It had come time to prove that I could be self-sufficient and self-supporting like those emancipation papers had said. I remember the work sheets I had to fill out; they made me feel so stupid and helpless. But now I can at least say that I have the big three – shelter, food, and water. The house is mine free and clear … well, technically it is in trust for me until I turn 18 but since that is less than a year and a half away I don’t figure that is a problem. That’s the shelter. The food is upstairs. The water is from the hand pump.
Next came the tricky part. You had to fill out these papers and be able to tell the judge what you would do if your first plans didn’t work out. The land that this house sits on is mine free and clear too. It is held in trust just like the house and the road. If something happens to the house – like a fire or hurricane – I figure I can live in the woods like Jungle Jane until I can build a shelter. I’m not great at building things but I can follow directions and I can learn.
If something happens to the pump and I can’t figure out how to fix it – like an inside part wears out or the well runs dry – there is the gully and the sink hole that both have water in them most of the year. There are rivers, lakes, and ponds all over the place around here, I’d just have to figure out how to get the water and bring it back and how to make it drinkable. Just in case that happens I put down on my list to fill all the containers I can find with water and keep them filled. And I remembered that Momma’s rain barrels were out in the barn. I added attaching the barrels to the down spouts on the gutters to my list. People used to ask why Daddy built such a sharp pitched roof. The barrels are one reason. One of the things that Momma wanted down the road was a cistern but they never got to it. A cistern sounds cool but I’m not sure how to build one. It might be in one of Daddy’s books, I’ll have to look.
Food was iffier than the first two. First off, that Mountain House stuff is going to be a problem. I’m one person, how am I going to eat a whole can of one type of food in a week? The Provident Pantry stuff is much better but I can tell you that neither type is going to last as long as they say it is supposed to. The soup is supposed to be one cup per serving and that the can holds 48 servings. I’m a girl and I eat more than a cup of soup at a time, a boy would eat more than me. And when I've been outside and walking around I really get hungry. That means I can’t count on that food lasting as long amount-wise as the cans say it should. And I seem to be hungry all the time now; I guess it is because I was on such short rations at the warehouse and didn’t have much food after I left. Then all that biking to get here. Some days I feel like a cow and could graze all day long. I know some of that is because I get the munchies during my monthlies but that only makes the situation worse. I added taking inventory to my list. I don’t know what I’m going to do about bread either. One, I don’t know how to make it and two, to make it you need flour and other junk that I don’t think I have here. There are a couple of cans called pilot crackers in all of the stuff upstairs but I don't know if those are any good or not.
Momma and Daddy planted an orchard as soon as they bought the land a little over seven years ago; we celebrated my ninth birthday with our first camping trip here. The fruit trees were just starting to put off fruit the last time we were here as a family. I'm guessing they still do ‘cause they did when we’d come during the summer for the Week of Torture. Aunt Wilma always had some "problem" kids with her when we'd come up here; they used to tear up stuff on the property. They’d pull leaves and limbs off the trees climbing in them or just because they were feeling destructive. One year a kid got the wire cutters and clipped the barbed wire fence in a bunch of different places all around the property and that made the neighbors angry ‘cause then they had to catch their cows that got all mixed up together running loose on our forty. They put holes in the walls inside that Uncle Charlie had to patch. The patches don’t look bad, it was just the principle of the matter and when I would get into fights with the kids who were tearing things up Aunt Wilma would punish me for being selfish and “make an example of me” because she said I had so much and those other kids had so little. She may have meant well but she just never understood how it made me feel. The lawyer got onto Aunt Wilma and Uncle Charlie one time and told them that if it happened again the repair costs would be deducted from the fee they got for taking care of me. It didn’t happen after that because there were new rules; Uncle Charlie started keeping the “out of bounds” places locked up.
In addition to the orchard Momma planted a couple of berry hedges – like red and black raspberries. I can’t remember what the other ones were. There are lots of blackberry bushes on our forty too … they are worse than saw briers and they grow everywhere no matter how you try to rein them in. There are a bunch of pecan trees on the side of the forty that used to belong to an old farmstead. I know I’ll get blueberries as long as some animal doesn’t get to them first; the bushes in the orchard are full. I’m sure there are lots of things out there if I just look. I’d also like to try and grow a garden but I don’t have any seeds. You need seeds to grow a garden so I put “look for seeds” on my list.
I don’t know what I’ll do for meat, but maybe I’ll just have to go vegetarian. I like meat so doing that will make me sad but you do what you have to do; beggars can’t be choosers. I might be able to learn to fish but I nearly barfed during biology class when we were dissecting fetal pigs. The idea of gutting and cleaning fish is just too gross. There are squirrels, a bunch of them. I supposed if I absolutely had to I could try and rig up some kind of trap but I’m afraid that I’ll wind up like Wile E. Coyote when he was trying to catch the Roadrunner.
I smelled cows on CR49 but they probably belong to someone. I sure don’t know how to take care of a cow … or a horse … or chickens … or goats … or any of the other animals except maybe a cat or a dog. I’d like an animal but only if I can figure out how to keep it from starving to death. I think it is going to be more important to learn how to keep me from starving to death before I take on an animal; just like babies I bet they are more trouble to take care of than you think.
Those were the basics that were the most important except for the next one. I’m a girl. I’m a girl alone. Daddy’s gun safe is in the dormer room but I still haven’t found the keys to it. Daddy hid it different places so I’ll keep looking but I still remember what is in there … a .22 rifle, a shotgun that used to be my grandfather’s, an old German hand gun from WW2 that is kind of beat up that some guy gave him as collateral for a loan that was never paid back, and then a gun that Daddy called a Mark III. The Mark III is the only gun I have ever fired except for my brother’s BB gun. I never did hit any of those stupid cans. Daddy just laughed and said it took practice and that he would teach me some day. Some day never came. I’m sure the books are in Daddy’s filing cabinet up there; he never threw anything like that away. But even if I find the books it won’t do me any good unless I find the keys to the gun cabinet. And even if I find the books, find the keys and get the guns out I don’t know if they are going to be in good shape or not; they’ve been in that cabinet for four years and I think guns get rusty and junk on the inside and have to be cleaned in a special way or they can blow up in your face; or maybe that's only in cartoons, I just don't know. So, for now at least and maybe for a long while, the guns are out. I'll just have to try and stay out of trouble until I can figure out some way to protect myself.
I was beginning to run out of things to worry about until I pulled out one of Daddy’s books called Back to Basics. That book gave me lots more things to worry about. My little fuel containers aren’t going to last forever so how am I going to heat up the water I need to fix the food I have? My clothes and shoes aren’t going to last forever so what am I going to do about that? What happens if my “mode of transportation” breaks? I don’t have any spare bicycle parts though I think Daddy’s tools should still be in the shed. I realized I didn’t have much in the way of toilet paper, Kleenex and stuff like that so I decided to use rags for cleaning up messes and be careful about how much I used when I went to the bathroom. For Kleenex I could use a bandana like my grandparents did, but how am I going to clean stuff when it gets dirty? What about soap and shampoo and stuff like that? I’ve already gone without for long stretches so I know it won’t kill me but I like being clean. What about light? I think there is some stuff still hidden around the house, no I know there is, I just have to remember where it is and how to get to it. But what if I can’t find it or it isn’t there? What happens when my batteries run out? What about time? No watch, no clock … how am I going to figure out what time it is? Do I even need to know what time it is or does it no longer matter?
And worse, what happens if I get sick or have an accident? Who will help me? That’s almost too scary to think about so I’ve got it at the bottom of my list ‘cause there isn’t anything I can do about it right now anyway.
The sun was going down by the time I finished fixing another cup of soup, cleaning up, and other stuff. Like the debate coach used to say when things were getting too hot, “Let’s table this discussion for another time.” I went to bed when the light went away to save my batteries. Of course the batteries died the next day while I was carrying a couple of more cans down from the dormer room but there isn’t anything I can do about it so I “tabled the discussion.” I’m doing that with a bunch of stuff ‘cause if I think about it too hard I get a stomach ache and have to go to the bathroom.
The next day I decided to take a look around the outside of the house. I was nervous at first, walking around out in the open. But then I felt like a doofus. What was I supposed to do, turn vampire and only come out at night?!
The outside of the house looked in good shape except there is this ginormous wasp nest inside one of the upstairs security shutters. I’m not allergic to bees or wasps but I don’t have anything to kill them with. I pulled out my handy dandy list and added wasp spray to my growing “grocery list.”
The grass around the house isn’t too bad and when I’m ready to cut it I can use the swing blade I found in the shed. I haven’t decided when I’m going to cut it yet because I haven’t decided how “lived in” I want the house to look. If it starts looking lived in and someone stumbles across it then maybe something bad could happen. But, if I don’t take care of things bugs and mice and stuff could get into the house and that would definitely be bad. Daddy made the house as tight as possible but this is Florida and bugs are gonna happen, it is just the facts of life. I just don’t want them to happen any more than necessary.
This next part had me pretty upset for a while but I guess it is just another one of those things I can’t do anything about. For some reason the master key I have doesn’t work on the roll-downs on the bay doors on the barn. I think those locks got changed and I think I know by who. I was getting worried but the master key still worked on the side door so I got in that way. But when I got in I had a shock. Daddy’s tractor and all the attachments are gone. So is the riding lawn mower. I bet Uncle Charlie sold it to pay off some bad debts he and Aunt Wilma had when they remodeled their house. I’d heard them fighting with the lawyer telling them they had to do it to make room for me to live there but the lawyer wouldn’t give them any money because what they did was build them a new master bedroom suite, a new master bathroom, and changed the cabinets and counter tops out in the kitchen.
Uncle Charlie would come up and check on Sparkleberry Ranch sometimes by himself. I bet on one of those times he sold the Kabota and lawn mower. I was just so mad I could have spit. I didn’t know how to drive the tractor and I didn’t even have any fuel for it even if I could have but … like I said, I was mad. It didn’t look like anything else was missing but I’m still not sure. I don’t know what happened to Momma’s jewelry or Daddy’s knife collection but that stuff could be in all the taped up boxes up in the bonus rooms (that was one of the “off limits” areas).
I was so mad I went stomping around looking to see if anything else was missing. Then I went stomping around outside, picked up a stick and started swishing it around. That’s probably the only reason I saw it … him … what used to be him. I know it had to be him because he had the Cargill work shirt on with his name patch stitched to the pocket. Charlie. He’d been dead a long time, long enough that the animals had got to him and not all of him was there and what was there wasn’t too gross. Or maybe I should say he was less gross than the couple I stumbled across on the bike trip. He was over by the old rotten wood pile. There was a broken liquor bottle not too far from the body. I never knew Uncle Charlie to drink but maybe he did and he hid a bottle in the woodpile so Aunt Wilma wouldn’t know.
I’ll probably never know for sure but I’m guessing he must have come up here after all us kids got shipped to the school. How long after I have no idea but he had enough gas to get from Tampa to Live Oak apparently which meant maybe right before or right after the bomb scare. He got here but never made it in the house. I don’t know if he forgot or lost the keys or didn’t have a pole for the roll-downs. At some point he got to wanting what he hid in the wood pile. And … and this is the big jump here … he reached into the old wood pile and in addition to the bottle of liquor he pulled out a snake that bit him. We’ve got rattlers around here and they don’t like being disturbed. For all his pretending he was a big outdoorsman Uncle Charlie was really a city boy. And if he had already been drinking (the truck stuck in the ditch) it wouldn’t have taken much for a poor choice to turn into a last choice.
I dug a hole right beside him as deep as the tree roots would let me and then I used the shovel to roll what his soul had left behind into the hole. I felt bad but I’m not having much luck really grieving for him or Aunt Wilma. I don’t think feeling bad is the same thing as grieving really. Maybe I will later but I’ve seen so much of death that I’m to the point I just turn it over to God. I don’t get to say where people go anyway, they choose that when they’re still alive. It sounds awful now that I’ve written it out but I’d be a hypocrite to lie in my own journal. I’ll find a piece of limestone someplace and mark the spot. That’s about all I can do.
From the woodpile I went to the orchard which is hidden from view too unless you know it is there. Daddy cut the orchard out of a section of loamy soil near the house but left a nearly impenetrable wind break on all four sides. The only way into the orchard is the tractor gate and the walk-in gate. Daddy put gates there to keep animals out; Momma just laughed at him for wasting the energy trying. Most of the trees in the orchard are semi-dwarf. I know I used to know what that meant but … I hate it when I come across a “gap.” Dr. Kramer is the only one that told me not to worry at them. He said it isn’t uncommon for coma patients to have memory gaps; sometimes the gaps go away and sometimes they don’t. By now I figure all the ones that were going to fill back in would have and anything left over I’m going to have to fill in with something new. I spent the best part of yesterday out in the orchard cutting grass and raking it up into tiny hillocks and then hauling the grass off to the hayfield where I hope no one will notice it.
It took me a while to figure out Momma’s drawing of the main orchard. I finally matched up a tree with an old tree tag that was still legible and as soon as I got that the rest fell into place. There are peaches, apples, plums, nectarines, pears, figs, persimmons, paw paws, mayhaws, two blueberry hedges, a couple of pomegranate bushes (I think, they seem kind of small for them to have been planted seven years ago), and crabapples. There is another place on the other side of the house where she and Daddy planted some Chinese chestnut trees, some jujube trees (this look strange but they taste good), and a stand of half a dozen olive trees that they bought from this place in Ocala (that day I do remember ‘cause Daddy thought the trees were awful expensive). There are three different grape arbors but I saw a whip snake slithering around one of the arbors so I haven’t been back. The whip snake has a black head and a long skinny brown body that makes it easy to identify if you’ve ever seen one … but where there are whip snakes you might find coral snakes or pygmy rattlers. Ew, ew, ew. I’ll give those arbors a pass until I find some knee books and heavy gloves.
There is a stand of trees I can’t find. Momma said she planted Satsuma oranges, loquats, and kumquats but I don’t know where. She wrote in her notes they are all together in the same place because they were more cold sensitive and Ben (that’s my dad) … then there is a smudge … and I can’t tell what she wrote. The yucca trees, or bushes, or things, or whatever they are, are going crazy everywhere Momma planted them. The roots on the yucca are edible. They really aren’t bad but the plants are killers; they don’t call them Spanish Bayonets for nothing. The prickly pears have gotten out of hand in a couple of places too. You just think about walking by and they jump out and attack you.
Some of the other stuff on Momma’s list are blackberries, huckleberries, goji berry (must have been one of Momma’s weird experiments), josta berries, lingon berries, yellow raspberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, wineberries, teaberries (aka wintergreen), bamboo (who knew you could eat bamboo?!), almonds, chinquapin (I have no idea what this is), black walnuts, English walnuts, bush cherries, sour cherries, and elderberries. Where all this stuff is I don’t know and I don’t even know when it is supposed to ripen. I have a feeling I’m going to have to just wait until the berries show up and then guess or match the leaves and stuff up to pictures in Momma’s books. I can tell you though just as soon as I find where they are I’m going to mark it on the map of the acreage that I’m making. Momma’s notes are driving me crazy. She knew lots and lots of stuff about trees and canning and stuff like that but it was all in her head. I like need a Rosetta stone to figure out her directions.
I walked all over Sparkleberry Ranch that day. Probably walked all over it a couple of times since I had to keep criss crossing to try and orient myself to Momma’s drawings. While I was out I saw a few animals and saw “signs” of more. Stepped in a few “signs” too which was nasty. There was a turtle, squirrels, lot of birds, a turkey, quail, and a couple of rabbits. In the sand I saw tracks for lizards, dogs (or coyotes), and snakes. I saw a cat but it wouldn’t come out of the bushes and it was too hot for me to make it run around while I chased it. I heard a woodpecker, a couple of cows from far off, and I think I heard a horse but the cows were mooing at the same time so it was hard for me to tell.
So this is my Promised Land. Hope I can be more like Joshua and less like those other guys that were ‘fraidy cats.
What I haven’t heard is people, music, cars, or anything that sounds like a machine. All the trees kind of dampen sound but I’ve been standing right by the fence looking at the houses and barns that are on three of the four 80 acre sections that surround Sparkleberry Ranch and nothing; no human sounds at all. Tomorrow I think I can convince myself that I need to get closer to at least one of those houses to see what is going on. What do I have to lose? Don’t answer that.