I stretch my arm as high as it will go, but I still can’t reach. I give up on the apple and turn back to the house. I hear leaves rustling a few feet away. I wheel around and raise my rifle. I see nothing. After a moment, I bend down for my bucket and start back down the hill. A bush to my right whines at me. I raise my gun again as I turn to investigate. I let it hang at my side when I see a puppy staring up at me. It looks like a pit bull, maybe 6 weeks old. It has a beautiful blue-brindle coat and a watcheye. Slowly, I pull out my pocket knife and pluck an apple out of my bucket. I cut a few slices and set them on the ground between us. I see the leaves tremble behind the puppy and out comes a sibling. This one has brown eyes and is white with a large patch of the same blue-brindle color on its back. The three of us stare intensely for a moment before I decide to take my bucket and leave. I’ll put food out for them later. I glance over my shoulder when I reach the house to see the puppies munching on the slices.
The sun nearly blinds me as I flicker my eyes open. There is a weight on my chest, which I soon identify as Mack’s fat head. He has wedged himself between me and the back of the couch. There is also a warmth under my left arm. I glance down to see that Allis has tucked her head under my arm with her chin resting on the edge of the couch cushion. Their tails thump hard against the floor and couch when they see that I’m awake. Felix must have heard the sound because he peeks in from the kitchen a second later.
“Oh, thank goodness,” he walks over and sets a plate on the coffee table. “You passed out last night. I would’ve put you in your bed, but the dogs wouldn’t settle unless they could be near you and Allis couldn’t get up the stairs so --”
“Thank you.” I cut him off. He gives me an anxious smile.
“I found your generator and hot plate, so I made breakfast. I hope scrambled eggs will do.” I start to sit up. Allis stands and limps out of the way. Mack unwedges himself and follows his sister. Once upright, I cradle my throbbing head.
“Ugh, shit,” I grumble. “Did I hit my head?”
“Yeah. I caught you before you hit the floor, but your head bounced off the countertop,” he explains. “Do you have any pain killers?”
“Yeah, in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. They’re not very strong.”
“Better than nothing,” he replies. He stands and goes to the bathroom, returning a moment later with a large pill bottle. He examines it for a moment.
“The dosage says you should take two, but this is old.”
“I’ll start with three and we’ll see how that goes,” I mutter.
He dumps out three pills and sets them on the table. “I’ll go get you a glass of water for those.”
I start eating my breakfast. Felix returns with the water and a second plate of scrambled eggs. I take the pills and chug the water. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was. “Thank you,” I repeat. Felix nods and takes a seat in the recliner next to the couch to eat his breakfast. Before long, the pills have taken the edge off my headache and I can start thinking through today’s agenda.
“I think I should take care of Jim,” I say.
“What do you mean?” Felix asks, not hiding his concern.
“I mean I’m going to rip that picture of James Franco off the chair and burn it with the rest of the trash.”
“Oh,” he looks relieved. “So you remember what happened then?”
“Right up to the fainting part,” I reply. “I’m sorry.”
“Telling my dogs to attack you in the store, pointing a gun at you, pointing an angry dog at you, the whole Jim thing, and for passing out and making you take care of me when we just met.”
“No need to apologize. I don’t blame you for being suspicious and honestly, the Jim thing is understandable. A little creepy, but understandable.” He smiles reassuringly.
I sigh. “Well, thanks for breakfast. I’d better get chores done.”
“Anything I can help with?” He asks.
“I got it. After yesterday I can’t ask anything more of you.”
“At least let me wash these dishes.” It’s not a request. He picks up our plates and forks and walks to the kitchen sink without another word. Slowly, I stand and stretch. I go upstairs for a pair of jeans. When I enter my bedroom, I turn and face my poster. I reach up and tug the thumbtacks from each corner and let it slide to the floor. I dump the tacks on top of the dresser and get changed.
Downstairs, Felix is finishing with the dishes. “You wanna come meet Belle?” I ask.
“Belle. My cow.”
He shakes his hands over the sink and follows me to the back room. I’ll have to find a new dish towel later. I hand him a pair of rubber boots and sit down to put on my own. I grab the milk bucket and my rifle on our way out the door. Mack and Allis follow us out.
Belle swishes her tail and lets out a good morning moo when we walk in. “Morning, girl,” I greet her.
“She isn’t as big as I thought she’d be,” Felix notes.
“I know you’re from the city, but I figured you would’ve seen plenty of cows on your way upstate,” I say, puzzled.
“Some, yeah. Never up close, though.”
I shrug and skid the bucket under Belle. Before I can start though, Felix asks, “Could I try?”
I laugh. “Sure.” We switch places and I can see that he has no idea what he is doing. “Let me show you.” I place his hands in position and guide him through the gentle tugging motion. In a moment, he seems to have the hang of it. “Great. Will you be okay in here for a few minutes? I’ve gotta go pick more apples.”
“I think I can manage,” he smirks.
I turn and grab an empty bucket from beside the door. Mack trots over to accompany me up the hill. Allis gets up to follow, but I’d rather she didn’t walk all the way up there on her paw. “Allis, stay.” I can tell she is relieved she doesn’t have to make the trek, but she still tries to feign offense. “You can protect Felix from the big scary cow,” I jibe. Felix doesn’t have time for a snarky comeback before I’m out the door.
Mack frolics in the long grass ahead of me. I might have to mow this jungle soon. In an effort to save gas, I try not to mow until the grass is hip-height. It reaches the middle of my thigh now. “Psshht,” I get Mack’s attention. At the top of the hill, I can see something moving. I pat my hip and Mack is at my side in an instant. I strain my eyes. It’s a dark shape, too small to be a bear, but big enough to worry me. I crouch and move forward slowly. When we’re within earshot, I recognize the huffing of a wild boar. It’s only a few yards off now, too distracted to notice it’s being watched.
Mmmm, bacon. Mack knows this routine. He poises himself to attack and I rest a hand on his shoulder. We’re at a weird angle and I can’t get a good shot lined up from here. I take a breath and lift my hand. This is Mack’s signal to rush the boar. He pelts forward and leaps over the confused creature. He lands, whips himself around in a tight left turn, and buries his muzzle in whatever part of the boar he can get ahold of. His task is to hold the boar as steady as possible so that I can get a clear shot. Normally, he’d have Allis to help him. He does his best to keep the pig relatively still by stuffing its snout into the dirt and forcibly contorting it so that in order to move, the boar would have to scrape its face along the ground rather painfully. I come around the right side and take aim just as the pig weighs its options and decides to give the painful face scraping a try. Mack rides the boar like a surfboard as it bulldozes its way toward the trees. I aim as carefully as the situation allows and fire. I get lucky. Really lucky. The pig skids to a halt and Mack runs back to me, tail wagging frantically. I crouch down to check him over and find no injuries. “That was quick thinking, pup,” I praise him. He sits back and puts his front paws over my leg and I bring him in for a quick hug. I love bacon but I hate boar hunting. It’s so risky for the dogs.
I give the boar the once-over. It’s a young male. He looks healthy and should make for good eats once I get him sliced up. I put Mack on sentry duty and go back for my apple bucket.
“Ayva!” I hear Felix shouting from the bottom of the hill. “Ayva, is everything okay?”
I wave and shout back, “Yeah, just shot a boar! We’re gonna have bacon!” Even from here I can see his eyes brighten at that. I pick up my bucket and start back up the hill to the apple trees. A few minutes later, Felix catches up to me.
“Where’s Mack?” He pants.
“Guarding the boar. Where’s Allis?”
“I put her back in the house. The milk is in the garage. I didn’t know what to do with it,” he explains.
We arrive at the hilltop and set about picking apples. We don’t speak while we work. In the next 45 minutes, we fill the bucket. It’s nice to have someone help me out. “You take the apples to the house and I’ll go grab that pig,” I say. “Just set them in the kitchen for now.” We split ways. I find Mack where I left him. He stands and wags his tail in greeting. I grab the boar by its hind legs and drag it down the hill. Felix is waiting outside the garage with the milk bucket on the ground beside him when we finally reach the front of the house. My head is starting to throb again.
“I need you to bring that inside while I get this guy strung up out back,” I say. “I’ll be in to show you what to do in a minute.” Felix nods and picks up the bucket. I grab the boar again and bring it out to the shed behind the house. I use the shed for butchering. I cast a rope over a ceiling beam and tie one end around the boar’s hind hooves. I feed the other end through exposed wall studs and use them for leverage as I hoist the boar high enough to get a pail under it. With the rope tied off, the boar is now suspended about two feet off the ground. I place a pail beneath its head, select a large knife from the shelf on my left, and neatly slice open its jugular. Not-so-neatly, blood gushes forth and splashes into the pail. I slice open the boar’s gut and let everything slump out, cutting it free and letting it fall as it does. That done, I take a shovel from the wall and scrape the innards up. I carry them outside and fling them into the woods. I replace the shovel and lock the shed behind me when I leave.
Felix is waiting patiently when Mack and I enter the kitchen. Allis is sitting on the floor next to him soaking up his attention. He looks up. “Does this mean she likes me?”
“I guess so,” I chuckle. “Let me go wash up and we can get this stuff put away.” I gesture to the buckets in front of me. In the bathroom I thoroughly wash away all traces of the boar. Then I return to the kitchen and grab a couple of empty milk jugs. Felix walks over to see what I’m doing. I dip the empty containers into the bucket and let them fill. “Grab the apples?” I take the milk jugs while Felix picks up the apple bucket and opens the basement door. He follows me downstairs where I show him the coolers. I point to one in particular and he dumps the apples into it. I arrange the gallons in another cooler.
“This is pretty innovative,” he remarks. We head back upstairs and I grab the egg basket from the kitchen counter. “What’s left to do?” He asks.
“I need to collect eggs and let Belle out. Then I have to make bread,” I tell him.
“How are we going to make bread?”
“You’ll see,” I reply.
Outside the chicken coop there is a small, fenced in area where the birds can walk around. My rooster is sunning himself when we approach. Felix laughs.
“What?” I ask. He points to the rooster who is crouched in the sun with his head tilted back, showing off his impressive red-orange neck feathers.
“Paint me like one of your French girls,” he says, doing his best to mimic the rooster’s position. I give him a friendly shove.
“Dork.” I open the coop and start putting eggs in the basket. Felix starts picking through the nests on the other side and adds to the basket as he goes. We find five eggs in total. The pain in my head is back in full. I massage my temple as we leave.
“Are you alright?” asks Felix.
“My head is killing me.”
“Why don’t you take these inside and get some more painkillers? I’ll take Belle to the field,” he volunteers.
“Okay,” I agree. “There is a rope hanging on the wall to the right of the garage door. You’ll need to loop that over her head and lead her out through the overhead door. There is a handle at the bottom. Twist it to unlock the door and be sure you go back and re-lock it when you bring the rope in.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hands me the egg basket and turns for the garage. Inside, I bring the eggs down to the coolers and get out some bread dough while I’m down there. When I come up, Allis hobbles over and leans into my legs while I scratch behind her ears. I go to the kitchen window and watch Felix returning from the field with Belle’s lead rope slung over his shoulder. I take three more pills, grab the dough, and head outside to meet him.
“Ready to bake?” I ask when he appears around the corner of the house.
“Bring it on,” he replies. We walk to the back of the house where, near the butchering shed, there is a makeshift outdoor oven.
“What is that?” Asks Felix. The oven is a brown pod structure. If you didn’t know it was an oven, you’d probably assume it was some strange art installation.
“It’s called a cob oven. It’s a cinder block foundation and a layer of clay and sawdust insulated with empty glass bottles on top and a clay and sawdust dome on top of that.”
“Did you make this?”
“Yeah. The electricity doesn’t work, so there is no other way to bake. The clay is from the creek in the woods and everything else I had lying around somewhere”
“Wow.” Felix circles the oven. “Let’s get started then!”
We build a fire beneath the oven and before long it’s plenty hot. I plop the dough onto my pizza peel, which is just a piece of sheet metal with an old broom handle screwed to it, and feed it into the oven to bake.
“And now we wait,” I announce.
“How did you make the dough?” Felix asks.
“It’s sourdough, so it doesn’t need yeast, which is convenient but I have to plan weeks in advance to make it, which is not convenient. Basically, it’s all flour, water, and salt.”
“Why do you have to plan so far ahead?”
“First, you make the starter, which is just flour and water mixed in small amounts over a week or two until it’s ready. Then, you mix starter with more flour and water and add salt,” I explain. “That’s all there is to it.”
“Huh,” Felix looks impressed. “Reasons I couldn’t settle in anywhere and survive on my own. Can’t build ovens and even if I could, I wouldn’t know the first thing about baking.”
Mack comes around the corner and whines. “It’s past lunchtime,” I realize. “Let’s go eat. This’ll be fine for a few minutes while we go make lunch.” The three of us go inside. We decide on grilled cheese. I set up the generator and hot plate and grab butter and cheese from the fridge. Felix brings over the last of the sourdough loaf I already have.
“You make all of this yourself?” He can’t seem to get over how self-sufficient I am.
“Yes.” I laugh. “I use a turkey baster to skim the cream from Belle’s milk and blend it until I get butter. The cheese is just milk, salt, and lemon juice. I’ll show you how to do it when we need to make more.”
“That explains the lemon plant over there,” Felix nods toward the small tree by the window.
“Mmhm. My grandmother loved to garden. She kept that lemon tree so that we could make lemonade in the summer.”
We scarf down our sandwiches and go back to the oven where the bread has risen nicely. I take up the peel again and remove the fresh loaf. Felix holds the door for me so I can bring it inside. I dump it on a cutting board on the kitchen table. It is now 2:30 in the afternoon and finally, we can relax.
“I don’t know how you’ve been doing all this on your own. I feel like I could sleep for a year,” says Felix.
“Meh, you get used to it. How about a glass of lemonade and a nap?” I suggest.
“Sounds delightful,” Felix smiles.
I fill an empty milk jug about halfway with water and pluck four lemons from the tree. “There is sugar in that cupboard.” I point to my right. “Could you grab it for me?” Felix pulls the sugar down and sets it next to the juicer. I hand him a knife and push two lemons toward him. We slice the lemons in halves and juice them one-by-one into a cup, which I then pour into the milk jug. I hand Felix a funnel and he adds a cup of sugar, screws the lid onto the container, and shakes the jug for about 30 seconds. A moment later, I set two cups on the table and Felix pours each of us a cool glass of lemonade.
“To lemons.” Felix raises his cup and looks at me expectantly. I laugh.
“To lemons.” We clink our cups together and drink.