The next two weeks it continued cold and to rain off and on … mostly on. Since we were stuck inside I thought it was going to be hard but it was easier than I thought to get used to Abel living with us. I’m sure at least in part because all of us wanted it to work. The new company made things more interesting. It wasn’t like having Jeff around – I’d almost forgotten what that was like – but Abel filled a hole that I’d only half way understood was empty. We did have to compromise but the compromising wasn’t hard. One of the few things that bothered me was that Abel was trying a little too hard to make it easy and that gave me a few things to think about, like what had his home life been like back in Spain and maybe he’d been just as starved for company as I was and felt like since the cave was “ours” he was the one that would have to do all of the changing to make things work. Some small niggling piece of me also wondered if he had ulterior motives but the longer Abel was around the less and less likely that was. It is hard to explain but a person knows after a while whether another person is really committed to something or whether they are just playacting.
Daniel and Dog were inseparable except for the two times that Abel insisted on hunting. The first time he wouldn’t let us go and was so exhausted when he returned with the carcass of a feral pig that I got the butchering and processing nearly completed before he woke up from a “short nap.” He tried to be embarrassed by that but I wouldn’t let him. More and more I found he had a driving need to be a contributor and not just a beneficiary of our life in the cave. Partly I’m pretty sure that was one of those male pride things but I’m also sure that it had at least as much to do with being a kind of protector personality which was a lot like my dad. Since he wasn’t obnoxious about it I didn’t tell him to knock it off; it was actually nice to share some of the burden for Daniel with another person. I never resented Daniel, but sometimes I was scared I wasn't going to be able to meet all of his needs.
The next time it was easier to convince Abel that it would be easier all around if all three of us (four if you count Dog) went hunting together. We were blessed on the hunt which made it easier for him to see the wisdom of not trying to do everything himself. We managed to spook two sows and a young boar over a steep embankment killing all three when they landed on the rocks below. Hunting was a challenge because you didn’t want to use a gun or you might draw attention to your location. Bow hunting could be challenging and I worried about running out of arrows trying to hunt larger game that way. The way we did it left no trace other than blood on the rocks below which was quickly washed away in a cold rain. It reminded me of history class when we covered ancient tribal people who were hunter-gatherers.
I suppose in a way we were more like a tribe than not. There were lots of similarities but there were some differences as well. Even at my age I knew it was going to be unreasonable to expect a grown guy like Abel to be bossed around by a teenage girl. I know if Abel had come in and simply tried to take over it would have been next to impossible for me to live with. We managed to work our way through that stuff without talking about it too much. Abel pretty much took over bossing about the heavy chores … cutting wood, leading our hunts, the big repairs that I just hadn’t managed to figure out how to do in the cave, and things along those lines. I still controlled the kitchen and supply rooms, gathering the wild forage (what was left of it for the season), organizing keeping the cave – and our bodies – clean and clean clothed, and of course anything that had to do with Daniel. There was only one thing that there seemed to be no compromise on for Abel; he was a fiend about security. He never seemed fully at ease unless all three of us were locked in the cave. It didn’t matter what I said he was just that serious about it all. He took it into his head to be our protector and guardian. It was kinda sweet yet annoying at the same time. Be careful what you pray for ‘cause sometimes you’ll get it. I would sometimes get bad scared that I wouldn’t be able to do what had to be done to keep Daniel and I safe. I already knew that Abel was capable of it, and being ruthless if necessary, and so now that I had someone that could be that way I had to learn to live with the answered prayer.
Abel was also a really big help with the chickens. It seems that his Abuela ran her own part of the farm and sold eggs and chickens to several restaurants in the nearest towns so that she could buy what was necessary to send all of her grandchildren to school and keep them clothed. The hens rarely gave him the trouble they seemed to enjoy giving me and the roosters never flew at him with their spurs. I was more than happy to have help with the culling of the flock because it was one of the few farms jobs that made me heave.
The weather was so bad that we stayed close to the cave on most days except the two we went hunting. There was an overhang down in the sink and Abel suggested that we use that area to deal with the chickens. It wasn’t fun working in the rain but at the same time the rain washed away the smell that I really hated. We culled nearly two dozen hens and two of the nastier roosters. Abel told me that one of the reasons the chickens were so cranky is that I had too many competing for two small an area. He separated the roosters from the hens to give them a break as well. When I asked whether it was the hens or the roosters that were getting the break Abel rolled his eyes and his ears got a little pink. I don’t think the girls where he came from were quite as bold as I was, or maybe it was just being raised by his grandparents instead of in the big city by his mother.
Despite it seeming like the culling went on forever it was no where near the number of feather dusters that I had done every year with Momma, but I wasn’t going to complain. I hated the smell of culling and butchering chickens, especially removing the feathers, but it was a fact of life. Daniel absolutely refused to have anything to do with it so for the last couple of times I’d been stuck doing it all by myself. Sharing the burden somehow made it easier to take and I only gagged a couple of times. Plus Abel already knew how and was even faster at it than Momma had been. He offered to do it all but then it was my turned to be prideful about something; I wasn't going to let him turn me into a girly-girl at that stage in my life.
It was also great to have someone bigger and stronger that could lift the large pressure canner when it was full. I had only been able to use the smaller one which took more turns of filling and processing and which also meant that I had to use more fuel. This time around even though I was processing much more than what I had done the previous year it took less time.
While we worked I found out that Abel was from a place in Spain called Andalusia. He was really proud of where he came from. He said that many things that people think of as “Spanish” actually originated in his region of the country like flamenco dancing and bullfighting. In addition to the chickens his grandmother kept his grandfather had an olive tree grove, a small vineyard that they made their own family’s wine from, a small herd of goats, and a larger herd of black Iberian pigs. Sometimes they had a family cow but most of his dairy came from the goats he and his cousins tended. Beef was a rarity on their table, in fact they ate more seafood than beef as one of his uncles was a fisherman in the Mediterranean.
I told him, “It sounds like you had a huge family. I keep hearing about all of these uncles.”
“Si,” he sighed. “My grandmother had fifteen children and they all lived to be adults except the one son that wanted most to be a farmer like his padre. The others … the farm was too small for them and too much work. They wanted more than to be a poor farmer or poor farmer’s esposo their whole life. As each grew old enough they went to the cities to work and then married there. But several, like my own dear Madre, would send a child or two back to the farm to be raised for whatever reason. Mi Madre was not the only one to lose their spouse too soon. Life is very hard and very uncertain.”
I took away from the things I was learning that Abel had been raised to be a fatalist. Dad had said that some people were like that; they only expected life to be hard and they learned to live with it early on and not be surprised by it. On the other hand he said that it could be taken too far. Saying that “life was hard then you die” didn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least try and affect your own fate. God did create us with free will and gumption and He expected us to use it.
In the evenings after all the day’s chores were done I enjoyed having someone to talk to. Daniel would tolerate it for a while but he was younger than me and simply wasn’t interested in wondering what was going on out in the rest of the world; his world was enough for him and the idea of anything else was beyond what he was able to think about in any kind of abstract way. Daniel’s world was a narrow one and he was happiest with it being that way.
I on the other hand needed to know what was going on and I wasn’t afraid to quiz Abel to find my answers.
“What are the cities and towns like now? I haven’t heard anything on the radio in forever.”
“Like?” Abel stopped and tried to translate his thoughts into English. “Different places are different. For a time they were all Infierno; all of them. It mattered not whether large or small. That was the burning time when fear and anger ruled and no one could stop it. There was no place to hide and believe me we all tried as we just tried to survive the multitudes who sought to take their miedo … their fear … out on those they thought responsible. Eventual the worst was over because many of the weak died or were rounded up and put under control. The Peacekeepers … the Blue Hats as you call them … and the American soldiers helped to calm the violence for a time. The ciudads were blockaded – to keep people in, to keep people out – and slowly even the strong became weak and the newly weak began to die just like the others had. This cycle has been repeated many times. Only the strong or the monstrous truly survive in the larger cities. The smaller ones not so extreme but still they can be bad. People hide their children from the canibales. It is horror. I have seen these things. The cities are full of fantasmas … ghosts, though they realize not they are dead.”
I told him, “That’s … that’s horrible. Daniel and I never saw any of that here.”
“You were blessed by God Himself. He hid you from the monstruos and canibales. You are a young girl and even now they would take you and do … bad things to you, things that would make you wish yourself dead. And Daniel would have been the subject of a hunt and you would have died trying to save him. The … the … retardado were some of the first to become victims.”
Angrily I told him, “Daniel isn’t retarded or anything like that and that isn’t a nice word to use anyway!”
“Si Chica. I know. I know. You know. Even Daniel seems to know what he can do and not worry too much for what he cannot do. But bad people are muy mal and they care not about what we care for. They only live to make others miserable to make themselves feel less so.”
Slightly mollified I said, “I … I know that. I just hated it when people assumed that because Daniel was different he wouldn’t ever amount to anything or wind up as some kind of burden on society. Some of the things supposedly nice people would say was awful and they didn’t even seem to realize it.”
“You are … how do you say … preaching to the choir. Si? Those of the words?”
I had to laugh. Abel’s English was improving but sometimes it sounded funny the way he said things. I suspected sometimes that he even did it on purpose. Him trying to distract me didn’t stop me from asking the question I’d been longing to ask him most however.
“What about my town? What it is like out there?”
Abel answered with a question of his own. “Why do you wish to know these sad things? Will they not break your heart?”
“Maybe. But I’d rather know than not. Dad always said that hiding from bad news never stopped the bad news from being true.”
Abel nodded. “More and more the words of your padre remind me of mi own abuelo. He too would say denying that bad happens does not stop bad from happening.”
He was still trying to distract me and I was having none of it. “You’ve already told me it’s bad out there but what does ‘bad’ mean? What has happened here?”
Abel looked into the fire but didn’t see it. “Before I came here I had already atestiguado … witnessed … so much bad. I was entumecido … what you call numb. But at the same time I was in so much pain … for what I had seen, for what I had done. Even still I could see that the worst had happened around here just as it had in other places and that more continued to happen. The old woman was proof of that.” Abel gave another one of his expressive sighs. “How do I tell you? Many are gone. Many houses are empty or destroyed in some way. Dead? Probably. Hiding? Probably. Captured, possibly enslaved? Maybe for such things have happened and happen still if the words of the Blue Hats are to be believed. Will your friends be changed? Definitely.” Then he looked at me hard. “Do I know what happened to your primo, your Jeff? No. Too many bads are out there and you must not go looking.”
I had already realized that last part a long time ago. “Abel, I’m not talking about seeing for myself. I … I trust you to be honest. Besides I have Daniel to look after, and now you.” A laugh got away from me at the look in Abel’s face when I said that last bit.
“Ah. A broma … a joke,” he said after catching on. “Listen to me Chica. Though you may laugh I still do not understand how I came to be here. The world out there is … is … infierno de la tierra for many souls. Here I am warm, I hunger no more, the bed is soft … all things I … I do not deserve. The things I have done with these two hands, and thought with this mind …” He didn’t seem to have the words in English for what he was trying to say.
He made me want to comfort him the same way I tried to comfort Daniel when the world got to be too much for him. “Don’t worry at it so much Abel. I was tired of Daniel and I being alone. I prayed about it and you showed up like an answer to that prayer. Can’t that be reason enough?”
His face lost that awful blankness that held in so much pain and it felt like maybe he was seeing things for the first time without a veil of guilt and confusion. He looked up and said, “Gracias dios. Y bendiga la inocencia de niños. Ayúdeme a ser lo que debo ser.”
It took me a while to translate that and I was a little chagrinned to find that he thought of me like a child but if it helped him to cope then I could live with it.
When the rain ended it seemed to usher in the cold weather for real. It didn’t snow, it was a dry cold that seemed to settle inside via your lungs. There was no help for it, Abel had to accept making over Dad’s clothes so he’d have something more than rags to wear.
“I don’t understand Abel, how did you make it last winter if this is the only thing you had? And the old woman too?”
“I would steal rugs from abandoned houses. When I could find them I would take lengths of carpet and line the inside of shelters for us. We could not stay in one place long so there were many such shelters in many different places. Sometimes we would come back only to find that the shelters had been destroyed or taken over by others. We did whatever we had to without make a notice of ourselves.”
Make a notice of ourselves? Oh. He meant without doing anything to get noticed. Sometimes it took me time to understand what Abel was trying to say. “Abel, are you not telling me stuff about the town because you don’t think I need to know or are you not telling me because you don’t know?”
This time it was his turned to take a moment to understand. “Ah Chica,” he shook his head yet again. “You really will not give this up?” At my look he shrugged and said, “So be it.”
He was sitting on the floor leaving the sofa to me. I looked up to see that Daniel and Dog had both fallen asleep in dad’s recliner. I thought Abel was being foolish but he was just old-fashioned enough that no pushing would get him to sit on the sofa if Daniel wasn’t sitting between us.
“Chica, your town … she is a bad place. I tell you this not to make you sad but to cause you understanding. There are many Peacekeeper factions in this area. They are autonomous but have some loyalties to the Blue Hat commander that still controls what food supplies there are. This commander calls himself Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir though I know it is not his name. He was merely Hakim when he was a Peacekeeper. The Al-Mansur name is one he took for himself from history and it is one to cause fear and to let others know what he thinks his destiny. Do they teach of Almanzor here?”
I stood up and went over to a set of books on the shelves in the reading corner and took down volume one of an old encyclopedia set. Almanzor was an Arab that through political manipulation eventually became the military power of the Moors in Iberia which later became Spain before 1000 AD. The encyclopedia didn’t say much but it did make the man out to be an enemy to anyone not a Muslim, at least on the surface. He hired Berber mercenaries to do his dirty work so that meant that he was also a hypocrite both religiously and politically.
When I had finished reading the entry and summarized it for Abel he said, “Yes, that is what they taught us in school as well although they are perhaps not as polite about it. Andalusians are independent people and do not like any idea, even if it is just from history, that they were ever captives. But mark the part about Almanzor making war against any that are not Muslim for that is what Hakim is doing. He is consolidating his power over others and using religion as one of his weapons. Sharia law is the supreme law and Hakim adds more as he claims to be divinely led. He is setting himself up as a prophet or as a caliph in the old-style of the muslim world. He has taken many of the young women of the area and put them in his personal harem. He gives them to those in favor and then takes them away again if the men fall out of favor. You … must … not … ever be seen or captured. You cannot even trust your own people for they would give you to Hakim to curry favor.”
I snorted, “I learned the day my parents were killed that I could trust a townie. They stood by and let it happen.” Then I sighed, “I suppose that if Jeff had seen any of this happening he wouldn’t have been able to just stand by; his sense of honor or whatever you guys call it wouldn’t have let him … and it probably got him killed quick and hard. I hope he didn’t suffer.”
The look on Abel’s face told me I was probably dreaming a fantasy. If that Hakim man was as bad and brutal as Abel made him out to be Jeff probably died hard but maybe not quickly, something I didn’t want to think about.
I was glad that Daniel didn’t over hear us talking about it but I was sad and had stopped asking questions.
“I should not have told you.”
I wouldn’t let Abel feel bad for being honest. “I asked. You answered. We both know … or you’ll learn anyway … that I can be … er … obstinado.”
At the look on Abel’s face I had to smile. “I told you I understood Spanish, just didn’t sound very good when I spoke it.”
“Er … no … no Chica that is not what … ah, well, si … you do sound very … er … American. And you should not worry, that is as it should be for that is what you are. But I thank you for trying. But … I am in America now so I should speak ingles … English. Si … yes … and that is as it should be as well. And perhaps we should both do as Daniel and get to sleep. I wish to fill that room with as much wood as I can now that the rain has stopped.”
It was the nicest way anyone has ever told me that I stunk at speaking Spanish so I let him boss me around about it being bedtime. Besides he wasn’t the only one that had a ton of work ahead of them; it was getting close to Christmas and I finally felt like celebrating again.