Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Chapter Sixty-Three

Amalia rose early to finish dying Carina's sole remaining dress. After a few soakings in coffee and pecan shell tannins followed by a rinse in cold water, a bath of iron salts, and a lot more rinsing, the finished product lay dripping across the clothesline in the afternoon sun where by nightfall it had dried to a stiff muddy color that while not quite black, was not exactly any other color, either.

While Will checked the jennets and harnesses for the trip and Donovan made a few minor repairs to the cart, Amalia and Tasha prepared food for the road. They boiled eggs, baked cornbread, and cooked tortillas. They made pemmican of fruit, nuts and honey. They packed coffee, jerky, pickles, preserves, and dried apples. Amalia prepared bottles of herbal drinks that would keep Carina nourished if she refused to eat, and would tranquilize her if she became restless or got the urge to rage again.

Carina slept until nearly lunchtime, so while Donovan and the children ate at the kitchen table, Amalia took a tray of cornmeal mush and a cup of strong tranquilizing tea to into the bedroom. She found her sister lying listlessly in bed. In the fresh light of day, she looked wan and not at all healthy. Amalia's meddlesome doubts and jealousies of the previous night slipped away like a bad dream.

"I made the cornmeal mush the way you like it," Amalia said, setting the tray across her lap. "It's got cinnamon, ginger, and a little of that maple sugar you keep hidden in the back of the spice cabinet. You thought I didn't know about your stash, didn't you?"

Carina stared at the bowl and refused to speak.

"You know you can't go to Jonasville in the morning if you don't eat. You'll like it once you taste it."

Carina glared but obeyed.

Amalia sat down and pretended not to pay her any mind. "I think you'll have good weather for the trip. The barometer is holding steady and the skies are clear. I think you should take the road through Catalunia. It'll make your trip longer by about half a day, but it will keep you off the main roads. I don't care what kind of fancy papers Alvi gave him, Donovan still needs to avoid the Feds as much as he can." She glanced at her sister, who was eating as if it were some sort of exotic torture. "Don't you agree?"

Getting no answer, she pressed on with chatter about the crops, the garden and finally the animals. "Will milked the nannies this morning and says they aren't as feisty as usual. They miss you. He says the jennies do, too, especially Cordelia." Amalia paused, scanning her sister's face for signs that she found this subject interesting.

Carina pushed the bowl away. "That's all."

"There's still some left."

"That's all I'm eating."

"Well, okay." Amalia handed her a cup. "Drink this and we'll call it square."

Carina sniffed at the tea in suspicion. She drank it all and handed back the cup with a faint smile. "It won't help."

"What won't help?"

"I know what's in that." She leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes. "You're just trying to keep me quiet. You think I'm going to start breaking and burning things again."

"You have to admit, after what you've done so far, we aren't sure what to expect."

"It's okay, I’m finished."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"I'm done with everything. There's no point. I'll bring him home, and after that..."

"After that, what?"

Carina shrugged and turned her face away.

Amalia lay down on the bed and pulled Carina into her arms where she lay limp and indifferent, like a doll. “It'll get better. I know it feels like it never will, but one day you’ll wake up and sun will be shining and you’ll notice how pretty it is. The birds in the feeder will make you laugh, you’ll be happy to see the buds on the apple trees and you’ll realize you can survive this.”

“I don’t want it to be bearable. I want everything to be like it was.”

Amalia chose her words carefully. “Maybe it wasn't ever like you thought. This is the reality we have to live with.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You don’t get a choice. No one does.”

“There are always choices,” Carina said with an edge to her voice.

“There aren’t always good ones.”

“But they’re still choices.”

Amalia fell silent, unable to find an argument against this line of reasoning. “You know, I spent a long time being angry at the world. Our parents did us a disservice by raising us the way they did, trying to insulate us from what was going on, raising us with old-fashioned education and expectations. It only made things harder. Even here in this valley, we’re still living in a dream. Things are getting worse out there. There isn’t anyone or anything that will make it like it used to be. We have to take a stab at living in the world we’ve got, because no one’s going to give us the one we want.”

Carina shook her head. “I don’t want this world.”

“You haven’t really tried it.”

“I don’t have to.”

Amalia went to the window and pulled the curtains back. She tugged at the sash and opened the window onto a warm afternoon of bird songs and a breeze that smelled faintly of ripening apples. She returned to the bed and took Carina’s hand. “Sometimes if you’re patient with yourself, do the things you know you enjoy even if you can’t take any pleasure from them, it gets easier.” She hesitated, trying to think what to say next. “You can always change your mind later if you find it doesn’t work. Won’t you give it a try, just for a little while? Promise me?”

Carina turned away. Her eyes followed the stirring of the leaves in the apple tree and the flit of a bird on a branch. She remained unmoved by it all, but managed a nod.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Chapter Sixty-Two

When Carina heard that Amalia was planning to go to Jonasville, she would have none of it. "I'm going."

Amalia looked at her skeptically. "You're in no condition to travel."

"I'm going, even if I have to walk."

Amalia and Donovan conferred privately. "She and I will go," he said. "You stay here with the kids. Get one of the neighbors to come over, if you don't want to be alone."

"I don't care about being alone. I just don't think Carina is up for it."

"I think she's past the worst of it."

"She's practically catatonic, not to mention she won't eat. She'll be a strain on you."

"Maybe getting out in the open and doing something useful will help her get well."

"Or maybe she'll collapse from dehydration and lack of food. That's if she doesn't snap and run off into the desert. Taking her to Jonasville is crazy."

"Not letting a wife claim her husband's body is what's crazy," Donovan said. "Let's not argue about this. She says she wants to go, so I'll take her. Tell her it'll be the day after tomorrow and she's not going unless she eats and finds something reasonable to wear. That ought to bring her around."

* * *

That evening Carina ate a little atole. She spent an absurdly long time staring at it before scooping it up with all the joy with which she would've eaten arsenic. At Amalia’s insistence, she also choked down a vitamin and some chamomile tea laced with St. John's Wort and a bit of tranquilizer from their veterinary supplies.

After dinner Amalia boiled some coffee and pecan shells, and when the mixture had cooled, she put a dark blue dress into the mixture to soak. It was an old dress of Carina's that had somehow been overlooked in the afternoon's massive clothes-burning. With any luck, she could dye it dark enough to pass for black until Donovan could get her something new in Jonasville.

No one had any enthusiasm for lessons that evening, so they settled in the living room to work instead. Tasha snuggled close while Carina made a few desultory stitches on a sweater she had been knitting for Will.

Amalia tried to read from Mark Twain, but found she couldn't. The words just didn't seem right. She went to her room and brought out her Bible instead. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help," she began. She glanced at Carina. "My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth."

Carina took a few stitches at her knitting, every line in her body resisting comfort. She tried to purl, dropped a stitch, frowned and tried to pick it up, but without any real interest in the task.

"The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night," Amalia continued. "The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul."

Carina raised an eyebrow doubtfully, but pretended to focus on her hands, her needles, on anything that would keep her from having to meet curious or sympathetic eyes.

"The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore."

"Let’s hope so," Donovan said from the easy chair, where he was stringing peppers.

Amalia read for awhile, skipping around to the parts she thought most appropriate. Finally the small print blurred and she set the book on the table. Tasha had dozed off, Will was nodding over a half-finished ristra of peppers, and Carina sat staring at nothing. Although she knew it was partly the effect of the tranquilizer, Amalia found this emptiness troubling. She and Donovan stood at the same time. Amalia picked up Tasha and motioned for Will to follow while Donovan helped Carina to her feet.

Amalia had barely gotten the children into their room and was helping them locate their nightclothes when voices in the hallway made her pause. "You can't not go to bed," Donovan said. "Look at you. You can barely stand up."

Carina mumbled something. Amalia left the children and went into the hall. "I'm not going in there," Carina said.

"She did the same thing this afternoon," Amalia told Donovan. "Put her in her bed anyway. She'll be asleep in another couple minutes and it won't matter where she is."

Carina began crying and leaned into Donovan for support. He put his arms around her. "Can't we put her in the children's room for tonight?"

"I don't think we should indulge her."

"It's just for one night." He cupped Carina's chin and tried to make her look him in the eye. "Just tonight, okay? You have to learn to be brave again."

Carina nodded and Amalia, disgusted, herded the children into Carina's room where they bounced on the beds. After she got them settled, Amalia went into the other room, where she found Carina in Tasha's bed with Donovan tucking the covers around her. The black dress lay across a wooden chair and Amalia fought a surge of suspicion. "I would've helped her undress."

"It's okay," Donovan said, smoothing Carina's ruined hair. "She was almost asleep. She couldn't have waited any longer."

Amalia looked for a moment at the still face against the pillow. "Are you going to sleep in here with me tonight?"

"I don't think so." Donovan kissed her on the forehead as if she were a child. "I'll be in our room if you need anything, though."


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Chapter Sixty-One

Amalia and Donovan ran to the house, half-expecting to find the entire place on fire. Instead, the smoke was confined to a single spot in the yard, a place that Carina, with the same calm with which she had smashed vases the night before, had cleared of flammable debris so she could build her bonfire. Just as they got close enough to breathe a sigh of relief that the house itself wasn’t the target of her rage, Carina came out the front door, her hair ragged, as if she had sawed it off with a kitchen knife. She was clad in an old party dress of greening black velvet which sagged and bulged in odd places, and in her arms she carried a mass of objects that Amalia and Donovan couldn’t discern from where they stood. With the utter calm of someone on a mission, she dumped everything onto the fire. A toxic-smelling black smoke billowed up and greedy yellow flames consumed the new offerings. Carina went back into the house.

Donovan got to the fire first, and pulled out the first thing he could grab. It was one of her framed animal prints, and he beat out the flames that had been eating at the corner. Amalia stared over his shoulder as fans, scarves and photographs blackened and turned to ash. “Carina!” Of course she got no answer, so while Donovan tried to find something else that could be rescued, Amalia ran up the steps, nearly colliding with her sister in the doorway. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Carina tried to push past. “It's obvious."

“You can’t burn your things. You’ll want them later.”

“No I won’t.” She ducked around her and headed toward the fire.

“I’ll put them in a box. If you still want to burn them a year from now--“

Carina tried to push past Donovan. "Mind your own damn business." Donovan was so startled at her hostility that she managed to get three items into the flames before he and Amalia grabbed her and forced her to drop her ribbons, memory books and paintings.

“You’re going to regret this later,” Amalia said.

Donovan dragged Carina from the fire and together he and Amalia got her into the house while Tasha remained outside to throw dirt onto the embers and salvage what she could. Once they had wrestled her into a chair, Amalia took a hard look at her. Carina’s delicate features were bloated from crying and her fair skin was streaked with soot. The ragged remains of her hair hung in scraggly clumps, hopelessly uneven, and the misshapen dress was a horror. “What have you done to your hair? And what absurd thing is that you're wearing?”

“It was the only black thing I could find.”

“You never wore black when anyone else died. Neither of us did.”

“This is different.”

“We're going to get you into some sensible clothes. Have you eaten?”

“I’m not hungry.”

Amalia stifled a groan of frustration and jerked her sister to her feet. “That’s no excuse.” She glanced at Donovan. “Fix a plate for her, would you?” She pulled Carina down the hallway, noting in passing that it had been denuded of family portraits. “If you touched anything of mine, I’ll kill you.”

When they got to the door of the bedroom, Carina balked.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m not going in there any more.”

Amalia peeked inside. It was now almost as bare as her own room had been before she gave it to the children. “You would’ve gone in there a minute ago to burn what little is left, so there’s no reason not to go in now.”

Still, Carina refused to go inside, so Amalia deposited her in the children’s room with a warning not to go anywhere. Then she went back to Carina’s bedroom and opened the closet. It was empty. Unable to believe what she was seeing, she stood for a moment in shock. She pulled open the dresser drawers. Also empty. She ran back to Carina, who was sitting on the edge of Will’s bed in a daze. “What have you done with your clothes?"

“I burned them.”

Amalia looked at her in stunned amazement. “What do you think you’re going to wear?”

“I’m not wearing blue ever again. It was his color.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. You have to wear something. You can’t go around in that.” She stormed down the hall to the room she shared with Donovan and returned with one of her own shirts and pair of sturdy canvas work pants. “Put these on.”

Carina shook her head.

“What’s the problem? They’re not blue, they’re brown.”

“I’m only going to wear black.”

Amalia struggled with an urge to throttle her. “I can’t deal with this,” she said, and stomped out.

* * *

Donovan found Carina no more tractable on the subject of food. Like a stubborn child, she sat looking straight ahead, refusing to open her mouth to so much as speak. Unlike Amalia, he didn’t get angry. He merely left the plate on a nightstand and went into the kitchen. "I guess she’ll eat when she gets hungry."

“This is no way for a grown woman to act. She’ll make herself sick.”

“We can manage the work without her.”

“Not if one of us goes to Jonasville.”

Donovan considered. “She probably just needs a few days.”

“We don’t have a few days.”

He took Amalia’s hand. “It’ll be all right. She’s gotten through all the other times okay.”

Amalia pulled away and paced the linoleum. “No, she hasn’t. That’s what scares me. She hasn’t gotten through anything else before; she simply denied it. She built up this fairy tale that her handsome and intelligent husband would one day return and make everything right. And now...“

“She’s dealing with reality for the first time,” Donovan finished for her.

“I shouldn’t have let her do it. I knew this had to happen someday. Even if he had come home, it wouldn’t have been what she thought. They barely knew each other when they married, and he’s been gone so long...”

“But it would’ve been a little easier if he had come back.”

“I was weak and selfish. It was easier to let her be happy while I indulged my bitchy ways.”

Donovan encircled her in his arms. “Don’t talk like that, okay? You did what you had to do, and so did she.”

“But I’m older than her. I promised Mother I’d take care of her.”

Donovan sat her at the table and brought her a cup of chamomile tea from a pot that had been steeping for Carina. “Take care of her, then.” He sat across from her. “She wouldn’t have listened before now, anyway.”

Amalia watched the steam rising off her cup. “Tomorrow morning I’ll send Will to find someone to go with me to Jonasville.”

“Fine,” he said, in a tone that suggested it wasn't fine at all. He stood up, looking tired and strangely old as he walked toward the kitchen door. “I’ll bring in those last two rows of hay and see what I can do to help Will wrap things up in the chili field.”

Amalia set down her cup. “I’ll come, too.”

“No. Let me be a man and do something for once, okay?”


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chapter Sixty

It was daylight when Donovan awoke. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He looked at Amalia, still sleeping in his arms, and shook her awake. “We overslept.”

Amalia looked around the room in confusion, then went to check on her sister. Carina hadn’t moved during the night, but her breathing was deep and regular. “I wonder how long she’ll sleep. I have only the vaguest idea how to dose that stuff. We get it on the black market and you never know.”

“She looks okay to me. She’ll probably wake up in a bit.”

“I kind of hope not.” Amalia looked out the window, rubbing her neck. “We’re getting a late start on the chores, plus it’s harvest time. I know what she’s going through, but we don’t have time to be nurses.”

“Maybe we can get Grandma Peterson to come over, or maybe we can hire someone to help us bring in the hay and chiles.”

“Let’s make some coffee and think about it over breakfast.”

They found a surprise when they entered the kitchen. The table had been set for three with a jar of golden-hued wildflowers as a centerpiece. A pot of coffee was on the stove and a covered pitcher of fresh goat milk was on the counter. “Oh my god, the children,” Amalia said. “I forgot all about them.”

Donovan noticed two plates and cups drying in the rack by the sink. Examining the stove, he found a pan of spoon bread in the warmer, with several large pieces missing. “It looks like they managed okay. They had breakfast, at least.”

“A good thing they’re old enough to take care of themselves.” She poured a cup of coffee and went to the kitchen window. “I wonder where they are.”

“Close by, I would think,” Donovan said, scooping a bit of spoon bread onto a plate. “They’re probably gathering eggs, picking chiles, looking for apples or something like that.”

“We need to finish the hay.” Amalia sat down and picked at her breakfast.

“Eat. It’ll still be there in an hour.”

Amalia took a bite. "It's a little scorched on the bottom, but not bad. I wonder how the kids..."

"They survived two years on the streets. Cooking a basic meal is no big deal by comparison."

"I guess not." She ate in silence, lost in thought, until the slam of the kitchen door made her look up.

Tasha came in carrying a basket of squash. Her face lit up with pleasure to see the grownups having breakfast, but then she noticed one place was empty. "Is Carina still sleeping?"

Amalia motioned her over. "Thank you for the breakfast. Did you do all this yourself?"

"Except light the fire. Will did that."

"Good," Donovan said. "You're a little young to be handling the fire. Wait until we teach you how to do it safely, okay?" The look on her face was so serious that he pulled her onto his knee. "You're a very thoughtful girl."

"Is Carina all right?"

The two adults looked at each other. "Not right now," Donovan said. "But if we take good care of her, she'll get better soon."

"Would you like to help?" Amalia asked. "I've got an important job for you, if you think you're grown up enough for it."

There was nothing Tasha liked better than being told she was grown up.

Amalia set her up in Carina's room with her latest crochet project and a few items that needed mending. "Work quietly and wait for her to wake up. Get her whatever she asks for. Come find us if there's an emergency, otherwise stay close and keep an eye on her."

Tasha nodded and picked up her crochet needle. She glanced protectively at Carina, then turned to her work, all business.

* * *

The haying was going well enough that when Will came to help them an hour later, they tasked him with picking chiles instead, and continued down the rows. They worked steadily under the maddeningly beautiful sky, and when they got hungry they sat in the shade of the wagon for lunch. "If we get this field done today," Amalia said, "I'll leave for Jonasville in the morning. You and Will should be able to finish things on your own."

"I don't want you going to Jonasville alone," Donovan said. "It's a rough place, in spite of the fact there's Feds there. A lot can happen on the road."

"I'll take a gun," Amalia said. "You and I can't both go. We have a moral obligation to Carina, and she can't be left alone right now."

"No, but I can go alone. You know better about bringing in the crops, anyway."

"I told you, they won't release his body except to next of kin."

"Well, at least let's find someone to go with you. How about one of the Petersons, or one of the Garzas?"

Amalia murmured something noncommittal. They were still in disagreement when they put the empty lunch basket in the wagon and resumed haying. The mid-afternoon sun burned hot through their sweaty clothes, and they were nearly finished with the field when a running figure caught their attention. They stopped what they were doing and went to meet Tasha.

"She says..." Tasha gasped, panting after her mad dash across the fields, "She says she's going to burn everything up!"