Call me a scaredy rat but I left the skinning of that great cat to Carmine. What I didn’t plan on was actually eating the cat that tried to eat us.
“Well now … I never would have figured you to be someone that would pass up a meal.”
I could have just about kicked Carmine. “Well … I’m not. But if you expect me to cook it you’ve got yourself another think coming.”
He came over and bent down and whispered in my ear, “I thought you said you said you didn’t get cranky.”
He jumped back laughing when I turned around to swat at him. “Very funny. Ha. Ha. And that shows just how well you listen. I told you I’m always cranky.” After a moment Carmine stopped laughing like a loon. “Honestly, are you fooling with me about that cat being edible?”
Carmine eased up carefully and then kissed the top of my head before grabbing some of our stored sinew. “No Saloli I’m not fooling with you. And to prove it, I’ll make dinner tomorrow. The meat needs to finish cooling anyway and I want to get this sinew prepped. Your feet were practically blue by the time we got back here. No more getting into the snow until I get these things finished.”
“Aren’t you over reacting?” I asked him. “You make me sound like one of those silly women that can’t do anything but sit up on the porch and tat lace while some big he man does all the work.”
He rolled his eyes as he took the sinew out of the plastic box they had been stored in and started the tedious work of pounding them into workable pieces. “Gurl I’ve seen too many people lose toes or worse from frost bite.”
Shrugging, “Guess you never looked too close at my feet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means all those scars aren’t from walking on glass. I’ve still got all my toes but the middle one on my right foot is pretty useless and doesn’t have a lot of feeling left in it where I lost some of the bottom of it … a prostitute named Big Bertha had a soft spot for street rats and showed me how to hack the bad place out before it could spread … and on my left foot I have a circular depression where I had to cut out a bad place myself the next year after her pimp had killed her.”
He got a terrible expression on his face and ground out, “That’s it. You even think about putting a foot, hand, or any other body part in snow before I get these fixed for you and I swear …”
Confused by his sudden anger I asked, “Why are you being so nasty? I didn’t ask you to make any moccasins.”
He stretched his shoulders like he would when he was getting angry or frustrated. “I didn’t say that you asked me for anything. Lord knows to actually get you to ask me for something would be tantamount to a cardinal sin in your book. But hear me good Saloli … you don’t have to live like that anymore. I’m here and I intend on looking after you.”
Feeling a little offended though I wasn’t completely sure why I said, “Now just one minute Carmine. You make it sound like I was a complete failure at looking after myself and I wasn’t … and I’m not now. I didn’t hook up with you to have someone to take care of me. I thought we were together because … well … I thought it was mutual and stuff.”
That seemed to make him even angrier. “We did not ‘hook up,” at least I didn’t. You’re my wife and I’m your husband and it’s my job to take care of you!”
Getting a tired of being shouted at I yelled right back at him, “Well, call it whatever you want to but I’m not gonna be a job to anyone. I’m not with you to be thought of as a burden!”
Carmine grabbed his coat, slammed his hat on his head, picked up the box with the pieces of sinew in it and then stomped upstairs, slamming the door though it didn’t have quite the impact I’m sure he meant it to since the sound was muffled by the hide hanging across the stairwell. I knew I had to be missing something obvious but for the life of me I couldn’t figure what it was. I also figured it was probably a guy thing which made it twice as puzzling. I stared into the fire trying to work it out so long that I must have fallen asleep in the chair holding Carmine’s shirt that I had been mending.
I only half woke up as I felt the shirt being tugged from my hands. “C’mon Saloli, turn loose.” Since I recognized Carmine’s voice in a far off kind of way I reluctantly let the shirt be taken from me and then felt my foot being tugged at.
I grumbled, “Uh uh … your hands are cold.”
He chuffed a quiet laugh and said, “Cold hands, warm heart, hot temper.”
“Whatever, but your hands are cold and my feet don’t want … ack!” He picked me up and carried me over to the bed. “Hey, I can walk.”
Giving me a wicked look he said, “But then your feet really would get cold.”
I stuck my tongue out at him and quickly burrowed under the covers when we got to the bed. He scooted in beside me and then looked and said, “You gonna let me off the hook?”
I was trying to remember what for when I realized he must have been talking about his snit about stomping off upstairs. I looked at him and shrugged. “Just remember how magnanimous I am when next time it’s me that stomps off.”
The sound that came out of him started as a startled chuff and quickly turned into a full belly laugh. “Oh Gurl, we are made for each other. I swear I don’t think I’ve laughed this much in years.”
I rolled my eyes, happy that he was happy. “Yeah, like you are just a million years old Carmine. Drop the Grandpaw Methuselah act. Now give me that shirt, it needs finishing. You’ve torn it out in the shoulder seam.”
“I’ll give you the shirt if you give me your feet. I need to get a pattern off of them for the moccasins.” He got serious again after a moment as he had me stand on a piece of thin bark so that he could draw around my feet with a piece of charcoal from the fireplace. “Saloli what do you think we have together? Do you just want me for a foot warmer or something more?”
I looked at him and sighed. “Is this one of those what-do-we-call-it questions?” At his look that didn’t answer my question I finally told him, “I’m … I’m not much of a label person Carmine. About as far as I go with it is to call myself a street rat and lately I’m not sure if that is even true anymore; I think I’m turning into a forest rat … or a tree rat like you call me; a squirrel. If you’re asking me do I mind you calling me your wife? The answer is no. If you’re asking me would I mind calling you my husband? Again, the answer is no. It just seems to me that a lot of people use those words and they don’t mean much. You said yourself that even in the culture you were raised in a woman could toss a man’s belongings out and that was enough for a divorce and then poof … no more husband, no more wife.” I sighed again¸ not sure if I was getting my point across. “I just want to be with you for lots of different reasons and I want it to be for as long as we can make it. I don’t know what you call that but we can call it being husband and wife if it makes you happy. I like it when you’re happy. Seeing you happy and knowing … really know … that I had something to do with it makes me feel like nothing else ever has and I’m not sure if there is a label for that.”
He got up and sat on the bed beside me and looked at me for what felt like a long time, long enough for me to worry that I’d said something wrong. Then he said quietly, “You make me see things like I haven’t in a long time … if ever. I guess in your shoes I’d be averse to labels myself. But Saloli, sometimes we need labels to remind ourselves of what something is supposed to be, supposed to mean, how it is supposed to work. Yeah, I consider you my wife and I want you to think of me as your husband. It holds us … to a higher standard I guess you’d say. I know people misuse them words but we aren’t basing it on what other people say and think and do … so humor me. It does make me happy.”
It was easy enough to agree to and I said, “OK.”
“Just like that?”
I rolled my eyes. “What did you expect? A fight? I told you, I like to see you happy. I might not always do things to make you happy – I’ll probably do things that even make you mad on occasion – but if this makes you happy, for me to call you husband, then sure, why not.”
He snorted, “That was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.”
Now it was my turn to snort. “Don’t look a gift rat in the snout or you risk getting your own nose nipped. I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”
“Who are you? Popeye?”
Confused I asked him, “Pop who?”
Shaking his head Carmine said, “Never mind. You make me feel old.”
“Well I can’t do anything about that for a few more days so you’ll just have to suffer along with it.”
I thought he was choking on something for a minute and then he started laughing again. I’m slowly being convinced that there is something a little off in Carmine’s attic.
The next day as promised Carmine cooked our dinner. Hey, if he was going to volunteer to cook I wasn’t going to stop him … and I wasn’t going to help him either. Just something about that cat curled my whiskers and toes.
Turns out I would have only been in the way which was good because I was feeling less that my usually energetic and ratty self. I had forgotten that I usually slept a lot when my monthly came by after being gone for a few months and this time was no exception. I felt like someone had opened my veins and all my energy had been bled off. Carmine told me to stop worrying about it and to sleep while I could. I tried to finish sewing the hides to finish another layer of cover for our bed but I kept dozing.
I’ll try and write out Carmine’s mutterings for his recipe but to be honest he fussed more than an old woman and told me to stop asking for exact measurements because it was making him nervous.
First he took about three apples worth of the dried apples and rehydrated them with melted and boiled snow water. Then in his big pan he melted two spoons of buffalo tallow. He sprinkled two pounds of the back strap from the cat with salt and pepper to season it then he seared it in the tallow on both sides. Then he put the lid on the pan and set it in the reflector oven where it back for about an hour.
While the back strap was baking I woke up enough to make biscuits – real biscuits – and stuck them on another level of the reflector oven while Carmine too the apples that he’d rehydrated and added half a coffee cup of brown sugar, about the same amount of clarified butter that he’d traded off of Jerry for some of the sharpening I had done, and a half a coffee cup of water. He cooked the apple mixture for about five minutes and then left it to stay warm until the back strap was completely finished baking.
When the meat was done he sliced the back strap and put some on our plates and then dished the apple mixture over it. The biscuits were also a hit and Carmine pulled out a jar of saskatoon preserves that he’d brought with him and between the preserves and some honey the biscuits were as much dessert as either one of us had had in a while.
“So, how do you like mountain lion?” he asked with a smirk.
Without missing a beat I told him, “A lot better in the pan than on the paw.”
I had to pound him on the back where he inhaled a bit of biscuit getting caught off guard in a laugh.
“Well, speaking of that cat, I need you to come upstairs and lay down on the floor so I can use some charcoal to outline your measurements so I can get that fur laid out and see how much else that I’m going to need to piece it out.”
A little embarrassed over the fuss I’d been making I told him, “You don’t have to do that. I can sew Carmine.”
He nodded, “I know but I didn’t court you or anything like that so I’m gonna bribe you to stay with me by making you the coat and these moccasins.”
“That … that’s … gee Carmine. I’m not with you so you can give me … well, they’re presents aren’t they.”
He turned to look at me and must have understood my expression better than I did. “Uh oh. Look at me Saloli … I was just foolin’ with you. A joke. I know you aren’t with me just so I can give you stuff. But a man likes to know that he can even if he doesn’t have to.”
Trying to understand I said, “So … the whole making the coat and stuff for me is a guy thing?”
“A man thing,” he corrected.
“And there’s a difference?”
He gave me a sharp look and then caught on that I was teasing him a bit. “Uh huh … keep that up and see if I make you your surprise with this next batch of snow coming through.”
“I never asked you to make me anything to begin with.”
“Humph. And exactly how am I supposed to court you if you don’t let me?”
I laughed, “That’s a little backwards from the way it usually happens isn’t it? If you already have me what’s the sense in doing this other stuff?”
He growled playfully and told me, “’Cause I want to. Now hush and come upstairs and let me measure you out. You’re not much bigger than a tea cup but …”
I swatted at him with the bag of buffalo hair that we shared for a pillow and he just laughed.
Our days continued like that on into the end of January. The “treat” he made me was boiled honey poured on fresh snow. It wasn’t quite like glass candy he said but when it was cold it would still snap into small pieces so that I could suck on them. Carmine was like that, just doing strangely nice things for me.
In return I tried to do things for him too. I made him a pair of tough hide chaps for when he had to break the snow trail to check the traps. The chaps kept his pants from getting soaked. I made him a second pair of gloves out of some of the better leather because his first pair were getting thin in places and the seams had holes in them. I finally finished the “fur quilt” to add to our bed, the warmth a real good thing as it seemed to be getting colder rather than warmer the longer the snow hung around.
After yet another snow store we were out gathering fallen limbs so that we wouldn’t have to do so much chopping. We were really just kind of goofing off though as we were both a little silly from being cooped up in the cabin for so long.
I was just about to throw a bit of snow his direction when I heard something.
“Gurl, wha …?” He stopped when I raised my hand and shut my eyes. Carmine has learned to pay attention to my moods and movements. I swear sometimes it feels like he knows me nearly as well as I know myself.
“I hear something,” I told him quietly. “It’s not an avalanche like last time … this … this rumble is different; almost like …”
Carmine stiffened having finally heard a bit of what had caught my attention. He slings his rifle off his arm and practically picks me up like a little kid in one arm and gets me back onto the packed down area near the solar wagon we had driven out in. Catching his urgency I’m silent as I pull out my trusted sling shot and try and warm up the straps.
Carmine is just about ready to head for the cabin when there is an odd, piercing whistle; loud, yet far enough away that it sounds eery in the clear, cold air. Carmine mumbles a less that nice word under his breath. “Don’t suppose it would do any good to ask you to stay in the wagon.”
I gave him a look that let him know the answer was obvious. “What – or who – is it?”
“That’s the whistle that Jerry and I used as kids when there was trouble in the family. The danger isn’t immediate but …”
I calmly finished his sentence. “But you need to know what it is and why he’s here instead of at the winter camp.”