Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Donovan had cause to remember Carina's words about the length of Catholic Masses. It seemed to go on forever— the kneeling, the rising, the responses he didn't know and wasn't prepared for. The sermon about the Christ child started off well enough with some readings from the Bible, but devolved quickly into a long ramble about the joys of parenthood, punctuated by little waves and affectionate glances at the woman and baby in the front pew. Even Carina, who adored children in much the same way she loved animals, was disgusted.

"Sometimes I swear they should've kept that rule about priests not marrying," she muttered to no one in particular.

Emma nodded. "Or at the very least teach them the difference between Baby Jesus and their own brats."

"Did he even go to seminary?" Carina asked. "Or did the family just set him up and that was the end of it?"

"He went away for a couple years," Emma whispered back. "They say he was at seminary, but who knows?"

The young man dropped the communion wafer while intoning, "This is my body. . ."

"Which is dropped on the floor and stepped on for you," Emma muttered while Carina suppressed a giggle. Both women skipped communion.

* * *

When it was over and the congregation dismissed, they filed into the sunlight of the warming December day. Donovan took a deep breath and admired the cloudless sky. "Sure is beautiful."

"Yes," Carina said. "It would've been nice to have had a white Christmas, but this is so pretty I don't think I care."

"A shame the service wasn't any better," Emma sniffed. "I had hoped Joaquin would be a little more serious about it once he got settled in."

"He's still young," Carina said. "He'll get better."

"It's easy for you to be patient. You're not Catholic."

While Carina visited with the valley farmers, Donovan walked around the property. The grounds were neatly tended with rock beds and native plants. Already Donovan had learned enough to distinguish nopal, yucca and the drought-resistant vine that produced a stinking gourd. Behind the church lay a fallow vegetable garden and a low adobe building, whether house, school or some other type of official structure he couldn't be sure.

A trail wound past the house and up a dusty hill. Curious, he followed it past more fields, all lying fallow for the winter. The trail dipped and rose again, curving past another adobe building and up to the crest of a low mesa. It was hard going for Donovan with his weak leg, but finally he reached the top, breathing hard. He looked at the desert landscape all around and then stopped short, noticing the wall and iron gate. He was almost as surprised the gate hadn't been stolen for scrap, as he was by what lay beyond. This was the local cemetery.

He put his face against the bars, gazing in wonderment at the long rows of neat headstones and crosses, many decorated with votives, homemade paper flowers or winter greenery. The stones seemed to spring of their own accord out of the land, backdropped by the string of mesas that formed one of the boundaries separating the valley from the rest of the world. The wind swept down off the range, fluttering the ribbons of the decorations and stirring up clouds of pale dust that swirled across the graves.

At the sound of a footstep, he turned around. Carina stood wrapped in her faded cloak, regarding him with an unreadable expression. "Do you want to go in?"

Donovan hadn't been considering it, but hesitated to say so. He tugged at the gate and said, "It's locked," as if that settled the matter.

She motioned for him to follow her. "The other gate is always open."

She led him to a smaller gate farther down the wall and it creaked open with a sound that echoed in lonely waves that carried on the wind. Inside, the ground was packed hard as stone, covered with a light film of dust and punctuated by a few hardy weeds. They walked the rows of graves in silence, stopping every now and then to examine a decoration or read a name. The nicest stones were from the early years of the century. They were polished, deeply carved, and had flowers or trees inscribed as part of their motif, along with fading photographs behind glass. The earliest stones were worn nearly smooth by the constantly-blowing dust, and the most recent ones were poorly made and already chipping or fading. Some of the new graves had only wooden slabs with names scratched into them, and a few were marked only by an outline of stones and a wooden cross with no names at all to identify the dead.

Donovan turned to Carina, an unspoken question in his eyes.

She led him to a plot outlined with rocks, and pointed to a long double headstone. It was a handsomely carved and polished piece of granite, but contained only names, no dates. "They bought it long ago, when their money was still worth something. Maybe someday we'll be able to find someone to add the dates."

"At least their names will be remembered," he said, taking her hand. He thought it odd that the grave was bare while so many of the others were covered with offerings. Now that he considered the matter, he had never known either woman to go to the cemetery. "I'd be happy to drive you here to decorate, if you like."

Carina pulled her hand away. "I don’t like to think of them as something in the ground. Let's go back." Clutching the velvet wrap against her body, she started toward the gate.

Donovan hung back for a moment, then followed. Outside the gate, she waited, head down, face obscured in the shadow of her hood. He held out his arm and she took it without a word.

They were halfway down the hill before she spoke. "If I didn't know Miles was coming back some day. . ."

"You'd be strong, just the same.”

"No, I wouldn't. Amalia would, but I wouldn't be able to stand one more death."

Donovan chose his next words carefully. "Things happen, you know. Unexpected things. And we have to-"

"No." She let go his arm and hugged herself, shaking her head so hard the hood fell back and her curls tumbled across her shoulders. "Bad things aren't inevitable. They can't happen all the time."

"You're right," Donovan said, putting an arm around her. "Good things happen, too. I guess I just never had any faith to lose, let alone any to try and hang on to." They were at the base of the hill and he guided her across the yard toward the wagon. "Finding your farm was the best luck I ever had, but it looked like the worst luck possible when I was lying on the ground with Amalia threatening to shoot me. I guess I'm trying to say not to take it all so hard. Things have a way of working themselves out."

"Of course they do. My husband is coming home and we're going to start a medical clinic. Things will get easier."

"Aren't they a little easier now?" Donovan asked, slightly hurt. "I know I'm still learning, but I sort of hoped I was helping a little."

Carina's face broke into a smile. "Of course you're a help. You're one of the best things that's happened to us in a long time, too.”

He gave her a quick hug and offered her a hand into the cart.

Carina gathered her spangled skirt, then hesitated. "I don't suppose," she said, "That you've learned how to manage those hobbles?"

Donovan cast a wary glance at Goneril's legs, still in their leather hobbles. Working around the feet of an animal that could kill with a single kick made him nervous. It seemed like a foolish way to die. "I think I can manage it.”

He put Carina into the wagon and she sat back and closed her eyes. "Good," she sighed. "Funny how sometimes you don't realize how tired you really are."


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Six

The sun had risen and was gleaming off the stained glass windows of the little adobe church. Donovan was surprised at the number of people arriving, some on horseback, some in carts or improvised traps like their own. A few were even on foot. "I had no idea there would be so many people."

"The valley isn't as deserted as it looks, is it?" Carina smiled. "Some of them come a long way for holiday Mass. This church serves a large area."

There were no places to tie their jennet, all sign posts, fence posts and other improvised hitching spots having been taken away over the years by people seeking scrap or building materials, so Carina put the hobbles on Goneril. "I don't like having to do that to her," she said. "I know how she hates it."

"It's not like we'll be here long."

"It's Catholic Mass," Carina reminded him. "We could be here all day." She took Donovan's arm. "Or at least it will feel that way. But let's go inside and see who's here."

The church was neat and freshly whitewashed, lit with oil lamps and candles. People milled about the entryway in their best winter clothes, some of which were indeed very fine, while others were merely clean, well-mended and neatly pressed. Donovan could hardly follow the thread of any one conversation for the way everyone drifted back and forth between English and Spanish. Before he could become exasperated, he and Gonzales recognized each other in the crowd. Gonzales waved and pushed his way through, leading a frail woman with a dowager's hump and a hopeful look in her milky eyes. He greeted Carina first and pulled his mother forward. "Mamá, you remember Carina Cunningham, the veterinarian."

The woman reached out, straining to see through the clouds of her cataracts. "Of course I do."

Carina grabbed her outstretched hands. "Nice to see you, Señora. Te miras bien."

The old woman smiled at the compliment. "You know better than to lie." She coughed into a handkerchief. "Maybe in the spring I'll shake this thing."

"Ask your son to look for some horehound next time he's in Macrina."

"My boy looks for whores in Macrina, not horehound."

Donovan was so startled by this feisty remark that he was unprepared when Gonzales changed the subject by introducing him. "Donovan lives with Carina and Amalia, and helps out on their farm.”

"Oh, good," the woman said, clutching at Donovan's hands. "We need more good men in this valley. The war has carried them all off and when they come back, they’re like my worthless son. You be good to those girls, and the Lord will bless you."

"I'll do my best. And I'm sure your son is better than you think."

"I'll be the judge of that." She reached for Gonzales' arm again. "Take me to a pew. I need a little time with my thoughts before the service starts."

Carina took Donovan around the room, making introductions. He met the Mallory family, a young couple with a brood of active children, impossible to count because they were constantly in motion. He met the Bustos girls, all five of them in pants and fancy boots, made hard-eyed and bitter by their life alone on their deceased father's sheep ranch. He met a weathered man who spoke in a flat tone and refused to meet his eyes. Carina whispered that he was autistic and had held the position of church groundskeeper ever since he was found abandoned on the steps as a boy.

"Are the Petersons here?" Donovan asked, looking around.

"I doubt it. They're so Lutheran that it hurts." She tugged his sleeve. "Let's go find a place to sit. There'll be more time to visit later."

Donovan followed her lead, dabbing his fingers in the holy water and crossing himself as she did as they went into the nave. They hadn't been seated long when a woman in a red wool dress with gold buttons sat down next to Carina. "How are you, dear? It seems I hardly ever see you any more."

"Things are going well, Emma. And you?"

She gave a tight little smile. "About as well as can be expected."

While Emma and Carina got caught up, Donovan looked around. In a pew on the other side of the aisle he noticed a crowd of children and their elderly relatives gazing toward the altar, entranced by the bisque santa in her crèche, dressed in white robes and lace. A few women in the front pew seemed equally captivated, gazing at her lovingly as they murmured over their rosaries, but most of the people filing into the pews were intent only on each other, shaking hands, greeting old friends and exchanging news. With so much work to be done and so much distance between the larger ranches, the times when people could get together were too precious to be wasted in piety.

As the sun began to light the rose window, a few weather-beaten men in black suits walked up the aisle, guiding the stragglers to their seats. A woman in a green velvet shift began playing the piano, and this appeared to be the signal the congregation had been waiting for because everyone fell silent as the young priest came up the aisle in his flowing robes, preceded by an altar boy in a yellowing cassock trimmed in lace.

Carina whispered in Donovan's ear. "The priest is Joaquin Estrada. His parents are pretty important in the valley. He was able to dodge the draft."

Donovan nodded in understanding. It had been a big joke in the streets of his youth that if you wanted to be sure of never having to fight, become religious. Some of the more manipulative boys in his gang had tried it, going to churches, temples, and even mosques, willing to preach anyone's faith if it would keep them out of the war or allow them to spend their army days blessing wounded and dying soldiers behind the lines. So many new religions had sprung up to accommodate these men that the Feds had put a stop to it by drafting any religious who didn't have an established church of his own, and not just any church would do. Its congregation had to prove a history going back to at least 2012, otherwise, a priest, rabbi, or imam was just as draftable as the next guy.

"He's lucky to have gotten a church so young," Donovan whispered to Carina. "I hear some of the old-timers won't step down. They think the young ones don't take it seriously."

Emma leaned toward them with the air of a curious bird. "He wouldn't have got this one, except Father Waltrip died a couple years ago. They say it was a hunting accident. It was a little suspicious, if you ask me."

"Yes,” Carina agreed. “It did look odd. The timing, the circumstances. . ."

The music stopped and the three sat back in their seats with the air of guilty schoolchildren. Joaquin, who didn't look old enough to be styled "Father," was waving to a pretty young woman on the front pew. She held a baby in her lap and was moving the baby's arm so that she could wave, too. A sudden crash made the young priest spin around. The altar boy had managed to knock over the goblet of sacrificial wine.

"Estúpido!" Joaquin hissed, loud enough for everyone on the first few rows to hear. "Get some more, pendejo!" He turned back to the congregation and smiled sheepishly. His large gray eyes scanned the room before falling on the young woman and baby again. He waved. They waved back. He held up his right hand and made the sign of the cross over the congregation. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Five

In spite of the women's entreaties that he stay through Christmas, Alvi insisted on leaving. "There are deals to make and people along the road waiting for me," he told them. "I would be selfish to spend my time in the company of two beautiful women while my friends across this lovely land expired for lack of silk scarves and calamata paste."

"But. . ." Carina looked at the low gray clouds. "The weather. . ."

"Means nothing to me. I am the storm and the desert wind."

Amalia had taken a sip of coffee, but now she choked. "Maybe you should be like the desert wind and come around more often."

"Of course, my dear." He glanced at Donovan, standing by the low garden wall. "Your new friend has asked a special commission of me, so I won't delay any more than is strictly necessary."

Both women gave Donovan a puzzled look, but he made a motion as if to say it was unimportant. Now it was Carina's turn to throw her arms around the peddler's neck. "Be safe out there. And if you hear anything. . ."

"Corazón, if I hear so much as a rumor I will have Patrón and Caudillo gallop all the way here so I can give you the news."

"Thank you." She hugged him again.

Donovan shook Alvi's hand. He had given him all his gold that morning and much of his silver, leaving only enough to buy into a poker game next time he was in Macrina. He prayed it was the right call. "See you this summer."

"You will," Alvi assured him. "And you won't be sorry."

While the women exchanged curious looks, the peddler climbed onto the seat of his wagon. Donovan half-expected him to make a flowery speech of some kind, but instead he seemed genuinely sad. "Adiós, my friends. We will meet again soon."

* * *

A few days later, Carina began preparing for Christmas. From out of chests and drawers, she produced a carved nativity, wreaths of willow branches with red ribbon bows, and candles scented with bayberry. She hung Christmas stockings on the wall near the heating stove in the living room, and from under her bed she brought out a box of small dried gourds, painted with Christmas scenes. She fixed Amalia with a serious look. "You'll let me hang these this year, won't you?"

Amalia rolled her eyes. "If you must."

"I think I must."

"How come Amalia doesn't like these?" Donovan asked after she had walked away.

"They bring back memories, and she's always been a little shy about showing her work."

"She made them?" Donovan inspected one of the painted gourds more carefully.

"It was a project she and Mother undertook on our first Christmas after we moved here for good. Amalia has a real talent for artistic things." Carina's eyebrows flickered in annoyance. "I think she should do things like this to sell, or maybe specialize in fancy needlework. People are starved for pretty things, and it's easier than hoeing, but she won't hear of it."

"I wonder why."

"Too many deaths and too much hard work, I suppose."

Their next project was to make Christmas cookies. Amalia protested that they were a waste of sugar, butter and good wheat flour, but Carina found her star and bell-shaped cookie cutters and wouldn't be deterred.

Over dinner that night Carina looked hesitantly at her sister as she picked at a quesadilla. "I was thinking," she said. "It might be nice to go to Mass this year."

Amalia looked at her in disbelief. "We haven't been to Mass in years. Why now?"

"It just seems like a nice thing to do. Get out and see a few of the neighbors, give thanks and all that."

"We can give thanks right here."

"Sing carols."

"You don't want to hear our valley neighbors try to sing, and we've got batteries for the CD player. We can play carols here."

"You know that's not the point. There's just something about going to Mass on Christmas day."

"I'll go with you," Donovan said. "I didn't think you were Catholic, though."

"We're not," Amalia said. "She just likes churches. They give her an excuse to dress up."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"How about you two go do Mass and when you get home I'll have some wassail waiting. That way you can't say I’m never festive."

Carina beamed. "Okay. We'll do presents, too."

Donovan was surprised when Amalia nodded as if she was expecting this. He had thought he was the only one who remembered Christmas presents, since neither woman had mentioned it previously.

Carina turned to Donovan. "I'll find something nice you can wear to church. It'll be fun."

* * *

The sun had not yet cast its first glow over the mountains when Donovan hitched Goneril to the two-wheeled trap, hung a couple of lanterns and brought it around. He was wearing a dark wool suit, a slightly faded blue shirt, and a silk tie, all of which made him feel very elegant.

The kitchen door opened and Carina hurried over in a flounced blue dress with spangles at the hem. She had tied rags in her hair the night before and now it hung in long loose curls, bright against the fading blue velvet of her cloak. She hiked up her skirt and climbed onto the seat.

Donovan slapped the reins on Goneril's back. There was a sturdy wool blanket on the back of the seat and Carina arranged it so that it covered her clothes, including the cape. "You'll want to wrap up," she told Donovan. "Most of the time we don't notice how much dust we get on ourselves, but today. . ."

Donovan stopped the cart and did as he was told, then clucked to Goneril again.

"You're pretty excited, for just going to church.”

"Real opportunities for socializing are kind of limited around here," Carina reminded him. "If we could make a living in town, I'd move there in a second."

"As a veterinarian and an herbalist, I bet you'd do well."

"Macrina already has a veterinarian," Carina said. "Higdon has one, too. Until a couple years ago, the reservation also had one. I can't go moving in on someone else's turf. There wouldn't be enough business to go around, and it might even be considered an act of aggression."

"I see." Donovan set the brake as they started down a hill. "I suppose it's not much different if you want to set up shop as an herbalist?"

"There are amateur herbalists like me and Amalia everywhere. My mother could've done it because she was an expert and had a license, but not us."

"I guess you wouldn't want to go very far from here looking for work?"

"This is the land we know. Besides, with the mail so uncertain I want to stay where Miles can find me when he gets discharged."

"Maybe when he comes back?"

Carina shook her head. "I'm established here. Miles will come home and we'll have a doctor in the valley again. The wars will end and new people will come out here to live, or will come out of hiding and return to the homes they once had. Babies will be born. People will invest in land and businesses." She smiled, her eyes full of confidence at a future full of heightened possibilities. "It can only get better, can't it?"


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Four

The snow had stopped but the steps to Alvi's caravan were still coated with a sheen of ice when Donovan knocked on his door. Alvi answered, no longer wearing his colorful gypsy attire, but dressed in soft gray pants and a sweater. With his tousled hair sticking up in all directions, he looked like a boy playing campout.

The wagon was more spacious than it appeared from the outside. Shelves full of goods lined the walls, and a board on a hinge could be swung down to serve as desk or workbench. Sturdy wicker chests ran along the perimeter, and colorful cloth, trinkets, shoes and specialty foods were set out like jewels on display. Light came battery-powered wall sconces, charged during the day by a solar panel on the roof. The wagon was heated by a brazier that Alvi had filled from the kitchen stove after dinner.

"Nice place you have."

"It's home." Alvi gestured around the tiny room. "Please take your time. I don't sleep well, so I'm always up late."

As Donovan examined some of the cans and jars, he noticed the man had dropped his exuberant air and salesman's patter. "I think I just want some of the beef jerky. I don't even know what some of these other things are."

Alvi had started to sit down, but now came closer. "Those are olives," he said, pointing. "Sort of like pickles, but with the texture of a mushroom." He grinned when Donovan made a face. "They're an acquired taste, but very good."

"I'll take your word for it."

He pointed to a tin with a scene of horses and snow. "Maple syrup, all the way from Maine."

"Didn't Maine secede?"

"Yes," Alvi said. "That actually makes their syrup easier to get. The Feds won't let them go because they want the timber, so there's a war up there. The soldiers send maple syrup home and the army makes sure it doesn't get stolen on the way. They don't want men moaning and possibly defecting because their families aren't being taken care of, you know."

"Is there a true civil war going on?" Donovan asked. "I mean, across the nation? Or is it just a few local rebellions?"

The peddler pulled a couple of folding stools from pegs on the wall and took a bottle of whiskey out of one of the wicker chests. "Have a seat," he said, grabbing glasses from one of the display shelves. "I didn't want the ladies to hear it because I know how hard it is for them to keep their spirits up, but there's no reason you shouldn't know what's going on."

Donovan pulled up a stool and accepted a glass of whiskey. “This is good. Where do you get it?"

"Don't make me reveal my secrets. My sources are how I make my living."

"I won't criticize. So what kind of news have you been hearing?"

"They say someone detonated a nuke in Washington," Alvi said. "I've heard a lot of different stories on who did it, but it really doesn't matter. The dead were mostly civilians, not government people. Everyone important is hiding now and no one's sure if they're still alive, dead, or sick from radiation poisoning."

"Who's running things?"

"We think the elected officials are, from a bunker somewhere, but there's no way to be sure." Alvi shrugged. "Some people say the Feds set off the nuke themselves so they could go into hiding and not have to answer to the people. Regardless of which story is right, it's likely we're living under a dictatorship."

"How has this impacted the wars?"

"Not much. The wars pretty much run themselves any more."

"Even the civil war? What about Texas?"

Alvi scowled. "I don't know why the Feds are bothering with Texas. Three years of drought across the South have damaged their crops, the aquifers are running dry, they still haven't recovered from the hurricane that damaged their only remaining deep-water port, and the ordinary civilians are too busy squaring off by race and religion for them to do much in the way of nation-building. I say let them go. They'll be back in a few years when their problems amplify to where they realize can't make it alone. But some people say that's why they did it— seceded, you know. There's a philosophy these days that secession will end the race riots by forcing people to work together to fight the common federal enemy."

"It's a bad way to make people get along. Wars kill people and damage the land."

Alvi reached for the whiskey bottle and topped off their glasses. "Well, they went and did it, regardless of what we think about it." He capped the bottle and sat back. "I'm telling everyone not to be surprised if they send some units through the countryside looking for recruits to fight in Texas."

"You mean to kidnap and draft people." Donovan pondered this information. "That's going to be tough on me."

"Yes, you're a deserter, aren't you?"

"Is there nothing the girls don't tell you?"

"I doubt it," Alvi said, taking the question more seriously than it was intended. "I was naive when I got into this business. I knew nothing except that there was an old man who did well in this region and had died. Carina, Amalia and their parents treated me kindly. In fact, my first summer as a peddler was spent on this farm while my burro healed from an injury. They treated me like family and I will always be in their debt." He fixed Donovan with a steady eye. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for them, you understand?"

"They saved my life. I understand perfectly."

Alvi took another sip of whiskey. "Then you know why they sometimes tell me a little more than they should. Their secrets, and yours too, are completely safe with me."

The two men nursed their drinks. Outside, an owl called from the mulberry tree. "So how are you avoiding the draft?" Donovan asked. "You look like the kind of guy the Guard would pick up without hesitating."

Alvi grinned. "I'm older than I look, but thank you for the compliment. I'm 4-F and have the letters to prove it." He patted his chest. "I wear them on me at all times."

"No way." Donovan's eyes widened. "I’m more 4-F than you, and they'd take me off the street in a minute."

"It's all about who you know. You don't really think the big guys care who wins the war, do you?" Alvi took a gulp of his whiskey and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "They're in it for the money. Supply them with what they're really after and they don't care if you fight their stupid war or not."

Donovan could scarcely contain his excitement. "What do those papers cost?  If I can't pay now, I can get the money."

"I don't do credit, not on this type of deal. Nothing personal, it's just if I come back in six months and you're gone. . .well, you know how it is."

"Tell me how much the papers cost."

Alvi leaned back and quoted a number. "In gold," he added.

Donovan drew in his breath. "Can you do it on a down payment? I can give you two thirds now and the rest when you bring the papers on your next trip through."

Alvi considered. "I wouldn't normally agree to such a thing for someone I just met, but I suppose you're family now. I can spot you the balance until I return."

They shook hands and Alvi settled back onto his stool. Donovan suddenly felt relieved, as if he already had the papers in his hand. Only six more months and he would be out of danger forever. The thought of what he could do with his freedom made him smile.

"I see this has made you happy. Or is it just the whiskey?" Alvi topped off their glasses again.

"The whiskey helps, but knowing I'll have papers soon. . . I had no reason to think I'd ever get such lucky break."

"If you don't give up hope, your lucky day eventually comes."

Donovan tossed back the rest of his whiskey and stretched his arms overhead. "I'm starting to believe that maybe it does."