The reason I had come outside suddenly seemed like it was far from a thing I should be bothering Abel with at the moment. Instead I asked him, “When was the last time you saw something fly that God didn’t hatch from an egg?”
Deep in thought he answered, “A long time.” He chewed on his lip and then got up briskly and said, “We need to know what is happening. Are you well enough to come with Daniel and I or will you stay here?”
Alarmed I said, “You are so not leaving me behind!”
He nodded. “Very good.”
In a matter of moments we were grabbing our gear and packing Daniel and Dog a pack. I included the sweater that I had pieced together for Dog just on the off chance that it got suddenly cold again. Dog wasn’t just a pet, she was so much more and we all did what we could to ensure she lived a long life. I had even sewn her booties but she objected strenuously to them no matter that I’d had the best of intentions. Daniel had laughed himself sick at the sight and claimed that Dog hated mittens as much as he did.
Perhaps I should have mentioned my suspicions to Abel but since I didn’t know for sure and since that was more than likely just going to complicate things too much I kept it to myself. I was wearing overalls anyway so the issue of tight clothing wouldn’t be obvious.
We didn’t stop and smell the roses – not that there were any to smell that time of year – nor did we stop for anything else either. After all three of us being sick most of the cold weather and not getting out to stretch our legs on long hikes, the trek up and over the pass to get to Amish Town was brutal. I wasn’t the only one heaving once we made it to the top. It was also still slushy and muddy up there so we had to slow down to keep from slipping on the increasingly unkept trail.
As we neared Amish Town we came in slow and steady which was a good thing because they had spotters with some kind of equipment. Despite all I’ve been through there was something intimidating about having a big, black gun held on you by a real live soldier … but they were our soldiers, or were once Josef vouched for us we were treated like visiting relatives.
I located Monica with a few other women and saw they were helping at a big tent. I took one look at her and went, “What did you do? Eat a watermelon?”
She tried to give me “the look” but all that came out was a really stressed out grin. “Funny. You need to take that act on the road.” She looked around and then asked, “Where’s your shadow?”
It took me a second to realize she was talking about Daniel. “With Abel.”
She made room for me next the pot that she was stirring and I saw that it was nearly all broth with what looked like real noodles in it. My mouth started watering. “We’ll feed the children first.”
I helped ladle broth into large mugs or bowls or whatever the children had with them. One of the women made Monica take a mug and sit down and I followed her over to the table. Finally I asked, “So what’s up?”
She surreptitiously looked around and said, “They came in and just landed in the middle of town. They knew what this place was, who lived here. Supposedly we are known as a ‘friendly community’ and now that the worst of winter is over with they are trying to see which ‘friendly’ survived, who needs assistance, that sort of thing.”
Suspicious I asked, “You sure this isn’t some Trojan Horse?”
She shrugged, “They brought food … of a sort anyway … and right now the children especially need it.”
Blanching, finally admitting what I’d been seeing ever since we’d come into town I whispered, “How bad has it been?”
With a calm acceptance I hadn’t expected she said, “We lost almost two dozen; mostly the very old and very young. None to starvation alone but the lack of proper nutrition started it. Some of the old folks went without just so the children would have something to eat or so the animals could be fed so that they’d be able to make it to spring when they could forage again. Josef … he’s … he’s been going without to make sure I eat … because of the baby. We didn’t count so well and …”
I smiled despite it all and said, “Momma always said you have to sleep in the bed to make … reckon you’ve been …”
I covered my mouth with my hand but she could still see my eyes crinkled up. Monica has apparently turned into a prude but my humor was infectious and she finally said, “Fine. Be that way. Maybe you’ll have to pay for playing pretty soon yourself.”
I was saved from responding by a female soldier approaching Monica and saying, “The base approved a convoy and they’ll be here midday tomorrow. Your husband said that you’d know the best place to set up to disburse the rations and store any set up a clinic.”
Monica got up and went off with the woman which left me looking around wondering what to do. The children … they didn’t act like children, more like tired lumps. They were all thin and scrawny with dark circles under their eyes and hollows where their cheeks used to be. Some of the adults looked worse. I had to stop people watching because it hurt.
I got up and left the area and went to find Abel and Daniel. Unluckily for me I found Daniel first and he assumed the worst. He was helping to move some boxes of military stuff – medical supplies from the look of them – and he nearly bit my head off. “Go away Dacey, I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Grouch. I was interested in what you were doing is all.”
I walked off feeling worse than I had in a while; a little lost and out of place. I found a stump behind one of the buildings and sat on it and before I knew it my head was bobbing as I tried not to doze off. Eventually I knew it was useless to fight it so I slid to the ground and leaned my head back for a few minutes.
I woke to a babble of irritated Spanish. “Abel,” I sighed. “If you’re going to fuss, at least slow down so that I can figure out what you are saying.”
That stopped him. He sat down beside me and said, “I could not find you.”
“I was right here.”
“Si Querida but I did not know that. Josef has opened his home to us for the night.”
I shrugged. “Better than sleeping outside.”
He grew concerned at my lack of concern. “Querida, what is wrong?”
To my total disgust I snuggled into his coat – my father’s old coat – and started sniffling like a two year old. “Daniel … he … he grouched at me.”
“Eh … Daniel is a grouch every morning.”
“No … no he was mad because he thought I was … was mothering him too much.”
After a pause Abel asked, “Daniel said that?”
“He told me to go away, that he didn’t need a babysitter. All I wanted was to see what he was doing … and he … he told me to go away. I wasn’t … smothering him. I went looking for both of you only I found Daniel first and …”
I didn’t want to talk anymore and thankfully Abel was more than willing to hold me and comfort me. He said, “I will talk to him. Growing up is one thing … hurting you while he does it is another.”
I sniffled my tears away and said, “No, don’t. He probably didn’t realize what he was saying and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
“Dacey, growing up for a man means taking … uh … responsibilidad. Even if he did no comprende his actions, to not point them out makes the danger of spoiling him. You will do the very thing he wished you not to … to baby him.”
After thinking about it I replied, “I guess. I just don’t …”
“… want to make a big deal of it. Si, I know. But sometimes deals must be made for things not to happen again. You are his Hermana …that will never change and he should show respect for all that you have done for him if he wishes to have respecto in return. Si? You understand?”
I guess I did. Then changing the subject I asked him, “Have you been able to figure out what is going on. I didn’t have time to talk much to Monica much and … and I …I guess after that I was more involved in coming out here to pout and feel sorry for myself.”
“Aw Querida … it truly upsets you what Daniel has said.”
I got another hug that felt good and told him, “No … well yes … but not the words just … I don’t know Abel, sometimes … lately anyway … it feels like I let him down this winter. I … look, we need to talk, but I guess this really isn’t the time to do it.”
“What? No, not it is fine. It is much to take in si, but I have the time for the talking. But let us sit down, my legs complain of the hike after not having travelled so much since we were all sick”
Since I was in generally the same condition I didn’t object. We picked a bench on the porch of an old store front where we watched as the soldiers interacted with some of the AT people. The elders weren’t much in evidence but Abel explained that to me first thing.
“What do you wish to talk about?” he asked.
Since that was a loaded question and I still needed to talk to Josef I instead told him, “I need to know what is going on. I feel … feel so out of touch. Every time I try and bring it up something else gets talked about in its place. I try and talk to Monica but it winds up being about her belly. I go in search of you and Daniel and I get sidetracked with hurt feelings. Let’s just cut to the chase so I can know.”
He looked at me and then understood. “Ah, cut to the chase I have heard … you mean no more delays.” At my nod he said, “The winter has been very hard here. Many of the ancianos – the elders – are weak or Josef is worried they will catch … er … the germs and he asks them to stay inside. There is a network here that helps no one get abandoned so everyone knows everyone else’s business. Somehow they have kept all who wished to eat fed … but there were some elders that gave up and drifted away. Some … some babies did not thrive either.” He stopped and I could see him battling himself for a moment before simply saying, “I will not let this happen to you. You will eat from now on properly. Si?”
I had been trying not to worry if I had done something to the baby by being sick but for a second it came roaring to life in my head. I quickly stuffed it back where it had jumped out of but it wasn’t easy and now that I knew it was there so I couldn’t play stupid. My love for Daniel didn’t mean I wanted to make one just like him … or one with any number of other problems. I felt guilty enough as it is.
“So … we saw the helicopter. We know how we felt when we saw it and can imagine if it landed near our home. The same was true here. But they were able to convince those here to let them speak with the community leaders and from there it went on to what you see now.”
“OK, but what have you learned? What is going on it the big, outside world?”
I watched him sort out and organize his thoughts – Abel’s face can be as expressive as his hands, and then he told me, “The Heart Rot, it still holds the world in its grip though scientists have found, as did we, that certain things are more immune to it than others. Edible fungi and ferns are being cultivated. Algae and seaweed are two other crops in high demand. Fish farms – as well as clams and oyster farms - are very important and I hear that several families here have survived on little more than what fish and other things they were able to put away from their farm ponds and local rivers and lakes. Edible weeds too are an attractive source of food for both humans and forage for livestock. The new crops have not saved everyone, many have already died and many will continue to die.”
Horrified I cried, “Then what’s the point?! Why are they here? To share the good news?”
He shook his head. “No, to try and preserve as many of the functional communities as they can so there is something to build from when the Heart Rot is over.”
Beginning to have doubts I asked, “And if it never goes away?”
“It has not gone away yet but that does not mean that it is not going away.”
Confused as I sometimes was by how he phrased things I asked, “Huh?”
“The scientist, they measure particles of it in the air … the density of it. The density has lessened over the last two years. Not enough that any area can be free of its grasp – they even found it at the north and south poles - but if the readings go down again this year then there will be hope. That is why the soldiers go around, first with their drones and then with personnel. They are …” He stopped looking for a good way to explain it but I thought I’d already figured it out.
“They are picking who lives and who dies by which communities they choose to help and which ones they turn away.”
Abel reluctantly agreed. “Si, that is one way to say it.”
“Well aren’t they all saintly.”
He gave a bitter grin. “I do not think they aspire to sainthood Dacey. They do not do this thing from the goodness of their heart but because if they do not do this thing they will not have a country to soldier for. Though much can be said against these people they see loyalty as a virtue and they have taken on as their mission the continuation of their country. That means that some people must survive. Perhaps it is not always fair who they choose to help and who they do not but then again Querida, I stopped believing in fair many years ago.”
I thought about what he’d said then asked, “So what are they doing? How are they picking these new friends they want?”
He shrugged. “I believe they are picking communities with the greatest number of components for survival already in place. This community has knowledge and a willingness to work. While they are non-violent there are enough in the community willing to protect the true pacifists. There are natural resources already in place that can and are being used. There are only two components that would of the greatest benefit and that is food and medical care. Josef is already training more people to help with the medical end as well as learning from the natural methods used within the community. The soldiers have said that their command post has agreed with a series of two donations for the community. Tomorrow they’ll bring in a load of bulk food and medicines. This will have to last until next spring when the soldiers will return and they will re-evaluate for another delivery.”
I noticed, as it always did, when Abel was speaking about technical or military stuff his grammar was way better and this time was no exception. I let it pass because if I brought his attention to it, his nervousness would get everything all turned around.
“Well,” I said. “That’s mighty nice of them. I just hope it doesn’t set this place up to be attacked by raiders or bandits or more of the same we just got rid of.”
Abel shook his head. “I said ‘some’ food Dacey, I didn’t not say much food. The greatest thing they bring is a small supply of Heart Rot resistant seeds that have been found.”
“What do you mean found?” I asked, confused again by the way he had phrased it.
“The scientists, they cannot genetically modify a resistance factor but they have found cross-breeding some … what they call semillas de la herencia … heirloom seeds … will germinate and produce in some environments. These seeds have been placed into the care of Grandfather Issac and the community has already voted to grow them for everyone’s benefit rather than on a family by family trial.”
I was pretty blown away. “Seeds? Like …” I stopped, looked around, then just made a face rather than use words that might be carried away on the wind.
“Si … like that.” Then he added, “But again, not many, and not enough to feed the whole community even if all of the plants survive. But, if all of their resources are combined, hopefully survival will follow.”
I had a million other questions to ask but one of the soldiers came up and asked Abel if he would come listen to something to see if he could understand what was being said – they don’t know he is a former peacekeeper, only see him as bilingual. I went in search of Monica
At that point I knew I couldn’t delay talking to Josef any more but I didn’t figure on getting caught again by Monica to help with the soup line. Seeing the children really tested my nerves. I wondered how much Daniel would have stood out from them if he hadn’t lost much of his healthy look over the winter. Then when Monica and one of the soldier medics started talking about her condition and that all of the pregnant and nursing mothers needed to pay particularly close attention to their diets I just about wanted to scream.
But what came during the community meeting after the children had been fed and carted off and while everyone else got a small meal – with our family contributing acorns and some dried meat to the thin stew – forced me to lock my jaw so that no sound could come out.
There’s a delegation that is leaving to parley with another community a couple of counties over to see if some kind of mutually beneficial agreement can be made. That community is at a lower elevation and on flatter land so there is hope that they will successfully grow corn or some other grain like sorghum. It was the trip so much that had me wanting to scream as the fact that Abel was going to go on it to help with security issues that were likely to come up.
After the meeting adjourned and we were tucked into a spare room on the back of Josef’s and Monica’s place Abel tried to approach me about it.
“Don’t. Don’t try and ask my opinion about it now. You’ve made up your mind and have done for a while now.”
We were whispering but it was still a fight. “Querida …”
“I said don’t and I meant it. You need to go so go … but don’t think I’m jumping up and down happy about it.”
A few more things were said back and forth and then Abel said, “I am not Jeff. This is not the same thing.”
I was so mad I sat straight up in the bed. “Don’t you lie to me Abel. Not after all this time. You know good and well it is just like it was with Jeff. He felt pulled to go too. He needed to go too. He felt it was his duty to go just like you do. So don’t tell me this isn’t like Jeff because it most certainly is. Jeff left and he didn’t come back …”
“I will come back Querida.”
I shook my head and felt the tears slide off my face onto the covers. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Lies and broken promises hurt more than just about anything else. If you go, be honest with me and yourself why you going. And you get to say I told you so only after you come back safe and sound. Last thing I want to do is to have to live with another permanent goodbye.”
I could have made him stay. Or at least I’m pretty sure I could have. All I would have had to do was tell him I had a baby baking in my oven. But I didn’t want to make him stay, I wanted him to stay because he wanted to. And if I couldn’t have that I wouldn’t use the other as blackmail.
We made up. I was too scared not to … to leave such a thing hanging in case the last time I said good bye to him was the last time I would ever get to say good bye. But even though we made up I … I don’t know … it was like a part of me already believed I’d never see him again after tomorrow. My body wouldn’t let me lay away worrying but my dreams were horrible and I woke in the morning more tired than I’d gone to bed.
Monica looked guilty whenever she looked at me. Josef wasn’t going. He had wanted to but the community voted him down. First there was Monica to think of and second, he was the communities only trained medical professional of sorts.
It happened too quickly; we were saying good bye and then they were just … just gone. A group of seven men and they were swallowed by the forest before I knew it. I turned to Daniel who was crying and asking why Daniel had to go and told him to pack his gear and say good bye, we needed to go home.
“But how will we get there Dacey? Abel is gone.”
“Same way we got places before Abel came along Daniel. I’ll get us there.”
He looked at me and I could see he wanted to be angry but the sorrow won out and he just hung his head and turned to go do as I asked. Abel had had a talk with him last night but who knew if it would have any affect.
Monica had gone off to tend to something or other and I went back inside to grab my pack. I heard slamming cabinet doors and drawers and followed the racket to the small study that Josef used as an office. I told him, “You’re gonna tear those things off if you aren’t careful.”
He was really mad and it was a moment before he could calm himself down but that was OK, I pretty much knew how he felt. He reached for a package on his desk and said, “It’s not much but here are some of the medical supplies for you to take with you.”
I nodded my thanks and then said, “You got a sec? I kinda need to ask you something.”
Since I had never come to him in quite that way he sat on the corner of his desk and waited. “How do you know if … if a woman is gonna have a baby?”
He jumped like I’d poked him with a sharp stick and then got all professional. I added, “I mean besides the obvious.” I sighed and explained things in a little more detail at his request.
“I take it that Abel doesn’t suspect?”
“No. I was gonna tell him and then the helicopter thing happened. Then I was gonna tell him last night only this other got in the way. I should have told him I know so I don’t need any lectures but I just couldn’t.”
He drew the blinds and then shut his office door. He had me lay down on the table he used for such things and said, “I can feel your uterus easily so by this you are about sixteen weeks along, but standing up I’d never guess it.”
I sat up and pulled myself together while he went over to a cabinet and pulled out a big bottle of pills. He said to me, “This are vitamins. Take them. Even if you don’t think you can get it down, take one each day. It’s important Dacey. You’ve already had some nutritional interruptions in the first trimester.”
“That’s bad isn’t it.”
He shrugged. “I can lie to you or tell you the truth.”
Without hesitation I said, “Truth.”
“That’s what I thought.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The most common side effect of poor nutrition is low birth weight but that comes with a whole slew of dangers of its own. ig bottle of pills. He said to me, “This are vitamins. Take them. Even if you don’t think you can get it down, take one each day. It’s important Dacey. You’ve already had some nutritional interruptions in the first trimester.”
“That’s bad isn’t it.”
He shrugged. “I can lie to you or tell you the truth.”
Without hesitation I said, “Truth.”
“That’s what I thought.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The most common side effect of poor nutrition is low birth weight but that comes with a whole slew of dangers of its own. Depending on what your nutrition was like at time of conception also plays into it … did your body have the reserves to build the baby right. We won’t know the answers to any of that until after he or she is born. But from here on out you need to be as careful as you can be … for the baby and for yourself which is the same thing at this point. You need to be able to not just grow a baby in your body but be able to withstand the stress of childbirth itself. I lend you a book …”
“That’s OK, have a couple, I just have to dig them out.”
“Perhaps you and Abel should stay with Monica and I …”
“No.” There was no hesitation in my mind on that point. “We need to get home. There are things to do and I can’t get them done if we’re here.”
Thank goodness that Josef was man enough to accept my determination. “Do you want this kept quiet? Do you want to tell Monica?”
Again my determination was complete. “No, there’s no sense in it. Monica’s got her own problems and it is no one else’s business.”
“What about Daniel?”
“I’ll explain it when I need to.”
“All right but remember what I said … and the two of you are always welcome if you change your mind.”
I nodded but we both knew I wouldn’t. In my own way I could be as stubborn as Daniel.