“August is finished, September flew by, and the close of October is coming fast,” I thought to myself as I stood elbow deep in a vat of apples I was washing so that they could be put into the cider press. They are not the same apples I knew back in my village but some taste close enough as the difference was barely noticeable.
“Yulee? Got them ready yet?”
“Yes … Hir … er … Hank.”
One twin pushed the other. “See, told you she’d know even if we switched hats and shirts.”
I smiled and refused to admit that I had gotten lucky. It was easier to tell them apart with their hats off as I had discovered they had barely noticeable mirrored swirls in their hair line; one slightly center of left and the other slightly center of right.
“If you’ll hold the basket I’ll dip these out and get the next batch started.”
As I loaded one of the boys mentioned, “Gid said if we were good that you’d bake each of us an apple with honey and raisins in it.”
“Hmmm.” I looked at them and they caved so quickly there was barely a pause in the conversation.
“Wellll, he did mention that you might but not so much that you would.”
Fighting a smile I said, “It so happens that I plan to do that very thing but only a half an apple each or you won’t have any room for the stew your mother has had simmering most of the day.”
The boys grinned. One said, “Ma’s stew is the best.”
“The best,” the other one agreed.
They took the basket off and I put the next load of apples into the water to clean. I looked at the large pile yet to go and grimaced then almost immediately gave myself a shake. “Never turn your nose up at a blessing no matter what form it takes or how much or how little because perhaps next time God will teach you to be more appreciative by withholding something if not outright taking something away.”
There were many apple trees in the old orchard but not all of them gave very plentifully. The oldest needed to be cut down for smoking chips and new seedlings put in their place. The ones that yielded the greatest number of bushels had been planted by Gid and his Uncle Fid when Gid was still a boy. All of the trees needed a good pruning and they would get it at the end of the week when the last apple had been picked and put into the fruit cellar; a hand-dug pit put in by his Uncle Fid when the original one put in during the Great War had collapsed on itself.
I glanced towards the smoking shed and knew inside it hung racks upon racks of salmon. Earlier this month Gid had taken his brothers and been gone three days. They came back with barrels of kokanee. We finally got our first bear as well when one came too close to the cabin investigating the smell of the offal that the dogs were given. Luckily it wasn’t a grizzle but it was still big and mean enough and one of the dogs still has its ribs wrapped where it had been given a mighty swat for daring to bite the bear’s backside.
To everyone’s delight Ned is now fully healed and making plans to give the children lessons once the snow starts falling using books that he managed to save from the school as well as the books that Gid’s other family collected over the generations. I can only hope that gives them something to do besides swing from the rafters and drive Gid to threaten them with great bodily harm. The children have become so used to working hard out of doors all day long that it will be an adjustment for them to remain cooped up during the coldest months. On second thought perhaps I should suggest that a child-run is built along side the dog run so that we can send them outside should they become too much to handle.
Vaniece worries me. I’ve tried speaking to Lurna but she has lost all patience with the subject. She orders Vaniece about like the lowest bar maid. The other girls seem to feel that she is getting her just rewards while forgetting the fact that it was not that long ago that some of them were nearly as bad in their own way. Jace barely speaks to her, no longer even sharing a sleeping chamber, and Gid refuses to get involved saying that it was either one, Jace’s business or two, women’s business and neither one was any of his business.
I found her crying again last Sabbath Day. It wasn’t the kind of tears she had before that were big and noisy and for show. These were real tears that she hid from everyone. She jumped nearly to the nearest peak when I put my arm around her to draw her up off of the cold, stone floor of a dark corner. “Come Vaniece. You’ll take sick if you keep on like this.”
“Why should you care?” she asked, both angry and miserable.
“Because I do. The Sisters raised me to be this way. Now come, a nice warm cup of tea will at least return the warmth to your hands; they’re like ice.”
She jerked her hands away. “Just leave me be.”
“I can’t. Not even after Gid saying it was none of our business.”
“He’s right. It isn’t any of your business.”
I nodded in the dim light of the lantern I’d brought down with me. “He’s right but sometimes even when something isn’t our business it is still wrong to ignore it.”
She finally let me pull her up. “Just … just go. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I look ugly.”
“You don’t look ugly; you look unhappy.”
She shook her head and nearly started crying again. “Nothing is the way I thought it would be. Nothing is the way I was promised it would be.”
I sighed and said, “That happens a lot in life.”
“How would you know?” she snarled.
“Because once I was a daughter in a house full of love just like you, and my Papa and Mam were there to take care of me and teach me and when they weren’t the Sisters or Brothers were there to guide me. Only then they all were gone and I was left with a sickly, premature baby brother to try and keep alive and my only friend a frail old woman who had ten years on my own grandmother. Instead of living and working in the church I’d known my whole life, the place I expected to give my adult years to, I wound up following a caravan taproom that was more brothel than bar. I learned the ways of men and women trying not to hear my aunt and the bar whores as they went about their business. I lost my baby brother and my only friend within months of each other and railed at God for leaving me behind to live with His takings. I wound up humiliated and in a slave cage up for auction to the highest bidder and that was only shortly after I’d resolved to murder the hateful woman that was a sister to my Mam just to escape the misery she dished out to me day and night.”
She looked at me with wide, fearful eyes. I told her, “You may think you have sunk low Vaniece, but I promise you as God as my witness you have a great deal more than you would have if Jace had not gotten you and the family away in time. Raiders killed my family. You still have yours. And you still have a chance to find your way through this mess you and Jace have let your lives get into.”
What little life had come back into her eyes fled. “He … he doesn’t want me anymore.”
“So make him want you again.”
“I can’t. I’ve tried. He doesn’t, not even a little. He said so.” She turned her face away and whispered, “I wish I were dead.”
Thinking back I still believe those last words of hers were no play act to garner my sympathy. Vaniece is guilty of making her life harder than it has to be but Jace has been no angel of mercy and light these last months. His anger is a cold and cruel one and it is beginning to set too comfortably upon his shoulders, becoming habit rather than true thought.
And now Vaniece is sick. The others think she is trying to garner attention in a new way but I have checked and she is not faking. She won’t eat and wishes to do nothing but be left alone but I do not think she truly sleeps either. If she makes no improvement soon, if I cannot get through to her, I will speak to Jace even if it causes an argument with Gid. Cold and starvation are not the only things that can steal a life.