In November it never got out of the fifties and there were several very cold days, so cold in fact that when it did get into the fifties I thought it felt like a sauna. Thanksgiving passed by before either one of us thought about it and Christmas came and went with just a simple celebration and a get together with some families for a church service type of thing. Our present to each other was a Christmas tree; there wasn’t anything else we needed, not really.
In December and January we never got out of the forties with January being colder of the two; every night for two months it froze and on a few of those days it never thawed either. Just to be on the safe side we drained all of the pipes from upstairs and down and installed a diverter to prevent any water accidentally leaking out of our storage tanks. We never had a single frozen pipe though we heard that some houses did.
“Why there would still be water in those pipes after all this time I don’t know,” I said to Thor while we were working down in the basement. It stayed warmer down there than the rest of the house which meant we used less wood. I also cooked on the fireplace which is what I was doing while we talked.
“Mostly they were abandoned houses. The busted pipes wouldn’t have been noticed if people weren’t still trying to salvage anything useful. I’ve heard people are tearing out insulation and paneling, trying to harden their houses. No one thought to winterize the abandoned places from what I understand,” he replied. He added, “Water is a tight commodity for sure. The river is frozen over except in the very middle in a couple of places, or where people are keeping it cut open for fishing; and there’s been some sickness from people having to collect snow for water.”
“It’ll be another year or two before I trust snow … or snow melt in the rivers. Who knows what all is in the atmosphere from all of those terrorist attacks.” Thor nodded and we were both glad to have the wells we had on the farm. We did have to be careful with the well that was used to feed the trough in the corral and the automatic watering system for the chickens gave me so much grief as well that Thor figured out a small solar system to keep the cluckers warm enough so that they nor their water would freeze.
February was nearly as bad as January but it was time to put out the covered rows so that I could get the ground warmed up a little early. Thor and I had also been able to expand the green house by salvaging materials from all over the town and the nearest abandoned farms. We created our own version of a wood furnace to keep it warm with too. Heat was piped through the ground in buried lines as well as being released into the air to try and control some of the moisture problems. There could be snow all over the ground but right around and inside the greenhouse it was clear as can be. Going in and out of the greenhouse, from warm to cold, Thor developed a bad cold that took almost three weeks for him to completely kick.
“Bless you,” I told Thor after he sneezed for what seemed like the gazillionth time.
“I’m tho tired of this blathted cold. My head feelth like it ith going to explode. And if I have to drink anymore of that nathty tea I’m going to yak.”
I felt bad for him, neither one of us were particularly good patience while we were sick and it only meant the other person had that much more work to do. On the other hand I told him if I heard one more word about my teas that I was going to be the one to yak. Man-colds are near about as painful for the woman as they are for the man.
We were alone a great deal of time but it suited us. We did get off the farm on occasion to see Mr. Dink and Miz Louise and to meet up with a select group of other folks. Stro and Tina decided to make it official real quick. Guess two can sleep warmer than one but it sure seemed strange to think of my friend as the father of three which was what he basically was. We heard there was a little friction as all four generations tried to come to an understanding under one roof but they dealt with it in the family. Lawson looked like a lost puppy for a while as he’d always had Stro’s shadow to stand in … or hide in … and now Stro was too busy being something else besides his big brother. Johnson I think gave him some advice on how to handle it when big brother got a life of his own but I still heard that he didn’t know what to do with himself sometimes.
February I did some clean up of the asparagus beds but it would be a while before I started seeing any spears break the surface. That was also the month that we laid out the hoop row covers. Wish I had thought to get some of that started when it was warmer but I never had to plan it out all by myself, my folks always did it … I was just free manual labor.
First we had to till the ground and that was a trip. The mules weren’t the problem; it was finding the right equipment for the mules to pull. Thor looked at some of my dad’s books and the equipment in the barn and we finally had to give it up and run some of the diesel left in the farm tanks. Dad always kept a preservative in the tanks to keep things from gunking up during the off season so there weren’t any problems in that respect but the ground was frozen and didn’t want to be worked very much. Our main concern was the noise from running the tractor attracting unwanted attention.
Lordy mercy it was loud compared to the quiet that there had been before but we only had to run it one morning and was able to get a good sized garden tilled up. It was work though because we were working in compost and manure at the same time.
I started a lot of seeds indoors during the months of February and March but every time I thought about putting them out in cold frames or anything else we’d get another frost. Sometimes it is better to be late than early. By the end of March temperatures were reaching into the upper fifties and we could air out the house. I did a massive amount of spring cleaning and just about drove both Thor and Lady crazy, the cats too if they accidentally got under foot.
“To borrow your phrase Hon, what in the Sam Hill is all the fuss?” Thor asked the day I demanded we turn all of the mattresses and go through all of the linens in the house.
“It’s not a fuss, it’s a necessity. By turning the mattresses they’ll last longer and stay fresher. I’ve tried to come up with some ideas for when the mattresses finally go in case we can’t get a replacement but none of them are going to be as good as what we have now. So, the longer we can keep what we have now the better,” I answered him, at least as tired as he was.
“What did they do in the ‘olden days’?”
“As far as I can remember from what my grandmothers said that they had straw … ticks I guess you would call them. Sort of like mattresses but with no real body to them and they had to be emptied and refreshed at least once a year. Richer folks had thinner feather ticks on top of the straw ones. You could tie them at the corners to keep them from sliding away from each other. Then you tied on the bottom sheet to make it all a nice neat package. Add a flat sheet and a quilt for the summer and a comforter and/or extra quilts in the winter and that was pretty much it.”
Thor looked at me then sighed and said, “We’ll turn the mattresses for as long as we can. After a long day the last thing I want to do is sleep on something as hard as a board. I’ve gotten spoiled living indoors these last few months.”
“And I’ve gotten spoiled having a full belly. Spoiled enough that I can complain of wanting something fresh so bad I’m just about ready to go out and eat grass with the cow.”
Thor laughed but understood what I meant. I’d managed to find a few green things poking up through the snow in a few places but not enough to cut the cravings I was having. The herbs that I had growing in the green house made a smallish salad every few days but still that wasn’t enough. I’d always been a protein girl before so it made me wonder what I was lacking. I meant to ask Granny C but I never got a chance; the few times I actually made it to the Hefling place she was off tending to someone else.
In April, as promised, I finished all of the organizing that I had done during the cold months and we had a Spring Meet. Fewer people than expected showed up. Seems many slaughtered their work or travel animals to make it through the winter and when that ran out some simply starved to death. Thor, I, and the few others of our tight knit group did try to help where we could but as we knew it, it wasn’t enough for some.
There were people who simply gave up when they realized that they were living in the new normal. They couldn’t adjust fast enough, or didn’t want to adjust, I was never sure which. Poor nutrition sent a lot of people off to their Judgment Day early … or maybe on time because God knew when it was coming even if the rest of us did not. A few kids were orphaned but usually it was the young and old who went first. Maybe that was a blessing in this harsh and cruel world.
What did come during the Spring Meet was news from the outside world and it was more due to accident than on purpose which leads me once again to realize that God has plans that are hard to fathom. It seemed a coincidence, but true coincidences are rare as hen’s teeth and it might be that God just put people on the road at a certain time and place just to meet up with us on a certain time and place. Whatever, we were pleased to meet a real live Colonel of the US Army.
Thor looked him up and down politely and though some of his men seemed to bristle, Colonel Hardaway smiled and said, “Battlefield promotions.”
The colonel couldn’t have been but a few years older than Thor was. “Huh. That must have been some battle.”
Colonel Hardaway laughed outright at Thor’s expression, not the least offended which bumped him up a notch in my book. The Colonel asked if Thor would take a moment and meet with him. I went to follow but he gave me a look that I was not happy to receive. It wasn’t a public look that anyone would have recognized but I knew what he meant and I had a hard time keeping my face blank. Instead Thor asked if Mr. Hefling could come and the Colonel was amendable to that. I later found out my feathers had no reason to be ruffled. Thor’s idea was that I would clear the way if he had to make a quick exit … we wouldn’t both be caught on the same side of a line.
They were over an hour and I was just about to make some noise when Thor showed back up with his professional and serious face on. Mr. Hefling’s face was blank but it seemed his eyes had a faraway look that bothered me more than Thor’s expression did. Everyone watched the military caravan drive away although they also had their fair share of honest to goodness cavalry men and women on horses and mules as well as a bunch of soldiers on foot.
There was a general air of excitement as people rushed to ask Mr. Hefling and Thor when FEMA or some other emergency services would arrive with supplies. Into this noise the two men’s silence fell like a rock and people shut up and not a few of them looked afraid, like they didn’t want any more bad news confirmed. Thor looked at Mr. Hefling who just looked back at him and I realized they were wondering who was going to break the news.
I said, “OK, that’s enough.” Several people startled and I could see a bunch of owl-eyed folks looking my way. “Give it to us in small syllables and we won’t have to ask so many repetitive questions.”
Thor gave me a small smile. “All right, here it is. No one is coming. There are no supplies. The good news is the government isn’t looking to take what little bit we’ve got left here as they don’t want a fight and have bigger problems to deal with. The bad news is these troubles aren’t just happening in the US but are worldwide. Governments have fallen, risen, and fallen again. There are some countries that are only in existence because they already are on the map … but hardly any are left to lay claim to it within their borders. And the US wasn’t the only country to get sabotaged by an EMP device.”
A voice from the crowd say, “Liar!”
Before I had a chance to bow up Jimmy Ray had round housed the man and then said, “He’s had that coming for weeks now. You all know who he is and why. You’ve heard the rumors of just how his kids disappeared … four and five year olds don’t just run away like he claims.”
Yeah, there had been rumors of cannibalism. I don’t guess any society, even a supposedly modern and enlightened one, can escape it. Some folks are just animals.
Thor continued speaking to everyone after a nod at Jimmy Ray. “Feel free to believe me or not but we may not be out of the woods yet. There are some countries … the remnants of Russia and China, a militant religious coalition of people from the Middle East, and a few other groups from places like Eastern Europe and Northern Africa … that are … well, let’s just call it salvaging for now … from all over the world trying to rebuild what they’ve managed to secure. The US military and state militias fight off outside groups every day who are trying to cross our borders to obtain what we have. The winter kept us insulated for a time but winter is coming to an end and so is what little safety it gave us.”
Stro asked, “Are you saying we can expect foreigners to come traipsing through here trying to take our crops, animals, and what have you?”
Thor shrugged, “We’re pretty remote with no major landing strips for large planes but that won’t prevent helicopters from being utilized. So far they are sticking mainly to the coastal regions though a few have gotten as far inland as Kansas looking for grain. Most of the time the local population handles things but the invaders have been successful enough times that it has emboldened them to continue to try. Our southern border is a mess but you can take it to the bank that Texas is still Texas and Texans are still Texans. The bodies are piling higher and deeper but it is only proving to be a foundation for the wall that is being built down there by the convicts and illegal immigrants who are no longer being treated with kid gloves. Problem is that is still better than some have it at home and they have nearly as many foreign born ‘volunteers’ as properly convicted invaders. The northern border is as leaky as a sieve but so far the Canadians are irritated enough at people trying to use their country as egress into this one for illegal activity that our two nations are working together pretty effectively though it has taken some reshuffling of priorities for some of the remaining bureaucracy.”
“And?” I asked. Thor raised his eyebrow asking me what I meant. “Knowing this stuff is all well and good but exactly what is that Colonel expecting from us in return for the knowledge.”
Thor gave me a sly smile, “To the point, as always.” He kissed me causing some people to flap at the delay and others to wolf whistle. As for me, when he was done all I said was, “I’m waiting.”
Mr. Hefling was finally getting his feet back under him. I guess it is one thing to theorize what was going on out beyond our town’s borders but quite another to have them confirmed. He said, “They want us to rebuild, not just our lives but our town such as it is. They want us to keep the roads open and in good repair the best we can, allowing any traffic to flow freely so long as they aren’t obvious threats. The US population has been cut roughly in half from what they’ve been able to tell from their initial analysis. In some places that percentage is higher and some places it is lower, migration out of the urban areas has added to population loss over the winter.”
A woman I recognized as one of the old grade school teachers asked, “Are you sure it isn’t worse than that? Look what happened around here. I don’t think we have a quarter of our population that we had pre-EMP.”
Thor answered her. “There were places in the north east and in the Deep South that have lost very few people. In the far regions the EMP effects were not nearly as consistent as they were in the center of the Continental US. They expect more loss of life in the south and southwest this summer than they had over the winter. California had very few mass casualty attacks … guess the greenies didn’t want to poop in their own back yard. But there are pockets of California that have been devastated by infrastructure failure associated with the EMP. So many people headed for the coast of Cali in search of water that the east coast has risen a few extra inches out of the water.”
I rolled my eyes while a couple of people snorted at his explanation. Thor was learning how to talk mountain speak like a native and a tall tale or good exaggeration always went over well with a crowd.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Do they expect us to start seeing any of this ‘migration’ or whatever they call it? Will it be the same as we saw on the road getting here?”
Mine weren’t the only questions and the two men basically sat down and had a town meeting right there in the dirt. I wandered away knowing I’d hear it again once we got home and maybe in greater detail with more of Thor’s personal take on things. I went looking for Granny C and found her talking to a couple of other women.
She looked at me good and then nodded sociably to the others before walking with me back to the family wagon. “So ye think ye might be?”
I smiled and then stopped. “I’m pretty sure I am. I’ve missed twice now. Once I could put down to hard work and an irregular cycle but twice … I think I am.”
“Have ye said anything to your man yet?”
“No, but I need to soon. We are supposed to start planting tomorrow and I don’t want him to start treating me funny. I’m not sure how he’ll take it.”
“You’ll never know until you spit it out.”
I nodded, “I know. But … did … did Mom ever say anything to you … about … to you about if the doctors told her anything about me? About me having kids?”
She put her hands on her hips and gave me a look. “You picked a fine time to start worry about it.”
“Trust me, I know. I didn’t really want to think about it. As far as I know I’m all normal where I need to be but … I guess …”
She finally relented and patted my arm. “You’re wondering if your ma didn’t keep something from you?” At my nod she said, “No. As far as I know you’re just a big girl now that you’ve outgrown the punies you had as a little child. That don’t mean you can just go larking about though. Your man ain’t exactly small and between him and you there’s a good chance your babies are gonna have some size to them. You weighed what fifteen pounds?”
I made a face, “Fifteen pounds, five ounces and Mom couldn’t have any more after me because of all the cutting they had to do and the bleeding she did.”
Granny C frowned, “I always wondered if they did all they could or if …”
“Well child, there were plenty of folks that never expected you to draw your first breath and plenty of them took it further and didn’t want you to draw your first breath. Your parents faced a lot of pressure because they refused to kill you in the womb. I always wondered if … maybe … that doctor that was on duty that night you were born did all he could have done for your ma. Your da always wondered the same thing but there was no fixing things the way they were broke so they gave it to the Lord and learned to feel blessed ‘cause they were the ones He chose to have you.”
I’d heard a bit of the story over the years despite my parents always refusing to discuss it outright. “So what does that mean for me?”
“It means that we watch and we wait. Do you know how much Thor weighed at birth?”
I nodded. “Ten thirteen. His mom was a normal sized woman even though his dad was nearly as tall as he is. She didn’t even have to have a C-section which … I mean …”
“I know child, I know. But there isn’t anything I can do about it. I will tell you there were a lot of those Roman cuts that took place that didn’t need to just ‘cause either women or the doctors made the choice rather than letting nature take its course. We aren’t going to have that choice anymore, least ways not around here. You’re just going to have to stay healthy, active, and listen to what you body tells you. Just don’t go listening to Sarah, she’ll scare you to death for no reason. Honestly that girl is something else.”
I blushed. I had been listening to Sarah tell the gory story of the birth of her son. That’s one reason why it had taken me so long to get up the nerve to talk to Granny C.
I looked down at my still trim stomach and tried to imagine what I would look like. Granny C caught me looking and laughed. “Don’t you take the cake. You’ll be lucky to show at all if all you get is a regular sized ‘un. You’re so long the baby could stretch from here to Richmond and no one would notice.”
A little relieved I said, “Hopefully that’ll keep people from talking for a while. I can hear them now, wondering if I’m going to have a mutant or something.”
“Just you never mind what others say. You enjoy what God has blessed you with for as long as you’re allowed to keep ‘em. Mine never made it out of the hospital and sometimes that is just God’s plan though I’m determined to ask Him why when it’s my turn up to the Pearly Gates. But I raised my sister’s bunch and I’m not ashamed to say that I think most of ‘em turned out decent enough though we’ve not heard from the others …” I saw a sorrow that crossed everyone’s face from time to time. We’d all lost people. Or even if they hadn’t passed beyond the veil they were beyond our reach to communicate with.
I left Granny C and went around the few tables and blankets that had been set up making a few trades here and there, including one for stud service for our cow who was now healthy enough that I didn’t worry about losing her should she take with the first mating.
I noticed something as I walked around. The women looked road hard and hung up wet in a way the men did not. Part of it was that I was seeing the real girl or woman and not one that had make up on or her hair done up with a color or perm. Part of it was that the winter really had been hard on everyone, but there was just some indefinable something that I couldn’t put my finger on exactly. I knew that it wasn’t unusual for men to go through more than one wife or wives to go through more than one husband in the “olden days” as Thor called them … and not because of family court either. Childbirth used to take off a lot of women – babies too – prior to the 1950s or so. But only a few of these women looked to be in that age range and most of them were old enough to have gotten that problem fixed already. Maybe it was just grief. Maybe it was fear, the kind that most men will never understand just because they are hardwired different than females. Whatever it was it was there, just below the surface and it gave me a lot to think about.
We soon left and Thor talked off and on most of the way home filling me in on some things. I listened and took it in, even asked some questions, but I was preoccupied with my own thoughts. When we got home it was almost too late in the day to start anything new so I just checked on what we had in progress and then felt the need to wander through our supplies a bit while a dinner of stew that I would serve over rice simmered on the stove.
Thor found me running my hands over things and counting silently. “Whatcha doin’?”
I shrugged then asked him, “How do I look?”
“Huh?” he asked in surprise. I rarely asked him to comment on my looks. I always thought asking a man if something made you look fat or whatever was unfair after seeing Dad get that deer in the headlights look a few times with Mom.
A little impatient with myself, “Forget it.”
“Uh uh,” he said grabbing me around the waist when I tried to brush by. “Someone say something today?” he asked protectively.
“No. It’s just … I didn’t know how to explain it very well.”
“Just what?” There are days when I doubted Thor had the patience of a flea but that moment wasn’t one of them. He had his “Job Look” on and I knew he could out wait me.
I shrugged. “Those women today, they looked … well some of them anyway … looked bad. Rough I guess, like … Oh for pity sake, I don’t know.”
But Thor actually nodded. “I know Hon. Women age different, you can see it all on the surface. I saw a lot of that over in the Middle East. Women marry young, have children young, nutrition isn’t great, medical care is worse, and don’t get me started on dental issues. They see a lot of sorrows. They just seem to age faster than their male counterparts of the same age. And too their veneer of civilization has been peeled away … make up, hair, all that false camouflage. I always appreciated that you were more natural in how you approached life, gave me a better idea of what you really looked like.”
I chuckled, “You mean you weren’t buying a pig in a poke?”
“Uh … if I say yes will it get me in trouble?”
I laughed outright at his look. “No, of course not. But I am realizing that I’ve missed out on the chance to play dress up and try and knock your socks off.”
“Girl, you’ve been knocking me right out of my socks since the day I met you.” Well that led to some cuddling and cooing until I remembered the stew. It was a little scorched on the bottom but Thor laughed off my upset and said it was worth it.
Later that evening I was still struggling with how to tell him I was pretty sure that our timing beat the cow. I sat in my favorite chair by the fire with Lady draped across my feet when suddenly I heard, “Hey, sleepyhead, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the bed?”
I’d fallen asleep without planning to and I knew there was no reason for me to be so tired … at least no more tired than I was any other night. That told me as much as anything else that I couldn’t put it off anymore, it wasn’t fair to Thor.
I crawled in bed and pulled the covers up and then enjoyed watching him get ready to join me.
“Hmmm?” he asked as he started to climb in.
“I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant.”
Thud! He’d completely missed the bed.