My sixteenth birthday was to be marked by explosions just like my thirteenth birthday had been, only for completely different reasons.
After Abel and I worked out the “promise that we’d eventually make promises” things calmed back down between us. The needs were still there but we had the wants under control. We didn’t exactly keep it a secret from Daniel but I didn’t sit him down and try and explain it either. We were satisfied with the way things were for a while and Daniel didn’t seem to mind that Abel and I spent time together or sat next to each other either. Besides, there was work to do and that is where most of our energy went.
Summer is when people are supposed to prepare and stock up for winter. The previous winter had been hard but we did OK, a heck of a lot better than many people did if you could believe half of what we heard. But there were no doubts in our minds that this winter would be harder. There were no major storehouses of grains left. There were no major ones left anywhere in the world as far as we could tell from listening to the radio. Not only did this take a significant basic food item away from people but it also took it away from animals. Commercially raised cattle were fed grains to supplement foraging, especially when the weather was cold. It wasn’t cold yet but it was going to get that way as sure as God made little green apples.
All of the large herds of animals were confiscated by the Chinese and those that weren’t fell to the Blue Hats or the hungry hoards that left the bug cities in search of food. We knew there had to be farm animals out there someplace but I’m sure if people had them they were keeping them well hidden.
Abel caught that pig the same week it had escaped … and shortly after that the rest of its litter mates and its Momma as well. We knew there was a passel of hogs wandering the valley because we’d find evidence of them rooting up things and doing all kinds of damage, but there was no way we could fence them in and take care of all of them. We figured that they’d be the perfect size for slaughter once the weather cooled off enough that we could do it outside.
The pigs were our meat for the coming year and maybe some after that if I used up all of the cured meat first and saved the canned stuff for last. We took a couple of deer but only for immediate use. Those deer were scrawny and lean. We needed fat and I wondered if I would have to start putting lard in everything I cooked.
I missed summer fruit so much that it was almost a physical pain. I would have given just about anything for a mouthful of fresh blackberries or a couple of wild plums. On night I dreamed of strawberries and woke up crying.
I wasn’t the only one missing something. Daniel would just go crazy sometimes for something sour. I caught him eating a patch of sheep sorrel just the lemony taste … but he hadn’t even washed it. When I told him there could have been bugs on it he said, “Don’t care. Abel says that bugs are just protein and I want my sour candy.”
Abel too seemed to crave stuff. One day it would be seafood and another day it would be anything salty. Salt I could give him but the ocean was way far away. I felt so bad. He worked even harder than I did. He seemed terribly determined that whatever Hakim was up to would not affect us and that we would outlive Heart Rot. It was Daniel that actually came up with a solution for Abel’s cravings.
Sometimes it helped Abel to talk about his life before he joined the Peacekeepers. It was a world away yet at the same time I sensed the same types of rhythm and flow that I had grown up with. The big difference was the stories of his uncle that was fishermen and how they would bring seafood to the farm. Of the fifteen children his grandmother had birthed, only one had turned to the sea to make a living but apparently he had done quite well. One night Abel drew a picture for me describing how his grandmother cooked the seafood because he was so tired he kept sliding into Spanish and using words I didn’t know.
Daniel looked at the picture and said, “The little ones like to nibble my toes.”
Abel thought Daniel was making up stories but I knew different … you see Daniel doesn’t make up stories, his imagination doesn’t work that way. He’s too literal. When he said the little ones nibbled his toes, that is exactly what he meant. “Daniel, can you remember where they nibbled you?”
“My toes,” he answered.
Trying not to grimace at the fact that I’d asked too general a question I changed it to, “The place Daniel. Where did they nibble your toes?”
“Mr. Bo’s farm,” he told me completely engrossed in building a tower with sticks that he’d collected that day.
I looked at Abel who was trying to figure out where the conversation had gone to. “Do you know what crawdaddies are?”
“Like this,” he said pointing to his picture. “Only they are small?” At my nod he said, “Si. We call them cangrejos. Wait … does Daniel say he knows where there are cangrejos?”
I changed my plans from pickling to fishing for the next day. “Do you remember the big red barn we saw that had been struck by lightning?”
“Si. Six kilometers to the south near the big tree that has fallen across the road.” Abel was very precise when it came to directions.
I grinned and said, “That’s the one. Mr. Bo went to our church and liked to grow his own bait. He loved fishing and supplied most of the fish fries that we had. Those big ponds on the back of his property must be what Daniel is talking about. I know you can eat crawdaddies and I’d be willing to try …”
Enthusiastically Abel nodded and said, “Si! The cangrejos are delicioso. My brother and cousins and I, we hunted them in the rivers. Sometimes we caught many, sometimes none. When we caught many we would boil some for our lunch and take the rest back to Abuela who made them into what you call a stew.”
Afraid that maybe I had over promised I said, “I don’t know for sure if there are any left but it is worth a try. If nothing else maybe we can get some fish and make some more fish jerky since you seem to like it so well.”
And that is exactly what we did … for three days running. I never thought Abel was going to get full of eating crawdaddies but eventually he did. I canned quite a bit of the tail and claw meat – and wasn’t that more than a little work to get enough out of something that is barely four inches long – and we also got quite a bit of fish from the three fish ponds on the property; some I canned and some I dried and a little Abel smoked.
Abel continued to take Daniel on outings to make sure he could take care of himself … or at least reinforce the skills he would need to try. They would also bring back the forage he would find. In the beginning I was a little worried about what they were eating during the day but after a while as they brought me samples back I realized my brother was very, very good. I really had been doing too much for him; I was trying too hard to be Momma.
All of their hiking and scouting had one bad side effect; they started losing weight. Well, not weight exactly but I could tell they were getting very lean. That’s actually when I started to notice my own problems; my monthlies changed … it wasn’t unusual for me to go a couple of extra weeks between but I’d never completely missed one month, much less two.
It scared me at first and I started to lose my appetite again. Abel noticed. Ugh, that was some conversation trying to explain things to him. “Querida, you are losing much weight again. You must eat.”
“Abel, you … you don’t understand.”
“I understand American girls are too skinny. And I understand that you might do such a thing to please me but it does not. I do not mind that there is more to hug and kiss.”
I rolled my eyes. “Abel, don’t take this the wrong way, but while I would do a lot for you causing … uh …”
He’d caught me. “Causing … uh … what?” he asked mocking me just a bit in frustration.
I sighed. “It is girl stuff. I’m not going to have this conversation with you.”
As soon as he figured out what I was referring to he got slightly embarrassed then got a look on his face like he was going into battle and I just knew I was gonna want to throw something at him before it was all done so I removed temptation and headed outside.
“You will have this conversation with me,” he said as he followed me out of the cave, up the stairs and out of the sink. “Daniel is resting and we have the privacy.”
“You really aren’t going to let this go are you?”
Getting a very stubborn look on his face that reminded me of Daniel he said, “No.” And boy did it sound final.
Refusing to look at him I said, “I don’t know what the problem is. My body is just doing things it isn’t supposed to do. So leave off already.”
“I will not ‘leave off’ so stop saying it. It wastes breath. And what exactly is your … er … body doing that it isn’t supposed to?” I didn’t know how to say it. I mean I did but I was afraid it was going to strangle me to try. “Querida …,” he whispered scooting close. “Talk to me.”
I was proud of myself for not elbowing him in the stomach … hard … because he was trying to talk me around by being all sweet and stuff. Eventually I managed to squeak out what was happening.
He asked thoughtfully, “And you have no pain?”
“No. And what would you know about it anyway?”
He snorted, “My cousins and aunts. There were times you did not bother them or they would burn you at the stake just by looking at you. Tio Berto, he explained it to us boys. He said … well … never mind. I was young and he made a … how do you say … impression.”
“Honestly Abel,” I said trying not to smile at the traumatized expression on his face. “You talk like all the women in your family were gargoyles.”
“Only sometimes. Most of the time they could be sweet … but you did not cross them and during certain times you did not bother them. That is fact Querida. I notice you are different. Perhaps it is because you do not … er … let your feelings show that you have problems?”
Boy, did he have his facts wrong. “It isn’t like that for all females. Some have it worse than others. It’s never really bothered me.” In for a penny in for a pound I decided to just be like I was with everything else. “I was regular as a clock before Heart Rot.”
“You … you were very young. Si? My cousins did not … er … join the club until they were the age you are now.”
“Wow,” I said trying to imagine it. “Uh … I’ve been … er … mature since the summer before I started sixth grade. Mom said the women on her side of the family develop early.”
He looked a little scandalized at the idea and then skipped passed the whole subject. Then he said something I really wanted to slug him for. “The perhaps it is like the cabras.”
“Excuse me? I’m like a goat?!”
He realized he’d put his foot in it and backed up. “No … not like a goat. Like the problem we had with the cabras one summer that it did not rain enough. There was not enough food for the does and they had no desire for the bucks. Abuelo, he call the … the vet? Si? Yes, he called the vet and the man said that just like with the chickens, if they do not get enough to eat then they do not make … er ….” He stopped, at a loss for words.
I supposed I could have continued being upset but instead I asked, “You mean because the goats didn’t get enough to eat, or get enough of the right stuff, they didn’t … uh … cycle?”
“Si … they did not go into heat until after Abuelo changed their diet and added a supplement that the vet gave him a paper for. I remember because it was a bad year for everything and there were too few kids in the spring.”
“Maybe. I know girls who ran track at the high school sometimes said the best thing about it was that they didn’t have their monthlies.”
He gave me a funny look. “You mean that the girls did not like to be women?”
I snorted, “Forget it, guys so don’t get it. You aren’t saddled with something that wants to take a week away from you every month for most of your life.”
He shrugged, “Perhaps not but Uncle Berto said that it was the balance. Women are the ones who give life so part of the time they feel like death. Men, who can’t give life, have to work themselves to death so that the women, when they have the bebé they do not have to work so hard.”
A little mollified despite being forced to have the conversation in the first place I told him, “You Uncle Berto sounds pretty smart.”
“Si. Yes, he was. He was the one that wanted to send me to university. Next to Abuelo, Tio Berto …” When he ended it on a shrug I knew there was something more to it.
“Uncle Berto died. He had a … a heart condition like Abuelo. He had no children of his own so when the medicine got hard to find he secretly gave Abuelo his. Abuelo didn’t know until it was too late. Tio Berto died on a trip to the city to try and find more medicine.”
Sometimes saying that you’re sorry for something isn’t enough. Abel was what Momma would have called hot-blooded but at the same time there were things that were off limits, things he didn’t like showing emotion over. I think his Uncle Berto’s death was one of them; that the man had meant a lot to him. It seemed strange that we had known each other so long and this was the first time he’d ever mentioned the man by name. It only made it more obvious it was a wound that hadn’t healed. I hugged him and after a moment he returned my embrace and we sat that way for a while then he straightened up and said, “I must think on this. I need your padre’s books and the diccionario.”
Using the medical books Dad had included in the library, Abel laboriously plowed through them, using the dictionary when he didn’t know a word and if that didn’t work asking me if I knew what it meant. Two nights later he told me that I needed iron, protein, and fat. And he had a plan to make sure that I got them.
He became even more determined that the pigs did well; they would be the protein and fat source. Any other wild meat we could find would also help. Iron would come from spinach, turnip greens, chickpeas, pumpkin, and parsley as well as any bean I could come up with. I was reminded once again about how Momma would talk about it being more important that the food was filling and tasted good, it needed to be good for you as well.
But sometimes you just need something to fill in the corners of your stomach and though nutrition is super important getting enough was important too. It was crazy how much time and energy we spent on food alone. And if the food wasn’t for the here-and-now it was being put away for the future, especially the winter. For both us and our animals.
I couldn’t dry everything, for one thing that would have taken more time and space than I had to work with since there were only so many trays on the dehydrator. I canned what I could from the grow rooms. I also canned forage that Abel and Daniel brought back – or that I’d found when I went with them – out on the ledge so that I wouldn’t accidentally bring Heart Rot into the grow rooms. But canning things plain just was too monotonous. Momma said that a nutritious diet was important but that variety in flavor and texture kept the appetite sharp. One of the ways that she dealt with this was by pickling a lot of stuff.
We had a whole grow room devoted to cucumbers just for Daniel and they included a good variety of pickling cucumbers. And thanks to Daniel’s green thumb they produced abundantly. I canned half-sours for Abel and I and full-sour dills by the quart for Daniel. I had three gallons of mustardy dill pickles fermenting before the month was out. Others included spicy crock pickles, bread and butter pickles, sweet pickles, ice water pickles, and that was only the tip of the iceberg.
But cucumbers aren’t the only things you can pickle. No siree Bob. I brined snap beans, cabbage to make sauerkraut, green cherry tomatoes, carrots, beets, zucchini … basically if it didn’t move I would try pickling it. And I also did some things that Momma had learned from other people at the fairs she entered contests in. Daniel loves the Vietnamese pickled bean sprouts she learned to make and the soured mustard greens from the same country. I liked Persian Sugar-Pickled Garlic.
To make the sugar-pickled garlic you start with four heads of garlic that you’ve separated into cloves, but not peeled. Then you put two cups of red wine vinegar, two cups of water, one cup of white sugar, six whole cloves, and two tablespoons of black peppercorns into a heavy saucepan. Dump the cloves of garlic into that mess and bring it to a boil for ten minutes and then turn it down and simmer it for another five. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool to room temperature before putting it into a glass jar or ceramic crock and then putting a lid on it and putting it in a cool place for it to “work” for a month. You can eat the cloves right out of the jar at that point and boy are they good.
We were really working hard and getting a lot accomplished but with any good thing there are not so good things that tend to balance it out. First off, it was obvious that the people that had come through in the spring had done a lot of damage to the ecosystem. We had to travel through the whole valley and not just around our place like Daniel and I had the year before, to keep from picking any one place bare. It wasn’t something we wanted to do but it looked like we were going to have to make another long trip up into the BLM.
“Querida, we will bring the chickens in and I will secure the cerdos – the pigs – in your padre’s old barn. It is far enough from the road and there is much growing in there. The pond will give them water and coolness and the barn will shade them so they will not get sunburnt. I do not wish to ask but I cannot carry enough by myself to make the trip worth it. And if Daniel should become frightened …”
I gave him such a look. “You didn’t really think I was going to be left behind did you?”
His frown slowly turned into a big grin. “Let us say I was hoping that you would decide to come along.”
“Uh huh … good save there,” I told him with a grin of my own.
I couldn’t decide whether to bring the crossbow or the compound but in the end decided on the compound in the end because the crossbow made too much noise and we were after stealth just in case there were other people up there as well. I also wanted to bring my recurve bow but decided it was just too much to carry both bows and the arrows for them.
We limited the amount of stuff we were packing in so that we could pack out more. I also planned on foraging for most of our meals. Daniel packed his collecting equipment. Abel went loaded for bear … literally. Neither one of us wanted a repeat of the bear incident. It wasn’t a good time to go bear hunting but if one fell in our lap we weren’t going to complain about it … or sit around and wait to be made into a some bear’s midday snack either.
We started out before first light so that we would get to the steeper elevation as the sun rose. The sun hadn’t been up more than a few minutes before we heard the first scream.