I watched them carry things into and out of the house for the rest of that day. I’d already cleared out what I wanted most from the house; what wouldn’t fit in the trailer was safely tucked in the back of one of the stalls of the barn hidden by a pile of hay. FEMA had cleaned out most all that I hadn’t been able to salvage and took it to the old quarry and burnt it right along with just about everything from all the other houses that had people die in them. Mattresses, box springs, bed linens, towels … just about anything like that that hadn’t been locked up in the cedar chests around the house. They’d even burnt the bed frames themselves and that did cause me some grief as I know most of them were handmade by someone or other in my family back through the generations. Most of the rugs were also hauled away as well as any clothing that had been soiled. They’d even taken most of the curtains forcing me to close the shutters to keep the sun, moon, and human eye from prying in at every window.
In turn I’d taken out most everything else that wasn’t nailed down – including the guns, ammunition, and reloading equipment that Granddaddy had made me hide when he’d heard that the government people were coming – save for the leftover so-called modern conveniences that are just pure decoration these days as none of them work worth a flip. What use did I have for a TV and a dozen lamps? None of the outlets have any juice to power them with, at least not in our town. I did take the radios but then again, without fuel for the generator – of which there was exactly none at that time – the old things are just relics of better, bygone days.
The biggest thing that I’d done was to take out all the food and hide it in the old dirt cellar. The Old Cellar was in the old chicken coop. The old chicken coop used to be the cantilever barn where some grandfather of years gone by did his blacksmithing. Before it was a cantilever barn it was the honeymoon cabin where the newly married son or daughter would live until they could get their own place and before that it had been the cabin built by the son of the original owner of the land. Nothing got wasted on the farm from one season to the next, from one generation to the next; when not in use as a cellar it sometimes saw use as a storm shelter. I kept my great grandmother’s treadle sewing machine, dress form, and quilt frames in the camper with me but the old wood stove and the ice box from the 1920’s had to stay in the kitchen … and still does today would be my guess.
I watched as the uniform with a clip board ordered two other uniforms to help the man and his family empty the moving van and put everything on the lawn. The woman tried to get them to take it all the way inside but the man just said, “My orders are to empty the moving van not help you to decorate your house. You should appreciate that I’m doing as much as I am.”
In addition to the man and his wife there were three kids. One was a boy with strawberry blonde hair and bright blue eyes; his name turned out to be Solomon Bly Jr. … Sol for short. The two others were twins that shared the exact same hair color; it was the rare true red you don’t see very often. On the girl it was beautiful but on the boy it was quite unfortunate. The boy also must have gotten his sister’s share of the freckles to go with his own, or maybe it was just that she never seemed to be in the sun. Matter of fact I noticed she never seemed to be anywhere except sitting on the front porch in the old swing worrying over her things.
Lunch time came and went and I noticed that the boys were starting to get puny but they didn’t worry at their momma none. The girl whined a little but that was about it. That made me notice how scrawny they looked underneath their bandy muscles and that whatever was going on had been going on for a while because in all other respects they seemed like normal enough kids if a sight more easy going that my cousins had been. Suddenly it was like my great grandmother had set her broom on my bottom. Neither the Davidsons nor the Keehns sat around while other folks did all the work and went hungry for their troubles. I got up and went to the garden and pulled a few things and brought them around to the lady of the house.
She jumped near a mile when she saw me; didn’t neither of us know what to say. She seemed afraid of me and I wasn’t sure how to take that away from her. I tried to offer her the produce but she held it in her hands like she didn’t know what to do with it and when her husband called her she just set it down after saying, “That’s nice dear.”
The girl came over and said, “Ew, what’s that?”
I looked at her and said, “Food.”
“Ew. Like what kind of food?”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Like the kind you eat to fill the holes in your belly.”
“Ew. Like who are you anyway?”
Well I’d had enough of the girl and turned to her twin and older brother who’d come as soon as they heard the word food. The older boy said, “Don’t be so dumb Hannah Banana. That’s a squash.”
“Ew,” was her reply to him as well.
The other boy whose name turned out to be Harry but whom everyone called Opie for some reason said, “I think I’m hungry enough to eat it. Do you peel it first?”
I didn’t know whether he was serious or not but I treated him like he was. “Yeah, and you cook it too.”
Opie and Sol look so crestfallen I had to ask, “What’s wrong?”
“Mom … well, if you have to cook it more than likely she won’t know how.”
And that’s how I wound up making a meal for the family of strangers that were there to take my home away. I hauled out a big ol’ pot and cooked up a mess of greens, squash and sliced some tomatoes. Wheat was scarce that year and the corn from the crib hadn’t gone to the miller yet so I didn’t have any bread for the meal. Didn’t seem to matter none at all; the boys nearly licked the design off the bottom of their plates and Hannah, though a sight more mannerly about it, did her food justice as well.
The parents were just as hungry as their kids and it took a few minutes before the father even asked who I was and where had I come from. I shrugged my shoulders and told him. It was about that time that the three uniformed men made to leave and the father rushed over and asked what they planned to do with me.
“I wasn’t told anything about bringing back any orphans, call a social worker. And since she doesn’t appear on my paperwork she’s your problem, not mine.” And with that the uniforms climbed back into the cab of the big truck and left.
And that’s how I came to live with the Bly family. At first they didn’t know what to do with me any more than anyone else had but at least they didn’t pester me and Mr. and Mrs. Bly were kind in their own way. I got along well with the boys but Hannah barely tolerated me. Hannah isn’t a bad person – she even has her good points sometimes – but for the most part she resented me because I reminded her of all the things she’d been forced to give up and leave behind. I was everything she never wanted to be and was being forced into.
I was nominally a member of the family but in reality I was as much a hired hand as my cousins. It didn’t make me angry, it just was the way it was and I was satisfied for it to be that way. Truth be told that first year the Bly family would have probably starved to death many times over if I hadn’t been around and willing to show them how to do things. Mr. Bly was a good man but he’d been a desk-bound accountant and in his own words knew next to nothing about anything except numbers. The science of farming was a complete mystery to him in the beginning. The main difference between Mr. Bly and a lot of the city folk that had been dumped in our community after the deadly epidemic was his willingness to learn and to earn people’s friendship, not just expect it right off like some kind of entitlement. He bartered what skills he had or asked to learn by watching and helping before he asked for something in return. This didn’t just earn people’s friendship but their respect as well which in a little place like our county could go a long way towards making life comfortable.
The only thing Mr. Bly never seemed to learn how to do was shoot a gun with any kind of accuracy; folks around learned to duck or to offer to do it themselves. His eyeglass prescription had already been out of date when they moved to the farm and time only made the problem worse. I put the food on the table by myself until I managed to teach Opie and Sol to shoot using my old pistol. Mrs. Bly didn’t find out about that until it was too late and the deed was done; she couldn’t have forced them to give it up had she tried though she did opine about it in the beginning. It wasn’t just hunting for food and keeping varmints out of the garden that made the skill of shooting with some accuracy needed. From time to time we’d have trouble with thieves and rustlers and they could wipe out a family just as fast as war and pestilence.
Opie (as I called him then) and I were friends from the start. I never have been able to put my finger on exactly how it happened but it was like he and I were closer to being cousins than I had ever been with my own. With Sol it was different. He was just a little over a year older but sometimes it felt like more. He was a good looking young man with a good mind under his hair. And he could be kind in a way most teenage boys of my acquaintance were not; his eyes often being the thing that drew attention first. The rest of him wasn’t hard to look at neither. As strange as people found it, Sol admired me as much as I did him. I wasn’t pretty the way some of the girls in the district were but according to him being sloe-eyed and dark headed gave me a look that I’d improve with age; a strangely mature thing for a boy his age to say. I later found out he’d read it in a book someplace but it still made me blush with pleasure.
And as things go, life continued on year over year. The summer the twins and I were sixteen Sol had to leave and give his mandatory service. His uncle is an influential man in certain circles and managed to pull some strings and have him assigned to the garrison that provided security to the munitions factory he is a managing partner at. Sol could have spent all of his meager pay on himself but being a good son and since he was living in his uncle’s home – a home that was basically a secure compound – he sent nearly all of it home. However, since the pay was in the form of state currency he had to convert it to hard goods before sending it. The things unavailable in our district were much appreciated and he would even include a little something special for me when he could. His letters, of which there were many describing his life and duties, were welcome diversions from all of the hard work. But just when we were counting the days for him to return home an awful thing occurred. Towards the end of his service there was an attack on the factory and Sol was sent home in the gravest condition; sent home to die since no one expected him to recover from his injuries.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. My infatuation had grown over the years to something real and serious. I could not have abided losing someone else in such a tragic manner. I used every last bit of the knowledge and “receipts” handed down to me by the womenfolk in my family and then went and got more from those left in the community. With that and God’s Grace Sol pulled through; it took months but he did pull through with only a few interesting scars to show for it.
During this time Sol and I became closer than we ever had before … too close. We were both smart with a fair portion of commonsense, or so I thought, but that still didn’t exempt us from acting stupid on occasion. And with no one thinking anything of it we were left pretty much without a chaperone of any kind all the time. Hormones are powerful things especially when you imagine yourselves to be in love.
It was only the once, but once was all it took. Mr. and Mrs. Bly were disappointed naturally but loving nonetheless. They didn’t really interfere with how we spent time together; after all that would have been like shutting the barn door after the cows had escaped. On the other hand it did change things between us; I said no like I shoulda that other time, trying to repair my self-respect even if it was too late for anyone else to notice. Also, a wedding was scheduled for Sol’s next leave. He’d been informed upon surviving that he still owed several weeks on his tour and there wasn’t time to do much of the event planning that Mrs. Bly insisted on before he had to return to his garrison.
I grew comfortable with the plans people seemed to have for my future since I’d rarely made any for myself. Mrs. Bly seemed to be excited and I suppose that was as good a reason as any that I went along with anything and everything she seemed to want. Mr. Bly told me she’d run out of steam directly and that I needed to be prepared to deal with whatever mess was left. Even so saying he was ever ready to run an errand for her when she demanded it. A month later she sent him on once such errand.
Mr. Bly was taking some notices to the family to the depot to mail. A fight broke out while he was standing in line at the station that involved a lot of pushing and shoving. Mr. Bly’s eyesight worked against him and he didn’t have near the amount of room to move away from things as he’d thought. At some point someone barreled into him and over the edge he went … right into the path of an oncoming refugee train. Several men from the surrounding area came out to tell Mrs. Bly what had happened but it still took ‘em telling her several times before she would accept they weren’t playing a cruel joke.
A telegram was immediately dispatched to Mrs. Bly’s brother Bill to inform Sol of what had happened. There was no way he could make it home for the funeral in time but he could grieve with the family long distance. Mrs. Bly also told her brother to expect us all on a certain date as without Mr. Bly they would have no choice but to leave the farm since it had been with him that the government contract had been signed. I was terrified at the prospect of leaving my home but I remember that Sol was waiting on me and I let the tide pull me where it would.
I didn’t have much time to think about what I was heading into as it was all I could do to help Mrs. Bly and Hannah pack some things to go and then to box up the rest and store it in the barn against the weather and thieves for her brother to send for. Someone else would be taking over the management of the harvest that year, what there was of it. The government penalized you for letting a field go fallow when there were soldiers and such to feed so the ground was growing tired and giving less and less.
I might have worried but Mrs. Bly was certain of her brother’s reception; he’d been trying for years to get them to move in with him. Mr. Bly had always opposed the idea saying, “I prefer to be my own man now. I may not be much of one but at least no one owns me.” For his part Opie – who now preferred to be called by his given name – wasn’t too thrilled with the move. He only had a little bit of time before he had to show up for his duty assignment and was disgruntled that he’d be cooped up in his uncle’s home rather than free “as men should be.”
A week of sorting and packing and we were on the road. Opie and I drove the hybrid wagon made from an old pickup truck and pulled by the family’s team of work horses; we moved slow but at least it was some better than walking. Another week after that and we were pulling into Uncle Bill’s compound. I was nauseous but whether from traveling, the heat, the baby, nerves, or a week of Hannah’s theatrics I couldn’t decide.
“Mother.” Harry no longer appreciated his nickname and was at constant pains to remind everyone of that. “Please call me Harry.”
On the other hand Mrs. Bly was too exhausted to appreciate his feelings and said, “Oh for Heaven’s sake. Just go find your uncle. Now. He should have met us at the crossroads as I asked.”
“Oh Mom,” Hannah gushed. “Just look at this place. No more grubbing and …”
Mrs. Bly didn’t feel up to Hannah’s normal behavior either. “Shut up Hannah. If I know my brother there will be work enough for you to keep up with soon enough. For you too Damaris.”
I hadn’t expected any less and nodded while Hannah looked like an outraged cat at the very idea of anyone bursting her bubble with reality. I was just irritable enough to say something to her about jumping from the frying pan into the fire but didn’t want to upset Mrs. Bly any more than she obviously already was. I didn’t have time regardless because a cranky looking woman ushered us into the foyer of the big house and stood over us like we were imposters. The woman reminded me more of a prison matron than a matronly housekeeper.
All the noise from the house finally resolved itself into the sounds of a lively party. Hannah grew weary of being polite when she imagined fun was so close by and finally bulled past the startled woman – she obviously hadn’t been prepared for Hannah’s ways – and then pushed through the double doors where the noise was coming from.
The room was bigger that the whole farmhouse put together but it wasn’t the size of the room that mattered so much as the final realization that Hannah had opened a Pandora’s Box.