarrassed. “I just couldn’t do it, not without you. Neeno is what Nydia called him in the very beginning and we’ve called him that so long that it will probably always be our pet name for him; but he really does need a proper one. I don’t want him coming to me when he is sixteen years old and turning into a man and asking me why he did doesn’t have a real name.”
Mateo sat down heavily at the table and just looked at me. The longer he looked the more upset and embarrassed I became. I started to turn away when he jumped to his feet and then he grabbed me and bent me backwards. His voice was all husky when he asked, “You … you will let me name our son? Even though I was not here?”
Not quite recovered from the sudden change in direction the conversation had taken I said, “I already told you I couldn’t bring myself to name him without you.”
He hugged me to him and kissed me and said, “Mi Corazon, mi vida …” and lots of other Spanish nonsense that Mateo tended to say to make my toes curl. He finally stopped and then looked at me and smiled. “This thing … this naming of the first born son … it is a very big deal in my family … was a big deal. As they said in that movie you like – Fiddler on the Roof – ‘Tradition!’ Not from my mother’s side but from my father’s.”
“Well …,” I said still trying to control the shivers his nonsense always caused. “Then let’s not break tradition.”
“Very well,” he grinned. After a moment, one in which I finally managed to regain my composure, he said, “Michael for my father and Benjamin for yours. Michael Benjamin Jakob. Do you like it mi Tesoro?” I showed him how well I liked it by entering it into the family Bible that had been handed down to me from my parents.
That was a turning point. We started to work together again. Mateo was at a bit of a loss trying to find his place in things but we were both trying which helped immensely. It certainly didn’t hurt that May was fantastically busy. I filled … we filled … the raised beds that I hadn’t been able to before using dirt dug from old flower beds around the neighborhood and the compost from the rotating barrels in the barn. In these we planted more beans of all types, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes, summer squash, peanuts, peppers, and squash. It was normally the time that I should have planted okra and black eyed peas as well but the weather was much too cool for them to germinate properly. It was almost like we couldn’t get out of spring. The highs during the day would sometimes get up to seventy-five degrees but the lows at night could still dip into the forties. It had to have been lifetimes since Florida had experienced such whether this late in the season.
Everyday saw us bring at least a bushel basket of fresh food in. Mateo was stunned, hardly knowing what to pick for dinner since it all looked so good, while I was just happy to be able to preserve more food for the time I knew was coming when we would be without again. Despite the largesse I had to be very careful with our food. Adding an adult male shrank the amount of time that our food would last by more than a third. I made my portion size smaller or did without but Mateo soon realized what I was doing and pitched a royal, male, very Hispanic fit. It had been so long since I’d seen how very macho he could get that I was actually rather … dare I say it … attracted. No, I wasn’t a glutton for punishment nor would I risk setting him off like that on purpose but there is something about the male of the species simply being completely and totally male that is alluring. I know some women can get it all turned around and fall into the trap of picking the wrong type of man because of this but I on the other hand had the right kind and it was nice to be reminded of it even if it wasn’t in the most pleasant of displays. Call me crazy but I found myself paying more attention to my own appearance which actually made me feel better. It didn’t hurt that when I came out of the bathroom that night with my hair done and one of my nicest bed gowns that Mateo took several tries before he could say anything.
“You’ll get cold in that … that … er …”
Giving him a smile I said, “No I won’t.”
If Mateo had the energy to throw a completely male fit I certainly had the energy to stun him by being completely female. It took a bit of work for us both to get totally comfortable with the closeness again regardless of our desires but it was … hmmm … a bit like riding a bike I guess you would say; all it took was some practice. And we certainly practiced and found it enjoyable as a husband and wife should be able to do. We were however careful of the timing. As much as I loved Neeno … and Nydia … I was in no way ready to be pregnant again and have another child. I know they say you forget the pain of childbirth as soon as you hold your baby in your arms but in my experience that was a bit of an exaggeration. I had no trouble remembering the pain though I do admit that it had all been worth it.
Despite the work I didn’t just plant vegetables around the yard. In the protection of the tree huts I planted sunflowers but then had to cover them with chicken wire when squirrels and rabbits found them. I also tried to plant some edible flowers with limited success. Begonias and Calendula did well but carnations not at all. The chrysanthemums did well since they never had to deal with the worst of the summer heat like they normally did by this time. The clover I planted in the neighboring yards spread faster than I expected, probably because the sand stayed a little damp since we were still getting regular rains. Daylilies and Sorrel did very well but the daylily buds also attracted other animals that tended to bend them over and ruin just as many as I harvested. The Hibiscus, even with me covering it with a pod to keep the cold temperatures from hurting it, didn’t look like it was going to bloom this year as it is more of a tropical. Common old geraniums did well and even grew in pots in the house but my roses suffered from black spot because of all of the dampness.
The herbs and such were doing well and I had no trouble seasoning our foods or making teas. The coffee had long ago run out and Mateo said he did not miss it. As thin as he still was I was glad I didn’t have to worry about his body trying to metabolize that much caffeine. My window box of violets brought color into the house but it didn’t look like I would be getting any yucca this year. Mateo loved the stuff and I had learned to cook it especially for him; it made me sad to wonder what else we would have to give up if the weather never went back to what it was before.
One of the best things that happened that month and which caused me to jump around and giggle like a giddy child when I noticed was that the blackberries were blooming; they should have bloomed back in March but they never did. They were blooming two months late so I began to wonder if perhaps they would also bare fruit two months late and I noted it in my calendar with hope. My mother had made a tonic from blackberry juice and I was constantly on the watch for anything that I thought might be good to continue Mateo’s healing and keep Nydia spritely.
I could have used the spritely as well. It was a lot of work keeping up with the garden, the house, the children, and Mateo. Mateo helped of course but he was still learning and was still not at full strength. The one load that Mateo did remove from my shoulders was the search for wood and cutting the bigger pieces. Though he was weaker than he used to be before he was taken away he was still taller with a longer reach and the big axe certainly worked better in his hands than in mine. Taking this one task one gave me more time in the garden, time I sorely needed. Nydia would go with Mateo when he took the wagon and showed him the different places that we usually went, the trees that dropped their limbs most often, and the trees to avoid because they were the ones that made bad smoke. Mateo was stunned at how much she knew.
“Sometimes I worry that I’m pushing her too hard,” I told him, a little ashamed at how hard his little princess worked.
“Don’t. Worry I mean. My mother told me stories of when she was a child. Her parents and grandparents were products of the Great Depression. The things she told me that she had heard … children younger than Nydia acting as delivery boys along the store roads, acting as dishwashers in family restaurants, cleaning hotel rooms, helping in the laundries for the wealthier people … they survived and so will Nydia. She was spoiled … we both had a hand in it … at least this way she has some skills to get her through life if this … this … situation remains as it is for decades to come.”
There, it was finally on the table. The realization that our future may never hold more than what it was holding at that moment; work, the daily struggle for survival, the fact that we hadn’t seen a soul since Mateo arrived.
“I would have thought that Capt. Tag would have been back by now,” I muttered.
“You said that she did not promise,” Mateo reminded me.
“No, she didn’t promise. She even said she didn’t know if or when but still, it just seems strange. She was my contact, such as it was, to the outside world. The radio doesn’t bring anything but static any more. I don’t know if it is because it was damaged or if there is simply no one out there transmitting.”
“There are others out there Leah,” he told me. “It simply does not have much range. You must remember this area is quarantined, off limits. I think the military let’s people believe it is because of radiation which creates a scare that keeps them away but in truth there is no radiation, at least not around here. It would just be too hard to manage people so they say ‘if you go there you are on your own and you are triaged from receiving any help.’ It is probably that more than the threat of radiation that has people avoiding the area.”
“Mmmm. Maybe. I …” I never did finish my sentence. I was pulling a branch out of a tree when it came crashing right at my face.