Mark just sort of looked at me then gave a weird shake of his head like he was trying to knock a mosquito away from his ears.
“Did you hear me?” I asked him, beginning to wonder if maybe I should have waited.
He opened his mouth and took a breath then paused, took a breath and then opened his mouth again. Still nothing came out.
“Forget it. I was just thinking is all,” I said as I got up from the sofa and started stacking my notebooks.
“Uh … Del?”
“I said don’t worry about it.” I carried the notebooks back into the butler’s pantry and put them on the shelves in the right order. I was trying very hard not to make anything of his reaction, was trying really hard not to think about his reaction to my question at all.
I turned around and ran nose first into his chest. “Ow! What on earth are you doing just standing there like that for?” I really detested being snuck up on.
I was starting to get a little miffed. “What?!”
“I am awake right? This isn’t a dream where later on I really do wake up and make a complete fool of myself?”
I couldn’t do anything but stare at him. He seemed to be missing a few nuts and bolts in his upper workings. “Well goodness, remind me never to try and have a conversation with you after you’ve been asleep for a while.” I was starting to feel relieved and hoped it was just my timing and not his inclination that had caused his strange reaction.
“So I am awake,” he said with a very serious look on his face.
“Hopefully not for long. Go on to bed Mark, you’re acting punch drunk.” I managed to turn him around and push him towards his room and miracle of miracles he actually went without a fuss.
I turned and walked into my own room and closed the door laughing a little at the whole situation. I figured had someone told me that this happened to them I never would have believed it. Truth can be stranger than fiction after all. I was half way into my flannel gown when my bedroom door flew open. I didn’t scream but I was startled. Instinctively I grabbed for Mr. Sparkles and had just brought it around when Mark said, “Please don’t hit me with that, I’m addled enough as it is and electrocution isn’t going to do me any good. Did you just ask me if an April wedding was OK?”
“Mark! You nut case!!” I angrily whispered trying not to wake Jessie despite the scare his father had just given me. “What if I had grabbed my pistol instead of … oomph!” Mark had backed me into the wall and pulled the tazer from my hand.
“Did you or did you not just ask me if an April wedding was OK?” He was looking at me so strangely I was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t taken a nose dive off the deep end of an empty pool.
“Ouch you loon! Yes,” I laughed. “Are you sleep walking or something? You are acting stranger than … than … than I can find words for right now. And what do you mean by barging into my bedroom like this? I could have been in my all together!”
“So you did say what I thought you said.”
“I just said that didn’t I?” I had to laugh again at the look on his face. If I hadn’t known better I would have said he had been drinking. “Honestly you …”
I never got to finish what I had meant to say. “Pull your gown straight, it’s distracting me too much. And … and when you’re done come to the kitchen. I can’t think in here right now.”
I was left standing there with my mouth open thinking, “Honestly. I will never, ever try and talk to him when he has been in a sound sleep again.” I did agree that it would be better to get straightened up before dealing with him because in his current frame of mind there was no telling what I’d have to deal with. Not only did I straighten my gown I threw my terry bathrobe on over it and put my flannel slippers on my feet.
I walked into the kitchen to find he’d turned on the lamp and was pacing around.
“Mark?” I never got a chance to say anything because Mark started reading me the riot act.
“Now see here … this is how it is supposed to work. You are supposed to be shy and coy and keep making me wait and guess exactly how far I can push things … really build up the tension. Then, when I’m just about crazy you give me some signal that you might be receptive to the possible idea of getting things more settled out. So then I make this big production … walk in the woods, candlelight and moonlight, the whole nine yards, real romantic stuff … get down on my bended knee and ask you if you’ll marry me. Of course you say yes but you still kind of want a bit of time to savor things and ask if we can set a date later because you are just overwhelmed with emotions. All is chocolate kisses and roses until you tease me into insanity at which point you finally agree to set a date and then draw that out some because you need a preacher, a dress, and whatever else you plan on getting up to. On the wedding day I get scared to death you are going to change your mind at the last second and you leave me guessing until I just about can’t breathe. Then you say I do and we live happily ever after.” The he got this really insulted look on his face and added, “But somehow you didn’t get the memo. There’s been teasing but no real torture and I get all comfortable, go to sleep, and then you wake me up and ask ‘How’s April sound?’! Now you’ve got me all turned around. I had plans you know. I was going to take you out to the reservoir, have a picnic, and … well, I had plans. I figured you’d have to say yes at that point! What am I supposed to do now?!”
Oh my gosh, he was serious. I looked at his face again, at how outraged he was, and I couldn’t help it. I busted out laughing like I hadn’t in months and months … if ever. I swear I’d never felt so special and so happy. Mark Griffey was upset because he hadn’t had a chance to wine and dine me and propose marriage the old fashioned way … the dream most little girls have from the time they are old enough to imagine about Prince Charming. When I could catch my breath I looked at his face and he was still upset.
“Oh Mark!!” I giggled, feeling very unlike my usual self. “I love you. You have no idea how much. But please tell me you don’t really expect I would make either one of us suffer quite that horribly before we finally did something about the way we feel?” I walked into his arms and gave him a huge hug that made him grunt at being squeezed so enthusiastically.
I tilted my head back to look up at him and his outrage was slowly turning into a grin. “I wouldn’t mind, not much anyway, so long as I knew when all was said and done I was still gonna get what I want. Good things come to those who wait afterall.” The double entendre didn’t escape me and I laughed again but had the sense of self preservation to step out of his reach.
All I got was a none-too-innocent leer before he himself stepped back. “Are you sure Del? I mean, really sure?” I didn’t understand the suddenly serious and slightly shuttered look on his face.
“Of course I’m sure. You acting like a half-asleep zombie didn’t even phase me … not much anyway. I doubted your sanity a bit but not your feelings. How could you ask such a thing?”
He sighed. “This … You rather … already mean more to me than Kelly ever did and it just about killed me when … when she … changed her mind about what she wanted. I’m not sure what it would do to me if … And then there’s Jessie. He counts on you; I count on you to be there for him. I just …”
I could have been insulted at his backhanded way of comparing what we had with what he had with Jessie’s mother but since I’d compared him to the Lathario that I’d made an idiot of myself over I couldn’t blame him.
“Mark, there are very few men in this world that I would dare compare to Daddy; to the love and security and everything else he always gave me. There are also very few men that have ever just accepted me for who I am, warts and all. And you are the only one of that small number that I’ve ever imagined spending my life with much less loving forever. The only thing I’m concerned about is that one of these days you are going to wake up and realize I’m cantankerous, bossy, and more fond of having my own way than I should be. I will try to improve but try is all I can promise to do about it, actually changing may take some time and more effort than I’m capable of. I’ve spent enough lonely time defending myself against potential pain. It is way on the other side of worth it to take a leap of faith with you.”
The rest of what happened is no one else’s business but it sure didn’t make for an easy time of falling to sleep … in our separate beds. We were crazy in love, not crazy. We both wanted to walk into the future knowing beyond a shadow that we’d not have anything to be embarrassed by or regret and if nature took its traditional course the calendar watchers wouldn’t be able to wonder if we had jumped the gun any.
Next morning came too soon for both of us. I let Mark have both cups of the small pot of coffee we were now rationed down to and I popped two of my supply of Exedrin migraine tabs (two per 24 hours is all you are allowed to take) and got a jolt of 130 milligrams of caffeine to help get rid of the pounding inside my skull. Mark headed down to the farm to try and finish up what had been started yesterday after doing our morning chores. I decided to do some early foraging and see what was out there. But first I wanted to make sure that I didn’t unintentionally procrastinate on anything that needed doing out in the yard.
One look out of the window while I was stuffing Jessie into a coat that was already too small and I saw my first chore. The antique roses needed pruning before they started putting off new growth. They’d been neglected over the years but I’d managed to bring them back but having missed a year of pruning I was going to have to be pretty brutal this time. I pruned each branch back to four or five healthy canes making sure the cuts were at a forty-five degree angle to force new growth to an outer direction. I worked into the soil what little bit of rose fertilizer I had left and then wrote down on my pocket notepad to ask Aunt Lilah for her recipe for homemade rose food.
Several of my exotic house plants hadn’t survived the winter no matter how I had tended to them. The house just got too cold and stayed that way for too long. But my violets, begonias, aloes, and ferns hadn’t done too badly and neither had several other things. My cactus gardens actually seemed to like the drier weather and the cool nights; I guess it mimicked what they were actually bred for.
Suddenly Jessie squealed, “Kitty!” right in my ear. I turned my head to see that the crazy barn cat I had feared had crawled somewhere and died was stealthily creeping into the animal shed with a kitten in its mouth. Nature certainly was taking its course already despite the spring being fairly new. I silently warned the squirrels and the songbirds to keep an eye out and then went back to work. I knew better than to try and figure out what that cat was up to; she’d let you watch from afar and come bump your leg if she was in the mood but she preferred to make the moves and would streak away if she wasn’t interested.
I noticed that the ivy needed pruning back off the wall it had been growing on over a hundred years. When Dad and Momma had first gotten married they’d pulled it all down and re-mortared the rock wall underneath. I hoped that the job they did would last as long as the first one had but just to be on the safe side I’d give the ivy a serious haircut and check beneath it. I also made a note for Mark to check the roof. I hadn’t noticed any leaks but not even metal roofs last forever and we’d need to keep up with any maintenance on it to make it last as long as it was supposed to.
I’d already fertilized the acid loving plants with the last of such fertilizer I had in the garden shed. I had no idea where I would get more although since many of the trees had been living without my help since well before I was born I supposed I was being a little silly. But I did like how pretty the blooming shrubbery looked after a goodly dose of what they needed helped them along.
Since I was in the frame of mind I pulled back the black cloth I had laid down over the front flower beds, loosened the soil underneath, and Jessie helped me to plant seeds of cold weather annuals like nasturtiums, pansies, violas, snap dragons, English daisies, sweet William, and calendula. I also made sure to cut the old honeysuckle vines that had snuck up onto the porch railing while I was too busy nursing Dad to notice. The rest of my annual seeds were getting potted into the greenhouse as I found a few minutes here and there but starting the vegetable seeds still took precedence.
I’d pruned the grape vines before Valentine’s day to prevent sap bleeding and I could swear it looked like they were just about to put off new growth. The early spring really had things hopping. It sure did me. I opted for an early lunch since I’d gotten hung up around the cabin and then Jessie and I were finally off to do what I had meant to do first thing.
It turned out it was a good thing I waited because the dew was even heavier out in the woods than it had been around the cabin. I hadn’t said anything to Mark, though he couldn’t have helped but notice, that Jessie needed real shoes now that he was walking most of the time. I still had the patterns that Dad had used to make Micah moccasins but it isn’t like I had real leather to work with. Rudy had given the cow hides to someone when he’d culled so much of the heard last Fall but I hadn’t ever found out why. There was an old leather chair in the den that had a skirt around the bottom and I seriously thought about cutting it off and using that as material for Jessie’s shoes.
I got to where I had been heading and then threw a rope over a handy tree and turned the baby pack into a swing. Until I figured out the shoe problem I just couldn’t let Jessie walk around outside. He thought it was funny and I had to stop every few minutes to give him another push but he was out like a light after a few turns which left me to finish what I was doing. The old raspberry hedge had needed pruning last harvest and it was even worse in the spring. I spent an uninterrupted hour clearing out the old canes and getting more hopeful by the minute that I’d get a bumper crop in the summer.
When I’d had my fill of that I looked around a little to see what I could forage for dinner. The only thing I really saw that appealed to me in the least was dandelion, some bracken fiddleheads, some plantain, and then I spotted the poke. Hot dog, we’d be eating good tonight. I remember the look on some of my friends faces when I would try and get them to eat this. To them it was nothing but a noxious and poisonous weed … to me it was a banquet.
Poke can be poisonous but so can a lot of things if you don’t treat it right. For one you only use the young leaves in spring for poke. For another, even then you have to boil it once, drain and rinse, and then boil it a second time until it is tender and you pour that water off as well. When that was done I laid the poke in a casserole dish and made up a cheese sauce with the powdered cheese I had in storage. I was dying for come cheddar cheese but hard cheeses are one of the things that I’d never had the opportunity to learn to make. I was hoping that once the Bait & Tackle really got up and running I could barter for some … or maybe barter for the knowledge of how to make my own.
I added a little sautéed onion and butter over the poke and tossed it a bit before pouring over the cheese sauce. I set that in the still operating frig … gotta love a solar powered refrigerator … until I was ready to bake it for supper. I was in the middle of deciding what to do next when I heard, “Sis? You around?”
“Micah! For goodness sake, why didn’t you just come in instead of hollering from the porch? I was in the kitchen.”
“It seemed kind of rude since I’m not living here anymore.”
So that he wouldn’t see how that managed to hurt my feelings a little bit I said, “This will always be your home so stop being silly and come in. I’d open the door but my hands have butter on them.”
“Poke Au Gratin. Want to eat dinner here tonight?”
“Um … actually why I come is that there are some folks down at the farm and one of them had a bug bite that looks like it is trying to turn nasty. Rudy asked if you’d come look at it ‘cause Aunt Lilah is resting. She was up all night with Rudy’s youngest who had the croup.”
“Oh no. Is she OK?”
“Oh, she’s all right now. Aunt Lilah did something and she coughed up all that gross stuff … Hey Jessie! How you doing buddy? … Anyway, will you come?”
I grabbed my bag and Jessie and followed Micah back down to the farm. Mark had filled in some of the bad places in the road with the dirt from where we were cutting the terraces but there were still a lot of places that needed attending to, especially on the switchbacks where the melting snow had washed out the edges a bit.
I was introduced to the Tatum’s. The family consisted of a set of brothers, their wives, and their combined children. Rudy looked pleased with himself which made me wonder what he was up to.
“Del!” Rudy boomed loud enough to bother a hen asleep in the snowball bushes. “Come over here and meet everyone!!”
There was no telling him no though I was tempted to just to see what the look on his face would have been. The thought put a smile on my face as I tried to hold back a laugh and the folks I was being introduced to must have thought I was being as welcoming as Rudy.
“Well, don’t you look a pert picture,” the older of the two wives said.
“How do you do? I’m Del Nash. Somebody mentioned that …” I didn’t get a chance to finish because Jessie grabbed my face and pulled it his direction.
“Dewwie. Awnt O Essie. O Essie has kee-kees.”
“Of course my sweet boy wants his Aunt Esther.” Oh brother. Somehow Jessie had worked his magic and had my irascible aunt wrapped around his finger. Since neither one of them would have given me any peace until they had their way I turned Jessie over and watched them walk to the farmhouse. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes before turning back around.
“Sorry about that. They’re both strong-willed. As I was saying somebody mentioned that there was a bug bite that was trying to fester.”
“Oh honey, would you mind? It’s Mr. Tatum … my Tatum … Matthew, come here and let her see that bite on the back of your arm.”
A man who was somewhere around Rudy and John’s ages limped over. “It’s sore as an ingrown hair,” he said as he rolled up his sleeve to show me.
“When did this happen?”
“Felt something sting me when I was getting dressed yesterday morning. Was like acid. But I didn’t feel anything when I slapped at it and Lou she didn’t see a stinger or anything like a wasp had got me.”
“I don’t think it was a wasp. It looks like a fire ant sting but I didn’t think there was any up this way.”
“Where are they from?” the other man, brother to the first and a little younger, asked.
“South and west as far as I know for sure, but they’ve been spreading for years … like the Africanized bees.”
“That’d be it then,” the second brother said while I still examined the first. “Night before last we helped a truck of Hispanics fix and change a tire in exchange for a couple of bushels of the oranges they were hauling to the Army base. Picked a big banana spider out of my tool box less than an hour later.”
“I supposed it could have come from that,” I agreed. Looking at it reminded me of the bites that were really acid burns that Micah used to get when Dad was stationed in Florida. I sterilized my tools, lanced open the festering head and then cleaned out all of the puss. There was quite a bit in there so I told him if it was a fire ant bite it looked like that if he wasn’t allergic to them it was close.
“Figures. I have this same reaction to mosquitoes and spiders on occasion; not all the time but often enough.”
I told him after it was cleaned out to use warm, wet compresses to draw the swelling out but to make sure that water was clean and then I gave him a couple of the one dose triple-antibiotic cream packets I had and encouraged him to keep this dobbed on to minimize the risk of further infection.
“Already startin’ to feel better just getting that head off of it and letting some of the pressure out,” the man said. “Sure do appreciate you looking at it. What do I owe you?”
I was flabbergasted and then looked at Rudy who was smirking. My mad was just about to boil to the top when from behind me I hear, “Watch out! She’s gonna blow!!”
I turned around and spit, “Micah Hysaw Nash you let me get ahold a you and I’ll …”
“Do I look crazy?!” he laughed dancing backwards.
I turned around and faced Mr. Tatum and said, “I am not a doctor … a nurse … or a vet … or any flavor of the above. I do not charge for helping someone in need and if anybody told you otherwise …” I looked at Rudy with death ray vision.
He laughed too. “Whoa Dellie, last thing I would dare to do is to tell anybody your business. The man was just being polite.”
However Lou stepped forward and said, “Oh Lord, you’ve got some of ‘em in your family too? Bless your heart. Honey, ignore ‘em. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and women like us what has men like that to pester us all our days is some of the strongest around.” She ended on a wink and I couldn’t help but like this woman and added my grin to her hearty laughter.
And then I heard them … “Baaa … baaaaaa .. baa … baaa.” I looked outside the gate to see several teenagers and younger kids guarding a livestock truck with several goats in it.
“Sure are,” Lou said proudly.
I looked Rudy and asked suspiciously, “Did Mark say something?”
That got a laugh out of him. “I thought he was crazy but then Matt here said that heck yeah goats eat kudzu just like John said they would and it looks like the reservoir is the perfect place for them to take up residence. They can live up in the rangers’ cabin that is up thata way and they can convert the pole barns up there into what they need for the animals.”
“I do small gardens and small livestock but I’m thinking that people might like my goat cheese and some of the weaving I do … using the goat hair, baskets from the kudzu, rag mats. Rudy said that Bait & Tackle place is already starting up a trading post.”
We talked for a few more minutes before Rudy told the Tatum men, “Why don’t you go ahead and pull your trucks over in the field and get some rest. We can talk later and tomorrow we’ll show you where the reservoir is.”
After the family had done as Rudy “suggested” I tried to figure out how to say what I wanted to say without it coming out wrong. Rudy smiled and beat me to it. “No, I’m not crazy Del. At least no more than I was yesterday. I know they’re strangers but they are kin to the Cherries the long way around. To be on the safe side I’ll take ‘em to the reservoir the back way through the Montgomery place. Now here me out before you get your feathers ruffled. I see this solving a few problems I’ve been pondering on. One, John is bad concerned about the reservoir. This will put someone up there to keep an eye on it full time. Two, your idea about the goats being another source of food is a good one but I just don’t see either one of us having the time to do it. It is going to take everything I have to keep the fields running this year and you try and squeeze one more thing in and you’ll collapse no matter what you say. And that’s where my third point comes in at. Matt Tatum has two grown sons and his brother has one a couple years younger than Sam and Micah. I’m hoping that they’ll be willing to trade work for supplies, at least this first year. Don’t hurt none that there are also daughters in that mess of kids the Tatum’s have. In case you hadn’t noticed Sam and Micah sure have.”
I had noticed and had decided to reserve judgment on the whole issue. The girls looked presentable … read that as everything important was decently covered … but since I hadn’t really talked to anyone but three of the adults I wasn’t prepared to say one way or the other.
Looking around I asked, “Where’s Mark?”
“He and John are off … er … doing a few things. Heard you and Mark are looking at making it official in April.”
“Rudy,” I said warningly. “I wish you wouldn’t say it like that. It’ll make people think we’ve been up to something we shouldn’t have.”
“I ain’t even gonna comment on that. I swear, you and Mark have to be the oldest young folks I’ve ever had dealings with. That aside, you need to be thinking how you’re going to handle the legal stuff. I can help you find a preacher but don’t think there is going to be a way to make it ‘legal’ in the same sense of the word as we might have a year ago. We can write something up … for the marriage certificate and for the land ownership issues … but whether it will be recognized in a court o’ law down the road a piece I can’t say for sure.”
“We hadn’t talked about that part yet and I also have to make sure that Daddy’s wishes are carried out about Micah’s security and … Oh Lord, this is a lot bigger mess than I thought. Maybe there won’t be an April wedding after all.”
“Dellie, don’t think that. And don’t say it to Mark either. You and me will sit down and have a talk. We can get everything written out the way we want but leave it worded in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the current legal mumbo jumbo.”
I admit I was a little suspicious and it must have shown no matter how hard I tried to hide it. “I know Dellie, we ain’t always seen eye to eye. For one I just never did understand why Hy let you run things the way you did but on the other hand the results are what counts and I’ll never fault the man for how he raised you. Cain’t say I’d ever raise my girls like that but Hy did good with you. For another thing I promised Hy that I’d help where I could. You may be even more capable that Hy gave you credit for being but I can be meaner and nastier to get what I want done; I also have more experience and know more people around here than you do. We’ll get it fixed up.”
“And you want in return?” I asked him, not to be insulting but to acknowledge that he was saying the truth.
He got a sly smile on his face. “Yeah, I think Hy just may have underestimated you … and I’m not sure that Mark fully understands yet either.” He sniffed and spit and then said, “It’s my kids, especially the girls. John’s my brother but … let’s be honest with each other … you’ve seen Cal and Cindy and I don’t want that for my kids. You raised Micah as good as Hy would let you. Esther and Lilah are too old to start off raising kids 24/7 and Ali is just … Ali.”
“What about Cheryl?”
“What about her? I do intend on making an honest woman out of her after I’ve talked the kids around. Have to deal with Esther too. They still pretend Margie is gonna show up one of these days and we both know how unlikely that is going to be. Margie … she’d complicate things. She is the mother of my children but I just about can’t stand to be in the same state with her much less even think about having to support her and her proclivities again. But I can’t stand the idea of hurting my kids either. I’ve told Cheryl that if she can’t wait I understood – I don’t but I gotta say it ‘cause it is what I’d expect in her shoes – but I wanted to give it a year before we make it official. Either way she’s too young to take on my kids.”
I snorted, “Well call me Grandma Methuselah.”
“You know what I mean Dellie. She had to deal with all them brothers of hers and how they treated her. I just ain’t gonna do that to her.” Which told me more than Rudy had probably meant to. Cheryl wasn’t a convenience to him, she was the real deal.
I agreed to act as guardian to his kids, should something happen to him though Sam was getting a little old for it, and in exchange he agreed to work things so that no one would question the legalities in the long haul.
I dropped in the house, said my hellos and got some congratulations – surprisingly even from Aunt Esther – picked up Jessie and then headed back up to the cabin. I wanted to go through my seeds and bring a list with me next time to compare with what they had at the farm and what they might have at the Bait & Tackle, my inventories needed updating again, and not the least bit of work ahead of me I had a wedding to plan.