“Memaw! Memaw! What happened? Who was wearing the boots?!”
Kiri looked over at Joy and then at her husband, still deep in his thoughts. “No need to shout child. I’m sitting right here.”
Joy, still impatient, knew her Memaw meant business so she tried to ask more quiet and ladylike, “But who was it Memaw? Was it Peepaw?”
A deep sigh preceeded Kiri’s answer. “No child. It was Uncle Ram and Ken.”
“Ken? Pastor Ken?! The really old man that sometimes gives the eulogies at the Old Timers’ funerals?”
Rand snorted in suppressed laughter, Kiri was less amused. “Joy … would you like me to set you to peeling potatoes from now until Juvember?”
Joy thought, “Memaw knows I hate peeling dirty ol’ taters.” But all she said was, “Uh, no ma’am.”
“Then think before you speak. Lord willing you’ll get to enjoy aging too and then we’ll see how much you like some pretty young thing calling you an old timer.”
Rand, not quite as deep in thought as Kiri believed muttered, “Seems to me the pot is calling the kettle black.”
This time it was Joy who had to hide a laugh as her Memaw gave her Peepaw the evil eye. Everybody knew that Memaw could go off like a Tallahassee bottle rocket with no warning. It was fun watching Peepaw and Uncle Ram tease her about it. ‘Course they were the only ones brave enough to set her off on purpose. However, still impatient for the rest of the story she asked, “Where was Peepaw?”
“Your Aunt Missy’s first husband Bill and some other men held him back.”
“Why? Didn’t he want to see you?”
Kiri glanced at Rand again who had gone pale. “Hush Joy; what a thing to say. Of course he wanted to rush in and see me, but you’re old enough to realize not every story ends like a fairy tale. Sometimes bad things happen. Those men were trying to protect your Peepaw. They didn’t know if it was me or what kind of shape I’d be in if it was.”
In truth the men had feared the worst when they’d first laid eyes on the still and silent figure huddled around the crying babies and they worried for Rand’s sanity nearly as much they had feared for Kiri’s safety. There was a lot of temporary relief when Ken had found she was still breathing. Ken and Ram did their best to examine Kiri and clean her up before Rand rushed in and got his first look at her, but it still shocked him so bad his knees gave out. Rand tried to gather her into his arms as he started calling her name but Ken pulled him back.
“Easy now. Rand, we need to get her into the wagon and be careful doing it and then get her back to your place as soon as we can. There isn’t much I can do for her out in the middle of nowhere like this. And we need to find some goat milk for those babies.”
“Why isn’t she moving? What’s wrong with her? Those guardsmen said she seemed OK, just tired. What …?”
“She’s wore thin son. We don’t know what the circumstances around the birth was, if she was alone or had help. She looks like she’s been on short rations. We don’t even know how long she’s been on the road but one of the babies still has its umbilical cord barely hanging on so the birth itself couldn’t have been that long ago.”
Rand gulped and whispered as he took in the noisy duo, “So it was twins just like you worried.”
Ken nodded. “Fraternal; boy and a girl. Girl is the one making the most noise. They’re small but seem healthy given the circumstances. It is Kiri we need to focus on, she’s more fragile than the babies are. Her blood pressure is too high for my comfort and her lungs are congested. I want to break out those supplies the ladies packed, get Kiri and the babies settled in the wagon, and travel as far as we can tonight.”
Of course Kiri didn’t find any of this out for nearly two weeks. She’d been unconscious most of that time and it took her several days to convince the men that she wasn’t as frail as she appeared at the time. It was also then that she learned that the guardsmen who had given her a lift through Williston had been instrumental in her rescue. As soon as they had learned that kidnapping and human trafficking was involved they had used that as leverage to get permission to begin grid by grid search efforts with another team despite what was going on in Williston.
The guardsmen had met up with Ram’s men and were on their second day of looking when Rand arrived with the others and it was the morning after that that someone had heard crying and the rest as they say was history.
Joy asked, “But Memaw, you got better right?”
“Good Heavens child, do you think I’d be sitting here if I hadn’t?” Kiri regretted her words when she saw Rand wince out of the corner of her eye. She changed gears and said brightly, “All’s well that ends well and this corn is finally finished. Now go on out and get a couple of the boys to come cart it all to the summer kitchen. It isn’t going to can itself and your mother promised to give me a hand and get it started after I got it shucked.”
Joy, knowing that she’d learned all she was going to be allowed to for a while said, “Yes ma’am” before doing as her Memaw had told her.
After the girl left Kiri got up and walked over to the door to make sure Joy didn’t get side tracked; then she shook her corn silk covered apron off outside before returning and closing the door behind her. Rand looked up at the sound and then let out a surprised laugh after reading the look on his wife’s face.
“Joy’s comment get to you ol’ woman?”
“Who are you calling ol’ woman you old man?” Kiri sassed as she eased onto Rand’s lap, careful of the leg he had broken ten years ago falling from the hay loft. It still occasionally gave him trouble.
Rand smiled and pulled her more firmly against him, not letting her be as careful as she was wont to treat him when he got like this. “Sure puts a crimp in things will all the kids back home and under foot,” Rand said as he wrapped his still lean and muscular arms around his wife. She wasn’t as petite and willowy as she had been when they first married but long days in the garden had kept her trim despite all of the children she’d given him.
“Humph. Didn’t seem to crimp you any last night,” Kiri twinkled wickedly.
Rand grinned back just as wickedly, thankful once again that love and time had taken care of much of her shyness. “Why thank you kindly Mrs. Joyner,” he said tipping an imaginary hat.
“You’re welcome Mr. Joyner.” Kiri smiled, she being thankful that his drift into melancholy seemed to be over. “You doing OK?”
“Mmmm hmmm, good food and a good woman makes for a good day.” At Kiri’s raised eyebrow Rand said a little more seriously, “It was finding your old desk and journal. Caught me off guard. Memories kinda swamped me there for a while.”
“That’s years gone Rand. We survived it and have lived a lot of life since then,” Kiri said as she cupped his grizzled cheek with her work roughened hand.
He sighed and set the rocker moving gently, “I know it Babe. And don’t think I’m not forever grateful for every one of those days.”
“Humph, well there are a few I could have done without. Remember when all of ‘em came down with diphtheria? Or when Beau and Caleb went with Ram and caught polio down in Miami and had to be quarantined outside of town? When Francine …?”
“I said every one of them and I meant every one of them … both good and bad. I’ll take a bad day with you over a good day without you every time.”
They had just tilted their heads for a kiss when two of Austin’s sons banged open the door and barreled through. “Memaw, Joy said you wanted us to … eeewwwww! Daaaddddd, they’re doing it again!”
Austin stuck his head around the door and then started laughing as he caught sight of a very red-faced Kiri who was trying to get out of Rand’s lap. Problem was that Rand wasn’t cooperating and was making it worse by laughing too. Austin prayed silently that he and his bride would still be playing and catching a smooch when they reach his parents’ age.
“Honestly, you’d think I raised a bunch of heathens the way y’all act sometimes,” Kiri grumped after she finally managed to extricate herself and get her clothes and hair straightened enough to pass in polite company. “And stop encouraging them Rand. You even worse than they are.” And of course that only set both Rand and Austin to laughing even more.
After catching his breath but still chuckling Austin said, “Momma, Missy and Belle are coming down the road and they told me to warn you that Beau radioed that he’d be at the train depot by dinner time and would appreciate it if someone could leave a wagon or truck for him and his brood and maybe a snack for everyone since they were only allowed to board with one picnic hamper.”
Kiri went into a tizzy. “Oh Lord Rand, where are we going to put ‘em all? I mean I’m glad that Missy finally agreed to come for a visit but I didn’t expect for her to bring all eight of her grandchildren. How many does that make now?”
Austin snorted then asked, “Need a calculator Momma?”
Austin was a grown man with children of his own but he still stopped when his mother gave him “that” look. Kiri pulled out her note pad, “Let’s see. You and Camille and your six. Beau and Rachel and their four … Austin can you make sure that Beau doesn’t try to talk her into sleeping in the wagon? The last thing we need is for her to go into labor and have that baby under a palmetto like she did the last one. My stars and garters, I nearly swallowed my teeth when I found out about it.”
Austin was thinking the same thing and praying thankfully that the few times he’d gotten an itchy foot to go exploring Camille had been content to stay home with the children. Rachel on the other hand was at least as adventuresome as Beau and they’d dragged their brood all across the country into all kinds of craziness.
Unaware of Austin’s thoughts Kiri continued, “Belle and Freddie and their four will split their time between us and Laurabeth and Ron. I think Freddie is finally going to accept his father deeding him over that land to work. I sure hope he does, it’ll be so nice to have Belle closer to home and if Freddie gets that position at the hospital … Anywho, next comes Caleb and Cynthia and their two. Then Daniel and Yolanda … and if I’m not mistaken their last letter hinted at some special news from them, maybe the adoption finally went through. And Everett and Penny; I expect they’ll want the baby to sleep in their room so Rand we need to bring the cradle down from storage. Add in Francine and Charlie and their two rapscallions … if I catch them swinging in my plum trees again I know who can help shovel the manure into the methane holding tank. Georgie and Caroline will have their three stay in their bedroom because they’re too young to sleep with the older kids. Henry and Joyce will come over during the day but I expect they’ll have to get back to the farm at night so Henry can help that old grump of a father in law he has …”
“Kiri …,” Rand warned pointing his head towards the children.
“Don’t you Kiri me, Rand Joyner. The children know exactly how cantankerous that old coot is. He takes all the fun out of every childrens program the Ladies’ Auxiliary has put on for the last year with his starched up judgementalism. Last one he nearly had poor Joy in tears simply because she got Lamentations and Leviticus mixed up.”
“Man’s had a hard life Momma,” Austin said trying to keep his mother from going off on one of her tangents.
“Man makes his life hard Austin. How such a sweet thing like Joyce could turn out the way she did with a father like she has I’ll never know; honestly, she reminds me of Alicia when we were all younger. And he doesn’t show the least bit of appreciation for the fact that Henry has turned that farm around. He just sits back and enjoys the fruit of Henry’s labor like he is entitled to it. That man is a real Laban through and through.”
“What does that mean Memaw?” Joy asked.
“Oh,” Kiri said, realizing that little pitchers do have big ears. “Well, read your Bible Joy and you’ll find out. And until you do you just keep family talk to yourself. You hear?”
“Aw Memaw,” Joy lamented. “You boys do the same. Family talk is family talk. I’d like to know I can trust you and speak my mind around you without having to treat you like a bunch of toddlers.”
The boys nearly stood at attention in pride that they were getting acknowledged to be old enough to hear and be trusted with family talk.
Kiri returned to her counting almost without missing a beat. “Then Isabell and Archie and their three. That just leaves Janet and Johnnie and Ram said that he’ll go kidnap them from that college if he has to but they’ll come back for Pioneer Day this year and that is all there is to it. I doubt he’ll have to kidnap them though. Janet called to see if we minded if she invited that boy she is so partial to and … Oh Lord, I’ve lost count again.”
Austin laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it Momma. The boys and I put up the canvas tents and if we run out of room the kids can roost in the trees with the chickens.”
At the suddenly intent look on the two younger boys’ faces Kiri just shook her head and looked at Rand and Austin silently telling them to check for wood rot in the old tree house because that is where several of them would wind up if she didn’t miss her guess.
Finally winding down she shooed everyone out of the house and set to putting everything back to rights. She couldn’t remember the mess being quite this bad even when her ducklings were all young and rowdy. Of course they weren’t stair steps like some women had. It took three years after Beau and Belle were born before she caught pregnant again and she’d lost that one; and the one right after that one too. Rand had sectioned off a piece of the farm for a cemetery in an area that never flooded but which wasn’t good for farming and buried both little bodies and commissioned concrete markers never realizing how quickly the plot would grow.
Uncle George had died of a sudden heart attack not two days after they’d buried the second little lost one, and then a few months later Janet had some kind of seizure right after she’d gotten engaged to that boy from Branford and died in her sleep. And not three months after that Bill had accidentally been killed by some boys that had been arguing over a girl at one of the old market days; he’d died before he’d even realize he’d been shot. Missy had been pregnant again and lost her husband and her baby on the same day; buried them in the same plot next to the other graves still so new the grass hadn’t covered them yet. Those had been hard times.
She and Rand had just come to accept and be content with the fact that they’d only have the twins when she started banging them out like she’d never had problems, surprising everyone herself included. Every child was another miracle, especially Janet and Johnnie who came when she had supposedly been in menopause for two years. Hadn’t Rand laughed over that particular practical joke God had played on them; twins on both ends.
Then diphtheria had ripped through the community and Brendan and Alicia had laid one of their babies to rest with the others. Ram and his bride had three little ones in the cemetery and had given up hope having any children together. Then Ram had gotten that contract with that new Shands hospital and one of the doctors there discovered she had a cyst and once it had been removed they were eventually able to have two, a little boy and a little girl.
Missy never really recovered from Bill’s death but she did eventually remarry to a kind man who helped to raise Bill’s children as if they were his own. After Bill’s death Ram and Brendan went into partnership and took over the Trade Shack since Missy couldn’t stand the place because of all of its memories. Missy’s second husband, Robert, had been a business contact of Ram’s who ran an aquaculture farm in Ocala. When they married Missy moved her family to his place and seemed to finally come to terms with things and find peace and contentment. Because of this Rand and Kiri always had a special place in her hearts for Robert.
Their feelings for Ron Harbinger were just as strong though it had taken years to really get to where they were these days. Ron and Rand were like brothers and had reached a point where they could look back on the past and if not laugh about the way things used to be, at least acknowledge that God had a purpose not always easily understood by mere mortals. Beau and Bell had been almost a year old when Ron finally got the courage to acknowledge that he’d fallen in love with LauraBeth. When he’d spoken to Uncle George the man had laughed and said, “About flaming time! I knew you was hard headed boy, but you’s just about as blind as a bat too.”
Ron never seemed to cease to be amazed that LauraBeth returned his feelings. You could still catch him, all these years later, with an arrested expression on his face as he looked at her when he didn’t think anyone was looking. They named one of their daughters Julia and not a few people were surprised by it. LauraBeth had told Kiri once, “Good grief, you’d think people would have more important things to worry about than what Ron and I decide to call our children … and what business it is of theirs I don’t know.” Kiri thought she understood, it was their way of commemorating the young woman whose sacrifice gave them both the chance to live on for Freddie’s sake when it would have been easier to simply have given up.
After Uncle George’s death Ron and LauraBeth moved back to the old Harbinger farm off of River Road. All the family came together and helped to repair and rebuild the place. LauraBeth signed her portion of Uncle George’s farm over to Brendan and Alicia in exchange for enough cattle, feed, and seed to get Ron’s farm back up and running. The old Winston place was farmed by both families but was always understood to be in trust for Freddie when he was ready.
Charlene eventually married and had a family of her own but it was only after she’d gone on a few adventures of her own … surreptitiously guided and watched over by Ram’s young “brother in law.” Charlene and her husband now operate one of the trading hubs outside of Tampa though they travel frequently back to see everyone now that their children are grown.
Mick could have had part of the farm but instead chose to join the military. He did two tours and saw quite a bit of action during the Sino-American war but after being injured in a plane crash and then losing the hearing in one ear from a grenade exploding near his position he returned home to marry a local girl. They still run the postal office though it is their sons rather than Mick that do most of the local courier work and express deliveries.
Momma O and Mrs. Withrow both outlived Uncle George by several years, but even those illustrious ladies eventually had to meet their Maker. Momma O was more than ready, having suffered a long time from the arthritis that crippled her so that she couldn’t even go out and about. Mrs. Withrow passed away in church. Everyone thought the old dear had taken a brief nap as had become her habit but when she didn’t get up to signal that it was time for the ladies to tend to the afternoon meal the Pastor stopped, and then after checking on her called for a moment of silence as everyone shed a few tears.
Kiri thought, “The years have passed so fast. Half my grandchildren think it isn’t much more than a bed time story when I tell them how I walked and then rode a bike all the way from Tampa to Sparkleberry Ranch. They look at the stories of the time right after the pandemic the same way kids of my generation looked at the stories of the wild west and the wagon trains and have as little understanding of what really went on to survive.”
She swept up the last errant corn silk and then twitched the curtains straight before looking around for something else that needed doing. When nothing presented itself quickly enough she glanced at her old journal and decided to read the last page before putting the dog eared old thing away in her cedar chest so that Rand wouldn’t worry at it any more.
I don’t remember the wagon ride home at all. Don’t remember the next week or so to be honest. The first thing I do remember is Rand’s voice in my ear telling me that I couldn’t die because I hadn’t even told him what I’d named the babies. For some reason I was able to grab that thought and hold on and eventually I was able to say “Beans.” It was another few hours of oblivion before I had the energy to wake up enough to say, “Beau and Belle … our little B&B Beans.”
For some reason everyone that heard that over the next couple of days found it hysterically funny. Mostly I guess it was just relief that I’d drawn back from dying. I saw so many tears from people that I never expected to see them from that I’m embarrassed to even write it down, it seems such a private thing. Rand and Ram have been the worst; both are nearly smothering me with their love and over protectiveness.
I finally managed to get Ram to lighten up a bit but Rand is another story. I’m really worried about him; he’s not acting like himself at all. ‘Course I don’t feel much like my old self either. Maybe there are things that happen in life that just change you; this certainly seems like it could be one of them for both of us. For Austin too, he’s lost that little boy look that he’d just gotten back after I was finally able to feed him up. He and Woofer have become like little guards. There was a fly in the twins’ room yesterday and Austin was totally outraged. He and Woofer made more of a mess trying to catch the fly than the fly ever would have done on its own but I didn’t have the heart to get on to them. I guess it is just going to take a while for all of us to get used to feeling safe again.
Ram finally convinced the Navy that he was on the up and up and was able to find out that the other pregnant women had arrived back in port ahead of the storm and that all were doing well and had been reunited with their family. They had thought that both the sailor and I had been lost at sea.
He also found out who “she” was for me … the “she” that the sailor had told me to tell he was sorry. “She” was Delores Carruthers Douglas, sister of Petty Officer Third Class Caleb Carruthers. He was sorry because he wouldn’t be able to make it to her wedding and walk the bride down the aisle. Ram made sure she got her brother’s dog tags and in return brought me back a letter telling me how grateful she was that I taken care of her brother’s last request and let her know what a hero he was.
I cried a bit and told Rand that I was the one that was grateful. Rand said that we could make Caleb Beau’s middle name if I wanted to but it doesn’t seem right somehow. Maybe we’ll name the next little boy we have Caleb but I won’t mention that to Rand yet. Rand is so careful of me we might not have any more kids at this rate. I tried to tell him that it doesn’t seem so bad in hindsight but he just shudders. I guess we’ll just have to see who will have their way this time. It isn’t like I’m looking to get pregnant again too soon really and there are so many things that need doing. I just don’t want to give up on the idea the way he seems to.
The hurricane, I don’t think it has been named yet since the Meteorological Society is kind of defunct, bounced up the west coast making landfall several times before swinging east and sweeping across Florida and ripping itself apart as it traveled into Georgia and basically followed the Appalachian trail northward until it was just a tropical depression up passed the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ram said roadways have been destroyed making it imperative (his word, not mine) that new trade routes be found.
Ram has been trying to get Rand to focus on the future instead of mired in the present that seems to worry him so. This coming January and February we are going to plant a new orchard. We’ll start with Hood pears, persimmons, and figs and if those do well we’ll branch out into other varieties. Ram says he can create a market down south for our deciduous fruit with an even exchange for citrus and other exotics and that what we don’t want we could then trade up north for things that are harder for us to grow like some grains or we could get some more seed potatoes or the like.
I’m running out of energy again and I have to get some sleep. I plan on resting up the next few days and then I’m going to Market Day on Saturday. I am not letting Rand talk me out of it again. I want to get out. I want to show our babies off. I’ve got a list as long as my arm of things I want to trade for including some seeds for this coming garden season and maybe some starts for a new flower bed. I also realized I don’t have near enough diapers and clothes for the babies; about half of what I need to be honest which makes sense because I doubled the number I expected to have.
I still am not sure why Ken and Rand didn’t tell me they expected me to have twins. Their reasons sound OK but on the other hand a little warning would have been nice. I tried to gloss over how scared I had gotten when the pains had come on me the second time but Rand still got so gray I thought he was going to fall over into his oatmeal after I let it slip while answering some of Ken’s questions. I finally just told them from here on out if they have a suspicion that something is going on inside my body I’d appreciate an honest warning.
That’s not the only thing that hasn’t made sense to me. I’m still wondering why God let things happen the way they did and why that sailor had to die so that I and the babies might live. I’m trying to find the sense in the senseless. What was all of this for? Is this the worst we will ever experience? Was this some kind of experience that is supposed to teach me what is really important? Or to prepare me for even harder times ahead?
I’m trying to put my thoughts in order and one of things that seems the most ironic is that Rand and I celebrated one year of marriage yesterday. I remembered right off but I hadn’t known how to ask if he remembered. I guess we both danced around about it for a while and then I had one of those silly crying fits that seem to still come at me out of the blue. Rand wanted to go get Ken but I managed to stop him and then blurted out about our anniversary and how I was upset that I couldn’t even seem to find the strength to make his breakfast like I used to and then fell apart even more as I asked him if it bothered him that I’d gone completely useless on him.
That took him aback and I guess he is starting to see that sitting around doing nothing is helping me a whole lot less than he thought it was. I can’t just sit and do nothing because my thoughts climb into the hamster wheel in my head and wind up going in circles so fast I have a meltdown.
He seems to be accepting that he’s got a problem too but I’m not sure if he realizes how bad it is yet. I have some healing yet to do and I guess he does too. The last few weeks has seen us both taking turns thinking the worst but instead of it being the beginning of the end as we had feared, it has turned out to be the only the end of the beginning for us all.
And there go the Beans again, singing for their supper. I’m glad because I was getting kind of sore. This motherhood thing is turning out to be both easier and harder than I ever expected it to be.
Kiri laughed in spite of herself realizing that she’d gotten so busy she’d never finished the journal. Shaking her head she said, “You didn’t even have a clue yet that you’d said a mouth full. Good Heavens, it is hard to believe I was ever that young.”
“What?” Rand asked, coming up behind her.
She turned and stepped into his embrace that could still both excite and bring her comfort after all these years. “You married a very silly young thing. She was so clueless.”
“We both were. I think it is supposed to be that way. If we had known what life would hand us over the years …”
Kiri shook her head. “I don’t mean that. Not precisely anyway. The innocence I can understand, even appreciate in hindsight.” She stopped and just shook her head again.
“What?” Rand asked again. Even after all of these years sometimes the only thing that worked was simple patience until she could string her thoughts together enough to share them.
“We could have missed this.”
“This. All of it. I remember who I used to be Rand. I had a chip on my shoulder the size of the old Mt. Rushmore carving. You remember what it used to look like, how big it used to be. Same for the chip on my shoulder. I don’t even know where I would have ended up … how I would have ended up … if you hadn’t come into my life.”
Rand gently kissed her forehead, “I feel the same way. Always have, always will. God smiled on me the day I came to in that wheelbarrow. Even upside down I could tell you were something else,” he said with a tickle.
“Oh you,” she smiled. “Lordy, look at us, we’ll be embarrassing the kids again if we aren’t careful.” She decided to put some safe distance between them and then said, “I made blackberry jam cake and forgot to bring it out at lunch. You hungry?”
Kiri just shook her head at his double meaning. “Rand Joyner … honestly,” she laughed.
“What?” Rand asked a little too innocently not to know exactly what she was laughing at. Then he caught her to him again and said, “We survived.”
“Yes we did.”
“Gonna keep on surviving for as long as we’ve got.”
“Yes we are.”
He squeezed her tightly and said, “Together.”
“Is there any other way?” she asked squeezing back just as firmly.
And they did … through the good times and the bad … together … for a good many more years after that …