A young girl nudged Rand, waking him from an accidental doze.
“Peepaw, you promised after you finished your glass of tea you would tell us the rest of the story of your first true love.”
“Oh I did did I?” he playfully teased as he hugged his sweet little granddaughter. He looked over at his daughter in law and saw that she was about to “rescue him” from the rest of the story telling but he shook his head. Everyone in the family knew that he’d been sensitive about what had happened for years, still was if he was honest with himself. After they’d stolen his bride away and her big and pregnant he’d gone through a bad time that took a long while to get over. He’d turn hard against anyone that he thought was a threat and he wasn’t near as generous or forgiving when he thought someone was trying to take advantage of him and his.
Uncle George, Ram, Ken, Bill, Mitch … and their families … they all stood by him during the worst of it and eventually, slowly he healed and could once again interact with people without immediately assuming the worst. But here he was, an old man … probably older than he had any right to expect he'd get to be considering the world he’d lived through … and still he’d wake up in the night in a cold sweat searching for his lost bride in the dark of the house.
Austin, despite being just a boy and a young one at that, was a lifesaver during those early weeks and months. He remembered being so tore up there were days he’d have a hard time getting all the farm work done and would have let it go and hang the consequences if he hadn’t needed to be a provider. Even his health was affected and in the fall of that year he got a bad case of pneumonia that almost took him off. But he survived and despite everything Sparkleberry Ranch had grown and prospered.
Austin never did leave home except for a brief spell when he’d worked with Ram. He’d gotten a chance to see a bit of the world but in the end chose to come back and eventually marry a local girl. During that time the rule of land was that if you could fence it in and maintain it then it was yours whether you had a piece of legal paper to prove it or not. When Austin married they’d finally finished fencing in one of the eighty acre plots next to Sparkleberry Ranch’s original forty and they built a little house so that Austin and his wife could have some privacy. These days it was Austin’s sons that did a lot of the heavier work around the home place leaving him to rest on his laurels a bit. Seems people age faster than they use to and when he looked in the mirror in the mornings he didn’t see a man in the prime of his life, not yet sixty, but a grizzled and white haired old geezer that he nearly didn’t recognize.
Last week a rare inland hurricane had taken most of the roof off of Austin’s house and now this house was filled to the rafters with kids and household goods like it hadn’t been in years. As much as he loved having everyone around every so often the children sometimes rattled his nerves. Yesterday had been one such day and he’d sought peace and quiet up in the hidden room, a space that rarely saw use except in times like these. Mostly it had become a repository of everything that no one used but didn’t want to throw out just in case it might one day come in handy again.
He’d been cleaning out and organizing some piles of such debris when he saw her old portable desk. The rain that day had ruined it. He’d tried at various times to repair it but the water damage had mangled the joints, swelled the lid so badly the hinges didn’t work, and thrown the whole box out of square. He’d finally given up on it and he still remembered when Austin carried it upstairs because his inability to repair it and make it like new upset him.
He’d picked it up and when he’d tried to open it the whole thing fell apart in his hands. It shook him up pretty good and as he was picking up the pieces he noticed her journal. When she’d first gone missing he carried it everywhere with him and then after a while he’d practically enshrined the thing like a religious artifact. He flipped through the pages and even found some leaves and flowers that she'd pressed and used as bookmarks. He remembered he’d even written in it once but never had again feeling it was somehow sacrilegious. But there it was again, and in pretty good shape too considering its age and lack of special care to preserve it.
He didn’t have a clue what made him do it but he sat down and read it, once again reliving that first year and remembering all the bad things but finally found he had survived long enough to accept the comfort of the good of those times as well.
This morning the little girls had been pestering him for a story and nothing seemed to suit his mood except for him to tell them about how things used to be. Oh he’d glossed over some of the horrors, they were just little girls and he didn’t want to give them nightmares, but now he’d come to the worst part of the story and he’d been struggling to find a way to finish it. He wanted them to know the truth so they could really appreciate what life had been like but …
“I swear Rand Joiner, nearly forty years and I still can’t get you to leave your muddy boots out on the porch. Look at my kitchen floor. Now I’m going to have to mop it before I can start cleaning this corn so I can get it canned up. And get that innocent look off your face Austin, your boots are just as bad as his.”
Austin grinned, “Yes Momma.” Turning to Rand he said, “I’m going to go check the triticale, see if that back corner of the plot is salvageable or not.”
Rand grumped, “You going to leave me to be the only one tortured for dragging in mud?”
Austin laughed outright at that, “You love and you know it. Momma, if the kids get to fretting you, send ‘em out to the field and I’ll work off some of their energy for you.”
Austin kissed the gray-haired woman on the cheek and left the house. She turned and noticed the book in Rand’s hands. “My word, where on earth did you find that old thing? I haven’t seen it in years. I thought it must have gotten put in the compost pile.”
The little girl was now getting very impatient with the adults. She’d been promised a story and a story was what she wanted. “Memaw, Peepaw was telling us the story of his first true love.”
The old woman cocked an eyebrow at the old man, “Oh he was was he?”
“Yes ma’am. It was so exciting; full of adventure and love and bad guys and good guys and all sorts of stuff. They don’t tell us these kinds of story in school, they make everything sooooo boring. But now he won’t finish, he just wants to take a nap.” The little girl was a little spoiled, she was the youngest of the Austin’s children and they’d gotten lax with her.
“And with that attitude you may never hear the rest of the story. You want me to send you out to the field like your father said?”
The little girl knew when her Memaw used that tone of voice you’d better rethink how you were behaving. “No ma’am. I’m sorry but … but he was just getting to the good part, the part I never get to hear about because everyone thinks I’m too little.”
“Oh,” the old woman said in understanding. She looked over at her husband of so many years and saw he’d been reliving those awful weeks all over again. She turned to the little girl and said, “That was a bad time for everyone Joy. It was when your father was still a little boy. And it was the summer right before Peepaw got so sick we didn’t know whether we’d lose him.”
“But I know that part of it, Mr. Lester has assigned the highschool class to do a recitation of the community history for the county fair tomorrow. I just want to hear about the rest of it … how you escaped and survived and eventually came back to Peepaw and lived happily ever after. I’m a big girl now, it won’t give me bad dreams like Paulie says, I know it won’t.”
Kiri looked at Rand and then reached over and ran her calloused fingers through his thinning hair. “I tell you what Joy, you help me skin this corn out of their husks and help me get all of the silk off and I’ll tell you the rest of the story. We’ll let Peepaw sit and rock a spell and just listen. That sound good?”
And the little girl jumped up and grabbed a large woven basket made from palmetto fronds and put it on the floor at her feet and picked up the first cob and began to husk it with a will. “Yes ma’am. I’ll help do all of it just please, please, please tell the story.”
Kiri just laughed and shook her head and pulled up a chair to do her share of the corn while Rand rocked and listened with half an ear while he remembered what was written on the last few pages of the journal.
July 31st – Rand is finally asleep. He watches me like a hawk and it makes me nervous how intense he is. I move just a little bit and he jumps a mile. Ken was by this morning; the off and on bleeding has finally stopped all together and the fever hasn’t come back for over a week now. He agreed with me that it wasn’t going to hurt for me to get out of this bed and get a little exercise and I thought Rand was going to come unglued.
I finally managed to get him to go check on Pretty Boy for me to see if he was healed up from where that stranger cat had come around looking for an easy dinner. The cat lost in a very permanent way once Woofer got to it but it was costly battle for my bantum. It seems like a lot of varmints have made it their business to know Fraidy isn't around anymore. I still miss her even though I know she was just a cat. I need to domesticate one of her kittens but they are all so feral I haven’t got the strength or patience to tame one of them yet.
While Rand was out of the room I asked Ken about how Rand was acting. “If I had to diagnose him I’d say he was suffering from PTSD. That’s …”
I brushed his explanation off and I told him, “I know what it is, that’s what they thought I had after the accident. But why would he have it and not me? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Kiri, Rand was in … he was in very bad shape while you were gone. A couple of us were really beginning to wonder if we wouldn’t lose him too. I expected him to just fade away or ride off on that horse of his to wander forever looking for you like some ghost of who he used to be. If it hadn’t been for Austin I expect that is exactly what he would have done.”
“I know. You aren’t the first person that has told me that. And I can see with my own eyes the truth of it. But what I want to know is what I can do to help him.”
“There isn’t much you can do except to try and give him some time and understanding. This will either resolve itself or it won’t; either way it is going to take time.”
I’ve tried to get Rand to talk about it some to try and bleed off some of the bad feelings but what do I know? I can remember resisting everyone’s attempts to get me to talk after the accident that killed my family; I shouldn’t be surprised that Rand is doing the same thing. But I am. Rand is supposed to be the level-headed one, the steady one. Now it feels like we are reversing roles and I’m just about too hurt and tired to manage it right now.
I got up to change my gown this morning when I stumbled across my journal. My desk is a lost cause even though Rand swears he’ll fix it for me. That’s a fairy tale if ever there was one but he seems so insistent that I don’t have the heart to try and argue him out of it as a waste of time.
I read what he wrote after that day and it worries me as much as the way he is acting now. I have a feeling that we have a long hard row to hoe in front of us. Mrs. Withrow, who came by a couple of days ago, says this whole area does. Between the storm damage and the civil unrest that reminded everyone of the worst days after the last pandemic wave there is just so much work to be done and nowhere near the resources to get it done like there used to be. The abandoned properties have long ago been picked over and picked apart for scrap building supplies, firewood, or burnt down to deal with rodent infestation. The remnants of the government and military are almost solely focused on trying to keep other countries from pilfering what resources we have left. Ram was saying the other day that we can’t count on recycling forever, that we have got to rebuild some type of manufacturing base or we are going to really fall back into the Dark Ages and that it might last longer than the first one did.
I guess I’m still weaker than I want to admit because to even start thinking about all of that stuff makes me physically ill. And when Rand notices it, especially after someone has come for a visit and I’ve gotten a little bit of a view of what is going on beyond my own front porch, he starts swearing up and down that there isn’t going to be another visitor come through our door until they learn to watch their mouths.
I’m still finding it so hard to understand how I could go through what I went through and come out better off than Rand has who only experienced it from the outside. Wait, that isn’t fair. He just experienced a different part of the situation, a different facet. This is so confusing. Maybe if I write out what happened I’ll be able to understand things better, more objectively.