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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”