I had too many irons in the fire, that’s all there was to it. House, kids, cooking, laundry, foraging, cleaning out the attics, planning, and any number of other things. Now I had to add on top of all of that that I was getting married. Married. Me. On the one hand it felt like the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand it felt like I had stepped into Wonderland’s mirror and it was all one-way from here on out.
I had been right about one thing, everyone that came by swore up and down that they had known something was going on between Jude and I, they just hadn’t said anything because we seemed to be having such a good time keeping it “secret.” Rochelle and Wendalene twitted me about having an “obvious crush” on their brother since “forever.” I think they tried to take it back so far that if I checked the calendar I would have still been in Mom’s belly.
Rochelle couldn’t stay long, one of her kiddos were sick, but when Rochelle hung back I began to get a bad filling in the pit of my stomach. “Get that look off your face,” she told me. “It needs saying and I know Mom won’t.”
“If this is about what I think it is, no thanks ‘Chellie. My mom had ‘the talk’ with me a long time ago.”
She gave a very unladylike snort. “I figured that. Aunt Malissa was thorough. But what about the rest of it. Do you know how to keep from getting knocked up?” My head felt like it was going to explode. She nodded then said, “I didn’t think so. Here.”
She handed me a paper bag and I was almost afraid to open it. When I did I wished I hadn’t. “Argh!”
“Stop having a fit. They’re condoms. Make sure my lunatic brother uses one every time. And I mean every time Dovie. You’re young and healthy and in the prime fertile period of your life. Same for Jude. I seriously doubt getting pregnant is going to be a problem for you two. Not getting pregnant will be your problem.”
“Look here Rochelle …” I said indignantly.
“No, you look here. No one in the family is against this. Ignore Butch because not even he is against it. OK, maybe Crystal but that’s her problem, not yours. Butch will be fine once he sees things will work out fine. It’s not his fault his first love was a smart bimbo and he doesn’t want either one of you to wind up with a broken heart like he did, the big idiot. River has knocked most of the worst of the sharp corners off of him but he’ll always be a bit … uh …”
“Yeah. I get that. But geez Rochelle.”
Then she looked deep into my eyes. “Dovie, I’ve stood by helpless too many times since I started nursing and doctoring, watching some woman or her baby or both … I’ve seen young girls …” She shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m getting in your business, Mom never could tell me nothing and you see where that got me. You’re going to do what you want to do. I just want my brother to have a chance to do things differently. It just makes more sense to wait until you see how things are going to be this coming year and the next. You and Jude are young enough and you already have a houseful of kids, it won’t make that much difference in the long run if you wait. You understand what I’m trying to say?”
Then I did something I didn’t think I have done in years. I reached over and gave Rochelle and hug and told her, “Thanks. I’ll talk to Jude. Just swear you won’t be carrying that particular tale back to the house and spreading it around.”
She snorted. “Dad would have a coronary if he got wind of it.” With one last look before leaving to catch up with Wendalene she requested, “Just think about it.”
River and Aunt Frankie came up not too much later and they wanted to talk about wedding plans. Most of that hour was wasted with them wishing that I could have things that weren’t going to happen. There wasn’t going to be a fancy dress. There wasn’t going to be a fancy cake. There wasn’t going to be a band and dance floor or a honeymoon or flowers or bridesmaids dresses or just about anything else for that matter.
Trying not to get irritated I told them, “I’m marrying Jude, not a dress or a band or a cake or none of that other stuff you are worrying over. We’ll be in a church. A preacher will say the words over us. Then we’ll start the rest of our lives. Mom always said it was silly to get married in a dress that cost about as much as a down payment on a house or car.”
Aunt Frankie sighed. “I loved Malissa but she was so practical she could give me a headache. Don’t you want anything you can’t have?”
I wanted to say “peace from all the nosey parkers in this family” but didn’t because despite everything Aunt Frankie was turning out to be a lot better person than I had ever given her credit for being. “Aunt Frankie I have everything I need and a lot of what I want already. I found a dress Mom was going to make over eventually to sell in one of her sewing trunks and if it didn’t start out being a wedding dress it might as well have. There’s enough silk flowers in a storage tub around here someplace to make all the little girls in the family a bouquet and they can do for bridesmaids. Jude said he would see Brother Shirley and take care of that end of things. With the way things are, asking for anything else might not be sinful but it seems pretty silly and wasteful.”
Aunt Frankie sighed and rolled her eyes but smiled too. “You are just like your mother.” She looked at River. “Better get home. My sister said she’d keep an eye on Reynolds but he’s learned he can wind her around his little finger. And if we don’t start some supper soon we are going to have a lot of cranky men on our hands.”
They stood up and left but Aunt Frankie came back for a moment. “I’m sure ‘Chellie has just about killed you giving you a talk about the marriage bed so I won’t. I never had much trouble letting nature take its course so as long as you have the jist of the mechanics you should do just fine. Just don’t expect it to be like in those silly romance books and you won’t be disappointed. It’ll get better with time and practice.” I could have died right there but then her next words caught me off guard. “And when Crystal comes up here just do your best to hear her out and then ignore her if you don’t agree. That poor girl is turning into someone that is mighty disappointed in what life has handed her.”
“I know, she can’t have kids.”
“Honey, she don’t want ‘em and didn’t before they took all her female parts out. From what I’ve discovered the women in her family always seemed to resent the idea that that was their biological place in the food chain. Sad really. She loves Clewis and he her … but she ain’t willing to let go of the past. She thought she had someone in you that would be happy to think like her … resent all of the responsibilities of children and all that comes with it. She doesn’t seem to understand that not all of us women think having kids is such a chore. Problem is she don’t have nothing to fill the gap in her life that is left … she was used to adventuring, even before she and Clewis hitched up, but that’s all gone for a long while yet. We’re probably going to have to do something about that right quick or there’s going to be problems.”
It was a lot to leave me with. But she was right about one thing. She wasn’t the only one that needed to get supper going. I decided to use a little bit of powdered milk and some eggs and make a ham soufflé for dinner. It was good, common food but it was also kinda of a special occasion dish as well.
While I fixed the soufflé I thought about what I’d learned today. Rochelle and her saying that being pregnant when there weren’t any doctors around was making it harder on women and girls to be pregnant and have babies. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t ready for babies, the kids I was looking after including my brother was enough for now. I will want a baby one day, but not right away. I recalled an interrupted conversation that never got finished with Jude and knew we’d need to have it … and maybe tonight if Jude didn’t pass out after finding out what was in the bag I had tossed on his bed. I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall when he saw what his sister had left him.
And Aunt Frankie trying to gentle what she thought would be my inevitable reaction to Crystal. Well, I guess I would have to take that as it came. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with her right away. Crystal was in the middle of another not feeling too good spell and Rochelle had suggested that she stay in bed. Rochelle had let out that Crystal wasn’t just playing at being sick, she really was, but that she didn’t know what to do for her. We’d all been wrong and she didn’t even have any ovaries left so there’s no way that whatever it was could be related to those kinds of hormones. Then again she admitted that she wasn’t an OB/gyn so who knew. Some of the symptoms had subsided after she started eating differently but not all of them. I’d hate to have some kind of mystery illness like that. I think it would not only make me cranky, but maybe drive me a bit crazy too. I guess if for no other reason than that I should be able to cut Crystal some slack.
Dark came so early this time of year; the nights so long and the cloudy sky making them seem even longer. It was hard to get all the chores done in the amount of light that the good Lord gave us to work by. I wound up having to light the lantern that hung by a hook over the table so the kids could see to eat.
“Jude’s late again,” Paulie complained.
“Supper is just a little early is all. I’m trying to have two meals a day instead of three.”
“Why?” Tiffany asked. “Do … do we not have enough food?”
Startled I said, “Oh Tiff … no, that isn’t it. Just doing a lot of cooking means using a lot of wood. Plus with the shorter days we have to use more lamp oil to work by. It’s just conservation … not because we don’t have the food.”
She relaxed. “Oh. Ok.”
After the kids helped clean up after supper and then went off to get ready for bed Paulie asked, “Was that the truth Dovie? Do we have enough food?”
I looked at him and decided to tell him the truth. “We have enough food Paulie. But …”
Carefully I explained, “I just want to be careful with what we have. It is going to be a lot harder to get a garden into the ground this year. And we are going to need one that is a lot bigger than anything that I’ve ever taken care of. I just want the food to last in case things don’t all go our way in the Spring.”
He nodded. “Got it. Bobby thought that’s what you weren’t saying.”
“Yeah, he remembers being hungry. We all do. But I think Bobby was hungry a lot when he was little. You know?”
“Yeah, I know.” And I did. I’d seen his medical chart and his teeth had these lines in them that showed where his nutrition had been bad at points in his life.
With that my surprisingly mature little brother went up the stairs. I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t separate the girls and boys into their own rooms but every time I mentioned it there was a universal outcry, each time a little louder than the last. It was almost like they knew what was coming and they would fight it tooth and nail until they had no choice. It needed to happen eventually but maybe it could wait a while longer.
But Paulie had a made a point; Jude was late again. And I hadn’t had supper on the table all that much sooner. I was beginning to amp up, remembering last night when I heard his distinctive trod on the porch. Ever since the hog had tore his leg up his gate had been a little different … or maybe it was his boots that didn’t fit perfectly. I’d done what I could to fix the heel but he really needed a new pair. If I could just convince him to look at Dad’s old boots or those belonging to the twins … but his pride was enough to make me want to pinch him on occasion. He honestly thought I should be saving those boots for Paulie. It was enough to make a saint swear.
“Whoa … you … you uh … just tell me that look on your face isn’t for me.”
I realized that I must have been really scowling because when I looked at his face he was honestly concerned. I decided that a little payback was due. I walked over to him, pushed him down on the bench where he took his boots off at, sat on his lap, and then gave him a kiss that nearly had his brain leaking out of his ears. I stood up and then went back to polishing the stove. “That answer your question?”
I’m not sure what he meant to say but what came out was garbledy-gook. I smiled in satisfaction and turned when the kids swarmed all over him wanting some attention. He pulled himself together enough to give them what they wanted and then they ran off to make sure his wash water was ready so that he could clean up, eat, and then read them the next chapter in the book they’d been saving until he had the time.
I told him, “Don’t open the bag on your bed if the kids are in there.”
“It’s from Rochelle.”
He blanched but went off to appease the sheep and I finished what I was doing and worked on my list of things to do the next day. About an hour later he was back and I plopped the plate of food in front of him. “You should have told them to let you eat first.”
“I just figured this way we would have time to talk before we got so tired. You have to be at least as tired as I am between yesterday, last night and then today.”
I gave him a look, “Are you trying to sweeten me up for something?
The fork was half way to his mouth and then he slowly put it back down on his plate. “Sorta.”
The fork was half way to his mouth and then he slowly put it back down on his plate. “Sorta.”
“I … uh … saw Brother Shirley today,” he said cautiously.
“Uh … yeah. And Dad was there.”
“He … he was?” I asked, not sure whether I should be worried or not.
“Yeah. Uh … you know how Dad said the soonest date possible?”
Still cautious I answered, “Yeah.”
“Don’t … don’t freak out on me Dovie. But … but how does this Sunday sound?”
I just looked at him not sure I had heard him right. “This … this Sunday?”
“Yeah. This … uh … Sunday.”
“You’re not playing.”
“I’m not playing.”
I carefully sat down and then swallowed the saw dust in my mouth. I thought about it for a long second. “Uncle Roe put Brother Shirley up to this didn’t he?”
“Yeah. I got upset until I was sure that Brother Shirley didn’t think … you know … that it was a shotgun wedding or anything.”
I hadn’t even gotten around to that part of the shock yet. Worriedly I asked, “You sure he didn’t?”
“I’m sure. In fact he got onto Dad just a bit about it, that people’s tongues would start wagging but Dad wouldn’t turn loose of it. So, the only out I could get him to agree to was if you were too upset by the sudden notice.”
“I’m … I’m not upset. I did say … I mean we both did … that the sooner the better. But … geez … Uncle Roe wants me to have a dress and all the trappings and … and I already can’t figure out how … and to have it ready by this Sunday?” I turned to look at Jude. “Are you going to be upset if I can’t make it all nice and spiffy?”
“Sweetheart, I’d stand up with you with my oldest pair of long johns if that’s all I had and you’d let me. Or looking like that character from that old show Heehaw … Junior Sample, the one Dad thinks is funny. But if you really want …”
“I meant did you mind if I don’t have a fancy store bought dress.”
His eyebrows went up into his hairline. “Dovie, in case you haven’t noticed, most guys aren’t trying to get their woman into a dress on their wedding day but out of one.”
For some reason that struck me as funny when it probably shouldn’t have. “You’re awful.”
“Yeah, I know. But seriously …”
“But seriously, so long as you don’t care if I can’t make it a real fancy dress then I can be ready by Sunday.”
“Really?” he asked amazed.
He started eating with gusto and soon he was smiling like a loon. “Jude, slow down or you’re gonna get sick.”
“No way. This is good. Ham soufflé right?”
I nodded. “Mom’s recipe.”
“Thought so. Dang this is good.”
“There’s more. You don’t need to take the surface of the plate off.”
I put the last of it on his plate and he savored rather than slurped the rest of it. I asked him, “Did Clewis find out what you needed him to?”
“Yeah. Those men were hauled off to Ft. Campbell. Doubt we’ll ever see them again. Grapevine says Carlsburg is not happy with the state of affairs at all. No one wants to be near him right now. Blacksmith’s daughters are safe and don’t even know most of what went on because we kept ‘em hid so well. I told the blacksmith and he told me they could hear the fight but not what was said and couldn’t hear anything out in the yard … just what was said in the kitchen. We gotta do something about that pipe; seal it up or something. But to be honest I’d … look, we need to talk.”
I nodded. “We do though I thought that’s what we were doing.”
I took his empty plate and put a mug of warm cider in front of him. “Sit with me?”
“Need to put the kids down for the night.”
“They’re down. The littles fell asleep during the story. Paulie said he would catch them up tomorrow. Even he and Tiff were pretty tired. It’s this cold weather and all the dark.”
“Hmmm,” was my only comment. “I better make sure everyone is getting enough greens. Might do some pumpkin up too, not that we have much of that left. Wish I still had some vitamins left.”
“Worried about them?”
“Some. None of them are used to this weather. I’m not either really. But …” I shrugged. “I’ll think on it.”
“Just don’t worry on it. If you do think of something you need, talk to me about it.”
He shook his head. “Listen up. If it is gettable I’ll get it. There’s always a way.”
I balked. “Nothing dangerous.”
“No. I’m about to be a family man,” he said with a huge grin the wattage of which nearly took my breath away. Then he turned it down quite a bit and said, “I’m sorry about using the basement. I just hadn’t expected to have to make that kind of decision so soon.”
“Hiding someone. I’ll have to take the stuff out of the attic and use that space if we need it from here on out.”
Carefully choosing my words I said, “This is part of what you … you and Clewis … have been up to?”
“Well, what we’d thought may happen, not what we’d actually had to do before now.”
“You’ll need to get specific Jude because I’m not getting it.”
He scratched his head thought fully. “In the beginning it didn’t start out being nothing. He and I just started talking and found we had more in common than we thought. Then we talked some more and found out we had a lot more in common than we thought. He introduced me to a couple of people. I introduced him to a couple of people. And we all talked. That was it … it was just a lot of talking in the beginning.” He stretched his neck and said, “Then it started that someone had heard something and would share and we’d talk it out some more. Someone else would hear something and we’d add that into what we already knew. Then not too long after that we started trying to hear things on purpose and we shared it amongst ourselves and we found that knowledge was … valuable.”
“Please tell me we aren’t talking about blackmail.”
“No! Nothing like that. I mean valuable as in knowing the real facts helped us to make decisions that kept us all out of trouble … ahead of the game as it were. We wound up throwing each other business or passing along opportunities to work. Early bird gets the worm sort of thing. Then we realized we knew a lot more than folks around us did … about the government, the war, the economy, local stuff going on, national stuff, international stuff, who was a good guy and who had secrets. And then the rumors about Carlsburg started and we… we did things to prepare for him, just in case.”
“Because he is a stinker.”
“He’s worse than that. Dad only sees what he wants to see but the guy is really dangerous. His … let’s call ‘em his appetite and ego … could destabilize this whole area which would be bad for everyone. But we’re also seeing those who are willing to play his game and those who are not. Some that are willing might surprise you, did me. But I’m not carrying tales until necessary.”
“That’s part of that knowledge is valuable thing.”
“Exactly.” He nodded. “A little while back we started … well … started finding stuff … abandoned stuff. We’d take turns … acquiring … the abandoned stuff. Then we’d split it amongst ourselves.”
“That’s how you came by the cats.”
“Yeah. How did they do today?”
“Better. I’m pretty sure they’ll make it. It helped to move them to my room so the kids … you know … out of sight, out of mind.”
“Yeah. Good thinking. That’s sorta how we’ve found some of the abandoned things. But we also … look … we all have needs. As a group these men … and they are all men so don’t go thinking otherwise … these men, well we all have families to take care of. We’ve all got lists of things that would help make our lives a little better, or we’d like to have on hand just in case. Well, if one of our group has a particular need we put our heads together and try and come up with a way to get it. We’ve all been pretty good about not assuming that every little thing is a need or that we should take it to the group before trying to get it for ourselves. And we don’t always share everything we find that is … er … abandoned. We are a loose association, not dependent or locked in to sharing every little thing.”
“Is that why you were so concerned about us getting attached to the cats.”
“Naw, not the cats; it was the cat food. There was dog food too … but no dog or any sign one was around. Clewis took it and is dumping it into the bin a little at a time. I think Dad knows but he hasn’t said anything. The farm dogs are needed but those beagles can eat like horses. And speaking of horses, we’ve worked hard at reclaiming a lot of grains like oats that got left behind as people took off to where ever they were going. Hardly anything like that left these days but you still run across stuff every once in a while. That house with the cats was a rare thing. By the time our group is finished with it, I doubt they’ll be much left of it. One of the men has even started hauling the insulation out of the attic and from behind some paneled walls – another guy needed the paneling so he could finish off his own attic – so he could put it in the ceiling above his kids’ bedrooms to try and make them warmer. Another man took this big, fancy looking rug … an oriental looking thing … because the tile in the family room made it hard to keep the room above freezing. There was a family that had a busted out window and we secretly left the glass at their place since they couldn’t afford to get new glass from town.”
“OK, I can see all that. But how did you start thinking of rescuing people?”
“Rescuing … that part is accidental like I told you. But we had talked about maybe having to move our families around in case Carlsburg … well, we’ve come up with some pretty strong scenarios about what could happen. Hopefully the military presence will keep him in check on a personal level but that isn’t going to stop what is going to happen when folks realize he isn’t the savior they thought he would be.”
“Maybe … but more likely raids and crimes spilling out into the rural areas. Remember the old flash mobs when they were popular?”
“Yeah, Mom and I almost got caught in one one time when we were out shopping. Paulie was real little.” I shuddered. “Those people were crazy.”
“Maybe, but they got what they were after. No one person, one family, is going to be able to hold off a large crowd like that. Not even a small one. You saw what happened here last night. It wouldn’t have even worked had I come out shooting. I would have gone down and you and the kids would have been … I don’t wanna think about it,” he ended gloomily.
Thinking a moment I said, “Basically what you are telling me is that you and a bunch of men are getting together and when you talk you hope for the best but you are planning for the worst.”
He nodded, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up right there. But we are doing more than planning. And … it kinda looks like now …”
“What?” I asked as he petered off into silence.
“Dovie, things are gonna get rough. Rougher than they already are. We’ve lived through about two years of this. Infrastructure failing, economy failing, all of it. It’s worse than anyone is letting on in the news. We’ve actually got it good around here. You saw some of it on the road, but you avoided the cities and even most of the towns. If the weather doesn’t let the farmers get crops in the ground on time, if something happens to the crops that do come up, if we have to do it all like back in the old days … no tractors, no fertilizer, no pesticides …” He shook his head. “People are going to starve and starving people are dangerous. People are going to blame the farmers before they blame anyone else. We’ll be asking too much for our work and investment. Price controls are already killing us. As soon as seed can get in the ground I’m going to be working from before sun up to after sun down and people are going to expect me to do it for slave wages or maybe even less. Then when the farmer balks the government is going to step in and really muck things up. We gotta be ready. But I’m not sure how to do it, some of it yeah but … we’ve got some plans …”
I reached over and put my hand on his fist. “Well, we’re in it together. I’ll do what I can on my end … forage, gorilla garden …”
He looked at me with a strange look. “What in the heck is a gorilla garden?”
I smiled. “Think of it as hidden assets. There’re things that I can plant … like sunchokes … that most people won’t give a second thought to. We’ve got the kudzu … nothing will stop that from coming back … and there are plenty of other wild things in the forest to eat. My herb garden, most folks won’t know what it all is. I doubt seriously if the old folks that might are going to come sniffing around here in the night to run off with them.”
He didn’t return my smile. “Yeah, I have a feeling we’ll need to do as much of that as possible. The men and I have talked it out … we aren’t sure how bad the hunting is going to be but we suspect really bad. We need to plan out like meat might not be on the table all that much. We’re thinking that the government, the military, whoever might just swoop in and take the domestic animals so Clewis and I are trying to find a way to use the old Hamner place in case we have to move the horses or secure them someplace else in case raids get that bad.”
“You … you really think the government will just come in and …”
“We’re pretty sure that is what Carlsburg was planning. We got lucky this time … or at least for a while. He might be able to convince … someone or whomever … that his way is necessary. And we can’t go around assuming that the military is just going to be our friends automatically. They’re human … some will be good guys and some won’t. So far so good but that could change overnight. You just never know.”