Saturday, June 11, 2011

Part 23: As You Sow

Part 23: As You Sow

The weather was changing
Cold and sleet were ahead,
The farmers were working very hard
To secure the crops in the old metal shed.
-J. Reed


“You’re WHAT?!”

I had already been worried about his reaction and his response definitely put me on my guard. I wanted to remind him that it takes two. I wanted him, no needed whether it was realistic or not, for him to play hero and tell me that everything would be all right, to alleviate my fears and say it wouldn’t be like last time. I wanted him to at least pretend to look delightfully surprised rather than horrified and upset. Instead I swallowed the words and the tears and calmly walked out of the house and then after seeing that the kids were swarming in the garden like locusts, including Nydia and Neeno who were happily following Lena’s directions, thus realizing that I’d get no quiet or privacy there I walked around the house and over to the old Trask place.

I had to push through the heavy overgrowth but I eventually got back to the workshop where I had found so much that had proven useful and helped me to save Nydia and I when we were most vulnerable. I’m sure there is a sound psychological reason why I chose that particular place as my destination but at the time why didn’t matter, nor does it today, it was simply a destination to reach. Then out of the blue it finally hit me as hard as it had been threatening to. I barely held on to the building while I puked up what little I had in my stomach and then just continued to heave.

It seemed that my whole body was turning inside out and that I couldn’t draw a breath that wasn’t immediately coughed up. I would have fallen to the ground if I hadn’t discovered familiar arms holding me up. Even after I had stopped throwing up the world continued to spin. When it stopped I found that I was sitting on the floor of the old workshop with my head between my knees.

“Go away.” I know it was a cruel thing to say but it came out of my mouth anyway.

“Mi Coraz…”

“No. None of that.” I was trying to push myself up so I could put some space between us but he wasn’t cooperating.

“Leah …”

“No. Just leave me alone for a while so I can figure out what to do.”

He started to get annoyed but I wasn’t in the mood to particularly care. “Excuse me? I believe we have something to figure out. The child is mine too.”

I interrupted him with, “Too bad you couldn’t seem to remember that a few minutes ago instead of acting like I was admitting to some heinous crime.”

The calming breath he drew in was intentionally noisy and afterwards I could literally hear him grinding the enamel off of his teeth. “Very well. I could have handled it better. But it was a shock and you don’t understand what this means to me.”

I could have clunked him in the head right then and there with absolutely no guilt whatsoever. I turned to him and gave him a look that should have removed the skin from every square inch of his body and he got very still. He knew right away that his mouth had dug him a hole and that I was feeling inclined to make it his grave.

The adrenaline rush from my anger suddenly made me nauseous again so with a swift – and not particularly kind – elbow to his midsection I got loose and then made a beeline for the bushes for a repeat performance. Bushes was a misnomer, the whole blasted yard was basically a forest of small trees and tall weeds.

I sensed him behind me but when he went to help I put my hand out to hold him off. Between heaves I told him, “I did this by myself before.” Heave. Breathe. Gag. Heave. “I’ll do it this time too.” Gag. Breathe. “You don’t need to ...” Heave. Heave. Gag. “… worry about a thing.” Heave. Gag. Breathe.

Quietly and a little too calmly, like he was dealing with a deranged person, he responded, “That’s not what I meant.”

“Yes,” I breathed, holding my sore stomach muscled. “Yes, it is.”

“No. Certainly not like you are taking it at any rate,” he denied.

“Well, whatever. Like I said, I managed by myself before, at least this time I’ll know what I’m in for.”

I was finally able to stand up straight. I turned to go back to the house to wash my face and get back to work. I couldn’t imagine at that point what else there was to say. It was worse than the worst-case scenario that I had imagined. I was shutting down my emotions just so I could do what had to be done. Except when I tried to leave Mateo wouldn’t let me. “We are talking about this.”

“I have work to do,” I responded with as little emotion in my voice as I could manage.

“No you don’t.” At my look he retraced and said, “Not any that cannot wait. Besides you are still shaking.”

“Mateo …” I started warningly. I felt cornered. In my mind he’d already made his feelings clear and all I wanted was to be left alone to deal with what I saw as my reality.

“Leah, this is nonnegotiable. Now sit.” Mateo was getting a little testy too. I gave him a look that asked him where in a way that told him I was short on patience as well so he pointed to the floor we had been sitting on a few minutes before. As I sat, knowing he was right even if I didn’t want it to be right then, he asked me, “How long have you known?”

“For sure? This morning when the smell of the frying tortillas almost made me sick when I normally love the smell.”

“But you’ve suspected before now?” At my nod he asked, “For how long?”

“A couple of weeks. After the false alarm where we decided we wanted to … to … wait … I just didn’t want to worry you.”

“So you kept it to yourself.”

“Yes.” What was I supposed to do? Lie? Explain I had kept it to myself because Mateo had made it pretty clear that he didn’t consider another child in our best interest? He had the whole thing all planned out and we both counted days like religion.

“How could this have happened?” It was a rhetorical question but I looked at him like the answer was obvious. He had the grace to look sheepish. He sighed and shook his head, “You know what I mean. We were very careful.”

“Tell you what, why don’t you take that up with God and then get back to me with His answer. It’s not like He can’t know how little you want another child.”

“I never said I never wanted another child Leah.” His reply was stiff with indignation.

“Geez Mateo, you couldn’t have made it any plainer. You can’t tell me you weren’t relieved every time I put that red X on the calendar. I saw your face.”

“It isn’t a matter of wanting another child Leah, I didn’t want another child now.”

I knew it, I’d even said it, but hearing the words still hurt. I refused to let him see how bad they hurt. “Then don’t. I told you …”

“Not that again. You know I wanted to be with you while you were pregnant with our son.”

I wanted revenge, wanted him to hurt too, but not badly to actually act on the impulse so I quietly admitted, “I know.” Then I shook my head trying to stave off my conscience pushing me to be more conciliatory. “But you weren’t. That was my reality then. And I’ll deal with this reality now just like I’ve dealt with everything else life has thrown at me.”

I stood up and wrapping my pride around me walked to the door. I didn’t make it two steps.

“Leah, we aren’t through.”

I shook my head sadly, “Maybe not, but we are through for right now. I’ve had all I can take and I need to get back to Neeno and Nydia.”

I brushed passed him and didn’t give him any choice but to let me go. I went back to the house and saw to my children and then got started, albeit late, on my gardening chores. I thought I was doing a good job keeping my problems private but Annie sidled over to me as I was pulling several small hornworms off the pepper plants and said, “I didn’t think you and him ever fought.”

I looked at her and had the grace to feel bad realizing that whether we wanted to or not, we now had more accountability for our actions or lack there of. “We don’t, not often anyway.”

“Must be a pretty big deal.”

I shook my head. “Annie, if you want to know if it is about your family in some way just ask.”

“Well … is it?”

“No.”

“But it’s a big deal.”

Stopping for a moment, uncomfortable sharing such personal information, I nevertheless was honest. “Yes. We usually have more sense than to argue about stuff that doesn’t mean anything.”

She nodded and that was that. I continued to work, made lunch though I had no appetite, and then went and worked some more. Luckily for me Lena had volunteered to cook dinner. Throughout the meal I listened to everyone speak about their day, answered where appropriate, and pushed the food around on my plate before feeding it to the children as surreptitiously as possible. Lena hustled the kids off as soon as dinner was cleaned up and I took Nydia and Neeno into the house to bathe them and tuck them up.

“I’ll do it,” Mateo said.

I just wasn’t in the mood to appear like I was pouting so I kissed the children goodnight and then went to take care of my own ablutions. I only meant to sit down at the table long enough to plan out the next day and instead groggily opened my eyes sometime later as I felt a hand gently shaking my shoulder.

“Great. Drool on my notes,” I said irritated at myself while wiping away both spit and ink transfer from the side of my face.

“They’ll dry.” I turned to look and saw Mateo with a small smile on his face. The smile died a quick death and then he sighed. “Our rule is we are never to go to bed angry at each other.”

I shrugged. “I’m not angry, not anymore.” And I wasn’t. I wasn’t too much of anything. I’d been on overload and had, subconsciously or not, decided to compartmentalize my emotions off for a while. I got up, organized my papers neatly, put them where they belonged and turned to leave.

“Leah …,” Mateo said quietly. He shook his head, more at himself than at me and then dropped the hand he had been reaching out. “Leah we need to talk about this.”

“I realize that,” I told him. “And if you want to talk about the logistics fine; as you say it needs to be done. But I see another part of the equation as well and right now I’m not sure that I can handle any … any more regrets,” I finished lamely not knowing how to tell him that the way he had reacted had hurt worse than I would ever willingly admit. I wouldn’t be a hypocrite and demand honesty and transparency from him then tell him there were exceptions to the rule. At the same time I no longer felt in a place where I could be honest and transparent with him. I wouldn’t lie, but I decided to keep my emotions to myself to avoid any more pain for a while.

So we spent the next two grueling hours plotting a calendar and adding and subtracting plans to those we’d already had. He asked more questions about “the birth” than he ever had before; so many in fact that I finally stood up and took my “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Book” and a couple of the other even more graphic ones off the shelf and tossed them in his lap. “My notes are in a folder in one of my dresser drawers but you’ll need to read them some other time.”

“Why?” he asked, mildly irritated when I didn’t make a move to add them to the stack in his lap.

“Because the lamp is running low and it is getting too hard to see. I’m going to bed, I’ve got a full day of canning tomorrow and so do you.”

“Leah …”

I stopped and turned to him. “What?”

He looked at a loss for words then he shrugged, “We still need to talk.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing. I’ll go through Neeno’s and Nydia’s old things in a few weeks after we finish this next round of harvesting and preserving. There’s months to go yet … almost seven … and ….”

“That’s all well and good but we need to talk about the other.”

I shook my head. “No, we don’t. For one I’m too tired to do it properly if there is such a thing and two, quite frankly I don’t want to. I’ve got my emotions under control and that is where they are going to stay. We are working on the things that you are concerned about … resources, work hours, and such … and that is going to have to be enough.” And kicking myself for the crack in my defenses I nevertheless added, “At least for now.”

In times past we might have lain there tossing and turning and perhaps eventually turning to each other for comfort and making up. But no longer. To be blunt we were both just exhausted, staying up those extra two hours used up much of our reserve energy. Gone were the days of luxury when we could stay up late and sleep in the next day. Every scrap we put in our mouths came from some type of work we had to do ourselves. Every stitch on our body required meticulous care so that they would stay on our body. Every drop of water we used had to be processed in some way by us, how much work there was involved in the processing depended on its ultimate use. Cleaning, cooking, sewing, pumping, hauling, hunting, building, gardening … you had to do work before you could start your work and stopping your work and putting it away was also work. We went to bed, we went to sleep, and we got up; we were barely rested but could function.

There was no time to ruminate on the might have been’s. There was no time for my bad habit of wishing. There was even less time when Mateo, Roy, and Robert came back with something besides the alligator Lena, Annie, and I had been expecting.

Robert, usually more quiet than the other boys, came running into the yard doing some weird tribal-looking dance and saying, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah … we did it.”

Roy came staggering into the yard with a pole on his shoulder that was the other end of the one that Mateo was carrying. “What do you mean ‘we’ meat head? I don’t see you helping to carry this thing.”

All I could do was stand there and stare. They had a carcass that was generally deer-shaped but was still noticeably different; and to my knowledge deer do not have long, spiral horns. They also aren’t generally as big as this thing was; even field-dressed it looked huge and heavy.

I just stood back wondering why the alien thing still managed to look familiar while the kids and Lena asked all the questions. Roy and Robert were proudly answering them which allowed Mateo to walk around to me. “It’s a kudu. Escaped from Busch Gardens or Lowry Park Zoo would be my guess.”

After a moment it clicked. “We saw them when we took Nydia. The zoo person was saying something about the horn being used as a shofar by some Jewish populations.”

He nodded, “Yes. And they’re edible. Remember how the man beside us was irritating the zookeeper by making a big deal about the different hunting safaris he had been on?”

“Big guy? Read headed and red faced with a really loud voice? Three obnoxious teens in tow that seemed to trip every few steps over those ridiculously low riding jeans they were wearing?”

“That’s the one.” We both smiled at the common memory without thinking about it and something inside me loosened just a bit.

“As I recall he claimed they tasted like venison, only wilder,” I said pondering exactly how we were supposed to deal with the carcass. “Where did you find it?”

“It and a couple of other young males were grazing that field that used to be Nye Park.”

Startled I asked, “You went that far? I thought you were only going to the retention pond at the other end of the canal?”

He stepped close and with a glint in his eyes whispered, “Worried for me?”

I rolled my eyes and just shook my head. Why is it a good hunting expedition does that to men? It gets their testosterone all riled up. On the other hand it was kind of funny and the knot inside me loosened just a little bit more. Until I heard Robert fuss, “Hey! I carried the crabs! See! Look!” and he opened the flap of his back pack and showed me a large plastic container with holes punched in the top and inside the container was some water and lots of scuttling blue crabs. The problem was there was a distinct fishy odor wafting up out of the container that I hadn’t been prepared for. That’s all it took.

I covered my mouth, turned and ran for the barn. Only problem was when I got there the ripe smell from the hog pen made it all so much worse and all I could do gag and stumble away. It seemed to go on forever. Every time I thought I had it under control I’d take a breath and the smell would hit me again. All I could do was go with it. Morning sickness hadn’t been that bad with Neeno, but then again I hadn’t been dealing with animals then either.

I can’t even really remember how I made it into the house. The next thing I do remember for sure was waking up from a fitful doze to a darkened room with a cool cloth on my forehead. I groaned involuntarily because of my sore stomach muscles and someone rushed out of the room. Next thing was brisk food steps and a kind but firm voice telling me to sip some fragrant ginger tea that was being put into my hands.

I shudder and Lena told me, “You’ll drink this or I’ll know why. Why on earth you haven’t said something before now instead of …”

“I wasn’t sure until yesterday,” I interrupted understanding she meant that she knew about the pregnancy.

“Hmmmm. Well, that explains why Mateo looked like a house had fallen on him all day long. Now listen to Leah, you may have been forced to lone wolf the first time with your little boy but there is no need for that this time. Now drink up. Dehydration only makes the nausea worse.”

It turns out that even after her husband retired Lena continued to volunteer at the clinic he helped to establish, especially in the midwifery area. “I was not a midwife but I was often called on to assist, especially if there was a language barrier. I even helped deliver a couple of babies while we were at the camp … and helped with a couple of miscarriages. Stress, starvation, violence, and dehydration are the enemies Leah. Things had not yet turned completely upside down when you were in your initial trimester or so your first pregnancy. But things have changed. You are going to have to make more of an effort to keep your calories and nutrition up. You weigh less than the first time around as well, am I right?”

We talked for a little while and when she caught me glancing toward the door through my lashes she said, “Mateo and the boys are processing the meat. Your man is bound to get it all cut so that you don’t have to look at it.”

I shook my head at that foolishness. “I still have to preserve it.”

She laughed good naturedly. “You know that. I know that. Mateo is just avoiding that knowledge until he has to admit defeat. Such are the ways of men. They want to protect us but rarely are they able to as much as they would like.” We both looked at each other and knew the truth of what she said. She continued, “Annie has a good head on her shoulders. Her other grandfather was a cook and sometimes picked up work as a carnicero – a butcher - and he taught her how to cut meat correctly. I’ve seen her do amazing things even with the cheapest and fattiest cuts of meat.”

“Annie?” I asked, surprised.

Lena tried to hold back a laugh, “Yes, I know. She is such a mixture of little girl and old woman. Now are you sure you feel like getting up?”

I was sure and I was even surer that I was not going to be any more embarrassed than I already was by what happened. She handed me a toasted tortilla which I nibbled as we walked through the house towards the lanai. I finally thought to ask, “Where on earth did those crabs come from?”

“Your husband is quite the businessman. He bartered them from a group in trade for helping them to dress and load another of the large beasties into the back of their truck. I’m boiling the crabs now; they wouldn’t have survived the night. We’ll eat crab tonight and can the rest along with the … the kudu meat. Oh my,” she chuckled. “I just can’t get used to saying that.”

I agreed with her then girded my stomach to face the butchering. Luckily for me the hanging, draining, and cleaning out of the cavity were done. The smell in the yard wasn’t bad so long as I stayed away from the crab pot.

Mateo saw me and then stopped himself from rushing over when he realized he was splattered with bits of kudu. I walked closer but at an angle so I could judge if I was going to hurl again but it seemed the ginger tea had done the job. “That animal is huge; maybe not as big as Lena’s cows but certainly close. Even field dressed I can’t believe you and Roy carried it all the way back from Nye.”

“We didn’t. Did Lena tell you about the others we ran into?”

“Some but not much.”

He nodded. “There isn’t really that much to tell. A man and his two sons had gone to the coast for supplies and finding none they decided to go crabbing … blue crabs are in season. We crossed paths and gave each other a little mutual aid.”

“They had fuel to run a truck?” I asked surprised.

“Methane … they collect the droppings of all the wild ducks that hang out near the river. Apparently there are quite a good number of them. Toss the droppings into something called a digester and out comes a fuel.”

“Sounds like a smelly proposition,” I was forced to grin.

“Couldn’t tell, the crabs blocked the smell of anything else. They’d lined their whole truck bed with a water proof tarp and it was like an aquarium with way more crabs than I’d want to fool with. They must have a lot of people in their group.”

Concerned I asked, “Did they say exactly where they were living?”

He shook his head in the negative. “No, they were friendly but cautious. I’m guessing it can’t be too far from the river, the boys mentioned fishing almost every day. If I had to guess I’d say Zephyrhills or perhaps closer along the Hillsborough River. They said they still had a ways to go when they took off. They were kind enough to go out of their way and drop us as close to home as they could without getting off of the highway.”

“Mateo?” I asked, looking around to see if anyone was watching or eavesdropping.

“Hmm?” he asked as he concentrated on sharpening the butcher knife he was holding.

“I’m … I’m sorry.”

Surprised, he stopped what he was doing and looked up chagrined. “I was supposed to say it first. I would have tonight. I …” He stopped and didn’t look like he quite knew what to add.

“Forget it. I just don’t want to fight. I guess I’m just hormonal.”

He quirked an eyebrow and said, “Unfortunately I cannot use that as an excuse.” He looked around uncomfortably and then said, “I’ll say more tonight after the children are in bed. Suffice it to say however, I realize I could have handled things better.”

Mateo was a private person and I could tell he was uncomfortable with the idea of being overheard so I let it go. I also let it go because it was time for me to take a hand in things; as good as Annie was there was simply too much for her to do alone.

Roy, Robert, and Ray helped Mateo. I sent Ricky who was about give out trying to keep up with his older brothers inside for a book on animals of the Serengeti that I had left over from my teaching days. When he got back I asked him to read about Kudus to the younger children and to let me know if anything popped out at him about the animal that we should now.

Annie, Lena, and I took the carcass and started to cut the meat and process it. I wish it had been cooler but beggars can’t be choosers. The hide wasn’t our primary concern and we likely would have horrified a real hunter but it couldn’t be helped. We were learning as we went. First came the backstraps. As soon as Annie got those off we coiled them up and stuck them in a container to decide what to do with later. The backstraps from the kudu were much larger than the ones my father every got from venison. Backstraps are like filet mignon and to be honest, even with my stomach disobeying me I wanted some red meat so bad my eyes watered.

Next came the hindquarters. After that the forequarters. As Annie cut … and how she was doing all of this with just a four-inch blade amazed me … she had two bowls beside her. She would give Lena and I the larger cuts and in one bowl she would put all the bits and pieces that she cleaned off around the cuts she made. In the other bowl she put all the bits and pieces that weren’t fit for human consumption and we soon had those on the smoker for Genty’s consumption.

The neck meat was cut away and I sliced it thinly to be marinated and then dried for jerky. After both sides were cut the tenderloins came out. We stopped at this point and re-sanitized everything. A little powdered pool shock in water created a bleach solution that we used to scrub down all of the surfaces again. We also told Mateo and the boys to take the hide and do with it what they desired. Getting the remainder of the carcass out from underfoot meant there was less chance for hair or other debris to get on the meat.

We pulled off all of the silver fat. I knew from experience venison fat didn’t render down well and would actually spoil the meat if you gave it a chance. The kudu was just as lean in that respect as a deer but there was still some fat that had to be cut away.

Most of the meat we cut into stewing pieces and immediately started canning using the raw pack method. It was a good thing I had stored so much salt and that I’d gotten more from Tag’s shipments; we used quite a bit of it. What we would do if we ever run out deserves some serious consideration. I can flavor with herbs but preserving requires the real thing.

After Annie finished with the kudu and cleaned up from the messy task of butchering she moved over to the crabs. She called Ren and the girls to help and she started removing all of the meat from the shells.

Lena said, “Let us can the crab meat – Mateo says you know how – and instead grill these backstraps and loins. I know it is a lot of meat but you and the children need it. We can chop and use the leftovers tomorrow.” I nodded without answering. The smell of the crabs was wafting my way and I had to concentrate and breathe through my mouth. Ricky was given the task of setting the BBQ grill to heat using some of the seasoned hardwood chunks that we keep for that purpose.

Even as the day cooled towards evening those of us that were working sweated through our clothing. We had large kettles going that were filled with soups, stews, chilis, and ground meat that was browning. In turn, as one load would come out of the pressure canner we would fill new jars with whatever was ready – or another load of raw packed meat – and set it to heating and sealing. I used a great many standard canning seals but I thanked God that I chose to give in to the temptation and buy all of those Tattler reusable canning seals and rubber gaskets, treated well it would be at least twenty years before I would be without a means of canning our food.

The only time Annie and I sat down was when the meat came off the grill and even then we took turns stirring what was still cooking to keep it from scorching on the bottom. My respect for the prickly girl increased immeasurably that day. Her strengths outshone her weaknesses and it was more than apparent that the stories of how much she had done and been responsible for had been understated even by Lena.

The meal was a memorable one – kudu mignon seasoned with just olive oil and salt and pepper; baked yucca fries; sweetened fried plantains; and omnipresent rice and beans. Lena had already taught Mateo and the boys how to make guaro, it wasn’t that big a leap for them to make cervesa. It irritated me a little that the liquor was being brought into our home but then again, Mateo had imbibed on occasion before we were married. I had managed to turn it to good use and I hoped it stayed that way. I used the cervesa … beer for us common folk … by making Beer Bread. I like sourdough as much as the next person and possibly more but you can get tired of anything and the Beer Bread was a pleasant change.

There isn’t any other bread that is so easy to make. You take an amount of beer equal to one can and mix it in the equivalent of three cups of self-rising flour. Once mixed you put it in a loaf pan and then baked it. I suppose the “beer” was more like a mead but it approximated the same effect.

As darkness crept in we lit tiki torch type things but my goodness the tar was pungent and we had to keep all the food covered. Mateo and the older boys also helped to feed a bonfire that lit our work area and knocked the chill down to a comfortable level. Lena was eventually convinced to take the youngest and go back to her house so that the children wouldn’t be horrible the next day. Mateo took ours and put them to bed at the same time. Roy refused to go and Robert had to do everything that Roy did so they helped with wood and then sat with Mateo discussing manly things unless Annie and I needed them to heft some object or other.

Finally about three in the morning we toe’d them awake where they had eventually collapsed and had them help us to carry the final load of filled and cooled jars into the house. I told Annie we’d divide things up the next day and surprisingly she said between yawns, “Leah, it might be better if we keep everything over here for a while. I love my brothers but they’re pigs when they’re hungry … and they’re always hungry. And this way we’ll be able to inventory it better too.” Hidden beneath that prickliness was a good helping of commonsense.

By the time I drug Mateo to bed he was so tired he slurred and using what was for him bad grammar. “We was supposed to talked tonight.” Despite myself I bit the inside of my check trying not to smile. I threw an old blanket over the bed to keep our dirty bodies from soiling the clean sheets. We were both asleep before I heads hit our pillows.

The morning sickness showed no mercy the next morning. It acted as my alarm clock which was what I went through for the next two months on a daily basis. Some days were worse than others but it never left me completely until just recently.

As the weeks went by we became friends with the man and his sons from the river group. His name was Mitchel McGee or “Mac” for short and the boys were Billy and Bobby but I could barely tell them apart they looked so much alike. The friendship was beneficial to both our groups. We traded some seed for more crabs in October. And it worked out that they had sows but no boar and we had cows but no bull; you can imagine what that trade delivered. We traded news of the outside world gleaned from our radio for news they collected along the river from various other groups. They offered wild rice they’d gathered from the river tributaries in exchange from some divisions from my herb garden. When the weather cooled even further and they began shutting down their bee hives for the season we offered cane syrup for a share of honey. Lena traded some freshly hatched chicks for several freshly hatched turkey chicks.

And then came the day that Mac asked Mateo if he would come with a couple of the boys and help his group hunt the nutria out of their bend of the river.

“I’m telling you those things are grazing the water ways to death. Now my brother Hank worked the river up in Lou-sianna and says that nutrias make good eating. He’ll get one every onct in a while and eat it but I’ve never been inclined ‘cause of the work involved in catching ‘em. But the damage they’re doing is gotta stop. And frankly I’m all for a benefit coming from the work we’ll have to put into it. ‘Sides, I’d like you to meet everyone else in case we have to send someone else out if I’m laid up for some reason.”

It was decided that Mateo would take Roy and Robert and start walking three days later to meet up with them closer to the old USF campus. Neither Lena nor I was completely comfortable with it but neither one of us could come up with a good enough reason for them not to go when it could mean so many good things later on. I was tense on the day they left, it would be at least two before they returned, so I set myself as much work as I could manage.

First off Lena and I agreed it was the perfect time to turn both houses out for a good fall cleaning. When I got tired of the houses I’d go into the garden and plant such cool weather crops as beets, broccoli, cabbages, salsify, turnips, burdock, lettuces, carrots, onions, and English peas. The younger kids were out of sorts with Mateo and the boys gone and I didn’t blame them, but I wouldn’t put up with them acting out either. They worked right alongside of us and make no mistake, they earned their bread and jam they had at break time.

By the third day my nerves were just about spent and so was I. By the fourth I was ready to bust. We had accomplished a lot of good but I wanted Mateo and the boys home where they belonged and worried at the fact they were gone longer than their worst case scenario of three days. Shortly after we’d finished and cleaned up from lunch Genty put up a fuss and sure enough, down the road came Mac’s big truck. Mateo was home but it wasn’t all good news that he brought.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Part 22: If Wishes Were Horses

Part 22: If Wishes Were Horses

Hunger has no law; it’s just hungry.
- Honduran proverb


It has been a while since I put pen to paper. Looking back I know I’ve written those words more than once but it is as true now as it was the first time or two I wrote them. I could wish for more time but it is a commodity in short supply and it isn’t the only one. We have all been so incredibly busy. I just finished taking another pot of hot ginger and honey tea out to Mateo and Roy. Mateo told me to go to bed but I worry about them out there on a night like tonight as much as he now worries about me. The nights are so much cooler than they should be but we’ve learned to deal with it except tonight, my one reason for having the extra time since I’m prevented from doing any kind of outdoor work, an icy drizzle has been added to the misery and it is only mid-November for goodness sake.

It should have been Roy and Robert on guard duty this evening but Robert’s leg isn’t up to all of the walking yet and the last thing the boy needs is to catch a chill. A dunking in a cold, wet puddle is the last thing he needs. I wish … but I’m getting ahead of myself. I always seem to be running ahead of myself and wishing for things to either hurry up or slow down or … there I go again.

It has been both easier and harder than I expected to integrate Lena and the children into our lives. There was definitely a learning curve involved for all of us but overall things could have gone much worse. My worry over adding all of the extra mouths was justified but we’ve managed to work things out and ration the “exotic” supplies we can reproduce. That doesn’t mean we can be complacent; far from it. But the physical logistics have actually been easier to manage - despite their urgency and threat - than the emotional and mental ones were at first.

After about a week with the kids I began to feel like I was losing something in the translation. There was no one thing that I could put a definitive finger on and eventually I realized it wasn’t the children at all. It took me a while but I finally realized that it was Lena and she was trying to guide the children into accepting Mateo and I as parental figures as she took less and less of a role in their daily lives. It was the children reacting to this subliminal message that had been causing the problems.

“Lena, just please tell me why. This really … forgive me but this makes no sense to me,” I said when finally feeling forced to confront her over the issue. I didn’t want to get into an argument with her but it was beginning to have an adverse affect on the children’s behavior whether they understood what was going on or not.

Smiling almost beatifically, like some saint of old, she said, “Leah, I’m an old woman. We both know how fragile life is. I don’t have much time left on this earth. Annie and Roy, regardless of what they believe, are too young to hold this family together without some help. I see you and Mateo as their best hope. You have far exceeded my prayers.”

Stunned at having my suspicions confirmed it took me a moment to form an acceptable reply that was at the same time polite. “So, you’re just going to give up the ghost and leave them to their own devices … after all that those kids have already lost you’re … you … I don’t even know what to call it. No one can just come along and fill your shoes Lena. Mateo and I are little more than strangers to them. Don’t do this to them … please.”

She was adamant that she was doing what was right. I was just as adamant that giving up was far from the right thing to do. Neither one of us budged. I was very tempted to make a scene but I controlled myself which is probably one of the more difficult things I have ever done. I was already tired, under stress, and worried – as everyone was but I was also dealing with something more personal and unplanned. What I didn’t know was that Roy had overheard us and then run to Annie who then caught up with me as I was in the middle of trying to find Mateo so I had someone to vent to.

Annie was not happy. “Is it true?” she demanded.

“Annie, not … look I’m … I need to talk to Mateo and …”

“Is … it … true?” she demanded once again.

I was pretty upset and wasn’t paying enough attention. I huffed and asked, “Is what true?”

She grabbed my arm; she was a couple of inches taller than me so the move could have been mistaken as aggressive though she was just trying to get my full attention. “Roy said that Abuela thinks she is dying and she is trying to talk you and Mateo into … into …”

A bright bulb flashed on in my head and I tried to pull myself together enough to address the upset young woman in front of me. “Annie, I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what your grandmother thinks she is accomplishing. You kids need her. I mean I understand that she is … is afraid but how she is going about it … I’m … I’m not …”

Annie registered that I was nearly as upset as she was but she took it for the wrong reason. In a hoarse and emotion-filled voice she said, “You don’t have to worry. You aren’t going to get saddled with us.”

I’ve got a temper of my own and I’d used up just about all my quota of patience. “Annie, will you just for once give me some credit?! This has nothing to do with worrying about being ‘saddled’ with you and your siblings and everything to do with me trying not to be furious at your grandmother. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing or not but to me what she is talking about is … is abandoning you, tantamount almost to suicide. Haven’t you kids suffered enough? Losing her, now, when you’ve finally got someplace stable and relatively safe to try and recoup and regroup …. Look, I know she is your grandmother and I’m trying very hard to … to be respectful for your sake … but this is just about beyond my ability to be polite about.”

I stood there breathing harder than I had any reason to need to, staring at Annie so hard, willing her to understand that I was upset for them and not at them. When she all but threw herself into my arms I nearly pitched backwards in surprise and alarm. “Annie? Honey?”

“I thought I was the only one that saw it. I thought I was the only one that … that … cared.”

Poor kid. I hadn’t given her enough credit. Getting wrapped up in my own feelings I had forgotten hers. She was old enough that she probably had seen what was going on and her grandmother had probably even been dropping broad hints. I saw Roy standing in the tall grass looking shocked, whether at what he’d heard his grandmother say or at Annie’s sudden folding I never did find out. I called him over and he helped me get his very shook up sister over to one of the many benches I’d placed around our property.

Trying to address emotional teenagers wasn’t new to me but it had been a while and never over a subject quite so touchy and potentially volatile. “Roy, Annie … your grandmother only wants what’s best for you and you both know that. I think however we need to forgive her for the way she is going about it. The whole lot of you have a home here for as long as you want one so don’t worry about that part of it – Mateo and I gave you our word and we stick to our word – but we need to figure out some way to keep your grandmother engaged in what is going on around here, not let her disengage and fade away, even if it is by choice. I’m to the point I wouldn’t even mind if that meant guilting her into it even though that isn’t a good long term solution.”

Roy caught on before Annie did. “She likes the goats. At dinner you’ve said that you keep meaning to try stuff with the goat milk but you’re afraid of wasting it on experiments. I heard her say a couple of times it isn’t as hard as you are making it out to be and you shouldn’t be so scared to try. Maybe we could … you know … get her to like be a teacher or something. She could teach you, Annie, and Nydia; and Sylvie might like it too since she’s trying to learn to do everything that Nydia already knows how to do.”

I sighed in relief and no small amount of gratitude and told him, “Roy, that’s exactly what I mean and that’s a really good idea. Annie, what do you think?”

She rubbed her eyes and said, “I think Abuela will figure out what we are trying to do before we even try and do it.”

She had a point but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. “Perhaps,” I agreed. “But we can’t just sit around doing nothing.”

And we didn’t. It took a couple of tries but we eventually did get Lena to cooperate and apparently to her own surprise she had a lot left to teach. Turns out I was on the right track with the goat cheese, I was just a little too careful and over handled the curds making them tough. She told me I worried over things too much and I remember my mother telling me essentially the same thing on several different occasions. In addition to the goat cheese she showed me how to make goat ricotta which was a very welcome addition. We will need some type of refrigeration if we are to save enough cream from the goat milk to make butter in the future because it takes about five gallons of goat milk to make one pint of cream. Mateo has been fooling around with one of the storage containers that Tag’s people helped to move to our homestead. It was formally a refrigerated storage locker and it still has all of the appropriate gas lines, etc. in the container walls. If he can just find a few more things he thinks he can create a small walk-in cooler. I’m afraid of getting my hopes up and since he only has a limited time to work on the project we may be waiting a while yet even if he can tinker his creation into existence. Mateo laughed and said he’d travelled a strange path to get from desk bound white collar investment manager to mad magician trying to turn illusion into reality. In all honesty I was just glad I was no longer only one trying to pull a rabbit out of my hat.

In addition to the goats Lena started remembering some of the things that she had been taught by the elders in the village she grew up in. Originally it was just something she did to keep the younger children occupied but the results really were useful and quite pretty in my opinion. She wove banana bark baskets and bowls from the banana trees that had pretty much given up the ghost due to the change in weather. We still had some that we are protecting but I wish that we had some way to keep the enclosures heated. Lena was also teaching anyone who cared to learn how to crochet. I already knew how but her suggestion of pulling the threads out of old rugs and other things in the rag bags was nothing short of brilliant. Dismantling the rugs and other things gave my hands something to do when it got too dark to actually sew. Nydia and Sylvie seemed to enjoy the handcrafts so I taught them how to weave palmetto fronds into baskets and mats and they went at it with such gusto I was beginning to wonder if we’d have any palmetto fronds left or would they all be nude by the time cold weather arrived.

Along with the crocheting Lena recognized some plants that would be useful if we can save them and then cultivate them when the weather warmed up. In the yard with the bamboo she found a large patch of jute and we gathered as many of the plants as we could, planted them in pots, and then placed them in the greenhouse. Apparently jute can be used to make twine and thread but it can also be eaten and is very nutritious. Color me surprised. I guess you can learn something new every day.

It wasn’t just the girls that Lena taught new tricks to. She taught Mateo and Roy how to make Guaro from sugar cane. I wasn’t too thrilled about that when I found out but Mateo said it would make for good trade goods if we could continue to increase our cane fields. For those that don’t know, Guaro is one of the primary alcoholic beverages in Central and South America and will flat out put you on your backside if you aren’t prepared for the punch. Because it is just a sweet liquor, the power of it will sneak up on you … or so claimed Mateo. When I asked him how he knew he would only mumble something about a misspent youthful summer. Uh huh. Sure. Accepting the inevitable I asked him how we would make this “nectar of the plantation” if the winter ruined our crop but he just shrugged and said then we would do something different but he expects the weather to go back to normal in a year or two. I’m more practical. I figure by raising cane in the green house we’ll at least have a starter crop if things ever do return to normal.

Annie and I received the best of the recipes that Lena remembered from her youth. A Plaintain Soup that was made from plaintains that were still firm and green was a rare treat. The silky texture of the soup was just perfect. We also made Horchata which is a kind of rice milk only … not. It is a sweet drink and I thought the kids were going to go nuts begging for more. Even Mateo had a hard time being content with his small portion one night when we served it with a bowl of popcorn. I’d make it more regularly but I’m being forced by circumstances to closely monitor how much rice we use; that is one thing I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to grow to replace what we use.

I was especially pleased to learn how to make Nacatamales; they are similar to Mexican tamales but instead of corn husks you use banana leaves. Making the Nacatamales was work so they’ve been reserved for Sunday meals. They also use six cups of masa harina at a time which is another reason why we reserve them for occasionally meals instead of every day fare. You take six cups of masa harina, one cup of lard or shortening, and a tablespoon of salt and mix together in a bowl until you have something with a mealy texture. After this stage you are going to add a half cup of sour orange juice (which I canned in abundance for marinating wild meat to make it palatable) and four or five cups of chicken stock which I made from granules. Mix this until you get a soft, moist dough. I got my hand whacked lightly with a wooden spoon for beating up the dough. Lena said, “Softly my dear, softly. We want fluffy, not hard and chewy.”

I can’t say I was pleased with her teaching methods but I smiled in spite of myself because she reminded me a bit of my mother when she would fuss at me over how I made my biscuit dough. “Your daddy is going to break a tooth on those biscuits girl if you don’t ease up.”

Once you get your “fluffy” dough, cover it and set it aside for about thirty minutes and move on to the next step. You take your meat – it was supposed to be pork but we use whatever we have on hand which recently has been an odd combination of things – and season it (need about three pounds worth). Add in three quarter cups of cooked rice, and a mix of whatever vegetables we have on hand and then whatever mint perks things up. Now comes the fun part.

Lay out a banana leaf square with the smooth side up. Place one cup of the masa in the middle of the banana leaf and, using wetted hands, spread it out a little. Put about 1/2 cup of your meat on top of the masa and sprinkle 1 or 2 tablespoons of rice over it. Lay 1 or 2 slices of vegetable on top of that and then top with 1 or 2 pieces of onion, 1 or 2 pieces of pepper and a slice of tomato or something along those lines. Top it all off with a few mint leaves.

Fold the top edge of the banana leaf down over the filling. Bring the bottom edge of the banana leaf up over this. Then fold in both sides to make a rectangular package. Be careful not to wrap it too tightly or the filling will squeeze out. Flip the package over so it is seam side down.

Set the nacatamales in the middle of an aluminum foil square and wrap it up tightly the same way you wrapped up the banana leaf. We reuse the aluminum foil as much as we can but I can foresee needing to find some way to tie the packet shut at some point. Set the packet aside and repeat with the remaining ingredients to make ten to twelve nacatamales in total.

Add 2 or 3 inches of water to a pot large enough to hold all the nacatamales. (You may have to use two pots if you don't have one big enough to hold the nacatamales in one batch.) Place a rack in the bottom or toss in enough wadded up aluminum foil to hold the nacatamales mostly out of the water. Add the nacatamales and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover tightly, reduce heat to low and steam for 3 to 4 hours. Add more water as needed to keep the pot from boiling dry. When the packets are done steaming remove the nacatamales from the pot, take off their aluminum foil covering and serve hot. Each diner opens the banana leaf on his or her own nacatamale before eating.

One of the best and most appreciated things that Lena taught me to make is called Vinagre de Pina or Pineapple Vinegar. And the best thing about this particular recipe is that it used the scraps of pineapples rather than the whole ones. You start by taking the peelings and trimmings of one pineapple and chop them up good. Next you gather three quarter cups of piloncillo or dark brown sugar and one and one-half quarts of water. The method is you clean a large glass container with hot soapy water and rinse it out well. Add the pineapple trimmings, piloncillo or brown sugar and water and stir with a clean spoon to dissolve the sugar. Next you cover the container with plastic wrap and a lid and set in a warm, dark place for about 4 to 6 weeks. The liquid will turn murky and brown at first. But as time passes, any solids will settle out and the liquid will clear. Once the liquid has cleared, strain the solids out of the vinegar by pouring it through several layers of cheesecloth or through a coffee filter. Store in a clean bottle away from light and in a cool place.

After the vinegar is strained and stored, it may eventually develop a gelatinous mass that either sits at the bottom or floats at the top. This is called the "mother" of the vinegar (madre de vinagre), and it is harmless. If you start a new batch of vinegar, make sure to include some of the "mother" from the old batch to keep help it develop.

I’ll admit that not everything Lena cooked thrilled me. I was never a fan of what my parents called chittlins … more properly known by the name of chitterlings or tripe. But beggars can’t be choosers and I just don’t look too closely on those nights we fix Sopa de Mondongo. Translated into English it is called Tripe Soup. Ugh. I did get to get out of the job of cleaning the tripe, but that is another story.

Lena wasn’t the only one teaching either. Mateo and I got the boys helping to build our defensive wall as soon as they were no longer needed to clean and organize their new home. I have to admit, while Roy’s mouth will sometimes outpace his commonsense, he’ll work until he drops … literally. Because of this Mateo had to keep a close eye on him at first and finally, in desperation, told him he had to be more careful because the younger boys looked to him as an example. We all needed to stay safe and healthy and even a willingness to work so hard didn’t mean he actually had to perform to that extent if it put future labor at risk. After Mateo explained that to him – something about the law of diminishing returns from the way it sounded - neither one of us was quite so worried though Annie and I always made sure that water or other hydrating drinks were close at hand.

I also made an arbitrary rule that made the kids think I was crazy at first. I told them that they had to read something every week. They were free to borrow from my personal library but that we would discuss whatever it was they read on Sunday afternoons. The younger ones that couldn’t read would receive lessons to remedy this. Yes, it increased my workload yet again but I just couldn’t stand the idea of an entire generation of kids going ignorant when there was something I could do about it. And it has actually turned out to be an activity the kids look forward to; they all seem eager to take their turn sharing on Sundays. I usually fix a snack or drink and sometimes the discussions get pretty detailed. I’ve even caught a couple of them sneaking a peak into the dictionary when they don’t think I’m looking. They know they can and I won’t say boo about it but it has become a bit of a game to use new words to see if they can trip each other up during the afternoon discussions. They especially think it is funny if I have to stop and think about what a word means. Oh well, so long as they are learning and enjoying it I don’t mind being the butt end of the occasional good natured joke.

While Mateo and the boys worked on the wall Annie and I … with help from Lena and the youngest children … built several more raised beds. I used up all of our compost in the process and then resorted to skimming the local ponds and canals for algae and muck to mix in with the sand to try and build it up. Just as soon as we would finish a bed we’d plant it, mostly with beans but also with root crops, greens, and fast growing squash and cucumber varieties. The cool weather brought our planting to a close but I think we timed it just right and haven’t lost anything to the weather. I had to pull the bean plants and hang them to dry in the barn but I’d been doing that all along anyway. Between the beans and the peanut plants I had lines strung all over the place trying to keep them up off the ground so they would dry. What a mess that was, but at least it is helping to replenish my compost piles. We also divided the strawberry plants and I used some of Lena’s woven baskets to expand my potted herbs.

In near desperation and worry over the slow progress we were making enlarging our growing space I had Mateo and the boys spend a couple of days dragging as many bathtubs out of the other houses in the area and using them to grow things in. The fiberglass tubs were the easiest to move and they were also the easiest to drill drainage holes in. They are considerably ugly but in the end I simply tell myself that I don’t care so long as we can get food out of them. It just seemed that no matter what I did or what plans we made, we were playing catch up while still falling further and further behind.

And then by the end of September my worry proved justified and I had to confront Mateo.