Monday, November 14, 2011

Update ...

The following stories are now complete:
A Will To Survive
Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Forsaken Harvest (completed as of 11/14/11)
Over the Mountain and Through the Fire
This Is Me Surviving

Stories Currently in Progress:
All Roads Lead Somewhere
Carry On
Mom's Journal of the Zombie Years
To All Things There Is A Season
Il Agita Di Amore
And the Geek Will Inherit the Earth

I plan on a very short break and then will begin to try and complete another story. I hope to have at least two more completed before the end of the year.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Part 23: As You Sow

Part 23: As You Sow

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

“You’re WHAT?!”

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

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

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

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

“Mi Coraz…”

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

“Leah …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you kept it to yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leah, we aren’t through.”

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

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

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

“Must be a pretty big deal.”

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

“Well … is it?”


“But it’s a big deal.”

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

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

“I’ll do it,” Mateo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leah …”

I stopped and turned to him. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annie?” I asked, surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some but not much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m … I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Part 22: If Wishes Were Horses

Part 22: If Wishes Were Horses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Part 21: Bindings that Save

Part 21: Bindings that Save

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. ~Shirley Abbott

It was obvious that Annie didn’t quite know where to start so I told her, “Relax. Start your story where you think it starts. Tell the truth, not just what you think I want to hear.”

She gave me a “you’re really strange” look but took a breath and began. “We call my dad Poppy and his dad we called Poppa. Poppa died when I was younger but he was pretty cool even though he was old. He was Columbian and came to the US for political asylum. His wife and older two sons were killed in the fighting that was always going on down there. Poppy wasn’t even a year old when he and his father immigrated. Poppa married a woman when he got to the US to help take care of Poppy and because he was lonely but it didn’t stick and she left to go back to her family so it was just Poppy and his dad. You probably think that’s pathetic.”

“If you want to know what I think then ask, but don’t assume. I don’t think it is pathetic. I think some of it is tragic but based on what you’ve said your grandfather was just doing the best he knew how to do,” I told her reminding her not to automatically think the worst.

She shrugged, still not sure she could trust I meant that. “Poppa worked really hard all the time but he and Poppy got along. Poppy said it was because his father knew what was most important and that is what they focused on and let God take care of the rest. All I know is Poppa was a bear about work … work and school seemed to be what he thought most important; oh and mass on Saturday nights. Poppa was an architect in Columbia but the rules are different here in the US and Poppa didn’t have the money to go back to college and get the degree and stuff that he needed to be an architect here; there wasn’t money for much of anything. So he went to work in a grocery store but he also worked at a restaurant at night that let him bring Poppy with him. He also did landscaping work when it was available. Poppy is really smart; he graduated highschool near the top of his class and the only reason he didn’t make valedictorian was because he had to work and sometimes didn’t get enough sleep and would miss a quiz or something. His SAT scores were real high and it got him a scholarship to a state college but he still had to come up with money for books and a car and gas and insurance and …”

Nodding in empathy I told her, “Been there, it isn’t easy. I worked my way through college too. Even with scholarships there are still things you have to pay for and my parents couldn’t help except to give me a place to stay and to help with the smaller stuff. But really, and I’m sure your dad probably said something similar, sometimes you only appreciate what you have when you have to really work for it.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, that’s what Poppy always said. Thing is Poppy earned his AA but couldn’t afford anymore after that because Poppa had an accident on the job – a kid backed into him with a forklift and broke his hip and a place in his back that took a long time to heal.” Suddenly she checked her enthusiasm. “Poppy took on a couple of more part time jobs to help pay the rent and put food on the table because they were giving Poppa a hard time about workmen’s comp. They kept trying to say he was an illegal but that wasn’t true. He’d get them copies of the paperwork that said he was in the US legally and it would get lost … sometimes on purpose.”

I noticed a righteous indignation just beneath the surface of her assumed stoic outlook. Poor kid, it didn’t seem her family could catch a break.

“Anyway, on one of these jobs Poppy met Mommy. She was a nice girl from a nice family and even though Poppa asked them to wait her parents were all for it thinking that Poppy was a citizenship ticket for their daughter. Poppy didn’t know it at the time, he was just in love. Mommy was … well, she was easily led by her family and got pregnant right away even though Poppy and Mommy had an agreement that they would wait. That was Raphael, my big brother.” I wanted to ask where her brother was but she went on too quickly. “Poppy had wanted to go back to school but now all that was changed. Mommy also did some other stuff that Poppy wasn’t happy about … she signed up for government benefits, would take us to the free clinic even though Poppy told her to use the walk in clinic. Then I came along right after Raphael and that wasn’t planned and Mommy was already regretting getting pregnant so soon and so young … she went a little crazy after that.”

Hesitantly I asked, “Post partum depression?”

“No,” she said barely concealing a sneer. “The I’m-too-young-and-pretty-to-be-a-mother syndrome.”

“How young was she?” I asked.

“Not that young. Twenty, just like Poppy. And Poppy was working three jobs and she had Poppa around to help but that only gave her the excuse to run out to the store only she’d be gone for hours and hours. She’d leave Poppy and then come back when her family got tired of her or she couldn’t find some man to take care of her. Poppy would take her back but she’d only leave again. Eventually Poppy smartened up and wouldn’t let her come back anymore and he got a divorce and she did something stupid and she ran across the border to live with some relatives. Poppa convinced Poppy to move to Florida so that Mommy couldn’t keep disrupting our lives anymore and things started going really good.”

I could see that she was looking back and trying to put everything in order. From the look on her face she was trying to decide just how much personal information she needed to give me to tell the story. I let her do the deciding without trying to influence her; what she would tell me would be just as important as what she didn’t; I would figure out the rest eventually.

“By that time Raphael had started school and I was in kindergarten and then Poppy met Rosa.” She stopped again but before I needed to say something to start her back up she said, “She was pretty but sad too. Poppa liked her a lot; he said that even though she was sad and had rich relatives she still worked. That was a big deal to Poppa. And Rosa did work, her pretty looks and just the way she was made you want to buy whatever she was selling. You wouldn’t think she would be good at it but she was and she sold a lot of houses to the well-to-do people who liked her because she looked so classy. And right when Poppy decided that it wasn’t a good idea to see her anymore for some reason Abuelo came to talk to him and Poppa and everything was all right again. They got married and we went to live in Rosa’s house because it was bigger and paid for and so that Josef wouldn’t make such a big stink. He was the same age as Raphael but even back them he acted like he was older and the boss of us all. The only time he wasn’t like that was when Poppy or Abuelo was around. Poppa just ignored him, but Abuela would get after him too if she caught him at it; but Rosa just would throw up her hands and let him do whatever he wanted rather than have a confrontation. That was the unwritten rule around our house, no confrontations.”

Sighing I said, “Then I suppose it irritated you when I asked that we not …”

She interrupted before I could finish. “The fighting? Naw, that’s no big deal. I hate it too, it gives me a headache when the boys go off on each other all the time. I mean Rosa couldn’t stand having any kind of confrontation at all. I mean she would take to her bed saying she was sick or would act like she was going to faint … stuff like that.”

“How on earth did she make it in real estate then?”

Annie shrugged. “She had a good broker and a good secretary that handled all of that. Or if the clients got to be difficult she simply gave them to another realtor to deal with. She would rather give up the commission than deal with difficult people. She was just that way, there was nothing you could do to change it. I guess you can be that way when you are a grown up but that’s no way to make things work with kids. The only time I ever saw her disagree with Poppy was … look … oh crud.”

Startled I looked at her and waited for an explanation. “Look, it doesn’t matter to any of us … well, not now that Josef is … anyway …” She huffed to a stop and then rushed on. “Right after Poppy and Rosa got married they had Raymundo … we call him Ray.”

“But isn’t he … the eleven year old?” I asked slightly confused.

“Yeah, the real quiet one that is Robert’s shadow.”

Even more confused now I was trying to reconcile the ages of the boys. “You’re seventeen, Roy is fifteen, Robert is fourteen, Ray is eleven then Ricky is … nine?” At her nod I added, “Ren in five and then there are the two girls who are five and three.”

“Now you see it,” she said nodding. “Robert is … well … you know how I said we moved to Florida so that my mother couldn’t find us? Well, somehow she found us anyway. She showed up only long enough to drop Robert into Poppy’s lap. Poppy was really, really angry and refused to believe that Robert was his … she’d never said anything and had hidden him. He was going to get a paternity test but Mommy ran off and if it had been shown that Robert wasn’t his there wasn’t anyone to take him. Poppy … it is the only time I had ever seen him so … so … forbidding. And it was also the only time I ever saw Rosa fight with Poppy. She wouldn’t let him take Robert away. She said it didn’t matter, that Robert was ours now and we needed to fix it so that Rosa couldn’t change her mind and take him away. She was almost hysterical and it took Abuelo pulling some strings but the papers all got signed. Abuela talked with Poppy and nothing more was said. Poppy treated him the same way he treated the rest of us from then on. My mother did came back one more time after that even though she’d been warned off, it was late at night and Poppy wasn’t home. She wanted to see Robert. Rosa … Rosa told her to leave or she would call the cops. That my mother had run out on all of us kids and we weren’t hers anymore and that she … Rosa … was our mother and wouldn’t let trash like my mother be in the same room with us. Rosa wouldn’t even let us out of the house for weeks after that. I think she was afraid my mother would try and steal one or all of us and take us across the border with her.”

“It isn’t unheard of,” I told her.

“Yeah, I know. But it was just weird. I hadn’t decided yet whether I liked Rosa or not. Sometimes I loved her but sometimes she would make me really angry. I mean she was OK and all that and seemed to make Poppy happy but she never did anything but look pretty. Every time she tried to cook she would burn something and stink up the house. Clothes … everyone’s underwear was always pink or blue because she would forget and put the whites in with the colors or the blue jeans. Her idea of cleaning … Abuela would come over and clean and Abuelo paid for someone to come over once a week and clean. The worse thing was sometimes I think she did it on purpose. Rosa … Poppa told me I could love her without always having to like the way she did things and that’s pretty much the way it turned out to be. Even though she wasn’t my bio mom she … she fought for me. I didn’t have to like how she did everything but I could honor the good things that she did do for our family.”

Already knowing the answer but trying to give her a direction after she had fallen silent I asked, “So Ren and Sylvie are fraternal twins?”

“Huh?! No … uh … no … er ... they … well … they were Poppy’s boss’ kids and I used to babysit them.” At my still confused look she said, “Look, it’s complicated. See right after Ricky was born Poppa died and then right after Ren was born Abuelo died. That left Poppy with a lot of responsibility and Rosa was a mess. If it hadn’t been for Abuela the mess would have been even bigger. If we had lived in another country I probably would have quit school and stayed home to take care of things but Abuela and Poppy said no way no how so we all just kind of pitched in to make things work. Then the economy got bad and Poppy lost his job as a contractor and Momma Rosa … that’s what Raphael and I eventually started calling her … couldn’t earn any more commissions. Then Rosa got sick only she wasn’t faking like she used to and doctors cost money even if your grandfather used to be one. Raphael and Josef worked as much as they could but there wasn’t a whole lotta work for teenagers when old people needed the jobs; you couldn’t even get a job as McDonalds or Walmart anymore without being a retiree. I was like a part time Nanny for Sylvie and Evie when their parents had to let their full-time Nanny go. A lot of Abuela’s investments tanked and she moved in with us to save the cost of that retirement community she was living in. Things were tight but we were getting by, lot’s better than some of the kids we were going to school with. Then Josef started bringing home groceries and stuff and shoes for the boys and other stuff when we needed it. He said he was doing some work for some guys up in the rich part of town that paid him in stuff instead of money and I think Poppy and Rosa wanted to believe him because they didn’t want to believe it could be anything else.”

I winced knowing what was coming. “Yeah,” she said seeing my wince. “Turns out he was working for some black market dudes. I mean it could have been worse, they could have been drug dealers, but Poppy was still pretty bent when he found out.”

“Did Josef get arrested?”

“No … worse. He got promoted. One of those UN groups that came in hired him and since he already knew the ropes and where people were likely to hide their valuables … who had what and who only acted like they had something … he scored lots of brownie points. But …”

“But?” I nudged.

“He couldn’t score enough to get a doctor for his Momma and … and … and he got in a fight and then we all got thrown into this refugee camp even though Josef didn’t even live at home anymore. He was really broke up over it. Then some kind of sickness went around the camp and Rosa … she …”

Unsure whether the gesture would be appreciated or not I nevertheless went over and sat by the girl and put my arm around her. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Me too.” She didn’t cry and it made me wonder when was the last time she had let herself cry. “Poppy and Abuela, they were messed up but it was Josef that really … he … he changed. He got involved in some bad stuff … underground anarchist stuff that was going on in the camp. Stupid stuff like if not everyone can be free then no one should be free. Really weird and demented kind of stuff that made even less sense than the bad stuff we were already dealing with. Poppy’s boss’ brother was into that stuff too and it made everything so hard. We were all just trying to stay alive as they fed us less and less and asked more and more work out of us. That’s when some of the adults realized the people running the camp weren’t US soldiers but something else and that kind of lit a flame. Then the camp just … just blew up. People went crazy and guns started going off and buildings and tents caught fire. It was … I don’t know if I’ve got the words to describe what it was like. Josef was one of the first people to die; he ran into the gun fire like a crazy person and … and … I mean like right in front of us. The boys had nightmares for a long time. Raphael ran out to help before Poppy could stop him and he got shot but it took him … took him two days to die and we didn’t have doctors or any medicine to help him. Poppy and Mr. Wayne … that’s Poppy’s boss … they got whatever they could grab and our families took off. We ran out where the fence had been knocked down by the people trying to get out ahead of us. The fighting seemed to follow us and Poppy, Mr. Wayne and some of the other adults tried to hold them off and then Mr. Wayne asked me to look after his daughters – Mr. Wayne’s wife died not too long after Rosa did – and we just ran. We were supposed to meet back up at Mr. Wayne’s old house but no one ever came and eventually the other families drifted away looking for some place to go to be safe. We waited and waited … for two weeks thinking Poppy was just … you know … late … but then these men came and ran us off saying that it was their territory. Besides we were starting to run low on food and we’d heard that there was some further on down the road.”

She hunched her shoulders. “No matter who tells it, the rumor is that it is always somewhere further down the road. Sometimes there was but most of the time it was just more hard times and people telling us we had to move along.”

“Didn’t you ever hear about the good refugee camps?” I asked wanting to know.

“You hear lots of things but you learn not to believe anything that you haven’t seen with your own eyes.” Her face said it was more like she had started to give up that there was ever going to be any place better no matter how far down the road she travelled.

I nodded. “My father used to say ‘believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ “

“Yeah, pretty much. We learned to avoid people after a while. There … there were some that wanted … nasty things from me … or the boys. They would always push Abuela around, tell her she should just go ahead and die – she’d had her chance - so the younger generation could survive. Nearly everyone wanted the cows so we learned to travel at night and be real quiet.”

Feeling pretty bad I said, “I must not have made a very good first impression.”

“Eh, not so bad. Don’t mind Roy, he’s just … he’s too young to be the man but he tries anyway and sometimes it makes him run his mouth.”

“I wasn’t talking about him, I was talking about to you,” I told her with as much honesty in my face as I could put there. “Even knowing your story I’m not sure I would have acted any different but I am sorry that you’ve been through such hard times.” I patted her back and got out of her space. “But I will say that I’m willing to put the effort into it if you are. I can’t promise I won’t act like a mom on occasion … it has turned into a habit I’m afraid … but it won’t be because I don’t think you aren’t a capable young woman.”

She gave me a rather strange look and then said, “You sure do say strange things. But if you mean that we don’t need to call a truce because we aren’t at war with each other to begin with then I’m cool with that.”

I nodded and then she made her escape having had just about all of the full-disclosure as she could handle for a while. As I turned I was startled to see Roy leaning against the corner of the house in the shadow of the loquat tree.

“You need something Roy?” I asked trying to act nonchalant.

“She still thinks that Jorge is alive and is going to come rescue us. She leaves him signs and stuff like that. But he’s dead. I know he is. No way would he have left us this long if he wasn’t.” His face was like granite … not angry, not sad, just set.

“Very few girls would be able to give up on the idea that their father is going to come rescue them. I know when my parents died I was pretty shattered. It took a while to go through the grieving process and there were times I still expected my daddy to stride in and tell me everything would be ok.”

He sighed, “Yeah. But if he was dead then he didn’t and Jorge isn’t either. I know that and if Annie doesn’t figure it out … I’m … I mean …” He sighed. “Please just don’t go filling her head with stuff. Jorge isn’t going to come walking up the road like Mr. Jakob did for you. We’ve only got each other to count on and the sooner she figures that out the better.”

He moved to leave and I said, “Roy, you’re here now. My husband can’t replace your father and I can’t replace your mother. But we would like to be … something to you if you let us. What that is I’m not sure yet but we aren’t the enemy and we aren’t out to … to imprison you or enslave in any way. We aren’t out to break your family up. Frankly I don’t want to see any of us hurt. Until we figure out things why don’t we just say we are on the same side of trying to survive … friendship will come I hope and with that … who knows … maybe more. Can we just start with that? A little bit of trust to get us through the day?”

He looked at me then shrugged and said, “I guess.” He turned to walk away and I couldn’t help but smile.

“Maybe I made a bad decision after all.” Mateo nearly scared me out of a year’s growth by coming out from behind one of the covered beds behind me after Roy had gotten out of earshot.

Looking at him I asked, “What makes you say that?”

“All that you offered that boy and he still shambles off like that,” he said indignantly.

I had to smile again and I gave him a hug. “Mateo, you were either a very strange teenage boy or you just don’t remember how you were. Two words and a shrug is practically War and Peace for most fifteen year olds. Getting anything at all out of him under the circumstances surprises me. It couldn’t have been easy to come upon his sister basically airing the family’s laundry in public.”

“Still,” Mateo huffed.

“No ‘still.’ He’ll come around, he just needs time. He’s been thrown to the wolves and never had to be the oldest brother until the worst possible time to be forced to do it in. And Annie … bless her but she is a bit of a control freak which reminds me of how someone else I know used to be. Can you imagine trying to grow into a man under those circumstances? Poor boy probably doesn’t know whether he is coming or going what with all the raging hormones and responsibilities and little to no outlet to get away from them.”

“Ah, that I do understand … quite, quite well.”

From the look on his face I realized pretty quickly we were not talking about the children any longer but about Mateo’s own raging hormones. He was expressing himself quite well on the subject when there was a chorus of “Ew’s!!!” that made us jump apart.

Robert and Ray were just coming around the corner of the house and were running over to Ricky and the other little kids all lined up watching us. Ricky though didn’t want to be dragged away from the spectacle we had been making and asked Nydia, “They do that all the time?”

The little devil said, “Uh huh, that’s how we got Neeno.”

I don’t know who was blushing harder Robert and Ray or Mateo and I. Finally the hilarity got to me and I laughed, “All right, shows over … for now. All of you scoot so that I can fix dinner.”

That was enough to get them all scooting and even Mateo left though he still looked a little shell-shocked. Poor man, his life was going to change a bit more and in different ways than he expected. Privacy had already started to become an issue with Nydia getting older but adding eight more pups to the litter was certainly going to complicate that even more.

Somewhere along the last two days I’d lost my original concern and resentment about bringing the Fuentes-Trespalacio family on board our little lifeboat. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for them exactly though I did feel a lot of empathy and compassion for their plight. No it was more that I recognized that their family met a need in me that was part of my personality. I needed to be needed in a very real and concrete way in order to be happy. It is what had brought Mateo and I together, and some small voice inside me told me that while it wouldn’t be easy these children had been led to us for a reason as well. Maybe they would never be “our” children – and I could live with that – but something told me that the potential for a relationship was there. They needed us and we needed them, perhaps for Mateo and I it was for different reasons but the need was just as real all the same.

Where this would lead us however was something that only time would tell.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Part 20: The Ties that Bind

Part 20: The Ties that Bind

In every conceivable way, family is the link to our past and the bridge to our future.
- Alex Haley

I spent a very restless night and several times woke up to write down ideas that had occurred to me as I dreamed. The next morning when I read what I had written not all of it made any kind of logical sense but there were a few in there I intended on investigating post haste. As dawn approached I stepped outside to put some tea on and nearly jumped out of my skin to find Lena dipping some water out of one of the rain barrels.

“I’m sorry my dear. I didn’t mean to startle you. You said that we might … the water … if … if I …”

Quickly getting my thundering heart back into my chest from where it had jumped out of I smiled in understanding. “Oh, of course. Go right ahead. Mateo mentioned he wanted to move that particular barrel over to your place today and it will certainly be easier to do that if some of the water is used up. Do you need some help?”

“No. The children are still asleep. It has been a while since they’ve had the luxury of a full night’s rest, much less a little extra.”

Looking at her closely I said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so but you look like you could use some extra rest as well. I have chores to do in the gardens of course but I think the primary thing Mateo wants to focus on today is getting the house secured and see what you need and making some kind of plan to get it. I tell you what, why don’t you go get a little more rest and I’ll send word when breakfast is ready. I hope the children will eat what I’m making.”

Lena shook her head. “Don’t you dare worry about that. They’ll be thankful for what they get or I’ll know why. But I’m not going back to bed; I couldn’t sleep anyway. Once you reach my age sleep feels rather counterproductive; so little time left but so much left to impart. Just tell me what I can do to help.”

Knowing from the look on her face that reminded me rather forcefully of my mother’s Aunt Flossie when she got obstinate I didn’t protest. I handed her a bowl of kiwis that I had pulled from the vine the preceding day for her to peel while I took a casserole dish of mush that had set up firm and cut it into slices for frying.

We were silent while we worked but it was a comfortable silence that Mateo didn’t break when he came outside to grab a mug of tea before going off to take care of the hogs, fowl, and to check on the other animals and their needs. As I started to mixed some bean patties up that I flavored a bit like sausage she sighed, “You’re not being very curious about us.”

I shook my head. “Actually I’m as curious as a cat but it is your business and you’ll let us know when you are ready.”

She sighed, “I … I appreciate the sentiment but truthfully it might just be easier for the children if I told you myself now. I’d rather you hear it from me before the children start giving you their versions.”

“Versions?” I asked.

She chuckled wearily. “I love my grandchildren more than my life but I’m under no illusions that they are perfect. If I had been, certainly this past year would have made me aware of some of their … their challenges.”

I smiled, “It’s all right. I know how teenagers can be.”

“Hmmm,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “It honestly doesn’t look like it was that long ago that you were one yourself.”

I laughed quietly in appreciation. “It used to be I felt that way too but motherhood and … and other things … has changed that.”

“That is a sentiment that I can certainly understand having felt it myself.” She seemed to look back in time and then proceeded to tell her story.

“My parents were missionaries to the Moskito Indians in Honduras. My mother was the daughter of a preacher but never felt the calling herself until she met my father. Her whole family was shocked and pretty dismayed that the young girl they had been scrimping and saving to put through medical school during a time when very few females chose that path suddenly decided to toss it all to the wind and follow my father into the jungles of a country that could be less than hospital for whites … especially white Americans. It was very difficult for a while. My parents lost two children to fevers and they didn’t expect to have anymore and ‘adopted’ a local boy that had been abandoned due to some physical deformities he was born with. After that life became better for them but not necessarily easier, either economically and politically, and it was a little after that time that my parents were surprised with me as a blessing. Looking back I can see that we lived a rather innocent existence separated from the modern world. I was twelve when a missionary group from the US came to help build a church that our village would be able to use. With this group was a doctor and their interpreter was a young Honduran that was studying medicine in the US. This reignited something in my mother that had gone out long before I was born. It made my father uncomfortable and I remember there was a terrible argument when my father found out that Mother was corresponding with the doctor and young intern. It was not what my father thought it to be; she was trying to arrange for a medical mission trip to come out to that part of the jungle and to get medical supplies shipped to our village for they could at least perform basic first aid.”

She shook her head. “I loved my father but he could be rather set in his ways and he had a difficult time with my mother suddenly getting ideas of her own and feeling called to grow their mission into more than it already was. Eventually though he seemed to come around and even acted like it had been his idea in the first place. Being a teenager I was horrified by this and asked Mother why she didn’t say something when Father would take credit. She would just shake her head and smile and say that she had no care for credit, she just wanted it accomplished.”

Then Lena seemed to put sadness on like a cloak. “My brother, the one my parents adopted, was named Eduardo. He was born with a facial deformity, blind in one eye, and he was hunch backed. His biological parents said they would have kept him if that had been all but he was born with but because he was also born with one leg considerably shorter than the other making his ability to work at any speed was impossible. He wasn’t even walking when they gave him to my parents before moving to the city. With my parents’ care and love however Eduardo seemed to come alive and started to thrive and walk and my parents found he was not mentally challenged at all as everyone had thought. He was almost ten when I was born and he was everything you could hope for in an older brother … but he too seemed to have an unreasonable prejudice against my mother’s US friends; it is like he and father were jealous of them. If there had been more time I’m sure it would have resolved itself but that wasn’t to be.”

“There was a hurricane, a very bad one. Usually hurricanes only brought true destruction to the cities with their mudslides and destruction of the shacks of the poor that dot the hillsides around the overcrowded urban areas. But this time it brought coastal flooding and the storm made an unexpected last minute course change. Our village was completely unprepared.” She closed her eyes briefly. “The storm came in the middle of the night. It kept getting worse and worse. My mother woke to find several inches of standing water in our house which was basically little more than a lean to made of leftover materials from the church construction. By the time she woke the rest of us, others in the village were waking but the water was rising so fast. Even had my mother woken earlier I’m not sure if there would have been enough time.” She shuddered at the memory. “The water was waist high, very muddy and full of debris, and sweeping the village away as everyone started running to the canoes. My parents were older and it would have been impossible for them to run in the jungle, at night, and someone had taken our canoe before Eduardo could secure it. We all climbed a large tree trying to get away from the raging waters but the wind tore at us. I’m not sure what happened exactly but the tree we were in snapped and … and …”

She wasn’t crying but her story was so intense I nearly burned what I had been cooking. “Eduardo saved me. He told me to stay on the roof of the church while he searched for our parents … but no one ever joined me, no one came … they were never found. I don’t remember much of that time. Roberto, the young intern I told you about, had been visiting his mother and sister and became worried when nothing was heard from our village after the storm. He personally gathered some men and came looking to see if we needed help. It took them three days of searching before they found a landmark they could follow, all of the other ones had been washed away. I remember him calling my name and when I didn’t respond, climbing the roof and bringing me down. I was in shock for several days after that. I came to myself tucked up in a small room at his family’s coffee plantation. Roberto had to return to the States for the next semester of schooling but promised to look for any relatives that would take me in. It was a search in vain but I wasn’t to know that at the time. Apparently my parents had not been very good at keeping up with their stateside families and my grandparents that remained felt they were too elderly to take in a young and distraught girl they didn’t know. Roberto’s family was more than happy to have me stay with them as I was a good companion for his mother and sister who were both frail and in ill health. I was happy not to leave the only country I had ever known as home.”

She sighed, “The rest of my story is rather obvious I suppose. I felt honor bound to stay on and help take care of both Roberto’s mother and sister and became a de facto part of their family. As I grew up I became infatuated with the noble and dutiful younger son though it was a secret not even torture could have gotten out of me … and rather openly frightened of the austere older brother who ran the family plantation with an iron hand. Eventually Roberto finished his schooling and returned to Honduras to go into practice but found he and Juan were completely incompatible. Juan was horrible to Roberto … he was resentful of the money his parents had spent on his education rather than putting the money into expanding the plantation, resentful of their mother’s favoritism, and resentful of his good looks and who knows what else. They fought constantly but maintained a fa├žade of politeness for their mother’s sake. Then their sister died and shortly thereafter their mother passed away in her sleep. There was a horrible fight when the will was read; two-thirds of the estate was left to Juan including the plantation but a third of the assets were to be cashed out and given to Roberto. Juan was livid and created a local scandal when he accused his brother of matricide to get his inheritance. When that didn’t work he started taking his anger out on anyone that Roberto cared about … eventually getting around to me, though there was nothing to except simple friendship. Roberto had gone to the city to treat one of his patients when Juan accused me of theft, beat me, and then threw me out of the house with barely the clothes on my back and a small bundle of pictures and a Bible that had been salvaged from my village after the flood. I was barely seventeen and terrified. No one in the area dared to go against Juan as he was the primary employer in the area. A priest from the local church secretly gave me bus fare and told me to go to Roberto in the city and he would know what to do. I was so inexperienced that it was only by the grace of God that I got there unmolested.”

“In fairytale like fashion Roberto insisted that his personal honor required that he marry me. It was convenient for him as well as it meant he was able to have a home in the city without having to hire a housekeeper and cook. Roberto promised that Juan would never hurt me again and that I would never have to see him if I did not want to. We lived in that fashion … a marriage of convenience … for nearly two years until one day Roberto came home from the hospital and I could tell something terrible must have happened. I did everything I could think of but it was still some hours before he would speak. He told me he had been met at the hospital by some policemen and asked where he had been at such and such a time and date. He provided them with the information which they quickly verified, and then they informed him that Juan had been murdered. In the next few days we learned a man he had fired had come back and killed him in revenge.”

I poured her cup of tea and told her, “How tragic.”

“Yes … and no. Juan reaped what he sowed. His son, who had taken after him quite a lot, had been killed in a fight at one of the local cantinas and his wife divorced him not all that long after Roberto and I had married. Roberto had been resigned that he would never see any portion of the estate and we were busy saving every penny we could because he wanted to immigrate to the US and join in the practice of one of his mentors there with whom he remained close friends with. But now he had inherited everything and he was at a crossroads. For the first time he asked me what I wanted to do … he didn’t tell me what we would do but asked me what I wanted to do. It wasn’t just a crossroads for him but a turning point in our marriage and in our relationship. In all honesty I would have been happy to remain in Honduras but I knew Roberto wanted something else. I told him we should pray about it and God would open the door to the path He wanted us to take. The very next day Roberto received a handsome offer for the coffee plantation that would cover all of our moving expenses, allow him to buy into the medical partnership without a loan, and leave enough to have a nest egg to start our new life in the US. As if that were not enough all of our immigration papers came in approved on the same day. The answer could not have been clearer.”

“And I have to admit, life was very good for us once we immigrated to the US. Our marriage improved and we became closer. We had a son. Roberto became a well-respected member of the medical community and our financial rewards were great enough that we could give back by providing pro bono medical services to families that really needed the help. I could not have asked for more but God provided it anyway. We had a wonderful church family and I had a personally fulfilling job volunteering in our special needs program among other things.”

I smiled as I nodded towards their place drawing her attention to all of the children tumbling out the door and in this direction at the smell of the food that was finally ready. “It sounds like you had a wonderful life.”

“It was … until our son was about sixteen and suddenly discovered his ridiculous politics.”

That had me raising my eyebrows but she fell silent on the subject as her grandchildren and Nydia and Neeno garnered all of our attention as we fed them. I remembered at the last moment about the goat cheese I had tried to make and I brought it out. “Look, this is a first try for me so I’m not at all sure that this is fit to eat. I know it looks … different … so don’t force yourself to be polite about it.”

To my surprise Annie used her knife to take some and said that she thought it tasted almost the same as the stuff the deli which had the other kids lining up for a taste. At my look she said, “Abuela used to buy it from a Greek deli near our school. It really isn’t bad; you probably just need to add something to it.”

I told her I would look in my recipe books to see what I could find and she seemed a little surprised that I didn’t make a big deal out of her critique. I hoped I had passed her first test and I was sure there would be a few more to make it through before she made her decision about whether she could trust me or not. Neeno kept me busy while we ate, he was at the stage where he wanted to help feed himself most of the time and it was a challenge to make sure he ate more than he wore on the outside. Food couldn’t be wasted and I had to reign in my desire to simply force him to be neater. Looking over I noticed not even a crumb escaped from the other children and it reinforced my awareness of their plight.

I looked at Mateo, signaling him to please take the lead which he did with gusto. Soon I was alone with Neeno who was distraught at being left behind; even Nydia had gone to help Lena and the children clean and sort and get their place set up. Despite the fact that he was getting a little big for it I put Neeno in the sling and then put him on my back and started working in the garden.

As I weeded I pulled whatever was ready for harvest. Rather than letting a bed of beans completely dry on the vine I pulled the bushes completely and used clips to hang them upside down on a length of rope I had strung from one end to the other of the barn. The ground in the raised beds was such that it could be worked by hand if I needed to so it was fairly easy to replant the bed in more beans and add a pre-fab trellis on one end where I planted several zucchini seedlings. I noted, after looking at my planting schedule, that the tomatoes I had planted were probably the last until the next season so I paid careful attention to them and pinched a few places on some of the plants to encourage extra bloom ends.

I found a couple of horn worms on my pepper plants but luckily they hadn’t done too much damage before I got to them and through them to the ducks and geese that were wandering about. It was then I saw some chickens running in the direction that I’d thrown the last worm in and turned to find a couple following me around scratching, looking for other nuggets of protein. Watching one scrawny hen do her best to catch a young locust had me laughing aloud at the pitiful but humorous picture she made.

“Don’t be mad at them. They’re just happy to be out of the cage.”

Turning further I saw the youngest brother, the one they called Ren, standing there looking afraid. “I’m not angry. We just need to teach them the difference between the bugs and the vegetables. Bugs are OK for them to peck … the tomatoes, not so much.” I winked trying to draw the fear away from him.

“Annie says if we aren’t good you’ll tell us to leave.”

Annie. She and I would definitely need to come to an understanding … and soon. “Well, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. It happens. But I hope we’ll all try and be good as much as we can. If Mr. Jakob and I don’t behave well then you and your family won’t want to stay.”

That confused him a little but I think he got the general idea because his little shoulders didn’t seem so tense. “So it’s OK if they walk around like the ducks?”

“Sure, but the ducks and geese – those are the bigger, louder ones – know the area and where to go and where not to go. They know to leave the hogs alone, and what to do if there is a hawk flying around, and they know if there is a gator around not to go near the water soooo it might be a good idea to keep an eye on them until we can find a place they’ll be safe.”

“Will the big dog eat them?” Ren asked wide eyed.

“I don’t think so but he’s still mostly puppy so his manners might not be the greatest. Let’s not take the chance until we know for sure. The dog’s name is Genty and he had to learn the hard way that ducks and geese can pinch and he leaves them alone but he may not know what a chicken is.”

The little boy nodded and then so expertly it caught me off guard picked the chickens up and carried them back towards where I knew their cage had been put. Not long after that a long shadow falling over me had me turning again to find Annie standing there with her hands on her hips.

“Your dog is scaring my brother.”

“Which one?” I asked calmly.

“You have more than one dog?” she asked.

“No. I mean which brother.”

“Ren … and the girls too. They’re little and …”

I sighed. “OK. Let me guess, he’s circling around them and butting them with his head.”

“So you know your dog is dangerous,” she asked a bit menacingly.

I shook my head. “Genty isn’t … well, he could be dangerous I suppose but that’s not what he is doing. He’s herding them.”

“No, he’s not hurting them yet but it is only a matter of time.”

“Not hurting … herding. Genty does the same thing with Nydia and Neeno. They’re smaller than he is and I think he has a wire crossed and thinks they are one of his charges. If you watch, Genty does the same things to the goats. He’s gentle about it but firm; he simply doesn’t like it when the children get out of his sight or look like they are about to wander off.”

She wasn’t believing me so I stopped what I was doing and walked back over. Sure enough Genty was being Genty and I smiled. I turned to Annie and said, “They’ll get used to it. As soon as they learn to be firm with him he won’t worry over them so much. But it isn’t such a bad thing … Evie is the three year old right? … we’ll be able to put Neeno and Evie down in a play yard and he’ll be as good as a babysitter about making sure they stay where we put them and keep an eye on them. I watched Genty go after a fly that was bothering Neeno yesterday, he got a ridiculous look on his doggy face when he caught it and didn’t know what to do with it in his mouth.” Annie was reassured but refused to be amused by the fly story though it was pretty funny at the time, or at least I thought so.

Refusing to let her attitude perturb me in the slightest I smiled and walked over to where Mateo and Lena were discussing a list of furniture they would need. “Leah, beds … we have no mattresses.”

I thought for a moment and then said, “Those tiled floors are too hard to sleep on, and what I’m going to suggest may not be much better but it will at least get everyone up off of the floor. Bed frames … we’ve found several in garages and attics and in the abandoned houses. Put the frames together and then cut a piece of plywood to fit and then put the bedding on that. We’ve got plenty of linens. If we can’t find anything else in the area we can sew some flat sheets together and make straw ticks until we save enough feathers to make duvets for every bed.”

Lena turned to Mateo and said, “You are right, she is very resourceful.”

I blushed at the unexpected compliment and Mateo ran a work-roughened knuckle down my cheek. “Very resourceful,” he murmured before calling for the boys to help him gather the bed frames from the barn where we had them stored.

Lena turned to me smiled and then sighed. “Did Annie give you any trouble?”

“Hmm? No. Why would you say that?”

She smiled ruefully and replied, “Because I know my granddaughter. She is very protective. She had to take on a lot of responsibility when she was much too young and it aged her.”

“This situation we find ourselves in would age anyone,” I told her.

“Ah but this started well before the world decided to go crazy. Come, I believe the children have things well in hand and I would like to see your garden up close if you don’t mind showing me.”

Sensing that she was more likely to be open if we had some privacy to talk I was more than happy to show her around. I walked slowly in deference to her age and fatigue so it took a bit to get over to the far gardens that were nearest the orange grove.

She noted, “These trees were hurt by last winter’s cold.”

I agreed and added, “And by the bombing we experienced around here and by the other unusual weather we’ve had. We haven’t been able to keep the grass down in most of the grove either, only in this area that we are fencing in. There is only so much we can do.”

“I’m not criticizing dear; you’ve done an amazing amount of work all things considered. Mateo told me you were alone for a long time and even had the baby alone. I’m not sure I could have done as well and I’m not sure Annie liked having her notion of you refuted.”

“Her notion of me?”

“I believe she thinks you are a bit spoiled and helpless as her step mother was.”

I shrugged not sure what to make of that but knew that I was going to knock that idea right out of the girls head as soon as might be. Putting it aside however I said, “Lena, I hate to ask but I’m still not sure how the kids all fit together. Annie and Roy say they are brothers but they don’t share a surname. I’m a little confused.”

“I don’t blame you. It is quite a saga of how we became a family. I see you have a nice bench out here and hope you don’t mind if we stop for a moment and rest. My old bones aren’t as eager as they once were.” If she needed an excuse I was more than happy to give it to her.

“My Roberto and I, we were only blessed with one. There was no reason we could not have had more; we simply didn’t though I would have loved to have had at least one or two more. I suspect it had a lot to do with Roberto’s workload and our age difference but God had His reasons I’m sure. We named our son after Roberto’s father … Fidel. In hindsight it may not have been the best idea but it was such a common name where we came from that we didn’t give any thought to possible repercussions. It was years before we even became aware that he was teased rather unmercifully for it in school. Fidel and Roberto were like two peas in a pod they were so alike … until Fidel turned sixteen. We could afford it so we sent him to a private school but even there mistakes were made. There was an extracurricular club whose membership revolved around Hispanic heritage. I was all for Fidel learning about his heritage but Roberto wasn’t quite as thrilled with it; he said his son was an American not some hyphenated mixed breed pup. There was a huge blow up with each of them on opposite sides of the argument and neither one willing to budge. It was like living with two lions, one old and one young, both determined to rule the pride.”

“I’ve heard that analogy before,” I told her.

“Yes, and I felt like a piece of meat caught between the two. Eventually however Fidel went too far and completely alienated his father by getting into the very politics that tore places like Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela apart. And when Fidel proceeded to call his father a dirty capitalist and refute all of our family’s religious beliefs my husband refused to support him any longer, told him that since he thought the money he worked very hard for was dirty then he could go work for his own.” She shook her head sadly. “It was a painful learning experience for Fidel. All of those so-called friends he had been making fell away when Fidel no longer had access to his father’s money. Many in fact called him a fool for not being more careful about hiding his beliefs. He learned what a bunch of hypocrites most of them are. Fidel’s outlook began to change as well but because he had to work so hard his grades suffered and he lost his academic scholarship in the middle of his sophomore year. He and Roberto were still not talking and I only found out accidentally when I tried to drop off some groceries only to find he no longer lived on campus. He was living with Roy’s mother against my wishes and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. That changed his outlook as well; now he had a family to support.”

She shook her head. “Fidel came to his father and they reconciled but things were never quite the same. He married Rosa – she was from a good family, just flighty and easily swayed by my son’s silver tongue – and they had Josef a few months later. Fidel had settled down considerably but he was still idealistic and would get involved with his old friends who would look him up from time to time. Then Rosa became pregnant again and along came Rojelio – he prefers to be called Roy by the way. When Roy was two Fidel got involved with some unionists and went to Mexico to help do some what he called organizing. He and Roberto had huge fight about it. The last words my husband and son said to each other were words of deep anger and resentment. Fidel was killed in a cross fire between some federales and drug cartel members when it was found that the company was actually a front for moving drugs into this country. We never found out whether Fidel knew or not and it left a deep hole in Roberto’s heart, one he never recovered from. He had a heart attack a couple of months later and then Rosa came to us saying that her brother threw her out when he found out she was pregnant again. Roberto and I took her and our grandchildren in but given the stress and strain it was not unexpected that Rosa would lose the baby. She was inconsolable and fell into a deep depression and stayed that way for a long time but eventually we were able to get her out of the house and encouraged her to get a job and to meet new people. To make a long story short my dear, Rosa met a nice widower with two children of his own … Annie’s father Jorge … and Roberto and I liked him immediately. He wasn’t … well … he didn’t have a lot of money but he was such a hard worker, and so polite.”

A voice rang out, “Abuela?! Are you out here? Are you all right?”

Annie. Again. I called, “Over here Annie. Your grandmother just wanted to sit down for a moment.”

“She shouldn’t have been doing all this walking. She could have tripped, or fallen, or …”

OK, enough was enough. “Annie, give both your grandmother and I some credit; we are adults after all.”

“Meaning I’m not,” she said belligerently.

“Meaning that you are being insulting. And whether you meant it or not I suggest you stop before you lose our respect for the maturity you show most of the time.”

She stood there trying to figure out whether I had insulted her or not and then Lena added, “Annie, while I appreciate your concern I no more appreciate being treated like a child than you do. And now I’ve kept Leah from her work while avoiding my own for too long. Walk with us back to the house.” I felt some sympathy for Annie. Lena had it down perfectly reminding me of how my mother could pull that act with me. Although Mom was much earthier than Lena, she was just as regal and I always knew when I’d taken things too far.

Mateo looked up when we came back into the yard and watched as Lena walked with Annie back over to their place. He turned to me and raised a concerned eyebrow. “Everything alright Corazon?”

“I think it will be … with time and careful handling.” Then I sighed and stretched. In the middle of my stretch Mateo swooped on me and drew me close.

“My goodness, you seem to be in a good mood,” I told him noting his smile.

“Those boys are eager to please and even the youngest ones seem to take instructions well and have some experience with tools. This may work out better than even I had hoped.”

“You can probably thank Annie’s father for that. I don’t have the whole story but apparently Roy’s mother married Annie’s father when he was quite young so that all of those younger than Roy are Annie and Roy’s half-siblings. There are two older brothers that are missing from the picture I’m building but Lena seems to be giving the information as she can. Oh … and Roy’s biological father is dead so that might need to be taken into account as well. And I still don’t know about the two little girls.”

“The boys let slip that they are children of their father’s boss but that’s all I’ve heard. I’ll stay out of it until you can put it all together. I do not wish for us to get involved in a soap opera.” I laughed as he shuddered. Mateo may have become more tolerant of having people around all the time but he still detested an excess of drama.

Neeno began to complain and I gratefully handed him off of my back and into Mateo’s waiting arms. The breeze was cool against my sweat-dampened skin and I stretched once again to remove the kinks before proceeding to prepare a large pot of rice and beans and a second pot full of greens. I mixed a little fruit punch together that I’ll admit to watering down a bit to have as our drink with lunch and then called over to the boys to tell their grandmother and sister to come sit for lunch.

Once again the children seemed dazed upon seeing the food I was ladling onto the plates but ate with a little less hesitation than the night before and at breakfast. Mateo said grace and while everyone was eating a sudden thought struck me. “Oh my!”

Mateo and Lena looked at me in alarm and I told them, “I never even asked if anyone was allergic to anything.”

Annie smirked and said, “Then I guess it is a good thing for you none of us have any.”

Mateo, bless him, said, “On the contrary, it is a good thing for you that she cares enough to ask. If you had any and hadn’t shared that information with her then it would have been your own fault.”

I saw Roy smirk and I rolled my eyes and put down my fork. “Annie … Roy … you do recall that one of the few things I asked was that we would be respectful of each other?” I saw Lena quickly cover a smile with one of the cloth napkins I put out for everyone. “I glanced at the younger ones as well who gave me a wide eyed look as if they weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I was beginning to suspect their mother, though well meaning, may not have been much of a disciplinarian. I knew I would need to be careful not to be overbearing but I absolutely refused to live in a war zone, especially not a passive aggressive one.

Clean up was quick despite all of the extra dishes. It appeared I had Annie to thank for that and I made a point of saying so which again surprised her. I had laundry to do but there really wasn’t time to do all of it so I just boiled the socks and underclothes and then hung them on the line. I turned to see Annie hesitantly standing nearby.

“Hi,” I said casually.

“Um … Abuela said that I misread … out in the orange trees. I’m … I really didn’t mean to be … um … rude. Just Abuela is all we have left and … well …”

I smiled softly. “Annie I understand, I do. But I just wish you wouldn’t automatically jump to the conclusion that I’m out to do you or your family some kind of harm.”

“Oh … well … I don’t mean it that way.”

I nodded, “I’m glad. But if you do become concerned about something then ask. It will save misunderstandings.”

“Sure.” She just continued to stand there and I asked if there was something else she needed. “Well, I was wondering … since you have the fire and water and pot if … you know … if I could …”

Realizing she wanted to do a little laundry I told her, “Of course. I plan on doing a big wash in a day or so and if you’d like to throw everything together …”

She smiled shyly and said, “Yeah … that’d be good.”

I was prepping stuff for the dehydrator while Annie did her washing. I watched her surreptitiously watch me as I interacted with Nydia and Neeno. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I wasn’t going to put on an act so when both started acting like they needed a nap that is exactly what they got. When I came back outside and resumed what I had been doing she was more obvious about her watching. I let her and finally she said what was on her mind. “You’re … different than I expected.”

“How on earth did you know what to expect?”

She shrugged, “I guess I just ... I don’t know … Mr. Jakob says you were a teacher before you and him got married.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that but sure, I was a teacher. A highschool teacher as a matter of fact. I loved my job but God had other plans for me.”

“You said you got laid off. You must have been young ‘cause like Nydia is Ren’s age.”

“Nearly, but not quite,” I said concerning Nydia’s age. “Actually Mateo and I adopted Nydia. She is biologically Mateo’s niece’s child.”

“Is that part of the complicated part?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you about it sometime if you’re interested but it I don’t think that is part of what you aren’t asking me.”

She sighed and muttered, “Just like Abuela.” Then in a louder tone she asked, “I guess my grandmother has been explaining things.”

“Some,” I said refusing to lie or act embarrassed. “She told me a bit of her personal history and that her son died and her daughter in law … Roy’s mother … married your father but that is about as far as she got.”

She looked briefly uncomfortable then asked, “Would you like me to … uh … fill in the rest?”

I told her, “If you think it would help me to understand. I don’t want to appear nosey but I would like to know so that it would help me with the boys do you think?”

I let her decide and then she sat on a blank I had laid across a couple of cinder blocks and said, “I suppose it would be best. Abuela might tell you the rest of it later but I better go ahead and tell you now, just in case the boys start talking about it.”

The way she said it I got the impression that the story wouldn’t be pleasant so I prepared myself as I began preparing dinner.