Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book One, Chapter Eleven

The drought continued into summer and Amalia, Donovan and Will were up late many a night irrigating the fields and garden after the sun went down to minimize evaporation of the precious water. Showers were rationed at once a week, leaving the adults dirty and grumpy and the children peevish for a chance to play in cool water during the heat of the day. Their prudence paid off as their animals continued to thrive and their crops ripened under the desert sun. With a little supplementation from their stash and whatever Carina's veterinary calls might bring, their harvest would sustain them through the winter.

Carina went on a lot of calls, some on her own initiative, but most at the request of the farmers themselves. A man would ride up on a dusty pony, leading another mount for Carina, and off she would go to check on a colicky horse or a foal that was failing to thrive. When it wasn’t a valley neighbor needing her services, it was an Indian needing help with the sheep and goats on the reservation. Carina always went right away, and now that Amalia had Donovan and the children to help with the chores, she went without misgivings, sometimes staying away for several days to make the best possible bargains.

Tasha was a busy girl that summer. She picked tomatoes and Donovan showed her how to cut them and lay them on big screens to dry. She picked peas and Amalia cooked them for dinner or added them to fresh salads. She mended screens with a needle and thread and she crocheted diligently, even though the wool was hot and scratchy on a summer day. Her favorite task was to wander the creek for herbs, which she brought home and tied into bundles to dry.

Will proved his worth with the animals during Carina's absences, handling them with an ease and experience beyond his years. Unlike Carina, he had the patience to dig worms for the hens on the banks of the creek. He devised a new predator deterrent around the chicken coop and he repaired a goat cart he found in the barn, enlisting a docile nanny to pull it around so Tasha could range farther and bring home more herbs and wild edibles.

The kitchen stove was now used for extra counter space as cooking moved outdoors to the solar cooker, the grill, and the dome-shaped mud oven. The thick adobe walls of the house kept out the worst of the summer heat and at night the windows were left open to the desert breezes. In the evenings the family sat on the porch with the wind blowing through the cool leaves of the apple trees while the children practiced their reading and arithmetic. When they were finished studying, they could have a piece of watermelon or whatever other fruit had come into season, while the adults sipped homemade wine and planned the next day.

It was a good life, even though it seemed they were always working. Sometimes Donovan thought back to his first weeks at the farm. He understood now why Amalia had been hostile. Anyone who didn't produce required them to dig into their stores, leaving them ill-prepared for the next emergency. But he had paid them back. He had worked hard and had brought home more trade goods than they could've ever acquired on their own. That he had scammed and stolen for some of them didn't bother him in the least.

Perhaps one of the best things that had come out of his tenure on the farm was the change in Amalia, whose mood had grown more hopeful, even before she found her way to his bed. She had become fond of the children, especially Tasha, who had taken to reading with an eagerness that won her heart. Now in addition to Amalia's nighttime readings they had breakfast readings, with Tasha puzzling out an inspirational thought for the day.

Amalia began drawing again. She did it furtively at first, but when the rest of the family earnestly ignored her, she warmed to her project and began sharing her work. She sketched mesas, rabbits, apple trees and clumps of manzanilla in bloom. An expert rendition of Tasha with her goat cart became the little girl's prized possession, and Will made a frame for it from scrap he found in the barn.

In a private sketchbook, she drew pictures of Donovan. Pencil, ink or charcoal; shirtless or with no clothes at all, she seemed to enjoy his body as much on paper as she did in the bedroom. He teased her, but she was always quick to remind him, "The human form has always been a favorite subject of artistic expression."

Donovan knew almost nothing about art and remained unconvinced. "Come to bed and tell me that you are only interested in my, what did you call it, 'aesthetic' qualities."

As the hot, dry summer wore on, Carina stayed away more often, and when she was home, she spent as much time as she could with her animals or with Will, who shared so many of her interests. Even though Carina had urged her to follow her desire, Amalia suspected she was jealous. If Amalia wore a pretty blouse or made an effort to style her hair, Carina was quick to tease her about "dressing up for your boyfriend." If she went far afield or came in late, it was, "Don't make your boyfriend worry about you." Everything was said in her usual sweet tone, but Amalia knew her sister too well not to catch the meaning that lay beneath.

The worst moment came when she decided to move into Donovan's room. Carina laughed and said it was about time, since she was there all the time anyway, but there was something false in her enthusiasm for having a room to herself again. On the day Amalia moved her things down the hall, Carina had been so sullen that the entire family was relieved when a neighbor rode up with an extra pony, asking Carina to tend an injured ewe.

The tension between the sisters had become almost visible when one afternoon a cloud of dust on the horizon heralded the return of Alvi, the peddler.

* * *

Alvi was surprised to see the children but took the new additions to the family in stride. He gave them some peppermint candy that he kept on hand for the children of his best customers, and got down to the business of mending shoes and selling luxury goods.

Donovan tried to keep working. The corn was ripe and he was slow, especially working alone, with Amalia cutting hay in the next field and Carina preparing a special meal for Alvi, but Donovan's patience only went so far. When he could stand the suspense no longer, he brought in his team.

He found the windows of Alvi's cart open, shades extended and goods spread out on Indian blankets in the shade of the mulberry tree. Will and Tasha were trying on huaraches from a wicker basket. "Is that a good fit for you, my friend?" he asked Will, who was jumping around the yard, frowning at his feet.

"There's a spot. . ."

"Come here and let Alvi see it. Perhaps it is a small matter, easily fixed."

Will showed him the spot where the strap was rubbing. "I can probably get used to it."

"Don't be ridiculous." He motioned for him to take off the shoe. "They must be a perfect fit or I will not let you have them. My customers must be satisfied."

Will smiled up at Donovan as Alvi got to work. "I've never had anything new.”

"Well, technically you know huaraches aren't new, right?"

"Yeah, they're just old tires."

The peddler interrupted. "But once Alvi has finished with them, they have been given new life. And they are better than new rationed shoes from the store because they are customized."

"Customized?" Will frowned at the new word.

"I fix them special for your feet, and your feet alone."

"That sounds like a good deal,” Donovan said. “Maybe I need some. Boots get hot in the summer."

Alvi looked up from his work and met his eyes with a look that said he knew his real motive for stopping by. Ever the professional, he stuck to the matter at hand. "You find a pair in that basket that you like, I will make them yours."

Tasha came up to the workbench, clutching a pair of huaraches and a handful of yellow ribbon. "Sir?"

"I am Alvi, not Sir."

"Can you make my shoes tie with ribbons?" She held out both items for him to inspect.

The peddler handed Will his huarache and asked him to try it on. While the boy experimented with leaps beside the nopal gardens, Alvi examined Tasha's choice of sandals. "You see, Miss Tasha, we need these shoes to be strong so you can wear them a long time. These ribbons aren't made for that. Besides, the pretty ribbons would only get dirty." The disappointment on her face made him examine the huaraches again, knitting his brows in thought. "What is it you like about the ribbons? Is it their color? Or did you just want to make the sandals pretty?"

Donovan sighed. This was going to take awhile. He tried to leave unobtrusively, but Alvi stopped him.

"Friend Donovan. I have something special I think you will like. Perhaps we can do some business after supper?"

* * *

At dinner Tasha could scarcely sit still for her excitement over her new huaraches, their functional black straps replaced by tough cotton bands of braided pink and yellow, punctuated with a few sequins. Everyone had been asked at least three times to admire them, and throughout the meal, the normally quiet child squirmed and twisted in her chair, trying to see her feet.

The meal was a leisurely one, with the women peppering Alvi with questions about his travels and the state of world affairs and laughing at his exaggerated and evasive answers. "No, really. The rice came all the way from China. I put a sail on my little wagon and we went to Shanghai, where I met the most remarkable geisha—"

"Geishas are in Japan," Amalia pointed out.

He gave a knowing wink. "I forget you and your sister are the last of this country's well-educated women."

"Not me," Carina said. "When I went to school, if it wasn't about animals, I wasn't interested."

"Don't listen to her. She only says things like that because she knows it's not fashionable any more for women to be book-smart."

"I'd hardly call it fashion," Alvi said sadly. "There aren't many places left where there are enough children for a school, and there is not enough leisure that they can attend, anyway. Everyone must work, even the littlest ones."

"We have school," Tasha said.

"We teach them basic reading and math in the evenings," Amalia explained.

Alvi looked at each of the children in turn. "You must do all you can to become good at reading and numbers," he told them. "Even when it's hard or it seems not important. You will be happy later. You will see."

Will fidgeted. "Tell us about how you got the rice from China.”

"Oh, yes. I sailed my wagon to Shanghai." He glanced at Amalia. "After stopping in Japan to buy sake."

"What's sake?"

"Wine made from rice."

"Is it good?” Carina asked. “I don't think we've ever had it."

"We will have some after dinner and you will form your own opinion."

"So you bought sake in Japan," Amalia prompted him.

"Yes, and that was where I met the lovely geisha. She helped me disguise myself so I could trade with the Chinese, since of course we are still at war with them. But when I got to the port of Shanghai. . ."

Donovan toyed with his fork, trying not to appear impatient. He wouldn't be able to relax until he had his papers in his hand. He was going to read them, too. It gave him a headache just thinking about it, but he would read every word and make sure he understood what they said. Only then would he feel safe. There was still no guarantee he wouldn't get picked up as a deserter, but with 4-F papers, the prospect that he would be held more than a few hours was small. The only danger was if he got picked up by someone who recognized him, or by a unit that had access to a radio or phone line to check records at regional headquarters. He would probably never be out of danger as long as he lived, but having papers would vastly improve the odds.

"They would not let me go," Alvi told his audience. "They kept me in a dark room where I passed the time singing songs to keep myself cheerful. One day a little bird was attracted by my singing. . ."

Donovan looked at his empty plate. The rice had been good, a rare treat out here where rice would not grow. Only God knew where Alvi got it. But the stories! His goods almost certainly came to him by ordinary means— a trade from some wealthy hoarder's cache, or maybe a chance meeting with a tradesman who knew where a federal relief train had been diverted by rebels. He looked at Alvi, whose eyes glowed as his tale grew more fantastic. The children were staring, the women stifling their laughter at his escape down a crocodile-infested river by moonlight. The ordinary adventures of life were obviously not enough for Alvi. What sadistic turn of fate had made him a peddler on a circuit of lonely desert farms and half-forgotten villages? It was probably the same fate that had taken Donovan off the city streets and set him in this place, minding goats and donkeys, and trying to harvest corn.

* * *

After dinner they went on the porch, and while the children did their lessons, the adults occupied their hands with simple tasks, the women knitting and the men making corn ristras. Alvi insisted on helping, and Donovan was annoyed to see that he was good at it. "This brings back happy memories of the summer I spent here," he said. "I thought my career was over just as it was beginning, but you got my Hérculo back on his feet and I will never forget it."

"I did what I would do for any animal," Carina said.

"Your family was very generous to me. That was my favorite summer, and Hérculo was a good worker and faithful friend for many years, thanks to you."

"You've got some good ones now," Carina reminded him. "I know I say it every time you come through, but I hope you're making note of who's breeding good stock out there. I'm willing to look outside the valley next time we buy, if there are quality animals for the right price."

"There is never a moment I'm not thinking of it."

"Then it's a wonder you get any sleep," Amalia teased.

"Sleep is for those who are willing to miss out on life. We must stay awake always."

"Well, I don't mind missing out on a few things," said Carina, yawning.

"It's a sacrifice we have to make," Amalia agreed. "But we don't have to miss out on that sake, do we? You thought we had forgotten, didn't you?"

"Not at all," Alvi said, standing up. "It is I who had forgotten. I will be right back."

A few minutes later he returned with a blue bottle and four short glasses on a tray. He poured a bit of the cloudy rice wine into each glass and handed them out. "I was told that it should be drank out of small bowls, but I don't know if I trust my source."

The women sipped cautiously. Carina made a face. "This tastes like what I use to preserve my herbs."

"Yes, if you added water and a bit of rose petal," Amalia agreed. "But it's okay." She took another sip. "I can see how it could grow on you."

"Well, I don't." Carina set her glass on a small table and returned to her knitting. "At least I can say I've tried it."

Amalia shrugged and added the contents of Carina's glass to her own.

A cool wind blew in off the desert and they sipped their wine, talking about nothing in particular. The sake and the peaceful evening quieted Alvi, and finally Amalia got out a book and read to them all from Mark Twain. Then the women stood up and Amalia began bringing in lamps and glasses while Carina herded the children down the hall to their bedroom. Alvi turned toward the porch steps and motioned to Donovan. "I think we have a business transaction to finish."

* * *

Donovan held the papers in his hands. He couldn't make much out of the unfamiliar words, but he understood the most important bits, especially the card that identified him as 4-F, unfit for service. That was the most important part. He could scarcely contain his excitement. It had been worth the extra trouble to get the money.

"Take those with you whenever you set foot off the property," Alvi told him.

"Don't worry, I will."

"Things are getting strange out there. It looks like the rebellion in Texas is serious. The feds are going to have to put it down fast or it could get out of control."

"You mean spread to other states?"

"So they say. You know I only repeat what I hear."

Donovan tucked his papers inside a pocket and reached for his glass of whiskey. It tasted good after the anemic sake. "Well at least you hear something. We don't hear much of anything out here, and in Macrina, it's almost as bad."

"They tried being something of a news center many years ago, but they found that bad news made the buyers nervous, and it was almost all bad news. Such things tend to attract the wrong kind of people. Macrina just wants honest traders willing to spend money. Rumor-mongers start riots. That's how half their business district burned down. It set trade back by years."

"Was that the riot that Amalia's father. . . ?"

"Yes. He was a fine man. Treated me like a son the summer I was here, and he died worse than an animal. It's enough to make one think the feds were right to shut down free communications. Most people are fools. They believe everything you tell them and then run around in a panic if it's not the news they wanted to hear. If you want to keep public order, you don't have much choice but to make it all good news."

"So where do you get your information?"

"Customers. Towns that don't have news blackouts. I have sources, and what I'm hearing pretty consistently is that there's a push in the military to do some recruiting sweeps, especially in the overlooked areas."

"Like Macrina?"

"Like Macrina, and maybe this valley."

Donovan took a deep breath, acutely aware of the papers in his pocket. "These came at a good time."

Alvi topped off their glasses. "You're still not completely safe," he reminded him. "They might decide that even as a 4-F, you'd be good for manning a supply station behind the lines. And of course there's the whole desertion thing."

"I know. I've thought about all that."

"When you have time to look the papers over more carefully," Alvi gave a little smile that suggested he knew why he had only skimmed their contents, "You'll see I had them add a few things to your phony psych report."

"What kinds of things?"

"You'll see. It ought to make you undesirable for just about anything, and might even help get you off the hook if they find out how you left your prior service."

"In that case I don't care if these papers say I'm an alcoholic transvestite who bays at the moon."

"Just remember, none of it will do any good if they figure you out or don't bother to read the papers at all."

"So how is it you aren't nervous about some of the same things, like getting picked up and made to mop floors in a barracks somewhere?"

"You're as bad as the ladies, wanting to know my secrets."

Donovan considered. "You have friends in high places." He knew better than to ask and simply stated it as a fact.

"A few."

"Hard to believe they wouldn't have other ways of getting scotch whiskey, olives and the occasional bottle of sake. I wonder why powerful people would resort to an ordinary peddler?"

"I provide my clients with what they want."

Donovan tossed back the rest of his whiskey and waited until he could feel it burning in his stomach. "Is the information you give them real?" he asked. "Or fake?"

Alvi stared, but it was too late to deny what he was. "I tell them whatever I think will help the most number of people, and then I pray to God that I have chosen wisely."

In the silence that followed, Alvi filled their glasses a final time and they both nursed their drinks, darting only the occasional glance at each other. "Be careful about going to town for awhile," Alvi finally said. "I've tried to throw them off track, but I think Macrina, Higdon and all the towns in this region are targets."

"Do you hear anything else?"

"Some units are being brought up from South America to help put down the Texas rebellion. I think Miles might be with them, but I'm not certain. If he's not with them, it could be many more years before he comes back to the States. And if he is with them, it might be even worse. The waters are full of mines, making it dangerous to send the men by ship, and the indigenous of Central America have begun targeting supply and medical units. They figure it makes it easier to kill off the regular troops if there's no one to feed them or patch them up. We can't say a thing about this to Carina, you know. It will worry her.”

"Yes. It’s funny, I used to think Amalia was weak because she was always so angry."

"She's the strong one because she doesn't deceive herself."

"When you know something. . ."

"I will get word to you and Amalia. Good news or bad."

"Thank you." Donovan looked at his hands. It was a new feeling to be grateful for a favor that didn't benefit him personally. "I don't want to see her hurt."

"We will hope that the news, when it comes, is good."

Donovan set his empty glass on a wicker chest and got to his feet, surprised at how unsteady he felt. "Thank you for the whiskey. And the papers. Especially the papers."

"You paid for them," Alvi said, seeing him to the door. "Be sure and show them to the ladies. It will put their minds at ease next time you are out and about. I don't think you realize how they worry about you."

Donovan nodded, grabbing onto the door jamb as he teetered on the step. "It'll reassure Carina," he said. "But Amalia. . ."

"Will see the catch in it, as always. But she'll feel a little better, too. Trust me."

"Of course I trust you," Donovan said, making his unsteady way down the stairs. He reached the ground and felt he had overcome a great obstacle. "You gave me back my life."

Alvi stood on the top step, an odd expression lighting his eyes. "Don't go taking advantage of it too soon. I'd hate to see Amalia have her heart broken again."

Donovan frowned. "Of course not." But as he weaved his way back to the house, he pulled his papers out of his pocket and clutched them tightly to his chest, a movement not lost on the dark man standing in the open doorway of the gypsy wagon.

* * *

Donovan opened his eyes slowly. He could tell from the sunlight streaming in the window that it was morning. For a moment he couldn't think how he had overslept or why he felt like he did: thirsty, headachy and just plain bad. Then he remembered the whiskey. And the sake. No wonder. But then he remembered the papers and reached for his pocket.

Where were his pants?

He sat up, frowning. He hadn't remembered undressing, but here he was, wearing nothing but his underwear. And where were the papers? A sudden panic seized him and he looked around in confusion.

"I have them over here," Amalia said. She was sitting in the upholstered chair under the window. "Alvi did a good job. It must've cost you a fortune."

"It did." He pushed himself off the bed and stumbled over to her.

"Why didn't you tell us this was what you were working on?" Amalia's eyes shone unnaturally clear in the morning light, like a reflection of the sky. "This ought to be a big help to you. Of course, it's not foolproof."

He took the papers out of her hands. "I need to find a way to carry these on me at all times." He looked around the room for his pants.

"I hung them up," Amalia said, guessing what he was after. "I'll take a look through our parents' things. I think one of them may have had something like what you need— a sort of leather billfold you can wear underneath your clothes, against your skin so no one can pick your pocket."

Donovan was putting his clothes on blindly, fighting back a sudden wave of nausea. Sake and scotch were a bad combination.

"But why didn't you tell us?" Amalia asked again.

Donovan sat on the bed. "I wanted it to be a surprise, and I didn't want to deal with a lot of questions about how I was getting the money to pay for it."

"So you cheated at cards again in Macrina?"

"Not always. Sometimes I won legit."

"Any outright stealing?"

"Only a little."

Amalia stood up. "Well, none of that is anything I haven't heard before. I try to understand times are different, but it still doesn't seem like a good way."

"I got what I needed, didn't I?"

"Sure, but what about the people you stole from? They needed things, too. How did they manage?"

Donovan rubbed his aching head. "Maybe we can talk about this some other time? Because right now. . ."

Amalia put her hand on the doorknob. "What do you want? Coffee?"

"I don’t know if I could keep it down."

"Didn't you know Alvi can drink anyone under the table? You should never try keeping up with him. Sounds like you need some greasy eggs with lots of salt. I saved you a plate of migas."

"Thanks. And later. . ."


"Do you think you could read these papers to me?"

* * *

Alvi left that day in a cloud of dust, after a great deal of flirting and fussing. As always, the women were sad to see him go. "He sure has a way of livening up this place," Carina said. She had been watching the red cart disappear down the road but now turned toward the path that led to the barn and paddock.

"He's funny," Will agreed, joining her on the way to the barn before Amalia could task him with something more onerous.

Tasha looked at her feet in their colorful new sandals. "When will he be back?"

"There's never any telling," Amalia said. "It's usually summer and winter, but. . .well, there's just never any way to be sure."

The chores seemed harder than usual that day, the sun hotter and mealtime duller. The peddler had brought a flavor of the exotic into their day-to-day existence and his unexpected arrival and quick departure left a little shock in its wake— a sudden sense of tedium where before, things had seemed to move along pleasantly enough.

Life soon resumed its normal rhythms. In the face of unending heat, they rose early and tried to do as many chores as they could before the sun hit its zenith. They spent the afternoon napping in the cool of the adobe house underneath the solar-charged fans. They soothed their parched throats and cooled their bodies with water brought up from crocks in the root cellar, mixed with crushed mint. As the sun went down each night, they released creek water into the irrigation lines, so that by the time they ate their supper on the porch, the plants, which had wilted under the blistering summer sun, had begun to straighten and show themselves alive again, hardy survivors in this burning land.

Finally came a morning when something new blew in on the desert air. Amalia noticed it first, straightening from a row of stunted summer squashes, sniffing the air like some savvy forest creature. She dropped her pitiful harvest and scanned the western horizon. At about the same time, Carina came loping from the paddock. "Rain!"

Amalia sniffed the air again. It smelled unmistakably of water and life, and there on the horizon was a faint smudge of gray. She stood on her toes, trying to get a better look.

"It's coming," Carina said.

Amalia had her doubts, but for a little while, all work was suspended. When Will came up from the creek, Amalia sent him for chairs and they sat and watched the darkening line across the western horizon. After awhile, dishearteningly, the sky began to lighten. There would be no rain today.

A few days later, the sky to the west darkened again. Again everyone grew excited and stopped what they were doing to watch, only to be disappointed. So when a faint smudge of gray appeared over the mountains for a third time, they kept working. Either the rain would come or it wouldn't. Chores had to be done, just the same. But soon it was clear this line of storms was different. The wind picked up, heavy with moisture and the scent of damp earth. Dust blew across the yard, the wind carrying dead leaves and weeds in its wake. Like an ink stain, the dark clouds spread out across the sky.

There was no time to bring out chairs, no need to gather and discuss. The women ran to bring the laundry off the line while Donovan herded the children toward the house.

They were gathered in the safety of the front porch when the first big drops came, plopping fat and lazy into the dust. Then others joined them, lighter, faster, and finally so numerous that they dissolved into a gray curtain shimmering and beating a rhythm against roof and earth. The women took deep breaths of the humid air, sat back in the porch chairs and sighed. Donovan leaned over the railing, the mist dampening his face and clothes. Rain had never seemed anything but a nuisance before he came to the farm, but now it was the essence of life. He watched it, consumed with the desire to dance among the raindrops and drench his skin and clothes for the pleasure of it. He turned to the women with elated eyes. "Do you think. . . ?"

Amalia laughed. "Go ahead."

Donovan went toward the edge of the porch and the children followed, guessing what he was up to. As one, they tumbled down the steps and into the gray, wet world, stomping in the rivulets, splashing in the puddles, dancing wildly to the rhythm of the rain. Carina and Amalia looked at each other, the question unspoken, but understood. They jumped out of their seats, and with excited whoops and giggles ran down the steps and joined the others in celebration.

It was a dripping and sodden group that greeted the clearing skies a little while later. The rain hadn't lasted long, but it was enough to feed the crops and the wild plants and herbs around them. It was enough to raise the creek so they could continue irrigating the fields. It added water to their storage tanks. Most of all, it gave them hope.

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