I woke up with a start, a half remembered dream of being chased through a maze of buildings and alleys like a rat … like the rat I was and was still … echoing through the corridors of my mind. I came to myself fast enough so I knew I hadn’t been sleeping very deeply. I controlled my breathing so I wouldn’t start coughing, but I was already feeling some of the benefits of the treatment that Sally had prescribed.
As if he read my mind Carmine whispered in my ear, “You don’t need to run. I’m right here.”
I turned into his embrace and whispered back, “If anyone could make me feel safe it would be you. But I can’t change who I am. I don’t want to run; sometimes I simply need to.”
I thought for a moment then assured him, “Maybe before, but not now. I just … just … I am what I am Carmine. I’m also in large part what happened to me … at SEPH and before. I’ll never be as free as Bina or Clarey. One of these days I will be free … but never as free as they are; I can’t steal back the luxury of innocence that I’ve lost.”
It was a sad realization to accept that; I’d been fighting it but it was senseless to continue to do so. Sometimes you simply have to accept things the way there are. I had come to the Wastelands seeking freedom only to realize some bit of it would always escape me. It was time I accepted that, no one is ever completely free; all a person can do is be as free as they can be and enjoy it while it lasts because someone is always trying to take it from you; sometimes people even do it to themsleves.
“Deep thoughts Saloli,” Carmine’s voice rumbled near my ear, still keeping the conversation between the two of us alone despite the people around us.
I shrugged. “But not worth you losing sleep over. Go back to sleep I’m going to …”
“… stay where it’s warm. In fact, I shouldn’t have kept you out here last night. I must be out of my mind. You need to be back at the cabin and out of this crappy weather. We’ll have snow this time tomorrow.”
“Ice, but it will be the day after; not tomorrow,” I told him with a shiver.
I didn’t have to explain. “Think so?”
“Yeah, feels like it. Damp like a rain is coming but not cold enough to turn it into the fluffy stuff … it’ll rain by tomorrow night and then the temps will drop. I always hate when it got like this. There was no place to escape the really bad cold except for down subway tunnels and there was no way I was going down there.”
A quiet, “That was one of your nightmares when the fever took you. Sounded bad. Makes it tempting to think people coming in and rounding up all the orphans to give them a home isn’t such a bad thing.”
I stiffened immediately. “SEPH did not give us homes. They put us in lock ups so that we had no way to escape the ones that would try to abuse us on the street, the pedophiles, the adult gangs that hated us, the …” I stopped and shook my head. “What’s that old saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even if they started out meaning what they did for the best, in the end the results were something totally different.”
Sadly he said, “Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.”
A cold wind that trickled down the back of my neck caused me to burrow even closer to his warmth. “No. You didn’t know. And it isn’t your fault. We all have our own platefuls to deal with. I’m sure that you had your own mess to live with during that time.”
He grunted, “Difference was I was already grown and half way chose the path I took. How old were you when you were forced onto the street?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yeah. To me. Doesn’t change what’s between us if that’s why you think I’m asking but it would help me … see why you are like you are sometimes.”
I wondered if maybe he expected me to ask about his past. I was curious about it but I was willing to wait until he told me. He was trying to pull my story out of me and it wasn’t all that comfortable a feeling. Still, I trusted him more than I’d ever trusted another … even more than I had trusted Asa during the best times. With Asa I had felt the need to “fix” him or to help him until he could fix himself. Stupid and about like if someone had tried to do that with me. With Carmine it was a totally different dynamic.
“You don’t have to talk about it.”
Carmine’s words startled me out of my thoughts. “Sorry. Just thinking about it all. I … I can’t remember exactly how old I was. I think I was eight when they took me away after my parents died and the riot that destroyed the place where a lot of other orphans were warehoused was a few months after that. So I was eight or nine. When we first hit the street I was part of a small group that had banded together before the riot. But when the nominal leader of the group found what remained of his family and he and his sister left, the rest of the group quickly disbanded, fell apart.”
“Is that when you stopped talking?”
“Huh? No, before then … maybe a long time before then. I was mute by choice when they took me out of the … the house. Yeah, we lived in a house in a subdivision. We had a garden. My dad was some kind of essential worker, mom was a teacher before I was born.” The memories rolled over me and I let him see them in a way I’d never shared with anyone else. “I had an older sister that died before the Outbreak, she had something wrong with her; her heart maybe, I can’t remember. It feels like I was really young when she died. Then an older brother. The sling shot belonged to him and he used it to keep things out of the garden with. I …” A sharp pain jabbed me in the temple. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
I tried to push away from Carmine and get out of the covers but his burly arms held me and he said, “Sure. O’ course. You got another headache?”
I stiffened and wondered how he had known. He answered me even though I hadn’t asked aloud. “I felt you flinch. And you always get a headache when you start talking about anything before SEPH.”
He snorted. “You’d say you were fine if your leg was half cut off.” He sighed. “I don’t suppose me ordering you to stay in this blanket would work?
“What do you think?”
A chuff that was little more than half a laugh was my answer. We both came out of our cocoon nest to find we weren’t the only ones moving about. Noticing there was a rather obvious direction the two sexes were going I surmised there was an unspoken agreement that one side was for the girls and the other for the boys. I was right and after our morning needs were taken care of Carmine and I met back up near the fire which was being poked to life so people wouldn’t break their necks stumbling around in the dim morning light.
Around a piece of what I was informed was fry bread Carmine mumbled, “Goin’ huntin’. Look … it’s … uh …”
I had noticed that there were only boys and men going on the hunt. I shrugged. I’m not stupid, I might not have a lot of experience with the males roaming this planet but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t figured a few things out. “It’s a guy thing?”
His relief was a little silly looking at first but then he drew up and asked, “What do you know about ‘guy things’?”
I rolled my eyes and told him, “Enough to know that I don’t want to be the only female in the middle of a wound up pack of them. If the hunt goes good you’ll behave like cave men. If the hunt goes bad then the lone female will get blamed for jinxing things. No thank you. I can find enough trouble to get into on my own.”
That thought seemed to alarm him even more but before he could say anything I walked over to Sally and asked if she had anything else that needed sharpening. I watched Carmine in the reflection of the cooking pots and I could tell he didn’t know whether to say anything or not. Jerry came up and clapped him on the shoulder and they were off, soon getting swallowed by the dark.
Sally was giving instructions to some of the young women and took a moment to answer me. “Actually I believe you have sharpened everything that needs it. Are you at loose ends?”
Never volunteer. Never volunteer. Never, never, never volunteer. “I don’t have anything at the moment.”
“Good. Carmine mentioned that you would like to learn to make pemmican and this is as good a time as any. Once the men get back our work load will depend on them.”
I would have to tell Carmine that I could find my own chores, he didn’t need to do it for me. It was a little embarrassing to be assigned to Clarey but it turned out to be the best thing. She was a good teacher and she didn’t hassle me about not knowing how to do something she obviously grew up doing.
She made a face, “In the hold days they used a mortar and pestle type set up for grinding the dried meat into powder. And we still do if we have to make it on the run but for large amounts like Grandmother wants we pull out the meat grinders. We set aside all the leanest scraps just for this because it makes the pemmican less likely to spoil.”
I nodded and made sure and note that in my memory. She continued the lesson. “The measurements are real easy. Everything is by equal weight.”
To make sure I understood I said, “So if you use a pound of one ingredient you use a pound of any other ingredient.”
“Exactly,” she nodded. “Pemmican really only has three ingredients; dried meat, dried fruit, and rendered fat like tallow. Some of the aunties have been rendering the buffalo fat all night and that’s another reason why we try and resupply our pemmican after a hunt. Pork lard doesn’t make very good pemmican because it goes rancid too easily. Tallow is the best like from buffalo or domestic cattle. We use venison lard as well but buffalo is best.”
I realized something. This group – Carmine’s family – they had enough that they could be picky. Maybe not all the time but at least enough that the kids could pick and choose a favorite. I remembered when food – any food – was a luxury. I knew it still was some places in the east. Eventually someone would realize the Wastelands weren’t such a barren place after all and would come snooping.
“Hey, are you OK?”
I put my attention back on Clarey. “I’m fine. I was thinking that the Wastelands aren’t as wasted as some people think.”
She shrugged. “It can be. Our family has elders that remember the old ways and were happy to teach us; but even they’ve forgotten a lot and we are having to rediscover what has been lost. The time of year also makes a big difference. Grandfather said that Yahweh led us to the buffalo who led us to Uncle Carmine … and you. It’s all good right now, especially if the men can bring in a few elk or some mulies … mule deer I mean. U-gu-gu says there are too many deer and elk right now because there are not enough hunters. Thinning the herds will keep them healthy and they will not strip so much of the land trying to survive the winter which makes it doubly bad come the spring time for everyone.”
We’d finished grinding the meat and it looked like fibrous but fluffy mulch. “Don’t season the meat that you are going to use for pemmican. Well, I take that back, you can but you really shouldn’t. Sometimes the flavors don’t mix very well, especially if you meat salty. Leave your seasoned meat for jerky. Now that we’ve ground the meat we could do the same with dried fruit. It doesn’t matter too much what kind of fruit you use, it just needs to be very dry; mostly we use chokecherries, serviceberries, or saskatoons. You want the fruit the same basic consistency as the dried, ground meat.”
It took less time to grind the fruit and an older lady, seeing we were almost finished, brought a pail of rendered tallow still warm from the fire. Using an old-fashioned balance as a scale, Clarey showed me how to measure the three ingredients equally and then what order to put them together.
“Because of the weather we need to work fast or the rendered tallow will solidify too quickly. First you need to mix your two dried ingredients together. It evenly distributes it so you don’t get a clump of this and a clump of that with each bite. It also makes it hold together better. As soon as you’re ready to start mixing pour your hot tallow into you mixing bowl; you don’t want it so hot that you fry the dried ingredients but it still needs to be completely liquid. Next, put your dried ingredients in next. From here on, if it is cold like today, you are going to need to mix fast.”
When we finished we had something that looked a little like a moist, crumbled dark bread. “There shouldn’t be any liquids left over when you are finished mixing. But don’t let things set up in the bowl. The next step is to put your mixture into a mold. We use these flat baking pans but U-gu-gu said that many different things have been used, there’s no perfect recipe. Some people like their pemmican sliced thick, some like it dried thin, some make it into balls; it really doesn’t matter so long as you don’t waste it.”
We made pemmican for the rest of the morning. I couldn’t believe how much dried meat and berries we used. “You won’t have any left,” I told her.
“Don’t forget about the buffalo meat from yesterday. When we have a good hunt like that we rotate things out.”
She was called away to tend to U-gu-gu. He was Sally’s first husband’s father and was a beloved elder not only for Jerry’s family but for everyone in their group. I could see how everyone fussed over him and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a face in my memory but couldn’t grab it fast enough for it to make any sense. That happened sometimes. The memory would either surface or it wouldn’t. I no longer made the mistake of chasing memories; it gave me a headache and the memories sometimes slipped away never to return.
I looked around and saw Bina and she had a look on her face that would have curdled milk. She sat at Sally’s feet with a large basket in her lap. I walked over curious and saw that it was full of what looked like acorns. I noticed that all of the younger children were carrying basket and gathering more.
Bina looked up and said, “I hate being a young lady.”
I shrugged and said, “Better than being a young man.” I saw Sally purse her lips in an attempt not to smile. “Show me what you’re doing.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Depends. Do you like to eat?”
Caught off guard she said, “Huh?”
“Food is only boring when you have so much you don’t care about it. I see you are cracking them like nuts and taking the meats out. I assume that means that you are going to eat them.”
“Ew. Not until they’ve had the tannin leached out of them.”
“Tannin isn’t poisonous,” I said.
“No,” she agreed. “But it tastes nasty.” She sighed and told me, “You might as well sit down. If Ma-di catches you without something in your hands she’ll find something for you to do … that’s how I got stuck doing this.”
Sally chided her, “You’re old enough to help Bina. You’re getting too old to play all the time. We’ve been wrong to spoil you. You need to learn in case you find yourself alone.”
Bina didn’t like that idea. I saw fear skitter through her eyes but she hid it well. I spent the early afternoon hours learning how to make acorn meal and flour and also how to use it to make corn meal go further. I had a ton of recipes that I had collected from the archives that I’d gotten access to at SEPH and a whole section on Native American and Pioneer foods but reading about it was different than actually seeing it used.
I was looking for another learning experience when some boys ran into the camp breathless and excited. It was obvious it had been a good hunt just from their expressions. The boys were the vanguard and sent to warn the women that the meat would soon be arriving and that the men were hungry. Soon enough the men followed carrying field dressed carcasses … a dozen of them.
I noticed several women going up to specific men and congratulating them. I finally figured out they were couples. Carmine stood off to the side with Jerry and I made my way around the crowd and then stood off to the side trying to figure the best way to approach him. I didn’t want to get into the middle of the men and boys; and didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself or Carmine. Carmine spotted me standing behind the bushes that surrounded a tree.
Concerned, he walked over and asked, “Something wrong?”
I shook my head. “No. I … I just wanted to … hmmm …”
I glanced over at the women that were happy to see their men and he caught where I was looking. After a moment of surprise he gave me a real smile. “We’ll do it proper when there aren’t so many people around.”
I was relieved and was glad that Carmine seemed to understand. “Was it a good hunt?” I asked.
He nodded, obviously pleased. “Real good. One of those mulies and one of the elk are ours. Between that and the buffalo we should be good until spring if I can’t get anything … if we can’t … get anything fresh. Jerry is anxious to finish up here and get to their winter camp. He said we were welcome to come but … I told him we’d stay here for a while yet. That OK with you?”
I relaxed the rest of the way. “Yes.” I had started to think that perhaps he’d want to go with his family.
The rest of the day and through the night was a repeat of the one before only this I helped. After I proved that I could clean a hide and prepare it I was put to work. It takes experience not to knick the hide and to stretch it properly. The deer and elk were bigger pieces that was I used to but it was the frames that made the difference.
I wasn’t just working, I was learning too. I didn’t talk but my ears worked just fine. I learned that elk tallow was better for candles that buffalo tallow because it was harder when solid. I learned that elk hooves could be used like rattles to make a traditional musical instrument. The base of a bull elk’s antlers could be carved into spoons while the rest could be used as napping tools to make arrow heads – one old man was teaching some boys the trade – handles, wedges, buttons, and any number of useful items. Elk teeth decorated clothing. Tough elk hide made the best soles for moccasins. The elk’s scapula bone could be used as a shovel or gardening tool.
Deer stomachs are cleaned and preserved and then used as containers. Bone marrow is used for food but some bones were also used for augers and needles. Sinew makes the best thread in the world (or so I was told). Between the buffalo, elk, and deer the list of ways to use the animals seemed endless. I knew about brains for tanning but rats brains were quite a bit smaller than the ones that were giving to the tanners – a husband and wife team that looked like they could have stepped out of the pages of a book on mountain men.
We worked by firelight late into the night and then into the early morning hours. I was in drone mode, trying to hold my end of the work up.
“Enough. You’re asleep on your feet.”
Carmine had come up behind me and wrapped me in the same blanket we had slept in the night before. “The hides …”
“… are being worked on by others. You’re the color of paste and I’ve finished my turn on guard. Come on.”
I let him pull me towards what looked like a lean-to that he or someone had erected with the open side toward the fire. “I’m not a child. I won’t sleep while everyone else works.”
“Humor me then. I’m dead on my feet.”
I don’t even remember laying down I was asleep just that quickly.