Harvest Chapter 17
Abel got real quiet and then said, “No Day-cee, it is not just the hugging that I like. But you are … too young. I’m twenty. You are …”
I realized he hadn’t a clue how old I really was. I rolled my eyes again and told him, “Fifteen, and since now you know you can’t keep acting like I’m a baby.”
“So old,” he mocked but not unkindly. More seriously he said, “I have more experience in life than you. Not all of it good. There are days I feel as old as my Abuelo.”
He looked sad but resigned … a fatalist again … and I hated it when he got that look in his eyes, like there was no hope for some things. I reached over and put my hand on his. He looked down at where it lay and then covered it with his other one. “Day-cee, what I … feel … isn’t something that … uh …” He sighed and shook his head. “What I need to say will make you angry but it needs to be said. What I feel … what I want is something you are not ready for. I worry about making you pretend you feel this way too because you are scared I will leave if you do not. You are too young, too … too inocente. One day you could regret it. I’d rather you be angry about something I didn’t do than something that I did that can’t be taken back. Do you understand?”
Thinking about it I told him. “You know, I’m not stupid.” He started to say something but I shook my head and then he sat there like a dog waiting to be kicked. I nearly kicked him for that … but not for the other. “Abel, I know I’m … uh … not experienced and I don’t know if I’m ready for the whole ball of wax. Not to mention that it could just as easily be the other way around you know.”
At his confused look I explained, “What if … you know … we do some of that stuff you say you are thinking about and you decide you’ve made a mistake or something? By doing that stuff with me I mean. What if I can’t hold your interest because I don’t know that much about that stuff and then you feel bad because you don’t know how to tell me that you don’t think about wanting to do that stuff with me anymore?”
From the look on Abel’s face he hadn’t thought about the flip side. “Day-cee … I … I don’t know the words to say it.”
I wasn’t sure what “it” was but there just wasn’t any sense in letting him do something that was going to make him feel bad because then I would feel bad. “I do like you Abel … maybe I like you a lot. But I’m not stupid.”
Irritated he said, “You keep saying that. I do not like it.”
Shrugging I said, “What I mean is that I’m not a complete know-nothing. I know what you’re talking about even if I’m not coming right out and using certain words. The thing is, it’s too big a deal for me to just … play house … only to find out one or the other of us gets sorry for it. First off I have Daniel to think of. I don’t want to upset or confuse him. I don’t want him to feel left out somehow. I know he’s my brother and not my kid and stuff but in some ways he might as well be and I have to think of him like he is that important, put him first over things that I want. Second, I don’t think I’m ready for going all the way. That stuff is a lot of responsibility and my parents raised me to expect certain things from the person I eventually chose to give my … er … be with that way before … you know, it happens. Mom told me it isn’t just all fun and games, especially for girls … and most especially the part about making babies. I saw the girls I went to school with that played fast and loose because they thought they were in love or wouldn’t get caught. Even the ones that didn’t get caught with a baby weren’t exactly happy.” Abel blanched but I just plowed on through. I didn’t know how to do it any other way. “And third, what happens if we do and you’re sorry after? I mean, it’s not like you would go into it meaning to be sorry afterwards but you could be; you seem to be that kind of guy. Will that make you want to run off? Or are you going to stick around no matter how miserable it makes you? Worse, what happens if a girl your age comes along and you find that all of a sudden it’s more interesting being with her than me? And …”
He put his hand over my mouth. “Enough Day-cee. I have the understanding. You make my head hurt with all the things I haven’t been thinking of.”
I pulled his hand away, “Are you sure? ‘Cause I do like you Abel and I don’t want to lose that. I know you’ll leave one day but when you do … I have a feeling my heart will break. But I don’t want it to be completely smashed to smithereens.”
There was that funny look again. “Smashed to smitheroons is bad, yes?”
I sighed. “Smashed to smithereens not smitheroons … and yes, that’s bad.”
Then he said, “Well, we shall have to make sure that it doesn’t happen.” Then he kissed me again and I couldn’t figure out if he’d heard a word I’d said.
A little out of patience I said, “Abel …”
He smiled a little and said, “Yes Day-cee, I know. We will … uh … huelga intermitente … go slow. I will act like we have a cortejo and I will be entendere’.”
Those were words I wasn’t real sure I understood. “What did that last bit mean? I think … entendere means understanding but what is … cor … cortejo?”
Explaining he said, “It is what men do in our town when they are … uh … interested in a certain type of girl. Not a girl of the city who is … uh … I don’t know the polite word for it but who doesn’t act like a good girl. A good girl is treated with respect and … uh … her family expects … uh … hmmm … this is hard to explain without knowing the words.”
“Hang on.” I got up and went to the area we called the library and took down the Spanish to English dictionary and looked the word up. It made me squeak.
“Abel! This says that word means courtship.”
He took the dictionary from me and flipped through a couple of different words then grinned and said, “Si … that is it. The word is courtship. You understand this … yes?”
My blush was all he needed to make him smile smugly. “Si … you understand.”
“Of course I know what that is but I never … I mean … Weren’t you listening to me at all? What happens when you get bored or … or need to go off looking for … for more … or just leave because you … you have to for other reasons?”
Looking around to see if Daniel was paying any attention … of course he wasn’t since he and Dog were busy building something … Abel pulled me to the kitchen to sit at the table. “Day-cee. I know you are young for this and have no protectors for me to prove myself to but in my town it was not strange for young men to … to court girls your age so long as their families did not object. Usually it was for the families a good thing. I think it will be Ok if we go slow. I will prove to you it is not just for a place to rest my head or food for my belly that I come to you. Will you let me show you this?”
Upset I told him, “I never thought you were after me for … I mean … well gosh!” That was about as close to a swear word as I could get because Daniel could be an awful mimic and repeat things he shouldn’t so I just never got into the habit like some kids at school had. “Did I ever make you feel like … I mean … just gosh!”
“So you don’t have the worry that I am after you for your cave?” he said smiling.
“Of course not you … you nut! You are … are … loco … muy muy muy loco!”
He smiled even bigger at me telling him just how crazy he was for thinking that I might. “This is a good thing. But still, we will do this right and one day … one day we will figure the rest of it out. Si?”
Knowing no other way but to be blunt I asked, “What does ‘doing this right’ mean?”
He picked his words carefully but I could see he had a blush of his own as it turned his ears and cheeks lightly pink. “It means that hugging is ok and that sometimes I will be wanting to kiss you too much to not do it but that the … the other … things I think of in my head can wait until we are sure and … it is my problemo, not yours that I think these things … and when the time arrives we will figure out how to make it right. We will behave good so that Daniel is OK and does not get hurt … and so that you don’t get hurt. Si? Did I say it so that you understand?”
I wasn’t real sure I did understand to be honest but I said yes because it seemed like the thing I was supposed to say. After that things settled down again. We weren’t exactly playing house but it was more than whatever we had been doing before. It was nice but at the same time it made me feel itchy like I was walking a tightrope sometimes.
But honestly there wasn’t a whole lot of time for the cortejo … the courtship. While we were together all the time we were always busy too. And tired, very tired so that sometimes I could barely cook and it took both of us to put Daniel to bed when he nearly fell asleep at the table or in front of the fireplace curled up next to Dog.
The need for wood took precedent to most other chores. The cave stayed a constant temperature but the stove still needed wood and we kept the fireplace going as well so that Daniel would have a warm place to play or just hang out. He wasn’t quite as ornery about wearing socks now that he had moccasins to wear that fit like a second skin but he was still susceptible to colds. There was no way we could keep him inside all of the time as it made him jittery. Dog helped some with that but that poor animal needed a break sometimes just like we did.
When the temperature dropped too much we also had to keep a small stove going that would send at least a little heat to the chickens. Abel figured out how to get the heat in there without suffocating the birds. I’m glad he did because I would probably have ended up roasting them alive.
Abel tried to do all of the firewood chopping but in the end he had to let Daniel and I help. There was simply too much for one person; he would have been chopping wood all day long every day. He split the wood and then chopped into manageable pieces. I would then take some of the wood and chop it down into pieces that would work for the kitchen stove. Daniel and I also gathered kindling and tinder on the BLM land while Abel kept guard for animals … both the four legged and two legged kind.
It was winter so animals were scarce. Those that we did see were thin and skittish. Abel said, “We must hope that this area does not become … too hunted. Yes?”
“Over hunted,” I answered, giving him the words he was looking for. “Yeah, it used to be but then for a while it looked like the animals were going to come back. Now I guess if they are having as much trouble finding food as we are …”
“Only those that got used to living on human food I think. The oso … bear … it might have trouble with no autumn berries to fatten up on but there are other foods like acorns, grubs, and the carcasses of other fallen animals. I think some of oso like fish too.”
I nodded, “Dad said bears will eat anything as long as it doesn’t move too fast. They hunt on their own and they are also scavengers of other animals’ kills if it isn’t protected by something big enough or mean enough to drive them off … and not too many of those around here that could stop a bear from getting what it wants.”
Abel said, “A hungry or angry bear is a thing of bad dreams. A hungry and angry bear is a thing that fills a man’s grave.” Abel might have said things in a strange way but sometimes that only made what he said more powerful.
Sometimes it was simply too cold to risk going outdoors for more than a moment or two. On those days we would stay inside and listen to the radio for a while though most of the time it only made us depressed or edgy. The clear, cold air made it easier to find radio signals. What I could understand of the voices we heard – or those that Abel could translate – made it sound like the world was truly coming to an end.
People were starving worse than ever. Fewer people meant there was more of what little there was to go around … including fuel and electricity to operate radios with, and medical treatment for those that weren’t triaged or marked to be euthanized. There was a whole movement to get rid of “useless” eaters, people that some considered a waste of resources … career criminals, the old and frail, the mentally ill, the people who were “different.” People on the radio told of others being shot because they tried to hide their frail family members from the death squads. I realized more than ever that Daniel would be in danger it we didn’t stay hidden.
Society seemed to be going through some awful changes, tortured into new shapes and ways of doing things that I couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Some people chose not to take it anymore and committed suicide by cold; or, they imagined that they were sacrificing themselves so that there would be more for those that they left behind. One man went on and on about how it was so easy to just walk out into the winter air and then peacefully freeze to death. Many claimed that it was a kinder fate and faster end than by starvation would give.
There were still places with food but they were tightly controlled. They were like Egypt during the seven lean years only there was no just man like a Joseph to oversee the selling of the grain. People did all sorts of crazy things to get food for themselves and their families including becoming willing slaves or selling family members into slavery. Oh they didn’t call it slavery – they didn’t even call it being indentured – but that’s what it amounted to. And from what I could tell not even people were highly valued so the price of a slave, since there was so many willing, didn’t bring much food.
Money was next to useless; money of any kind. Even gold and silver were useless. If you couldn’t eat it or burn it for fuel then it held no intrinsic value as a trade good. Even the “rich” from before were at the mercy of those who held food. Cash, whether it was paper or metal, meant very little to anyone these days. And when that stage was reached in a community things turned dark and terrible.
There were rumors that we weren’t the only ones that had secret grow rooms. There were fantastic, near unbelievable, stories of whole cities built underground that had acres and acres of greenhouses that had escaped Heart Rot. There were also rumors that scientists were working on Heart Rot resistant plants and that they were keeping it all secret for the rich and powerful to have first dibs on. A mere rumor could send people into a frenzy of destruction seeking access to what might never have existed to being with.
Then there were rumors of terrifying places, even whole cities, where cannibalism was commonplace and out in the open. The problem was Abel said these weren’t just rumors but were true, that there were several enclaves of such people in this area though not near our location. Those on the radio tried to make such people out to be boogie men or mutants but they were just people; people making horrible choices but still just people.
I asked Abel to explain it to me since he seemed to know what they were talking about but he said, “I don’t know all the words to explain it Day-cee and do not wish to even if I had the words. It is a dark deed and God smites those that do it one way or another.”
I comprehended that he was just being protective and that it wasn’t a nice thing to talk about but I still wanted to understand since it seemed to be so commonplace even if it still wasn’t socially acceptable by most sane people’s standards. “What do you mean God smites them?”
He looked at me long and hard and then said slowly, “I will tell you these things but only so you know there is no saving these people, that you must stay away from them at all costs.” At my hesitant nod he explained, “The doctors explained things before I ran away from the Blue Hats. There are sicknesses that come when man eats man. They affect the … the cerebro … the brain and make it like an esponja where the sickness eats holes in the … the tissues in the head. When the man eaters get sick there is no saving them for there is no cure for it. They are dangerous in their hunger and become more loco … crazy … as the clock runs.”
Absolutely grossed out I said, “All of them have the disease?”
He sighed and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Even if their brain does not become full of holes, their souls do. This is why they are so dangerous; it is like a demon rides them. They are desperate to survive but desperate to escape their guilt at how they survive. They may have shame in the beginning but they are soon corrupted; by a sick brain or a sick soul. They will stop at nothing. I have seen such people set traps for the unwary like a hunter would for animals. Some I have seen so out of control they fall on their victim before they are even … Day-cee listen to me, these things happen … it is even in the Biblia … do not think they are just stories to scare children into behaving. Man can be a foul creature … the priests tell us this, God has told us this. I do not understand all of what the words I heard from the priests and other Godly men say. I don’t know if God cursed the man eaters or if the curse was that they became man eaters or if it was a bit of both; it confused me greatly and still does.” Shaking his head he reached out and took me by the shoulders and looked me hard in the face. “If you see such people, or suspect what they may be, run Day-cee. Do not try and defend yourself or deliver justice, just run. They are evil … or evil rides them … and are too dangerous for one person to face alone. This you must do.”
I was extremely grossed out after his explanation but I suppose I was the one that asked for it. He made me promise and I gave him that promise … but I didn’t tell him that if Daniel or he were in trouble from people like that, the only place I would be running to is for my bow or gun. No way would I sit around and let someone … well I just wasn’t going to let it happen; I couldn’t live with myself if I did.
As a general habit I didn’t always believe people when they said something was in the Bible. People kinda have a habit of believing what they want to believe and using some deity or other to support those beliefs whether they are true or not. But when I looked it up for myself I was surprised how many times people eating people was mentioned in the Bible; Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Ezekiel, first and second Kings, Lamentations. I was shocked; they don’t exactly teach you this stuff in Sunday School. But I guess that if the Bible reports as much as it exhorts and all that then I guess that there might be lots of things in there that tells of all the horrible stuff man can do, especially to other each other. It made me thankful that the few people Daniel and I had seen in the beginning hadn’t been a problem for us and that God ssent someone like Abel instead of letting some of the other types find us.
Having Abel around took the edge off of wanting to find other people anyway. Even Daniel had stopped asking where all the people had gone. Abel plugged that hole for him. If it wasn’t for the voices on the radio sometimes I could believe the three of us were the last humans left. That winter we never saw signs of people in the forest; not a track, sound, or sign of any type. That didn’t stop Abel from acting like they were just over the hill or around the next tree, lying in wait for us; no people in sight didn’t stop Abel from acting like he was our last line of defense against those that might be out of our sight.
January turned into February and February into March. The first day of Spring came and went but the season never really sprung until it was the end of April. I was so happy to see the snow finally melting for good and that the chickens were laying again that I decided to make a special dessert.
I lined the bottom of a baking dish with four slices of buttered bread and then I covered them will apple sauce. Then I put another four slices of buttered bread on top of that and covered them with applesauce as well. Then I whisked together two eggs, a pint of milk, a half cup of sugar, and a half teaspoon of salt and then poured that over the bread and applesauce layers. I baked it in a medium oven for about twenty five minutes or until it was set. It was the yummiest bread pudding and even Daniel would eat it, so long as it was in a bowl by itself with nothing else touching it.
Within a week all of the snow was gone and it looked like the land was trying to make up for lost time. There were green shoots all over the place and we were excited, maybe Heart Rot had been beaten by the cold winter. But I quickly realized it wasn’t so.
The wild asparagus fooled me. I was so excited to find it that I forgot it was the kind of wild plant that Heart Rot didn’t make much of an impression on. I just happened to find an exceptionally good bed of it. There were a lot of wild greens but then I noticed that everything that was coming up was basically a perennial rather than an annual that must reseed and be planted each year.
There was rye grass aplenty but it was only the perennial kind, not the annual kind that people reseeded each year. I saw the perennial herbs making an appearance but no annuals like chickweed or winter cress. I never saw the first sign of arugula or dill weed. The redbud trees never budded and very few of the spring flowers showed up. The fruit trees put off leaves but no flower buds ever appeared.
I became more and more depressed and even Daniel sensed it. He became withdrawn. That only made me feel worse and I finally just had to escape. The problem was I couldn’t get away. Daniel was my responsibility and I couldn’t just walk away and I couldn’t just ask Abel to watch him because he would want to know why and either way he wouldn’t like me walking in the woods by myself. I crawled to the back of the furthest storage area and sat down and had a fine old pity party of one.
I hadn’t realized how long I had been there but Abel must have known where I was all along. He was always watchful like that. “Day-cee?”
I sighed, a little irritated that I had to pull myself together before I felt like it. “Yeah, give me a sec and I’ll …”
“No. I’ll come to you. Daniel is napping with Dog so we can talk.”
By “talk” I thought he meant other stuff and I wasn’t feeling in the mood but I didn’t want him to know that and be upset with me too. But he surprised me, he really did mean talk. As he sat down beside me on the floor he asked, “So now will you tell me why you are triste … so sad?”
I thought I’d had it all under control, that only Daniel had sensed it. I leaned forward and put my head on my knees. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Try? For me?”
Abel had a way of making me want to do things I hadn’t wanted to do a few minutes before. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not. If he hadn’t been so determined to do things the “right way” I expect he could have led me into a lot of trouble. “I’m tired Abel. Tired of all of it. I thought that things would start to get better one day but now I’m not sure. I … I think … I think that maybe this is the end of the world, just like those people on the radio think.”
“Pobre Querida. Here, lean on me.” I didn’t cry, I was beyond being able to cry, but it felt so good just to have someone there to share it with. “The world is not ending Querida, just … just changing. I once felt as you did, that all hope was false. But then I met the Old Woman and I had a reason to keep going. And then came Dog … and then you and Daniel. Even after the Old Woman was killed, after the way she was killed, there was still something to live for.” Quietly he asked, “Is … is Daniel … and me … no longer enough?”
I shook my head trying to explain. “It’s because of Daniel and you that I’m so upset. The forage is so much harder to find this season. What should be there isn’t. What is there is … it isn’t fresh like spring is supposed to be. It comes up out of the ground thin and straggly and goes woody so fast. I’m worried that the soil in the grow rooms is going to get tired and we won’t be able to get anything from it the way we should. We’ve still got a full pantry but it isn’t as full as it used to be. If I can’t forage and can’t make the grow rooms work the storage food will go all the faster. And what if we can’t hunt anymore? What if there comes a time that the only thing we have left to eat is what remains in the pantry? What then? Will it last long enough for us to outlive Heart Rot? I’m not even sure Heart Rot will ever go away.”
Abel was nothing if not honest. “It may happen that way. But then again, Querida, it may not. We have to accept it either way. But before we know for sure, would it not be better to live with … with hope? We do not need to give ourselves more misery with the worry over things we cannot change.”
Fatalism stank in my book but Abel’s form of it was irritating too. He didn’t act like a cow being led to slaughter but he accepted that one day he might be the cow; and, while he would avoid that fate if possible he didn’t think it was worth fussing about if he couldn’t avoid the fate.
I complained, “How can you be so calm about this?! This is eating me alive … I feel like I have Heart Rot. I’m supposed to take care of Daniel and I’m … I don’t know. I feel like every direction I turn doors are slamming shut in my face. Every little bit of hope is being taken away, dying off just like the plants have.”
“Shhh Querida. Your voice will carry and when you are upset Daniel becomes worse upset.”
He was right but it only made me feel trapped I wanted to run away but there wasn’t any direction to run to. I needed … wanted … comfort and to forget for a while. But when I tried to make Abel make me forget he drew back and said, “No Querida. It is … dangerous … to make me feel this way. Let us get up and …”
“Why?! Why is it dangerous? Don’t you want to?”
I could tell he was fighting to stay calm. “Yes. Yes I want to. And yes I … I … I would do anything you wanted me to … anything you let me do … but I’m supposed to be the man, the protector and for now, you are not thinking clear. You are triste … sad … confused. It is up to me this time to say no and that is what it will be. Now come, sitting in the dark does neither of us good and is too much like temptation. We will go sit and watch Daniel sleep. We will calm down.”
He was right but I didn’t like him being right, at least not then. But I was thankful for it later and told him so. His chest puffed up and he said, “See? Now you will listen to me.” Then he got a peculiar look on his face like he did sometimes. “But Day-cee … don’t … don’t do that often. It was very hard to turn your sweetness away. Si? You will do this? For me?”
I realized what he was saying and felt badly and didn’t know whether to hug him or not but in the end he hugged me. It wasn’t fair to him for me to use him like that anymore than if he had used me in that way. In the days that followed work and new circumstances took our energy away for any other “tempting” of each other.