Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter 34

The time of year – going onto later November and as cold as a well digger’s rear end – helped our strategy as well somewhat; it certainly wasn’t a kind time of year for folks to be out trying to find a hole to crawl into. One of the fence patrols found a campsite just this side of the fence where the old break was. It had one person still there like Goldilocks who got caught by the bears only this one was dead of exposure from the looks; but the camp had obviously held more during the night.

The men followed the trail they left and found another fence break, this one due to nature. Apparently the group had discovered the fence and thought it surrounded something worth taking a chance on. When all they saw was bare vines they must have turned around and left thinking they’d just stumbled across another false lead. On the other hand, maybe they were just looking for a place to get off the beaten path and rest up for the next leg of a journey to who knows where and had to leave one of their traveling companions behind.

It isn’t that there is no charity these days, far from it. It is simply that the number of people and their general attitude and panic precludes being able to offer any charity that would make a bit of difference and not get the charity-givers run over or something worse. Ninety plus percent of the evacuees are locusts; they take and take with no thought to payment or barter. The other types - the ones willing to work or barter - are as rare as hen’s teeth and most people have given up looking for them. It is unfortunate they all get lumped together as I know it hurts people but after a while you have to start thinking of your primary responsibilities that God gave you, including your own family.

It is the locusts that we were trying to defend ourselves from. There is also the criminal element that is in any community no matter how big or small. You keep what you have as close to the vest as you can. The main concern this year is the field hands that have been hired on and living in the trailer. Chester and his sons are plenty OK and Alec speaks highly of the rest of them even though I don’t know them near as well. It also helps that they eat what we put up so if they want to eat they have to help defend it.

We decided to combine a Thanksgiving celebration with butchering time. The butchering would be done at our place and Cheryl and Aunt Adona would work out a way to have the Thanksgiving dinner at theirs. They said they’d provide the turkey since they had some toms that needed culling. We’d provide a fresh ham from the butchering. Sounded good enough to me. Dino was a little bent saying that they would be over to their place doing the fancy cooking while I got stuck at the farm up to my elbows in gore.

I told him, “I’d ruther it be that way. Here I’m in a kitchen I know and around people that aren’t going to pass out if I don’t know how to set a fancy table.” He stopped and looked at me in such a way as I felt I had to add, “You married me know I wasn’t … er … cultured the way the rest of your family is. OK, maybe I’m a little rougher around the edges than is strictly necessary but I’m comfortable being this way. I won’t shame you D …”

“Don’t ever think that Riss,” he said like I’d come close to making him angry. “You don’t embarrass me. If anything I’m embarrassed for not realizing that … well that Cheryl and Aunt Adona …”

I shook my head. “It isn’t like that Dino. They didn’t mean to make me feel like this, I just do. Some of it is my own fault but,” I shrugged. “So long as you don’t mind it then everything is fine.”

He was a mess, having just come in from mucking but still leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Damaris Pappas, you’re my laughter and my sunshine. I’m still not happy with you getting stuck being the only adult female at butchering time.”

“Oh ho, like that is supposed to bother me?” I laughed. “You don’t really think Hannah and Mrs. Bly really did any of that did you?”

We were both startled by AJ that was leaning on the door frame of what I’d come to consider his room. “Han … I mean the people you lived with left you with all the work?”

I shook my head. “I wouldn’t say that. It isn’t like there was a lot of butchering to be done, the Bly family were getting by but there wasn’t a whole lot of cushion in there.”

“But …”

“But what?”

“They left you to do all the work?”

“No … Mr. Bly was willing and learned to do a lot for himself. He learned to do things I never did. His eyesight was just bad even with his glasses on so it limited him. The b … the … the boys more than made up for the rest of it. They …” I stopped and then said a hurried “excuse me” when I heard Pita’s feeding alarm go off.

I came back after tucking everything back in and making sure it was covered up to find AJ sitting at the table grimacing every time he took a sip of chicory and talking to Dino. They shut up when I walked in so I know it was man-talk.

“Baby all right?”

“Um hmmm, clean, dry, and topped off too so hopefully she’ll sleep a while. It’s gonna get interesting ‘round here when she decides she wants to stay awake more.”

Dino smiled like he was looking forward to it but I’ve worked in the church nursery and know good and well that sleeping babies are a whole lot easier to manage that babies that were awake and wanting to be on the move. It was going to be like having a puppy underfoot that wasn’t house broke.

I looked at AJ and told him, “Don’t drink it if it makes you sick.”

“It’s fine, just a bit …”

I smiled at him, “Of an acquired taste?”

“Yes,” he said thawing out a little bit when he realized I wasn’t going to jump down his throat about it.

“Come the spring I can make dandelion root coffee. I can also make some acorn coffee if you want to give it a try.”

He looked at me oddly. “I don’t want to create any more work.” He was obviously uncomfortable.

“You aren’t. I like chicory myself but you should see some of the looks Ajax pulls.” I laughed. “I’m worried his face is going to get stuck that way and then what would Tina say.”

AJ gave his twisted lip smile, a genuine believe it or not, and then Dino said, “We’re going to start butchering tomorrow but the barometer is threatening some pretty cold weather. We’ll do the butchering and scraping in the barn to stay out of the worst of the cold and to keep the carcass from freezing before it drains. Alec is going to bring his stock over here to butcher as well. You sure you going to be up to this?”

Noting his concern I said, “I’m not made of glass. If I start feeling faint or whatever I’ll let you know.” After looking at his face I told him, “I promise.”

AJ started looking uncomfortable. I could tell he wanted to say something but his pride wouldn’t let him. To pull him back so he could be part of things even if he couldn’t get outside and do the heavy work I asked, “How do they do it in the city nowadays?”

He looked at me surprised at the question. “It depends. Fresh meat isn’t that easy to come by. It used to be there were ‘Meatless Mondays’ or something similar but it gradually changed to where Monday became about the only day that meat was available. A few people raise their own but it can be dangerous and draw unwanted attention both from neighbors and food rustlers.”

“But for those that don’t raise their own how do they do it?” I persisted.

“The grocery stores still take the cost of bringing things in but the selection is small and extremely rationed. The grocery stores get it the same place they always have and those places get it from the farms.”

I nodded, “Sounds about like it always has just harder to come by. Did you get into any of that?”

I got another twisted smile. “Some. There are some people that still want the best and are willing to pay for it. I didn’t take possession of anything, merely acted as middle man most of the time.”

“I expect you are a good businessman.”

He gave me a suspicious look then asked, “What is it you need?”

“To pick your brain.”

I’d surprised him again. “To … what?”

“I’ve seen that inventory system you have. You’ve seen what we’ve got downstairs. And just about everywhere else there is room to stick something. I may use part of the attic next year too to hang strings of onions and garlic and bags of other dried things. Outside is the apple shed, corn crib, smoke house, tobacco barn, granary, and now Dino’s talking about building an ice house. I can’t keep up with it all in my head. I could just make a great big ol’ inventory of everything but … well … you already have a business where you have to keep track of a bunch of stuff coming in and going out on a regular basis. I was wondering if you could think on it and maybe figure some kind of system that would be easy enough for me to keep up with without getting things mixed up with the vineyard inventory.”

Well, the long and short of it is that after he got passed his initial suspicion that Dino and I were just making busy work for him so he wouldn’t be underfoot he got interested and then agreed to think about it. He started the next day and it brought about some interesting things.

We started in the cold of the early morning. I wasn’t even finished with my own breakfast before I heard the first shot. Then four more. Then a couple more after that.

I muttered, “That’s more than I thought they were doing.”

AJ who was finishing his own breakfast said, “Dino mentioned that he was culling more than usual to keep from having to feed them all winter long.”

I sighed, “Yeah, and come spring the tax man will be out this way and will be making note of it all. I hate the one from around here, he’s worse than the Inspectors are … he always seems to ding some places worse than others out of sheer spitefulness.”

“Short little frog. Looks like Kessinger on a bad hair day?”

“Like who?”

AJ sighed, “Please, on top of everything else, don’t make me feel old.”

Alec came in the door and stopped short just in time to hear that last. “She’s got that talent. Uh … last time I was here … er … you were sleeping. Riss said you’ve been suffering from an on again off again low grade fever.”

AJ stiffened up. “It’s nothing. I plan on coming out and helping today.”

“Wait,” I said. “You said you’d help me figure out an inventory system.”

AJ looked at me and said, “And I will, but I also need to know more about what you are inventorying in order to set up a system that takes the least amount of work but is explicit enough to contain everything.”

Something in my face must have warned Alec because he said, “Warning Will Robbins, she’s about to shoot you with her laser beams.”

I looked at him like he’d left his brain someplace but for some odd reason AJ got caught in a surprised laugh. “I haven’t thought of that … in years,” he ended softly. He shook himself and I could see the walls going back up brick by brick. I guess Alec did too.

“We were both a couple of brats,” he explained to me. “You see how Mother can get. It was worse when we were kids and that was what we would say when one of us would notice the other was about to set her off. Those were fun days before …”

AJ was icing up but Alec – surprise, surprise – for once didn’t make it worse. “I wish things would have been different. What Dad did … I just …” He shook his head and shrugged.

As Alec walked away AJ said, “I was too young to really understand what was going on. You took the brunt of it … in a lot of ways.”

I wanted to knock both of them in the head and tell them to get to the hugging and making up already but it guess that was about as far as either one of them was ready to go. Still, it was a first step and I wasn’t going to hash it up by making too much of it. Besides I had to put the beans on to cook and get the bread baking before the hard work really started.

After the hogs are killed and bled, they get scalded by dipping the whole hog carcass into a barrel of really hot water; dipping, not being left in to boil and cook. The scalding is what makes it to where you can scrape the hog hair off. Scraping isn’t hard either, you start by pulling the hairs out by hand and any of this that are left can be “shaved” off by scraping with the broad side of a knife.

Next the head gets cut off and this is really the only part I don’t like, but more cause it is so messy than because it is gross. You begin by cutting through the flesh on the neck all the way around the bone and then twisting the neck until the bone breaks. That’s a nasty sound I’ll tell you that. I put the head in a kettle with a little water in it and use to make things like mincemeat, headcheese, pickled ears. I cut the jowls and set them aside for the men to cure them. You can use jowl – or cheek meat – very similar to bacon or you can use it to season with. Even the brains and tongue can be used for food; nothing is wasted these days just like in the really olden days before there were grocery stores all over the place.

The next step is to clean the hog inside real good. The carcass needs to be opened up all the way down. With the hog hanging by the hind legs the men start at the top at the back center and cut all the way through the skin down to the hind bone. Then they make a shallow cut the rest of the way down the hog so not to cut into the intestines. With an ax they cut the hind bone in half. This has to be done in order to split the hog in half for cutting up. Next they tie off the end of the intestines with a piece of string. Next is the breastbone. This is the hardest part because you must be careful not to cut the intestines when cutting the breastbone with a knife. You cut all the way through the skin and find the breastbone and cut it.

That when the intestines can come out. You open the stomach entirely and put the intestines into a large wash tub. The intestines are saved because of the fat on them. Plus some people really like chittlins … more properly called chitterlings … though they just aren’t my favorite ‘cause usually I’m the one that had to clean them. Talk about disgusting work. I prefer to soak the intestines and use them as sausage casings.

After the intestines are dumped out the cutting of the meat is next. The carcass is swung on to a butcher table and laid it on its back with the skin against the table so that it splits open. First to cut is the backbone which has to be cut apart from the rest of the meat. You do this by chopping with an ax down the length of the backbone on both sides where the ribs join it. The backbone and the tenderloin together make pork chops. The way to make pork chops is to saw down the center of the backbone and cut off the extra rib ends about five inches from the backbone.
The leaf lard comes out at that point too. It is a thin layer of pure fat that is right against the ribs. This lard can be pulled out easily by hand. This lard is put in in a pan along with any other fat that is cut off.

Ribs aren't too hard to cut out. They are a large slab on both sides of the backbone. To cut them out you start from the backbone and cut to the outside. Put your knife just under the ribs and cut all the way under them; continue this until you have cut them out completely.

The tenderloin, like the leaf lard, can be pulled out of the hog. In comparison to the other cuts of meat it is a small portion of the hog, stretching along the sides of the backbone. It is also the best portion of a hog. It is only about five inches thick but it shouldn't be hard to find.

What’s left to cut now are the hams, sides and shoulders. Cut straight across to cut out the sides or bacon. Trim the bacon to get off the excess fat. The hams and shoulders are the last pieces of meat to be cut. Just cut at the knee joint to cut off the feet and you're done cutting up the meat. Ham and shoulders are cut and cured alike. Now all there is left to do is to trim the meat and cut off any excess fat to be used for lard. Put the trimmings to be used for sausage in a pan for making sausage later.

After the shoulders, ribs, hams, jowls and sides have been trimmed, the fat is used for lard, and meat which is not used for anything else is used for sausage. Now some folks put the heart, tongue and melt (spleen) in the sausage. I’m not too partial to that myself and Dino told me he actually uses it for the dogs.

To prepare the meat for the sausage mill, it must be cut into pieces small enough to fit into the mill easily. My granddaddy’s mill is a big one with a long crank handle but it still won’t take whole hog meat. Mostly I use the lean cuts of scrap meat for sausage, but on a hog many of the scraps are partly lean and partly fat, like bacon. This is all put into the sausage. Too much fat will make cooked sausage shrink up and leave mostly grease in the pan. Good sausage has just enough fat to make it juicy.

The mill I use is a small hand operated machine with a small hopper at the top into which the pieces of meat and fat are pushed a few at a time. There are such things as electric meat grinders but I’ve never used one. There is a crank located on the side of the mill which when turned by hand, turns an auger inside of the mill, forcing the meat through knives and out through a chute located on the front of the mill. When I grind sausage, I alternate putting in lean and fatty meat to help in mixing the sausage to a more uniform consistency. Granddaddy was bear when he it came to his sausage and I learned lots at his elbow. The ground up meat drops into a pan under the mill.

Once all the meat is ground and in a large flat pan like a dish pan, you are ready to mix in the spices. Everybody seems to have their own secret recipe but mostly all it is in the recipe is salt, pepper, and sage. The best way to tell whether you have spiced the meat well enough is to fry a patty and taste it. All the time you are adding spices in with the meat you must mix constantly in order to mix the spices well. There is no better way of thoroughly mixing than with your hands though I have known some people that give their sausage a second pass through the grinder to mix it up. Fergit a spoon though because it will not do the job properly.

The amount of sausage which is yielded from a hog varies according to the size of the hog and how much of the meat is put in. AJ wanted to know how much sausage comes from each hog and I told him generally speaking from a 275 pound hog properly butchered and all the scraps used you can get nineteen pounds of sausage.

And that’s only the beginning, next comes rendering the fat.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter 33

Don’t you just hate it when people ignore your good sense? On the other hand, what was created over twenty plus years is not going to get uncreated in a day. Before Dino could say something to me I told him that I would do my best not to make a ruckus in his family. His response?

“Riss, this is your family too. Make a … er … ruckus if you think it needs to be made. Just don’t get your feelings hurt if nothing comes of it. They’re my cousins and I respect both of them in their own fashion but they rub me wrong some times. AJ worse than Alec but, it might be because of what you say … he’s defensive and tries to keep people out.”

He was giving me a look that made me tell him, “You better not be thinking of me when you say that Buckaroo. I’m the one that washes your drawers and I don’t think you want to find out how much starch is still in the supply cabinet.”

He laughed at me and then … well, I have to say this waiting til I’m all healed up is a little frustrating for both of us. But on the other hand, my head may say something but I’m still some tender, not to mention tired. And more than a few times Dino comes in and nearly falls asleep in his plate. We didn’t get much of a chance to honeymoon but I appreciate the time we did have enough to want a little piece of it back.

As for AJ, he’s been suffering from a fever; bad enough but not to cause us to call the undertaker. Mostly it is reaction and fatigue, or at least that’s what Cheryl claims, but I’m thinking he may not have had a whole lot of reserve to him when he got shot and then a day later got pounded. The whole country is a little (to a whole lot) thinner than they used to be but seeing AJ out of his suit makes me realize that Dino and Alec have more meat to them than AJ does and it isn’t just that AJ is a few inches taller than them. On top of that instead of laying low once he’d been injured he loaded up the van and took off with what he could. He sleeps a lot and it is real trying to get him to eat. It’s not as bad as it was – when he first arrived he just couldn’t keep anything down so he didn’t even want to try after a while – but he still ain’t eating like he should for a man his size.

His hands are particularly sore; knuckles all bruised, jammed, and scrapped up. I’ve taken to simply cutting his food up for him that needed it before I take it in the room. I figured to save his pride that way but he still noticed. It was one of his “bad” days.

“I don’t like being waited on like this,” he grumbled reminding me strongly that him and Kerry are related.

“Then stop complaining, eat up, get well and you can go back to coming to the table. Until then you’ll be more comfortable in here … trust me. That is unless you want to watch me try and juggle a cranky baby that seems to be a bottomless pit of spit up while dealing with Kerry whose only a little better than a piglet himself. If the boy wouldn’t eat so fast his food wouldn’t fly every which direction. And there’s days Dino just about falls asleep in his chair. I’m still not one hundred percent and he won’t let me work outside very much.”

He was grimacing at my description while he forked some of my homemade egg noodles that I had topped with my own jiggled up recipe for canned beef burgundy I had heated through and added a little cream to. But when I mentioned that Dino wouldn’t “let me” do something he gave me a strange look. “You didn’t strike me as the type that would … that would …”

“Put up with being ordered around?” I laughed.

Raising an eyebrow he said, “That’s close enough to what I meant.”

I shook my head still smiling. “If I didn’t trust Dino I wouldn’t. But his telling me what to do isn’t … uh … well it isn’t him trying to boss me around or … er … exercise his husbandly authority over me so to speak. It’s more … more … look it’s like this. One of the reasons I trust Dino is because he’s always, even before there was anything between, been real serious about his responsibilities. He’s still serious, maybe more so. He’s the leader in this house but he doesn’t view being a leader like most people do in my experience. Most people that think they are leaders somehow think that makes those under them beholden to them in some way. But reality is that leadership is just a form of servitude.”

“In your opinion?” he asked caught somewhere between making a joke of what I was saying and being really curious.

“Nope. Think of it like this. When someone is in a leadership position you say they are either ‘acting as a’ or ‘serving as a’ whatever you want to call it. When someone is ‘acting’ in a position it is like it is temporary, they aren’t the real deal. But when you hear someone say that someone is ‘serving’ in a position you can tell the difference right off. So a real leader is serving in a position; with a great big ol’ emphasis on the serving part. That’s what it is like to have Dino as the leader of our house. And he is downright particular about trying to do the job right. So, whenever he sounds like he is ordering me about something I try and remember to think on why he is doing it and then I usually don’t have a problem following the obey part of the marriage vows. He’s never done anything but put me ahead of his own wants and needs and to me that says a lot. Truthfully it makes me want to treat him the same way.” He gave me a look of confusion and I added, “I know it sounds strange to some folks especially since I’m kinda on the mulish and independent side. I just found I don’t need to be that way with Dino. He proves every day that I can trust him to have my best interests at heart for real and not just playing at it.”

The next day I think it was I was up in the middle of the night feeding the bottomless Pita when I looked up to find Dino watching us. “You should be asleep,” I told him quietly. “I’ll take her downstairs.”

“No. Don’t. The bed will just be cold either way without you in it.”

I gave him a small smile, being more than a bit glad not to have to go downstairs where it was cold, and said, “Sweet talk like that will get you what you’re looking for.”

He snickered back and said, “Not for a couple of more weeks it won’t if what you said Cheryl told you is true.”

I sighed dramatically and he snickered again. “Hey, you’re the one that brought it up.”

“I know. Just want to make sure you aren’t forgetting about the … er … comforts of marriage.”

He put his hands behind his head and said, “Not likely Missus Pappas.” He was teasing us both but mostly me.

“Oh honestly. Isn’t there any way that you can get Chester to go back to calling me Riss?”

He grinned, “Let him have his fun. It’s just his quiet way of getting a rise out of you and paying you some respect at the same time. He thinks a lot of you, you know.”

I did know which made me feel like I really should get the man to call me by Riss; it only seemed fitting since I called him by his first name even though he was even older than Alec.

I was rocking Pita trying to get her topped off when Dino asked seriously, “Speaking men who think highly of you, did you say something to AJ?”

“Huh?” I asked not sure at all what he meant.

“He keeps asking me how I like being married the second time around and he’s mentioned that if it was as good as we make it out to be he might have to consider adding it to his future plans.”

All I could do was just shake my head. “What is up with that man and his plans? Do you know he has some kind of chart that he keeps for himself? He keeps track of what he considers his accomplishments and failures and also has all these goals. And now you tell me he is actually thinking about changing his life from a board room to a bedroom?”

He snorted, “You would look at it like that.” After a moment he asked, “Are you serious about that list he keeps?”

“List? It’s a whole flaming three-ring binder. Apparently he likes his life structured and inventoried.”

I could see he was staring at the ceiling then he said, “That structure stuff is one of the few things that Alec and AJ’s father had in common with Papooh. My father was the same way, it is why he liked the military so much. It sounds like AJ may have taken it to the extreme though.”

“I like structure and inventories too but I don’t measure the whole value of my life by them.”

Pita chose that moment to burp and spit up on me at the same time. Nasty. That was the end of that conversation right quick but the subject was to come up again not too far in the future. But first came securing things enough so that we could get the butchering done.

AJ hadn’t been wrong about the city going up in flames. And the Sergeant that spoke with us hadn’t been wrong about it happening in other places; or about how they were going to be handled. The radio, as well as gossip and rumor from our own town provided by the railway folks, told us that it was happening in several cities from one extent to another. There were a lot of people making the attempt to flee the urban areas. Many of them were handicapped by lack of transportation. All mass transportation into and out of any city experience violence was halted by the government. All refugee and/or evacuation centers were contained within the urban perimeters. Most evacuation routes out of the city had already been sabotaged or destroyed in the preceding years of the war for one reason or another so the major arteries in and out of the city were easier to control.

If people wanted out they had to leave by foot or they had to wait in long lines to be processed out but only so many people were permitted per vehicle and this number was usually equal to the number of operating seat belts. No trucks with an enclosed back were allowed – pickups were fine so long as the bed of the truck was visible, deliver vans or similar were immediately towed out of line at their owner’s expense. Cars could not be loaded so that you couldn’t see out the back window and trunks had to be opened so they could be searched. They made the searching easier by having each vehicle run across sensors that said how many pounds it weighed. Given the make and model and the number of people visible they could determine if there might be a problem with overloading of one type or another. If your vehicle weighed in at a certain weight you were ok and waved through, if you were over that weight you were directed to a parking slot where everyone how to exit the vehicle so it could be searched … and these searches also included looking for restricted and illegal items.

It was all about control. On the one hand it was good and on the other hand it was horrible. How you viewed it pretty much depended on which side of the barricade you were on. A lot of stores, fuel depots, and restaurants in the rural communities began to close and shutter when the first stream of folks began to come through. Trade goods were expensive and scarce and reserved for local purchase. The locusts, as such travelers were called, found a much different landscape from their counterparts that had done this in the beginning weeks and months of the war. Not only were such places closed, they were guarded and guarded well. The services they were used to in the city were almost non-existent as was everything else they expected to find such as refugee/evacuee camps that had seemed everywhere in the beginning of the war; no free water, no free food, no free medical services, no free housing of any type, no free anything. As a matter of fact most evacuees found themselves facing quite a well-prepared rural community … prepared to keep them out and moving on down whatever road they had chosen to travel.

Individual farms like ours still suffered if there weren’t enough people to mind the road or roads in and out and to mind the fact that people on foot didn’t necessarily have to stick to the roads. A few years back Dino and Alec had converted some trenching gear to use pure ethanol. A wide, deep gully already surrounded both farms. Originally dug for drainage to keep the lower levels of the vineyard from flooding, in this instance the gully kept the stinking locusts from simply crossing our fields with impunity. The gully was also such that neither wagons, nor single rider horses, could cross except at the designated bridges. The bridge over by Alec’s place was completely dropped using the trenching equipment to dig out the supports and joists; if they wanted off their parcel they would need to go overland to our side. This was good for them because not only were they closer to Newton they were closer to the road; not visible from the road just closer to it.

The bridge to our place was wide enough for two trucks to cross at the same time because of the large trucks that took delivery of the wines. The winery still had contracts to fulfill and we needed those contracts so we couldn’t exactly just drop that bridge. We were farther from Newton but closer to the city. Our one advantage however was that we were set almost two miles down that road. The landscaping was also some different. The land on either side of the road that let out on the highway did not belong to us but to a now abandoned livestock farm. That farm had a right of way across our road but in several locations up and down it they had installed those cattle gates that cows don’t like to walk across. Horses didn’t care much for them either. Plus Dino’s grandfather had started the practice of planting Lombardy poplars all down the road for the first mile. Several had to be replaced over the years as they aren’t real long-lived trees but they grow fast, provide a lot of privacy and get up to fifty feet tall. Even though there were gaps from ice damage a couple of years back Alec always kept rooted seedlings going to replace the ones that had to be cut out. All signs for the vineyard had been taken down years ago except for the heavy wrought iron fence that stood about fifty feet from the bridge where the road narrowed down to a single lane. However the piece of road between the gate and the highway looked all run down and abandoned because of the condition of the former pasture land on either side of us. It wasn’t a perfect strategy but it was better than hanging a sign out and saying “y’all come on and sit to the table.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter 32

Well, can’t stay in a cacoon forever. I’ve done my birthin’ and I’ve done my grievin’ – though the truth is there will always be a bit of it with me – and now it is time to get on with livin’. Is that harsh? Probably, but so is life. There’s a cycle to it – birthin’, livin’, dyin’ – and sometimes the turns you get to take seem awful short, sometimes it seems so long you just near can’t stand it. I’ve seen people wail at young people being taken so young and quickly from this life and then have heard old folks cry for being left in it too long. Nothing to be done about it either way but do the best you can not to shame your Maker.

It seems the cycle is stacked heavy in the dying end of things lately. The war has worsened, or so says the radio, both abroad and at home. It has people in the cities scrambling like ants that have had boiling water poured on their mound. AJ is here and kinda stuck here. And by “here” I do mean here, as in Dino’s … I mean our … house.

A big ol’ delivery van came down the road about two days ago driving slow and deliberate though not in a particularly straight line. “At least,” I thought. “They had the sense to stop before they got to the gully bridge.” The times had gotten so that Dino wouldn’t leave me at home alone any longer. Chester went out of the van carefully while I covered him, whether he thought it was necessary or not, from the front room. Chester stood there for a moment then looked hopped on the cab’s runner and then came back to the house in a skedaddle.

“Missus Pappas?! That’s Mr. AJ and he’s hurt … shot in the leg from the sound of it. Been beat on more than a little too. I’m gonna bring him in and if you can fix a place for him I’ll then run and get Dino and Mister Alec.”

I’d gone from Miss Riss to Missus Pappas and I was still having to work on Chester to go back to calling me Riss but that moment wasn’t the time to get into it. I ran to the room I used to use and after pulling down the bedspread threw an old quilt down across the sheets and mattress. Next came a fire and a warming pan – well, wasn’t a warming pan precisely but a skillet I had been warming up for some fry bread for dinner – to take a chill out of the top sheet and covers. I heard the unsteady steps on the porch that told me they were to the house and ran and added my shoulder, such as it was, to lend a guide to keeping AJ steady.

We popped him on the bed and then Chester took off for the barn to get the horse we keep saddled for just such emergencies. Lord have mercy AJ was a mess. Eyebrow, nose, and lip all split and bloody. Both eyes blackened so I knew the fight had been at least a day ago. Shirt torn revealing more bruises beneath it. But it was the pants that confused me. They were a little bloody but no hole.

He started trying to get up and ignoring me when I tried to get him to stay put. Finally I told him, “You see that skillet over there? I can move a lot quicker than last time you were here and don’t doubt that I’ll use it too.” He looked at me and I gave him a look right back.

“You’ve been …” he coughed. “You’ve been taking lessons from Mother.”

That pleased me. “Well now, that was a compliment I wasn’t expecting,” I told him with a smile.

His lips twisted in the closest thing to a smile he normally gave. Then his face got hard. “Lock and bolt the doors Riss. I … I don’t think I was followed but …” he started coughing again and I noted he was a little feverish.

“You delusional or are you serious AJ? Because I don’t want to freak Dino out unnecessarily.”

He looked at me and nodded, “Fair enough. The city where my office is is in flames, or was when I left. I … I tried to drive by and … and check on Han … on that …” He was flummoxed on what to say.

“Am I hearing you right? You tried to go check on Hannah … Hannah Bly?”

A cough ruined his attempt at being frosty. “Yes, her. The factory district had already shut their gates and the CSP were there in full force. They’ll let the rest of the city go to hell but they’ll fight to the last man for the munitions plant; she’s safer there than she would have been with me.”

I wanted to tell him he was sweet but that would have been a good way to shut him up. “What set it off?”

“Food riot, anarchists, terrorist agitators … who knows, it doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is that big trouble is probably coming this way.” He coughed again and this time wasn’t able to control it and he nearly passed out. I realized he was in pain.

I tried to start undressing him but he wasn’t cooperating. “Lock the doors Riss. I told Chester the basics so news will spread as fast as it can be shared. And look, I’m busted up but I don’t know how bad. But … but here, I want you to take these keys.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring of them. “If I die I want you … you, no one else … to open the van and open my files in there. You’ll find everything you need to figure things out. But until I die I want you to keep everyone out. That is mi … mine.”

Giving him a look I asked, “Why would I want your ol’ stuff AJ? Got enough trouble taking care of Dino’s. Besides you aren’t gonna die, you’re probably just gonna feel like it after Cheryl gets finished with you. She’s real good at that … pray she don’t make you start walking a marathon trying to drop a buffalo from someplace you don’t think it’s gonna fit.” As I left the room I hoped that the wheezy noise he was making was his odd laugh and not because he’d punctured a lung.

I checked on Pita who was asleep in her cradle in the kitchen. Amazing. That child will wake up if you are trying to be quiet and then sleep through a heard of thundering elephants. Kerry was with Dino checking the fence line, a blessing but now it worried me. I closed the doors but I went one better and closed the wooden shutters on the first floor windows. The cross-shaped cutouts continued to let some light in but not much. We’d already brought in everything on the porches small enough to carry off due to vandalism at other farms figuring less temptation the better; and the big stuff had been brought in and taken down to the basement for the winter so that was good as well.

I went upstairs for a minute to see if I could see anything from the second story windows and there was nothing but the brown and crunchy grass, the leafless trees with a few cedars here and there and the empty road. The only thing new was that big ol’ delivery van that sat next to the wagon looking so out of place. Which made me think parking it there hadn’t been the smartest thing and I went back downstairs and down to check on AJ.

The man was obviously in pain. “You going to let me tend to you or do you like suffering for some reason?”

His mouth was grim but he said, “No and no. I respect Dino too much to create possible gossip.”

“Huh?”

He made that wheezy noise again but it didn’t sound real pleasant. “How can you possibly still be so naïve after what you went through with people?” He shook his head slowly then told me with a little nasty sound to it, “Do you really think people are going to pass up a juicy chance like this to create something from nothing when it comes to gossip? They’ll think we’re having an affair. That that was why I came here.”

Well didn’t that just singe my tail feathers but I gave him credit for making me think. On the other hand I thought anyone who did think what he said had a brain so messed up it needed physical rearrangin’. “One, I agree that most people are probably idiots. Two, I also agree that there are some folks with too much time on their hands. Three, don’t take this the wrong way AJ but Sol just about ruined me on men and it took even your cousin a bit to get under my skin and make me want him, you couldn’t have fixed me that way. Four, anyone with a lick of sense knows that you come by our place before Alec’s because you wouldn’t want your Momma to see you like this before you fabricated some kind of story to cover what really happened. And five, it’s obvious that Alec has some trouble accepting the … er … career you’ve chosen and feels guilty for needing you but that only makes him act pricklier and who’d want to be beat on emotionally when they’ve already been beat on physically. And six …” I stopped when I saw the look on his face. “Well, I guess that’s enough to be going on with. Bottom line is people that don’t know me and don’t know you won’t know anything so they’d be better off keeping their tongue in their head instead of flapping in the wind.”

Slowly the ice melted out of his face and for once out of his eyes. “You must drive Dino insane. Not even I’m that honest with my opinions.”

I smiled back, “He was nuts before I got to him. I just made the crazy more interesting is all.”

He wheezed and shook his head but laid back down and seemed to zone off a bit. I left the room to go check on Pita and she was just starting to wake up and chew on her fist. I sat in the rocker near the stove and let her nurse while I tried to find the patience to wait for Dino or Alec to show up.

Pita had finished her meal and I had just finished putting myself back together when I heard someone on the back porch. “Riss, it’s Alec. Can you hear me?”

I rain to the door, unbarred it, and let him in. He wasn’t alone. Brother Calvert’s son Josiah was with him. Josiah Calvert was about Dino’s age and was the Captain of the local militia; he looked pretty fierce though I knew him to be a fair man. He and his house had never turned nasty to me though he’d gone a little cautious for a while.

“Alec I wish you would talk you brother out of being so demented.” That caught both men’s attention. “He’s lying there in pain but won’t let me do nothing for him. Says he respects Dino too much to do something that would make people talk. I think it’s the pain making him giddy but you know how stubborn he can be and under the circumstances I hated to try and push him.”

Alec got a thoughtful look and then said, “How bad is it?”

“Go see for yourself. It looks like one or more people got a hold of him but good. And Chester said something about a shot to the leg but while the pants leg is bloody, there’s no tear. He’s keeping it close to the vest – I guess he thinks I’m just a faint-hearted female or is worried about upsetting me with the baby and all – but he did say that the city is going to Hades in a hand basket. And the loon tried to go check on Hannah for me before escaping and I’m worried that is why he got beat on.”

Still thoughtful both men walked to the room where I pointed. I noticed they were both pretty chilled and that the air coming in was definitely frosty so I made sure the cradle was out of any draft and then put a pot of chicory on; I even put a speck of real coffee in there and a little bit of yaupon for the caffeine. I had a feeling the men were going to need every little bit of kick they could get. For myself I put on a pot of cambric tea which isn’t nothing but warm milk with a little bit of tea in it. It seems I have to watch everything that goes in my mouth now even more than I did when I was pregnant.

I was anxious about how long they were in there. I could hear them talking but not make out the words as they’d closed the door. I started a fire in the fireplace if for no other reason than for light. I didn’t want to have to use the kerosene lamps nor the candles unless and until they were really needed. I then snuck a peek out of the shutter just in time to see Dino ride up with Kerry riding pillion.

I had the door opened before he got there and took Kerry while I pointed at the bedroom where they were. “He ain’t gonna die I don’t think, not unless there’s infection somewhere that I don’t know about. But he’s being AJ and hard headed. And Alec and Josiah have been in there a while so you might better get in there and see if you’re needed for peacekeeping.”

I turned to Kerry to see he was white as a sheet, both from cold and from fear. I don’t know how many times I tell folks to watch their words around little kids, that it does them no good, but some grownups listen about as well as a doorknob does. “Come on Squirt, let’s get you warmed up.”

I put some of the cambric tea in a smallish coffee cup and told him to “sit right up to the table” and “watch that first sip, I mighta made it a bit strong” and my strategy of treating him a little like I treat his daddy worked. He took it right in and even imitated Dino enough that I had to hide a smile. If you pay attention it is amazing to find out what the little kids are noticing when you aren’t paying attention.

He finally spit it out, “Momma Riss? Chester said that Uncle AJ was bad hurt. Is … is he gonna die?”

“Not as far as I can tell. He’s as ornery as ever. Bet he feels double bad when his Momma rings a peal over his head. Aunt Adona has a talent for that.”

The look of agreement on Kerry’s face nearly had me laughing again. I bit my lip and then when he’d finished his “warmer upper” I asked if he would mind watching Pita in the front room if I let him take some of his toys in there. Well since that was place he was normally allowed to do such a thing the novelty of it kept him distracted. The fireplace in the front room was a mate to the big one in the kitchen and I soon had it warm enough that Kerry could take his coat off. I made sure the grate was locked before I left them unattended and I reminded Kerry to come get me if Pita started to fuss too much.

I had no sooner done that than I heard a wagon and looked out to see Chris and Steven driving their momma and grandmother. I nodded figuring they had Ajax watching the house and let them in. I told the boys to get them and their grandmother something warm off the stove and then started answering Cheryl’s questions.

“I’m sorry I honestly don’t know. He wouldn’t let me do anything for him but take his shoes off and get him warm. Claimed he was trying to avert possible gossip.” I rolled my eyes but Cheryl and Adona glanced at each other in surprise. “Cheryl when you go in can you see if Dino will at least stick his head out?”

Dino didn’t come out and when I heard a good, loud curse that had to be from AJ I stuck my head in. “Hey! Got kids out here.”

AJ was in a snit, a royal one and Alec was looking foul. Dino was closed off and only gets that way when he’s getting aggravated at family … only he wasn’t looking at AJ, but at Alec.

“All right, that’s enough. I didn’t help Chester drag AJ in here for y’all to pester him to death; imagine what’d have to go on his headstone. Cheryl, tell these big ol’ men to get out of the way and if you won’t I will. Josiah, have you got enough for your report? Then come on out here and get you some chicory, it ain’t coffee but it’ll warm you. Alec, look at your Momma, she looks fairly faint with anxiety and ready to pop you one at the same time. Whatever it is it can wait until everyone’s nerves are settled. Dino, I need you for a minute if you please.”

Seeing as how I was carrying a broom and a skillet when I started giving orders the men sorta took me seriously. By the end of it AJ was making that noise he makes but I took care of him too since I figured he’d done his fair share to stir the pot. “Wheeze while you can ol’ son, I have a feeling Cheryl is just about to let some of your air out.”

I turned and in but a moment there was movement in the room and boots following me out leaving the room’s door open. Dino bent and kissed my head by way of recognizing what I’d been trying to do and asked, “Anything wrong?”

“Not wrong precisely but I can’t drive, never learned, and AJ’s van is sitting out there like a chunk of burnt cornbread in the buttermilk. Don’t you think it would be better off in the barn and out of sight?”

A call from the bedroom said, “She’s right. And she has the keys. Dino …” A yelp of pain interrupted him and when he started up again there was a grim tone to his voice. “Move it where you will but give Damaris the keys back.”

I could hear Cheryl mutter, “If you don’t stay still this is only going to take longer and hurt worse.” Since there was no more orders coming from where his highness currently lay I figured he was ready to conceded defeat.

Dino looked at me and I took the ring of keys out of my pocket and said, “He gave them to me to hold onto in case he dies.” I rolled my eyes. “But he wants everyone to stay out of his stuff until then. I nearly asked him if the van was full of old girly magazines but I didn’t have the heart seeing he was in so much pain. Might save it for later though if he starts acting like a stinker.”

I heard Chris and Steven trying to hide their snickers. I hadn’t exactly tried to hide my voice so it could very well have been the reason for the second yelp I heard in AJ’s general vicinity. Josiah’s eyes were crinkled up at the corners but it could have been trying to see in the dimness of the room, who knows. Dino just shook his head and said as plainly as I did, “Didn’t know AJ would need those kinds of things but I guess it’s possible. I’ll make sure everyone keeps out just in case. Wouldn’t want to embarrass him any.”

I heard Cheryl laugh clearly so I think the mark had been hit. I looked over at Alec thinking at the very least he’d be shaking his head at our tomfoolery but instead his face was like ice. After Dino walked out I went over to him and very quietly and calmly asked if he would come to the front porch. My words said I was giving him a choice but the look he gave me said he knew that I really wasn’t.

Stiff as a board he followed me out and then before I could say anything he asked, “Did AJ offend you Damaris?”

Boy he was spoiling for a fight or something like it. “You know, I don’t know what is between you and AJ that would make you act like this with him but not here and not now.”

He drew himself up and started to say, “I don’t know what …”

“Oh yes you do. I’m not asking to get into your business. But, this is Dino’s house … mine too now I guess so I have some say … and AJ has never done anything but be a little stiff and reserved. And he’s hurt and he came here for help. I’m not going to stand by and allow him to be made an object of scorn when he isn’t in a position to defend himself.” Getting frustrated I continued, “I swear you, AJ, and Dino could be from the same litter as much as you look alike but AJ stands out all the same. It’s like the man is afraid to let people see him laugh, to be a part of things. You and Dino aren’t like that at all. You know how many times it takes getting kicked before you get like that? If you don’t I do. He ain’t no angel, that’s plain as the nose on your face, but I’ve never seen him be anything more than cut off from people and I’m beginning to wonder if that was by choice or if that is simply all he expects anymore, family or not.”

The two brothers were more alike than Alec wanted to admit. They both got that block of ice look in their ices just the same and while AJ may have more practice at it and do it better, Alec wasn’t no slouch neither. “I hardly think you’d understand Damaris.”

“Why? Because I ain’t experienced people doing me wrong? Or because I ain’t got any family to speak of?”

He visibly winced, “That is not what I meant.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

“You … you don’t know what AJ is.”

“Well, I know you two share the same father and mother so that makes you brothers. You also share some personality traits and from this side of it not all of them are pretty. If you are talking about what AJ does for a living, I’m not stupid; I’ve figured some of it out and if there’s more it wouldn’t surprise me. I figured out you treat him like the problem child of the family, like he isn’t good enough. Anything else you don’t think I know?”

Folding his eyebrows down he said, “I do not treat him like …”

“OK, then what do you call it?” I broke in. “When you have to be around him your face is all blank most of the time. When it ain’t blank you act like he’s making you chew rusty scrap metal . The faces you make at him … the faces you make at him that he ignores and accepts like he has come to expect nothing else … make you look like you smell something spoiled and rotten and not good enough. I understand you and your father didn’t get along but is there some reason that you’re repeating the problem with AJ? He is your little brother, younger than you by at least ten years is my guess. How on earth did it become AJ’s fault that your father was the way he was and made the decisions he made?”

I’d made Alec mad. He walked off the porch tight and careful and then around to the back of the house. A deep sigh from behind me made me whirl. It was Aunt Adona.

“Thank you for trying my dear but I don’t know if anything or anyone is ever going to heal that wound.”

Ashamed she’d caught me talking I sighed but then got up the nerve to ask, “What happened? What was so bad that Alec – Alec of all people – can treat his brother this way? I just don’t understand. AJ doesn’t seem like that much of a stinker.”

She smiled slightly and shook her head. “He can be. But once upon a time Alec could be as well. It is what made him leave his father and my father and seek his own way. He didn’t like who he became when they started pulling at him at the same time.”

“And Alec resents that AJ never had to go through that?”

“But AJ did my dear. AJ simply ignored both men and told them to accept him for who he was or not, it would not stop him one way or the other. The difference is that AJ never felt compelled to run away to do it. My father never could quite get over AJ refusing point blank to even give the winery a try. AJ’s father, my ex-husband, did. He became very proud of AJ, gave him the respect Alec never felt he got from his father. The other thing was that AJ also has maintained contact with his father. AJ was still young enough – there’s eight years between them not ten – that when we divorced a visitation agreement and child support was part of the decree. As many problems as Andrew and I had, not the least of which was the affair he had with the young woman who would become his wife, I knew AJ still needed his father in ways I could not simply ignore. But it was difficult on Alec to understand that and impossible for him to accept.”

Still confused, “But they’re both grown men now, surely there has to be something else to it.”

“Alec does not approve of AJ.”

Not meaning to be disrespectful I still said, “Well duh, that’s about as obvious as stripes on a zebra. But why doesn’t he approve of AJ?”

“It’s as I told you.”

“You mean all of that … that stuff is left over from something in their childhood? Something neither one of them really had any control over anyway?”

“I’m afraid so,” she sighed.

Getting angry I said, “I’m going to knock them both in the head. This is just plain ridiculous. Alec all holier than thou and AJ pushing at him making it worse trying to get Alec to prove how he feels one way or the other. They’re both dug in and invested in being the victim. I’m gonna skin ‘em both.”

Cheryl who had followed her mother in law out said, “Not today. Wait until after AJ heals and Alec helps with the butchering.”

I jump like I’d been pinched. “Oh. I’m sorry Cheryl it’s just that that sort of thing doesn’t make any sense to me. I know it happens but … life’s just too short and too hard to turn on the people that could help you best to make it through in one piece.”

Cheryl said, “There is a little more to it.” Adona rubbed her arms and walked back into the house.”

“That wasn’t because she was cold,” I observed.

“No. Look, I know you want to believe the best of AJ … and of Alec which I appreciate … but the truth is AJ is … or can be … a very dangerous man. He associates with people that aren’t … aren’t …”

“You saying the company he keeps isn’t the same company you would keep or want around your family.”

“Yes,” she confirmed in relief at my understanding. “I can understand, from a purely analytical sense, why he does it. But that doesn’t change the fact I’m always worried about the influence he is going to have on the children.”

“Seems to me he comes here when he’s trying to escape all of that. Why would he bring it with him?”

“It’s happened before. A group of men followed him out of the city, this was right after the war started and AJ had just … er … gone into business. Alec got hurt and AJ killed a couple of them and afterwards we heard he hunted the rest of them down too and did the same again. Ajax saw it all and was terribly affected by it. If AJ hadn’t left on his own accord afterwards Alec would have asked him to leave.”

“Yet Alec still calls on his brother when he needs something he can’t get around here. He’s good enough to fetch and carry but not to be invited into the big house as a guest.”

She buckled up her face and said, “It sounds very bad when you put it that way.”

“It sounds bad anyway you put it. And what is worse that knucklehead lying in the bed in there comes whenever he’s called and then stays around waiting for scraps before he can’t stand it anymore and takes off again.”

A step on the gravel and I saw Alec standing there looking at me but he was more confused than anything. “Is that really how you see it?”

“Alec, let me put it his way, if I was in the same position AJ has been in I would have given up a long time ago and gone my own way and to heck with being used the way this family has been using him. He isn’t good enough most of the time because of the company he’s chosen but he’s good enough when that company he’s chosen can get you what you want. What all AJ gets up to may not be right but the way he’s treated by those that use him to do what they can’t or won’t isn’t right either.”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter 31

The first couple of days after Pita was born were … odd, strangely blissful. That isn’t something that I would normally say, certainly nothing that I ever contemplated feeling. I felt like I’d run a race, a long hard one, through someplace that was a cross between the worst of both a desert and a swamp. At the same time there was that feeling that I had accomplished something so spiritual that there weren’t words to describe it. I was physically tired but mentally and spiritually energized. I felt high as a kite, only in a good way that left me with my reality intact. I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want the real world to ooze back into the magical we had built for ourselves.

Kerry, bless his little heart, was at first excited to finally see the baby; but the new wore off in short order. About the forth night running when Pita let it be known that she required multiple feedings just to survive the night Kerry stepped out into the hallway rubbing his eyes and said, “You know, snoring at so bad.”

Poor little man; he’d been the sole focus of the house so long that having a new baby underfoot was a challenge, especially one that tended to get mad a whole lot faster than she got happy. But the first time she would only smile – even if it was just gas – for him he got just as besotted as Dino. Now Pita can do no wrong and I can see me a long, hard slog in the future trying to keep the two of them from spoiling her to the point she’s just plain rotten.

About a day after Pita was born there was a short scare when I developed a fever that spiked pretty high but then it went back down and I haven’t felt ill since. I figure it was reaction and nerves but Dino has been real resistant to me going back to chores. He was also careful about how and when he raised the issue of Sol’s visit.

“Hey Riss, what’s wrong? You hardly said anything when Brother Calvert came over for supper? Was it too soon?”

I sighed in agitation. “No. It was our turn and I was happy to have him. Besides, you aunt did everything; all I did was sit there and feed my face.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

I fidgeted unable to find any relief. “Oh Dino, I’m …” I stopped because my hormones were still close to the surface and finally got myself under control. “Don’t mind me, I’m just sore in places I refuse to talk about.”

I mistook the look on Dino’s face. “If you laugh at me so help me I’ll make you sore in the same places.”

He put a perfectly blank face on and said, “Whoa Honey, I’d never laugh because you were in pain. I don’t see you laughing at me because I’m sitting here with a compress on my knee.”

I took a deep breath and tried to master myself. “I’m sorry Dino. I know you and Cheryl tell me this will all blow over but … I can’t get comfortable and it is making me foul. I can’t sit for long and you can guess why. I can’t lay down ‘cause it’s like trying to get comfortable with two boulders stuck on my chest. I can’t sleep because just as sure as I do Pita will wake up wanting to be fed … I swear she knows when I close my eyes for a rest. Standing for very long still makes me feel like my insides want to drop out. So I’m taking turns at all those positions and it only makes me more … more tired.” I ended on a boo-hoo.

“Aw Honey,” he said. His real sympathy only made me want to cry worse.

I wiped my eyes and said, “Don’t pay any attention to me. ‘And this too shall pass.’ Or so I’m told. I just have to hang on to thinking that.”

It was after supper and everything was quiet. Aunt Adona finally went home with Alec giving us the first true bit of privacy we’d had since I went into labor. Kerry was in bed asleep and even Pita was asleep after having guzzled her portion for the next little while.

Dino asked, “You want me to make you some warm milk? AJ sent those bars of chocolate out as a baby present. I could make you some cocoa.”

“No,” I said shaking my head. “I want to save it for the holidays unless you want some yourself.” At his negative answer I finally got around to telling him, “Don’t take this the wrong way but your cousin is some passing strange. Whoever heard of giving chocolate to a baby?”

Dino smiled, “The blanket and rattle were for the baby, the chocolate was for you and so was the perfume.”

I rolled my eyes, “So? That only proves my point more … it was a baby gift, not a mother/baby gift. Of course, he could have just been trying to tell me the same thing that Sol did.”

Ooops, I let the wrong thing fall out of my mouth. “And exactly what did Sol try to tell you?” Dino asked in a strained voice.

I sighed. “I suppose I can’t put this off forever.”

“I won’t force you …” he said though I could hear the longing in his voice to deal with it.

I got up and dragged the rocker over to his side of the fire place in the master bedroom. I was as quiet as I could be so as not to wake Pita. I had to put a hand on Dino to keep him from getting up to do it for me. That would have meant him taking the compress off his knee and I could tell how it was swollen that butchering those two deer, riding the fence in the damp and cold, and trying to do my share of the chores on top of his own was aggravating the injury he had barely recovered from. “I know. And thank you for not teasing me to talk about it sooner. I really don’t want to talk about it but I can’t run from it forever. The longer I leave it the worse you think it is.”

“It wasn’t … bad?” he asked hesitantly, a little disbelieving.

“Oh it was bad … but not because he really did anything more than run his mouth setting me to run mine. It was just seeing him. I run out so abrupt that night that I let a lot of stuff build up and get poisonous. And every moment he ran his mouth I kept feeling like a bigger and bigger fool.”

“I’ll slap his mouth shut for all eternity if he …” Dino growled.

I put my hand over his arm to calm him. “Dino, I’m gonna tell you what was said and I promise I won’t leave any of it out. Just don’t go off half-cocked. I won’t lie because it would only trip me up at some point down the line and I don’t want any of that between us even from good intentions. But … but I’ve had a bit of time to think on it.” I sighed. “I didn’t behave very well either. I didn’t do a thing to help myself. I had hard feelings and I let them bust out all over the place. You know how I can be, I was pretty nasty a couple of times myself.”

“You couldn’t be …” he tried to denied. I don’t see how he can still think I’m a sweet, mild-mannered thing after the time we’ve been together.

“How about the fact I called Shantelle a two-dollar whore?” At his surprised expression I corrected myself. “Well at least I said she smelled like one for wearing and I quote, perfume just to please him, end quote. He said she dressed pretty and had nice manners and smelled nice … never acting or smelling like a field hand.”

He got agitated again, saying some choice words. “Quiet Dino, please don’t wake the baby. I can’t take no more crying or suckling right now.” He calmed for my sake and I told him. “Trust me, I didn’t take any of his sass. But I’m not sure I really should have paid any attention to him at all to begin with. He only said things like he did because he knew it would get a rise out of me … and I gave it to him. Better had I acted like Aunt Adona. Instead I acted just about as immature as he did.” I shook my head in disgust. “I don’t know what makes me feel more foolish, being an idiot the first time around or letting him draw me down to his level this time.”

He fidgeted a bit and then said, “I don’t want you near him anymore without someone else around.”

That surprised me. “Why on earth would I be around him ever again?”

“I don’t know, I don’t want you to have to see him again either, but … life happens Riss. I can’t …” He stopped and shook himself unable to find the words he was looking for. “Just to be on the safe side I’m asking you to heed me on this. Please.”

I leaned over as much as my top side allowed and kissed him. “On this, gladly. I just … it isn’t Sol that has been bothering me. He irritated me, more than a little I’ll admit but it was mostly just irritation at him … and at myself. He did manage to hurt my feelings. But I have you now and all of this we have between us, he shouldn’t have been able to and the only way he could have is if I gave him the power to do it. That was just plain dumb. I really don’t care what he thinks anymore. You know he called me fat?! I mean, well duh, what did he expect? I was as pregnant as a horse and that meant I wasn’t going to exactly be as skinny as a rail for pity sake. That was just plain ignorant on his part and I hope come the time that Shantelle beats him if he acts the same way with her. And he’s a hypocrite ta boot; complaining at me that I hadn’t asked how he had been doing but there I was standing there …” I trailed off feeling myself get angry again. Sol Bly was nothing to me and I needed to start acting like it instead of letting my emotions rule my commonsense.

Dino snorted. “Honey, from what you’ve told me the new Mrs. Bly may have different priorities and have some idea of how to use procreation as a means of controlling Sol.”

Having heard similar stories about certain types of women I shrugged. “Well, whatever. It’s none of my business.” I got on with the telling of the tale and though it did stress me in parts overall I found it what they call cathartic to get it off my chest. It was especially nice to have Dino so on my side.

“All right Riss, all right. I can see how you got your own back,” he said after I pestered him on it. “But if you expect me to just let it go that he delivered such a shock to you the way he did and then left you to …”

I could hear the bear noises creeping into his voice and quickly told him, “It just proves he’s immature and nowhere near the man he claims to be. You should have seen him run Dino. I thought at the time he was running from me, what I’d said, but looking back I’m wondering if maybe it wasn’t Harry he was running from.”

Dino looked at me a long time. “You aren’t just saying that are you. You really think it.”

“I’m starting to. And no, it isn’t to give Sol some kind of credit or anything or to let him off the hook. Harry …” My chest felt so heavy for a moment I had to stop. It still hurt so bad to know I’d never see him again and that he’d died in such a way with such a burden. “Harry made reference in his letter to some talk he’d had with Sol and knowing Harry he likely said some raw and painful things. Harry could have a bad temper; not often, but it still happened. He didn’t yell or scream, it was the words he used and how he said them that could make you feel cut in a thousand places. He and Sol used to get into quite a lot when they first moved to the farm. I never understood it, maybe Harry had seen Sol better than I had all along. Or maybe not. Harry seemed as stunned and as hurt by what Sol did as I was.”

“I read the letter,” Dino admitted. “I hope you don’t mind.”

I shook my head. “I figure you had. Besides, I don’t have any secrets worth keeping from you. If you know my middle name, you know the worst.”

We smiled a bit as we’d turned the whole middle name thing into our private joke. Dino sighed from way down deep where all his emotions were. “I’m sorry Riss. War can be brutal. I knew it would change Harry, he was so open and honest and … and naïve in a way about people that had to … to go if he was going to survive. I just … I guess like you I knew what the possibilities were, but I never thought … “

“I don’t guess anybody ever wants to think about it happening to one of their own. But it does. Every time someone dies they belong to somebody somewhere. This time it was Harry and he belonged to us.” This time when the tears came I didn’t hold them back, but it wasn’t like last time. Dino was there and he anchored me … with his own experiences in war, with his love, and just by being him.

“Riss, the seal wasn’t broken on the legal documents. Did you even look at them?”

I tried to remember then shook my head. “I … I remember them. It was that packet of papers. I guess I …”

“Hey, don’t now,” he said as he shifted closer to me. “I didn’t say you should have, I just asked if you had. Do you … do you want to know what’s in them?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. Is it … is it bad? Like his medical records or … or … death certificate?”

“You’re white as a sheet. Aunt Adona warned me off bringing this up. Maybe we should just …”

“No,” I told him. “Don’t, please don’t, treat me like a child. I know I’ve acted … acted weird … and I’m sorry for it Dino. I didn’t even act like this when all my family died. I don’t know what … what got into me.” And I didn’t. It made me feel ashamed for a couple of reasons. I felt ashamed for acting like I did, but at the same time I felt ashamed for not acting the same way when I lost my mother, brother, and everyone else … I didn’t even act that way when Daddy died.

“You were a child when your family died Riss. And had you broke apart no telling what would have happened to you. God protects children with … with a kind of forgetfulness or innocence or something; or maybe it’s a strength we lose as we get older. I don’t know what to call it but I know it exists. Besides, it isn’t like it didn’t touch you. Maybe if you had acted out you wouldn’t have built up such barriers around yourself.”

I looked at him sharp but not in anger. “What do you mean I have … er … barriers?”

He shook his head. “I’m not saying you haven’t needed them. You use … well you use humor and the way you talk to … to build walls. It creates an impression of who you want people to think you are; they wind up underestimating you and missing your strength. Sometimes it backfires but most of the times that I’ve watched you do it, it works. Like with AJ. Cheryl said something about AJ thinking you were a ‘funny little thing’ with lots of chutzpa.”

“Am not,” I said aggrieved that the one thing AJ had said was that I was short.

“Are too,” Dino laughed. “But I also saw how you maneuvered him into being a part of things. AJ has trouble with that. Alec … I don’t think he even realizes he’s doing it … but Alec treats AJ just like their father treated him. He keeps him at arm’s length and because they’re different Alec is suspicious of everything AJ does. He’ll call on him fast enough when he needs him but he keeps him at arm’s length when he around and it wears him out because he isn’t like that naturally or with anyone else.”

“Well,” I said relieved. “I was wondering if I was misreading things. AJ was a little reserved but I can tell he isn’t an especially cold person. He’s just good at what he is good at. But he’s got walls as thick as the ones at Jericho. I tried, Dino, I really did but I just couldn’t draw him out.”

He sighed and stretched his leg before repositioning it. “That’s AJ, it’s his defense.”

“But he doesn’t act defensive. It is all ‘take me as I.’”

“Yeah, just he never expects anybody to do it. Accept him for who is he I mean.” Then after looking at me he said, “You’re like that to a certain extent too. And you only do things to make sure people think twice about whether they should.”

“Hey, I don’t … well … I don’t on purpose.”

“Sometimes you do and you know it. But most of the time it’s just part of who you are. It’s how you’ve kept yourself from being anymore hurt by life than it already has. For instance, you’re friends with the older folks and the little kids but most of them in between you expect to turn on you. Unfortunately it’s because from what I can see most of them you have let inside those walls have done exactly that. I heard people talking at the wedding; you used to be good friends with Cindy and a couple of them other girls in that crowd.”

I shook my head. “Maybe so but that seems a lifetime ago. As soon as I got into trouble …” I just sighed figuring I’d traveled that road in my head too many times; it was starting to develop ruts.

“Except for Harry,” Dino said quietly.

My breath was gone just like that and I could barely nod and agree, “Except for Harry.” I had to master myself again then it was almost like I was giving a testimonial. “Right off he was friendly; a little silly but still friendly. I figure it was just him being a boy. We were both barely thirteen but I swear I felt like an old woman compared to him. Do you know they didn’t even know what a squash was?” The memory made me laugh quietly. “I mean Sol did but all Hannah kept saying was Ew. But Harry said he’d allow he was so hungry he’d eat one if I would show him how.”

I leaned on Dino’s shoulder for a while. “And Harry fit in faster than any of them did too; him first then Mr. Bly. We had such fun. Hannah used to rag on Harry because he picked up my way of talkin’ but I swear it was like having a brother again. We did nearly everything together … chores, huntin’, playin’. We used to drive Mrs. Bly crazy climbing them pecan trees in the fall; it was a contest to see who could empty a tree faster, they were our soldiers and no nuts could get left behind. Even when we got too old to play like that we still hung out together. Not even Sol got in the way of that; at least I don’t have that guilt to bear. People used to point and say it wasn’t proper but we never thought of each other like that. Matter of fact people seemed surprised that it was Sol I got in trouble with and not Harry. A couple of them even thought Sol was taking the fall for his brother.” I shook my head as another thought caught me, “I guess you remember everyone called him Opie … I guess from that old show with that red headed kid in it. He grew to hate it but he didn’t fuss about it until he was practically a grown man.” Then I did fall into the weeps. “Dino … he never really got to be a grown man. Some crazy person put a bomb on a baby and killed him before he ever had a chance to even enjoy life right and proper. And he went to his grave so heavy laden and I wasn’t there … I wasn’t there for him like he was for me.”

“Oh Riss.” I must have cried a five gallon bucket full. The only reason I found strength to stop was I heard Pita grunt and chewing on her fist.

“Look at me,” I said blowing my nose. “I’ve probably soured my milk.”

“That’s an old wives tale Riss,” he told me wiping my face with one of the cooled off clothes he had been using to hold the warm compress to his knee.

“Huh. I guess we’ll see won’t we.” I got Pita and brought her over and she started to nurse and it was like I entered another world. Hormones are powerful things. If we could bottle that feeling that you get when you nurse and pass it out when folks got cranky the world would be a whole ‘nother place.

I guess he felt me finally let that bone melting feeling take me over. “Riss, those papers aren’t anything to worry about. Harry has left everything he has and might have in the future from the military to Pita. In the end he tried to do the right thing his brother never did or even offered to do and that will always gall Sol; that his little brother, even blown in half and on his death bed, was a better man than him. That’s probably why he ran. It’s nothing he can escape though he’ll spend his life trying and nothing he’ll ever be able to change now. And he’s probably seen the knowledge in his own mother’s eyes too. Harry will always be the better man now. Can you imagine, with his need to see himself a certain way, what that is going to be like to live with? It’s the best legacy Harry could leave to the world, that example he set.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chapter Thirty

Chapter 30

I gave her a suspicious look. “Tina told me about this walking exercise you prescribe. Is this one of those ‘gravity is my friend’ type things?”

Cheryl chuckled. “Yes, yes it is.” She patted my leg through the covers. “Now I’m going to get you a dress and get all those men out from under foot.”

I moved but the sudden additional wetness where I wasn’t expecting it was very disconcerting. “What on earth?”

“It’s all right dear; I put a pad under you while I was examining you.” When she saw I didn’t understand she explained, “You’re still leaking amniotic fluid. It will happen all through your labor to one extent or another until the baby descends into the birth canal to act like a cork.”

Ew. But I didn’t say it out loud because Cheryl acted like it was a completely natural thing under the circumstances. “Youch!” I tried to move and it felt like I had a couple of loose boulder down there.

Someone’s patience finally snapped and Dino stomped into the room. “Didn’t you hear that? She’s in pain … and you said it would only be a few minutes.” The look on his face when he said it reminded me very strongly of his five year old son in a snit.

I snapped, “Well, if you were trying to get a watermelon out from a certain part of your anatomy you’d be saying a few choice words to I reckon.”

Rather than make him upset he grinned in relief and took me into his arms. Cheryl said, “Easy on that Romeo.” To me she said, “I’ll be right back Riss. You’re going to want something big and comfortable.”

“Hanging in the closet,” I told her as she left the room pulling the door closed behind her.

“Riss?” Dino asked.

I sighed in reluctant acceptance. “Doc Cheryl says I’m to walk, that I need to … uh … stimulate labor.”

Concerned he asked, “Isn’t this too early?”

I shook my head, “According to Cheryl I probably would have popped off within a week anyway.”

A weezy “Good Lord” left his mouth quickly covered by him asking me if I was in pain. “No though I expect before this is over you may want to duck and cover. Tina says that women can get a little irritated when they are in labor.”

The look on his face was pretty funny but he said he wouldn’t leave my side for even a minute. Uh huh, I gave him points for really meaning that too but wouldn’t hold him to it.

After a moment of quiet where he just held me gently Dino said, “Riss, I need to know. Did Sol touch you? Hurt you in anyway?”

I really did not want to think about anything other than what I had before me but Dino sounded so … so lost, like he though he hadn’t been there when I needed him and was suffering for it. “No Dino, he never even came on this side of the gate, not even to give me … give me …”

I could feel that blackness waving at me from the edges of my mind and I got nauseous so fast Dino almost couldn’t get a basin under me before I started vomiting. So much for my famous cast iron stomach.

When I stopped I said, “I don’t want to think about it Dino … not think about it, not talk about it, not …”

“Di-o-nysius Pappas!” Aunt Adona to the rescue. “I believe … you were told … not … to overset your wife.”

I have really got to learn how to do that look she does. I reckon it could come in real handy when Kerry gets to be bigger than me.

“I didn’t mean to upset her!” Oh yeah, now I know where Kerry gets it all right.

Aunt Adona even snorts better than I do. “Be that as it may you obviously are. Now is not the time for that particular discussion.”

Cheryl came into the room with an old raggedy dress than I’d pieced together just to have something to cover me on laundry day when everything else that fit was getting washed. They helped me slide it on and adjust a few things for comfort and then I started walking.

I swear I love Cheryl and Aunt Adona. Nothing flummoxed them. I’d cry they’d cheer me up. I’d get giddy they’d calm me down. I got tired they were the best cheerleading squad ever.

By the time nightfall came and went and even midnight was a memory, I was finally in full, hard labor. I must have walked the shine off of those wood floors. I walked a flaming marathon. And Dino was with me every step of the way, even after his bad leg started thumping … even after I started threatening to thump him if he didn’t stop being so nice.

“I do not want a back rub. I do not want you to wash my face. I do not need my feet rubbed. What I want,” I told him as I grabbed his shirt front. “Is to get this buffalo out … of … me!”

“Ow … ow … chest hairs Honey. You grabbed some chest hairs that time.”

Finally it was time to push. But nothing was happening. Cheryl said, “OK Riss, up you go.”

“Noooo, I’m sooo tired.” My voice cracked and the very idea of having to move any more, find the energy to do anything anymore, just aggrieved me something awful.

“We need to get you up and out of the reclining position. Come on now up you go.” It felt like a lightning bolt struck me in my sensitive parts. I squealed like a stuck pig and I’m not afraid to admit it. “That’s my girl. Baby likes this position muuuuch better. There now, one last push. Lord have mercy, what a lot of hair on that head.”

Well, it worked and that’s all I’m gonna say about it. There are simply some things that are between a mother and her baby. I felt something finally slide out of me all slippery and wet and squalling like it’d been done a severe injustice already in this life.

“Well, you have a girl.”

I don’t remember too much for a while except for snatches. They laid me back down in the bed and this big ol’ wet blob of a baby was plopped on my now flaccid stomach while they took care of the afterbirth and some of my other womanly needs. Dino just stood there for a minute staring and then started to topple. If Aunt Adona hadn’t had the presence of mind to slide a chair under him I’m not sure we would have had the chance to scrape him up off the floor for a while.

The baby wasn’t even cut loose from me before she was snuffling like a little pig and searching for something to eat. It was just the most amazing thing to realize this was what had been baking inside me all those months. Dino finally recollected himself, leaned over and kissed my temple and said in amazement, “She’s already half grown. Look at all that hair.”

I looked and though she was the most beautiful baby the truth is it broke my heart a little. It was like looking at a miniature Harry, if you ignored the girl parts. She didn’t have the freckles yet but I knew she would if I couldn’t get her to wear a hat to keep the sun off her face. And that hair was the color that you couldn’t even get out of a dye bottle.

“She’s got your eyes and curls.”

I denied it. “They aren’t the same color. Besides, not all babies keep the color of eyes they’re born with. And how can you tell if her hair is curly? It’s all plastered to her scalp with … with gunk.”

He chuckled. “I’m talking about the shape of her eyes. They’re like yours to a tee.”

“How can you tell? She looks like a red headed sumo wrestler right now.”

That made him chuckle and the baby blinked in his direction getting his immediate attention. “Aw now, you don’t worry about it Pip. You’re just as beautiful as can be, yes you are. Bet I have to clean my shotgun so much when the boys come around I’ll wear the bluing off of it.”

“Dino!” I said laughing at his nonsense. Then I grew serious. “She’s not going to have the boys come around. She’s gonna wait until they’ve all outgrown their silliness before she even bothers looking them over. I don’t want her making the same mistake I did and feeling like a fool.” I felt my eyes watering up.

“Hey,” he whispered softly. “Now, none of that. We’ll work on it together. I’ll hold the boys off while you fill her with good sense. Can’t lose that way.”

I asked for a handkerchief to wipe my nose. “Help me sit up a bit Dino. She’s going to chew a hole through my nightgown at this rate.”

As soon as the two of us had figured out how to get things set she went to town. No worry about that girl being puny; she may have come a wee bit early but she wasn’t gonna use it as an excuse to miss a meal.

“Riss?” Cheryl interrupted Dino and I from contemplating the ravenous little piglet. “Riss, let me have her to clean her up and measure her. She may not be one for my record books but she’s a good size nonetheless.”

It was hard, harder than I ever imagined, to turn loose of her and give her over to Cheryl to take into the next room. As soon as she left I teared up all over again. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“It’s hormones. They’ll settle down in a while,” he said stroking my empty hands that seemed to need something to hold so badly.

I sniffled and said, “That’s right. I read it somewhere. I don’t like this at all.” For some unaccountable reason I wanted to cry even more.

To distract me if for no other reason Dino asked, “What do you want to name her?”

Well didn’t that just stop me dead in my tracks. “I … I don’t have the foggiest idea.”

“I … uh … I have a suggestion if you want to hear it. It was my sister’s name.”

“You’d name her after your sister? You really would? But won’t your family want that to be … you know … a family name?”

Dino got a stern look though not a hard one. “Damaris Pappas, whose name is going on that birth certificate?” I caught my breath. “That little girl is mine. God gave you to me and through you her. There is no way I’m going to let anyone say otherwise, family or not. We’ll raise her together. She’ll be Kerry’s little sister. And God willing we’ll add more little brothers or sisters.” Then he went from serious to begging with a little green tinge around his gills, “Just please, Riss, not until I recover from this time.”

I laughed a little but it hurt so I had to stop. I still felt better. I sniffed back
my tears and asked, “So what is this name?”

“It’s Greek and means beloved and wanted.” That made me tear up again. “We called my sister Pita but the full name was Agapita.”

I tried it out, “Agapita Pappas. It sounds nice.”

“Now for the middle name I thought Damaris and … uh … what’s wrong.”

I sighed. “There’s a … uh … tradition in my family. The oldest daughter has passed along a certain name for … oh Lord, I guess eight generations now and maybe before that. Anyway, some ancestor of mine started the curse.”

“You don’t like the name Damaris?”

I shook my head. “Damaris is my first name.”

He grinned, a great big pie eating grin. “Someone has been hiding something.”

I gave him a look to scorch metal. “If you laugh …

“Come on … what is it … might as well fess up. My family is very, very partial to traditions.”

I gritted my teeth, grimaced, and then muttered, “Zipporah.”

He deflated. “And here I thought it was something awful.”

“It is,” I complained. “I had an aunt that used to call me …” I bit my lip.

“Call you what?” he asked starting to grin again.

“Zippy all right? She used to call me Zippy. She thought it was cute.”

He had to shove his wrist in his mouth so he wouldn’t wake the whole house up with his laughing. Cheryl walked back in with the baby and said, “What on earth? Has he finally cracked?”

He got up and wiped his eyes and took the still snuffling, but now clean and swaddled, baby from Cheryl and said, “I’d like you to welcome Agapita Zipporah Pappas to the family.”

Cheryl shook her head and said, “That child is going to drive you crazy for cursing her like that. You know Pita hated her name. And where on earth did you come up with Zipporah?”

Dino sniggered and if he hadn’t been holding the baby I would have thrown something at him. Cheryl, intercepting my look asked, “What?”

I sighed and finally admitted, “It’s my middle name. I was cursed by a family tradition.”

“You too huh? Wait until Adona gets irritated at Dino and calls him …” Over the top of Dino’s “Hey … hey don’t …” I heard it. Dionysius Archimedes Pappas.

Then it was my turn to snigger – though I couldn’t do much of it ‘cause it was jiggling my sore insides – Dino said, “I’ll have you know it was my grandfather’s name. It’s just that everyone called him Archie.”

I kept laughing and holding my stomach. “Ow … oh … funny … ow … so funny … ow … stop … stop making me laugh … ow.”

Dino sat down in the chair with Pita while Cheryl looked on shaking her head while she finished cleaning up in the room. Grinning he said, “Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal. You don’t call me Archie and I won’t call you Zippy.”

Taking the baby from him so that she could finish her first meal I told him, “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

I knew the euphoria of birth – the sheer magic of it now that the pain was over – wouldn’t last. Nothing like that ever lasts. But in the back of my mind I also knew that Dino and I needed to talk. I to him and him to me. Harry wasn’t the only one in his family that had red hair, Pita came by it honestly. I needed to know, for her sake and mine, that the knowledge of who her sperm donor was wouldn’t eventually eat at him. It might have been a little late to be thinking of that but I hadn’t really thought she’d come out quite so … so red headed. I knew Dino needed to ask me more about what had happened, the details that there was no way Kerry would have known. And I needed to be careful how I handled it. I was beginning to get the idea that these people I married into were a might on the protective side and while that can be good, it can also have its dark side.

Mostly though I needed to be able to talk about Harry. I needed to find some explanation and if not an explanation some kind of understanding … and if not that at least some kind of closure. I couldn’t leave this wound hanging open like a tear in my heart. I bore enough scars, I wanted to be able to bury Harry with some peace … for all our sakes.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter 29

Slowly I pulled myself up, but trying to string two thoughts together just didn’t seem like a thing I could do. My first real good thought I could hang onto was Kerry.

“Kerry?”

No answer. I pushed myself up more and realized just how wet I was when the cold air hits my clothes. Then some other memories slid in and I started to get scared.

“Kerry? Squirt?! Riss didn’t mean to scare you Honey. I’m just … just over set … but not at you. I swear, it’s not at you Sugar. Come out please.”

No answer. Oh God.

“Kerry?!!”

I felt a tug down deep and it was just plain weird. But then I started feeling colder. I knew I couldn’t sit there. I told myself, “Wake up you silly creature. What is wrong with you? You have to find Kerry. Get up, you ain’t that fat.”

I was pulling and clawing my way up trying to get feet under me that didn’t want to do what I told ‘em to. My head felt full of cotton. “Kerry!!” I called again. “Honey, where are you? I’m sorry. Please don’t be scared! Come on Squirt, I know I’m a mess but … but …”

I’d made it up by the skin of my teeth but the world didn’t want to stay level and I was really, really cold. Stupid cold from the inside out instead of the other way around like you expect after getting soaked in winter.

I called again, “Ker …” but it ended in a squawk as someone grabbed me from behind. When I realized who it was I broke down crying.

“Oh God Dino. I can’t find Kerry. I … I think I scared him or something. I’ve called and called. We’ve got to find him. He can’t be out in this cold. I don’t even know if he has his jacket on. We …”

“Shhhh,” he says trying to calm me. “Alec has him.”

Now I was feeling stupid but not so stupid that I knew that made no sense. “Alec? How … how does Alec have him? Wha …?”

All the while he’s leading me into the house but I feel like all my bones are gone, like a piece of wet noodle that just wants to slide every which a way. “Dino … Dino …”

“It’s all right. I’m here. Did the guy … touch you? Hurt you?”

I was in my old bedroom all of a sudden. “What are we … I … why …”

“This room is off the kitchen and warmer. The upstairs is probably like ice right now. Look at me love. Did the man … hurt you?”

“Man?” I asked confused. It finally registered who he might be talking about. “Oh … wait … that wasn’t a man … it was Sol. How … how did you know he was here?”

I felt Dino stiffen up. “I’ll castrate that …”

Alec came in the room and grabbed Dino by the shoulder and shook his head. I was trying to wonder why when he said, “Calm and quiet,” he said in a voice like he was forcing himself to do the same thing. “Get her out of those wet things and in the bed, raise her feet about a foot higher than her head, and get her warm but don’t let her overheat. I’ve sent Ajax to get Cheryl and Mother. Chester is stoking the stove and he’ll lay a fire upstairs as soon as he’s through in case they think she should be moved up there.”

I don’t exactly remember fighting him about being stripped down in the daytime but he kept saying, “Now let me do this Riss.” I must have not been cooperating but I really don’t remember much of anything. It was the oddest feeling, like my head was just not connected to the rest of me. The only thing that made a real impression on me was the cold and how it seemed to be making it hard for me to breathe. Then I was in the bed and under the covers; that was better but not much.

I could feel myself wanting to slide off into the black again and then Alec was there and in my face. “Damaris!” He sounded so much like my father catching me doing something I wasn’t supposed to that he startled me. “There you are,” he said when my eyes finally found his. “Don’t go to sleep. I know you might feel like it but I need you to stay awake. OK? Tell me what I said.”

He had to ask twice but I finally said, “Don’t go to sleep.”

“That’s good, real good. Now remember that.” He must have turned to Dino because that seemed to be who he was talking to. “She’s had a shock. It might have brought on labor. We’ll know more when Cheryl gets here and looks her over.”

I heard some papers rustling and for some reason that really disturbed me. A moment later a soft curse followed by a pretty violent description of what he would do to Sol when he caught up with him was even more distressing though for the life of me I can’t quite remember what it was he said. I do remember Alec saying, “None of that, at least not right now. We’ll deal with it later, as a family. Right now she needs you to hold on to. Try and talk to her and get her to respond in a way that makes sense.”

I started shaking again. I knew there was something I was going to remember and I didn’t want to. I knew it was going to hurt. Then I caught the look on Dino’s face. He was white as a sheet and all his feelings were in his eyes.

“Kerry?” I croaked around breath that didn’t seem to want to stay in my lungs very long.

“Slow down. Come one Honey. Try and slow your breathing a bit, take deeper breaths.”

I found doing that made me feel warmer so I concentrated on it and when the shaking wasn’t so bad I asked for Kerry again.

“He’s just fine. Chester’s sons have him outside.”

I shook my head trying to get upset. “He doesn’t have a coat on. It’s too cold. He’ll …”

“It’s OK Momma Riss, your boy had his coat, hat and gloves, and everything else he needs. I can see from the window they’ve even started a fire in the burn barrel and have a jug of cider from the looks of it, warming it up.”

“I couldn’t find him Dino. I’m sorry,” I said starting to cry a bit. “I don’t know how I lost him. I think I scared him and …”

“Shhhh,” he said petting me and trying to calm me down. “You didn’t lose him. The boy tried to do the work of a man and ran to get help.”

“Oh my Lord Dino,” I breathed. “Across all those fields? By himself?! He’s just a little boy!”

“Now if you don’t calm down,” he threatened. “I’m not going to talk about this anymore.”

“Just tell me he didn’t get lost, wet, or anything else.”

“No. As a matter of fact he was on a beeline to us when we spotted him running down one of the rows. He said he used the turbine as a landmark to go towards. I ran out to meet him thinking he’d run off from you but he was crying and not making any sense except to say there’d been a man at the house and you’d fallen down and wasn’t answering him when he called. It turned my blood cold.”

It was turning my blood cold to think of Kerry running all that way by himself. He wasn’t even tall enough to see over the vine rows. They could have so easily missed him or he them.

“I was running back to the house before any of the others could even turn the wagons or unhitch the horses. Met one of Chester’s boys half way here and grabbed his horse. They’d been sent home early because they couldn’t get the boiler working at the school. He said they’d seen a car flying down the highway from the direction of our house. They separated and the older boy – Jeremy – was going straight towards the house and the younger one was coming to get us just to be safe. I was only two horse lengths ahead of Jeremy.”

I shook my head. “Dino … oh Dino …” It was coming back to me. I wasn’t crying but I was holding onto him as if my life depended on it.

He kept talking to me and making me answer silly questions that I had to think about and slowly my heart didn’t feel like it was going to flutter right out of my chest and I could take a breath without feeling like I was stuck in a girdle. I started feeling nauseous but as long as I didn’t move too much it wasn’t too bad.

We both heard a noise out in the kitchen and then Cheryl came in. I didn’t know it before then but Cheryl had been some kind of nurse until she lost the taste for it and decided that her own family had to come first. She gave her license up only a couple of months before the government instituted a medical draft.

“OK Dino, go on out for just a minute.” Dino must have gotten a mulish look on his face because she said quite calmly and with a lot of authority in her voice, “Willingly or unwillingly, doesn’t matter to me and you know it. Don’t make me have you carted out and upset her even more. Give me a few minutes then you can come back in.”

I started shaking again when he left the room and she shut the door. “Cheryl? I … I think my water broke.”

“It appears so,” she said as she examined my clothes where Dino had tossed them. “Are you in any pain?”

“I’m just cold.”

“How cold?”

“Not as cold as I was but … but I can’t stop shaking.”

She stuck a thermometer in my mouth and was feeling my hands and my bare feet then took my pulse. When she’d read the thermometer she started writing stuff down on a little pad she pulled out of this bag I finally noticed. “Your temperature is normal and you don’t feel clammy. Alec said you were when you were first brought in so that means you’re coming out of it. Have you had any labor pains?

I thought, “I … I don’t think so. I mean, doesn’t labor hurt?”

She chuckled and said, “It might not at this stage, especially if a woman has a high pain tolerance. I know for a fact that you do. Sometimes first time mothers with a high pain tolerance don’t even recognize when they are in labor. Has your back been aching? Anything like that?”

Again I thought about it, “Not really, not any more than normal.”

She sighed. “Riss, if this was a hospital you’d probably either be put on forced bed rest with a baby monitor or they would start you on pitocin to induce labor.”

“What … what does that mean?”

“Normally your water breaks after you’ve been in labor a bit, even if it is just mild labor. You’ve … you’ve had a shock and it was enough to cause your body to spontaneously rupture your membranes.”

“And that pitocin stuff?”

“It’s a synthetic hormone used to stimulate labor. It can have adverse side effects like harder and faster labor but can be necessary to avoid other adverse situations in labor.”

Trying to think my way through it and avoid getting side tracked about why I had had the shock I finally said, “Well, we aren’t in a hospital. And there are no baby monitors. And that pitocin, even if we had some, doesn’t sound like something I’d appreciate. So … so what am I supposed to do?”

“Well, first I want you to relax as much as you can. I know it is asking a lot but just try … if not for your own sake then the baby’s and Dino’s. Second, I know it is going to be uncomfortable but I need to check and see if you are dilated at all. That will give us some idea of where to go from here.”

Saying it was uncomfortable didn’t even being to cover it. I didn’t know whether to die of embarrassment or grit until my teeth were breaking. “OK, all over. Try and relax.” She started washing her hands again as well as she had beforehand.

“Cheryl, no offense but that just ain’t working.”

She smiled, “I know but it is part of the bedside speech that all nurses learn. We know it doesn’t work but figure if we say it often enough the patient will give in just to shut us up.”

Believe it or not I tried to laugh. Bad idea. “Ow. What …? Why … why does it feel …? Ow.”

“No more water, No more cushion Riss. And believe it or not you are lucky. I doubt you would have gone another week as dilated as you are - over seventy-five percent effaced - and this is your first baby.”

A little overwhelmed with the medical jargon I asked, “OK, but what exactly does that mean?”

“It means, my dear, that it is time to walk.”