Chores went by quickly with so many things racing through my head. In what seemed like no time at all, a single horn blow called us to the house for dinner a little before sundown. I finished penning my swine and walked quickly to the house, washing my hands before helping Ma move food from the kitchen to the table.
Dinner was quiet that night, nobody was talking except to ask to pass the potatoes or the salt, or whatever else was out of polite reaching distance. There were a lot of looks my way. Abe and Molly ended up needing to be separated at the table, with Ma swapping places with Molly. They still tried to poke and prod at each other behind Ma’s back, but they weren’t squabbling verbally, and Ma seemed happy with that. She only went into discipline mode once, grabbing Abe’s ear when he poked in Molly’s direction with a table knife. Behind Ma’s back. Yes, I believe in extra sensory perception in mothers. Watching Ma deal with Abe and Molly for the last few years made me a believer. I suspected that I was too irritated by her always knowing when I was doing something wrong when I was growing up to actually recognize it as being uncanny. She always claimed it was just situational awareness.
When the meal was nearly finished, I decided that if nobody else was talking, I needed to. “I don’t want to go to town tomorrow with nothing but myself. I will be taking my culls. Does anyone need me to take anything to town, or bring anything back? I’ll be taking one of the small carts, but will take the large cart instead if there’s something big that needs to be moved.”
Zeke looked at me for a second with a puzzled look. “Don’t you want to fatten them up for a little while on the locusts and forest mast? It’s a bit early for good forest mast, but there’s some out there, the locusts didn’t do a lot of damage to the forests.”
Pa looked at Zeke sharply but I spoke before Pa could. “I’d like to, Zeke, but I don’t know when I’ll have to go.” I shrugged.
Zeke winced. “Sorry, I spoke too quickly.”
“Besides,” I continued, “with my culls gone, there will be fewer swine to eat the locusts, hay, and mangels, and more mast in the woods.” I shrugged. I didn’t need to explain how risky a late planting was. This early we’d definitely get something, but it might not be much.
Zeke nodded. “Understood.” He looked at me for a second. “I would suggest you try to sell to the marina before the butcher. The butcher will not be as interested in fattening our swine on offal from other butchering as he will for a farm pig. They grow a lot faster on fewer calories per kilo. The marina would rather deal with smaller animals, and if you sell them leash-trained culls, the marina master’s children can take the swine up and down the coast for washed up edibles every day on top of the fish offal.”
I had planned to take the swine to the marina first anyway, for most of the reasons Zeke had provided, but I nodded anyway. “Thanks, Zeke, I’ll do that.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Granpa and Pa and Edward all nodding with small motions, agreeing with Zeke in their own minds.
Pa spoke. “Is anyone aware of critical needs? If not, I’m going to say that we save barter and fisc until after taxes.” Pa looked around the table, from person to person, even Abe and Molly, who could tell by Pa’s face that it wasn’t time to joke. Jan spoke up hesitantly. “I think I have enough bedding and cloth for swaddling and diapers for junior here,” she patted her slightly rounded-out belly, “but I may need more. I’ll check. It’s no rush though.” She looked at Ma.
Ma smiled. “We’ll figure it out. We’ve got some rags packed away that are big enough for swaddling and diapers, and I know I’ve got plenty of quilting rags. Worst case, the longer we wait, the more our food will be worth, in exchange for cloth.” Her mouth twisted a bit. “I don’t like holding food over people’s heads to get better prices, but taxes are going to be bad this year.”
There were nods around the table, I was one of the ones nodding. Abe and Molly were clearly clueless, but nodded anyway, looking around and trying to figure out what everyone was agreeing about.
Edward cleared his throat. “Sorry to bring this up, but the state is certainly going to pay you in fisc in the militia, Allen. You had best open a bank account in town for yourself tomorrow while you are there.”
I hadn’t thought about that. “Thanks Edward, that’s a good idea. I’ll need to set it up so that Marza…” As I said Marza’s name, I stopped moving and speaking with my mouth still open, thinking to myself, Marza is also fifteen, the only fifteen-year-old on the Gonzalez farm.
Granpa tapped his wooden food knife on the worn wooden plate in front of him. “No. I can tell you right now that what you are thinking will not happen. Riko will not let Marza be their farm’s militia representative. One of the other men on their farm will go.”
“I’m more than certain.” Granpa broke in. “Riko will absolutely not allow it. I know him. Trust me.” He caught my eye and chuckled. “Or don’t trust me, and be happy when you find out that I was right. I can live with that.”
There was a little laugh shared around the table, and I relaxed some. Granpa was almost never wrong when he was confident, but I would feel a lot better when I knew for myself. Trust, then verify.
Pa spoke next, from his position at the other head of the table, opposite Granpa. “Anyone else have anything to discuss that we need to talk over as a family?”
I heard my name whispered, and from the corner of my eye I saw Abe poke Molly. They both looked at me and laughed between themselves. Abe saw me looking and turned back to the table quickly, Molly was canny enough to do the same without looking at me. Both of them were hilariously fake-innocent looking, pretending they didn’t have any mischief planned. I smiled a little and carefully arranged my tableware away from the edge of the table and prepared myself to be rushed by rambunctious wrestling rascals as soon as Pa said we could leave the table. It wasn’t like they didn’t do the same thing at least a couple nights a week, as one last excuse to get themselves worked up before bed. No punching, biting, pinching or slapping was allowed, but grappling and tickling was.
“OK. Everyone, Jan and Edward and Zeke have cleanup tonight. Everyone else, out of their way.” Pa started pushing back his chair to stand.
I pushed my chair back quickly so I could catch the rampaging raggedy ruffians as they ran my way.
They both collapsed forward in their chairs, and thumped their foreheads on the table, hard enough to shake everyone’s plates and glasses. A moment later, they both started to fake snore. Loudly. “ZZZZZ!”
Everyone at the table just stared at them in confusion.
Ma looked at both of them, her head panning from Molly on one side of her to Abe on the other, and back. “What… are you two doing?”
Abe opened one eye. “We’re just like Allen. Someone has to carry us to bed.” He closed his eye, and the two of them started fake snoring rather obnoxiously again.
I was shaking with suppressed laughter so hard I could barely think, but the thought came through anyhow. The little weasels. They played me like a harp.
I carefully stood up, making as little noise as possible, and held my right index finger over my mouth, and the rest of the adults showed big smiles, even Pa. Working my way over behind Abe I grabbed him by the torso with both hands and picked him up out of his chair. As I lifted him, he squirmed in my grasp and shriek-squealed in that strange childish manner, the happy-to-be-scared sound generating an irresistible ‘tickle me’ trigger. Not that changed my plans. Tickling was already going to happen. I went to my knees behind Ma’s chair and set Abe down on his back, and started tickling his ribs mercilessly for a few seconds.
Any second now. I watched Molly with my peripheral vision while I also watched Abe to make sure he wasn’t hyperventilating or too red in the face, tickling him just enough to make him yell “Allen. No fair!” Then he started making non-word noises, laughing and breathing heavily.
I saw Molly’s legs shift slightly, and her head moved just a little, turning to give her a view of her escape route. Aaaand. Now. Molly’s chair squeaked across the floor a few inches, and she bolted, trying to run past me. I quickly snaked out my left arm and hooked my hand around her torso, dragging her into a brief hug before carefully laying her flat on the ground next to Abe. Serious tickling followed immediately, leading to the jokesters flailing and twisting back and forth while shriek-squealing and laughing. When their voices started to indicate actual distress, I stopped.
“You two OK?”
Two weak voices, almost in unison “Yes!”
“Good.” I held my hands up in front of them and wriggled my fingers. “Let’s do that again!”
“No!” “No!” a chorus of two voices called out and as I dropped my hands towards their bellies again they shrieked in laughter.
Instead of tickling them again like I knew they thought I was going to do, I suddenly, carefully grabbed each of them by one of their calves. Then I quickly went from my knees to my feet, picking them both up and holding them upside down by one leg, suspended a few inches above the ground. There was another round of high pitched happy shrieking and a great deal of arm-wheeling. I didn’t lift them too far off the ground because they were twisting pretty hard and both massed around twenty-five kilos or so. I wasn’t Edward, able to throw a bale of hay nearly twenty feet, but I was strong enough for this.
I bent my elbows a bit, bringing the two of them closer together as they hung suspended upside down from my hands. After bringing them a bit closer so I could face them both, upside down, I spoke to them. “I thought you said you needed someone to carry you to bed? I’m just trying to help.”
Both of them looked startled for a moment, blinking at me, and then they looked at each other and back to me again.
“I didn’t mean this!” Abe protested, pointing at me, “and you know it, you too-tall meanie.”
Molly was far cleverer. “I didn’t say that. I’m not guilty. Put me down.” She crossed her arms and stared at me, upside down.
“Ah, but the best plans of little siblings never survive contact with a smarter older brother.” I retorted. “I can tell you that from experience.”
Zeke’s voice came from the other side of the table over Ma’s barely audible laughter. “It’s true.”
I thought to myself, with a little irritation, you didn’t have to agree so convincingly, Zeke.
Edward chimed in. “Definitely. As the oldest, smartest brother, I’ve ruined my fair share of great plans.”
I bent my elbows a bit to bring them closer to my torso, and poked my face a bit closer to them, but not close enough that they could hit me. I made a funny face and stuck my tongue out at them. “That was a good one though. You won tonight. I’m just being a spoilsport and abusing my bigger muscles and better looks.”
There was more upside-down good-natured yelling and flailing as I took them back to the kid’s room and carefully lowered them onto their sleeping pad. “There we go, as requested, two bed deliveries.”
They both, almost as one, stuck their thumbs in their ears and waved their fingers at me as they made loud raspberry splutters.
I smiled and straightened up, wistfully thinking to myself. They think and act so much alike. Inseparable. Sometimes I wish I’d had a sib near my age. Zeke was fun at times, but we were never close like these two. You have to pull them apart with horses and tie them down with ropes, or they’ll be in each other’s back pockets again in seconds.
They didn’t stay in their bed for long though, of course. Ma had followed me as I carried them, and called out. “OK, restroom and tooth brushing. Now.”
I left the room to two young voices complaining. “Awww, Ma…”
Edward and Jan and Zeke were chatting in the kitchen to the sound of plates and glasses being washed.
Pa was sitting in his chair with what looked to be a horse bellyband across his lap, picking stitches. Probably the one that he had been complaining about when the planting season ended. Normally it would be a winter job, but if we were going to plant a late crop of table beets and radishes tomorrow, we would want both plows in the field to do it quickly.
Granpa had a heavy piece of flat oak on his lap, carefully cutting a marked piece of leather into a shape clearly intended to replace the piece Pa was removing from the bellyband.
They both looked up at me and nodded when I sat down and reached out to pick up a breeching strap. I inspecting it and found that it seemed to be OK, except for some loose stitching that would irritate the horse wearing it. Pa leaned over and picked up the case of ceramic needles, and held it out to me. I looked at the stitching again and judged that I could use a medium needle. Small needles broke too easily to use them unless you needed to.
Nobody spoke, there was detail work to do. Glass knives cut threads, bull-oak punches with diamond tips cut holes in new leather pieces, and ceramic needles stitched harness pieces back together again. Zeke and Edward joined us when the dishes were done, and the pile of damaged tack in the middle of the room quickly disappeared. When the last piece was assembled, we passed each piece around the circle of all five of us so we could all look at it.
Granpa spoke first, after he sheathed his glass blade. “The rugrats got you pretty good Allen.”
I laughed and the rest of us did too. It felt good. I just wished I could stop worrying about what was going to happen tomorrow, and after that. “They did Granpa. Yes they did. I wish we could bottle energy like that.”
Pa raised his eyebrow at me. “You wish we could bottle energy like that?” His eyes cut over at Granpa. “You hear that, Pa? Allen here is already getting old. In another couple years he’ll be bedridden for sure.”
I looked to Edward and Zeke, who both shook their heads. Zeke grinned. “You stepped in it, I’m not helping.” Edward nodded and kept his mouth shut.
I raised my hands in surrender, chuckling. “You have to admit they have endless energy.”
Granpa smiled again. “That they do.”
In unspoken agreement, we started lightly moistening the leather. It had all been cleaned before it was put up, and the new leather was clean, but we would be plowing the fields tomorrow, and planting the next day if the locusts were done. A little neatsfoot oil would go a long way to keeping the leather pliable, but it shouldn’t be put on very dry leather.
About three hours after dinner, we had finished all the harness repairs, and put all the supplies away. Edward carried the tack back out to the horse barn, and returned a few minutes later. Ma and Jan had finished checked through non-food supplies, and decided that there shouldn’t be any need for extra cloth for Jan and Edward’s upcoming baby. They hadn’t found any lack of other supplies that were critical.
We all drank a hot rose hip, mint, and honey tea and talked about what to do on the next day. Everyone carefully avoided mentioning that I couldn’t help implement tomorrow’s plans, but I was able to contribute a couple ideas.
Once everyone knew what they would be doing the next day, we broke for bed. Before I stood, Ma moved next to me where I was sitting, leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. “You did well tonight with Abe and Molly. I…” She stopped talking, and looked me in the eyes for a second. “I’m sorry if I upset you earlier.”
“I understand, Ma.”
She ruffled my hair then everyone went to their beds.
The next morning, before the sun was up, I joined the rest of the family for a light breakfast that really wasn’t all that good. Ma was using up the oldest preserved food, and some of the garden produce that had been locust-damaged, or wasn’t fully ripe. Foods that in a good year would likely have been fed to the swine as treats. Molly and Abe complained a bit, but settled down after a quick talking-to by Ma.
In the near-darkness of pre-dawn, I carefully walked out to the equipment barn and picked up four swine harnesses and a bundle of simple rope leashes. I dropped them in the bed of the small cart I was planning on taking to town and pulled the small cart out of the equipment shed by hand. After inspecting it by the dawning light, I found no problems or damage. Thirty minutes later, I waved to Granpa, Abe, and Molly as they returned from milking the cows.
My four largest sows pulled the cart. My fifteen culls that were leash-trained were tied to the back of the cart by their leashes. The five that I hadn’t even managed to reliably leash train were in a wooden crate with slatted sides for ventilation behind me on the cart. Speedy was the only squealer I was keeping this year. That hurt, a lot, because there had been some good ones in the most recent litters, especially Chuckle, but I had to lighten the burden on the farm. I only kept Speedy because I really wanted to see what she filled out like with those longer back legs.
Butchering and eating our own swine was out of the question. They would know. It would make them very difficult to work with for weeks. They considered us to be dominant members of the herd. Swine were not extraordinarily protective of one another, but they were herd animals, and our swine were smarter than any farm pig. If they heard or smelled one of their own being slaughtered, smelled the scent of one of their own in the table scraps, or encountered something made from the leather of a sounder member, they would be afraid of us and very difficult to control. The boars might even get aggressive with us if they were in rut.
It happened every now and then that a sow or swine would die on the farm. We would then be forced to field dress the carcass and take it into town to the butcher. Otherwise we normally took sows to the butcher the first time they produced only two squealers after their fifth year. Boars would go to the butcher when they reached three hundred kilos, or in their tenth year. A strong stud boar might be kept longer, as long as he was able to produce quality offspring.
Exceptions were made for exceptionally smart, tractable boars and sows, giving them a couple more chances to breed, or allowing them to grow a little bigger. We wanted those genes. The smarter and more tractable our swine were, the better they could work.
In the direst need, of course, we would butcher and eat our own swine, but we’d eat the horses and cows first. A single-plow could be managed by a team of four big sows. Zeke had been plowing the mangel fields for years. The third plow allowed all the crops to get into the ground just a little faster.
The only reason Zeke wasn’t plowing today, was because we didn’t want the swine in the fields immediately after table beet and radish plantings. Even if they didn’t root up the seeds, they would certainly disturb the plantings, compacting the soil with their feet. If the swine were to be allowed to eat the corn plant roots, it had to be on plowing day, because seeds would be going into the ground the next day. Granpa was going to take the other five of my sounder up to the fields so they could eat as much corn root as possible as well. We’d leave them there overnight with the boars.
As I prepared to turn up the Gonzalez farm road, I shook my head, hoping none of my fears would come to pass. The swine breeding records we had went back over two thousand years, and there were references to records at least a thousand years older than that. The records had been copied time and time again over those years, and some of it was certainly bad data after so many copies. Anything more than a hundred years old was pretty meaningless to us with the tools we had available anyway. The ancient records were more tradition than useful.
Losing our swine would be a huge loss. There weren’t many swineherds like us who bred for the traits we did, so rebuilding a good sounder would be extraordinarily difficult. All the nearby farms that used our services would have to hire people for that work, or take farm labor off of other jobs. You simply did not recreate thousands of years of work in a few seasons.
I turned slowly and carefully off of the main road, watching behind me to make sure none of the squealers leashed to the back of the cart were in danger of being caught under a wheel.
I was hoping to spend a little time with Marza today. I wasn’t disappointed. As I pulled up to the house, I saw Marza on the front steps of the main Gonzalez home with a butter churn. Which was weird. Most people did not try to do work in high traffic areas, and she’s be in the way of everyone coming in and out of the house.
“Allen!” She yelled as she quickly set aside the butter churn and ran towards my cart. I pulled the cart off the side of the road to avoid blocking the road and hopped off the cart, watching as she ran to me. I never got tired of seeing her run. I could still remember when she could outrun me, back years ago. It used to frustrate me so badly. She was tall and muscular, long, jet black hair in a thick braid behind her. Brown eyes and a couple freckles framing a button nose and a mouth capable of the most incredible smiles. Her rough, baggy work clothes had never hidden her beauty from me.
As she got close, I reached out and grabbed her under the armpits and lifted her into the air, spinning her around once, as she laughed and called out “Put me down!” as she put her hands on my head, since she couldn’t reach my shoulders.
After one rotation I let her to the ground. We drew each other into a powerful embrace and hung onto each other for a full thirty seconds. Then we relaxed a bit and I leaned over and she stood on her toes and we kissed for about ten seconds. When there was a conspicuously loud, brief female-sounding cough from inside the house, we detached from each other and I set my chin on top of her head as we held each other loosely. There weren’t many women I could do that with, most were just too short. Marza was perfect. Well, to me. I suppose I was biased.
With the immediate pleasure of greeting handled, I started speaking to help direct my mind towards important, pressing matters that I could do something about, instead of things pressing against me that I wasn’t allowed to do anything with, yet. “Does your family have anything that needs to go to town that will fit in the cart, Marza? I’ve got a little room left beside the cage.” As I said that, I dreaded the possibility that she might say she had to report for militia duty.
Marza looked at me, clearly picking up the stress in my voice. Then she looked away from me, towards the house with a bit of nervousness. “No, with the harvest being what it was, we’re holding onto everything we can until we see what we get from the beet and radish harvest.” Granpa is going into town today to pick up some needles, a couple punches, and some leather strap, but he’ll be paying with fisc, not barter. All three house families are plowing for all they are worth right now. We’ve got all six plows in the field and five hunters in the woods, hoping to pick up some deer. The family children are hunting for acorns, blackberries, anything in the woods that we can eat.”
I looked at her a little funny, and she looked back at me. “What?”
“Not to pry into your family business, but why is your Granpa going into town? I know he can hunt. Why not send someone else to town for simple stuff like that?”
The senior Mr. Gonzalez came around the corner at that moment, on a light draft horse, and I understood immediately what was happening. He wasn’t hunting, but he was carrying a bow and quiver. He was also wearing a backpack. “Oh. I see.” I didn’t even imagine that he might choose to enlist himself rather than one of his children or granchildren. He was between Pa and Granpa’s age, a bit shy of sixty if I remembered right. I did the math in my head, accounting for Pa and Ma starting to have kids later, and farther apart, with Marza being the middle grandchild of the third-oldest child of Mr. Gonzalez.
“You seem surprised, Allen.” Mr. Gonzalez chided me. “Don’t tell me that you expected me to allow Marza to join the militia, even if the Countyman wanted her because of her age?”
I was surprised and took a moment to consider my words. Talking without thinking around Mr. Gonzalez led to embarrassment more often than not. “I was informed by my Granpa, in no uncertain terms, that Marza wouldn’t be your farm’s representative. I am surprised though.” No need to say why I was surprised though. If he couldn’t figure that out, I would know why he was doing it. I hadn’t seen signs of mental degradation in him, and he was a bit young for it, but it was possible.
Marza abruptly elbowed me in the side, but said nothing. I looked down at her, but she didn’t even look at me, continuing to look at her Granpa. His gaze shifted from me to her, and his brows beetled a bit. “No, Marza, it’s not going to happen. Nobody else is going; it’s going to be me. I won that argument last night, and your granma agreed with me, if you recall. If you want to argue with her about it, feel free. If you convince her that one of the younger men should go, then I’m sure she’ll try to convince me of the same.”
Marza sighed. “I’m not that foolish, Granpa. Enough of the family agreed to it that I’m not going to fight it. That doesn’t mean I agree with it.”
I was distinctly uncomfortable listening in on family politics. Not my family. Yet.
Mr. Gonzalez got a bit of a sharp look on his face. “Which of your generation would you prefer to grow up without a Pa or Ma, Marza? Which family do I choose to risk losing someone who might be fit and hale for decades? I’m fit and hale now. That’s not going to be true for many more years. My bones ache in the morning, and when it rains. My hearing is not quite what it was. My sight is starting to go as well.”
I shifted my weight from foot to foot. It was not my place to be hearing this. I wanted to shrink to a few centimeters tall and hide somewhere.
Crossing her arms, and tightening them around herself a bit, Marza spoke with some heat, looking up to meet his gaze. “Knowledge. Experience. You won’t stop being useful until the day you croak, Granpa. Allen’s Granpa is missing a foot, but he does his fair share. Sure, he can’t plow a field or throw hay bales, but I haven’t seen you doing those things a whole lot recently either. And if you say your mind is going, I’ll flat out call you a liar after the logic webs you spun last night.”
I really, really wanted to be elsewhere, but at the same time Marza was looking distraught and I wanted to offer some comfort. I shifted slightly, to stand a little closer to her and put my left arm around her hip. When she didn’t pull away, I put just a little pressure against her, and she bumped up a little into me. Not leaning against me but touching me.
A sad look crossed Mr. Gonzalez’s face. “Who then, Marza? Which uncle or aunt will go and maybe not return? Or maybe it will be one of your generation? Which niece or nephew? Give me a name, and then give me a reason that I can take to your granma.”
Marza said nothing for a moment as she leaned heavily into me. “I don’t want to lose either of you. Allen’s family doesn’t really have much of a choice.”
Mr. Gonzalez shook his head. “Marza, our family doesn’t have a choice either. Not while your granma and I run it, and we’re in agreement. We let you all speak your minds, but we don’t run the farm by committee.”
She stared up at him for a moment and then her shoulders slumped, and she leaned into me even heavier. I almost staggered. Despite being a full head and then some shorter than me, Marza weighed almost as much as me.
I looked up at Mr. Gonzalez. I really didn’t appreciate him dragging me into the conversation, and I was starting to get agitated at him for pushing Marza as hard as he had. I could feel her shoulders shaking.
Before I could say anything, Mr. Gonzalez raised his right hand with palm facing me. “If you’re going to complain at me about how I just upset Marza, call me Riko. You’re close enough to becoming family that I’ll accept it.”
I opened my mouth, briefly, and then closed it. Then I looked at Marza, and then at him again, suspiciously, after I realized he had said nothing in Latino. Marza didn’t switch to Latino when I was around unless she was told to. If the conversation had been unintended, Mr. Gonzalez would have said something in Latino, and everything after that would have been in Latino, leaving me completely in the dark. “You set this up, didn’t you, sir?” I paused. “Riko.”
He nodded. “Of course I set this up. I could have been halfway to town by now, and Marza really should be out combing the forest for edibles instead of sitting on the porch churning butter, a job her ma would normally be doing right now. You two are going to start a family soon, you need to at least have some appreciation about how devious you will need to be in order to get what you want from your future kids and grandkids.”
Marza stopped shaking after his last sentence, abruptly turning her head towards Mr. Gonzalez, as he turned his head slightly towards her and smiled a tight, lopsided smile. Then his face became serious and his dark eyes bored into us as he spoke in a hard voice. “It also helps to understand how much some of those decisions will hurt. When you have to make a terrible decision, the more you care, the more it hurts, and no amount of logic makes it hurt less. Consider this a demonstration.”
I could feel Marza stiffening up and muscles tensing against mine, so I decided to try to be a little aggressive, maybe to keep Marza from snapping out at him. She had to live with him, after all.
In a sharp tone I snapped out, “I didn’t particularly care for the delivery, but the lesson is well taken, Riko.” I looked down at the top of Marza’s head and back at him. “I hope that you get an opportunity to teach us more, perhaps with a little less drama.”
“You’re not thinking. But that’s OK. That’s what your elders are for.” He chuckled. “People learn better under stress. That having been said, even in a best case scenario where nothing happens to either me or you, Allen, you two are going to settle pretty far from here. Family will not be able to visit you easily, and it’s hard to teach real world knowledge by post. Though you’re more than welcome to send mail, of course, when the time comes.” He looked towards the sun. “Allen and I need to go, Marza. He clearly has some culls to sell, and I need to make purchases. We both have to speak to the militia officers, before midday.”
Marza gave me a hug and I leaned over so we could kiss. The kiss lasted for several seconds before Mr. Gonzalez coughed. We kept kissing anyway, and he laughed. “Well, when you come up for air, Marza, your cousins are expecting you in the blackberry fields along broken rock trail. Give your ma the churn, she’ll finish the butter.”
“Mmmhmm,” Marza mumbled with our lips locked, giving Mr. Gonzalez a thumbs up with one hand.
I was willing to let the kiss go on for quite some time, but Marza pulled away, and held me at arms-length with both hands. “You will come here to say goodbye at least one more time before you go.” It wasn’t a request.
I nodded. “I will.”
She nodded, sniffled once, and without saying another word, she turned and ran to the steps, picking up the churn and walking to the door of the house. We waved at each other when she turned back towards me in the doorway.
Mr. Gonzalez waited until I looked back to him before he spoke. “Mind if I keep you company on your way to the butcher’s, Allen?”
“I’m heading to the marina master first.” I replied, “But I’d be happy to keep you company until we reach town.”
Mr. Gonzalez looked at my swine for a moment, clearly thinking. “Makes sense, I suppose. I wasn’t aware that you sold to the marina. We don’t have anything to do with them, except to trade for oyster shell powder for soil remediation.”
“They don’t buy many, but between fish offal and vegetation and sea life washing up on the coast, swine fatten up pretty nicely there. If we sell them leash-trained swine, they can just be walked along the coast by kids to let them get a lot of food that people can’t or won’t eat. The marina master usually buys one for every one of his children in school, every year.”
I finished turning the cart around, carefully watching to make sure I didn’t run over any leashed squealers. When I finally got us turned around, I clucked and raised the reins and lowered them quickly. The four sows in trace quickly got us moving to a moderate walking speed.
Mr. Gonzalez had waited for me to get my team turned around before starting to speak. “I’ve raised farm pigs. I was always a bit afraid to feed them fish offal. No concern about the bones?”
I looked over at him, thinking to myself. Is that a trick question?
After looking at my expression for a second, Mr. Gonzalez laughed. “Hah! Marza is going to have so much fun with you if she can get a reaction from you that easily.” He shook his head. “I don’t know everything. Your Granpa and I, we generally talk about important things that we share in common, and family. I taught him a lot about soil remediation and how to test soil quality, and he taught me a great deal about pests and pest management. There was a lot of other sharing too, but I never had a need to know about your forest swine, because I don’t raise them. That doesn’t mean I never wanted to know about them, but there is almost always something more important to do than indulge idle curiosity, no?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.” I smiled a bit as I looked up at him on his horse, pacing my cart. I stopped speaking but then realized I hadn’t answered. “Oh, sorry. Uncooked fish skeletons aren’t really a problem for swine. They are smart eaters. Cooked fish is a different story, the bones are more dangerous when cooked. I’m almost certain it would be the same for farm pigs.”
“Indeed.” He responded, thoughtfully. “We’ve got an hour and a half or so of road ahead of us, so let’s trade questions?”
“Sure. What do you want to know about our swine, sir?” I was having a hard time calling him Riko. It just felt wrong.
“Farm pigs rarely have stripes like that, but almost all of yours do. Did you breed the striped markings into them?”
“No, sir. That’s natural. Forest swine these days really aren’t real one-hundred-percent forest swine, not even ours. They are crossbreeds between forest swine and farm pigs. The stripes on squealers are protective coloration like white tailed deer fawn have; it blends into the forest litter. There’s a good bit of farm pig genes in our swine too, but we try to keep the forest swine genes dominant. We trade boars now and then with distant family, but if nobody within a decent range has a good quality boar they will trade, we’ll buy striped male squealers from farm pig litters. Only ones with stripes though when we buy them. A squealer with no stripes is almost always going to be a cull. Stripeless ones almost never take training well, like these three.” I pointed to the three non-striped squealers in the cage on my cart.
He was silent for a minute, then nodded. “How long have your family been breeding swine?”
“About three thousand years that we’re sure of, based on records. Maybe longer.”
Mr. Gonzalez whistled. “That’s amazing. You have records that far back? I don’t have my own family genealogy traced as far back as your swine.” He paused. “Of course, the records are available if we need them bad enough.” He raised his head a little, sharply, to indicate something overhead, in this case it was clear he meant Albert. Then he turned back to me. “Your turn. Three questions, and then my turn again.”
I thought about it. “Well, you’ve raised farm pigs so you might have tried this. Pigs and swine eat so many different types of food. Is it worth trying to give them special feed if you want to use their manure to target specific soil deficiencies?”
“Very good question. Give me a moment to think about it.” He looked forward, clearly thinking, and after a couple minutes began an answer.
For the next twenty kilometers, we talked swine and soil mostly, but a little about genetics and woodworking too. It was an interesting conversation. It made me feel rather good to be teaching Mr. Gonzalez things he didn’t know, and learning from someone with his combination of book and practical knowledge was a treat.
Eventually we parted ways in town, and I went to the marina master’s home along the river, near where the estuary began. I sold him four of the smallest culls, for a lot less fisc than I would have preferred. I was trying to sell them early, and smaller than usual. He had also, apparently, been talking to the butcher about how much to pay for our swine. I managed to get him to come up on the price a bit when I reminded him how easy it was to feed them, and that the community was probably going to be buying everything the fishermen could possibly catch for at least the next six months.
I returned to town, and checked the trade board in front of the town post office, just in case one of the townsfolk had a note up that they wanted a swine. We’d sold a few to families in town before. A small garden of mangels and table scraps would raise a fine cull overwinter. Mostly they wanted farm pigs that grew very fast though. Unless they had kids, and then the leash trained squealers were novelty gifts that would eventually make it to the table. Novelty gifts were much more valuable than butcher meat.
I was surprised to see that despite the early locust swarm, there was one family that wanted to buy a squealer. I opened the glass-fronted cabinet and pulled out the request, put it in my pocket, and then paid them a visit at the address they had given.
After a little haggling and proving to the Tanner family that Chuckle would obey their eight-year-old daughter on his leash as well as he obeyed me, I sold Chuckle for twice what I would have gotten for him from the butcher. Before leaving, I carefully explained that they should never, ever put their hands in Chuckle’s mouth; anything in a swine’s mouth was food until the swine chose to spit it out. I also made sure they understood that swine did tricks and obeyed commands mostly for food, not loyalty. I let them know the names of others in town who had recently bought from us, in case they wanted to compare notes, and then left them to their own business. I delivered the rest of my swine culls to the butcher and he paid standard rates for them.
By the time I’d sold all my swine, it was very close to midday, according to the town square sundial. I walked into the bank.
A nicely dressed young lady who I thought I remembered being two or three years ahead of me in school looked at me and sniffed with a little frown. I smiled back. Pa always said that bankers didn’t like the smell of hard work. He’d also been very clear that they still had to be treated with respect, because one day you might need a loan for a new piece of equipment or a building.
I led with a smile. “Hello Ma’am. How long would it take to set up a new bank account?”
She looked at me and forced herself to smile. “About thirty minutes young man.”
Thirty minutes? How many times do they have to count it? I wondered to myself as I shook my head. “I’ll have to come back after I go speak to the militia officer then. I don’t have thirty minutes.”
She got a real smile on her face. “Oh, if you are signing up for an account for your militia pay, the militia officer will create an account for you.” Her relief was so obvious it was funny, and I barely kept myself from laughing at her.
Letting the militia officer set up an account for me sounded handy, but I wouldn’t get my first pay for a while, I was sure. The officer would certainly be a very busy man today. “Will he do that today? I have fisc to deposit today.”
Her smile faltered, but quickly recovered. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“I’ll come back after I speak with the militia officer then. Thank you.” Yes, Ms. Necessary Evil, the stinky farmer will be back in your building for thirty minutes, later today. I thought to myself with a smile as I walked out the door. A couple minutes later, I drove my carriage over to the Countyman’s house to find out where to meet the militia officer.