“You are obstinado Querida,” Abel said. He was smiling but I could tell he was losing patience with me too.
“I might be stubborn but I’m right and you know it. Momma always said make hay while the sun shines.”
“Your madre was undoubtedly a wise woman but I have doubt that she meant her words to be used in quite the way you are using them.”
I “had doubt” about that as well but I wasn’t about to admit that to Abel. My leg was thumping something awful but it wasn’t going to stop thumping if I sat down. It was swollen beneath my pants leg and I had claimed modesty to keep Abel from getting a good look at it. Besides, once I did sit I didn’t think I’d be getting up until we were ready to go home.
“I want to bring back plenty of this wild ginger. I need it for cooking and if I get it replanted now it might fill in some bare patches that are forming in the shady spots under the trees around the sink. I might even try a few pieces actually planted down in the sink on that place where the grass was washed away from the winter run off. It doesn’t need flowers to propagate itself although it can. It’s one of those ground covers that doesn’t spread too fast so sometimes you need to help it along a little.”
Grabbing another clump of things I had gathered I said, “And I want to plant these bracken as well though maybe not in the sink itself. It’s too late for many fiddleheads but we’ll eat what I’ve found for dinner; the rest of these are coming with us. They propagate by spreading underground too. No flower or seeds to worry about Heart Rot destroying. They’ve got these little spore things on them but they usually spread by stems and roots so I hope they are Heart Rot resistant. Even if the spores are sterile the roots should still be OK. I hope.”
Abel gave in with more grace than I would have and asked with a grin, “And what of the dan-dee-lee-ons that Daniel has been asking for?”
I laughed as he’d meant me to; sometimes he mispronounced things on purpose. “Dandelions and you know it. You like them too, just maybe not quite as much as Daniel does. We’ll have a small salad of them with the fiddleheads, I think I have just enough oil and vinegar to make a dressing and those blackbirds you caught with that fishing net will be our meat. I’ll make a meat pasty … a blackbird empanada … fit for a king. Will that be enough for you and Daniel?”
His good humor disappeared. “You have no hunger again?”
I shrugged like it didn’t matter. “I just have things on my mind.”
“And one of them is your pain.” Unexpectedly he said, “Enough of this. It is time for you to sit.”
I was crankier than even I expected and snapped, “Who made you the boss of me?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I caught my breath. “Oh Abel … I … I didn’t mean … I’m sorry.”
Lucky for me Abel is an understanding sort or maybe it was that his female cousins had been the gargoyles he sometimes made them sound like because he acted like I hadn’t said anything unexpected or wrong. “Hush Querida, you are just tired and sore. Come. Sit down. It will soon be time to hide from the pequeños vampiros anyway.”
I grabbed my pack and asked Daniel who’d been watching me warily if he could please bring the things I had been putting in it to me so that I could finish. I emphasized the please and while he did it he escaped back over to Abel for what little remained of the afternoon. I had been right about one thing; once I sat I didn’t want to get up again.
In addition to the bracken and the wild ginger, I carefully packed in a good sized layer of prickly pear pads that Abel had already removed the thorns from except for the ones that I intended on transplanting to a dry area of the forest. I had no idea if they would survive but I thought it was worth a try.
I had picked a bunch of mushrooms and also bagged up a bunch of rotting mushrooms to bring back for their spores. Heart Rot didn’t seem to affect fungus very much, maybe because it was a kind of fungus itself. It wouldn’t be very nutritious to live on mushrooms alone but they’d add a lot of variety to people’s diets if they could just learn which ones to eat and which ones to steer clear of. I needed to learn to get the mushrooms to grow where I wanted them to. Momma had always just picked wild ones or bought them at the farmer’s market.
The only thing that I was really doubtful about was the Japanese knotweed that I was bringing back. Daniel’s pack was full of the young shoots and I had no idea how it had gotten where it was growing; maybe a bird dropped it or something. It was an invasive plant species, non-native to the area, and bad for local ecosystems but it was practically indestructible. Most people hated the stuff because it was as bad as bamboo for running all over the place but Momma had taught me that, prepared right, it tastes a bit like rhubarb when you use it in pies and that sort of thing but can also be cooked like a vegetable had a kind of sweet and sour bite to it like pickled beans. It also propagates so easily that just a very small piece of a root or cutting can start a whole new stand. I planned on transplanting some of the knotweed, but it would be well away from the farm. There was a really nasty creek a couple of farms away that had steep banks. I decided that would be the best place for the transplant experiment. The reason why the creek was nasty was because it flowed through an old, ill-kept dairy. It used to make Dad so angry because that creek met up with the one that flowed through one corner of our land.
“You can tell how much manure is in that water by how well the grasses and stuff around there grow. In places that creek is pure manure tea. And if I don’t keep the grass from clogging up the creek it backs up onto our land and …”
He’d complain and fuss and then go over and talk to the people on that side of things but no one would really do anything so Dad was stuck doing what he could. He wouldn’t let me help keep the grass out because he was afraid of what might be in the water. He said e. coli would have been the least of our worries since he didn’t know what kind of stuff they were feeding the cows on that farm. The local vets had tried to have it shut down at least twice that I knew of but without success. All the cows were gone now and the water wasn’t as bad as it used to be … but it still wasn’t great. I was pretty sure that the knotweed would really take off if it was going to do anything and at least it was edible whereas what was growing there now … mostly Johnson grass and the like … was not.
Dinner was over and Daniel was winding down and three-quarters asleep from having a full belly after a long day. Dog was sniffing around at all the new smells but kept an eye on us. She wasn’t exactly jumpy but she’d get all stiff legged for a moment and sniff the air before going back to her investigating. Abel sat with two rifles close at hand … the one I carried which was mainly for long range shooting and the bigger one he carried for power … while he went through all that he’d taken from the Blue Hats the day before. I had my bow close at hand as Dog’s behavior gave me the itches between my shoulder blades.
“Hmm?” he grunted as he checked the edges of several small knives.
“You never really answered me. Do you miss … I don’t know … miss the purpose or whatever of what you used to do? Are … are Daniel and I holding you back from doing something you want to do?”
He didn’t answer me right away but took out his sharpening stone and started to put a better edge on each of the knives. He said slowly, “I have a different purpose now Day-cee. You and Daniel are my purpose. With this I am satisfied.”
“That’s only half an answer.”
Still drawing the blades smoothly along the stone he said, “Are you still worried that I will leave you, like Jeff?”
“No, not anymore. You aren’t Jeff. For one thing you have way more patience than he ever did. Jeff wasn’t anything like a hothead but compared to you he was a flaming volcano. You’re what Momma used to call the kind of person that measures everything twice before you start cutting. Dad was like that too … cautious, careful. But I didn’t ask you what you intended to do. I asked you if you missed the other.”
He turned to look at me and I saw the twisted smile that told me my suspicions were correct. “Sometimes you are too smart for a young girl to be. Querida, I will not leave you and Daniel. I will not, not unless Dios Himself calls me for Judgment. But …”
“Sometimes I still yearn to make the vengeance on those that do bad things. Not just for the bad things they do now but because I know they bring danger to us if they are not stopped.”
Continuing to worry at it I told him, “Dad said if you are seeking revenge you might as well dig two graves … one for your enemy and one for yourself.”
Abel nodded. “Si, it is an old saying that my Abuelo knew as well. Not all of the men in my family believed his words. More than a few were buried in the church yard on the hill before I was even born. Fighting is something that runs deep in my family … but winning does not always follow it. You saw me nearly in my grave for seeking my revenge when you rescued me.”
I shrugged, dislodging a mosquito that had been trying to dine on me through the worn cotton of one of my mother’s old work shirts. “I still say God put me there on purpose. It seems to me that God didn’t want you to die right there because He sure did make it easy for me to bring down a mountain.”
We both smiled at the memory of the mess I had made. “Si … and I suppose I must believe that. But you asked and I promised you I would not lie. If I knew that I could act against the tyrant Hakim without bringing harm to you and Daniel I would not hesitate. Meeting your Jackson made me itch to fight once again.”
“I noticed … and I told you, he’s not ‘my’ Jackson. He was never ‘my’ anything … certainly never my friend and I don’t think he’s any closer to being that now, maybe even less.” After thinking I asked, “I wasn’t paying enough attention, did it look like any of them could track?”
He nodded, “One or two. That is why I disappeared us the way I did.”
“And why we went in circles for a while? To throw them off just in case they decided to try and follow us?”
“Si … yes. We must remind Daniel not to drag his feet so much. I had to cover too many places on our trail. It slowed us down and you had to walk more than you should have.”
“Next time we’ll make him cover his own trail, that’ll teach him. Mostly I think he is just tired. We used to get more exercise; we would walk long distances all the time. But not since the snow has completely melted. I don’t know about you but I was puffing a little when we first started out too. And he’s growing again. I can tell because his pants are getting short.”
“Hmmm, I noticed. He will be as tall as you soon.”
I gave him a look. “Are you calling me short?”
He put away the sharpening stone and knives and scooted back to where I was sitting and then put his arm around me. “I am calling you just right. If you were an Amazonica on top of everything else I would run away with much fright.”
Sometimes Abel could be such fun. “You are being silly on purpose.”
“Si. I am.”
Then I had a thought. “Are you trying to distract me from asking about …”
He looked me full in the face and admitted, “Si. I am.”
“Does it bother you that I want … need … to understand?”
He thought and said, “No, not your need to understand … it is my need for you to understand, that bothers me. That life is behind me. I do not know why I miss it when it nearly killed me, made me feel muy mal.”
“Then maybe it isn’t the life you miss so much as … as accomplishing something big. Daniel and I … the world we live in … is pretty small compared to what you were involved in.”
He shook his head in denial. “You and Daniel are much bigger … more importante … than what I was before. Before all I thought of was serving death … now I think of serving life.”
He was serious but he was also being a little silly, treating me like I was fragile and trying to do it so I wouldn’t notice. “You’re sweet when you go all protective like this but I’ve learned a few things about guys.” When his eyebrows went up into his hairline and then slammed down into a scowl I said, “Not those kinds of things. I mean that guys are different from girls in more than just their bodies. For guys to be truly happy they need to have some kind of mission in their life.”
“You and Daniel are my mission.”
I patted his cheek like I was someone’s Granny and told him, “Like I said, you’re sweet. Look, there’s nothing wrong with it … maybe it is the only thing a guy can do to be truly happy. I’ll use Jeff as an example. He really wasn’t happy because the mission he had set for himself stayed just out of reach. Maybe he was fulfilling his place that God had set for him but I don’t know if he ever realized it. If what Jackson said was true he didn’t worry that he’d really abandoned Daniel and I … but that we would perceive what he did as him abandoning us. He still thought he’d done the right thing by getting involved in this mess the way he was. He continued to try and come up with ways to fight until he didn’t have any fight left in him.”
Abel was quiet, listening to me … not just my words, which he had to do in order to translate them fast enough to keep up but to how I put the words together and what I was saying with them. “There’s different missions for different people. Teachers have a mission. Doctors and nurses have a mission. Preachers have a mission. There are all sorts of missions in life, sometimes we get to pick our missions and sometimes they pick us. Even my Dad had a mission.” At Abel’s questioning look I explained, “Most people to look at him would never think that Dad was on a mission. He was a homebody; we did everything together as a family. He didn’t do a lot of the typical guy things like coach or get gaga over sports or hang out at the bars or anything like that. People considered him real laid back, maybe even gentle because of the way he handled Daniel and his school mates. To Dad, his family was everything to him … on the outside. On the inside too but he also had his mission. What do you think the cave was all about? All those lessons he taught me? All that sneaky stuff he used to do to protect our privacy? Momma used to complain that I was his partner in crime. We weren’t doing anything wrong, it was just something Momma couldn’t completely wrap her head around. The food yes, the solar energy yes though that was kinda pushing the envelope for her … she didn’t know about everything Dad taught me or she would have freaked a little bit. She already complained about me being such a tomboy …”
He interrupted with, “What is this tomboy?”
“I … uh … I wasn’t a girly-girl.” He was still confused. “I liked to do stuff that most people think only boys do … hunt, fish, camp, throw knives, drive the tractor, help with the hay, that sort of thing. I wasn’t really interested in makeup and doing fancy things with my hair, I thought all of that was too silly for words and a big waste of time. My mother’s sister used to complain that I was the most irritatingly practical child she had ever met. I knew things like how to change a tire before I could see over the dash board to drive. At eleven I could fix my mother’s car well enough to get us home to Dad when most of the adult men at the church just kinda stood around thinking about calling a tow truck.”
“This makes no sense. You cook. You sew. You take care of Daniel as if he was your child. That is … er … girl stuff. Why would your parents argue about such a thing?”
I smiled like he’d just made my day. “You’re wonderful smart for a guy.” He snorted at my own silliness. “And my parents didn’t argue exactly. Momma and Dad worked it out so they wouldn’t fight about it. She didn’t complain about him teaching me things he would have taught Daniel if … if Daniel had been a little different … so long as I also learned to do the things she thought girls should know how to do and did them with a good attitude … including wearing dresses when she said I had to. And Dad wouldn’t complain about her keeping Daniel tied to her apron strings so long as he minded and still helped out with the chores around the farm without a fuss.”
“And was that your padre’s mission?”
I shook my head. “No. I was just part of it. I was soldier to his general. He believed that something would eventually come that would be dangerous to us. His mission was to prepare for that … and he took his mission very seriously. He was only truly happy when he was working on this mission. It wasn’t just about our family, he wanted to get other people prepared too … he just never found a way to convince the ones that didn’t want to be convinced. He used to help people on the computer all the time though. I’m just sorry he never got to see how well he accomplished it.”
“Poor Querida. Your father, he does see. Dios would not set him such a mission and not let him see that he fulfilled it. He watches from Los Cielos above.”
I sighed and relaxed. Abel and I fit, or at least he fit me. I wanted to fit him too. “Abel, what is your mission in life? Is there anything I can do to help?”
He sighed deep and long. “I do not know. I used to think I knew exactly what I wanted from life … I was going to university and I was going to learn ways to help my Abuelo and my family make more money from the farm so they wouldn’t have to work so hard. Then that was taken from me. Then I thought my mission was to help the world by teaching this America how to share better so that we would all survive the Heart Rot. Then I found that was a false mission, that I was working for El Diablo. Then I thought my mission was to fight and kill as many of El Diablo’s minions as I could take with me on the way to my own death. But I no longer wish to die. For now, all I see is you … and Daniel.”
“But part of you isn’t satisfied with just that anymore is it?”
He gave another expressive sigh. “Part of me does want some of my old life but … but not at the expense of my new one Querida. I will not drag you and Daniel into that world. Hakim, he was not mad when last I saw him but he was on the way. Whether he is mad now I do not know and do not care; he is dangerous, very dangerous, either way. If you do not believe as he does you are worth nothing to him. If you do something to make him notice that you do not believe as he does he … he likes to make Examples of people Day-cee. He enjoys watching the pain; it feeds him even better than food does. His women never lasted very long … they either ran away, or they disappeared. I’ve seen him cut a man apart and eat his liver.”
“He’s … he’s a … a man-eater? I mean a cannibal? No one said that.”
“No … that was in the heat of the moment and was more sym … symbolic is the word. Yes? It was to bring fear more than to give his body food. But … here’s a thing I thought but dared not say, even then. Hakim could have destroyed the can-ni-bals. He had the manpower. He could have stopped it early and executed anyone that did such things. He never has.”
“Nunca … never. I think he uses the sick ones as a … a … bad dream; as another way to control the people. Do you see it?”
I made a disgusted face. “All too well. That must be why they stay around the town and we haven’t seen any out our way.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Judiciously he said, “I never found real proof for my thoughts. He simply did not do a thing to stop what he could have stopped.”
Suddenly I sat up and made my leg pinged badly for a moment. When I had it under control I asked Abel, “With so many people moving through the farm lands, will it bring the sick-o’s?”
He nodded, “Si, I have thought just that. But the can-ni-bals, they are not very strong. They truly do become sick after only a short time … a couple of weeks of living off of …” We both chose not to say it aloud. “It is unnatural and our souls know this first, and then our bodies know it. Our minds know this last but by then it is too late, we are too sick to care in body or in spirit.”
“Don’t say ‘we’ Abel. That’s just nasty. But now I’m worried about Daniel. I’ve heard what they say on the radio as well as you. And I remember what you told me when you first came. He’d be a prime target.”
Darkly Abel said, “You both would for different reasons. As … er … disgusting as you found the idea that those men would want you, they were polite about it compared to what you could face from some other group. You are young, fresh … beautiful. And you have useful talents. The smart ones will think of preserving the talents and not hurting you very much. But there are too many other types in this world. You must promise me that you will not give into temptation to help strangers.”
Outraged I asked, “Do I look like a soft touch to you?!”
“You helped me and did not care that I could be a danger to you.”
I shook my head. “Says you. If you only knew you might be surprised. Besides there was just something about you that I knew was different. I can’t tell you how I knew but I did. It was like recognizing a kindred spirit or something.”
That time he kissed me. “You should not say such words. You make me think of things it would be better if I didn’t.” He sat up straighter and put a little distance back between us and then got serious again. “I have seen them use children, old people, women that look helpless. It is a trap. They leave the crying child alone and then when someone comes to investigate, they ambush them. They trick people Day-cee … do not let them trick you. Always think before you try to help … or set your heart not try to help at all. Do not leave Daniel … or me … alone to face this world without you.”
The sun had gone down and the bugs had come out so we crawled into our protected sleeping space. Abel lay down on the other side of Daniel and Dog lay on the other side of me; we were sandwiched between our two Champions.
The nights were still chilly as high us as we were but I was more concerned about the damp. I made sure Daniel wouldn’t kick off his covers – at least not too many times – made sure he had his socks on, and then drifted off to sleep.