Toward the end, some of my Gran’s days were really bad. As awful as how she died was, I don’t think she actually regretted dying all that much. She was ready. None of the rest of us was but she seemed to be. My Da used to joke with her and say, “For an Outlander you sure are unnaturally cheerful.” Gran would smile and say, “Humor is about the only thing that gets a body through their time here on Earth when life rolls along like a broken wagon wheel.” The longer I live, the more true I find that to be.
The next few days after the Captain and Winnie left I came to realize you just can’t change people. You can either learn to like them for who they are, or who they aren’t. You can love them in spite of something or despite something or because of something. You can even try and help them to make themselves more “lovable.” But until they are willing to help themselves you might as well be falling in love with the moon and talking to the wind. By trying to change people to make them lovable for you, you just make the same mistakes they do of thinking the world revolves around you and what you want.
A part of me had come to want so much to find a replacement for my sisters in Francine but the more realistic portion was beginning to learn that I was just going to have to forego that and accept Francine for who she was. It wasn’t my place to show anyone who I saw her as; they would either see it or not. It wasn’t for me to understand why Cor loved Francine like he did; I just needed to understand that he did. I needed to do what the Padre said and take care of the log I had in my own eye instead of telling other people they had splinters in theirs.
So I let Francine be Francine. I didn’t try and tug her out of bed or out of her lonely sitting room. I didn’t tell her that she shouldn’t dose herself with those teas she was forever sipping on “for her nerves and headaches.” I didn’t force my company on her after she started taking her meals in her rooms; I ate in the kitchen to save the work of having to mess up an entire room when it was only me that would be in there.
Besides it was more fun to have my meals with everyone else. I might not have been completely part of the family of estate people but I wasn’t completely on the outside anymore either. It made me feel a part of things. There were empty places in my life I knew that in a sense would always be there so I did the best I could to go about filling in around the holes so that they didn’t feel quite so big. If I couldn’t have a real husband or my sisters around me I’d find something else. If I couldn’t birth a family of my own then I would create one from what there was around me. I would have to walk a careful line but then again my sisters and I had been forced to walk carefully or be torn asunder.
I learned a lot sitting and listening to the estate people. I learned about their families, the geography of the area, the history of folks other than those called “First Families.” I learned that it was sometimes difficult to find brides because of how closely everyone was related, especially in the smaller farming outposts. I learned that old tech had still been pretty common until about fifty years ago. It wasn’t really used in individual homes but in “libraries” and “communication centers” so that it could be shared by all. Then there was a huge storm in the sky and most of it just stopped working.
“It hurt some families more’n others but truth be told a lot of us had been forced to give up the old tech by the time the Sky Storm came anyway. The old stuff had started to wear out before the Dark Days were over with. There are places that still build tech, but it is on a small scale and they’re using parts harvested by the scavengers, not really making their own. ‘Tis how Young Cor started out before he got enough coin to get into other bartering. Scavenging is dangerous work and takes yer ter places like hot zones and graveyard cities. Yer can make a living at it but better do it quick and enjoy it as fast as you can because you’ll die afore too long. Never was so relieved with Young Cor gave it up.”
That sentiment was echoed all around the table. It told me even if they were disappointed in some of Cor’s lack of training and response to their needs, they still considered him integral to the estate and important in their lives. It meant there was hope for both sides of that cypher. I deemed it my job to give Cor time to pay off the debts and secure the estate while at the same time making sure the people of the estate were taken care of or at least listened to.
It was about a week after the Captain had left that I received a letter by courier. The man said he was told that it was to be delivered into my hands alone. I noted that the packet had been sealed with wax and stamped.
I asked, “Do you need to head out right away or do you have time to grab a bite to eat?”
The man stopped, looking a bit surprised. “Well, trufe be Mistress … well … I could use sumping to eat. Been cutting across a couple of different estates for the last few days and the weather hasn’t been good for a fire so me meals have been slim.”
“Well then you’ve got to the right place on the right day,” I told him. “Mrs. Wiley fixed a blackberry cobbler to go with the rice and beans we had for lunch. There is also some fried squash or baked cucumber slices that I think are delicious. And I’m sure Jonah can make sure that you get the right … um … beverage for your meal.”
He grinned and then said, “Thank ee Mistress. Most kind of yers.”
I led him around to the back of the house and Jonah came forward eyeing the man suspiciously until the man produced the badge that showed him to be an official Kipling Courier. I debated whether to open the packet immediately but decided to wait until I was finished braiding the wreath of hot peppers that I had been working on before Topher had fetched me.
I had finished up and was looking for the next half done task when Jonah pulled me aside. “Gilly, not that in the end it didn’t turn out all right, but yer should have more care for yer safety. Yer is right when yer say that Kipling ain’t the Outlands but it still ain’t always safe as a cradle. Thet boy should have knowd better and gotten me or one of the other men afore he bothered yers.”
“Jonah?” His attitude had completely caught me off guard. “You’ve seen me fight a bear … or you would have if you hadn’t been knocked out. You don’t really think I walk around unarmed do you?”
“Yeah I know yer keep that little sticker o’ yers close ter hand and thets a good thing. But yer jest never knows so yer just let us men make sure afore yer go gallivanting and having talks with strangers.”
I felt like he was being a little silly but he was so serious and so honest about it I had a hard time telling him to go to hades which is likely what I would have said to anyone else if they had tried to rein me in like that.
Before I could look at the packet I helped with the tomatoes. Tomatoes were something I knew and knew well. Gran, whose ancestors had immigrated into Saburbia from the south during the Dark Days, had grown them in abundance. I had taught Mrs. Wiley and the other estate women how to make salsa by the gallon; a real hit that livened up some of the duller dishes like plain white rice. I also taught them how to make tomato preserves and tomato beer.
After Jonah had a sip of the first batch to finish he said, “Bain’t like rice lightning but not ter bad on a hot day likes terday.”
That was the consensus of almost everyone and it also helped us to use up the unexpected abundance before they went overripe; it was getting hard to keep up with everything, the more we picked the more the plants produced. To make tomato beer you mash up ripe tomatoes and then strain them through a thin cloth to take out all the skin, seeds, and most of the pulp. For every gallon of this juice you add three pounds of brown sugar. Mix it up real good and then let it stand for nine days. All of the remaining pulp will have fallen to the bottom by that time and you want to siphon off the clear liquid that sits on top. Well, not clear because it is still tomato juice but the watery part that the pulp has separated from. You take this watery juice and bottle it up tight. When you are ready to drink it you take a half tumbler full and add it to a gallon of cold water … spring or well doesn’t matter. Sweeten it some more if you want to and you can even add a little cider vinegar for some whang. Each batch of tomatoes comes out a little different so you have to learn to play with it to create the flavor you want.
The potatoes also started coming in that day and we were all tired. Supper was a quiet affair and then we all went our separate ways. Mrs. Wiley shooed me from the house saying, “Go on Gilly. The boys have already fetched Miss Francie’s tray down so there’s no need fer yer ter stay. Jonah’s widder friend is trying to curry some faver with me and I’ve a mind to have a talk with her to see if she be true serious about my brother before he gets his fool old heart broke. Whoever heard of a man his age falling in love fer the first time. Honestly, might jest hang him on the side of the tanner’s shed and get it over with.” She sighed. “Might as well do the talkin’ over a tub o’ dishes as anything else. ‘Sides, I know yer itchin’ to see what the Cap’n has to say.”
I thought about objecting for half a second but instead told her, “Thanks Mrs. Wiley. I’m not quite as curious as a cat but it’s pretty close.” She laughed and shooed me with her broom and I headed to the cabin feeling tired but satisfied that we’d accomplished so much that day.
It was too hot to light a fire but I could have done with a cup of tea. I wouldn’t have minded a cup of willow tea in particular to take the thump out of my foot where one of the boys had dropped a bucket of potatoes they had been passing along. I almost decided to chew a piece of the dried bark and then just the thought of the taste was enough to make me realize my foot didn’t hurt near as much as I imagined it did.
Still, I thought it a good idea to take my moccasins off and prop my feet up on the overturned bucket that I used like a foot stool. I held the packet in my hand for a moment feeling the weight of it and then broke the wax, untied the string, and began to read.