Even with the door closed the cold was pressing on the cabin. Jonah had said a weather change was coming but it seemed it was changing a bit more than we had anticipated. I thought about my nice warm bed and then smelled Cor and thought, “No.” I’m not averse to sharing warmth, my sisters and I did it, but I refused to gag all night long because of drunken belches.
I scooted the heavy rocker over near the fireplace and then pulled the chair over as well to prop my feet on. It was the first I’d really taken to look at the rocker and discovered it was a fine piece. Looking even closer I could see a carving had been burned into the wide piece where my head would rest. I was startled to realize it was a picture of this cabin from the outside, complete with cedar trees, pines, and the little foot bridge over the stream. Just barely discernible in the bottom right of the headboard were the words “Fel’s Cabin”.
I looked over at the sleeping man and shook my head. He was such a mixture. Man one minute, boy the next, part clumsy puppy, and part something else altogether that I didn’t have a name for. Down deep there was a part of him that was sad and needy that made him do stupid things but he could also be strong and kind and be responsible when others needed him to. Most of the men that I had known weren’t all that complicated; if you fed and watered them enough generally they wouldn’t bother you too much except for the obligatory rousting when they got together to egg each other on. Cor on the other hand was complicated; no wonder he made himself miserable so often. Men who think see too much and once you’ve seen something it is awful hard to unsee it.
Thoughtfully I picked up the bear skin and draped it in the rocker. I sat down and propped my feet in the chair and then wrapped the rest of the bear skin around me. I would be snug as a bug in a rug assuming I could fall asleep. Between thinking about Cor – who by then was snoring in time to the wind that had picked up outside – and about what all he had said I had an awful time putting my new concerns aside so I could rest.
I would need to do something for Cor. I wasn’t going to owe him for the rocker. I knew he broke the old one but this was something above and beyond and it made me uncomfortable. It was out of pecan wood and was fresh made; I could tell by the smell. I’d discovered that Cor was a fine carpenter – I’d watched him fix the doorframe he’d broken and watched him refashion a new door out of a thick panel of seasoned wood from the estates wood shed. He’d even cut the panel so that there was a small door I could look out without having to open the whole door. He’d also nailed in a metal grate on the outside while the small sliding door was on the inside. As nice as the door was, the rocker was another level of woodworking completely. There wasn’t a rough edge or sharp corner on it anywhere. It didn’t just look sturdy it felt sturdy and the rocking motion when I tried it out was dead smooth with no squeaks.
As much as that gave me to think on the more immediate problem was trying to figure out what Cor had meant when he’d described Francine’s ultimatum. I had accepted we’d have to do some playacting when we made our agreement but what she wanted was definitely not part of anything that I had considered. Cor didn’t either from his reaction. I suppose I could have been insulted but I wasn’t. If I had been a man and faced with coming to me and trying to explain what my other wife was determined to have I might have knocked back a jug or two myself.
I finally dozed off some hours after the little clock that had appeared on the mantle told me it was midnight. And when there was a hesitant knock on the cabin door when gray light was just filtering in the windows it didn’t take me much to open my eyes and sit up.
I discovered I had buried part of my face under the bear skin and when I pulled it out the cold in the air curled the hairs in my nose. I dragged it with me to the door and slid open the little door to see Jonah standing there wrapped in a heavy coat.
“I know yer … er … keepin’ company Gilly but we needs yer and Young Cor. Bad freeze come in overnight and some o’ the pipes from the pumps ter the house hadn’t been wrapped yet and we gotter mess. Everything that was still in the garden is rurnt too.”
I said a foul word that had both Jonah and Cor growling. Jonah because he was reminding me not to put Mrs. Wiley in a mood with such talk and Cor because he claimed it was a rude thing to wake up to. After Jonah left I said, “It’s just because you’re hung over. Serves you right. And you better not puke your guts out in here … you are starting to look a little green.”
He ran outside and into the bushes just in time and then came in hopping and skipping and swearing where the frost had tried to cut his feet and asking for his boots when it was too late. “And what happened to my clothes?!” he growled too loud before grabbing his head. He looked at me through bloodshot eyes then whispered, “Did … did I … I mean …” Going a deeper shade of green he asked. “Did I do … anything … to um … I mean … I was in your bed and …”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Do you think me such a weak ninny I couldn’t deal with a drunk?” At his sad look I shook my head. “Honestly Cor, lighten up. No, you didn’t do anything you need to apologize for. Now stop standing there like the cabin is going to fall on you and come in so I can shut the door. I’m not dressed either and don’t want to catch lung rot in this cold.”
He finally came inside shivering and went over to the fire and poked it up. He started to put a piece of wood on it but I told him, “Don’t do it for my sake. I need to get out in the garden. Didn’t you hear Jonah?”
He sighed as he tugged on his shirt. “I heard. Uh …”
I looked at him and once his brain caught up with his ears he realized I was serious when I told him what my state of undress was. He wrenched around to face the fire. “Fel … you … you shouldn’t …”
Growling because I was getting tired of his foolishness I told him, “Cor … if we are going to get thrown together like this you are going to have to deal with those scruples of yours some way other than the way you are going or you are going to blow out a vessel in your brain. Honestly, if it turns your stomach that much to be around me just try and think of me like a sister or something.”
He mumbled, “It’s not … that’s not what … Fel, you sure this isn’t bothering or upsetting you?”
I snorted impatiently. “Cor, I know we haven’t spent a particular amount of time together all things considered but do you really think I’d let something go unsaid if it was bothering me?”
He was silent for a moment that turned around to find me walking being a maple paneled screen. He made a little racket when he realized I was getting dressed but not enough to be a bother. He did say, “We need to talk.”
I came out from around the screen dressed for the day – it was too cold to take long doing it – and told him, “And how. But right now isn’t the time for it. Jonah wouldn’t have come to get me … us … if it wasn’t serious.”
We walked together over to where we saw Jonah standing with some others. Regardless of what I said I was squirming inside over what everyone must have thought was going on in the cabin. I hid it since it was all part of the plan but Cor wasn’t doing so good. If he squirmed any more he’d look like a worm in hot coals. But it didn’t take long for all of us to put such thoughts out of our heads. A mess was before us.
I left Cor and the other men digging out around the pipes that ran from the well house to the rest of the outbuildings and the big house while I walked over to where the women were standing with Mrs. Wiley lamenting the loss of what was left in the garden.
“Why should everything be lost?” I asked.
“Gilly, just look around Honey … this freeze done kilt ever thing,” said one of the women.
“It may have gotten the plants but for pity sake, I’m not leaving any of those fruits on the vine to rot. Tell me you know how to save green tomatoes and pumpkins and such.”
Mrs. Wiley sighed and said, “I would if I could Gilly. The stuff has frozen though.”
“So?” I said almost getting sassy. “My Gran always said that God gave you trouble just so you could feel good about overcoming it. I can’t tell you the amount of green tomatoes I’ve eaten since I was just learning to chew.” Surprised they were still looking glum I said, “If the pumpkins are green but their skin is still soft you can cook them up just like a summer squash … I’m in favor of squash and onions if anyone is asking. Reckon we can cook up a bunch today and have it eaten up too ‘cause I can just imagine how hungry those men are going to get digging in this cold weather.”
Turning around I spotted some boys trying to slink off. “Topher! Get your gang over here right now.”
“Yes’m Miss Fel,” he called glumly.
I explained to them what I expected and they grabbed some baskets and started picking the remaining pumpkins and sorting them into two piles – soft skinned and the ones with skins that had already hardened.
Turning to Mrs. Wiley I said, “We can use the soft skinned ones up today and tomorrow too if they’ll last. After they’re used up we can switch to the hard shelled green pumpkins and peel them, cut them into chunks, flour them up and then fry them. You can also batter those chunks and deep fry them then sprinkle them with sweetening and I bet the boys would clean you out of any extra that might be left over.”
Given the notorious appetite that Topher and his crowd had there were several chuckles at my words. Then I went on to the green tomatoes. “My Gran and Ma did all sorts of things with green tomatoes. Made them into pies that taste kind of like your apple pies, pickled the little cherry sized ones, mixed them with apples to make something she called a chutney, she breaded and fried big slices and then smothered them in white gravy, made relish the same as I saw you do with pickles. Then there was salsa verde we had on founding day and green tomato mincemeat pies that we only ate when Padre came to celebrate the Christ’s birth with us. Gran and Ma never let anything go to waste in the Outlands. If you let something go to waste God is going to think you need less since you are being wasteful and next time you might find out you don’t have enough.” Mrs. Wiley startled me with a hug and we got down to business.
I was not joking when I said my Gran and Ma used up everything until there was nothing left of it. When I saw the boys pulling plants out of the field and tossing them into the fire Mrs. Wiley laughed so hard when she said I looked like an angry goose chasing after them.
“Well,” I said a little embarrassed after I’d come back. “You don’t waste anything green that can go on the compost.”
Ma explained it that for everything you take out of the ground or that the ground gives you, you have to give something back. If you don’t the ground stops giving you things. Da said she was superstitious but that it was true that you needed to put compost and stuff on the garden or you would steal all of the minerals for the ground and plants couldn’t grow in it. I didn’t see as there was much difference in what they meant, only in the way they explained it but I wouldn’t have dared to sass my folks by saying such to them.
It wasn’t the work that was miserable so much as it was the cold and wet we were working in. I was also bleary eyed from very little sleep. The cold was probably the only thing keeping me awake.
Some kind soul keep a couple of cauldrons of warm drinks going and every once in a while Topher or one of the other boys would put a mug of something in my hand … midmorning it was broth and that suddenly made me realized I hadn’t had a first meal and that I was hungry.
Topher was still there dancing a little from foot to foot. “What?” I asked him.
“Um … Miss Francie said she … um … wants to … um …”
I said, “Where is she?”
“Over at your cabin with Mr. Cor.”
Hmmm. “OK, tell Mrs. Wiley I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I started walking toward the cabin wondering if Francine had finally come to her senses but as I approached I realized I was out of luck again.
“Cor, you promised,” she whined. “You said we would be a real family and here you are covered in mud and out playing with the men instead of taking care of your responsibilites.”
Highly offended Cor retorted, “Playing?! I’m working!”
“And you promised me that you would honeymoon with Fel and make us a real family. Can’t you even stop for just one week and treat a woman right?!”
Well that put a snarl in Cor’s voice all right. “Fel and I do not need a blasted honeymoon. I have given in to this need of yours to replicate the family you had growing up but dammit Francine … don’t tell me how to treat a woman. If Fel isn’t complaining I don’t see why you should.”
“That … that woman is uncivilized and doesn’t know any better. I’ve come to accept that as a second wife she isn’t the perfect choice but that I can live with it if it gets us closer to our goal. But your next wife …”
“Next wife?!” Cor yelped.
I was beginning to think Francine wouldn’t know commonsense if it slapped her across the face like a fresh caught fish. I was cold, tired, wet, and cranky … in other words not in the best state of mind to deal with Francine’s brand of foolishness. I came up on her and snarled, “The flaming plague scourged world does not revolve around you and what you want Francine! Do you think I, that any of us really want to be out grubbing in the cold mud and muck?! There are things more important than honeymooning and doing what would be easy ... if we don't do this people will starve! Do you know what that means? Have you even ever had to miss a meal? No matter whether I could put if off on someone else or not, the plain fact of the matter is I will not. I will not put my head down tonight or any other night knowing that I haven't done what I ought for these people. I won't live knowing I wasted this last opportunity God gave us to take care of our people. And frankly I don't know how you could.” Getting real wound up I told her, “What is more you won't! You will get up off your self-pity and misery. You will get in that kitchen if I have to roll you there in a barrel. And you will do it to make your aunts and Elder Lathrop proud if you can do it for no other reason!!”
I took one step towards her and Francine took off running back to the house. Beyond exasperated I stuck my hand out to Cor and said, “No more wives.”
He looked at me, then at my hand, then back at me and then stuck out his own and we shook on it. “No more wives,” he agreed.
In a sour mood we both stomped back to our work. I caught Francine trying to disappear back into the house by a side door but stopped her. “I’m not kidding Francine. If it takes writing a letter to your precious aunts or Elder Lathrop I’ll do it. You are going to start participating in the life of this estate instead of sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. Play … time … is … over. I won’t be pushed around and I’m done standing back and letting Cor be pushed around. He doesn’t deserve it from you and I could care less if I deserve it as no matter what I’m not going to take it. You want to eat then you are going to work just like the rest of us.”