Winter that year was both harder and easier than any since my parents died. Abel made it easier on me in lots of ways but after a while I realized that having a guy around creating problems for me too. Well, maybe problems is the wrong word; it was really more like complications.
I’ve already mentioned he could be silly about how protective he tried to be. I finally wore him down on that but it doesn’t mean he still didn’t try every so often to treat me that way again. I finally had to sit him down and really explain things.
“Abel, don’t take this the wrong way but you gotta stop treating me like a little kid … or worse, like a helpless girl.”
“Day-cee, there is no way I can treat you …” He stopped and I could see him trying to put things into English. He changed directions and said, “Day-cee, you are a girl, I can treat you no other way.”
I could see this was going to be harder than it had to be. Doggone he was as stubborn as Daniel was. “OK, maybe I’m not saying this right. I know I’m a girl. You know I’m a girl. Even Daniel understands the difference between boys and girls … but you treat me like … like … like I’m weak or something. I’m not. It doesn’t really matter why I’m not, I’m just not. It’ll be easier on all of us if you would just get that through your head.”
He got a mulish look on his face then a thoughtful one. “I do not mean to make you feel … weak … or … or menos … less than I.”
I shook my head and said, “I know you don’t … and you don’t, not really. That’s not what I mean.” I was getting as frustrated as him at the language and cultural barriers. “Look, it’s kinda tempting to let you be all … all manly and stuff all the time. It would be real easy to just let you do all those things you try and do. I like having you around, it’s nice. You like my cooking and you talk to me and stuff like that … the kind of stuff that Daniel doesn’t … can’t really … do. But … but if I let you do that stuff all the time then … then what happens if … when … you leave?”
He opened his mouth to say something but then closed it slowly. I think I was finally getting through to him. “I know you won’t just leave Daniel and me high and dry on purpose. I can tell you aren’t that kind of person. But Jeff wasn’t that kind of person either and he just walked away one day and never came back. Sometimes things just … they just happen is what I’m trying to say. And if … if I give into letting you do all of those things for me all of the time … well, I’m not weak now but maybe I will be if I … if I let you do all the stuff you want to do for me all the time.” Not sure I’d said it right I asked, “Does that make any sense to you at all? Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
He looked at me consideringly. “I understand Day-cee. I do not like it but I understand. You are afraid.”
I sighed, “Maybe that is your word for it … and maybe that is part of it. But mostly I’m just trying to think ahead. One of these days … well … you’re going to want to find out what happened to the rest of your family … the ones back in Spain. Or … or maybe you’ll … you know … need to do what Jeff felt he had to do … go in search of something for … for some reason or other. When you leave, it’s going to be back to just me and Daniel and I have to be able to take care of us after you leave. That’s why Dad raised me the way he did. I’m going to be responsible for Daniel in some way, shape, or fashion the rest of our lives and I’ve got to be up for the job. I can’t let your kindness cripple me from being able to do what’s always been my job and what must continue to be my job from here on out.”
That made him sigh again and shut him up for a good long time. “Day-cee you make me feel …” He stopped again. At the best of times Abel had to stop and think about what he was saying but strong emotions made him take even longer to find the right words to express what he meant. Eventually he simply shook his head and said, “You are not like other girls.”
I shrugged. “I’m not like other girls because I’m not any other girl. I’m me, not them. I’ve got my own work and responsibilities and they have theirs. If it makes me different then it makes me different.”
Abel nodded and said, “Si … it does. I was raised around many girls and none, not even my abuela were like you. I worked with girls when I came to this country and none were like you. You are … different.” I wasn’t sure whether my feelings should be hurt by that but in the end I decided it was foolish to get my feelings hurt over a truth I’d been the one trying to explain.
We went about our work for the rest of the day and I put it from my mind. I saw that he was at least trying to not treat me like I would break but eventually he grew visibly frustrated. “This is ridiculo … absurdo. You are a girl and I will treat you like one.”
He’d startled me and I tried to saome something but he cut me off. “Abel …”
“No Day-cee. I understand what you mean and I will not … not perjudiqúele … will not handicap you but this … this watching you do things that … that … no. No. There is no good sense in it. I will cut and carry the wood like I have been doing. Daniel can help. Si … we will still go hunting together but … but I will not stand there if a cerdo or oso is coming at you. There is no reason that you have to carry things too heavy for you when I am here. I cannot watch you do these things and be a man.”
I tried again. “Abel …”
But Abel was just as adamant. “No. There is nothing wrong with being … different. And I will not stop you from … from … what you think you need to do to take care of Daniel. I will not leave until you have someone else to help you do these things. “
I just looked at him and said, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Then it was Abel’s turn to get interrupted. “I … I …”
Abel was very frustrated and upset. He was older than me and a guy so it was just natural for him to think he knew best but I knew that I had to take a stand. “It’s OK Abel. You’re you … a guy … and older than me. That’s what you are and there are some things you just can’t or won’t change because of that. My dad could be the same way. I’m not asking you to change that. And you feel … I don’t know … responsible or something because of that and because of the other stuff you’ve gone through it makes you even more … um … sensitive I guess on how you … well how you look at what you do. I’m not asking you to change that either. It’s just that I’m me … a different kind of girl , not that there’s anything wrong with that. I see things a certain way too because I’ve got my own … uh … life experiences I guess you’d call it just like you do. Look, I don’t want to hurt your feelings anymore than I think you want to hurt mine. Maybe we can compromise or something. I understand it is important that you be a guy and I understand it is important that I be a girl. But like you said I’m a different kind of girl and I have to be true to that part of myself that is different.”
He ran his hands through his hair and made this really weird sound in his throat then after kicking at a pile of leaves he said, “Me frustran! I am frustrated!!”
I looked around to make sure that Daniel and Dog were within sight but not within earshot. I put down the handle of the wagon that I had been pulling. We were bringing back wood to refill the stacks down in the sink. “Now you know how I feel. It’s been a long time since there’s been anyone to help me with Daniel and everything else. I like it. I don’t want … look, I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage of you being nice to me or making you work more for your share than you should. I like you being here and … and taking on some of the hard stuff. It was piling higher and deeper and … and I just can’t do everything myself all the time, the work falls behind. But when you go …”
“Day-cee, you keep saying I am going. I will not leave you and Daniel without someone to protect you.”
I shook my head and again said, “Don’t make those kinds of promises Abel. Everybody leaves eventually.” Admitting my biggest fear I said, “The only thing in this world that I’m really, really scared of is that I’ll leave before there is someone to take care of Daniel and he’ll be left all alone. I know it might happen and that is why I’ve tried to teach him things and not do everything for him. He’s stayed with me and we’ve done everything together and now he can do a lot of stuff without me having to tell him how, he’ll even do some things without me with him standing over the top of him. I still have to remind him sometimes but most of it is just part of his routine so that if something does happen and I leave … die … whatever … he’ll at least have something – some skills – to survive with. But for me to take care of Daniel for as long as I can I have to be able to … to …” Now it was my turn to kick some leaves.
“I don’t know how to say this so you’ll understand. I know you’ll stay as long as you can Abel. When you say it, it sounds like a promise and you seem like the kind of guy that would rather cut off his right arm than break a promise. Dad and Jeff were the same way. But life still happens and maybe you can’t keep your promise, not because you don’t want to but because something happens. If I get too used to you doing everything for me - the big, hard stuff – it is going to put Daniel in danger and me too. I want to give in and let you do everything you want to but I can’t. I just can’t. Not even if it hurts your feelings.”
I walked away thinking that maybe he would just leave sooner rather than later. Neither one of us said anything for a while but before I could start pulling the wagon again he hesitantly put his hand on my shoulder. “Abuelo would say that you have too many years for your age. I’m sorry for that. It should have been like it was for my cousins; fun and dresses and parties and your father chasing all your novios off because they were no good enough for you.”
I must have made a face at the picture because he finally laughed. “Perhaps not exactly that but still …” He got serious again. “It should not be this.”
I shrugged. “But it is.”
He sighed. “Si … it is.” Another sigh – Abel’s sighs were as good as a whole string of words – and then he said, “I will try Day-cee. You will need to remind me but I will try. But … but do not ask me not to be a man. For too long I wasn’t one and … and it was muy mal … very bad. I don’t want to be that person again. Do you understand what I’m trying to … to …?”
His hand had fallen away from my arm and I don’t know what possessed me but I gave him a quick, hard hug. “Thanks for trying to understand. I can’t ask more than that. I just have to do what I have to do … for Daniel’s sake.”
He had a very strange look on his face and his arms were held out from his body all unnatural. I laughed a little self consciously. “Sorry. I guess I forgot that guys don’t do the hugging thing so much.”
“I … er … about the hugging … uh … thing. I …”
I shrugged and said, “It’s OK. I didn’t mean to … um … embarrass you and stuff.”
His face was kind of red so I turned to get the wagon so I wouldn’t embarrass him anymore. Instead he stopped me again and after looking around for Daniel he said, “The hugging thing … it wasn’t bad. I just … uh … don’t want you to think que voy a aprovecharme de usted … that I would ever take … advantage . Do you understand what I am saying Day-cee? It is a thing you worried about when I came here.”
After figuring out what he meant I blushed a little too. “Oh … well that … uh … see, I know you aren’t that kind of guy. I kinda knew it then but … you know … rules and stuff and ...” I closed my eyes and then just decided to heck with it. I shrugged, “I like hugging. We did it a lot in our family. You see how Daniel is. I know not everyone is like that. I didn’t mean to … um … I won’t bother you again.”
He shook his head. “Day-cee it is not that. My family was the same way. But … I don’t … that is … I am not your brother … your cousin … no male relative of any kind. It is not … not …”
Oh, I thought, so that’s what the problem was. “Abel, it’s OK. I’m not like going to jump on you or anything. For one thing I don’t have the foggiest idea how and for another … well … I want you to stay because you want to, not because I’m doing the girl blackmailing the guy thing. I’ve got more self respect than that. Besides, you may not be a blood relative but Daniel and I kinda voted you in when we asked you to stay … you’re one of us now, not one of them.”
It would have been funny if I wasn’t still embarrassed; he had this look like he’d been dropped on his head or something. I shrugged again and figured he’d either be ok with it or not but that I definitely didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. “Daniel!” I called. I picked up the wagon and we headed back to the sink. Abel eventually shook himself and caught up with us.
From that point forward Abel began to unbend more and more. Oh, he still did the guy thing about being bossy in the areas we had an unspoken agreement about and let me be bossy in the other areas. But, instead of standing in my way about things he started showing me how to do things. I was a good hunter, Dad had made certain of that, but I wasn’t as good as Abel and he started teaching me things that made hunting easier and less dangerous.
“The cerdo … the pigs … they are smarter than people give them credit for. The oso as well. But the pigs … they are as smart as some trained dogs. Never forget that. And they can be just as vicious, as you know.”
I thought I knew how to track prey but Abel was very, very good at it. I praised him for it but didn’t get the reaction I expected. “I had good teachers,” he said in a voice that didn’t invite me to ask questions.
I figured it was something he’d learned first as a Blue Hat but then I told him, “You might not like how you learned it Abel, but I’m glad you did. You had to learn it even better when you were out in them woods taking care of you and the old woman. It kept you alive so that you could come live with us.”
I’d say stuff like that sometimes to make him feel less hard on himself and he’d get this funny look on his face. I wasn’t lying. I knew he would eventually understand that maybe some man taught him those skills but that it was God that ultimately helped him decide how he was going to use them. I figured it was just easier if I pointed it out to him before he beat up on himself too much.
Christmas was fun. Daniel had me tell all the old family stories and he acted like it was the first time he’d ever heard some of them although I know he’d heard them a hundred times or more. He loved it and got so excited and happy he lost his words a couple of times. Abel told his own family stories. It didn’t take long that night for Daniel to crash and burn so I got him to bed but when I came back out I didn’t really feel like sleeping.
The fire was still burning pretty good in the fireplace and I needed to put Daniel’s presents under the tree. I pulled them out of the cabinet – I had finally finished making over an old coat to fit him and a new pair of moccasins – and put them under the little Charlie Brown tree we’d brought in to decorate.
From the darkened corner of the room Abel said, “Thank you Day-cee.”
I looked at him but couldn’t really see his face. The days were pretty short and we had to save the batteries for running the lamps in the rooms we needed them most in like the kitchen and for the water pumps and fans. “For what?”
“For this.” He came to sit beside me in front of the hearth and I was able to see him better. “It has been a long time … too long … since I remembered these things and why we celebrate them. I’d forgotten about … about forgiveness and peace until …”
He said quietly, “Until you reminded me. “
“Oh. That’s a … uh … good thing?”
He smiled and said, “Yes, a good thing.” Then he frowned and said, “I did not think to make presents for you or Daniel.”
Now it was my turn to smile. “Don’t sweat it. I only do presents for Daniel for his sake … and a little bit for mine too I guess. I couldn’t let the Blue Hats take everything away.” I saw him get a sad look on his face so I bumped him with my shoulder. “Not you, so don’t start getting all silly and stuff. I mean the ones … the real people … that did what they did the shooting. Then the ones at the camp.”
“We all started out … well most of us did … with good intentions in our hearts.”
“Dad used to say that the road to hell was paved with good intentions.”
Abel nodded. “You father was a smart man. I walked that road to hell for a long time and not only because I had good intentions.”
He was pensive and I hated to see the hurt in his eyes. “You know how you talked about remembering about forgiveness?” At his nod I said, “Maybe you should think about forgiving yourself. War is awful and Heart Rot is like nature’s war on the whole human race. War means pain for both the maker and defender. You just got caught up in it … I guess I did too.”
“I … I have heard you … dreaming. Is it … muy mal? Very bad?”
I was embarrassed that he’d heard me but then again I’d heard him have a few nightmares of his own. I shrugged, “It is what it is. Part of me feels bad about killing those men and part of me … doesn’t. Dad said sometimes you just have to kick stuff up to the man upstairs or it will drive you crazy. That’s what I try and do most of the time but it still … well … sticks around and tries to haunt me sometimes.”
“The … er … man upstairs?” When I pointed upward he nodded in understanding. “Abuelo would say much the same thing … or he would send us to Confession if he thought it would ease our minds. Abuelo was a good man but … but did not think that a priest could absolve men of their sins, only help them to seek the One that could.”
I smiled. “I think I would have liked your Abuelo. He sounds interesting.”
Abel finally gave a smile that showed his teeth and said, “I know Abuelo would have approved of you. Perhaps you are not like other girls I knew but you have sensatez … good sense.”
We said goodnight and we both went off to bed. Christmas Day was good as were the days between that and New Years Eve. They were crisp and cold but at the same time they were the kind of winter days that you can get a lot of work done in. We moved the last of the wood from the old home place and gathered a great deal of fallen branches – what Daniel called “tree trash” – from deep in the BLM. We left most of the litter around the sink so that it wouldn’t look too tidy or lived in.
But come New Years Day the weather took a bad turn … a really bad turn. It got so cold that we worried that the chickens wouldn’t make it. We stacked wood around their coop and brought in fresh grass to create more insulation. We did leave ventilation but when we would check on them they would get very upset that we were letting the cold air in so we did it as little as possible. The snow fell so thick that I was worried that the cables that crisscrossed the sink wouldn’t hold but all the vines that had grown across for so long acted as another layer of strength. It held up so well that we had to dig our way out every time we needed to go to ground level.
Eventually the snow did stop falling but it stayed so cold that the snow didn’t melt. That’s when Abel brought up a project he thought might be useful; an ice room.
“It seems to make no sense right now but in the summer it will be good to have ice and in the autumn there will be a place to store the meat that we cannot dry or can.”
Really impressed I kinda went all girl and gushed, “That’s a brilliant idea!”
I hugged him enthusiastically and he inhaled sharply like I had hurt him. I backed off and asked, “I didn’t squeeze that hard. Did I step on your foot or something?”
Abel’s head drooped for a moment but when he looked back up he was grinning. “No Day-cee.”
“Then what?” I asked both confused and a little irritated that he still jumped every time I gave him a hug.
I did because I thought he was going to show me what I had done but instead we sat down in the storage room where I had found him measuring things. “My aunts and cousins would throw me in the sea for the monstruos de projundo – the sea monsters – to eat if they knew I was about to be disrespectful.”
He leaned over and very gently kissed me. On the lips. And suddenly my brain felt like it had been taken out and then put back in backwards. “Day-cee. When you do this hugging you do, I forget to be careful. I forget that I am … I am supposed to protect you, not … not …”
Interrupting him I said, “Wow.”
He shook his head. “You should not say ‘wow.’ You should berate me and tell me I am taking advantage. That I have no business thinking the things I think.”
“Oh.” Curious despite being embarrassed at having the semi-obvious pointed out to me I asked, “Does it make you feel mad or sick to your stomach when I hug you? I mean … when you … uh … think … that stuff I think you mean you are thinking.”
It took him a moment to untangle my words and translate what I was asking. He smiled, “No. That is the problem Day-cee.”
“Oh.” Now I began to worry. “Does that mean that … that we can’t be friends? Or … I’m not even sure what … I mean …”
He grew thoughtful and said, “I will not hurt you.”
I rolled my eyes at the obvious. “I know that.” The look on his face was pretty funny but I didn’t laugh as it was serious stuff we were talking about. “I know … well … what I’m asking is … is it just the … the hugging that you like or is … is it me too … maybe some, or at least a little?”
I felt really stupid. I hadn’t admitted to myself that I liked Abel. I’d never had a boyfriend because I’d been so young when Heart Rot started to destroy my world but I’d done a lot of growing up since then. Maybe too much growing up in some ways. In other ways my experience didn’t match the pace my body had been maturing. But when he brought it up I wasn’t the type that could just let sleeping dogs lie.