Back in the old days, people used to talk with surprise and respect about a woman who worked right up until the baby was born, often in the same breath with talking about ‘primitive’ native women who gave birth right in the field and went back to work. That latter might be an urban myth, but sometimes, you don’t really have a choice. Work needs to be done. Sometimes your survival depends on it. I don’t know what I’d have done about that if I’d had medical complications or even swollen feet, but I was actually healthy as a horse once the nausea went away. I just got bigger and bigger, dealt with the sore lower back, slept badly like most people, tried to comfort the Incredible Velcro Kid, and waited. When my pelvis went wobbly, I gave up trying to go up and down the steps from the house and thereafter limited myself to such domestic tasks as hand-sewing new diapers from some of the towels Faustus had brought back.
They used to say you never forget your births, but I’ve blocked most of the experience from my mind. Mostly, I remember pain, fear, and a sense of impending doom. I remember hearing the sound of my own voice grown hoarse from cries that sent Bobby into hysterics until Kurt—who didn’t really want to be in the hot bedroom where I was laboring naked, not that I could have cared less by that point—took the boy out and entertained him, out of earshot of the house. I remember the relief—the unburdening, if you will—as the baby was finally born, and how I was too exhausted to even feel relieved. It seemed so unfair. Wanda was smaller than I, and more slight.
Faustus cleaned the baby up and held it up for me to see. The little face was squashed, smeared, wrinkled—and human. Human, like his and mine. Human, not like Bobby’s. I’d have cried if I had anything left in me. I didn’t. I just looked at it. He put it on my chest, where it began to crawl by instinct toward one of my breasts.
“It’s a girl,” he said. “Tanya, we have a girl.”
I remember saying, “Oh,” and then passing out, or falling asleep, or something.
She was healthy, and she ate well. I made enough milk to feed a small village. That was the good news.
The bad news came a few days later, as the ewes began to drop their lambs. It never rains but it pours, eh? I remember thinking that at least we’d have a ewe to milk if we had to, for Bobby. At one point in the afternoon, I woke from the sort of exhausted sleep one can only appreciate if one hasn’t had more than half an hour of sleep at a time for several days, to the most awful screaming, incoherent and raw. It was Sheila’s voice, and it brought me up out of bed.
You don’t want to know the details, but you have to know anyway, to understand. The dingoes, drawn by lambs—No, I’ll just come to the point. The dingoes had grabbed Bobby right out of the dooryard, and there was no way in this life or any other we were going to get him back. Sheila had seen everything, and she couldn’t deal with it. She cried for the rest of the day, and then she made a one-time appointment with a piece of rope and a rafter. I couldn’t really blame her. Everyone has a breaking point. If I hadn’t had the baby to care for—but my mind won’t go there.
The pain snowballed, growing out of control and taking over. Within a day, Kurt and Faustus were arguing worse than they ever had, even in the beginning. The day after the two of them worked together to bury Sheila, they had a fight. I couldn’t help, because I was still not feeling up to doing much, so I didn’t see it. I only heard shouting outside that escalated, and then it stopped. After that, I heard nothing. I thought they’d worked it out. I thought they were just venting the awful grief and tension the only way they could. I wasn’t worried until they didn’t come in for lunch, and they didn’t respond to me calling them in to eat. I went out to see out what was going on. The silence terrified me.
I found Faustus near the door of his workshop, crumpled and unnaturally still. Flies buzzed. Boomer lay near him, his head resting on his paws, worry flattening his ears. Kurt was nowhere to be seen, vanished into the bush or on his way to town.
I knew before I touched Faustus that he was gone, and I was alone. I found the strength to pull him into the workshop, laid him out as neatly as his stiffening limbs would allow, kissed him, and thanked him for everything. I told him I loved him. I wish he’d been there to hear me say it. I’m not sure I’d ever said it aloud like that before. I didn’t cry. I was too numb.
I took tools from the shop that looked useful. I emptied the house of portable dry goods. I put water into containers. I fed and changed the baby, making a bed for her in the cart. I harnessed the wethers and hitched them up, and I turned the rest of the sheep loose, tying the gates back so they couldn’t trap an animal in by accident. I tied open the door to the hay storage, too. And then I lit the shop and house on fire. There would be no turning back, and nothing for Kurt and the men of town to find if they came back here, looking for me and my daughter.
I wasn’t entirely alone—Bitsy and Boomer trotted at my heels, and the baby slept peacefully, oblivious to the world and the odds against her, in her soft-padded bed in the cart—but I felt like the last person on the continent. I wasn’t worried about radiation or toxins anymore. I had bigger problems, more immediate ones—like staying alive, staying away from towns and the monsters who lived there—and staying human.
I walked into the badlands.
If you’ve never heard of ‘weighted blankets’, you may still be familiar with the idea of the cattle ‘crush’, or even the ThunderShirt(tm) for dogs and cats – the idea is that deep pressure calms the nervous system. Some people, for this reason, like sleeping under a huge weight of blankets, but that can get awfully warm, especially in summer.
Enter: the weighted blanket. You can buy them on eBay and Etsy; you can make one yourself with a little bit of planning. Ten pounds of poly pellets (never use anything else) will cost about $22-25 online, including shipping. If you want less, a local fabric store may carry 2 lb bags, but I don’t know the price, and it might cost as much as buying bulk.
I made myself one of these after watching the movie ‘Temple Grandin’. I’ve been having a wretched time sleeping. Melatonin helps a little; so do OTC pills. I wanted to try something less pharmaceutical in nature.
I went to a thrift store, bought a toddler-sized blanket made of 2 layers of fleece (unquilted), opened up one short end, and stitched channels, end to end. Then I filled the channels with poly pellets and sewed it shut again. 10 lbs is *heavy*. My kids love to lie down with the blanket on top (they actually fought over it, at the beginning!). I slept better the first night I used it than I’ve slept in months.
If you don’t like the idea of using a pre-owned blanket, you can make your own using any fabric you like. I recommend making the channels 2″ wide. If you’re making this for a child, the rule of thumb is 1/10 of the child’s body weight, plus 1 lb. You may have to cross-quilt the channels to hold the pellets evenly in place (making squares) for a lighter blanket. I found that 10 lbs entirely filled up the channels on the blanket I made for myself, so I didn’t have to cross-quilt. Be careful and go slowly when sewing the end closed, or cross-stitching: If you hit a poly pellet with your needle, the needle will snap right off.
For filling the channels with pellets, I find a funnel designed for putting oil in a car, put together with the hard plastic tube from a fishtank siphon cleaner, works extremely well and quickly, without losing a zillion tiny pellets all over the floor. (I bought the fish tank siphon used, too).
I’m now making another blanket for a friend’s small child, and one for my brother-in-law. It’s recycling, sort of.
Never get between a pregnant woman and food. That’s pretty good advice. If you don’t know any pregnant women, then just take my word for it. In my case, it wasn’t merely ‘food’ I wanted, but protein. I craved protein. I suppose that makes sense, since I was building a whole new person. Back when I’d been waltzing my Matilda all over the outback alone, I’d often been hungry. Sometimes I hadn’t eaten anything significant for days. I thought I’d known what hunger was like. I’d had no idea.
We still had the problem of no refrigeration, and honestly, mutton doesn’t make very good jerky. I’ve never learned to like mutton fat, no matter how much I crave the calories. So, that meant that despite having a continent full of sheep, we didn’t eat them. Kurt became especially adept at hunting small things like lizards. He trapped feral cats and even live-trapped rabbits with the intention of establishing a warren near the house. That last didn’t work, and we wound up eating the rabbits instead, because the last thing you really want near your nascent attempts at farming is competition for the plant-based food you want to eat—and while we could have fenced the rabbits in, all of us preferred making sure the chickens were suitably fenced, especially Alarm Clock.
Oh, and we had eggs! We only had four hens, so we couldn’t have a lot of eggs, and the moment one of them went broody we made sure she got as many eggs under her as she could cover, but for a while it seemed like sure unadulterated heaven. Scrambled eggs, light and fluffy and perfect. And full of protein too, I might add. Faustus gave up his daily egg to me, when one was available. I didn’t feel the least bit guilty eating it.
Now we have to skip a few more months while I went from ‘puking my guts up’ to ‘walking human house’. On the animal front: the hens produced several clutches of chicks; we picked a couple of young cockerels to replace Alarm Clock at the earliest opportunity, and we ate the rest as soon as they began trying to crow—oh bliss! Whole roasted chicken! Bitsy settled in and became a house dog, sleeping with Bobby and shadowing whoever was inside at any given moment in time.
Bobby became Velcro Boy, jealous of the attention my belly was getting. He could talk more, now, though his diction was a bit unclear. We couldn’t decide whether this was because he was a toddler, or because his face and mouth weren’t, uh, standard issue. It was very hard for three people who never had kids back before all the bad stuff happened, and who never really hung around with them, to know what was normal for a baby—even one who looked like an ordinary kid, but at least we could usually understand him. If he couldn’t say a word clearly, he could always point and grunt. It worked.
Before the baby was born, Faustus went on another shopping trip. He took Boomer with him for companionship and protection, leaving Kurt to watch over the house. He said it made him feel safer, since bad things had happened the last time he’d gone away. It made me feel safer, too. Faustus took the sheep-cart with him, and when he returned, it was packed to the bursting point with more hens, a bunch of new towels and bedding, kid-sized clothing, dry foodstuffs, and seeds scrounged from somebody’s garden shed. The packets were several years old, but we didn’t need all of them to grow. If even a few grew—and if we could protect them from marauding sheep, roos, escaped chickens, and other vegetarians, that would be good enough. We’d save seed.
He also brought books—a Reader’s Digest home health hardback, an Illustrated and Annotated Encyclopaedic Grey’s Anatomy, a pile of cowboy westerns and tawdry romances, and a ‘how to fix absolutely everything’ type of spiral-bound book. There were also a handful of kids’ books that looked like I was not going to enjoy reading them a gazillion times, based on the saccharine nature of the huge-eyed anthropomorphic animal characters on the covers. Yeesh. Why not just make stories about clowns in outlandish, ridiculous clothing and giant honking noses, so far removed from Commedia dell’Arte and even the early hobo-themed clowns that you wouldn’t know they were related or why they’re supposed to be funny? No, I’m not afraid of clowns—although even if I were, there aren’t any anymore, so I win—but really? Polka dot pants? I really wasn’t looking forward to reading about the Brumbly Wumblies and their Rumbly Tumblies. Maybe we could teach the kids to read using the Grey’s. At least they’d have good vocabularies.
So yeah, we had books, and new options in food, and it wasn’t going to be long before the baby was born. The bigger and more ungainly I got, and the less I was able to sleep at night, the more I looked forward to just getting it over with already. I knew it was going to hurt, with no option of gas, epidural, or so much a good solid belt of booze, but it was only pain. I’d felt pain before. Pain wouldn’t kill me. That’s what I kept telling myself. That’s what Faustus whispered in my ear at night with his arm draped across my belly, feeling the sporadic kicks from the outside as I felt them from the inside, reminding me that I was strong, capable, courageous. That’s what I clung to, because my three birth attendants were working from a Reader’s Digest health book, which was more than we’d had when Bobby was born, and yet it didn’t seem like nearly enough.
I lost a lot of weight. I suppose if there’d been a hospital to go to, I’d have been admitted, hooked up to a PIC line and fed nutrients and fluid directly into my heart. I’d have welcomed it, if you can believe that. Well, never mind, after the fourth month the nausea finally began to ease off, and I began to feel human again—in the metaphorical way, I mean. We’ve already determined that I don’t think much of humans, even though now that I know what we can devolve into given a little nudge, I do at least like humans better than the alternative.
One day, when I was up and around again, Sheila came up to me and asked the question I hadn’t wanted to think about; from which my mind had continually shied like a sheep from a fluttering bit of fabric on a fence:
“Who is the father?”
“Faustus,” I said. I sounded defensive. I could hear myself; I’m not deaf.
“But how do you know? I mean—”
“He didn’t have a chance. The teeth got him on the first—”
Her lips pursed. “You know more about biology than that.”
“Faustus is the father because I want him to be. Even if he’s not. He’s the one who’s here. He’s the one who loves me, and he’s going to love this baby.”
She eased backward away from me, cautiously. People do that when you try to bite their heads off. “Sorry. I’m sorry, Tanya. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“I have a lot of work to do,” I said, which was not exactly an apology-accepted sort of reply. I walked away, and she was smart enough not to follow. Putting some oatcakes in my pockets, I caught the wethers and harnessed them. We were out of leather, so some of their harness now was made from old tires. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Desperation is the mother of invention. I think I’ve said that before. At least old tires are sturdy, strong, and unlikely to perish from heat. What the rubber did to the wethers’ wool was unforgivable, but we weren’t using the wool for anything useful anyway.
They were ready to pull a cart by that time, and between Faustus and Kurt—what with all the time they’d had to work together during the monsoons—a new cart existed. I led them to it, pulled the tongue forward, and hooked them up. It was empty. I’d have preferred if it were loaded down with about fifty kilos of something expendable, in case they went ballistic and took off.
To my surprise, they led quietly, like a dream. Maybe the gods had decided to smile on me for a moment. On a whim, I put the water buckets into the cart and led them, bumping and jostling, out to the little spring. We didn’t need water after the monsoons, but that wasn’t the point. Doing something useful was.
Something brown huddled miserably on the ground near the water cache. My first thought was ‘wild rabbit,’ followed immediately by ‘is it even alive?’ but as the cart drew near, the creature lifted its head, laid back its ears, and staggered to its feet. It was a dog, but so pitifully thin under its ragged coat that I was half afraid it might die from the exertion of trying to escape. It couldn’t help itself; it barked. It was so scrawny that the effort made it stagger. The sheep tossed their heads and blatted, stupid things. They were around Boomer all day. This pathetic excuse for a canine shouldn’t have bothered them.
“C’mere, pup,” I said. Of course, it didn’t come. It was hungry, though. I remembered the oatcakes, which I had brought along for me, because anymore if I let myself get hungry at all, the nausea would return, but the little dog needed them more than I did. I pulled one out and broke off a piece, which I tossed at some distance so it didn’t think I was trying to shy a stone at it. I turned away, only observing out of the corner of my eye as it slunk over to sniff and then eat the tidbit.
It took a while before the little thing would eat out of my hand. The oatcakes were nearly gone by the time I managed to slip a bit of string around its neck in place of a collar and pick it up. It ate the last bit of cake from my hand. Taking the wethers’ lead ropes, we headed back to the house. The poor thing reeked. I didn’t know what it had been rolling in, but whatever it was had been dead a long time. Between that and the usual smell of unwashed dog, it was almost enough to make me sick, especially since it had eaten the food I’d brought for myself. The sheep, at least, took the whole thing with their usual ovine equanimity. Once the dog stopped barking, they no longer cared about its existence. Their lives were simple. They followed where I led. I didn’t remember to bring back the water, but it didn’t seem that important anymore. I was still doing something useful.
Boomer cavorted out to meet me, followed by Sheila with Bobby on her hip. Boomer, scenting the little dog in my arms, began to leap about excitedly.
Sheila said, “What do you have? An off-season lamb?”
“No, no. A dog.”
“Oo! Boy or girl?”
“I don’t know. It was all I could do to pick it up. I haven’t wanted to try to take a look.”
Sheila set Bobby down next to her leg so he could cling there, and lifted the little brown dog from my arms with her hands around its chest. She gave a quick glance down to the furry belly and said, “Oh! She’s a girl! And she’s absolutely crawling with fleas. Just what we need. How about if I give her a bath?”
“I’ll be happy to. You know, if she hasn’t been spayed, maybe she and Boomer can have pups.” She carried her away, and I took Bobby with me to help me put the wethers away. Then I went to the house to get something to eat before the nausea overwhelmed me.
That was how Bitsy came to live with us. Bobby, Boomer, Bitsy. And Baby on the way. It seemed a perfectly reasonable progression, don’t you think?
In early February, 2013, I went to the Lynnwood, Washington Goodwill store in my usual quest for inventory for my eBay business. In the knick-knacks aisle, tucked among the donated Dollar Store decor items,stood a teapot, black with age and dented here and there. I’m not sure what made me pick it up, except that I usually pick up silverplate, hoping to find sterling. It has happened before. Maybe it was the laid-in detailing, the ear-of-corn-shaped finial on the lid, or the ivory spacers in the handle. I’m not sure.
I was disappointed, though – the bottom didn’t say ’sterling” or have any British sterling marks. It didn’t say ‘silver over copper’ or even ‘quadruple plate’ as I expected from the blackened surface. It just said, ‘Boston, ‘ ‘Jones, Lows & Ball,’ and then a curved, illegible stamp.
I might have put it back, but the side was engraved in a fabulous Copperplate handwriting, the only area of the teapot which had been polished many times. I can imagine countless people trying to decipher what this meant:
The English High School, Boston
from 1823 to 1837
If it hadn’t been inscribed, I still think I would have put it back. The inscription intrigued me, though. who was S.P. Miles? What did the date mean? Did it mean the teapot was really as old as it looked based on the inscription date? So, I bought it. $12.99 plus 9.5% WA state sales tax. I took it home and began researching.
My old friend Helen Schinske gave me the first hook into history, posting this to my Facebook page where I first presented the mystery:
“Solomon Pierson Miles, father of Charles Appleton [Miles], was a leading educator of this country, ranking with such men as Horace Mann and George B. Emerson, and was well known in the best circles of Boston, where he labored for many years. He was born January 22, 1791. Profiting by such educational advantages as lay in his power, he entered Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1819. After filling the position of instructor in his alma mater for some years, he decided to devote his life to the promulgation of higher educational methods, and accepted a position as head master of the Boston high school, and there put into practice many of his advanced theories. For nearly twenty years he conducted this institution, with remarkable ability and success. He then opened a private school for the instruction of girls in Boston. Here he was even more successful than he had been in his public school work. May 27, 1833, he married Sarah Elizabeth Appleton, the eldest daughter of Nathanael Walker and Sarah Tilden Appleton. Solomon P. Miles died August 22, 1842.”
From: Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont: A Record …, Volume 2 edited by Hiram Carleton, p 507
I also discovered that a) the English High School is still in the business of educating students today, and b) Jones Lows & Ball is still in business also, though it now goes by the name of Shreve, Crump & Low. As it turns out, Jones Lows & Ball only used that particular stamp from 1839-1845. Mr. Miles died in 1842. Assuming it was not presented posthumously, that dates this teapot definitively within a 3-year window: it is between 174 and 171 years old.
Once I understood I had a genuine historical artifact in hand, there was never any question in my mind. Of COURSE it should go home to Boston. History matters. The past matters. It would have been wrong for me to sell the teapot for scrap, knowing it meant something.
Now to insert some of that history. It was traditional at that time in history to present a teapot to an outgoing educator. The best explanation I have found is that a teapot was symbolic of hospitality; of meeting people to talk and socialize over tea, and was therefore an indication of hope for future social meetings with the departing individual. Given the role Mr. Miles played at the English High School, he well deserved a teapot. That his former pupils gave him a pure coin silver (which is what the illegible curved stamp should have said) teapot (‘coin silver’ was the same purity as was used for minting coins, and sometimes actual coins were incorporated into such items if the craftsman didn’t have enough metal for a project) speaks volumes of their regard for him. Furthermore, the Headmaster role at that time was not identical to today’s job of Principal — not merely administrative. The Headmaster did all those things, and he also taught the Senior class all their subjects (and at that time in history, most of the boys in the English High School were destined to continue on to Harvard, which was the local University). The Headmaster had to be prepared to teach the outgoing class ALL their subjects at a college-prep level. Each Master had a class, you see, and he taught his class all subjects rather than changing from room to room, and from one subject-specific teacher to another as we do now. Anyway, to continue:
There are a number of mentions of Mr. Miles available through Google Books (without which I could have done none of this) but i think this is the most characteristic, being given in a memoir written by one of his former pupils:
“Business summoning him away one afternoon, he trusted the school to the charge of a monitor, expressing a hope that his confidence would not be abused. But on his return his ears were greeted, even from a distance, by an uproar. The sentry at the door, however, giving notice of “the master,” all was a scene of apparently absorbing study as he entered. This hypocrisy probably touched him more keenly than our quite natural roguishness, for it was with a tone of most unusual severity that he said, “Let the boys who have been guilty of this disturbance come forward.” No one stirred, the big fellows especially, who had been ringleaders, sitting shrouded in a most imperturbable air of injured innocence. After waiting in silence, and looking from face to face, he continued, “Has no one courage to be true? “Then, up from the benches of the smaller boys rose James, and, with a friend of about his own age, walked steadily down the aisle, until confronted with the ruler of our little realm. It was with a clear, calm tone, and a look of sorrow, not fear, that he confessed his trifling share in the tumult; -and incentive indeed it was to frankness for a lifetime, when, placing his hand on the heads of the young friends, and with a few words to the school in commendation of their honor, the much loved teacher forgave them.”
To return to the narrative: I contacted EHS to ask if they would be interested in acquiring the teapot, taking care to make sure they knew I really did have the item in question – in fact there was some brief confusion on that matter, and I was contacted once early on by a member of their IT department under the mistaken impression I might just be a more sophisticated sort of email scammer. But, I sent lots of pictures, the kind that could only exist if I took them myself. The matter was handed over to one Esmirna Soto, who began acting as my contact with the school district.
I wanted to send it to them right away, but there steps that had to be taken first. I needed to have the teapot appraised so it could be sent insured for the correct value. Also, Boston got hammered by Blizzard Nemo, and the Alumni Association board had to meet to discuss how they wished to proceed. I always assumed they would want it – Ms. Soto absolutely wanted to see it come home! – but without the board’s word, that was not a guarantee.
My children went with me to Omega Silversmithing in Snohomish, Washington to deliver the teapot to be appraised. Tim Maple, a local craftsman who has appeared as an expert on Antiques Roadshow, appraised it, identifying a replaced ivory spacer in the handle, a poorly-inserted pin holding the handle in place, and other minor damage such as the spout being bent in at the tip and the base not being flat. He said that while this reduced the monetary value, it increased the teapot’s character – someone dropped it, someone bumped and dented it, somebody cared enough to have the handle put back on; somebody didn’t quite have the skill to do the repair properly. Mr. Maple also gave me a quote on conservation care and minor repairs. I sent the appraisal and his estimate for repairs, if desired, to the Alumni Association to help them make their decision. I missed the March meeting date, pushing off any Board decision until the April meeting. More waiting!
Finally, finally, toward the end of April – when I didn’t expect to hear anything, due to the Marathon bomb tragedy – I received an email from Tom Dennehy, Vice President of the Alumni Association. The board had agreed upon an acquisition price, which covers my expenses plus a bit. He sent a check and his vast gratitude and thanks. The afternoon it arrived, the box went in the mail, Priority, Registered, and insured for the appraised value. Sadly, you can’t insure for historical value!
The teapot will be taken to Shreve, Crump & Low for conservation care. The board of the Alumni Association feels, as I do, that it is fitting and right for the company that made it to do the minor repairs it needs…170+ years later. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go to Boston and see it again. In the meanwhile, I have this, which arrived in my mailbox on Saturday the 11th, a bit more than 3 months from the day I happened to pick up a blackened old metal teapot and read the engraving on the side.
They made a pen, cobbled together from old wire found in the rafters of the workshop, some wooden lattice, and an old doghouse, cut on the side to install a couple of nest boxes. Since Boomer lived inside the house with us, he didn’t need the doghouse, and we needed a place to collect eggs without having to defend ourselves with an umbrella.
I would have preferred the hens forage on their own, because they would be self-feeding. As it was, until they managed to raise a young cockerel—ideally a less aggressive one—to replace Alarm lock as flock protector and egg fertilizer, we were stuck with penning them up. I couldn’t risk one of us being badly injured. The idea of a deep puncture wound from one of his nasty, dirty spurs was enough to make me willing to part with grain.
We went to bed that night with the birds safely installed in their new, if a bit hodge-podge, residence, and of course that was when Faustus began the interrogation I’d been dreading.
“What really happened?”
I didn’t want to tell him, because I didn’t want to think about it. Was the attempted rape—you might say it was successful since the guy impaled himself on my device—worse than the beating? Was the beating worse than what would have befallen us if we hadn’t fought them off? Were either of those worse than seeing Sheila completely lose control and stab Greyback over and over, or hunting down a half-blinded and horribly burned Pigpen and executing him without mercy? But of course I had to tell him.
Bless him, he didn’t press for the gory details. He merely wheedled out the gist and the timeline, and when it was over, he said, “I’m sorry. I wish I’d been here. If I’d known, I would have come back sooner. Damn the loss of telephones. What I’d give for a carrier pigeon!” He drew me into his arms and held me. He didn’t ask me to make love, which was just as well, because I really, really wasn’t in the mood. It was good to curl up with him, though. I’d missed him so much.
The following morning, I couldn’t bear the thought of coffee. I wanted to—I made some of the instant, and the aroma filled the house like brown heaven, but every time I went to have a sip, I wound up putting it down again. I finally pressed it on Kurt, overriding his protests that it was mine, not his, and I shouldn’t be wasting it. I said if he didn’t drink it, it would be wasted, because I couldn’t make myself drink it for some reason. I think he drank it to humor me. I kept the jar of instant around on the counter for another week, but after that it went into the cupboard.
The two men grated on each other. It happens that way sometimes, even now when you don’t have the choice of seven or eight million other people for companions. Within that first week of Faustus’s return, they argued volubly several times. I never heard the beginnings, just the endings. Frankly, I think people back in town could nearly have heard the endings. When this happened, Sheila and I took turns consoling Bobby, who found the shouting frightening.
It became increasingly clear to me that Kurt and Sheila were attracted to each other. I thought this should end the tension between the two men. After all, if each man had his own woman, there wouldn’t be even the suggestion of competition. There shouldn’t have been, of course—Faustus wasn’t interested in Sheila, as he’d made abundantly clear—but when it comes to pairing off, I think our primate side rears its head. Some primates live in harem groups. One male, many females. Even gorillas do this (or did—I’m not sure they survived the Terrible Day. They’re close enough to us genetically that maybe whatever destroyed most of humanity destroyed them, too). It’s one thing to say, “Hey, I’m not interested,” and another for the potential rival to actually believe it. Ugh. Humans are so complicated.
Finally, as one argument achieved a level of volume hitherto unrivaled by anything smaller than a jet engine, I carried the shrieking Bobby into the middle of it and thrust him into Faustus’s arms. I’d been feeling vaguely ill for several days, not to mention inexplicably exhausted, and them making him scream was about to break the last straw of my ability to cope. I bit their heads off for about two minutes and marched away, leaving them in stunned silence and followed by Bobby’s unrelenting screams. Things got better after that between them, they had to, because I got sick, very sick, and even though it was for a good reason, it still meant they had to join forces and take up the slack of what I could not do.
The other thing that happened is that Kurt moved into the house and into Sheila’s bed. That was her idea. Apparently they’d been rolling in the hay—literally—but that’s a lot less comfortable, and a lot more dusty than it sounds—and she began making the argument for him moving inside. Faustus told me he didn’t really want the guy to live in the house—not because he had been part of the attack by the other two, but because he hadn’t come to our aid when it happened—but in between bouts of throwing up, I told him that if we are going to be civilized, we couldn’t have one out of four excluded and living in an old horse-stall. He couldn’t disagree with that. It was his argument, after all.
Now we’re going to have to fast-forward a bit, because a couple of months kind of blur for me. I was so sick that if there’d been a hospital to go to, I’d have been in it with IVs and everything. The monsoons came, and I didn’t care. The cistern filled and spilled back through the overflow valves; the dooryard was a pond, the sheep stood in bedraggled, miserable clusters, Bobby learned to walk and say even more words—which every parents wants to see until it happens, and the kid who could crawl across a room and out of sight in a moment’s time can now do it in a fraction of an unguarded second—and I didn’t care. I was cocooned in my own special brand of misery. Just remember: they call kids ‘a bundle of joy’ for a reason: to get you through the bit that’s less fun. And boy, was it less fun.
For dinner, we had a very special meal of canned chili, which Faustus had brought back with him, and little white flour tortillas—or what would have been if I’d ever made tortillas before—but which mostly looked like giant amoebas with pseudopods blobbing out at the edges, baked on a griddle. We ate them anyway. It had been too long since I’d had anything made from flour. The chili didn’t appeal to me. I thought it should, but it didn’t, so I made do with the tortillas.
Sitting around the dining table like civilized people, we ate, and Faustus told us his story.
“If we had phones, I’d have called the house a couple dozen times. I’m sorry it took me so long, but I really wanted to bring back some chooks.” He took a tortilla and tore it in half, using it to scoop chili even though we had spoons.
“I found the barrow first. It was like a blessing straight out of heaven. I could carry so much in it, and when I found bicycle tires in reasonably good shape, I put them in the barrow and kept going. The first place didn’t have any chooks, though there were good things in the kitchen. And instant coffee! So I loaded up. The second place had that rooster and a bunch of hens. There were some half-grown chicks, too, but I couldn’t catch them no matter what I did. When they’re small like that, they can really fly.
“The rooster came at me repeatedly. Vicious son of a bitch, he is.” He rolled his arms so we could see healing gashes that looked like defensive wounds. “The good side of that is, he’ll keep the hens plenty safe. The bad side is, we’ll have to keep him penned up, and take our lives in our hands trying to collect the eggs. I’ll try to make something that lets us reach in from outside.”
“I’ll be glad to help,” Kurt offered.
Faustus nodded. “So I went to work making those little cages. It wasn’t enough being able to catch them—I had to be able to bring them back here without hurting them or that rooster getting loose and hurting me. It wouldn’t do us any good to have hens without a rooster. No rooster, you’ll still get eggs but they won’t hatch, predators may get the hens, and after the first year or two, you won’t even get many eggs.”
“We’ll figure something out to keep him penned up. I was hoping we could let them forage, but not at the risk of life and limb.”
“So, after some trial and error, I eventually figured out how to make those cages. Then I had to catch them, which meant waiting until full dark and getting up into the rafters of their barn, and—yeah. Here I am.”
“We’re glad you’re back,” Sheila said. “Not just because of the chooks, either.”
“So what happened while I was gone?”
This, of course, was the thing I didn’t really want to talk about, but of course he saw Kurt and Sheila glance at each other, and he repeated himself. “What happened while I was gone? Tanya?” Once the question had been asked like that, I couldn’t very well just shrug it off with an airy, “Oh, nothing!”
“We, ah…had some intruders. They’re dead now.”
“You know. City boys, here to round up some females and take them back to the harem.” I met his eyes steadily.
“Was it bad?”
“Bad enough,” I said. “It was a lot worse for them. Sheila saved my life. And then Kurt came along a couple of days later.”
Faustus surveyed us all carefully. I suspected I was going to be questioned more thoroughly in the privacy of our bedroom later, but all he said at the moment was, “What did you do with the bodies?”
“We dragged them out as far as we could and left them for the scavengers. We haven’t seen anyone else. Boomer would have barked. We’ve spent the last few days developing that little water-seep. Or rather, Kurt and Sheila have. I’ve stayed here watching Bobby.” I took up a tortilla, which was more like a flat cracker now that it had grown cold, and bit into it. As functional methods of ending my commentary went, it worked.
Faustus cleared his throat. “So, all’s well that ends well, I guess. You’re alive, and they’re not. That’s my favorite kind of ending.” He spooned more chili into his bowl. I’d opened all six cans of the stuff for our celebratory feast, and without refrigeration, there was no reason for him not to eat as much as he wanted.
Kurt offered, even though Faustus hadn’t asked, “I asked if I could live here. I’m sleeping out in the hay. I’ve been trying to make myself useful. The dog eventually stopped growling at me.”
Faustus grunted. “That’s good. He’s a good judge of people.”
I interrupted. “Did you see any other dogs around while you were out? I’d love if we could get a female and have pups. We don’t know how old Boomer is, after all.”
“Saw one—female, too. She’d had pups, which you could tell from the way her belly skin hung loose—but I couldn’t get near enough to her to catch her. She was around one of the homesteads. I can go back again with food and try to lure her in.”
“It’d be worth it.”
He nodded. “Before the monsoon comes. I don’t want to hike in that. But tomorrow, we need to pen up those chickens, and then I’ll have to get the wheels on the new cart and see if we can get the new wethers to pull it.”
Bobby began to get fussy, so Sheila got up from the table with him, and Kurt rose too.
“No rest for the weary. Or the wicked. Or even you,” I said.
“Guilty on all counts. Kurt, you said you’ll help me with a chicken pen. You up for it now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“All right. As soon as I’m done eating.”