Friday, May 21, 2010

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter 19

When this battery runs out I’m not sure if enough sunlight will reach the panel to recharge it. It will be firelight for me … until the wood runs out. Or maybe something else if I can work it out. When the wood runs out I’ll have more problems than just the loss of some type of light. I probably shouldn’t be wasting this but sometimes the dark gets too dark and the fear presses in and it makes it hard for me to even breathe. I figure, one last hurrah and then I’ll have to live on the memories of being able to organize my thoughts on paper. Or maybe not. I have to keep my hopes up for Bumpkins' sake.

It has been a hard slog since I lost Donovan and I’m convinced now that he is lost. I wanted to hold onto some type of hope but I said, “Emma, it is really time you grew up and stopped living in fantasyland. If Donovan could have he would have come back by now. If he hasn’t come back by now he isn’t coming back and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.”

I finally wrapped my head around it. It wasn’t pleasant, still isn’t pleasant. Sometimes I would forget and I would talk to him like he is still here and I wouldn’t even realize how crazy that was for days. And then I’d catch myself and really get scared as the truth would slam down on me like prison walls with no chance at parole. Not by the situation I find myself in but by the fact that I’m losing it, going bonkers, crazy, with loneliness. My mind has played tricks on me one too many times and for a while there I couldn’t decide whether I was going to let myself go crazy and be happy or stay sane and be lonely and scared.

It was the baby that finally helped me to make up my mind which world I was going to live in. I remember the first time I realized what I was feeling. This little person wiggling around inside me telling me, “Hey! I’m here!!” It was like that old kids’ book Horton Hears a Who. There’s this living, breathing entity that no one else can see, hear, or feel counting on me.

I could go all philosophical and talk about what gives meaning to life but it doesn’t matter. I’m here and now relatively sane, doing my best to prepare myself and this cave for the birth of my child. That’s the sum total of my existence for now and I’m satisfied for it to be that way.

The puppies aren’t really puppies anymore. They only had a little puppy left in them when we found them at the Lodge, that little bit is all but gone. The only thing left is a residual playfulness that causes them to always be in the mood for a little mischief and mayhem. They started to hunt with me and have turned out to be pretty amazing. I wish Donovan had had a chance to see them in action. If it is a burrowing creature it stands no chance against them. They tag team and I’ve seen them bring a rabbit down in seconds and I didn’t think anything could catch a rabbit that didn’t want to get caught.

Just like the dogs have left their puppyhood and have learned to do things on their own, so have I. I came into my own after I lost Donovan. I’m not bragging, not at all; that‘s not how I mean it. I just started to realize that, despite everything that had happened to me, I had always had a protector of one sort or another. I’d started to realize that even before his disappearance but it became brutally clear as time wore on.

First it was my parents and that was as it should be. Then there was Mr. and Mrs. Epstein and even that was right. Despite being a teenager I still needed to be comforted and guided. Even Moshe, though a bit of me still hates to give him any sort of credit, acted like a big brother before inadvertently saving me when he manipulated me into the next phase of my life at the Bunker.

From that point onward though I seemed to stall out or slow down on my personal growth. I kept allowing some one or some thing to get in the way of it. The Colonel, the Committee, the men, the situation I found myself in, you name it I made it an excuse to feel or act a way that was less constructive than it could have been. I did mature, got strong in a real sense, but it doesn’t seem to me that I did as much growing as I should have done had I been able to live a more normal life than one restricted to a small area within a social group already dramatically different from what I was used to experiencing.

The frozen land echoed my frozen heart and I wallowed in that a bit. Looking back it wasn’t until the last bit of civilization had been stripped away and I was forced out into the frozen wasteland of what was left of our world that the ice my heart was encased in took a chance at cracking and falling away. Or maybe it was the circumstances that took a sledgehammer to it. Who knows? I'm not even sure I care what caused it any more. It's enough that it happened.

Even then I still had Donovan. It wasn’t the Prince Charming/Cinderella romance that a lot of women would dream of but it was … something. Love? I think so. Maybe not the love I expected. Maybe not the type of love either one of us needed, both of us being an emotional mess to some degree. But … but it was love. Yes, I can say that now. It was love. But part of me was still more concerned with self-preservation than I should have been. Would Donovan still be here if … ? No. I can’t … won’t ... go down that path. No self-pity. I’ve spent enough time at that.

A baby. It just seems to me that there is no way you cannot wake up to certain facts of life … philosophical and idealogical facts … when you are sharing your body, the blood coursing through your veins, your very genetic signature, with another person who is totally dependent on you. My little Bumpkins. I know the name is silly but I just can’t go around calling the baby “it” until I find out whether he’s a he or she’s a she.

And then, after that horrible day, there I was. The one that had to be the protector. The provider. The hunter. The gatherer. The thinker and planner. The steward of the supplies. The last line of defense. Against animals. Against the wilderness. Against the deadly cold. Yes, all of those people that had been my protectors before played a part in what I was becoming, especially Donovan, but they aren’t here now. No one is here for me to lean on, to count on, for anything. There's just me. Just me and the baby. I was about five months along when I was really forced to wake up and realize that there were some things that no one could have prepared me for and that at some point, the only one left was me and God against the world and what can happen in it.

After Donovan disappeared the brief “Indian Summer” we had experienced disappeared with him. The winter that followed was very bad. It was honestly worse than I had expected, certainly worse than I was prepared for. The blizzards lasted days at first, and then weeks. I only stepped outside twice when January finally rolled around. I brought in as much wood as I could haul whenever I could get outside but by the end of that month freezing to death was becoming a real possibility.

I hung rugs all over the walls of the living quarters trying to trap as much warmth as I could from the smallest fire. I fashioned a canopy and curtains for the bed to trap the body heat I and the dogs created when we finally settled down to sleep at night. I never let the embers in the fireplace go out completely. Getting enough calories was a problem too. I had to balance the need for work to do the chores and to stay warm with the need to rest so Bumpkins wouldn’t starve inside my body.

In November I had brought down an elk that had gotten separated from its herd but she was young, thin, and scrawny. Despite that, the elk was part of my diet until the middle of January, contributing badly needed protein and fat. I even boiled the bones of that poor beast and sucked out the marrow before admitting there was simply nothing of it left to eat. What was left of the bones I gave to the dogs and it kept them happy for a few days.

I wasn’t completely without resources at that point however. Donovan’s Garden – that’s what I call it – actually works. I’ve only grown “rabbit food” like salad greens, herbs, onions, radishes, and some puny carrots but I have to say its been a Godsend, like He and Donovan have been looking after me from afar.

For the rest of January and into February I pretty much ate stir-fry’s, pilafs, and oatmeal every day. The second week of February I was forced to take a long, hard look at the wood pile and my food supplies. Neither one was going to last to the end of the month.

I didn’t see that I had a choice. I had to go hunting again bad weather or no or I’d be eating the dogs next … or they’d be eating me. The night before I was to go I laid out everything and then did some serious praying that I’d have good weather. I was going back to the Lodge. As much as I was disgusted by the very idea, I knew that if I didn’t find something else I would likely be able to trap a rat or two.

I was terrified that that was what I was going to be reduced to. Eating rats. It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have been hungry enough … strong enough … to have gotten to the point that I could accept such a recourse but I had Bumpkins to think of. As nauseated as I was at the idea, nothing was standing between me and my baby’s survival.

The next morning was almost painfully bright even though I started earlier than I had planned to. It’s simply too dangerous to travel in the dark. You could fall off the trail, down a sink, get hung up in a deadfall. No, better to make sure you can see where you are going even if it cut an hour or so off of your hunting time.

The trail that Donovan and I had broken was completely obliterated. I struggled to find the old landmarks. Some of the boulders were buried under feets of snow. I got lucky and noticed the pylons for the bridge but the surface of the bridge hadn’t survived the weather very well. For safety’s sake I strung a line across it to guide me and to hang onto just in case.

By the time I reached the Lodge I was exhausted. I ate a couple of oatmeal and honey balls that I had packed for energy and then headed towards the river. The river’s boundaries had changed or it had swelled to twice its size. I still haven’t had time to figure out which. Either way it was a much shorter hike to the frozen shore than it should have been. I spent an hour looking for some kind of sign that anything living had been through there recently. Nothing.

I knew that the trek back to the cave was going to be harder as I was going to have to go uphill much of the way so I steeled myself for what I had to do. I won’t describe the “hunt” as it was ridiculously easy. With the dogs gone from the Lodge the rats had truly taken over. We weren’t in the place more than five minutes before all three of us were running out with our lives hanging in the balance … but the dogs had a rat each and immediately started to devour them and I had three.

Trying not to think much I cleaned the carcasses and that helped them to look less like the rodent I knew them to be. I strung them on a stick and they quickly froze. I turned around to find that the dogs had gone back for seconds and thirds. More power to them but I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to be quite as enthusiastic when it came my turn to dine.

We started back for the cave right away but when we got to the bridge the dogs started acting strange.

“Look, I know you liked the thrill of the hunt and the reward but when need to go home,” I told them in exasperation when they both grabbed the ends of my coat and proceeded with what I thought was a game of tug of war.

Then there was a THUNK! The sound brought my head around sharply and I looked at the bridge. There was another THUNK and then another and then before long most of the middle of the bridge had disintegrated. It was like watching a giant kids’ game of Break the Ice. Had the dogs and I been on the bridge when it started to go I doubt I could have moved fast enough to escape falling and being crushed.

Weak with relief it still only took me a moment to realize I was in serious trouble. The bridge was the only place that I had seen to cross the creek that bordered the Lodge’s land. I knew from exploring with Donovan that between the bridge and the river the creek only became wider so that left me with no other choice but to head inland and pray that I could find a tree that spanned from one side to the other or maybe another bridge, even if it was only an old sheet metal one.

I trudged along the creek bank’s rising grade for over an hour and I was getting scared. I needed to get home. Going back to the Lodge and trying to stay there overnight was out of the question as was trying to build a shelter that would protect me from the bitter cold that came as soon as the sun went down. I was nearing tears when I hit a little rise and noticed a bit of a clearing about 100 yards into the trees, along the same path that the creek took.

After I reached my target I took a good look around. The tumbled down house was almost unrecognizable for what it was. Only the peeling, bright red door kept it from disappearing into the landscape of snow and fallen trees that I hadn't seen from the creek. I needed to investigate even if it took more of my precious daylight. This was only the second structure after the rattle trap original cabin that we … I … had seen in the area.

The dogs sniffed the musty air that escaped after I managed to break a window pane and open the door. The wooden floors groaned significantly as I stepped into what looked like a parlor or receiving room. The house was dark but the dogs didn’t appear to sense anything hostile so I went in as far as the light from the door would let me. Remembering the wind up flashlight I took it out and used it to help cover the remainder of the house.

It didn’t take long. In addition to the front room there was a smallish formal dining area, a very casual den/family room, a bathroom that hadn’t been redecorated since Ike was President and two bedrooms that looked like it had been even longer since they had been updated. The only area that had been renovated was the kitchen and it still managed to look like something from the Partridge Family. Nothing looked disturbed or rifled through and for some reason I felt guilty pawing through the unknown owner's things.

The cans and jars in the kitchen cabinets were all destroyed by the freezing cold. You could tell where things had oozed out at some point in the beginning and a wicked smell came from one that I refused to even open. After the kitchen I turned to the bathroom to see if there was any toilet paper or paper products. Sure enough there was a cabinet full and I found a laundry basket and loaded it down and then switched it to a garbage bag when I found a box of those. Then I went to the family room and that where I found the note lying on the little desk in front of a shuttered window.

Junior, if you Wylene and the youngins get here before I get home don’t wurry none and make yourself to home. Tell Wylene to get sum cornbread and beans going to feed y’all up after that long drive. I’ve gone to town to get your Maw from that dat blamed nursing home. I cain’t raise em, not even with that corn foggled cell phone you gave me at Christmas. There might jest be something to what them army men were a telling us down at the school. Them folks from Lancaster showed up about ten minutes ago, lickety splitting it up the Ridge. They sure did look scairt and I’ll admit between me and you that I’m getting that way myself. Gonna try and bring some extry groceries home from Houchens just in case. Be home soonest. Dad

Junior and his family had never shown up and the old man had never returned. This would have been a pretty good place to hole up if they had managed to stay warm. The Hollow were the house was located seemed like it had been protected better than most as it had fewer downed trees than any I had seen up to then.

The man had mentioned cornbread and beans which meant that there had to be other groceries besides what I had seen in the kitchen cabinets so I went to take another look. Sure enough a small panel in the back of the broom closet was kilted just enough out of whack that I found the root cellar without too much more trouble.

The dogs scooted down there and then came up the stairs wagging their tails as if to say, “All clear!”

I felt a deep sense of success and relief when I got to the bottom of the stairs. Old gallon-sized mason jars lined a short four foot wall from floor to ceiling. It wasn’t Ali Babba’s cave but it was still treasure. If I was careful I could piece out the beans and cornmeal in those jars to last me at least another month or two I thought to myself.

On another wall there jars of what looked like tomato juice but the rings on the jars were black with corrosion and I wasn’t going to risk a case of botulism. In fact the only thing useable down in the root cellar was what had been in those first jars. Everything else including the fresh food that must have been stored there as witnessed by the dusty mold in the boxes and crates was not worth the risk.

I could only carry two of the jars up the stairs at a time so it took a half dozen trips. I set the jars in the clothes basket I had abandoned and then found a mate to hold the ones that the first basket didn’t hold and I set the garbage bag of paper products on the snow saucer that was my habit to bring when I was outside. Using some twine I found in a drawer in the kitchen I tied my “train” together and then did what Donovan and I had done on previous occasions. I knew there had to be a road and a bridge across the creek some place close by and sure enough the creek was little more than a gully where the wooden bridge sans any kind of guard rails crossed it.

I was very careful to watch for land marks so I could find my way back and investigate “the Lancaster people” more but first I had to find my way home.

It wasn’t as hard as I had thought it was going to be. In fact, barring getting turned around once because I was coming at a granite outcropping from a different angle than I had ever done before it was pretty easy, all downhill. The only rough part was getting around some trees that had fallen across and hidden the gravel roadway that I had been traveling on. The only other thing that happened to cause me problems was when the clothes baskets of jars tried to get ahead of me on a particular piece of steep grade.

I was beyond exhaustion by the time I got home and my belly had a strange, taught feeling to it that scared me a little bit. I gave the dogs the rat carcasses and climbed in bed, falling asleep before I remembered to light a fire. I woke up shivering in the night and in need of the bucket I kept behind a screen as a toilet.

I spent the next entire day in bed though I agonized over needing to get more wood. Every time I tried to get up for any length of time I would get that same funny feeling low in my gut, like something was pulling and clinching. It was another day beyond that before I could get up without getting that feeling and even then I thought it smarter to stick with very small wood and limbs rather than trying to chop anything too big.

I spent the next few days gathering wood and planning what I needed to do next. Over the next three weeks I hit the farmhouse again and I did find two other little houses – or what remained of them – in the woods higher along the ridge.

In the first house I found enough odds and ends to last me three or four weeks but in the last house … in the last house I found the future I was looking at if I didn’t get my rear in gear and come up with a long term sustainable plan of some type. The cupboards were completely bare. The remains of what I took to be the family pet hung in a shed outside. The family … a man, woman, and two small children … I found in a single bed made up in front of the fireplace in the living room. The sunken eyes and hollows beneath the cheeks of the corpses weren’t just a result of mummification. I got out of there as fast as I could.

It was during this time of going higher on the ridge that the dogs started hunting on their own. I guess going back to the Lodge had given them a taste for it. I didn’t know what they were doing the first time they brought something to me. I reached down and picked up what they had dropped at my feet without even thinking about it. It took me a second to realize it was a rabbit. I shrieked and dropped it when the head flopped over and seemed to look at me. The dogs thought it was hilarious and were jumping around and wagging their tails.

I split it with them since they’d been so good about bringing it to me before they tore into it. That set the rules. About once a week they’ll bring me something, even now that I’m stuck here.

It was in March that it happened. The dogs and I had gone to bed after a long day of gathering wood. The weather was milder but that was relative to what had been over the winter. There was still snow on the ground, just two feet instead of five or more. And it was still horribly cold, just not forty below zero cold. The wind still blew, it just didn’t scour blood from any exposed skin.

I was feeling pretty satisfied that I could hold out another three or four months at the rate I was going and between now and then I was certain that something else would present itself if I stayed vigilant to any possibility. Heck, maybe the river would thaw and I could add fish to my diet. The thought made my mouth water so much I drooled on my pillow as I faded into sleep.

I was awoken by a deep rumbling. The dogs were terrified and ran all over the bed whining and digging under the covers and under me too as far as they could. I didn’t know what was going on and stayed curled up on the bed until it stopped. It couldn’t have lasted but a few minutes but it has been a few minutes that has changed my life.

I took the lantern and first went into the big chamber. Some things had been knocked from the shelves in the storage rooms, an old bureau had crashed over and splintered into pieces, but by and large that was the only damage. I felt lucky and went back to bed.

The next morning the dogs were whining to be let out and I stepped into the room where I keep the wood and noticed a lot of rock had fallen to the floor. Thinking it was just another bit of luck that I didn’t keep anything breakable in there I opened the door to go out … and was faced with more rock.

It took me a while to investigate what had happened. I went tearing back into the big chamber and then carefully made my way to what we had called “the back door.” I wouldn’t call it a cave opening so much as a fissure that had been big enough for Donovan and I to squeeze out of. And boy was I really squeezing to get out of it now. It was easier for me to back out of the opening than to slide through sideways as I had in the past.

I made my way to the cave opening … or where the cave opening was supposed to be. There had been a very serious rock slide and there was going to be no way for me to move all of the dirt and rock that blocked the entrance.

The dogs had followed me out and were frisking around taking care of business in the morning light and then investigating the new and interesting smells the tumbled rocks had exposed. All I could do was sit and stare and the mutts seemed to wonder why I wasn’t excited by this new thing that had happened.

I wasn’t excited, I was all but devastated. I had been flying along, feeling so good about the latest round of salvaging from those three houses, about adding to my food supplies and about the things that I had brought back to prepare for the baby. Why did it have to happen? Why?

I went back inside, scraping my belly along the way and then cried myself back to sleep. The dogs’ cold noses in my ear woke me up and amazingly I no longer felt like it was the end of the world all over again. The slide was just something else to conquer. I had no choice. Bumpkins needed me to conquer it.

I went back to the “back door” and christened it the new front door. Then, thinking about what I could do to improve the new entrance I realized I was going to have to enlarge it or right quick I was going to be too big to get out. I took the hammer and chisel and spent the rest of the day and the next trying to knock off the worst of the edges that dug into me as I squeezed through.

Tried to knock off the edges. My success was limited. If anyone ever reads this journal I hope they can understand my frustration at the results that I could get with a regular hammer and small chisel as I banged away at that pink and gray Kentucky granite. The worst of the sharp outcroppings did come off but it only gained me an inch or two here and there. Overall the fissure was still going to get tighter before I got thinner again.

I did give serious consideration to moving to one of the other houses I had found but there is really no way that I could have rehabbed the buildings to make them safe enough and warm enough for me to live in while the weather stayed the way it was. All three houses had some pretty bad structural damage, especially in the roof. And the Lodge was completely out of the question unless I wanted to wake up with who knows how many rats at my throat … or maybe not even get the chance to wake up.

After food and wood my size was becoming my primary problem. My heavy coat isn’t fitting too well, I use a length of cord to keep it tied shut. I literally have to lay a thick fleece padding onto my front and then lace myself into the thing before I go out. I have a hard time keeping my pants up as well as I hike. I can’t button them and none of the belts left from Donovan’s belongings fit anymore either. I had to use strips of elastic to fashion suspenders and I look like a clown all the way down to the larger boots I’m forced to wear because my feet and ankles are constantly swollen. All I need is a flower that squirts water on my jacket front and a red nose that squeaks and the picture would be complete.

At first, while it was uncomfortable, I could still fairly easily squeeze in and out the opening. While out I gathered all the wood I could in the mornings and then spent the afternoons recovering or taking care of some other chore. But within a couple of weeks it was very uncomfortable squeezing through the opening. I knew what was coming.

No matter what I tried there simply was no making that fissure any wider. At the same time I was not going to find a safer home for Bumpkins. I knew I was going to get fatter before I was going to get thinner. I knew I didn’t have any other option. It was taking a huge chance but there really wasn’t a good alternative. My prepping went into over drive.

I drug in all of the branches that I could, even some big ones that made it feel like I was pulling something in my side I really had no busy doing, and left them in the floor of the big chamber to be dealt with later. Then I took one last trek to the three houses, gathering anything at all that could be considered useful, using the sled that Donovan had fashioned. On my way back I spotted what I thought was a tumbled down barn and just to mark it off my list I stopped. It wasn’t a barn, it was a silo. Actually it was two small silos. I’d found at least one of places that the elk were feeding from.

One silo was completely empty and there was plenty of dung under the snow. They hadn’t been this way in a while and I figured they’d found richer pickings or had moved into another valley completely when the weather turned really nasty.

The other silo looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The strange thing was that, rather than pulling away from its concrete foundation it had pulled the foundation up with it. I had to use a rock to bust off the door knob but I was rewarded with enough corn to keep me in cornmeal for several months assuming I could transport it to the cave.

I did my best to close the door back up and then headed home. The next day I came back with several feed bags and 3 mil construction site garbage bags as well as two Sterlite storage tubs with locking lids. I was shocked when I got to the silo. Something had been into the corn. A lot of it was scattered on the ground and there was fresh dung as well. I couldn’t tell if it was elk or what, never having studied wild animal poop before; but whatever it was it was bigger than the dogs but smaller than the buffalos. The tracks weren’t very clear in the melting snow either and I gave up trying to figure it out.

Using a shovel I scooped up the corn kernels that were left and found that there was barely enough to fill the two large tubs I had brought. I should have been really upset but I wasn’t. The hope of finding animals returning to the forest was too great.

That was the last trip I took. As I worried would happen I’ve grown too big to fit through the fissure. In fact, at seven, almost eight months, I can’t even get passed the first bend any more. The dogs supply me with a weekly dose of protein. They seem to think it is their duty and have come to appreciate me skinning whatever beastie they bring me to save them the trouble though they’ll take the skin outside and tussle with it like a toy … or like they are training.

And yes, I’ve finally been forced to eat rat. It was easier to do than I had expected. I could feel my body craving protein. I knew that there were things that can go wrong if the baby doesn’t get all the nutrients that it needs while developing. The needs of Bumpkins is the be all and end all of my existence now.

But my problem is that I can’t get the solar panels far enough into the fissure so that they’ll get sunlight to charge the garden batteries. Donovan never finished the bicycle generator. I guess that’s what will take up the hours that I’m stuck in here.

And the wood is running low again. It takes a lot of boiling the corn and beans to make them soft because they are getting old. I know I can break up and burn some of the old furniture down here but I’m worried that it could be treated with something poisonous. Maybe I can get the dogs to play “fetch the stick.” Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

It’s either laugh or cry. I suppose I’ll know in a few days whether it is futile to work on the bicycle generator or not. If I do get it going I’ll need to try and figure out how to put a wide seat on the bike. There is no way that skinny thing is going to do anything for my pregnant backside at this stage.

And look, the battery held out just long enough. It will be too dim to see before much longer. The question remaining is will the darkness be permanent or will there be a light at the end of the tunnel?

3 comments:

  1. Thank you another great update, I hope Donovan manages to find his way back soon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. He won't.As you can see this post or reply is from the future,as you know he is with the helicopter people but only as breeding stock as they are cannibalistic.

    ReplyDelete