Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Part 15: Company and Compost

Part 15: Company and Compost

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?
--Walt Whitman

It was very hard to get going the next morning but I did it because Mateo needed breakfast and then a packed lunch so that he could go on patrol and hopefully bring back some additional salvage. After he left I noticed that I wasn’t the only one moving a little slow. It was the fifth day of their visit but it felt like they’d been here longer. They looked at me expectantly and I ran over in my head what I wanted to cover before speaking.

“You’ve seen our entire set up from garden and field to final product. You’ve seen how we use the animals as part of the system … compost, fertilizer, and the Muscovy and Mad Geese bug patrol. You’ve seen our water purification set up and how we run water through all of the sand filters before adding it to our cistern; how our drinking and cooking water is from the well on the days that we have enough battery power to run it and when not we use water that we’ve further treated from the cistern and stored in barrels inside. You’ve seen our long range food plans and how we preserve what comes out of the gardens, hedges, and orchards. Now I want to branch out a bit. I’ve talked with Lopez but I’ll admit to being really surprised that Base has really missed a prime resource to exploit.”

Dog, thinking he was beating me to the punch said, “Humanure. Waste processing is in a different department but from what I understand they decided to pass on the project for now because too many still get sick and contamination is a real potential problem.”

“We decided the same thing but only because of the elevated water levels we’ve had around here for the last several months,” I told him. “Though humanure is a potential resource, what I was actually referring to are wild food sources. You’ve seen how we harvest wild meat with the gator, snakes, and frogs’ legs. There’s also fresh water fish in the canals and the swamp grows some big snails for escargot if I want to go to the trouble and it keeps those little jobbers out of my garden.”

Joseph interrupted my lecture with a very audible gulp and a gagging, “Snails?! Dude, not even I get that hungry.”

I couldn’t help but smile as the other three chuckled. “Never say never Joseph. It’s nothing but an opportunity for someone to prove you wrong. Apple snails are good protein sources.” I showed him the large empty shells of the snails that we had eaten the week before they had arrived. Juliet mentioned that she’d eaten snails before when they had dinner with a friend of her parents’ that had married a French woman. Joseph turned a little green around his edges.

After the laughter died back I continued. “Let me try another tact. What is this?” I asked pointing to a glass gallon jug I had sat on one of the garden benches.

Liz and Dog kept silent giving the kids a chance. Juliet finally answered, “I know it looks like water with some weeds in it but I bet that is the tea Mom … I mean the Major … was talking about.”

“Correct,” I told her with a smile. “This is an herbal version of sun tea. It is one of my favorite blends and contains spearmint, peppermint, and lemon balm … all out of my garden. In a little while after it has a chance to finish steeping we can sit and relax with a glass.”

“Do we … I mean you strain the green stuff out of there right?” Joseph asked.

“That’s right. It doesn’t have the caffeine that traditional tea leaves have but it is still a pick me up and some herbs have certain properties that help in various situations. Some herbs have a calming effect. Some herbs encourage physical vitality. Some herbs help to stimulate the appetite or settle the stomach. Then some herbs you need to watch out for because they have a surprisingly strong laxative effect.”

The kids snickered as I expected they would but I noticed that Dog was trying to hold back his own laughter while Liz rolled her eyes and elbowed him. She looked at me conspiratorially and said, “They never grow up.” I grinned noncommittally since Mateo could be a bit of a stick about some things but it was the way he was raised so I just accepted it since it didn’t hurt anything.

“Several of my potted herbs have gone wild. I’ve since fenced them off but only so they aren’t constantly trampled accidentally, some have spread out beyond the boundaries I tried to set for them.” In particular I pointed out several varieties of mints as well as the borage plant that was spreading way outside of where its pot had fallen over and broken during the time the children and I were shut up in the bunker. “I also harvest edible flowers and wild greens from all over this area, say within a mile from the house but that is about as far as my travels take me these days and then only with Mateo when he needs help with some leverage on some larger pieces of wood. The problem is that it’s too much work to subsist on foraging alone – you usually spend more calories than you take in – but as a supplemental food source it can’t be beat. Foraged foods also tend to be more tightly packed with high concentrations of vitamins and minerals; you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

“How so?” asked Liz. “Are you saying we lose something when we domesticate a plant species?”

“Not exactly though I did hear something to that affect in one a lecture I attended a few years ago. It’s easier to use a specific example to explain what I mean. Take a head of lettuce, say an iceberg type. A salad made of it is what most people are used to taste-wise and texture but it is bland and mostly water. It fills you up and provides roughage but it can get boring rather quickly … one of the reasons people use way too much dressing. But if you add dandelions, dollar weed, purslane, and violets you aren’t just adding nutrition, you are extending your domestic food source, adding color, texture and flavor, and making the meal more interesting for your taste buds and your brain. With a greater variety of forage greens you can have the same menu component several days running – a side salad – while still having something quite different each time it is served.”

Dog grinned and the kids sighed as they saw me pick up a stack of buckets and baskets. “And what are we getting up to today?”

I gave him an overly bright smile and said sweetly, “I’m so glad you asked.” Liz laughed outright. Dog rolled his eyes. Juliet snickered. And Joseph groaned good naturedly and in sotto voice added, “Juliet you sure Leah and your mom aren’t related or something? They sure know how to put a guy to work.”

I passed everyone a container and led them out of our yard. I showed them how to find the easiest to identify greens like dandelion, violet, Spanish Bayonet blooms, purslane and dollar weed, wild garlic, and cat tails. We also picked any ripe wild blackberries that we came across. Dog added his own knowledge of edible fungus and showed me how to gather spores so that I could start my own mushroom beds. By the time a couple of hours had passed we were all hungry and eager to head back. Neeno, who I had been carrying in a sling on my back, was especially in need of his lunch and a nap.

To demonstrate further that wild forage could be tasty and good for you I set up the juicer that Mateo had brought home the day before. Into it I tossed a good handful of mixed wild greens, two dried apples that had been rehydrating since breakfast, and five stalks of celery. I poured the resulting juice into condiment cups so that everyone could have a taste. Dog and Liz liked the drink but the kids found the greens a little strong. “This can always be thinned out a bit with water or juice or you can pull back on the amount of greens you add until you get used to it.”

Liz asked, “What do you do with the left over pulp?”

“The stuff from the juicer?” At her nod I said, “Depends. I’ve used it to stretch my flour for bread or tortillas. Sometimes I dump it into the pigs’ slop bucket; but if it has any alliums in it – onions or garlic or chives – I put it into the compost pile, pigs shouldn’t have alliums.”

Dog shook his head, “Now wait, growing up we had pigs and they got onions and garlic in the leftovers all the time.”

“Leftovers means you cooked them right?”

“Well … yeah. We’d give them table scraps.”

I nodded, “We don’t have too many table scraps around here and those we do I usually reuse in another recipe. So like Liz asked, I reuse stuff as much as I can so that there is less waste. But I never give the pigs uncooked onions, garlic, or any other allium … maybe I’m wrong but in 4H that is what our leader always told us. I just prefer to be safe than sorry; I found other ways to make sure they get all the nutrition they need. Frankly, as soon as it gets cold again we plan on culling some of the pigs as there are getting to be too many of them for us to feed and care for … we’ve already had to enlarge their pen twice to keep ‘em from fighting.”

Joseph asked incredulously, “Pigs fight?!”

Juliet said, “Joey pigs will bite your fingers off if they are in the mood or just hungry. When I was working on the animal farm I saw a guy get mangled up pretty bad by a boy pig … and there were some parts missing when they got him out and tried to sew him up.”

Dog said, “A male pig is a boar … and not our department so let’s get back on track.”

I sighed, “Actually Dog I have a favor to ask. Can you all … uh … entertain yourself the rest of the day? I really need to catch up on laundry and some housework.”

I’d caught him off guard but in half a moment he was grinning, “Definitely not a problem. I was wondering when we’d have the time to work on the reports and gather some local samples and now is as good a time as any.”

I was relieved. I enjoy teaching, I always have even when I was just a teen and got my volunteer hours from being a Homework Help at the library or as a VBS group leader at church. The problem lay in the fact that I still had my other time consuming responsibilities that couldn’t be put off. I needed that afternoon off probably as badly as they did.

I was boiling some cloth diapers and praying that it wouldn’t take forever to potty train Neeno when Liz came up behind me and asked, “Mind some company? I warn you though, those diapers stink less than Dog’s socks do.”

The joke was funny but I found to my surprise she hadn’t been exaggerating. “My word!”

“I know, it’s awful,” she admitted making a face as she hurriedly dumped the offending articles into a bucket of water we dipped from the barrel I had heating. “We’re on the list for a new pair of work boots but Dog is a hard size to fit.”

“Uh … you want some suggestions?” I asked tentatively, not wanting to offend anyone.

“Are you kidding? I’ll try anything at this point.”

Relived I told her, “Get him to wash and soak his feet every night and use a pumice stone on it. Dead skin and calluses hold moisture which is a breeding ground for bacteria. Use all natural fiber socks if you can and change them a couple of times a day if necessary. You want something that is going to wick the sweat away from the feet. Set the shoes so they can dry in the sun every day so loosen the ties and spread the tongue out. For the inside of the shoe mix up some baking powder and dried sage and sprinkle it inside at night; leave it in the next day then knock it out and replace it each evening after that. You can also soak his feet in vinegar a couple of times a week for a couple of weeks; it is supposed to help kill any bacteria by raising the acidity level.”

“I’m going to try that stuff as soon as we get home,” she said enthusiastically.

We continued with what we were doing and then I asked, “If you don’t mind a personal question how did you wind up in the camp? Were you and Dog together before?”

“Wow, now that’s a story. My aunt was a school bus driver and she got drafted to drive some of the evacuation routes. I knew Dog before and we had gone out a few times but nothing serious. He worked at my uncle’s garage. He never impressed my Mom and Dad much; they said he didn’t have any ambition. That isn’t strictly true, his ambitions were just a little different from other people’s. I could have easily fallen for him but my parents … their attitude held me back. That all changed though when he was the only one to set out in the middle of one of the bombing runs to find me after the bus my aunt had been driving was hijacked. To make a long story short, while he was rescuing me his hands got badly store up in a fight with some of the crazy people that were holding me and my aunt at gun point trying to make us drive them out of the state.” She shook her head. “He’d been warned he’d get triaged if he came after me but he did it anyway, but it meant his hands didn’t get looked at fast enough. Damp and cold really makes him hurt and he can’t put the strength into the tools like he needed to so he could work in the motor pool.”

“So that’s why he wears those fingerless gloves?”

“Partly. He also just likes the way they look,” she laughed. Then she sobered and said, “When I found out I was on the triage list too I thought my life was over. I didn’t have a lot of marketable skills. I couldn’t even work in the commissary or cafeteria because of the milk allergy. I was having a hard time earning the work credit to buy what I needed. Dog would turn up with something for me a couple of times a week and my dad finally said, ‘Oh just marry the guy already and put him out of his miser.’ It was Dog’s perseverance that got us in the Ag Department and he’s doing really well. We’re hoping to get enough experience and supplies built up so thatwe can take our families and start a new camp … actually a private compound … after we get through this next winter.”

Still trying to illicit information where I could I said, “I’m still not sure I understand the work credits everyone keeps mentioning.”

Laying some under things over a folding rack that she had brought with her she answered, “First off, don’t think of it like money ‘cause that isn’t what it is. Money is supposed to be back and supported by some federal body and this isn’t. It’s just a convenience. It’s a barter unit, kind of like a paycheck but then again not. Each job will earn you so many credits per hour. The more responsibilities you have the higher hourly rate of credits you earn. Some infractions can earn you deductions in work credits; these aren’t fines but penalties. The other thing is if you get in a hole with your work credits … lose more through infraction deductions than you are bringing in through work … and you get sent to a work camp until you clear the decks. It isn’t debtors prison, though a few have tried to make it out to be that, but more accountability so that people are responsible and don’t start racking up penalties thinking that it won’t catch up with them.”

I told her, “Sounds like a system that could be easily abused … on both sides.”

She nodded, “Any system can be but work credits can only be traded at the Base storehouse, and the Major punishes civilians and any personnel or staff alike when they get caught working the system. It’s just as fair as it can be made right now. Other bases and camps have their own systems; this is the one that works for us. The Major lets people “save” their work credits and buy things towards building their own camp or homestead. That’s what Dog and I … and our families … are doing.” I had a lot to think about.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty quiet until Mateo and the other men arrived. There were no relaxed smiles this time however. I thought that it had been a bust but then again they were pulling several trailers on three vehicles … one on the transport, one on a vehicle that turned out to be a water truck and another on a vehicle that was a small fuel tanker. The kids ran up to Mateo and while he was not rough with them he simply picked them both up and handed them back to me. “Take them inside Leah. We had some bad company today. We … discouraged them … but Ortiz and I don’t think they are smart enough to have learned their lesson the first time around.”

I could feel the color draining from my face; it was a warm tide rolling away revealing a cold and barren wreck. This is the nightmare thing that I hadn’t had to deal with much. It happened, continued to happen from what we’d heard, but it had been separate from the children and I; we had hidden away from it for a long time. My one run in with it – the night that I had chosen to shoot rather than watch Mrs. Trask be assaulted – wasn’t even on our property and it had been at night when no one could recognize me or trace my actions back to me.

Nydia stiffened as she realized something was wrong though I don’t think she understood what. Neeno was about to fuss because Poppy wasn’t paying him the attention he thought he deserved but I bounced him in my arms a couple of times and it distracted him as it always did. Another look at Mateo’s face and I calmed down and turned to take the children to the bunker. I didn’t run but I did hurry.

Nydia had a mutinous look on her face for a moment and then unstiffened and went into the hidden room with me. “You’re not staying,” she said at her lip all but drug the ground.

“I need to help Poppy if I can,” I told her quietly.

“You always leave,” she pouted.

“Not because I want to.” I kissed her head and she sighed like an old woman.

“You’ll come back?” she asked with heart rending fear in her eyes.

“As soon as I can Baby Doll. You know the rules. No coming out unless Poppy or I come to get you. I’m putting a snack here for you two; it’s peanut butter on celery sticks, your favorite, and you can even add raisins if you want. And here is the wind up lantern. If Neeno falls asleep just put him in the bed. OK?”

She shrugged. Nydia was young, not stupid. She’d been forced by life, circumstances … and me … to mature faster than her peers would have before this war or whatever it was that was happening to us. She knew something bad was coming. She was just angry. I would be too in her shoes. Just as soon as it seems life is getting better something comes along to pull your chair out from in under you before you have a chance to sit down.

The habits of my new life were put to good use and I had the house locked down faster than I could have explained what I was doing to someone else. I was turning to see what I could do with the containers and garden when Liz came around the corner of the house with Joseph and Juliet, looking stricken. “Dog says I …” She looked back over her shoulder and I could see the other men arming themselves and taking positions.

I looked at her and asked, “He sent you here with the kids?”

I got a disgruntled look from Joseph but Liz nodded and answered, “I … I … is there … anything …”

I looked at Joseph. “Do you know how to hit what you’re aiming at?”

Surprised at my question I had to ask again before he said, “Yes ma’am. My brother … he … you know …”

“I don’t need the details Joseph I just need to know if you can do more than point and shoot. I don’t want to hand you a gun and have you shoot yourself or anyone on our side.”

Standing straighter he said, “I know what I’m doing. I’m not as good as my brother but I’m decent.”

“Good enough. Can you handle a rifle or a shotgun?” I asked him.

He shrugged, “Either or.”

“OK, here’s a shotgun. The trigger is a little stiff so you need to mean it when you pull it. I’m going to station you on the lanai. Don’t shoot unless you have to. I don’t want any more attention brought to the house than it already will.”

“Don’t worry. We get drilled with this stuff all the time on Base.”

I looked at him sharply, “And why didn’t I know this?”

He shrugged like it was no big deal. “I guess we thought you’d know. The Major is a bear about people being able to take care of themselves. All civilians are expected to take turns helping to protect the Base.”

I turned to Juliet, “And what about you?”

“Rifle. I don’t do so good close up.”

Thinking quickly I said, “OK, you’ll be upstairs at the front of the house. Same rule applies. Don’t get involved unless you have to and keep your head down.”

I turned to Liz and she took an involuntary step backwards. “I …”

Refusing to show my surprise I responded, “OK then I want you here, between the two of them. I’m going to be outside …”

“Wait! What?! No. I heard them … they want us inside and out of the way!”

“OK, calm down,” I told her in my best soothing voice. “I’m not planning on getting involved in the battle … if there is one. We’ve got seven … count them seven … trained and experienced military personnel out there with high power weapons and the gumption to use them. Mateo also has battle experience and I assume that Dog has some of some sort as well.”

“They came in scared Leah,” Liz said still jittery but at least no longer yelling.

“I didn’t see fear Liz, just concern. They’re doing their job and getting things set just in case there is trouble. And that’s what I need to do. I need to go check the garden and see if anything needs tending and protecting in case trouble does arrive. What you can do is make sure that … let’s see … here they are … get these bottles filled with water from the potable water barrel and put some GORP together from this stuff I’m putting on the table. It could be a while before we know for sure what is going to happen and no one has had dinner yet. When I come back in I’ll try and figure out something else constructive to keep us busy but for now just try and … well, not relax as I know that isn’t happening, but just channel your energy into something useful. Trust me, it’s how I kept from going crazy during all of the bombing and stuff that was going on around me when I was pregnant and alone except for Nydia.”

I went outside and started bringing in all the container plants that I could move. Joseph was there helping which made the job go quicker. Liz looked like she was starting to pull herself back together; I saw her take the plants from Joseph at the door and move them into the house. I was really surprised by Liz’s initial reaction and it must have showed though I was trying to keep it to myself.

“She’s all right Leah … she just got beat up real bad and watched her aunt get killed when they was hijacked.”

“When they were hijacked, not was,” I said automatically.

A brief smile told me that Joseph didn’t take it personally then he said, “She’s lots better than she used to be but she still gets a little freaky at first. That’s probably why Dog sent her here instead of to the trailer.”

“Not to mention the trailer won’t exactly hold up during a battle.”

“You might be surprised. It’s been armored up but it still isn’t some place I’d want to be if we run into some of them foreigners.”

I looked at him, “Foreigners? Like the enemy?”

“The regular army takes care of the real foreign troops. The kinds we – the refugee camps, National Guard, or the militia – run into most often are either deserters from the foreign troops or leftovers of those foreign aid workers. Most of the real immigrant people, both the legal and illegal types, try and keep to themselves ‘cause they know if they cause problems the military will burn ‘em out.” It sounded brutal but so was war.

I continued to work ‘til dusk. I went into the house and found that Liz had outdone herself; all of the bread I had baked earlier in the day was sliced then and made into peanut butter sandwiches. There was also a large bowl of mixed GORP sitting on the table. Liz herself had collapsed onto the sofa and was asleep. I remember being that kind of exhausted from nervous energy and envied her ability to just let go like that. I looked at Joseph and then slid the cabinet in front of the bunker door to the side and slipped inside taking a couple of sandwiches and some fruit juice with me.

Neeno was asleep and Nydia wasn’t far from it but both jumped and nearly ran me down when they sighted the food. I cuddled each one, kissed them, and after they finished their sandwiches and laid back down I stepped back into the kitchen.

“That … is … so … cool.” It was Juliet. She’d come down to go to the bathroom before it got dark and to grab a sandwich for herself.

“Yes it is,” I replied. “But I would appreciate it if you and Joseph would keep it to yourselves.”

Joseph said rather seriously, “Not a prob. If I live to have kids I’m gonna have me a place like that to put them. They ain’t gonna grow up like me with no place to hide when the bad things happen.”

Not sure how to respond to such a heartbreaking glimpse into what his life must have been like growing up I patted both kids and then grabbed the leftovers, put them in a dark-colored, soft-sided cooler, added my last bottle of insect repellant, and tried to find where the men had secreted themselves at.

I was carefully creeping along the fence line, my rifle bumping my hip as the strap slipped off my shoulder, when I spotted Mateo beckoning to me. I blended into the shadows as best I could and found not only Mateo but Sgt. Ortiz. Mateo already had a line of whelps around his collar area and gratefully dabbed some of the unscented deet on him and his clothes.

“Mi Tesoro,” he breathed into my ear before kissing me.

Sgt. Ortiz was happy to see the sandwiches and water and left Mateo and took them to share with the other men at their various positions.

Using a very soft voice that disappeared under the noise of all of the tree frogs that had started to sing, “How long will you keep this up?”

“Through the night and into tomorrow. If they haven’t struck by lunch time tomorrow we’ll run a patrol and see if we can find any sign of them.”

“And you sure you were followed?”

“Mmm,” he said around a mouthful of sandwich. “They were after the fuel most likely. They’re on motorcycles; small ones with good mufflers but that still makes them faster than travelling on foot. And they were armed. They spent a lot of ammo pursuing us. Several of them paid for their choice. Ortiz said if we hadn’t had the fuel and other supplies he would have turned on them and burned them all.”

“It’s a wonder we haven’t run into them before,” I muttered, worried about our safety once the others left.

“Must be new to the area, or passing through. They were carrying individual packs but nothing big. Ortiz said it was only a matter of time before …”

We both stopped talking at the same time. We hadn’t heard anything in particular but that was the problem. The frogs had suddenly stopped singing. Mateo was torn between sending me back to the house and having me travel unprotected through the bright moonlight to get there. I patted his arm and pointed to a path of dark that wound around the yard. I knew our yard and house as well as I knew my own feet and hands. It had been a long time since I needed light to move quickly over the ground. I’d spent months only coming out at night like some blasted vampire and I hadn’t lost the hang of it.

I was half way around and in the corner under an overgrown crepe myrtle … more tree than the bush it was originally meant to stay … when I heard a stick snap. I stopped right where I was, becoming motionless. It could have been one of the military personnel but since they would most likely not appreciate being surprised I decided to avoid it. On the other hand it was weird how they didn’t seem to know that just three poles down from where they were trying to climb over the barbed wire fence that was between our front yard and what was formerly Gerald’s side yard the wires had been cut and they could have just walked right on through rather than acquire the rip I heard in someone’s britches followed by a muffled curse … the fact that it was a muffled female curse and all the females on our side were accounted for led me to believe that I was in the exact kind of trouble that I had been trying to avoid.

I quietly slipped the rifle off my shoulder while I prayed that Mateo wouldn’t hesitate if it meant the difference between shooting a female and protecting his own life. He’d been raised to never hit a female and that kind of thinking, though honorable, could get man killed in this day and age. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. The three of them were crossing right in front of me. Rather than shoot and make everything crazy I swung the rifle, with the safety still on, like a baseball bat into the face of the one in front. They were traveling in a single file. The butt of my rifle caught the first one square in the mouth and knocked him back into the other two who both went down, tripping under his unexpected weight. I brought the butt of the rifle down hard on the pile of bodies at my feet, connecting and causing pain each time. It was a quiet fight but it was quickly ended when Mateo and Baines showed up out of the dark.

No one fired a weapon and the skirmish was over pretty fast ending permanently when Baines put a boot to all three heads hard enough that it took them out. I wasn’t shaking, not yet. Mateo pulled me into a rough hug which tilted my head backwards giving me a pretty good view of Juliet in the window. She was pointing frantically and I realized she had a perfect view from her perch. I pushed Mateo away and got his and Baines attention and then Juliet flashed five fingers on each hand twice and then pointed frantically down the street. Both men went on high alert but before I could head for the house the shooting started.

What a mess that was. In all of the uproar I became separated from Mateo when he told me to get to the house and stay out of any lines of fire. I didn’t make it back to the house. Someone ran at me out of the shrubbery and grabbed me from behind. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. I don’t like that anymore now than I had when Hank used to do it to me. Stomp, poke, scratch … they threw me from them just about as quick as they had grabbed me. They’d ripped my rifle away but that didn’t stop me from grabbing a brick from a landscape border and bringing it down on their foot dropping them to my level. Without thinking about the consequences I slammed the brick down on their head a couple of times before grabbing my rifle and theirs and scrambling away like a crab. I ended up in the gardenia bushes shaking like a blasted rabbit trying to escape from a hawk.

The gunfire was loud in the normally quiet night. Nothing was coming my direction … or the direction of the house … and I hope it stayed that way. Nothing was getting in downstairs and then I heard the distinctive “drop” of the metal door being brought down in back. I hoped that Joseph was inside and hadn’t opted to try and help outside though I realized that is likely what a boy his age and experience would feel compelled to do. Sure enough within five minutes I heard, “Psst … psst. Are you hurt Leah? Juliet saw …”

I grabbed him and pulled him into the gardenia bushes with me scaring him nearly as bad as he’d scared me. I put my hand over his mouth and then shook my finger at him. He shrugged but I could tell he wasn’t the least be repentant. I shook my finger silently at him again but he just ignored me and looked out through the bushes while pushing the barrel of the shotgun through ready to fire if needed. I was completely out of patience with him but I put it away and mentally told myself that Dog or Ortiz could deal with him. Eventually through hand motions I convinced him to stay where he was while I crept around back to check to make sure no one was coming in from that direction.

Sure enough I spotted two people yanking and pulling at some squash and tomatoes and stuffing them in their jacket pockets. Something inside me snapped. They were taking food from my children, from my husband. They were destroying months of work, patience, and care. When they started kicking at what they couldn’t carry away, damaging things out of spite I raised the rifle I still carried and …

I’m not proud of what I did. I don’t expect soldiers are proud of taking the life of an enemy either. It was an act of war. They may not have been dropping bombs or even shooting at me or my family but what they were doing endangered us just as surely as the other actions would have.

Slowly over an hour or so the gunfire petered off. In the end it was a total route though we did suffer some injuries on our side. We had less than a third the number in our party as they did in theirs but better weapons, better training, and greater experience made the difference.

Baines got some birdshot in his calf. Sgt. Ortiz got a bullet burn across his hand. Driver took a bullet through his shoulder but it didn’t hit anything vital. Mateo’s cheek was cut by some shrapnel. Dog got into a fist fight with one of the attackers and they beat the tar out of each other. Joseph … I nearly strangled him when I found out … lost an earlobe from a very close encounter of the bullet kind.

Lopez was matter of fact and told him, “You won’t be wearing an earring in that ear again Bro.”

The impulse to strangle came when I overheard Joseph respond, “Cool. It was always trying to get infected anyway.” I swear but it must be that the entire male species suffers from Y-Chromosome related insanity during battle. My stomping around and growling at them all for getting hurt and worrying me sick only made them snicker or puff up like a peacock.

The fight was over. No more bad guys … or bad girls … and there was nowhere for my adrenaline to go. I fussed over the men and then had to let them go do their thing once the bleeding was stopped or patched up by Lopez. The children were asleep so that was out because there was no way I was waking them up until morning. Liz was off fussing over Dog. Juliet and Joseph were checking the equipment on the trailer. That left the garden and that’s where Mateo found me trying to fix what the baddies had tried to destroy.

“Leah …” I heard him but couldn’t seem to stop what I was doing long enough to respond. “Leah?”

He took the broken plants out of my hands and pulled me up out of the dirt. “There isn’t enough light for this. Come. You need to lie down for a few minutes. The morning is soon enough to try and fix the damage.”

I’m the kind of person that is great during an emergency. I stay calm, cool, and collected. I stay focused. No histrionics from me thank you very much. But once things have calmed down and there is no place to put the excess adrenaline I start shaking. I refused to cry but I couldn’t seem to stop the shaking. Mateo held me. Part of me felt horrible … stupid and cowardly … but the greater part of me was simply too grateful that he was still there to hold me, for me to lean on. Eventually I was able to pull my control back together.

“Everyone is going to be hungry early so there isn’t any sense in trying to sleep. I’ll … I’ll make hash with some of the smoked gator and make a veggie omelet with duck eggs. All the bread … I’m sorry … it got used up last night and …” I was starting to lose my concentration again.

“Shhhhh. Mi Corazon, me Vida … it’s all right.” The dam broke and I did cry a bit. It helped more than I wanted to admit but it took a lot of my energy with it. Mateo convinced me to go be with the children for a bit and despite it all I did fall asleep.

I only woke up because I heard giggles. “Nonny snored.”

“Shhhh Nydia. You’ll wake her.”

“But Poppy,” the little girl whispered. “It was so funny. I had to roll her over before she woke Neeno up.”

A could hear laughter in the voice that said, “Shhhh. Nonny must have been very tired and …”

“And Nonny is going to die of embarrassment if anyone else heard her snore,” I moaned.

Nydia and Neeno giggled and squirmed onto either side of me. I looked up bleary eyed at Mateo and asked, “What time is it?”

Nydia answered for him, “Breakfast was hours and hours ago.”

“What?!!” I jumped up and realized that Mateo must have partially undressed me at some point because I distinctly remembered just falling across the bed fully dressed. I yanked the sheet over myself and looked daggers at him through the light of the wind up lamp.

He grinned without remorse, “You needed sleep. And now you need to eat. I’ll take the children and …”

“Beat them?” I growled only half in jest since they were both doing some sing song thing that went “It’s raining and pouring and Nonny is snoring …”

Sure enough it was raining. “Oh no. My garden.”

“Easy Love,” he said as I scrambled into clothes behind a dressing screen. “The damage wasn’t as bad as it looked in the dark. Liz was able to put most of it to rights and the rain will help keep the roots moist until they take hold again. We did lose two tomato plants – a cherry tomato and one of those stripey ones – and I pulled all the fruit and put it on the counter.”

“Seriously Mateo,” I said coming from behind the screen with as much dignity as I could under the circumstances. “What time is it?”

“Not late,” he said.

“Mateo ….”

“It is only ten-thirty. I meant for you to sleep until lunch but these two monkeys …” The kids laughed and bounded out of the bunker.

I rushed to Mateo and hugged him. “How’s your cheek? Let me see. Did you eat? Was there any more trouble? Are …?”

“Shhh. Everything is fine Leah … or … well, you know what I mean. Everything has been dealt with. Fortunately the rain did not start until after Ortiz was able to track back the enemy’s path to their base camp. There was a brief skirmish with the three that were left behind to guard their bikes. And no, there were no children as I know you will ask. These were all older teenagers and young adults in their early twenties.”

“A gang?”

Mateo shook his head as we walked out into the kitchen. “Not a traditional one but more like a group of scavengers living off whatever they could find. Ortiz said either they hadn’t run into many homesteads so hadn’t attacked en masse like that often, or maybe they had done it so often they overestimated their own strength. Either way, they’ve been eliminated.”

“Eliminated,” I mumbled then sighed. I would have said more but I wasn’t sure there was anything that could be said. They were the ones that turned it into an us-or-them situation. They didn’t even attempt to trade, their only thought was to take. “What … what was done with … with the bodies?”

“There were too many to bury and it is too wet to burn. I suggested they find a large septic tank and dispose of them that way.”

I blanched but knew under the circumstances it was the best that could be done. “Away from here?”

“Hmm? Oh … yes. That private school … Berean Academy? … that one that is down the highway a bit. It has a large commercial sized tank and it is far enough away that we don’t have to worry about immediate ground water contamination.”

The Crew came and went through the rest of the day and I cooked using some of their supplies and some of ours … fried green tomatoes figured prominently in the evening meal … on a grill set up under the lanai since it continued to rain. Montrose came over and helped Mateo set up a radio station and showed him how to operate it and gave him call signs and symbols so he could contact the Base on a regular schedule if we wanted to or call for help if we needed to. The help wouldn’t come immediately of course but it would at least let someone know we were in need of assistance.

Liz came over shame-faced and it took a while for me to get her over it. I rolled my eyes and said, “And who was sleeping while everyone else was working this morning?”

“After last night you needed it. Dog said you were shaking like a leaf and trying not to show it.” We both congratulated the other on trying to overcome what bothered us most, not completely convinced that either one of us meant a word of it, and we went on. There was no choice, all you can ever do to move forward is to put one foot in front of the other and try to drag as little baggage along on the trip as you can.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Part 14: Work So Deftly Done

Part 14: Work So Deftly Done

This is the garden’s magic,
That through the sunny hours
The gardener who tends it,
Himself outgrows his flowers.
-Marie Nettleton Carroll

I was up early the next morning, even before the crew’s shift change. I waved at Lou Chin who beckoned me over; I went as far as the gate.

“Morning Lou!”

“Morning ma’am. Um … I have what may sound like a strange question but I’ve been wondering. Do you have any recipes for seaweed?” At my considering look he added, “Don’t look at me like that please. It ain’t ‘cause I’m Chinese … I’m only quarter Chinese actually … and I hate sushi. It’s because I’ll be transferring to a camp set up along the coast when we get back from this run. Just something you said yesterday triggered a memory from when I was a kid. My great grandmother was raised in Ningbo; mostly fishing was a good living back in those days but there were times when she said God turned His face away and they would nearly starve. Sometimes it would get so bad that they survived on seaweed alone. So anyway, I’ve heard that you can harvest seaweed near where this camp is going to be and I was wondering if you had a recipe for it that doesn’t involve raw fish or octopus.”

I smiled. “I’m not a fan of sushi either though Mateo likes it.” I made a face and shuddered remembering what the fillings inside some of those round little packages looked like. “However I do happen to have a recipe you might like. I was introduced to it by a friend of my dad’s who was a commercial fisherman. It’s called Seaweed Chowder.”

You take two ounces of dried seaweed and soak it in water for fifteen minutes to an hour then drain it and transfer to another bowl. In a blender combine three cups of water, one cup of pine nuts, two cloves of peeled garlic, a quarter cup of lemon juice, and a half teaspoon of sea salt. You serve the liquid “soup” with the seaweed, no cooking involved. “I like the chowder part with or without the seaweed so even if the seaweed is something you decide you don’t like you won’t be wasting much.”

“Cool,” he said before going in to write up the directions down. Before he got all the way inside I told him, “You might also want to note that seaweed makes a good addition to compost as long as the salt has been washed out of it. When I’m short on green stuff for our compost piles I skim the scum and algae from the ponds and canals. Algae, seaweed, and moss add nitrogen to compost and help to get some heat action going.”

He nodded before closing the door and when I turned I was startled to find Mateo behind me. “You’re up early,” he said.

I sighed, “I’m nervous. I know I shouldn’t be … I have confidence in you … I’m still a little anxious though.”

“Oh. So … you’ll miss me today?”

I playfully threw the dandelion head I had just picked at him and asked, “What kind of question is that? I’m going to have to keep myself busy all day long until you get back just to keep myself from worrying and getting silly.”

He shrugged a little too casually and I knew immediately that something was up. “Mateo Jakob, what is on your mind?”

“I thought that perhaps … all of these young men around to admire you and …”

I turned my head so fast to look at him my eyes nearly crossed. “What on earth? That’s insulting … and … and … saying it right before you go off … and …”

Mateo shook his head, “I’m an idiot.”

“Yes you are. I can’t believe you.”

“I said I was an idiot.” Unfortunately he only seemed to be saying it to appease me so I stomped off towards the kitchen. He caught up with me and finally admitted, “I’m a huge idiot.”

“Yes you are. Honestly, what is with you this morning?”

He sighed, “I don’t like the competition.”

I growled, “Better change that to ginormous idiot. Do I look like a bone to you, one to be fought over by a bunch of animals?! Do I seem to be the kind of woman that would put up with that sort of tug o’ war nonsense? And exactly what do you think of my character that I would …”

“Whoa,” he said trying to forestall my temper that rarely if ever was directed at him, especially the quick hot flash that I was sending his way at that moment. “All right, I’m a ginormous idiot. There isn’t a word for how big an idiot I’m being. Mi Corazon, mi Amor, mi Tesoro …”

“None of that. I’m not going to fall for it this time Buster. Seriously, what on earth set you off on this course? Mateo … you really have hurt my feelings you know.”

“Leah, I … I’m sorry.” He sighed. “It isn’t you I don’t trust, it … it isn’t even those other men. If I didn’t trust them I wouldn’t be leaving today. I don’t know where it came from. I suppose … perhaps I am not quite the assured man of the world you imagine me to be.” At that moment the only thing I was imagining was him barely ducking from my cast iron skillet in time to avoid serious injury but I didn’t tell him that. “Am I forgiven?” he asked.

“Of course but geez Mateo, don’t do that again. I don’t consider it the least bit complimentary even if women like Rachel did … or do … or whatever.”

“What does that hell cat have to do with this?” Mateo asked stupefied that I’d bring up his old girlfriend.

“Everything and nothing. Apparently all the other women you’ve ever dealt with were like Rachel … and as we are both well aware, I’m not. I don’t have the least desire to live that kind of drama, playing one man off of another, so please don’t make the mistake of putting me in that category.”

“Hmmm,” he muttered. “I suppose you would see it that way, but I wasn’t thinking in those terms. Either way my lesson is learned.” After a moment he asked, “It truly doesn’t bother you to have so many men around with me away for the day?”

I shrugged and told him, “They’re just Tag’s puppies for the most part. Besides are you forgetting Liz and Juliet?”

Ignoring the names of the other females he persisted, “These men are not puppies like Decker.”

“I suppose not but that still doesn’t change my confusion over why bring this up at all.”

He sighed, “I’m jealous.”

“And have I ever given you are reason to be jealous?” I asked nearly irritated all over again.

“No. At least not intentionally.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I asked, not real happy with how he phrased his answer.

“You are a great asset Leah.”

“Thank you Mateo I’m glad you think … wait … that didn’t sound like a compliment.”

He shook his head. “If I explain I’ll only be digging my hole deeper.”

“If? If you explain?” I asked impatiently.

He shook his head again and reluctantly smiled. “You look like a fuzzed up kitten. Only a wise man would realize that you’ve got sharp claws under all of that fluff.”

I tapped my toe and wanted to tell him that a wise men would know that calling me a fuzzy kitten in my current mood wasn’t the smartest course of action. “You’re definitely digging your hole deeper … and you’re stalling.”

He nodded. “Yes I am.” He sighed. “You are an asset Leah. Figuratively and literally”. Leaning on the counter while I packed his lunch he added, “I overheard Montrose and Baines talking. They said you’d have all the single men – and probably some of the married ones as well – at the Base vying for your attention. You could have your pick and maybe some that wouldn’t even mind sharing. It isn’t just your youth and vitality but all of the knowledge you have … apparently your brain is very sexy.”

I couldn’t help it, I laughed. It was just too absurd. “Oh Mateo. That has to be … oh my … the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever heard.” I finally stopped and wiped my eyes on my apron. I noticed he was looking disgruntled. I hugged him and then kissed his chin since he wouldn’t bend down. “Come on Mateo. Can’t you just see Rachel’s face if you said something similar to her? That her looks wouldn’t buy her anything but a sexy brain could …” I was back to trying to control my laughter.

Slowly Mateo unbent and reluctantly smile. “She would be appalled.”

Gasping I said, “My point exactly. Mateo, frankly I don’t care what anyone else … male or female … thinks of me in that respect. You’re the one I’m with, the only one I’m with, the only one I want to be with. So long as you think my brain is sexy I’m satisfied.” I lost the battle and giggled again. “Now stop it, all right? Honestly, the things that go through your head sometimes. If you start worrying again just remember that if not for you I wouldn’t be here … I’d probably have gotten sucked up into some refugee camp if I had even survived that far.”

“Do not say that,” he grumbled. “And besides, I don’t want you here because you feel like you have no other choice or out of some sense of gratitude.” I hugged him and he finally relaxed.

I told him, “Don’t worry, I’m not.” To top it off I gave him what was supposed to be a sultry look but it only made him laugh … but in a very male, my pride has been assuaged, kind of way. I swear, there is nothing truer than a man simply thinks completely differently from a woman. But perhaps, had I been faced with seeing Mateo in the midst of a bunch of females and overheard the same thing I’d be a bit touchy, especially after having him to myself for so long. Mateo was a catch … Latin good looks that were only getting better with age and experience, just enough machismo to keep life interesting without getting irritating, all combined with his own bit of “sexy brain.” You live, you learn and still your pasts will sometimes collide in unexpected ways. I resolved to be more circumspect in my dealings with other men in the future. Growing up I had noticed my parents took great pains to never be alone with the opposite sex. They always said that it was so that nothing they did could incite gossip but perhaps it was also a sign of respect to each other. I certainly wouldn’t be taking Mateo’s feelings on the subject for granted from that point forward.

After I watched Mateo ride away in the transport I had to shake myself so that I could to settle down to business. August would normally have been excruciatingly hot but instead it was warm yet still pleasant except in the interior of the swamp. The difference from what it was and what it should have been inspired me to cover the changing weather patterns and how they had influenced and nearly dictated my plans.

“The weather is actually what instigated the covered raised beds,” I told the Ag crew. They followed me back to the gardens right after the patrol left for the day. “For the most part, as you’ve seen, I start all of my seeds indoors in newspaper pots or something similar and then transfer them to the raised beds after I harden them off. I can’t be the only one that has noticed the bloom schedule is off for a lot of the trees and plants.” At their nod I continued, “Instead of the normal planting chart that you would find in books for this area I’ve actually had to keep a close eye on the temperatures – the lows and highs and frost dates – and then I plant based on the recommendations that were on the seed packets. For instance when the night time lows don’t fall below fifty degrees or so many days after the last frost. It hasn’t assured success but I’ve had fewer false starts that way.”

Dog nodded, “The first crops that we tried to plant were a complete disaster. Luckily for us we had enough seed to try a second time but not all of the camps were so lucky. Up north was really bad.”

I asked, “Just how bad is it up north?”

“It was real bad there for a while and a lot of people are really worried what this winter will bring. Last winter unheard of lows every day, ice storms, blizzards, waterways were frozen solid and all of the damage that comes from those things were just made worse by the fact that there were no road crews to clear the roads, clear fallen trees, salt the bridges, or anything. Spring barely came in some locations, summer was a complete no-show, and we’ve heard they’ve already had snow storms in a couple of places and it is still August. Chicago never did thaw out because of all of the cold air coming off the Great Lakes. Maine … communication in the backwoods of that state is so rare that any news coming out of it is a big deal. Canada is a huge popsicle, the only difference being that they seemed to be better prepared for the weather shift in the beginning than we were.”They didn’t lose as many up front as we did percentage wise but their attrition rate from starvation and disease is on par with what our northern states are exhibiting now.”

Still concerned I asked, “And food?”

“It’s going further than they thought because so many have died.” At my stricken look he said, “Sorry, I keep forgetting that what is common knowledge to us is brand new to you.”

“Common knowledge it may be but it still doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people have died unnecessarily, all for the lack of a plan.”

“Try millions died over this last winter,” Liz added. “We’ve been shown pictures of trash incinerators that have been converted to huge crematoriums just to keep more deaths from disease from occurring.”

I was already a tad depressed but every bit of news that morning seemed to heap a few more coals on the fire. For every good thing that I learned, two or three bad things would be added to the other side of the balance sheet. West Nile was all but wiped out as was Lyme Disease … but TB was running rampant in some refugee centers as were all sorts of gastro diseases and diseases that can be transmitted by mice, rats, and fleas. I couldn’t take any more and finally stopped asking questions.

At lunch time I didn’t have an appetite but Nydia came to me begging to have “crunchy fries and ketchup” for lunch. Joseph and Juliet overheard and you could see the hopeful look on their faces as they gave me puppy dog eyes. I had to laugh despite the stern look that Dog tried to give them. “You might not like my fries and ketchup … they’re good for you.”

Crestfallen Joseph said, “Let me guess … there’s another experiment coming.”

Juliet sighed and said, “You know, there are some things in life that just aren’t meant to be good for you.”

That set everyone off laughing and I thought, “Why not?”

I grabbed a good sized jicama out of the root bin and scrubbed it before slicing it so it looked like a pile of French fries that I then put into a bowl. Over the top of the “fries” I drizzled two tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of paprika, one tablespoon of onion powder, and a little sea salt to taste. I let this sit while I prepared the ketchup. I took my hand blender and mixed together a quarter cup of onion powder, a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar, a quarter cup of raisins, a tablespoon of sea salt, and one-half cup of dried tomatoes that had been soaked for a couple of hours and then drained. I put a few fries on some small plates and then let them spoon out some of the ketchup.

“Oh … my … gosh,” Juliet said. She turned to Liz and said, “If they served this in the mess hall I can tell you that the kids would be lining up to do anything you said just so they’d get a chance to have them again.”

I rolled my eyes and gave the rest of mine to Nydia and Neeno and Dog and Liz gave theirs to Joseph and Juliet. While the kids noshed on their treat I pulled out my little bottle of virgin sangria base and then using one of the few small bottles of club soda I had left fixed the adults a beverage more suited to our age and tastes.

“Give me the recipe?” Liz asked.

“Sure but you won’t get the fizz unless you can add some carbonation.”

Dog grinned and winked, “Not a problem. A little baking soda, a little citric acid … it’s not the perfect solution but when it’s all you got you learn to be satisfied.”

The afternoon was filled with garden maintenance, adding another couple of covered beds and planting them, pruning some trees, and prepping harvested items for the dehydrators. I kept listening for the sound of Mateo returning and he finally did right before I could get truly anxious.

The kids got to Poppy first but I wasn’t far behind and he was in a fantastic mood. “Leah, look what is in the back.”

Of course I did so without being cautious and I squawked like a chicken and nearly fell over when I opened the back door and was greeted with the glassy eyes and inch long teeth of a freshly killed bull alligator. “Mateo!”

“Not the gator Leah, the rest of it,” he joked.

I had definitely missed everything else and after warily making sure the large gator was well and truly dead I climbed up and tried to make heads and tails of the jumble. I just shook my head. “You’ll have to explain it to me in a bit. Let’s get that gator over to the butchering area before it gets ripe. I assume you want to grill out tonight?”

Sgt. Ortiz grinned nearly as big as Mateo which told me that a hunting story was going to be told. I just rolled my eyes at the whole male thing that was definitely going on. The Ag Crew were interested in the story of the gator’s demise and the processing of his meat. I on the other hand had a marinade to prepare and a grill to warm up.

In the end it was a real group effort and eclectic meal. The gator tail was cut into kabobs and the ribs were marinated in a citrus mix and brushed with a marmalade sauce while they cooked. I made a couple of different salads from our garden and sliced some homegrown beefsteak tomatoes. The others donated some lentils and enough rice to make a huge skillet of pilaf. For dessert I added some cane juice sweetened fresh fruit to their dried fruit cocktail mix. A couple of skillets of seasoned cornbread served as our bread.

While the men manned the grill I cut up the remaining meat for smoking and canning; the canned meat we would put in our storage but the smoked would be eaten in the coming days. We all ate hardy. It had been a while since I could remember being that full. It didn’t take the children long, despite the excitement, to fall asleep. I was coming back onto the lanai after putting them both to bed and caught Dog patting his belly.

“I can’t believe how well you all do on meat protein. Liz’s little brother is apprenticing in the nutritional medicine department – he works with Roger a couple times a month – and despite the manpower devoted to it, it’s always a struggle. We’ve managed to have meat protein three times a week the last few months …”

Liz broke in, “… Thanks to the Major setting that camp up on the coast with a Guardsmen base camp to guard them.”

Dog nodded before continuing, “We have some kind of seafood every Friday. Then the other two days are whatever we can … beef is rare but we do have it on occasion, fowl is more often but not necessarily chicken but don’t tell the refugees that, goat meat and something out of the wild is what we have most often.”

“Then why the surprise?” I asked.

“It’s one of the biggest complaints … not enough meat. Meats and bread. That’s all anyone seems to think about. If they only knew how lucky they are to have the Major coordinating things. We have one of the best intake bases in the state.”

Joseph, not nearly as shy as he had been the first couple of days said, “We’ve had a lot of out-of-state people come to see how we do things. Most of them leave shaking their heads saying we’re being too easy on people. It doesn’t matter that it is working, that the dying has all but stopped in the camps except for what Roger there calls a natural mortality rate. What they don’t like is that it is more work for them to change.”

“Mom says,” Juliet stopped, blushing. “I mean the Major says that people will live up to your lowest expectation of them. If you expect people to act like animals and then treat them that way, that’s how they’ll act. If you expect people to act with dignity and then treat them like they have more than two brain cells to rub together to get a spark you’ll have fewer who … er …” She slowed down and noticing the pink in her cheeks I had to laugh.

“I can imagine what she says. Your mom has a colorful way of expressing herself on occasion.”

Relived Juliet said, “And how. She treats people the way she expects to be treated … until they hack her off then you just better watch out ‘cause she blow both barrels at you with no warning. She hates it when people forget to take their brains out and use them. She doesn’t put up with too much crud at all. And if you want to keep all of your body parts don’t tell her you can do her job better than she can and then refuse to prove it. Dad says she can’t afford to let things pile up or get out of control ‘cause she’s the one with her keester on the line for all the refugees under her authority … the staff and personnel too.”

“Uh huh. And anyone with sense wants the Major to stay,” Joseph said.. “I was sent to the camp when my foster family dumped me and that was before the bombs started falling. It turned into a nightmare before the Major arrived. We got fed once a day if we were lucky; MREs in the beginning but that didn’t last long. Right before the Major arrived we were down to a cup of rice or a cup of plain ol’ oatmeal a day. The water was bad. There weren’t enough latrines and they were all clogged and disgusting. The camp was full of fleas and roaches. I’d rather die than go back to living that way.”

“Is that why you are apprenticing with the Darnells? To make sure there is enough to eat?” I asked.

He got a sad look on his face. “Mostly. I’m hoping maybe …” He stopped and shrugged but peeped at Juliet.

I thought he’d joined to be with her but instead he was asking Juliet to explain. “The Major … she didn’t have much choice. Some people, especially some teens and college age kids, they didn’t like the rules … any rules, they couldn’t even follow their own. She wound up having to lock some of them up and on top of that putting a lot of them out on a work farm – it’s a converted juvie hall sort of thing. The worst of them – the ones that the farms don’t settle down or who do something really heinous – get sent to a prison off the coast. It’s an old oil rig that’s been stripped of everything but living quarters; supplies are dropped shipped once a week.”

“Isn’t that dangerous for the guards?”

Sgt. Ortiz said, “Aren’t any guards. No need for them. No way of escape. Too far to land to swim. No materials to build a raft strong enough to get you to shore. Even if they try it … and a few have of course … there are Naval and Coast Guard patrol boats out there and anything that isn’t supposed to be on the water gets sunk. The area around the rigs are mined to prevent anyone from approaching and either rescuing them or … otherwise.”

I must have looked shocked and of all people it was young Joseph who said, “I know how it sounds but do you know how bad you gotta be to be sentenced there? There’s all sorts of chances … starting with you can just walk away. The camps ain’t prisons, at least ours ain’t. You don’t like the rules you can just go. People do it all the time.”

Robert Driver who has to be one of the quietest people I’ve ever met in my life said, “Problem is most of those try and come back within a few weeks of ‘freedom’. Most of the complainers are too soft to make it on their own.”

Joseph added, “My brother did that; left and then came back. More than once. Second time he was put in Work Camp A for two weeks. Then when he came back to Base he got caught trading drugs for people’s food rations. That got him jail time. Then he tried to start a riot while he was in there so he got sent to Work Camp B which is like the State Pen. Last I heard he’s got two strikes against him in there and one more will see him sent off shore or maybe even shot if he does something stupid like attack a guard. If I can just get him to see things could be good, even better than we had it before, he’d stop.”

The shame of it was that Joseph believed it. But from the looks on the others faces he was the only one. Feeling bad for the kid I told him, “People have to make their own choices Joe. You’re going to have to accept that if your brother continues to make the kinds of choices he has been making then it is no reflection on you. It isn’t because you didn’t work hard enough or long enough or did the right or wrong thing.” He shrugged. Apparently he had heard that before.

Changing the subject Mateo said, “Corazon, perhaps you will give the directions for those things you call rawsages? They are not as good as your bean burgers but they are very good wrapped in a warm biscuit.”

Mateo was talking about the Italian Rawsages that I started making as soon as my lettuce came in. They aren’t bad at all. You take a cup of shelled pumpkin seeds, a half a head of lettuce, a half cup of olive oil, five cloves of garlic, a half cup of onion powder, a tablespoon of caraway seeds, a tablespoon of dried sage, and a half bunch of fresh basil and blend them all together in a food processor. Then you form the result mix into sausage shaped patties or “logs”. You can eat it as is at that point but I prefer to dehydrate mine until they are firm on the outside but still moist on the inside.

The party was late breaking up. We sat for a while, quiet and replete, and watched the bats as they hypnotically swooped and dived in the backyard. Because of all the rain the mosquito population exploded. At certain times of day we would simply retreat to the screened lanai and kill the ones that had followed us in. Without the bats, frogs, and ducks who ate the mosquito larva we’d have been overrun and sucked dry before we knew it. Eventually though they did go back to their trailer, though I noticed it was reluctantly for a few of them.

“It is pleasant to have company but I’m not sad to see them leave for the night either,” Mateo said as he stretched and popped. I snorted silently but he saw me roll my eyes since he turned unexpectedly. “Leah? Didn’t you have a good time?”

I sighed. “ Of course I did. It’s just there is some clean up that still needs doing and I’m beat on my feet. But since we don’t have a refrigerator it isn’t like I can leave cleaning up the food until the morning.”

He shook his head. “Ah Leah, I did not think … here, let me help.”

“No, go to bed. You are going out on patrol again tomorrow morning early and you need to rest. I’ll be fine.”

“Leah …”

“Go.” I wasn’t just being a martyr because I enjoyed it. Mateo really did need to rest, he was very dark under the eyes and there was a full day of salvage tomorrow because they had found a pretty good treasure trove of potentially useful things.

“I’ll make it up to you Love.” I shook my head with a nonverbal never-mind, turned him and gently pushed him in the direction he needed to go; and he did, but reluctantly. I knew though he’d be asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow; he’d had a long and productive day. As for me the mess really wasn’t all that bad, I was mostly tired too and complaining a bit just to let off some steam. It was stressful trying to concentrate on what I was doing, distract myself from worrying about Mateo’s absence, and assimilate all of the new information I was picking up from our visitors.

The haul they had brought in from the day’s salvage run was nothing short of stupendous compared to what we had been doing and it was all because of the stop they made at this big DOT maintenance warehouse. The place was completely collapsed on one end but on the other it was only dilapidated and partially destroyed. What was crazy was that no one had really gotten to it to take off with its contents. Sgt. Ortiz told Mateo that it was possible that it was either one of the last areas evacuated or there had been a clerical error showing that it had already been cleaned out.

What got to Mateo is upon opening the door it was like entering Wonderland. The first thing the military guys did was raid the offices for the coffee and condiments. There wasn’t a lot but Mateo let them have it. There were partial packs of cigarettes in a couple of desk drawers too that made Baines moan in ecstasy. Lopez hit the first aid supply cabinet and you could hear him mumbling a prayer of thanksgiving. Mateo on the other hand bypassed all of the immediate gratification of the small finds and headed straight for the open warehouse area and straight over to a line of forklifts. Unbelievably all of them had batteries still attached and there was a wall with heavy metal shelving that contained a couple of replacement batteries.

Once the men saw what he was doing JC and Bobby Driver ran out back and then called for Ortiz who came back in with a manic look on his face. “Matt, I’ll help you load anything in here that you want but we need that fuel out back.” He looked like he was ready to barter a few body parts for it and Mateo admitted to being tempted but he said, “Deal.” It was no skin off our nose as nothing we had used diesel. I suppose we could have come up with a use for it but the batteries and some of the other stuff Mateo found was infinitely more valuable to us.

The value of the batteries was only outweighed by the value of the individual pv panels that were meant to be attached to road signs. With those pv panels and batteries we’d be able to more than triple our energy storage. There were some skids and trailers and Mateo intended on hauling a couple of them back to expand our storage. When I asked him where he intended on us putting them I discovered that it was his plan to take over Gerald’s yard. I wasn’t thrilled. I still expected Gerald to come back and make a huge stink about everything we’ve done to the neighborhood.

That was when I learned the horrible truth. “Gerald is dead Leah. He’s not coming back. I doubt his wife or children will care to make a scene considering he was executed for the crime of espionage.”

“What?” I asked horrified.

“I don’t have all of the details but apparently he had been involved in some black market ring before we were all taken away from the neighborhood. He tried to continue the association after we were sent off to … boot camp I suppose is what you would call it, some kind of quasi-federally approved UN processing camp. He was trading information for luxury items like liquor, cigarettes, and good quality boots and it eventually came to the ear of the wrong person … or right one depending on how you look at it. He was caught red handed and was executed by firing line two days later.”

I didn’t know what to say and Mateo said there wasn’t anything to say. “It is old news to me Leah and I shouldn’t have told you, you’ll only worry and wonder about what else went on. Let’s just be happy with the largesse that we found.”

That was a lot easier to say than it was to do although thinking about the other things that they had found certainly was a distraction – a supply of concrete and asphalt, chains and ropes and wire, road flares, heavy duty shelving, office supplies, a couple of thousand gallon water tanks and one five thousand gallon water tank, cable and chain hoists, and all sorts of miscellaneous odds and ends. I wasn’t sure where we were going to put it all but Mateo said that it could go in the trailers until he could get everything organized the way he wanted it.

It just so happened that there was a small strip mall next door to the DOT offices. There wasn’t a speck of food to be found there but while ninety percent of everything had been cleared out of all of the stores there were a couple of extraordinary finds. From a bar located on the far end he brought me one of those industrial juicing machines; it looked like a Vita-Mix on steroids. The bar had apparently also specialized in one of those healthy juice and smoothie counters during the lunch time rush. In addition to the electric juicer there was a manual citrus press, stainless steel ice scoops that would work great for our grains and dehydrated veggies, bar towels, manual can openers, funnels and strainers, and other small ware. A Chinese restaurant had some janitorial supplies and a bunch of kitchen equipment that would hold up to open flame cooking. He found similarly useful baking equipment in a pizza place which gave me the idea to build a medieval style outdoor brick oven once the worst rush with the garden was over. A catering company had all sorts of goodies and those Mateo split with Tag’s people because it would be useful in starting a new community; we certainly didn’t need eleventy-dozen sets of silverware and plates though I did decide to put two dozen in storage in case I should ever need them. There was a dental office that Mateo said looked like a herd of elephants had trampled through it – probably looking for drugs of some kind – an accounting office with a cabinet full of copy paper but little else, some type of insurance underwriting office that was badly water damaged from leaks in the roof, a photography shop that was completely empty of all but the display cabinets, and a sewing machine repair shop. There weren’t any sewing machines in the shop but there were a couple of crates of material, bobbins, and thread that were likely used for testing and display purposes.

They wanted to finish salvaging in that area and then spread out for possible other finds. I wondered where all of the stuff had gone that had been “officially” salvaged from around town. Mateo said that a lot of it was simply “lost in shipping.”

“Excuse me?”

Mateo nodded, “Sounds like a stupid excuse for poor tracking doesn’t it? But I think it is the plain truth. My guess is that we’ll eventually find that much of it was either destroyed or sent offshore by the international aid workers. For myself I saw an entire warehouse of goods burned when it was found to be infested with bed bugs and lice.”

It was drops of information like that that kept rippling across my brain, taking my equanimity with it. But since I had finally finished cleaning up and putting everything away I was simply too tired to worry about it any longer. Maybe it’s better that I have to work as hard as I do otherwise I’d waste much more time than necessary on things I could do nothing about.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Part 13: With Silver Bells and Cockle Shells

Part 13: With Silver Bells and Cockle Shells

When the sun rises, I go to work.
When the sun goes down I take my rest,
I dig the well from which I drink,
I farm the soil which yields my food,
I share creation, Kings can do no more.
- Chinese Proverb, 2500 B.C.

“Mateo, do you think we made the right decision?” For two days I had continued to rethink our choice to allow Tag’s people to basically camp out on our door and theoretically learn from our intensive suburban “farming” techniques. First I’d go one way and be very interested in them coming then I’d swing back in the other direction and spend a few hours very anxious about the whole thing. I wasn’t usually quite this changeable on a subject which spoke to how nervous I was about it.

I could see Mateo was taking my question seriously, not just assuming he knew best based solely on my hormones which I have to admit were running a little high at that moment. “Leah, it isn’t that I don’t have concerns. I’ve seen …” He stopped and seemed to put on his proverbial flame retardant suit. “Leah, mi Tesoro, mi Amor … don’t take what I’m going to say the wrong way.” After another brief pause as if he was gathering his thoughts he continued. “I’m a good decade older than you and had more experience even when we first married.” Something in my face must have told him he’d definitely hit a nerve. “Wait … mi Corazon hear me out. This isn’t a matter … Look, Leah, I respect you and I’m not trying to treat you like a child … I’m simply stating a fact. I’m older and have more life experience than you. You have experience of things but not necessarily perhaps as much …”

He stopped, pinched his nose and muttered in Spanish under his breath. I’ve always understood more than he thinks I do. I took three years in highschool and two semesters in college; as a teacher at an inner city school I expanded my vocabulary further … and not necessarily with words you would find in your average textbook unless you were reading the graffiti written on the inside covers. What made it appear that I was conversationally challenged was the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish worth a flip – for one thing I never had learned how to properly trill my r’s – but I can read, write, and understand it more than I ever let on. I had to stop my lips from twitching as I translated his worried muttering, “Why did I open my mouth? I’m going to be sleeping on the sofa from now until the moon no longer brings the tide.” He looked at me and started, “Leah …”

Poor thing. I could see he really was concerned so I let him off the hook … mostly. “Fine. You are some kind of ‘man of the world’ and I’m nothing but Lil’ Miss Homebody who went from daddy to hubby. What exactly does that have to do with the question I asked?”

“Ouch.” He winced and shook his hand like he’d touched something hot. It was supposed to be funny but I wasn’t in the mood. “That is not what I meant Leah.” At my raised eyebrow he conceded admitting, “All right perhaps it was to some extent, but I would never have said it that way. How this conversation got so off course …” He shook his head in exasperation. “Your concerns are valid Leah, but we cannot stay closed off from the world forever no matter how comfortable it might seem at first glance. Short term we need news and contacts and then there are the things we need but cannot grow on our own. Long term we have Nydia and Neeno to think of.”

“I’m well aware of that Mateo, likely more aware than you think I am. I know I can’t grow everything we need and even if I could, one freeze, one season of drought, one injury to either one of us, could wipe us out. Growing up I probably lived a lot closer to that state of existence than you did and I watched my parents and how it tore at them sometimes. If you’ll remember that’s where I learned all the skills that are keeping us fed now. I’m able to preserve some of the harvest this year for next, but I might not next year for the year after that. My goal was never to simply subsist and get by except in the extreme short term.”

Mateo sighed, “I didn’t mean to insult you Love.”

“I know,” I sighed as well. “I’m just … a little prickly about this I suppose. The reality is that I did go from my father’s house to yours. If the time you were away did nothing for me but teach me that I can stand on my own feet I suppose it served a purpose. I’m not afraid of reaching out Mateo, I just wonder if this is the when and who to do it with.”

“Ah,” he said beginning to understand I hadn’t really been speaking generally. “You mean is your trust in Major Taglione misplaced.”

“Something to that effect, yeah.” You know how you can tell a man is trying to choose his words carefully? Mateo had that look on his face. “Mateo, I know Tag can be … uh … she can … er … have a … um … strong personality I guess you would call it. I’ve never really seen her interact with any men besides the ones I call her ‘puppies’ and with them she’s a real mothering figure but the kind that is trying to toughen them up so she can toss them out of the nest.”

Mateo snorted, “Hmmm. I might call it something else but not having met her more than once I’ll take your word for it.” He laughed and shook his head. “It makes me sound like a chauvinist but I am very glad that you are not like that. I want a wife not a mother, a partner not a nursemaid.”

I gave him a kiss and told him rather bluntly but with a smile, “You’ve definitely got testosterone poisoning and we both know it … but since I married you knowing what you were like I’d be a hypocrite to start complaining about it now. Besides, I like your machismo. On the other hand I might not like it in another man. I’ve never met Tag’s husband but I figure it has to take a man that is very sure of himself to live with such a strong minded woman. I do know that she is extremely family oriented and it shows in her work. It might also be why she keeps the ... well, not weaker but certainly the more innocent seeming young men … under her command until they grow a thicker skin or get a bit of experience.”

“Perhaps,” Mateo said. “I do not dislike the woman Leah, she simply reminds me of some of the women that I had to work with. They were as arrogant as some of the men in that environment and were just as blind to their failings. Time will tell if Major Taglione is more able than arrogant; she certainly seems capable and those working under her appear to respect her rather than fear or resent her which tells me a great deal. If it was just the Major I would say that there is no question that she is the right person and this is as good a time as any, certainly when we have something they seem to value enough to trade for which gives us more standing in any negotiations. It is the unknown players that will determine how constructive this relationship will be for us.”

“Unknown players? You mean the ag specialists that are coming?”

“Uh hmm,” he said nodding and thinking. “It will be good to see how far her influence reaches, how her people act when they are not under her direct supervision.”

“Wondering if when the cats away the mice will play?”

He nodded. “And perhaps talk, which could give us more sensitive information on what is happening … in those refugee camps, in the state, and beyond. I know you consider the Major a friend of a sort but never forget that she did not reach her rank just because she is nice or friendly. In my experience, limited though it is, field promotions are only given out for two reasons … because the recipient earned it in some way or because there was no other choice after all other leadership was removed – death or otherwise. If she earned her field promotions then she bears watching, and we’ll need to weigh her words to make sure she isn’t telling us things just to placate us or manipulate us. If the military promoted her because there was no other choice, especially as high as she has risen in a relatively short period of time, then that is very worrisome. That would tell us that our military has been decimated, at least in the top ranks, that a sergeant was field promoted all the way to Major in less than a year’s time.”

I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. I pondered his words then said, “I think she earned it. I don’t think this is an issue of the Peter Principle. She’s too well organized and the other people with her seem to give her too much respect for it to be a political thing.”

“That is my first impression as well, but better to be cautious until we know for sure. As for the rest of it, as I said we need information. If that is all we get out of this visit of theirs I would say that it serves its purpose but I’m hoping for more. A lot will depend on what we find out. I need to know how cut off we are, the quarantine doesn’t appear to be very strict; on the other hand we’ve seen too few people for something not to be going on. Fear is a motivating factor but still the pressures from people migrating from the north because of the cold and those migrating from the south because of the fighting and the bombs should have had this area overrun, especially with the Bay and all of the ports and harbors it offers. Greg and I saw damage walking in … a lot of it … but there were still plenty of habitable spaces and buildings. And with no current bombing in this area the lack of people is illogical. No, something else is going on.”

“And that something is?”

“If I knew that then I wouldn’t need to pump the people coming in for information,” he said a little irritably. He walked away and then I saw him shaking himself mentally. I knew not to take his irritability personally and I knew at some point he’d try to make up for it. If I was hormonally challenged myself I certainly wasn’t going to fault him for being a little stressed out.

The greatest challenge to our long range planning was the simple lack of information. Back before the war neither one of us really cared about socializing, at least at that point and it had been a rare event in the past usually centered around some type of church function, office party, or something similar; but I did hate the claustrophobic feeling created by the lack of access to any information that we were experiencing now. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s like being partially deaf. I think my generation had gotten so used to instant access to tons of information that ending that access created a huge void. We had the ability to be hyper-connected to what was going on, like observant flies that could jump from point to point around the world almost at will. It had become a normal and accepted part of daily life … now nothing, not a blasted thing. It was like being handicapped.

I resolved to not be so anxious about the whole thing but to remain cautious. Easier said than done but what choice did I have? To that end I finished the hidden storage in the bunker and we moved in all of the remaining commercially packaged items we had left, except for a small supply of seasonings and enough of some bulk items that would last a week. Of those items I left out I strategically chose items from the supply that Tag had sent out that time. I thought it would look better just in case there were questions. I didn’t plan on them coming into the house much but on the other hand … well, I thought we’d just have to cross that bridge when we came to it.

We also moved a lot of the excess home preserved food into the hidden storage area as well. I couldn’t move it all in there or that would look suspicious but we weren’t going to give away just how much we did have. If anyone said anything I figured I could tell them that it took me a while to get the garden off the ground. If that didn’t work I knew I could think on my feet as necessary. I wouldn’t lie unless I felt it absolutely necessary but I wouldn’t pretend that I wouldn’t resort to it if I felt threatened.

The other thing I did was give the house a good cleaning; I put Mateo and Nydia to work as well. I think Mateo was mostly humoring me as he said at one point, “Leah, I don’t plan on them being in the house very much if at all.”

“Oh yeah? Then why exactly did we build all of that new hidden space?” I asked in a huff as I was turning Nydia’s mattress.

“Just in case this doesn’t go as planned,” he answered.

I looked at him and said, “My point exactly.”

He blinked, knowing that he was in check mate, and thankfully didn’t say anything more on the subject. Since we had been cleaning as we went when we removed all of the aluminum and sand bags from the house it only took two full days of hard work to do everything I wanted to do; after that it was just shutting off the upstairs to the children and maintaining the work downstairs. The added hidden storage actually did a lot to help me get organized and getting organized was half the battle of cleaning.

Of course turnaround was fair play and for the next couple of days when I wasn’t in the garden I was helping Mateo to put away all of the salvage and wood he brought in. It was monotonous work … gathering, stacking, shifting, moving, labeling, then more gathering and stacking, etc. But since I didn’t have to think quite as much about what I was doing Mateo and I discussed what we would and would not do while Tag’s people were around.

One idea in particular that Mateo raised gave me some hope that we would actually get something concrete out of the visit. “Think about it Leah, since you will have so many extra hands in the garden why not make a plan to get the best use out of them.”

I must have gotten a wicked gleam in my eye because Mateo took one look and laughed. “You would have made a good corporate wife. Give you a goal and you’ll come up with a strategy to make it happen.”

“Do you miss it?” I asked him suddenly sensitive to what he might perceive to be a huge come down from his previous life.

“Some of it. I enjoyed helping people to realize their dreams … and I was good at it. I made people a lot of money Leah. I also liked the accolades that brought … and the prestige and power … the corner office with a view, the brass name plate that said here is a man that gets the job done for his clients.” Then he sighed, “But I don’t miss some of the … what you would call the shenanigans … that went on with office politics. The water cooler gossip, liquor laden lunches, having to flirt and bribe the right secretaries to make sure that my messages got where they were going and so my proposals didn’t get lost at the bottom of the stack. On the other hand without those things perhaps we would not have come together. I’ll always regret the lie that brought us together mi Tesoro. And I’ll always feel blessed that God chose to use it and turn it to something good.”

We held each other for a few moments in complete accord. Somehow – I can’t remember who started it – the whole situation devolved into a tickle war and chasing each other around the yard while Nydia and Neeno giggled and shrieked with laughter at our silliness. That night after my loved ones fell asleep, the children in their beds and Mateo in his recliner while he waited for me to finish the last little bit of prep for the next day’s meals, I realized that Mateo and I actually got along better now than we ever had. Oh there was definitely love and lust before, we would joke and smile, but the laughter that we so often shared on a daily basis – even in the face of such a load of work and concern – only came to us after our long separation. We were so serious before, trying to prepare for we didn’t know what, but now despite it being worse than we had ever imagined we could play with each other. I try to imagine running around the yard like loons before he went away and I just can’t believe we ever would have; we were physically and mentally intimate but not emotionally or spiritually so. Now, even though daily life is a struggle for survival, play and laughter come so naturally to us there is no way that I would ever willingly choose to go back to the way things were before even if it meant undoing the months of misery I suffered in his absence.

The day before the Ag crew was scheduled to arrive it started to rain again. It didn’t just start to rain, it started and kept on raining for nearly three days straight never letting up to more than a light drizzle. We easily got over eighteen inches of rain according to the gauge we used to measure precipitation. Our pond that was just starting to go down not only filled back up but overflowed, something Mateo said he could never remember happening. The only thing that kept the pig pen from flooding and some of my garden beds was that all of the ponds and canals fed out into the swamp that in turn fed out into the retention ponds that lined the highway further up the road from us. Those retention ponds were just a little lower in elevation than our area of the road so that instead of the water backing up and truly flooding out our side of the road, the water flooded the highway and a couple of newer subdivisions to the north and south of our location. Even after the rain stopped we couldn’t let the children out beyond the lanai because there were gators and snakes in locations they didn’t normally hang out in, like our front porch. We even found the big, furry cat sunning himself on our roof. He gave us a rather wet, half-hearted hiss before returning to his grooming schedule so we left him alone.

Around mid morning the next day we were outside investigating our septic field. The ground was truly saturated and we worried that the plumbing was going to back up into the house. Mateo and I had just put the concrete plug back onto the septic tank when we heard the unmistakable rumble of a big truck engine. It turned out to be two of them. One was a hard-sided personnel transport and the other was a soft-sided personnel transport of similar size but it was pulling a hard-sided trailer. Bringing up the rear was a converted jeep looking vehicle; it wasn’t a humvee but it sure wasn’t your regular jeep you would have found on a car lot either, it had a huge and deadly looking gun mounted on it. As a matter of fact all three vehicles looked like they were loaded for bear and then some. It made us very nervous.

A dirty and tired looking man in uniform stepped down from the lead truck and carefully walked over to the gate. “Excuse me, I hope that this is the Jakob residence or Major Taglione is going to tear me a new one.”

What on earth do you say to a greeting like that? After a few more minutes of Mateo making double sure that they were who they said they were introductions were made. The military patrol consisted of the team leader – or however they divvied up the authority – Sgt. Will Ortiz and patrolmen Robert Driver, Jason “JC” Clements, Fred Baines, Rick Montrose, Lou Chin, and medic Roger Lopez. The Ag crew consisted of an additional four people: Ag Specialist 1st Class Barker “Dog” Darnell and his wife Ag Specialist 2nd Class Lissette “Liz” Darnell, and their two apprentices – Ag Specialist 3rd Class Joseph Rodriguez and Ag Specialist 3rd Class Juliet Taglione. That’s right, Taglione; the Major had sent her daughter along with the rest of the crew and I had to guess it was an act of good faith. I was actually surprised by the Ag Crew. Dog was in his young thirties, Liz was in her late twenties but the other two were just babes in arms. Joseph claimed he was seventeen but I would have pegged him a year or two younger. Juliet wasn’t even sixteen yet. “Almost. Two months really shouldn’t matter that much.” Boy did I feel old all of a sudden.

Sgt. Ortiz handed a note to Mateo from Tag. In it she informed him that the men had been authorized to help him salvage within a reasonable distance from their base camp and that he was also offered the chance to go out on patrol with them to get a wider look at areas too far for him to travel on foot. I saw Mateo mentally check off something on his wish list and though my stomach squirmed a little at the thought of him going so far I knew that it was inevitable and better to do it this way than solo and on foot.

To Sgt. Ortiz Mateo said, “I assume she is trying to encourage me to get to know you, give you a chance to earn my trust and for you to take my measure so you can report back to her.”

Sgt. Ortiz looked momentarily surprised then nodded and replied, “The Major told me you two weren’t your average survivor.” At Mateo’s questioning looked he added, “No offense. This patrol has done so many First Contacts that we have a formula. It’s good for us to have to reevaluate our approach now and again.”

“First contacts?” Mateo asked, seeking clarification.

“It’s an old Star Trek reference. In a nutshell not everyone went into the refugee camps; only logical because if they had we couldn’t have held them all. Most people are ambivalent when they see military personnel – it brings to mind more bombs and the spot this country is in at the moment – but they usually don’t give us any trouble. We try and keep our contact with civilians to a minimum and liaison with locally stationed Guardsmen or local militia troops. We’ve found Outlanders to be a different kettle of fish. Those that have stayed in the Outlands are mostly either hard cases that are avoiding authority of any kind, those that have given up and are just waiting to die, or people that are just getting by but still putting one foot in front of the other. You people, this farmstead, it’s different. You’ve got it rough, same as the others, but you’ve gone above the subsistence level. Maybe the Major is right and we can eventually use the Outlands to resettle people from the more crowded areas so that the government can disband the camps. Unlike you, most people we meet in the Outlands are actually looking for a ride to one of the processing camps, not the other way around.”

I stepped over to talk with Mr. Darnell who insisted I call him Dog and his wife Liz. “We’re just civilians. The titles are more of a courtesy than official in nature. They help us find where we are on a duty roster or flow chart but don’t really convey any special privileges or authority.”

I smiled and said, “Well then I’m Leah, you’ve met Mateo, and these two are Nydia and Michael though we all call him Neeno.”

I had thought to give them a day to get settled in and relax but Dog said, “The rain held us up two days on the road so we’ve only got eight left before we have to head back. If you don’t mind I’d prefer to get started right away … or at least right after we set up camp.”

This rushed my plans forward just a little but on the other hand I already had some ideas that I could put into place with no difficulty. First off Mateo and I took the children back to the house and I put together our lunch. In addition to the simple meal that I’d prepared for our us I wanted to give the Ag Crew an idea of what my goals were when it came to gardening. Again it was the idea that I wanted to utilize everything as constructively as possible, with as little work as possible, to facilitate the greatest gain as possible. To that end I was going to fix a small salad from the garden to give them all a taste, both figuratively and literally, of the potential that existed in this kind of gardening.

I made Broccoli and Carrot “Noodle” Salad using all fresh and raw ingredients. I took a head of broccoli and peeled the stalk and separated the florets. Next I used my spiral slicer and cut the broccoli stalk, a carrot, and a peeled cucumber. They looked like weird slinkies and I cut them so that the “noodles” weren’t quite so long. Then I mixed in a cup of sunflower seed sprouts and the small broccoli florets. I tossed it with a little homemade dressing and then put it on a platter on the lanai with a pitcher of cold guarapo. Guarapo is something that I found in Mateo’s mother’s recipe book. You take sugar cane juice and flavor it with a little natural lemon and/or lime juice. I wouldn’t call it lemonade but it was something similar only with a tropical kind of taste to it.

Sgt. Ortiz was the first to spot the offering on the table. “Ma’am, Major Taglione said specifically that we were to be self-sufficient, that we weren’t to abuse your hospitality.”

“This isn’t abusing my hospitality Sergeant and I assure you I wouldn’t take food out of my family’s mouths just to schmooze your people. This is to make a point. I’m not sure the state of the food supplies you have at your base but Tag sent the Ag Crew out here to learn how Mateo and I do things. If I offer something to the Ag Crew I’d like for you and your men to sample it as well that way you have more than one perspective to share with the Major when you go back.”

Rather reluctantly they all tried the small sample that I provided each of them. “Listen, I’m serious. It is one thing to read about something in a book. It’s another thing to do a hands on experiment. But my job as I see it is not just to teach what I do but why I do it. In that question of why comes the rewards. So what do you think?”

Joseph, the young apprentice, spoke right up. “It looks funny but it tastes better than I thought.”

I heard one of the other men mutter, “If it isn’t nailed down that kid will eat it.”

I laughed and said, “I hope that’s not a comment on my culinary talents.”

JC looked chagrined and said, “No ma’am … but he’s right, it did look kind of strange – all of them curly cues with that green stuff mixed in.”

Lopez the medic shook his head and said, “That ‘green stuff’ is broccoli and has as much calcium as whole milk does. The … sunflower seed sprouts? … that’s the protein and it will also be loaded with enzymes and chlorophyll.” At my surprised look he said, “I have a rotation in the Nutrition department every other week. That’s why I was picked to be the medic this trip. We need to find new sources of vitamins and minerals to substitute for all of the enriched foods we were used to getting before, especially for the kids.”

I nodded. “Well Tag was certainly serious then so let’s not disappoint her.” For the rest of the day I took the Ag crew and gave them a very general overview of our production system and Mateo took the military guys and gave them a different kind of overview. When it was time for me to prepare the evening meal they went back to their camp to write up reports and prepare their own food.

As dark arrived and we closed the house for the night I was nervous about them camping over in the Trask’s yard until Mateo told me, “I think we can relax, at least where their intentions are concerned. Sgt. Ortiz and I discussed things and I’m certain as I can be that they are on the up and up.”

“And you think that you can get what you want out of them?”

He shrugged, “That remains to be seen. I’m not foolish Love, their current intent is harmless but I’m still uncertain about their long range plans are in this area.”

The next day I really put my lesson plan into action and put them to work. “Rather than just describing what I do I want to show you from the ground up.”

We built several raised and covered beds that morning. As lunch time I approached though I found I wasn’t just a teacher but I was student as well.

“Portobello mushrooms? You grow your own Portobello mushrooms?” I asked Dog.

“Yep. It was a hobby of mine before things all fell apart. When the Major found out … well, I got a whole block in the base garden lots to try and add some variety to our meals. I brought a bunch with me. You wouldn’t happen to have a good recipe would you?”

I laughed because they’d already figured out that I had a weakness for cookbooks and recipes of all sorts. “As a matter of fact I do.”

One of the tidbits of information that I’d picked up from listening to Joseph and Juliet was that fuel and the power it generated was strictly rationed at the Base. That caused a lot of challenges when it came to preparing the amount of food that was needed to feed all of the refugees living at the processing center. At the outlying camps it was an even bigger problem.

“You know,” I said. “My freshman year of college I … well, I put on the Freshman 15.”

“The what?” Juliet asked.

“The Freshman 15. It isn’t unusual for people to put on about 10 to 20 pounds their first year of college for various reasons and they average it out and call it the Freshman 15. And I packed those puppies on. As a result I got very self conscious and tried a bunch of different fad diets, then when the diets didn’t work I got into these whole lifestyles … paleo, vegan, and a couple of other ones. Actually my favorite was called the Raw Food Diet.” Joseph turned his nose up but I told him, “Relax, it isn’t what you’re thinking. It’s very vegan but in addition to that you don’t cook anything. I still serve a lot of dishes that I learned during that stage of my life and one of them is this fantastic Thai salad that uses Portobello mushrooms.”

I showed them how to do that and everyone got a sample except for Mateo and four of the other crew that were out on patrol. In the afternoon we planted the beds we had built that morning and then because I’d gotten a really good harvest of pumpkin and carrots for dinner that night I made raw Carrot and Pumpkin “Soup.”

We had to use my small, hand crank blender since it was so cloudy that we only had enough solar battery power to refill our potable water containers. For two servings you take a rounded cup of fresh, pureed pumpkin, one and one-half cups of pureed carrots, a little poultry seasoning, one and one-half teaspoons of garlic powder, one and one-half teaspoons of onion powder, almost one inch pureed ginger root, a little sea salt (to taste), and put it all in the blender. As you are blending you add a little water at a time until you get the consistency that you want for your “soup.”

They were still a little unsure as to whether I was experimenting on them or not nonetheless Dog literally licked the small condiment cup of soup that I gave him clean. “Never thought of something like this. You know, I can’t wait to tell Lopez. I’m sure he’ll be over here tomorrow asking for the recipe. Think on it … it doesn’t require cooking. Every ingredient can be grown in our own garden … except for the sea salt and we’ll have to trade for salt no matter how you look at it. Plus it should help with some of the nutritional holes we are trying to fill.”

Lopez didn’t even wait until morning but caught me as I was tossing my dish water at the cat who had decided that our yard would be a good place to sing and yowl in. The cat just ignored me but at Lopez’s approach he shot over the fence and up a tree. “Sorry. Did I scare him?”

I rolled my eyes and told him, “I doubt it. He’s just standoffish. Can I help you? Or are you looking for Mateo?”

“Actually I was wondering if you could give me the recipe for that pumpkin soup Dog won’t shut up about. Pumpkins are full of Vitamins A, C, K, and E, alpha and beta carotenes, magnesium, potassium, and even iron. That plus not having to cook it … I can’t wait to try it out on the Nutrition Department staff.”

“I’ve got one for using zucchini and butternut squash too,” I told him. “The only thing is that it calls for a tablespoon of almond butter and a little soy sauce.”

“I want it … and for the almonds talk to Liz.” He left without an explanation so it wasn’t until the next morning that I could satisfy my imagination.

At my question Liz laughed and said, “Well, I suppose it really isn’t funny but to me it is. I’m deathly allergic to milk. I can’t even get dairy products on my skin. It is the primary reason I’m on the triage list.”

Slightly more confused than I was already I told her, “I heard Tag mention this triage thing before. I hadn’t wanted to ask but is Juliet …?”

“The daughter that is on the triage list?” At my nod she said, “Yeah. All of us are on the triage list.”

“OK … that’s not making too much sense at the moment,” I said confused and concerned at the same time.

“You have to understand … it’s a big thing, or can be, but at the same time it isn’t … at least not for those of us here. The triage rules are federal; you either follow them or you can lose your access to the staple goods and medical supplies that the government is trying to provide to the military bases and refugee camps. The rules make sense most of the time. Medical supplies and medicines are in such short supply that they need to be used to their maximum benefit so just like in an overrun emergency room that means that the least ill get seen first because they are the most likely to benefit from treatment. No waste in the system.”

Hesitantly, “I understand the policy in theory but … I’m not sure I could put it into practice myself.”

Liz shrugged, “You do what you have to. The Major, she takes it personally and not just because of Julie. The only way around the triage rules is if the person in question is considered vital personnel.”

Beginning to see what was coming I just looked at Liz who nodded, “You’ve got it. To offset the triage rules the Major tries to make sure that all those that are triaged are trained in the departments or programs that offer the greatest protection without putting anyone else at risk. The triaged kids like Joey and Julie are apprenticed out as soon as anyone discerns any talent in a certain direction. We’ve got apprentices that are as young as eight. We don’t have any that young in our department but you should see them in Communications. They’re teaching those kids languages and how to operate the equipment … you go over there around lunch time and the break room looks like it has been taken over by a bunch of possessed monkeys. Strangely enough though they really do serve a vital purpose; those kids are fast as greased lightning delivering notes all over base since we don’t have the energy to run a regular intercom system.”

“What about those people that don’t show aptitude or those too old to be considered vital?”

Liz shook her head, “Guess you don’t know. The average age of those at Base is around forty. Anyone that was on maintenance meds pretty much either learned to survive without the drugs or they died around the time the UN was bombed. We’ve got some older folks but the Major doesn’t let ‘em just sit around collecting dust. Usually they are teaching or training kids on whatever they did before they reached retirement age. In fact, if you broke the different departments down by age it would be our medical staff that are the oldest, what we’re missing there is the people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. A lot of them died during the period of forced medical draft when they got pulled into the MASH units or around the quarantine zones to deal with people exposed to radiation.”

Struggling to understand I said, “I keep getting mixed signals. On the one hand things sound so grim, yet on the other none of you seem to be downtrodden or anything even approaching that.”

Dog came up right at that point and said, “Given the alternative, most of us are just happy to have a place and a job to do that puts food on the table.”

After thinking a moment I said, “I guess we got away from it or I’m still not getting it … what did Lopez mean?”

“Oh that,” Liz said. “Dog and I barter some of our work credits for some of the higher priced trade items, in this case almonds. I make almond milk for myself when I want it. When I’m running low on almonds I’ll make soy milk but I prefer nut milk. I can drink goat’s milk without a reaction so long as I don’t drink a lot of it.”

“They have goats on Base?”

I found out they didn’t keep the goats on the Base but at the dairy farm that was adjacent to the crop fields. The manure generated at the dairy farm was their primary source of fertilizer for the crops. Juliet told me all about the goats then said, “I was going to apprentice with the animals caregivers but the guy who runs it is a … er … him and Mom … I mean the Major … don’t always see eye to eye and to spite her he refused to take me on. He claimed that he could risk my health by exposing me to the animals, as well as the potential injuries involved, when I don’t have access to medical care. She tries real hard not to throw her weight around and get my family special privileges so I wound up in Agriculture. I think I like this better; I haven’t travelled too much but certainly more than I would have if I was stuck at the dairy all the time and in Ag I’m still living at home on base so I get to see my parents pretty much every day.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever heard what your father’s avocation is.”

“His what? Oh, you mean what he does … he’s a landscape architect. He pretty much single handedly designed the green spaces on Base and helped get the farm off the ground by knowing which plants grow well next to each other and which ones don’t. He designed the watering system too. It’s pretty cool. Now he and I can talk to each other while Robert, Priss, and Mom talk their shop.”

“There’s three of you?”

“Four. Vi is the youngest and isn’t really assigned to any program yet. Let’s see, Robert is nineteen, Priss is seventeen, I’m almost sixteen, and Vi … that’s short for Violet … is thirteen. Vi is … different. She’s not mentally challenged or anything but she has trouble processing stuff if too many things come at her at once. We think she’s growing out of it but still, with the way things go on Base you never know so mostly Vi hangs out with Dad and he’s teaching her graphic arts and stuff like that. She’s pretty good at it too. If all she had to do was draw all day she’d be fine … but you know how it is.”

I nodded knowing exactly how it was. I’d had a few students like that with hard to classify and quantify “syndromes” that made the traditional classroom setting a nightmare for them. I looked over at that moment and said more sharply than I had meant to, “Ack! Joseph, what are you doing?!”

Startled he said, “Uh, prepping this pumpkin for that dehydrator thing like you wanted.”

I took a breath and apologized for yelling. “Look, we need to separate stuff out and not just dump it all in the trash pile. The rind will go to the pigs, the stem into the compost bucket, but the seeds need to be scooped out and set into this bowl.”

He shook his head and asked why. “Well, if I didn’t already have enough seeds I would set these aside for the next season’s planting. But since I do have enough seeds for that I want to use these seeds to make a snack.” As soon as I was sure that Joseph wasn’t going to throw the seeds away again I turned to Dog and said, “I don’t mean to sound snarky but is food being wasted on Base?”

He gave it an honest think before replying. “Mistakes have definitely been made, especially in the beginning. As far as waste goes today however, that is way, way down. Food is too precious and for the most part people have gotten over their reluctance to eat food that might not be what they are used to. Smaller portions helped partially and if you work long hours, you get hungry. If you get hungry enough you’ll eat whatever is put in front of you.”

To show them how to utilize even something as unassuming as a bowl of pumpkin guts I showed them how to make Mustard-Ginger Pumpkin Seed Crunchies. I started with five cups of dry pumpkin seeds and set them to sprouting. I already had some ready since it takes one to two days to sprout them and then another day to dehydrate the sprouts. To the dried pumpkin sprouts I added three tablespoons of sea salt, a quarter cup of honey, one and one-half tablespoons of cider vinegar, one-half teaspoon of ginger powder, one teaspoon of mustard powder, one teaspoon of garlic powder, one-half teaspoon of curry powder, and one tablespoon of dried Italian seasoning. I mixed everything in a bowl and then spread it on a non-stick tray liner that I stuck into the dehydrator. It was a good day and after a couple of hours I flipped the whole mess over so it would dry evenly to a crunch stage. It made a bunch so I was able to send most of it back with the crew for an evening snack while still having plenty for Mateo and Nydia to eat.

“You aren’t eating Leah. Is everything all right?” Mateo asked after giving me a serious look.

Stretching my neck I said, “I’m fine. It’s just after having almost no information I feel a little like I’m on overload. I snapped at Joseph today when there really wasn’t any reason to react as strongly as I did.” I explained what had happened but Mateo took a different view of it.

“My grandmother would have thrown something at the boy.”

“What?! You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

“No, she could be a cranky old thing but it is because she grew up with so little. In her eyes wasting food was one of the worst sins you could commit. Her and her siblings nearly starved to death during the Great Depression. Leah, any food source must be taken completely serious. A seemingly innocent mistake today could cost lives tomorrow. I have to tell you that the men, especially Lopez, are very impressed with how you run things … how economical each day’s chores are and how far you can stretch the food, how you multi-purpose almost everything you do. They’re taking notes.”

I must have turned bright red because he said something to the effect that they can take their notes but that they wouldn’t be taking me. We kind of got off the subject for a few minutes while I enjoyed his particular attention but we came back around when he brought up the next day’s expedition. “I know you are not exactly happy with me going Leah.”

“I’m not exactly unhappy either. I know you’ve wanted to travel further afield for some time now. I just wish that ‘afield’ was a little closer to home.”

“You know I will be careful.”

“Of course I do. And you know that even though I know you’ll be careful that I’ll worry anyway until I get used to you traveling again.”

“Perhaps so, but that is tomorrow and this is tonight. Now, let’s go to bed so I can show you exactly how glad I am that you are my woman.”

That I could readily agree to. Tomorrow would be another day and the fourth day that the Ag Crew would be observing and taking notes. The lessons were going as planned but it was considerably more tiring than I had expected and I still had five more days to go before they left. I hoped those days would go as reasonably well as the first three had.