Slowly Cor smiled, more than willing to put away his troubles for a few moments. He stood up and went to get the rucksack he’d brought with him.
“Here, taste this,” he said after reaching inside the bag for something.
He held what looked like a small sun in the palm of his hand. I asked, “Is that … an … an orange?”
He nodded and then tried to make me take it. “Cor … that’s … that’s gold where I come from. Da said they had a greenhouse where he come from where they used to grow some but a winter storm put a small hole in the glass and all the trees died.”
“Here,” he said and he took his knife and cut a hole in the top and then rolled the fruit in his hand like he was warming it up or making it soft. “Now suck on this hole. Go on Fel … trust me.”
I put the fruit to my lips cautiously and my eyes just about crossed when the tart taste of the juice hit my tongue. I must have made a pretty funny face because Cor started laughing and laughing and nearly fell out of the rocker.
I shook my head at him acting worse than Topher after a prank. “Cor, I’m serious. This is an … a naranja … or that’s what the Mexi people call them.”
Cor grinned. “Naranja? Yeah, I’ve heard them called that too. Then there are yellow ones like this …”
Those I knew too though I’d never seen one except in pictures. “They’re called lemons. Gran told me about those and little orange balls called tangerines. One of her brothers married a woman from this place called Yuma and he used to bring her presents when he’d come to visit. He called them seetrooss fruit.”
Cor smiled and said, “It’s pronounced citrus, not seetrooss.” He went on to explain, “There are green ones called limes and great big yellow ones called grapefruit even though they don’t look anything like a grape except for being round … I think it is supposed to be a joke but everyone down there swears that’s what they’re called. And I brought wagons of the things back … all sorts. I was able to do it a couple of years ago and the Council offered me a bounty if I was able to do it again this year. They have greenhouses at the fort that they are growing little citrus trees in and I plan on giving that a try here as well. We won’t grow near what they can down south, weather here just won’t allow for it, but it would be a good novelty item.”
“I reckon so,” I said agreeing enthusiastically. “You know you can dry the peel and use it to flavor stuff if I remember what my Gran used to say about it. She had this wonderful book full of pictures and recipes that had been handwritten by the women in our family back to before the Dark Days … but it got burned up in the fire.” I was always a little sad thinking of all the things lost in the fire, my family being the worst of it.
I was caught off guard when Cor asked, “Why don’t you start a new one? It’s not like we don’t have the paper and ink for it.”
I shrugged. “Who would I leave it to? Not like I’m ever going to have …” I stopped as it was a subject that I wasn’t comfortable talking about with Cor. “Let me get you some more tea.”
He grabbed my arm as I got up and I could see from his face that the idea has struck him as well. “I …”
I shook my head and pulled my arm gently from his grasp. “Don’t Cor. Life is what it is. There’s no profit in wishing it wasn’t.” I cleared my throat and said, “So the bonus from the Council was good?”
He was quiet for a moment but abided by my wishes not to continue on the other subject. “Yeah, it was. I’ve cleared off the debt from the Lathrops.”
I nearly dropped the kettle. “What?! Oh Cor, that’s wonderful news! Why didn’t you say so to begin with?!!”
His grin grew and then he started to chuckle. “You know you are the first one to act like I did something grand and heroic?”
Shocked I asked, “Wait, didn’t the Captain …?”
He shook his head. “Uncle Rob thought it was good but as is his way all he said was ‘about time.’ I mean it’s true. If I had gotten them out of the way first maybe none of this other would have happened but it’s only in the last year that I ever saw the Lathrops as a threat. Mostly I was just bogged down trying to figure out a way to pay the bills as they came due to keep everyone off my back rather than how any single debt could break me … break the estate.”
I fell back and my chair and just smiled. “I bet you feel a whole lot better getting it out of the way though don’t you?”
He nodded, stilling grinning as well. “Feel like I could walk on air if that was the only thing going on.” He reached down into the rucksack and started putting a few other things on the table between us. “There’s more where this came from but I thought you might like some to keep here. Jonah said you’ve been digging out the old root cellar. I’ll help and we can put up some shelves down there and you can have your own pantry or what have you if you want. Jonah mentioned you might like your own stove to cook on instead of just the fireplace.”
“I … well … you don’t have to help. I know you’ve got lots of stuff that you need to …”
He looked at me and said, “I want to help Fel. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking … going on runs gives me time to think I don’t usually have when I’m dealing with stuff on a day to day basis here on the estate. You really drew the short straw and I haven’t done much to make it any easier. In fact I’ve asked stuff from you I had no business asking but you’ve … you’ve done it anyway. Should have been Francine making your life easier and not the other way around. But that’s gonna stop. It might take both of us to manage whatever is wrong with her until she can get better but once she is she is going to understand that she is the one that wanted this situation so she is going to have to share responsibility in how it turns out and in making it better. And she is going to understand that there won’t be any other wives; I’m putting my foot down. This whole situation is just … just a mess.”
He shook his head dolefully. “I can’t offer you what I’d like to but I don’t intend on treating you like something to be ashamed of anymore either. I’m not sure how it will all work out in the end but … but …”
I was pleased but at the same time suspicious and not a little bit worried. “You … you are talking about changing the rules.”
He shook his head. “Not all of them … just … just I have to be able to live with myself Fel. Seeing you tucked off back in this cabin like you are some unwanted crazy female relation just doesn’t suit me any longer. It’s just wrong. I know you won’t come live in the house and I understand why. I’d want my own space too. But something has to change. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how but changes need to be made. I don’t think it does anyone any good to see how you get treated compared to Francine and …”
“Uh uh,” I said forcefully. “I never wanted Francine’s place and don’t intend on taking it away from her. And I don’t want to share it with her either. I promised myself that and I’ve all but promised her that too.”
“I’m not asking you to do that and know you won’t. I just …”He raked his hands through his hair in frustration. “It’s like this Fel. I don’t like this multiple wife business. I’ve never liked it and never will but we’re stuck with it. The laws are pretty specific and I couldn’t get us out of it without hurting a lot of people … people that count on me. The fines for a man divorcing his wife no matter what the cause are pretty stiff and I’m just now getting the estate out of the danger that my father put us all in. Push comes to shove the Council might even try to put someone else in charge of the estate, especially now that the Coreman estate has fuel production capacity that many of the other estates that had been dependent on the Lathrop estate do not. It’s a boon for us … but there’s also danger in it. I can’t … can’t risk that, not for my pleasure, not when it would cost so much more than anything that could be written on paper. People expect me to behave a certain way, and they have to know they can trust me with their lives regardless of the situation. But it … it hurts not to be able to do what I feel is the right thing. And in the beginning I got it all messed up trying to protect Francine … from you, from herself, from everything. And I didn’t understand you at all; you wouldn’t fit into the mold that I’d come to expect of women … like my mother did, like Francine did. I didn’t see how either one of them would have lived with this life that you’ve managed to not only live, but live well. And now, now that I’ve come to know you it drives me crazy. I’ve been really looking around for the first time in my life and I see that my mother and Francine are not really what women are all about. I find I listened to my father about women a lot more than I should have Fel. I … I like ….”
He grappled with his words and then said forcefully, “Yes I do … I like being able to talk to you without having to worry about you crying or getting upset at things that don’t make the least amount of sense to me. I like not constantly having to worry that something is going to hurt you … physically, emotionally, all of it. I like being able to work with you, go on walks with you, hunt with you, plan things for the estate with you … I like the time we spend together Fel. But … but I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t, at least not the way I do. And now instead of wanting you to be more like Francine I wish Francine could be more like you. I’m so confused Fel … I … I’m worried that I’m going to lose my honor one day if I’m not able to figure some way around this mess we’re in.”
His words could have been taken several different ways and none of them made me particularly comfortable. In fact in a way they scared me. I couldn’t figure out what exactly he meant but was too afraid to ask him to explain. All I could say was, “You are an honorable man Cor. If you get into trouble it won’t be because you went looking for trouble. I’ve had to learn a few things too you know. I thought my Da and Gramp were the exceptions to how men were. Now I’m learning that it wasn’t my Da and Gramp that were the exceptions but the other men from the town where I lived that were the exceptions. They were the ones that were off and crazy, not my menfolk. I don’t think I could have seen that near so well if … if you weren’t who you were. So whatever it is that is bothering you so … I trust you to work it out right. And I’ll go one further to say I’ll work it out with you. That sound OK?”
He looked at me real close, so close it made me want to jump up and head for the teakettle again for some reason but then he smiled a gentle smile, the gentle he could be sometimes that confused me most of all, and said, “Just keep being you Fel. That’ll keep me in line.”
He kept looking at me so I turned to look at what was on the table. Looking inside a crock I nearly let out a squawk and slammed the cork back in place.
“What?!” Cor asked surprised my reaction.
“What’s in that jar?! They look like … like green eyeballs!”
Cor looked at the jar I was talking about and then busted out laughing. I was just about ready to swat him when he gasped out. “Lord Fel … those are olives. They’re … they’re a type of pickled …” He started laughing again but then took the cork out and cut one in half to share with me. “The red thing inside is a piece of a pimento … kind of a pepper. These are stuffed olives. Here, take a bite. They’re a little salty but good. My father used to trade for these things all the time when we’d go south. He’d never bring any home though, he said they were our secret.” He shrugged. “I’ve been thinking and if I’m not going to be my father the least I could do is break some of the taboos he used to set. He said olives weren’t good for women. I knew it was a lie then … I just … never got around to … you know …”
The piece of olive he’d given me was OK. I didn’t like it near as well as I did the orange but it wasn’t bad. Got a little squeaky on my back teeth for a moment reminding me of underdone green beans but was better after I got passed that point. I could see eating them with cheese and crackers and those little pickles that Mrs. Wiley called gherkins; or maybe using them to add salt to something so I wouldn’t have to use up the small supply I’ve been building in a crock that I kept hidden under my bed.
When the squeak was out of my teeth I said, “Old habits are hard to break. About like that knife that I took from Alo’s uncle you heard me tell him about. You hold onto things even when you know there is no good profit to it.” As I gazed at what all but covered the table top I told him, “Cor, you didn’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I did. If … if something happens to me I want you to know that … that I … that I valued you Fel. And even if you don’t use some of this, you can get a good bit of coin for some of it or can probably barter it for even more.”
I looked at him sternly. “You shouldn’t talk of such things. It’s bad luck.”
“It’s just commonsense. Look what you were left with after your family was killed. If something happens to me and … and things don’t … well, if things don’t go well for you here, I want you to be able to leave and start over someplace else, wherever you please, and not have to do it destitute. Next trip I plan on making more coin and I will be setting some aside for you and …”
He stopped, startled. “What?”
More quietly I told him, “I don’t want to hear you talking like that. It’s bad enough that Francine goes on and on about something bad coming. I won’t have you starting it up.”
He put his hand over mine and said, “I didn’t say anything would happen Fel … but I’m the head of the family and it is my responsibility that if something does happen to me that I fix it so that it hurts those I’m responsible for as little as possible. My father … well, you see the mess he left us in. I won’t repeat his mistake. Don’t ask me to.”
I sighed in acceptance but then mumbled irritably, “Fine. Do what you feel you must … but I’m in no mood to hear about it. Thinking about … about such is … it doesn’t … I don’t want to think about it and that’s final.”
He pulled one of my braids and said, “All right, I’ll drop it for now but we’ll have to talk about it at some point. Now, let me tell you what the rest of this is because if I don’t get back to the house soon I’m afraid Francine might come looking. These pots here have what’s called marmalade in them. They’re sort of like the preserves you and the women made all summer long but made out of citrus fruit. Little different but still good, especially on biscuits. Tomorrow Jonah is going to bring a wood crate and it’s got some bottles in it … vinegars and wines. We can build a little storage place in your cellar and they will keep for a long time down in the coolness. This jar has something called hearts of palm in it and this jar is of artichoke hearts.” He laughed again at the look on my face. “Not real hearts. They are the center out of a couple of things that can only grow in the Deep South. He’ll also bring over the bottles of oils … olive, sesame, and a couple of others … so you can have your own. As soon as he locates some crocks you’ll have some of the beans and legumes that I brought back too. I doubt you’ll want to have mice in your cabin if we just string them in gunny sacks.”
“Not particularly,” I agreed dryly.
“And here’s something else for you to taste.” He held something up that was all crinkled and golden in color.
“What are you trying to get me to eat now?!”
He laughed and said, “Just open your mouth. If you don’t like it I’ll … hmmm … if you don’t like it I’ll eat a spoonful of grounds from the bottom of the coffee pot.”
Ugh. But there was no way I was going to let him think I was a coward. “I let the thing sit on my tongue and then when the flavor hit it was even better than the orange. How could something that looked like a bit of dried rough leather taste so good.”
Cor smiled at the look on my face. “That’s dried pineapple and if you think that is good you should taste it candied. There’s a bit of that in here as well.”
There were other things too but I wouldn’t let him convince me to taste everything. I wanted to save and savor what I could. It was enough that he’d thought to bring these things back to me and the why mattered even more. I’d never heard of most of what was there: plantain chips, cassava roots, a jug of cane syrup, a container of vanilla beans, paste from a fruit called a guava, jars of fruits called papaya and mango, hard cones of raw sugar, dry sausages called chorizos, dried shrimp that looked like the husks of some large bug, grated coconut in syrup, and a box that had some candies and cookies in it.
“Cor … I … I can’t accept all this,” I told him quietly. “I can’t take … I mean … what about everyone else?”
He pulled my braid again irritating me just a bit on purpose. “Everyone else is taken care of … and yes, Francine as well though she …” A momentarily hurt look crossed his face before he hid it. Then from his coat pocket he took a smaller bag. “Now this … this is just … from me to you. You don’t … uh … you don’t need to tell anyone else about it. You … um … er … Well, here. I thought maybe if you wanted to you could put it in that medicine bag you keep around your neck.”
I laughed and said, “Memory bag … I’m no shaman.”
“Yeah, memory bag. Anyway … here.” I opened the bag he thrust into my hand and in the center was a little roundish pink ball. He told me, “It’s called a conch pearl. We were eating conch … that’s the animal that lives inside the type of shell that’s on the edge of the table … and this was in the one that I had chosen for my meal. Next time I go south I’ll see if I can find you a white or yellow one or if I go to the Northeast maybe I can find a lavender or dark one from a quahog. My father … he used to use them almost like coin and metal when I was a boy. The way they are made isn’t very pretty – they start when something irritating gets stuck in a mollusk – but the end result is …” He shrugged.
I held the delicate looking thing and then folded the soft fabric back over it. “It’s beautiful Cor. But should I …?”
He folded my fingers over it. “I gave Francine the pearl earrings that my mother wore. It was her bridal gift before my father showed … well, it was her bridal gift. This … I wanted this to be from me to you … something new with no other kinds of memories attached to it. Not from my side or yours.”
I carefully opened the bag around my neck and placed the little square of fabric with its hidden treasure inside and then pulled the string tight again. Quietly I told him, “Thank you.”
He was looking at me in a way that made me feel like a deer caught in a hunter’s flame. I’m not sure what would have come from it but there was a sudden hard banging on the cabin door. “Mister Cor!!! Bad trouble … you need to come right now!!!”