Sorry for the delay. Daughter's bridal shower took more out of me than I expected and then got a cold on top of it. It is hard to think and sniffle at the same time.
The weeks ticked by. I interacted with Carmine’s family a few times a week but it was obvious that I kept mostly to myself; I wasn’t nasty about it but I chose caution over camaraderie and I stayed away from Chandra and her drama. Carmine didn’t mind and Sally understood and what anyone else thought I don’t know and cared even less.
I would circle around behind the main stretch of houses that the clans had started to habitat and rehab and come to visit by the backdoor rather than the front. It made for less commotion that way. Sometimes Clarey or Bina would tell me someone needed something to be sharpened and then I would find that person and deal with them one on one. People began to learn if they wanted something they’d never find me in a crowd. The men seemed to send messages through Carmine and the women through Clarey or Sally. Only the true elders – those older than sixty years – seemed to not care what sex I was; if they wanted something they asked it … or told me, depending on their personalities.
I honestly didn’t mind for some reason when it came from the oldsters. The elders are … well, they’re cool. I can’t remember meeting too many old people. I know I must have at some point but the “old” people in the city weren’t really old even though they looked it. Old in the cities could mean your thirties. Life on the street is brutal and short for most people. Clarey liked the elders too and it was her special mission to make sure they were all cared for, especially U-gu-gu. When an elder became sick it was a huge deal for everyone.
An old woman that had taken to wandering in her mind, and sometimes wandering away physically, scratched herself pretty badly and it started to get infected. I knew from my experience as a street rat that honey was good for scratches and I took some down and cleaned and dabbed the wound with honey. Sally didn’t mind, she was still treating major injuries from the battle at the winter camp. Clarey didn’t mind because she had all she could handle taking care of the ambulatory elders and fetching and carrying for them.
I didn’t mind because I like the old woman. She had wonderful stories to tell. Sometimes they seemed to be mixed up but there was a lot to learn if you would listen. I especially liked the one where she would tell of her and her sisters picking huckleberries and making huckleberry sodas and shakes and preserves to sell to the tourists that would frequent the area they lived in.
She would laugh at my inability to say her given name so I called her what the children did. “Granny Lark, do you know if huckleberries grow around here?”
In a voice that quavered a bit from age she answered, “I don’t think so child. But there are chokecherries, raspberries, currants, and wild plums. My father loved currants … better than raisins and I had an aunt who would send him a large box of picked and dried currants every year for his birthday.”
She seemed more lucid than usual so I asked, “What was your father like?”
“Oh he was a fine man, tall and lean. Our mother left when my sisters and I were very small. She used to go out of our little valley to work seasonally at the hotels to bring in cash money but then when she would come home she would be less and less satisfied with our life; outside the valley she was a single woman with an income, in the valley she was a wife and mother with too many responsibilities to, in her words, enjoy life. One season she decided to stay in the city for an extra few months. A few more months turned into yet a few more and then a year and then we grew old enough to realize she was never coming back. Mother’s family was embarrassed by her and treated us bad since she wasn’t around to punish for the loss of honor so Father broke tradition by divorcing Mother first and when he went back to his mother’s family and his sisters, he took us with him. We were raised not by our mother’s sisters but by our father’s mother and sisters. It was hard to be a child and understand these things.”
“But I bet it made you strong,” I told her.
“My father and aunts saw to that; we would have withered like trampled pasque blossoms without their constant encouragement. When my sisters and I wanted to quit school because of the cruelty of the other children they forbid it. Eventually we learned to be strong in spirit, but it was hard. Hard like learning to live again after the Outbreak took so much from us all. Hard like learning to return to the ways of our ancestors, not just for ceremonies and shows for the tourists but day-to-day. Hard to learn new places and new old ways to live because the old ways to live we once knew were no longer available to us. Sally is a good girl to have been able to pull so many of us who are so different together to make a new family.”
I had to smile at the idea of Sally being called a “good girl” like she was a child. I looked up to ask another question only the old lady had dozed off. I sighed, she seemed to be doing that more and more. I knew what it meant. Sally did too. Clarey though didn’t seem to realize it yet and I worried that when the old woman’s time came, as it inevitably would, she would be hurt rather than happy that Granny Lark had gone to meet her Creator that she longed to see so much.
I was tucking a robe around the sleeping elder when the light was blocked from the fireplace. “I’ll sit with her a while.”
I turned to look and it was Chandra’s husband Johnson. I didn’t know what the protocol was then he added, “She is my mother’s aunt and I would never hurt her.”
I shook my head but didn’t know what to say exactly. He seemed to understand and told me, “It’s good that you were looking after her. It’s a fine thing to share of yourself with the elders.”
Clarey chose that moment to come in and then stopped short. “Oh, hi Johnson. Granny Lark is asleep? I brought her some soup.”
“We’ll set it by the fire and when she wakes I will make sure she eats.”
It was obvious that Johnson was who he said he was, or at least was close enough to it that Clarey, very protective of the elders, didn’t seem to see a problem with him there. I’d never seen a man as a caretaker and knew Johnson, for all his size, probably got made fun of by some of the more traditional men. But that wasn’t my problem and I didn’t plan on inserting myself into something that was none of my business.
I was heading to the back of the house to disappear into the woods when I saw Bina and she was in trouble in a small clearing directly ahead of me. This I decided was my business. I marched over and stood beside her. The three boys circling around her like a dog pack were Chandra’s and I knew the potential for problems were pretty high but it was a situation that couldn’t be allowed to continue.
“Go,” I told them tersely.
“You ain’t our boss.” Only they didn’t end the sentence with boss but with a very vulgar word that I’m sure they’d heard from their own mother’s mouth.
I decided it was time to let a little of the real me out. “Listen punk. It isn’t smart to take on an enemy you know nothing about.”
He looked at me. Smiled. Then called me the vulgar word again. I looked at him. Smiled. Then backhanded the little creep hard enough that it put him down with a broken nose. That scared the crud out of the two other boys, both of whom were younger by a year or two. The punk on the ground however had some stuffing to him. He came up at me fast and mean with a little pig sticker of a knife; and he did it well enough for me to know this was far from his first brawl. But it was far from my first as well.
I slid out of his way as he lunged at me and I grabbed the hand that wasn’t holding the knife. He was strong for his age but he was no match for a street rat. I dislocated his thumb and he screamed in pain but he still tried to come back around at me with the knife. I slid out of his way again and took his legs from in under him and he went face down into an icy mound of slush.
That’s when the little monster showed his true colors and revealed more than he probably meant to. “You just wait until Chandra gets ahold of some Harvesters. They’ll do for you. They’ll use you until you’re …”
I was actually contemplating whether to end the little psychopath’s misery right there but a bull’s bellow drew us all up sharp. Carmine was … well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call what he was. Furious didn’t even scratch the surface. Crazy might have but he wasn’t crazy. It took Jerry and three big guys to get in front of him and Carmine still managed to make the slide backwards in the snow until I put my hand on his arm and asked, “Did you hear what he said?”
Carmine stilled a bit and growled, “I heard.”
“Is it common for your family to turn each other in to the Harvesters? Could it be the boys or Chandra had something to do with what happened at the winter camp?”
Carmine growled, “No, no one in the clan does that to each other.”
He would have said more but Sally, white with shock and a deep fury of her own had shown up and told the men, “Let go of Carmine and take the boys. Tie them until we have a meeting. Find Chandra and tie her as well until will get to the bottom of this. Send my daughters to me and call the elders together.”
The boys were fighting tooth and nail but I could tell it was now in fear; they obviously knew something I didn’t. Sally turned to Carmine and asked, “You’ll abide by the Elders’ decision?”
Carmine was still so angry he could do little more than work his jaw and squeeze his gloved hands into fists. Sally’s question had only made him angrier. I squeezed his arm through his coat sleeve, looked at him and then looked at Sally. “Carmine and I can take care of ourselves Sally. But if what that boy says is true? Carmine and I have some talking to do … and we’ll try and let your council or whatever it is handle it, for the sake of family. But that kind of danger, if it is real, can’t be allowed to continue.”
It wasn’t what she wanted but it was all she was going to get and under the circumstances I thought it was pretty generous. She nodded and then turned as the three boys were dragged away, still kicking and screaming. I heard a scream of rage that came from the direction of the town square but it was followed by increasingly incoherent sounding nonsense that I couldn’t make out because of the distance but fear was definitely part of the noise. That told me a thing or two; and told those of us left what we needed to know.
Everyone had left the scene except for Carmine and I and Jerry. Jerry’s face was carefully blank as he watched Carmine struggle with his control. Suddenly I was crushed in a hug that nearly took all the breath from my lungs. He turned loose of me less quickly and then said, “Remind me to ask you how you learned to fight like that.”
“No need to remind you later,” I told him. “I guess you’ve never considered the potential for violence of forcing over a hundred emotionally stressed out and hormonal females to live together in a jail-like fashion.”
After a moment both Carmine and Jerry blanched. I nearly smiled but the situation was too serious. Jerry sighed. “Brother … there’s nothing I can say that will make this easy. You know what they will decide.”
I looked between the two men trying to understand. Carmine nodded. “I know. And you know what actually needs to happen but you won’t do it.” Then Carmine shook his head and added, “And I’m not sure I could order it done either except in the heat of the moment … and then I would spend a lifetime second guessing myself.”
Jerry nodded and walked in the direction his mother had taken. Carmine looked at me again and said, “You sure you’re OK?”
I nodded and we started walking towards our cabin. Carmine asked, “Are we all packed up?”
After a pause I told him, “Except for our everyday stuff and what is upstairs.”
He nodded. “How would you feel about taking a road trip?”
I shrugged then said, “Depends on whether you are doing this to protect me or if there is something else involved.”
He was silent until we got back to the cabin and went inside. He looked at the skins that were still hanging in their frames and asked, “Gonna hurt these to roll them up for the time being and pack them?”
“No. But you still haven’t …”
He stopped then looked around. I watched him shut the door and throw the bolt across it leaving us in near total darkness; he hadn’t done that in a long while. He flicked the solar flashlight that we seldom used but which was always close at hand and he took my arm and drew me down to the basement. It was cold but not unbearably so with our jackets still on. He started a fire while I continued to wait for why he’d interrupted me.
Finally he said, “Those little piss ants really didn’t hurt you?”
Growing a little concerned I said, “Carmine, if I was hurt I would have said so. He never even came close. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t reasonably well versed in using a knife but apparently he’s never come up against someone that was a real street fighter like he wants to be.”
Carmine relaxed but only a little. “The boy Charlie … there’s something wrong with him. Everyone knows it but no one …” He stopped and shook his head.
I asked, “What is going to happen to them?”
“The boys – probably Chandra too – will serve a bondage period; most people would call it slavery but it is more like extreme community service with no freedom and an overseer at all times. When not working they’ll be chained up. Normally they would be cast out but under the circumstances and what Charlie’s threat revealed, the clans won’t be able to afford that risk. Charlie is either a psychopath or a sociopath, either way he’s dangerous. The two younger boys, if they are taken away from Charlie and Chandra, may be worth something eventually. Charlie – there’s no fixing whatever is broke in that boy, he’s too far gone. Jerry knows it. Most of the men know it. Now the women will too. And the elders. But they won’t do what should be done. The kid is like a rabid animal. If Chandra …”
His fury was choking him again so I leaned against him to give him human contact. Gradually his shaking stopped. He grabbed me in a one armed hug and into my hair he whispered, “You know what I want. You know what I need.”
Uh huh. He needed to know I was really there and whole and safe and sound. Sometimes there is only one way to prove that to a man apparently. Afterwards, as his passion was finally spent on something more constructive than worry and fury, we lay under the covers and talked.
“Saloli, we need to go check out that other cabin.”
He said it like he wasn’t sure I would really go for the idea but I had already come to the same conclusion. “We can make our leaving out to be a good thing. Leave a note for Jerry – or Sally if that is more correct – and tell them we’re leaving so that whatever the Elders choose can be put into action without our presence causing any debate. When we get to the cabin and see whether anything can be done about it you can contact Jerry by radio and let him know when or if we’ll be back.”
He was relieved and it showed in his voice. “Jerry will know that’s a story.”
“Good for him. Hopefully he’ll be smart enough however to let it go at face value. When do you want to leave?”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
I smiled despite everything that had gone down and he gave a little one in return as well. The question and answer was a little bit of a ritual between us, a kind of affirmation that I was really in it with him and not just giving in to get through. It was also his way of saying he was still open to discussion if I needed it.
He groaned and started to get dressed in the cooler than comfortable room. “How quickly can you get the hides and furs rolled up and packed?”
Thinking I told him, “Hour, hour and a half. There’s a lot of them and I don’t want to tear the edges as I unlace them.”
“OK, you start that while we have good light and I’ll start hauling up our gear from down here and also make some fry bread to pack with the pemmican you made the other day. I’ll hook the trailer to the wagon and we can start loading once we see what all we have. The less we have to leave behind the better.”
Wondering I asked, “Will anyone come by before we can get out of here?”
“No. They’ll be debating and talking well into the night. I plan on leaving no later than midnight. We’ll run without lights … it’ll save the battery anyway. I’ve got a couple of night rider helmets. We’ll have to run slow and careful but once light catches up to us we’ll be far enough away that moving faster won’t be such a problem. Hopefully there won’t be too many detours between here and the cabin. A lot will depend on how much snow has built up in the cuts.” He turned to look at me. “Traveling this time of year is not optimal.”
I shrugged. “No, but better to do it now and get dug in rather than wait for spring and a possible attack from SEPH or their minions.”
He nodded and with it settled with both got busy.