Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Seven

It was almost Christmas and Carina was excited. From out of chests and drawers, she produced a carved nativity scene, wreaths of willow branches with red ribbon bows, and candles scented with bayberry. She hung Christmas stockings on the wall near the heating stove in the living room, and from under her bed she brought out a box of small dried gourds, painted with Christmas scenes. She fixed Amalia with a serious look. "You'll let me hang these this year, won't you?"

Amalia rolled her eyes. "If you must."

"I think I must."

"How come Amalia doesn't like these?" Donovan asked after she had walked away.

"She likes them well enough. They just bring back memories, and she's always been a little shy about showing her work."

"She made them?" Donovan inspected one of the painted gourds more carefully.

"It was a project she and Mother undertook on our first Christmas after we moved here for good. Amalia has a real talent for artistic things." Carina's eyebrows flickered in annoyance. "I think she should do things like this to sell, or maybe specialize in fancy needlework projects. People are starved for pretty things, and it's easier than hoeing, but she won't hear of it."

"I wonder why."

"Too many deaths and too much hard work, I suppose."

Their next project was to make Christmas cookies. Amalia protested that they were a waste of sugar, butter and good wheat flour, but Carina found her star and bell-shaped cookie cutters and wouldn't be deterred.

Over dinner that night Carina looked hesitantly at her sister as she picked at a quesadilla. "I was thinking," she said. "It might be nice to go to Mass this year."

Amalia looked at her in disbelief. "We haven't been to Mass in years. Why now?"

"It just seems like a nice thing to do. Get out and see a few of the neighbors, give thanks and all that."

"We can give thanks right here."

"Sing carols."

"You don't want to hear our valley neighbors try to sing, and we've got batteries for the CD player. We can play carols here."

"You know that's not the point. There's just something about going to Mass on Christmas day."

"I'll go with you," Donovan said. "I didn't think you were Catholic, though."

"We're not," Amalia said. "She just likes churches. They give her an excuse to dress up."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"How about you two go do Mass and when you get home I'll have some wassail waiting. That way you can't say I’m never festive."

Carina beamed. "Okay. We'll do presents, too."

Donovan was surprised when Amalia nodded as if she was expecting this. He had thought he was the only one who remembered Christmas presents, since neither woman had mentioned it previously.

Carina turned to Donovan. "I'll find something nice you can wear to church. It'll be fun. You'll see."

* * *

The sun had not yet stained the sky pink when Donovan hitched Goneril to the two-wheeled trap, hung a couple of lanterns and brought it around. He was wearing a dark wool suit, a slightly faded blue shirt, and a silk tie, all of which made him feel very elegant. Luckily it was not a terribly cold morning. He would've hated to cover such decadently useless clothes with a serviceable jacket or poncho.

The kitchen door opened and Carina hurried over in a flounced blue dress with spangles at the hem. She had tied rags in her hair the night before and now it hung in long loose curls, bright against the fading blue velvet of her cloak. She hiked up her skirt and climbed onto the seat.

Donovan slapped the reins on Goneril's back. There was a sturdy wool blanket on the back of the seat and Carina arranged it so that it covered her clothes, including the cape. "You'll want to wrap up," she told Donovan. "Most of the time we don't notice how much dust we get on ourselves, but today. . ."

Donovan stopped the cart and did as he was told, then clucked to Goneril again.

"You're pretty excited, for just going to church.”

"I don't get out much," Carina reminded him. "If we could make a living in town, I'd move there in a second."

"As a veterinarian and an herbalist, I bet you'd do well."

"Macrina already has a veterinarian," Carina said. "Higdon has one, too. Until a couple years ago, the reservation also had one. I can't go moving in on someone else's turf. They wouldn't like it and there wouldn't be enough business to go around."

"I see." Donovan set the brake as they started down a hill. "I suppose it's not much different if you want to set up shop as an herbalist?"

"There are amateur herbalists like me and Amalia everywhere. My mother maybe could've done it because she was an expert and had a license. But not us."

"I guess you wouldn't want to go very far from here looking for work?"

"This is the land we know. Besides, with the mail so uncertain I want to stay where Miles can find me when he gets discharged."

"Maybe when he comes back?"

Carina shook her head. "I'm established here. Miles will come home and we'll have a doctor in the valley again. The wars will end and new people will come out here to live, or will come out of hiding and return to the homes they once had. Babies will be born. People will invest in land and businesses." She smiled, her eyes full of confidence. "It can only get better, can't it?"

The sun had risen and was gleaming off the stained glass windows of the little adobe church as they drew near. Donovan was surprised at the number of people arriving, some on horseback, some in carts or traps like their own. A few were even on foot. "I had no idea there would be so many people."

"The valley isn't as deserted as it looks, is it?" Carina smiled. "Some of them come a long way for holiday Mass. This church serves a large area."

There were no places to tie their jennet, all sign posts, fence posts and other improvised hitching spots having been taken away over the years by people seeking scrap or building materials, so Carina put the hobbles on Goneril. "I don't like having to do that to her," she said. "I know how she hates it."

"She'll get over it. It's not like we'll be here long."

"It's Catholic Mass," Carina reminded him. "We could be here all day." She took Donovan's arm. "Or at least it will feel that way. But let's go inside and see who's here."

The church was neat and freshly whitewashed, lit with oil lamps and candles. People milled about the entryway in their best winter clothes, some of which were indeed very fine, while others were merely clean, well-mended and neatly pressed. Donovan could hardly follow the thread of any one conversation for the way everyone drifted back and forth between English and Spanish. Before he could become exasperated, he and Gonzales recognized each other in the crowd. Gonzales waved and pushed his way through, leading a frail little woman with a dowager's hump and a hopeful look in her milky eyes. He greeted Carina first and pulled his mother forward. "Mamá, you remember Carina Cunningham, the veterinarian."

The woman reached out, straining to see through the clouds of her cataracts. "Of course I do."

Carina grabbed her outstretched hands. "Nice to see you, Señora. Te miras bien."

The old woman smiled at the compliment. "You know better than to lie to an anciana like me." She coughed into a handkerchief. "Maybe in the spring I'll shake this thing."

"Ask your son to look for some horehound next time he's in Macrina."

"My boy looks for whores in Macrina, not horehound."

Donovan was so startled by this feisty remark that he was unprepared when Gonzales changed the subject by introducing him. "Donovan lives with Carina and Amalia, and helps out on their farm.”

"Oh, good," the woman said, clutching at Donovan's hands. "We need more good men in this valley. The war has carried them all off and when they come back, they’re like my worthless son. You be good to those girls, and the Lord will bless you."

"I'll do my best. And I'm sure your son is better than you think."

"I'll be the judge of that." She reached for Gonzales' arm again. "Take me to a pew. I need a little time with my thoughts before the service starts."

Carina took Donovan around the room, making introductions. He met the Mallory family, a young couple with a brood of active children, impossible to count because they were constantly in motion. He met the Bustos girls, all five of them in pants and fancy boots, hard-eyed and toughened by their life alone on their deceased father's sheep ranch. He met a weathered man who spoke in a flat tone and refused to meet his eyes. Carina whispered that he was autistic and had held the position of church groundskeeper ever since he was found abandoned on the steps as a boy.

"Are the Petersons here?" Donovan asked, looking around.

"I doubt it. They're so Lutheran that it hurts." She tugged his sleeve. "Let's go find a place to sit. There'll be more time to visit later."

Donovan followed her lead, dabbing his fingers in the holy water and crossing himself as she did as they went into the nave. They hadn't been seated long when a woman in a red wool dress with gold buttons sat down next to Carina. "How are you, dear? It seems I hardly ever see you any more."

"Things are going well, Emma. And you?"

She gave a little shrug. "About as well as can be expected."

While Emma and Carina got caught up, Donovan looked around. In a pew on the other side of the aisle he noticed a crowd of children and their elderly relatives gazing toward the altar, entranced by the bisque santa in her crèche, dressed in white robes and lace. A few women in the front pew seemed equally captivated, gazing at her lovingly as they murmured over their rosaries, but most of the people filing into the pews were intent only on each other, shaking hands, greeting old friends and exchanging news. With so much work to be done and so much distance between the larger ranches, the times when people could get together were too precious to be wasted in piety.

As the sun began to light the rose window, a few weather-beaten men in black suits walked up the aisle, guiding the stragglers to their seats. A woman in a green velvet shift began playing the piano, and this appeared to be the signal the congregation had been waiting for because everyone fell silent as the young priest came up the aisle in his flowing robes, preceded by an altar boy in a yellowing cassock trimmed in lace.

Carina whispered in Donovan's ear. "The priest is Joaquin Estrada. His parents are pretty important in the valley. He was able to dodge the draft."

Donovan nodded in understanding. It had been a big joke in the streets of his youth that if you wanted to be sure of never having to fight, become religious. He knew a few boys who had tried it, going from church to temple, willing to preach anyone's faith if it would keep them out of the war or allow them to spend their army days blessing wounded and dying soldiers behind the lines. So many new religions had sprung up to accommodate these men that the feds had put a stop to it by drafting any religious who didn't have an established church of his own. Not any church would do. Its congregation had to prove a history going back to at least 2012, otherwise, a priest, rabbi or imam was just as draftable as the next guy.

"He's lucky to have gotten a church so young," Donovan whispered to Carina. "I hear some of the old-timers won't step down. They think the young ones don't take it seriously."

Emma leaned toward them with the air of a curious bird. "He wouldn't have got this one, except Father Waltrip died a couple years ago. They say it was a hunting accident. It was a little suspicious, if you ask me."

"Yes,” Carina agreed. “It did look odd. The timing, the circumstances. . ."

The music stopped and the three sat back in their seats with the air of guilty schoolchildren. Joaquin, who didn't look old enough to be styled "Father," was waving to a pretty young woman on the front pew. She held a baby in her lap and was moving the baby's arm so that it could wave, too. A sudden crash made the young priest spin around. The altar boy had managed to knock over the goblet of sacrificial wine. "Estúpido!" Joaquin hissed, loud enough for everyone on the first few rows to hear. "Get some more, pendejo!" He turned back to the congregation and smiled sheepishly. His large gray eyes scanned the room before falling on the young woman and baby again. He waved. They waved back. He held up his right hand and made the sign of the cross over the congregation. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."

* * *

Donovan had cause to remember Carina's words about the length of Catholic Masses. It seemed to go on forever— the kneeling, the rising, the responses he didn't know and wasn't prepared for. The sermon about the Christ child started off well enough with some readings from the Bible, but devolved quickly into a long ramble about the joys of parenthood, punctuated by little waves and affectionate glances at the woman and baby in the front pew. Even Carina, who adored children in much the same way she loved animals, was disgusted.

"Sometimes I swear they should've kept that rule about priests not marrying," she muttered to no one in particular.

Emma nodded. "Or at the very least teach them the difference between Baby Jesus and their own brats."

"Did he even go to seminary?" Carina asked. "Or did the family just set him up and that was the end of it?"

"He went away for a couple years," Emma whispered back. "They say he was at seminary, but who knows?"

The young man dropped the communion wafer while intoning, "This is my body. . ."

"Which is dropped on the floor and stepped on for you," Emma muttered while Carina suppressed a giggle. Both women skipped communion.

* * *

When it was over and the congregation dismissed, they filed into the sunlight of the warming December day. Donovan took a deep breath and admired the cloudless sky. "Sure is beautiful."

"Yes," Carina said. "It would've been nice to have had a white Christmas, but this is so pretty I don't think I care."

"A shame the service wasn't any better," Emma sniffed. "I had hoped Joaquin would be a little more serious about it once he got settled in."

"He's still young," Carina said. "He'll get better."

"It's easy for you to be patient. You're not Catholic."

While Carina visited with the valley farmers, Donovan walked around the property. The grounds were neatly tended with rock beds and native plants. Already Donovan had learned enough to distinguish nopal, yucca and the drought-resistant vine that produced a stinking gourd. Behind the church lay a fallow vegetable garden and a low adobe building, whether house, school or some other type of official structure he couldn't be sure.

A trail wound past the house and up a dusty hill. Curious, he followed it past more fields, all lying fallow for the winter. The trail dipped and rose again, curving past another adobe building and up to the crest of a low mesa. It was hard going for Donovan with his weak leg, but finally he reached the top, breathing hard. He looked at the desert landscape all around and then stopped short, noticing the wall and iron gate. He was almost as surprised the gate hadn't been stolen for scrap, as he was by what lay beyond. This was the local cemetery.

He put his face against the bars, gazing in wonderment at the long rows of neat headstones and crosses, many decorated with votives, homemade paper flowers or winter greenery. The stones seemed to spring of their own accord out of the land, backdropped by the string of mesas that formed one of the boundaries separating the valley from the rest of the world. The wind swept down off the range, fluttering the ribbons of the decorations and stirring up clouds of pale dust that swirled across the graves.

At the sound of a footstep, he turned around. Carina stood wrapped in her faded cloak, regarding him with an indecipherable expression. "Do you want to go in?"

Donovan hadn't been considering it, but hesitated to say so. He tugged at the gate and said, "It's locked," as if that settled the matter.

She motioned for him to follow her. "The other gate is always open."

She led him to a smaller gate farther down the wall and it creaked open with a sound that echoed in lonely waves that carried on the wind. Inside, the ground was packed hard as stone, covered with a light film of dust and punctuated by a few hardy weeds. They walked the rows of graves in silence, stopping every now and then to examine a decoration or read a name. The nicest stones were from the early years of the century. They were polished, deeply carved, and had flowers or trees inscribed as part of their motif, along with fading photographs behind glass. The earliest stones were worn nearly smooth by the constantly-blowing dust, and the most recent ones were poorly made and already chipping or fading. Some of the new graves had only wooden slabs with names scratched into them, and a few were marked only by an outline of stones and a wooden cross with no names at all to identify the dead.

Donovan turned to Carina, an unspoken question in his eyes.

She led him to a plot outlined with rocks, and pointed to a long double headstone. It was a handsomely carved and polished piece of granite, but contained only names, no dates. "They bought it long ago, when their money was still worth something. Maybe someday we'll be able to find someone to add the dates."

"At least their names will be remembered," he said, taking her hand. He thought it odd that the grave was bare while so many of the others were covered with offerings. Now that he considered the matter, he had never known either woman to go to the cemetery. "I'd be happy to drive you here to decorate, if you like."

Carina pulled her hand away. "I don’t like to think of them as something in the ground. Let's go back." Clutching the velvet wrap against her body, she started toward the gate.

Donovan hung back for a moment, then followed. Outside the gate, she waited, head down, face obscured in the shadow of her hood. He held out his arm and she took it without a word.

They were halfway down the hill before she spoke. "If I didn't know Miles was coming back some day. . ."

"You'd be strong, just the same.”

"No, I wouldn't. Amalia would, but I wouldn't be able to stand one more death."

Donovan chose his next words carefully. "Things happen, you know. Unexpected things. And we have to-"

"No." She let go his arm and hugged herself, shaking her head so hard the hood fell back and her curls tumbled across her shoulders. "Bad things can't happen all the time."

"You're right," Donovan said, putting an arm around her. "Good things happen, too. I guess I just never had any faith to lose, let alone any to try and hang on to." They were at the base of the hill and he guided her across the yard toward the wagon. "Finding your farm was the best luck I ever had, but it looked like the worst luck possible at the time. I guess I'm trying to say not to take it all so hard. Things have a way of working themselves out."

"Of course they do. My husband is coming home and we're going to start a medical clinic. Things will get easier."

"Aren't they a little easier now?" Donovan asked, slightly hurt. "I know I'm still learning, but I sort of hoped I was helping a little."

Carina's face broke into a smile. "Of course you're a help. You're one of the best things that's happened to us in a long time, too.”

He gave her a quick hug and offered her a hand into the cart.

Carina gathered her spangled skirt, then hesitated. "I don't suppose," she said, "That you've learned how to manage those hobbles?"

Donovan glanced at Goneril's legs, still in their leather braces. Working around the feet of an animal that could kill with a single kick made him nervous. It seemed like a foolish way to die. "I think I can manage it.”

He put Carina into the wagon and she sat back and closed her eyes. "Good," she sighed. "Funny how sometimes you don't realize how tired you really are."

* * *

They got back to the farm at mid-afternoon and Carina insisted on helping rub the donkeys down. They stopped by the goat paddock before heading to the house, and the visit seemed to perk her up and banish all remaining traces of her dark mood. They hadn't reached the kitchen garden when a sharp, sweet smell made them pause and sniff the air appreciatively.

"Oh, good," Carina said. "Amalia made wassail like she promised."

"What is that?"

"Hot spiced apple cider," Carina said. "It's almost too warm for it today, but we'll enjoy it just the same."

They came in through the kitchen door, stopping in the entryway to shake the dust off their clothes. When they came into the kitchen, the smell of rich food overwhelmed them. The pot of wassail simmered on the stove, a few dark loaves of a cake-like bread sat cooling on a rack, and underneath all the sweet smells was another scent, that of real food cooking. Carina couldn't help herself and peeked inside the stove's warming reservoir. "Tamales! Amalia hasn't made tamales in so long. She must've planned this for days, or at least since last night, to have gotten the corn husks soaked."

"Where is Amalia, by the way?"

She wasn't in the living room, but they found another surprise— a small plastic Christmas tree. It was old and bedraggled, but with ribbons tied on its branches and a few shiny chains and ornaments, it hardly seemed to matter. Scattered around it were a few gifts, some wrapped in bits of bright cloth and others in old paper, hand-decorated with dabs of red and green paint. It all looked so festive that Carina went running down the hall to find her sister.

From one of the bedrooms, Donovan could hear their voices, Carina's happy and excited, Amalia's more sedate, embarrassed at the fuss. After a few minutes the two women came into the living room, each carrying more packages. Amalia was so pleased at the effect of her cooking and decorating that she almost forgot to be cool to Donovan. "How was church?" she asked with a little downward curve of her lips and dancing look in her eyes that suggested she had already guessed at the fiasco of the Mass.

"I've never been to Catholic church," Donovan said. "I had nothing to compare it to, and I have a feeling that was a good thing."

"That Joaquin. . ." Carina said.

"Complete disaster?"

"Well, it was entertaining, at least."

While the women talked, Donovan went to his room to get the gifts he had bought in Macrina on a market run he had made earlier in the month. He had paid extra to have them wrapped in real Christmas paper, but as he brought them into the living room, he couldn't help feeling like there was something artificial about them that didn't hold up well against the women's more sincere efforts in cloth and paint. Nevertheless they gushed over the wrapping paper as if it were foreign riches.

"Where did you get that?"

"I haven't seen Christmas paper in ages."

"It must've cost you a fortune. You shouldn't have done it."

"I'm going to be real careful with mine," Carina said. "I won't tear it a bit, and then I can use it again next year."

"Yes," Amalia said. "I suppose if we reuse it a few times, that makes the cost work out, more or less. She looked at Donovan. "You shouldn't have done it, though."

"I wanted to get you something nice."

"But the paper?" Carina smoothed an angel on a blue background. "It's the thought that counts, not the gift, and certainly not the packaging."

"Well, I did it," Donovan said. "And there's no point discussing it now."

The gifts the women gave Donovan were simple, mostly homemade things— sweaters, a cap, socks. They also gave him a nice pair of leather work gloves that he felt certain they had bought from Alvi. The women’s gifts to each other were in a similar vein—items they had made or repaired on the others’ behalf. Among these items there seemed to be no surprises because they giggled and teased each other like they had known all along what they were getting, and didn’t mind a bit. But Amalia had also bought Carina a special gift—a watch. “So you can quit saying you lost track of time out there in the goat pens."

"Oh, I don’t think it’ll do much good for that,” she said, admiring it on her wrist. “I wouldn’t want to wear such a nice thing where I could lose it. Not after the way I lost my last one.” She gave Amalia a mischievous look. “Your clever plan has failed.”

"Give it back, then. Maybe I could use a new watch, myself.”

Donovan broke into their playful bickering. “Aren’t you going to open what I got you?”

Guiltily, they tugged at the colorful wrapping, using their nails to break the cellophane tape.

There were amber earrings and a necklace for Amalia, who liked to wear shades of brown and yellow. Carina, who always went about in blue, got a bracelet of silver and turquoise beads and a silver hair clip decorated with a turquoise bird. And each woman got a small box of chocolate.

The women looked at their gifts in silence. Finally Amalia spoke. "This is too much. You shouldn't spend your money on us this way."

"Not even if I want to?"

Both women dropped their heads, ashamed of themselves. Carina moved first, throwing her arms around Donovan's neck and kissing him. "Thank you. I'm sorry I have such bad manners." She kissed him again.

"I guess I've got bad manners, too." Amalia came over and did the same, then stepped back and smiled self-consciously. "You'll have to forgive us. We're out of the habit of getting presents from a man."

"Or from anyone except each other," Carina added. "We hardly remember what we're supposed to do."

"I think you're just supposed to say thank you," Donovan said.

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