When I went back to the bank to open an account and deposit my fisc, I barely avoided laughing at the young lady banker I had spoken to earlier, before my bath. She had looked genuinely distressed as I approached. She even audibly sniffed as I approached before hesitating, smiling a genuine smile, and starting to chat like she actually cared about me. Amazing what a bath can do to make bankers happy. I thought as I made a mental note to take a bath before going to a bank if Marza and I ever needed a loan for a building or equipment on our future farm – which would be highly likely in the first few years at least. It might even be worth buying scented soap before asking for a bank loan, if just being clean made such a huge difference in how I was treated.
It really did take thirty minutes to fill out several papers, as promised, including the papers to provide for my militia pay to be deposited. When I was done, a four-digit cipher code was provided for me to memorize. The bank would distribute a ciphered answer to a few questions about my life and identifying features to a central banking authority that would redistribute it to other banks. The code I memorized would allow me to withdraw a small amount of fisc from anywhere, any time, but if I wanted more than a quarter of my highest recorded balance from a non-local bank, I would have to wait for the distant bank to verify my funds. If I moved elsewhere permanently, I could have a new bank near me designated as my primary bank for a fee. If I forgot my code, I would have to request validation of my identity, which would be time consuming.
The banker gently reminded me that I was being activated to join the militia, so I needed to be certain to designate a beneficiary. I indicated that Marza Gonzalez should receive the funds if I were to die with funds remaining in my account. If she was not alive, the funds would go to the person listed as the head of household of the Rickson Farmstead. All in all, the banker managed to impress me despite my first impression of her that had been formed when I was admittedly pretty rank from sweating and dealing with swine for half a day.
As I drove towards home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Riko had said. He wanted to put himself in a position where he had some influence, so he could have some say in what the militia was going to do.
Doesn’t everyone want control of their lives? I thought, before realizing. But most of us can’t actually do it. Is it something I can learn, or is it natural?
Several minutes of thinking later, I realized that Riko didn’t truly have complete control over his life – he was just very adept at using what he knew to steer things so that he had some influence over the future. He had even said so when he confirmed the rumor of the motor to me, and said ‘I made that luck.’
Riko was a young man when he first made his luck, so it was either something he came by naturally, or it was possible to learn it at a young age. I would have to operate under the assumption that it was possible for me to learn it. I knew I was more than moderately intelligent. My grades in school proved it, and I could reinforce that with knowing that I rarely did anything stupid around the farm – other than lose track of time now and then, which I felt pretty confident was normal for everyone. I’d even seen Pa and Granpa staring off into nowhere from time to time when there was work to be done. Nobody in my family was lacking in the ability to think, but we mostly channeled that into down-to-earth thinking on practicalities as opposed to intangibles.
Clearly, the biggest question that I had to answer for myself before I could start trying to start taking control of my own life was how to identify useful knowledge that would enable me to generate control. I knew how to do that on a farm. I knew how to do that with swine. I had some idea of how to do that with a family. Riko, on the other hand, had used ancient knowledge and a higher education to piece together where ancient homesteads had once been, and then sought them out for salvage. Then he used his maps and knowledge of the land border between New Charleston and New Tokyo to make a place for himself in militia leadership.
After several fruitless minutes of wandering down mental dead-ends, I realized that my knowledge was simply too narrow in scope. I knew a lot of basic math, science, and farming, swine, and family. I was pretty good with my hands, and I was smart. I was fairly certain I didn’t have all the pieces to create solutions for the problems in front of me. Worse, it was possible that I had all the pieces, but didn’t recognize them. After a little more thinking I realized that my efforts to try to figure out a way to solve my problems was hopeless because I didn’t even know what the problems were.
Thinking fruitlessly about how to take control of my life was a good distraction to keep me from thinking about the more disturbing things that I might be called upon to do in the near future. It was almost enough of a distraction for me to forget about what I had promised to do that day. I nearly passed the Gonzalez farm road before I remembered the letter I’d been given by Riko, to give to his wife.
I turned up the Gonzalez farm road, and pulled up in front of the main home. Before I had finished giving the sows a treat for their work, I heard the door open. Riko’s wife, Marza’s grandmother, stepped out while wiping her hands with a rag. Her forearms and tanned face were lightly dusted with flour. She was a tall woman from a town family, taller than Riko, but a little shorter and slighter of build than Marza. Her first daughter, Felisha, Marza’s mother, had married locally, to Jakob Hershel. Jakob was a big man of a similar build to Pa and Edward, like most of the established local farm families. Marza and her siblings were all noticeably heavier muscled than either Mrs. Gonzalez or Riko.
After watching me for a moment, Mrs. Gonzalez spoke first. “Since my husband isn’t with you, I imagine you have a letter for me?” Mrs. Gonzalez spoke quietly, not shyly, but just soft spoken. “We must have predicted closely enough that he didn’t need to return home, and was asked to be a part of planning?”
I couldn’t help but notice that she said ‘we’ meaning that perhaps not all of the planning acumen that had impressed me had been Riko’s. That gave me a little hope. If anything, Marza was smarter than me, and perhaps she would know more about how her grandparents thought and guided their lives.
A bit of impatience started to show in Mrs. Gonzalez’s face, making me realize that I hadn’t answered her. I pulled Riko’s letter out of my swine treat bag, walked up the steps to the porch, and handed it to her. “Sorry, Mrs. Gonzalez, I was thinking. Yes, he has been made a sergeant of the scouts, and will be leaving tonight for the border.”
Nodding, she deliberately, delicately, opened the folded paper and began to read. After a few moments reading, she carefully folded the note back into its prior shape and placed it in the pocket of her pants. “Thank you, Allen. I am a little surprised that Riko didn’t ask you to carry his purchases back with you, but he said he asked for them to be delivered by post since none of them were perishable.”
Riko hadn’t mentioned that to me, and I certainly hadn’t read their correspondence, so I just nodded. “I need to report for militia duty tomorrow morning very early, and I promised Marza…”
Mrs. Gonzalez interrupted me with a smile. “She’s over at the smokehouse with Felisha preparing the blackberries and muscadines picked before lunch for canning.” She shook her finger at me. “Don’t be getting any ideas. You will not try to get her to leave her mother’s sight.”
Does she really think I’d be that irresponsible? I thought, before I saw her smiling and realized I’d just been given one of those obligatory warnings older people give to younger people, even when they know there’s no need for it.
Nodding, I replied, “I wouldn’t do that to her, Mrs. Gonzalez, but you know that, I think.” I stepped down off the porch and tied the reins of the sows to the hitching post, watching her for a reaction. I was trying not to be aggressive, just steady, so I stared at her chin instead of her eyes.
Mrs. Gonzalez nodded, slightly, before turning and walking back inside. She seemed somehow smaller as she shut the door, her right hand clutching at her leg on top of the pocket where she had put the note.
I checked the reins and gave the sows a quick inspection for harness issues. With no problems found, I walked around the house to the smokehouse by the garden, trying to figure out what I was going to say to Marza. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that I had set up a bank account with her as the beneficiary if I were to die. That was not the tone I wanted to set for the last time I saw Marza before I left for the border.
The sides were up on the smokehouse, since it was being used for canning, not smoking. Marza looked up as soon as I stepped around the side of the house into view. A second later, her mother looked up after I saw Marza say something I didn’t hear. She apparently agreed and Marza quickly walked out of the smokehouse towards me, wiping her hands on her apron. We didn’t run to each other, but we didn’t take our time walking slowly either.
“As promised, here I am one more time.” I smiled, we wrapped each other up in a long hug and then we kissed briefly.
Marza tugged my hand and led me towards the back porch of the house. There was a double rocker there that we’d spent plenty of time sitting in, side-by-side, and it was pretty clearly Marza’s destination. “I was expecting you tomorrow morning, Allen. Did something happen? Did Granpa come back with you?”
“Your granpa is heading towards the border today with the rest of the scouts. I delivered a letter from him to your Granma just now.”
Marza didn’t seem surprised to hear that; she nodded as we climbed the stairs to the back porch.
“The rest of us will travel starting tomorrow.” I continued as I sat on the rocker, making room for Marza next to me. “I have to be in town shortly after first light. I wanted to spend more than just a few minutes with you, and I wanted to see you in full light before I leave, rather than by lamplight tomorrow morning.”
Marza smiled and said “move over.”
I was already sitting on one side of the rocket, so I cleverly responded, “Huh?”
“To the middle, silly.” She smiled. “Trust me.”
I moved to the middle of the seat, and was pleasantly surprised as Marza turned around and sat in my lap.
After I was done being shocked, I smiled. “I see. You really do want to make sure I remember this, don’t you?” Even while I teased Marza, I knew from experience that Marza’s mother did not appreciate such a provocative seating arrangement. I couldn’t help but glance at the smokehouse guiltily, and saw Marza’s mother smile and shake her head, before she inspected another jar and begin filling it.
Marza whispered in my ear. “I asked Ma. She said yes, today, I could sit with you on the porch here however I liked, provided that no clothing was removed.” Then she flexed a few muscles that she was sitting on, and a certain muscle of mine responded. “You will come back to me, Allen.” She whispered into my ear.
Responding hoarsely, I promised “I will.”
A great deal of kissing happened over the next few minutes, and a few careful placements of hands in places not visible to a certain mother who was watching from the smokehouse. I was pretty certain we weren’t being as sneaky as we tried to be, but we weren’t called out on it either. I was fairly certain that Marza’s mother actually wanted us to enjoy ourselves and create strong memories.
Not that I needed the encouragement. I knew how lucky I was to have Marza, and I knew she felt the same way I did. Sure, we argued now and then, but arguments never mattered in the long run. We’d known each other since we could remember. We had an agreement that we wouldn’t risk having intercourse until we’d had our house raising, but from time to time we’d managed to engage in enough foreplay that we were very familiar with each other’s bodies. Enough to know that when the time arrived, it was going to be fantastic. We hadn’t had many opportunities like that since we finished school; our families watched us both very closely after it became very clear that we were serious about one another.
I wasn’t entirely certain how long we sat there, but it hadn’t been long enough when Marza’s mother called out. “I’m done here and you two have been knotted together long enough. There’s work Marza needs to do, and you surely have things you need to do to get ready for tomorrow, Allen. Wrap it up.” She sounded happy, not angry, which took some of the sting out of it.
After a long kiss, I held Marza’s face between my hands. “I promise you that I will come back.”
“You’d better.” She poked me in the nose. “After all these years of waiting, if we don’t get our own place after spring planting, I think I’m going to explode.”
I twitched my hips a little under her. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Mentally, I cursed the things that led up to where we found ourselves. Burn the locusts. Burn Second Landing. Why this year?
Before she stood, Marza twitched a few muscles of her own, sending some very important signals to parts of my brain that were fed up with being stymied. I beat back the mental beast and accepted a hand from Marza as she helped me stand. The blood flow to my legs had been partly cut off by her weight, but it was a price worth paying. The slight clumsiness of my legs passed quickly as the irritating, prickling pain faded. Marza smirked as I adjusted my pants.
As Marza and I walked around the house, Marza’s mother came out of the smokehouse, staying far enough away to give us privacy, but keeping us in sight. As we stood next to the cart, we hugged again, hard, and kissed once more, for not enough time. As I freed the reins and climbed onto the cart, Marza scratched the four sows behind the ears, clicking her tongue and murmuring in low tones to them. They knew her, and responded with happy little grunts.
Before I left, Marza stood next to the cart and we held hands again for a minute, saying nothing, just looking at each other. I raised her hand to my lips and kissed her knuckles. As I drove away, I turned and waved over my head. She waved back. The last thing I saw before I was out of sight of the house was Marza’s mother pulling her into a hug.
A great many inappropriate thoughts crossed my mind over the next few minutes as I drove the cart the short remaining distance to our farm. Most of them revolved around me trying to figure out if there was some way I could bring Marza with me in the swineherd carriage. Imagining her reaction to me asking her to leave her family and go to a militia camp with me was sobering. Imagining the fallout from both our families if Marza actually agreed to it was even more sobering. The final straw that broke the back of my juvenile sex-related fantasies was a mental image of Riko discovering that Marza was in the militia camp with me, instead of safely back at the Gonzalez farm. I’d seen Riko irritated several times, but never angry. I was certain I never wanted that experience.
I had to laugh at myself a little bit, but it was bittersweet. I’d just put several minutes worth of thought into something completely meaningless while I should have been considering meaningful things that I needed to do to get ready for the next day. Most of the preparations would be inspecting the carriage and checking the harness. If possible, I’d want to work with Granpa on that. He built the carriage. He’d be the best one to help me make sure it was ready, and that I knew its most likely points of failure.
The boars were also going to be a potential issue. They were harness trained, but in about a month, perhaps less, they were going to go into rut, and they became very temperamental when in rut. Still controllable, if I was careful, but dangerous. Both boars were roughly three times my mass, and proportionately stronger than any man. Having the two of them side-by-side in harness would be an issue. They would almost certainly start scuffling, perhaps even really fighting for dominance despite their training. When they did enter rut, having one boar in front of the sows in trace, and the other trailing the carriage would also be an issue; the trailing boar would want to move up and challenge the leading boar for leadership.
While I was awake, I was confident in my ability to control the boars, even in rut. They were well enough trained that they would respond to me while in rut, even if they were a bit slow to do so. But I’d be a fool to not be worried. Despite their absurd durability, even a few seconds of serious fighting could injure one or the other of them, perhaps even seriously. I’d have to stake them separately from the sows and from each other at night. The space under the carriage would be only for the sows after rut started. I’d certainly not be able to properly control their mating if I took them into the field with me foraging, and I would need to take them into the field to protect the sows and myself from predators.
An uncontrolled breeding season would lead to me having to sell every one of the squeakers from this year’s breeding season as culls, unless there were some very promising squeakers like Speedy. If that did happen, and there were some very promising offspring, I would make the effort to find alternate bloodlines to breed into my sounder.
I pulled up in front of the equipment barn, gave the sows each a treat, let them out of harnesses, and took them to their pen. The rest of my sounder wasn’t there. They had probably been turned out in one of the fallow fields to root.
After leading the four sows into their pen and closing the gate, they all lined up at their trough and stared at me.
“Give me a minute.” I said, knowing they couldn’t understand me, but they could tell that I was paying attention to them. I pulled a couple mangel beets from the feed storage box and noticed that someone, probably Zeke, had also put a large bundle of still-green quartered corn stalks and a barrel of locusts in the feed box as well. I pulled out an armful of the corn stalks and dropped them into the feed trough and four very hungry sows who had been pulling a cart all day eagerly attacked the corn stalks as I chopped the mangels with a hand axe. The stone blade of the axe was getting a bit dull. We’d have to grind it down again, soon, or it would mash mangels more than cut them. Not that the swine would care, but it would be harder work.
I checked the water trough, and it was nearly full. A couple small goldfish were visible, cruising the sides and surface of the trough, looking for mosquito larvae or other bugs. When my shadow crossed the trough, they stopped swimming, clearly poised to begin surface feeding. In a good year, we’d feed them with bits of old bread and ground corn that would normally go to the swine. This year, we would simply replace the fish from the main holding pond as needed. It wouldn’t be much longer before mosquitos were no longer a threat anyway.
I quickly and thoroughly cleaned the harness my swine had worn all day. Cleaning swine harness was quicker than cleaning horse harness – swine didn’t sweat on their harness like horses did. I found one girth that needed repair, and replaced it with a spare, putting the worn piece in the pile of harness that would be repaired or recycled over the winter – or sooner, if needed.
As I cleaned harness, I watched the sows eating. All four of them were eating eagerly, with no signs of distress, sounding off with deep grunts of satisfaction as they gnawed on corn stalks and chopped mangel beets. After I finished with the harness, I grabbed four locusts from the locust barrel and gave one to each sow, calling them to me one at a time so they wouldn’t squabble over the treats. They each happily ate their locust treat and accepted a little scratch behind the ears before walking back over to the corn stalks and beets.
I returned to the equipment shed, hauled the small cart back inside by hand, and picked the backpack I’d been issued out of the bed of the cart. I needed to get the swineherd carriage ready to travel. Prepping equipment was always best done in full light, and there was only a couple hours of full light remaining. I was hoping Granpa would be able to help me.
The locusts were almost entirely gone at this point, so Molly, Abe, and Granpa were certainly not collecting them any longer. I knew someone had been processing corn though. It was probably either Jan or Granpa. Probably both of them, using Abe and Molly as helpers. Ma would know. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, so I was definitely going to be seeing Ma before I did anything else.
As I walked into the house, I got a hug and kiss on the cheek from Ma, followed by a flatbread and glass of hot tea. The hug wasn’t expected, but I wasn’t silly enough to fight it, and gave her a hug back. It was only after the hug was done that I realized that it was probably because of the fact that I was going away tomorrow.
“Thanks Ma.” I said as I sat down at the table and took a bite of flatbread and a cautious sip of tea as Ma went back into the kitchen. “Is Granpa processing the harvest with Jan?”
“Granpa yes, Jan no.” Ma explained. “The locusts were mostly gone by lunch. Your pa, Edward, and Zeke finished plowing one field this morning. With the locusts mostly gone already, Pa had Zeke, Jan, Abe, and Molly start planting today in the first field while he and Edward plowed the second field. He thinks that we may be able to get both fields fully planted today. They will be planting at wide separation, so we won’t have to thin. Everything that can grow will grow. We’ll also be planting the fallow fields as well, tomorrow, until we run out of beet and radish seed.”
I nodded. Granpa couldn’t walk fields to plant. Not easily. A wooden stool next to a shock of corn though? He could work as fast as any of us that way. The corn stalks would be best for the animals when fresh, while the grass was recovering.
I was a little worried about planting in fallow fields, but after a brief reality check, my worry was pushed aside. We needed everything we could get out of the ground this year. It would be a risk to use all of our seed though. If we didn’t get seed bearing plants by the end of the growing season, we might have to buy seed the next year. Though, it was late enough that the beets and radishes in the garden… “Did we collect any seeds from the garden plants yet, Ma?” I asked. Ma, Jan, Granpa, Abe and Molly typically dealt with the house garden, I couldn’t remember if they had said anything about seed harvesting this year.
“Some from the earliest planting radishes and last year’s beets. Not many. Enough for next year’s house garden, but it’ll be a couple years before we have enough seed for a full field planting of table beets or radishes if we don’t buy seed or leave some plants in the field.”
That made a lot of sense. Same-season seeds wouldn’t sprout well, so Pa wouldn’t risk them. If we did get a full late harvest, we’d probably leave some beets and radishes in the ground. The radishes might go to seed if the frost was late. Being biannual, the beets would go to seed in the next season like carrots.
I shook my head. As important as knowing what was happening with the crops would normally be to me, I needed to speak to Granpa and see if I could take up some of his time. Even if he couldn’t help, he could tell me what I needed to do, if there was anything special required to prepare the carriage for first use.
I quickly took another bite of flatbread. It tasted like tomato, which was a little odd for a flatbread, but not bad. I finished the cup of tea, swirling the last bit in the bottom to make sure to get the last bits of sugar. I walked into the kitchen and put the heavy glass cup on the counter and got back out of Ma’s way. She was starting to prepare dinner, and I didn’t want to get in the way.
I did glance at what she was preparing. The potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables she was chopping were mostly older looking. Some of them would have been fed to the swine in a good year. Half a dozen eggs and some cheese were present as well. That would be our protein. “Egg and cheese soup?” I asked, forcing myself to sound more excited than I really was.
“Using up the oldest garden vegetables while they are still barely good, Allen.” Ma explained, not being fooled by my tone for an instant. “We’ve got plenty of mint, dried peppers, and salt though, so I’ll flavor it heavily.” She shrugged. “It should come out OK.”
“I’m sure it will, Ma. I really wasn’t complaining. I do like egg and cheese soup, even if it’s not my favorite.” Fresh, I actually liked it. I hoped she was right that the flavorings would cover the off taste of old produce.
“I know, Allen.” She paused. “Your Pa said to have you come to him when you got back, after you got food in you.”
I nodded. “I’ll go find him then. He’s certainly still plowing. Thanks Ma.”
I walked by the tool shed first, grabbed a cameltote, tossed a couple salt tablets in it, and filled it from the cistern. Pa would probably not make me help plant seeds in the field with four people planting already, but if I went there clearly not being ready to work in the field, he’d probably be irritated.
Pa and Edward were about a third finished plowing the second field. As I approached to talk to Pa, I was a bit surprised to find Zeke with both of our sounders in the field that was being plowed, keeping all of our animals in the unplowed sections eating corn root. Jan, Abe, and Molly were about half-finished planting the plowed field. It made sense to get as much fodder out of the field as possible, before the seeds went in, but I was expecting Zeke to be planting. Zeke was keeping the two sounders separate with a bit of effort. The swine knew each other by scent and sound and lived near one another. The sows wanted to group together. The boars wanted to test each other, even if they weren’t in rut.
Zeke’s boars were a good bit older than mine, and he was being very careful to keep them far from mine. I was happy to see that. Hopper wasn’t a big concern, but I didn’t want either Hoss or Bigboy to get in a scrap with Tubby, who was nearly three hundred kilos – a lot bigger than we normally liked our boars to get. Tubby had sired quite a few extremely intelligent squeakers, and his size didn’t seem to contaminate his smartest offspring like Speedy. This last year was the first year any of my sows had been big enough to breed safely with Tubby, and Speedy was one of his. Zeke was going to start keeping a few boars instead of culling them, preparing to replace Tubby in the next couple years though because he was still growing slowly, about thirty kilos a year even at nearly eight years old. If he got much bigger, he’d be too big to breed with any of our sows without injuring them.
As I walked over to where Pa was plowing, I waved at Zeke, who waved back.
I approached Pa, and walked beside him as he plowed, walking on the unplowed side. I could see that he was tired. I wanted to offer to replace him on the plow, but that probably wouldn’t make him very happy with me. At least he wasn’t coughing, just sweating heavily.
Pa nodded to me. “When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow. I need to be in town as early as possible. I got permission to take the carriage and my sounder, so I need to prep it while I still have light.”
Pa cut his eyes to me and the plow jerked a little to the left, but he immediately recovered. “Are you sure about that? Seems likely that a camp full of militia are going to see your swine as better food than any forage you might be able to manage to haul out of the woods.”
“The officers agreed. Mr. Gonzalez supported me. I will have to contribute positively to feeding the militia, so if the forage is very bad, or if we’re in the same place for a long time, it will be a problem. At the same time, it’ll get my swine off the farm, and Zeke won’t need to be as strict with his culling. If I lose my swine, I’ll have pay from the militia that I can use to give Zeke a fair price for some of his better culls, so I won’t have to ask him for anything for free.”
Pa beetled his brows. “It’s a risk for you but I won’t argue, because it’s good for the farm. Zeke’s sounder will be stronger for it, and all the animals will have better feed. You need to prepare the carriage though, right?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m hoping to get Granpa’s help for that, or at least his advice.”
Pa smiled. “You know you can get his help for that. There’s no way he’ll let you take it out without teaching you more about it.” He paused, and got a thoughtful look for a moment. “I doubt he’ll argue with you about taking it and your sounder. He said he gave the carriage to you, so it’s yours now, like your sounder.” His eyes cut to me again, and he dropped his voice slightly. “Be careful with how you bring it up though, because he and Mr. Gonzalez have been planning for more than a year now on how to get you and Marza comfortably settled, and taking the carriage out on militia duty doesn’t fit those plans.”
I had considered that already. “I understand, sir. Mr. Gonzalez supported me to the militia officers though. If I mention that to Granpa, carefully, I suspect he won’t give me much trouble about it.”
Pa pursed his lips, and responded with the same quieter speech he had used before. “You’re probably right, but be careful. If he strenuously objects, do not argue with him; come back to me, and we’ll talk to him together.”
I nodded and hoped I wouldn’t need to do that. The thought of Pa and Granpa arguing was not pleasant. Granpa had given the responsibility of the farm to Pa, but he’d done so because of his lost foot, not because of an inability to think. They were almost always in agreement, but on those occasions when that wasn’t true, they would sometimes go days without speaking with one another, even at meals. It was almost funny when they started passing messages to each other through other family members so they didn’t have to speak to one another. Almost. For them to get irritated with one another right now when everyone needed to be working together would be bad. Especially with me gone.
Pa tossed his head without taking his eyes off the plow. “Go. Come back if you need me. Otherwise, I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Yes, sir.” I replied, and looked at the storage huts next to the fields to see which had been unsealed. Unsurprisingly, it was the one that we had filled last, which would have the most room to work in. I started walking in that direction, trying to imagine how the conversation would go.
As I walked in the door, Granpa looked up. “Your Pa sent you to help me?” He said, in a puzzled tone. I would have been puzzled too. The better choice would have been to send Jan to help Granpa and have me take over planting for her. Jan wasn’t too far into her pregnancy, and it wasn’t good for a woman to be too sedentary when pregnant unless there was a medical problem, but it didn’t hurt to restrict physical activity to some degree. She had plenty of strength for pulling corn ears off their stalks. Abe and Molly didn’t. They could do it, but not easily.
“No sir, I have a favor to ask of you, but I’ll help a bit while I ask.” I picked up a three-legged stool from next to the door and sat it next to the shock of corn stalks he was working on, across from him between the shock and the stalk pile. He would work left-to-right and I would work right-to-left. After sitting, I picked a stalk out of the shock and quickly stripped off the two ears, tossing the stalk into the stalk pile. The ears were skinny feeling for about half their length. I didn’t need to unwrap the ear to know that maybe a third of the ears would be human-edible.
Granpa said nothing for a moment, looking at me with a bit of a puzzled look before he shrugged and grabbed a stalk himself, removing three ears quickly. “You have me curious now. Do you plan on teasing me for a bit before you tell me what you want? I’m drawing a blank.”
As I reached for another stalk, I quickly answered. “No. I’m not planning on teasing you. I didn’t want to be idle while I talked to you though.” And I’m still not entirely certain how to ask you. I thought, but didn’t say out loud.
He looked up at me, and looked confused. “Spill it, Allen. It’s clearly something important to you. You haven’t asked me a really stupid question in years. I doubt you’re going to start again today.” He chuckled and started working quickly. I matched his pace. Since we weren’t using tools, we could work quickly while talking.
“Well, sir, the militia is going to try to support itself as much as possible from forage in the field, and my experience as a forager was supported by Mr. Gonzalez.” I paused. “You were right, obviously. Riko chose himself as the Gonzalez farm representative for the militia draft.”
Granpa grinned without looking up. “Hrm, he asked you to call him Riko?”
I nodded, then realized that he wasn’t looking at me and said “Yes.”
After a short delay, Granpa spoke again. “He said he wouldn’t let you call him by his first name until you and Marza were wed at the house raising, but he apparently changed his mind. He doesn’t do that often.” Granpa shook his head and chuckled deep in his throat. “As for choosing himself as his farm’s militia representative, I thought he might. Either your father or I would have done the same for you if we could have. Even though Riko complains to me about his joints on cold days, I’m pretty sure that’s more for my benefit than for any real pain he suffers. He’s not much older than your father, hasn’t ever been severely injured, and physically active people with slighter builds generally don’t have joint issues as early as bigger boned folks like me, your pa, and Edward.” He stopped talking for a moment, twisted the ears off another corn stalk, and his face got very serious. “He’ll want to meddle in their planning too, I know. If the militia officers are smart, they’ll let him.”
I smiled. “Right in one. He’s already part of the leadership of the scouts, and is heading to the border today. He and his wife apparently planned for him to go and take some sort of leadership position, which surprised me a lot. How do you plan for something like that?”
“That’s not why you’re here, to ask me about problem solving or planning. You’re avoiding asking me something that’s important to you, and you’re afraid I’ll be annoyed by the question.” He looked up at me as his hands worked. “And I still can’t figure out what it is.”
I sighed. “The militia needs a forager, and I want to ease the stress on the farm. I plan on taking my sounder and boars with me. I could do that without the carriage, but it would be a lot harder.”
Granpa’s hands stopped working momentarily. He looked up at me, catching my eyes. I carefully kept working while I waited for his response, but didn’t look away.
After a moment, he looked away. “I see.” He paused a few seconds and his hands started working again, twisting off corn ears. “The carriage is yours, like I said. I wasn’t expecting you to use it like this, but it makes sense on several levels. I’d rather you be sleeping in the carriage than in some sort of tent or out in the open. More people die from exposure and disease in conflicts than from actual fighting. It’s been a long time since I went to school, but I remember that.”
I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I would be taking my own bed and shelter with me in the carriage, and Granpa was right. Sickness and disease killed more people in wars than injuries did. That was even true before Albert took most technology away from us.
“I’d like your help prepping the carriage, Granpa. I already spoke to Pa to make sure there wasn’t anything critical I needed to do first.” I paused, and realized that Granpa was almost as good at predicting what other people would do as Riko.
Granpa nodded. “I’ll help. Let’s finish this shock first though.”
There were about a hundred stalks left. Both of our hands rapidly twisted corn ears, tossed stalks into the pile, and grabbed new stalks in unison. Working in a shared pattern was easier, almost hypnotic in a way.
After another half dozen stalks I’d sorted out what I wanted to say next. “While we’re doing that, Granpa, I do want to talk to you about problem solving and planning. Riko showed me twice today that he was planning far more in advance than I could imagine doing. I’m pretty sure that his wife helped him with at least some of that that planning, based on what she said when I delivered his letter to her on my way back.” I paused. “I hope you don’t take offense, Granpa, but I never really understood how good you were at predicting things either, until today.”
“Now THAT was the stupidest thing I’ve heard you say in years.” I was a bit stunned and didn’t notice that he wasn’t angry at first, until he bopped me on the forehead with an ear of corn. “You think I’m going to be upset at you for growing up?”
I rubbed my forehead, confused. “I, uh…”
I couldn’t remember ever seeing Granpa look so amused and happy. “I’ll have you know that I only had this discussion with your father after I lost my foot, a year after I handed the farm over to him. He’d picked up some of it on his own before then, of course, but he never admitted that I was better than him at planning until then. He still doesn’t fully believe it, but he respects that it might be true as long as it doesn’t challenge his most precious beliefs.”
I could only stare for a moment before I started to babble without really thinking. “Well, I know you’re a lot better at planning than me. I can see that Pa, since he’s a lot older than me, he might…”
Granpa hit me with the ear of corn again and laughed. “Ha! Don’t defend your Pa, there’s no need. Nobody is right about everything. Not even me. Not even Riko, though I’ll admit that he’s a brilliant man. Some of his crazy ideas about farming that he had when he first bought the place were pretty funny. Even you would laugh at them. He learned though.” He paused. “We learned from each other. He taught me about soil and I taught him about pests and carpentry. He also taught me how to think a little more clearly, and put myself in other people’s heads. He’s always been very good about knowing what other people were thinking.”
This was exactly what I wanted to hear about. “I’d like to learn what I can about thinking better, so I know better what other people will do. How much of it is just experience, and how much of it is how you think about things? It seems to me that a lot of it is what you know. From what I was thinking on the way back from town, it’s mostly older people who seem to think more clearly and plan better.”
Granpa tossed the ear of corn he’s been hitting me with into the storage bin, and tossed the stalk onto the stalk pile. We both started working again, quickly stripping ears from corn stalks.
After we’d both finished a couple stalks, Granpa spoke again. “Everyone figures out a little about how other people think as they get older, unless they are incredibly dense. What most people never learn to do is actively imagine the world as other people see it. That’s what Riko taught me. If you really want to understand other people, you have to be able to put yourself in their head. Most young people have a really hard time with that, even if they know how to do it.”
“I… see. I think.” I paused. “So the other night at dinner, you put yourself in my place and knew I was worried about Marza, and then put yourself in Riko’s place and knew I didn’t need to be worried about Marza?”
“Exactly, but that was easy. I know you both well.” He paused. “Riko is able to do that with people he doesn’t know at all, which is pretty amazing. It’s partly because he has a very good education, I think, but that’s not all of it. He’s really smart too. And, as you mentioned, he’s a lot better when he and his wife work together. She’s no better educated than you or I, but she’s got a hawk’s eye for how people react.” He chuckled.
“So I can’t get as good at planning as Riko without a higher education, you don’t think?”
Granpa looked at me. “No. There are others in town who are almost as good as Riko at planning. Jake Donaldson and the Countyman, for example. The Countyman took a few university classes, but never finished a degree. Jake never even finished basic school because his pa died very young and he had to help his ma run the store.”
I understood the Countyman, and agreed, but Jake Donaldson? The general store owner? I’d never really spent any time speaking with him, but he did have a reputation… “Jake is really good at knowing what people want to buy, I guess. Ma has complained a couple times that he sells her things she didn’t really know she needed until he told her.”
Nodding, Granpa agreed. “Exactly. He can imagine what you want if he knows you at all. Using the example you gave about your ma, Jake knows what the other farmwives have been buying and paying attention to, and he knows your mother and what she’s bought from him in the past. He puts that together in his head and out pops a list of things that your mother wants, even if she doesn’t know it. He’s right often enough that people sometimes buy things he suggests without really wanting them, because they trust him to know what they need.” He paused and frowned. “Going into the general store with extra money is dangerous. Once you get away from things to do with the general store though, Jake’s pretty ignorant. If he was brilliant about everything else as he was about what people would buy from him, he’d probably be a Countyman, maybe even a Stateman.”
“Do you have any hints or suggestions about how to figure out what other people might do?” I asked.
“Two things that clarified a lot for me after Riko explained them to me.” He tossed another stalk into the pile. “Firstly, people might do things that they know other people will think is wrong, but nobody ever does things they don’t think is right. Secondly, when you are trying to imagine what other people will do, you have to think about people’s intent before you try to imagine their specific actions. A person might act before they know why they are going to do something, but if you are trying to figure out what they will do in advance, you have to understand their intent and motivation. If you are really good at reading people, and see them act impulsively a few times, you might even understand someone better then they understand themselves after just a few interactions with them.”
“And you can do that with us.” I stated.
“With family, sure. I know how you all think. The only ones that regularly confuse me are Abe and Molly, and that’s because they haven’t really settled into their personalities yet.” He smiled. “It’s pretty refreshing, actually.”
I wasn’t really sure I wanted to ask this but it seemed important. “So, you know when you’re going to get into a serious argument with Pa, and do it anyway?”
He belly laughed. “You’re digging deep for answers, Allen.” He paused. “Yes. I know when an argument with my son will lead to a heated disagreement, but I can’t back down just because we disagree. He’s even been right, a couple times. You won’t learn much unless you are wrong every now and then.”
Well, I guess that means I can learn plenty, since I’m wrong so much. I thought to myself as I reached over for another stalk, and there weren’t any left.
“OK, let’s go get the carriage ready for tomorrow. Leave the stools, I’ll be back here after dinner, and someone’s sure to join me when your pa and Edward finish plowing, and it won’t be you. You will need to harness your swine tonight and drive them around to let them get used to the carriage, it’s going to feel different to them than the small carts they are used to.” Granpa said as he turned on his stool. As I nodded and stood, he stood as well, using one hand against the wall as balance as he used the other to collect a crutch. When one crutch was properly set under his right arm, he picked up the other. He didn’t really need both, but he was faster on two crutches than just one.
“The most important things to keep an eye on are the axles and bearings, of course. I did get nylon bearings for the carriage, instead of wood, so you can just use wax to lubricate them. Canning wax will work fine, and I’ve put a block of clean wax in the carriage, as well as some neatsfoot oil for harness, some spare harness parts, and a repair kit. If all you have is used wax, be sure to heat it and strain it through cloth first.”
I nodded. What he said made sense. Looking down I saw the stack of corn stalks. We were walking to the equipment barn anyhow, I might as well carry down some corn stalk for animal fodder. “I already used some of the corn stalk for the sows that I took to town earlier. I need to replace what I used.”
“Take it down for the cows instead. We’re using the corn stalk instead of hay for them as well.” Granpa reminded me.
“OK.” That meant I needed to carry more. One cow ate as much as the four sows I’d fed earlier, and we had four cows. I decided to carry as much of the corn stalk as I could, the cows and horses would eat it fast enough.
I leaned over and stood about a hundred corn stalks against my chest. Splitting the big bundle into two roughly equal sized standing bundles, I wrapped one arm around each bundle as I bent my knees. Then I rotated the two bundles onto my shoulders as I stood, carefully using my legs to lift and not my back. The first time I stood, the bundles were balanced to far forward, so I had to set them down, grab them a little closer to the ground, and stand up again to get the balance right. I ended up with a large bundle of corn stalks over each shoulder as I walked, carefully keeping my back straight and watching my footing. As I walked, following Granpa so I could see where he was at all times, he started explaining maintenance of the carriage’s steering mechanisms. I was very happy to hear that he did have a maintenance schedule written up for me. A lot of the carriage was similar to the farm carts and wagons, but there were differences.
Dinner that night was subdued. Even Abe and Molly were quiet and reserved, and that bothered me more than the fact that everyone else was being so careful. I explained that I would be taking the carriage and my sounder with me. Pa and Granpa already knew, of course. Both Edward and Zeke were clearly relieved to hear that, but were obviously embarrassed that they felt that way. They didn’t need to feel embarrassed, and I made certain to tell them that I understood, and I’d probably feel the same way. I was taking eleven swine and myself off the farm, and they would be fools not to be relieved that the farm wouldn’t have to feed us all after this harvest.
Ma was quiet and distracted throughout dinner. After dinner, I went to my room and packed my backpack with a couple changes of clothes. As I was getting everything ready, I was visited by everyone, one at a time, for quiet words and well-wishing.
When everyone else was done, Ma stepped into the room and quietly asked. “Come out and sit on the porch with me, Allen, please?”
Of course, I said “Yes, Ma.” And followed her out to the front porch.
We both sat on the top step of the porch, looking out into the last remnants of sunlight.
“I feel a bit silly telling you that I love you, because I know you know it.” She muttered, her voice a little cracked and hoarse.
I cleared my throat a little so I could talk. “I do know it, Ma. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you either, but I love you too.”
She reached her hand around my shoulder and hugged me for a second. Then she put both of her hands back in her lap, leaned her head on my shoulder, and talked in a small voice. “I’m so afraid for you. I’m so afraid for us.”
I tried to keep my voice calm but failed, my voice came out pretty broken. “I’d be lying if I tried to tell you I wasn’t scared, Ma.”
For the next fifteen minutes, we leaned against each other, saying nothing. Eventually, Ma slowly stood, rubbed my back and said. “You need to get some sleep, if you can.”
Sleep took its time claiming me.
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