I was in the mood for lemon pie … or something lemony … but since I didn’t have lemons I did what Momma had told me her great grandmother had taught her to do when lemons were out of season or too expensive. I made Sheep Sorrel Pie. I had gathered a pretty good bundle of it before we ran into all the trouble and I wanted to use it before it wilted too much more than it already had.
I took Momma’s common lemon pie recipe but instead of adding lemons like it called for I added a cup of finely chopped sheep sorrel and continued on from there. It looked a little funny to people who weren’t used to eating wild forage but it sure tasted good. When I had the pie in the oven I started on our next meal. The chickens were pretty much finished laying until things warmed back up so I decided I needed to go easy on the fresh eggs. I wasn’t sure what Abel had been eating but something told me that he could use some vitamins if he’d been doing nothing but eating meat and maybe a few wild greens. I decided I needed to ask him and compare notes.
I wanted something easy to fix and decided to make wheat burgers. I had cooked a cup of wheat when I fixed “breakfast” and it was finally cool enough for me to fool with. I took the cooked wheat and put it in a big bowl along with a can of cooked kidney beans, a whole egg, and some salt and pepper for taste and a little bit of bouillon and a couple of drops of liquid smoke for good measure. I started with a pastry knife and mixed the whole, ugly mess together. When it was cut up into small enough bits I started mashing it with my hands until I got a lump of stuff that was kind of the consistency of raw hamburger. I thought about dumping in some onion too but wasn’t in the mood to watch Daniel pick them out, not with company sitting at the table. I turned the goop in the bowl into hamburger type patties and set them to the side for a moment while I fried up some canned bacon in a skillet.
I set the skillet to the side and then used the bacon grease to fry the patties in. I heard a scuff behind me and turned to find Abel standing there looking a little sick.
“Oh … hey … you don’t look so good,” I told him, concerned maybe he was coming down with something.
“No … I am … well. The smell … I … it has been so long …”
“Oh!” I should have realized that the smell might get to him if he’d been on short rations for a long time. “Sit down. Let me get you some milk … that should settle your stomach.”
“M mm milk? Real milk?”
“Well, it is real dried milk … or real before it was dried or … well … you know what I mean. I keep a pitcher cold for Daniel.”
“Then if it is Daniel’s …”
“Remember rule number one? I wouldn’t offer it to you if it was going to take something away from Daniel so just drink it already. If you don’t like it plain I can put a drop of flavoring in it or …”
“No … no this is …,” he stopped, worried. “Am I dreaming this? Have I gone mad?”
“If you don’t drink this milk and on top of it make me burn the dinner I’m going to be the one that is mad,” I told him. Gosh he could be as stubborn as Daniel on a bad day. “Just sip it though, no need to make yourself sick on purpose. And there is more if you want it.”
I went back to flip the patties in the pan. “Abel?”
“Hmm?” he answered, really into savoring the milk.
“What did you and the old woman eat? You said you hunted but you couldn’t have just been eating wild game surely?”
Abel gave one of his expressive shrugs. “We ate what there was to eat. The old woman … she never would tell me her name so after a while I gave up asking … she seemed to know some of the things we could eat. We were sick a few times and we learned not to eat whatever had made us ill again. But mostly yes, it was the wild … cerdo … you know the …”
“The hogs, yeah. But they are mean. I’ve only managed to bring down a couple. Daniel and I got treed a couple of times by them too.”
“Yes, we as well. I tried not to hunt the ones too close to where people once lived. I saw a few of them … doing what wild things do when they find …” he stuttered to a stop, concerned I guess that he was treating me too much like an adult.
“Abel, don’t get upset but … the girls you are used to might be like hot house flowers but I won’t break or cry just because you speak the truth. Hogs will eat anything if they get hungry enough. When I was little I saw a big farm hog bite a man’s thumb off ‘cause he wasn’t paying close enough attention. And I grew up on a farm; around animals and real life … you did too. It doesn’t make sense to pretend life hasn’t been what it is.”
He opened his mouth, likely to say something silly like some guys tend to do but then he stopped and just nodded, accepting that straight talk would be better.
“Si … yes … the wild hogs were … being what they were. Those hogs tend to be the meanest of them all … that have tasted what they should not have. There were such people as well that did the same thing. I used to put them out of their misery when I could but … there became too many of them. I learned to watch for their traps. I would spring them, destroy the traps, but the rest I left to God.”
“Daniel and I never ran into anyone like that. In fact you and the old woman are the only two people that we have talked to since Jeff went away.”
Curious he asked, “You have seen no other people?”
“We’ve seen a few but none to speak to. And we didn’t let them see us.” I put the last of the patties on a plate and put them in the warmer while I finished the rice, gravy, and corncakes that would round out our meal.
Daniel walked into the kitchen. “Dacey, Dog wants to go out.”
I was momentarily flustered trying to figure out how to finish cooking and take Daniel and the dog out at the same time. Abel said, “I will do it.”
“Not in just a shirt! It’s cold out. Daniel? Show Abel the storage room; you’ll need a lamp back there. Abel, there are three boxes that I left open; I think Dad’s old coat is in there and …”
“Your …?” I could tell Abel was concerned and embarrassed at the same time. Daniel must have sensed it to.
“It’s all right Abel. Daddy is in Heaven. They don’t need coats up there. Come on … I think Dog needs to go bad so we better hurry or Dacey will make us clean up the mess.”
Leaving my little brother to manage any of Abel’s reluctance I turned back and finished everything up, happier … or at least a whole lot less lonely … than I had been in a long while. I had someone to talk to, someone that seemed interesting … and who was at least trying to be nice and not take advantage. And someone who could help with some of the work that was hardest for me to do. I figured I’d be a fool to ask for any more than that.
I heard them come back in just as I was going out to call them. I was surprised to see that both Daniel and Abel had their arms full of wood and even Dog had a stick in her mouth. The wood was fresh chopped too.
I put my hands on my hips, “You did not just split that wood. In the rain. With your back the way it is. Are you trying to get sick?!”
Not for the last time would I run into Abel’s overdeveloped male pride. “If I stay here I share in the work,” he replied getting all bowed up.
“Well fine then … make me feel like a monster. It isn’t as if someone didn’t just try to torture you to death and stuff yesterday.”
Daniel saved us from getting in a tiff. “See Abel, I told you. Girls are funny about that kind of thing. She makes me wear socks and mittens. Momma did too.”
I humphed and shook my head and told Daniel to go get washed up for dinner. He put his load of wood down in the box near the fire place and I showed Abel where the wood box in the kitchen was.
“You really didn’t need to do that Abel. I mean yeah, when your back gets better I’d like the help but … I bet you busted some blisters and that has to sting.”
He tried to shrug but it hurt and I wound up helping him to take the coat off. It smelled strongly of cedar and going through the pockets I pulled out a sachet that Momma had made to keep the bugs away. All things considered I could have really ragged on Abel but figured he was going to be hard headed about it no matter what I said so I saved my breath.
When everyone was washed up I had them sit down as I put the food on the table. Abel was shaking his head so I asked him, “Aren’t you hungry?”
He swallowed a couple of times and then said, “Chica, you … this … must be a dream.”
He would have said more but Daniel interrupted and said, “Hurry and say the blessing Dacey. I’m hungry!”
“Daniel! That’s rude,” I admonished him. “It’s not nice to interrupt.”
Abel said, “Nor is it nice of me to keep him from his meal. You speak over your meal?”
I wasn’t about to get embarrassed over something I’d been doing my whole life. But I needn’t have worried.
“Si, mi Madre … my mother … and then my Abuelo … it was forbidden to eat until we dijo un rezo … said a … um … a blessing … on the food, saying thank you to God since tomorrow more might not come. Yes?”
“We just say a simple one that Daniel has memorized.”
“Yes, simple is best … viene del Corazon … from the heart it comes. It has been … a long time for me …” His voice trailed off and his eyes became troubled.
“Daniel,” I said quickly. “Say Grace for us?”
He’d barely said the last syllable before he picked up his fork and started shoveling food into his mouth. I was a little embarrassed but Abel didn’t notice … he was too busy tasting everything that I put on his plate.
“You still have the cows?”
“Huh? Oh … oh no … those are just …” It took me a minute to try and explain that the patties didn’t have any meat in them except for the scrapping from the bottom of the pan that I had fried the bacon in. “Mostly we eat pork. We have some canned beef but I only fix it a couple of times a month so that it’ll last. We still have a lot of canned chickens … and I really need to cull some of those biddies now that the weather is cold.”
“But this is not meat?”
I laughed at the look on his face. “No it really isn’t. But it can pass for it and Daniel will eat it better than he ever would a hamburger so sometimes …” I just shrugged. I knew I tended to spoil my brother by giving him whatever he wanted but I figured one of these days maybe I couldn’t so I’d do it now while I could.
I had made a lot expecting Abel to eat as big as Jeff always had but he seemed to be struggling to finish what was on his plate. “Are you sure you feel OK? Or maybe it’s my cooking? I didn’t even think to ask if you liked …”
“No … no Chica … my mouth, it wants more … my mind, it calls me a fool … but my stomach, it fails me. Um … how do you say … it grew smaller?”
After thinking a moment I said, “Oh, you mean shrunk? Your stomach shrunk? From not having much to eat?”
“Si … I mean yes.”
“Oh,” I said disappointed. “Then I guess you aren’t going to want any pie.”
Abel’s face nearly made me laugh out loud but I was afraid of hurting his feelings. “Pie? You mean empanada? You fixed … uh … postre?”
“Postre …,” I thought trying to remember my vocabulary. “Pastry? No … dessert … postre means dessert … pastels means pastry. Here, let me just show you.”
I got up and then brought the pie back to the table. Daniel was happy. He said, “Sheep pie!”
Abel had a funny look on his face as he tried to follow what we were saying. “Look, let me slice you a little piece, to celebrate maybe?”
He didn’t say no so I cut him a little piece and put it on his plate. He had to take his teeth and rake the spit back into his mouth. Then he saw the bits of plants in there.
“What … this is … grass pie?”
“No, sorrel pie.”
“Sew .. reel.”
“Close enough. Take a little taste.”
He put a smidge in his mouth and both Daniel and I finally did bust out laughing at the look on his face.
“This … this is lemon! Lemon pasteles!”
“No it’s not,” I laughed. “I told you, it is Sorrel Pie. It just bites like lemon does.”
It wasn’t hard to get him to finish his small piece but I could tell he was having to force down the last bite.
“It’s all right. I’ll put the leftovers in the cooler and we can eat the rest later.”
He insisted on helping to clear the table even though I could tell he was still hurting and just a little sick to his stomach on top of it but when he saw the cooler all thought of his discomfort left his mind. And of course the cooler led to the pantry and from the pantry to the big food storage room and from there to the grow rooms. We lost Daniel and Dog somewhere along the way and I heard them playing in the living room. Abel’s eyes could barely keep up with everything.
“My head … it spins and spins. Su padre era brillante.”
“Yeah, Dad was smart … but commonsense smart, not university smart. He never got a chance to go but if he had I know he would have been great.”
“It was the same for my Abuelo. There was little he could not do … but we were forever poor because there were so many of us and because the government took so much. I was supposed to go to university but …” he gave one of his shrugs. “Some day … maybe … if my past does not … I was bad and will have to pay one day before I can go on living.”
I didn’t like the idea of that. “Soldiers that go to war don’t pay for what they have to do to survive. It sounds like war out there to me. But anyway, you are safe here, with Daniel and me.”
He got a sad look on his face and something told me he was thinking of the old lady. “What happened? How did they catch you?”
When he answered I knew I had been right. “They found the old woman. I heard her screaming. I was foolish and did not think. There had been a bear … I thought …” another one of those shrugs. “I ran … straight into them. You saw the rest.”
“The old woman was not your fault. You must have been taking care of her for a while. I know how hard it can be to take care of Daniel. It would be worse if I had to hunt for all of our food. I don’t know if I could do it, not alone. The Blue Hats, the ones that hurt her, they’ll have to answer for it. They already have most likely.”
He looked at me, “You … you forgive so easily.”
“If you mean about you being a Blue Hat? Maybe … maybe not all of the Blue Hats are bad … there was this woman … when Daniel, Jeff, and I were taken … I think she meant well … I don’t know, maybe thinking of the Blue Hats like monsters was wrong. They are people, good and bad … but it seems mostly bad … or at least mostly wrong.”
“The ones who wanted to help … they did not last long. Accidents they were called. Or … or they changed as force was put on them. I changed. I …” I hadn’t ever meant anyone that could put as much meaning or feeling into simple gestures such as a sigh or a shrug as Abel could. He almost didn’t need to talk for me to understand what he meant or how he was feeling.
“Why do there seem to be different kinds of Blue Hats?”
“Different … ah, you would not know. As things got bad, the UN … it became every man – or woman – for themselves. During this time the petty things, and the big things, that had made the people fight before becoming part of the UN came back. People looked for others that spoke their language, were from the same country, or the same religion. The UN was made of many parts but the parts no longer chose to work together as before. There was much infighting with the officers and commanders. There were assassinations. A group from Pakistan and Yemen started it and it spread from there.”
“None of them seem to like you very well.”
“No for I cared not who they were, where they were from, or what god they worshipped. If they were doing bad things, or not stopping their brethren from doing bad things, I did bad things to them. But after days, weeks, months of this … I could not continue. My soul ached. But what I did has followed me. I pray it does not follow me to your door Chica.”
“Well … they aren’t exactly my favorite people either so if they come to take you we’ll fight.”
I said it and I found as soon as I had that I really meant it. He may have worn the Blue Hat uniform, but he was never really a Blue Hat in his heart. Or maybe I was just making rationalizations. Either way it didn’t matter; even if he had been one of “them” in the past, Abel was now one of “us.”