Thirty Eight: Can It Get Any Worse?
Going to bed with the chickens is for the birds, I thought the next morning. My watch said it was five o' clock and the day was still dark as a root cellar, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to fall asleep again, not after I started trying to imagine exactly what a root cellar was, and what it would look like. Probably Grandmother would know.
Not caring if I smelled or not, I skipped a morning shower and just brushed my teeth in the dark. I pulled on the same sweats I'd worn the day before, and with my flashlight, which was starting to dim as the battery wore down, went downstairs to sit on the hearth by the banked back fire.
When this house had been built, it was before electricity. I tried to imagine how the original ancestors who constructed it had lived. They would have cooked over wood or coal ... but the kitchen didn't seem all that large for the occupants of a house this big to be fed over a wood stove. Did they eat in shifts? Unlikely, as the formal dining room was huge, and the two tables in it had leaves to expand to make an enormous continuous table. Aha, I had it -- what was now the staff lounge with its woodstove would have been the actual cooking area, that's why there was a chimney there.
They have a place to go that's truly warm, but we don't. Is that because a fireplace is lovely-classy-picturesque and a woodstove is just an efficient heater?
People who had lived in this house had used oil lamps for lighting, I supposed. Grandmother had one -- she could actually read a book after dark, if she wanted to. The rest of us had to squabble for room on the hearth if we wanted to read or write. Sure, we had magical flashlights, but after so many days, we couldn't use them for silly extravagances like reading. They had to be carefully conserved just to get around the house without falling down stairs or walking into walls.
The light through the windows was just starting to gray up when I heard heavy footsteps in the hall. Redell was stomping into his office. Morosely, I went to see what his urgency was.
He was in pajama pants and a knit jacket, looking at a list on his desk with a small flashlight, muttering under his breath.
He whipped around as though I had pinched him. "Good morning, Owen, you're up early."
"So are you. Good morning, and what's up?"
He sighed. "That damned generator died some time last night. We've got no refrigeration, and no cooking capability. We're going to have to get the fire road open as soon as possible so we can get into town."
"What about Bodie's camp stoves?" I asked, forgetting to use the honorific.
"Less than one bottle of propane left. Enough to heat water for tea for a few people, but that's it."
"Have someone ride into town and pick up some more propane bottles, then, the horses won't mind that like they would gasoline cans. Propane bottles don't stink."
He threw his head back and laughed. "I didn't even think of that! You're absolutely right! Let me get Bonita to make a list of canned goods that could be packed, too. Maida says he has a couple of packs that could be used." He turned to leave the office, but came back to me again. "Do you know, Maida has been sewing up canvas packs tailored to the saddles while it's been raining? No one asked him to do it, he just did it, because he thought we'd need them. He should have a nice bonus this year, Sir."
"I agree. Do you want me to go tell him about a trip to town?"
"No, I'll do that once Bonita tells me what we need most. We'll have to have a second rider to stay with the horses while one does the shopping, though. Think about whether one of your family wants to do that. No great effort, except it's going to be an all-day trek." He sped away, heading for the kitchen, and the staff stairs to pester Bonita for a shopping list.
The warmth of the big hearth drew me back, to find Denise stirring the coals, shoveling gray ash into a bucket, and adding split pieces of wood to get the fire roaring again. She had brought a little wagon full of wood into the room, and after feeding and tending the fire, she began loading the wood into the decorative circular log-holder beside the fireplace.
"Want some help?" I asked.
"No, sir, thank you, but I know just how each piece has to fit."
"Where are we keeping dried wood?" None of the wood was dripping or soaked.
"We bring a few wagonloads into the laundry area at night so it's ready for morning, sir."
"That's smart. I wouldn't have thought about that."
"Thank you, Mr. Owen."
"I think I have never even read about another staff as efficient and clever as this one."
She paused from shifting logs from wagon to log-holder, and looked slyly back over her shoulder. "Other than that horrible cook-man."
I raised my hands and began to sing, "Now thank we all our God ..."
Denise laughed, and rolled her wagon away.
The full light of the windows was revealing that the rain had begun again, not hard, but drizzling tiny drops in a soaking mist. The front door slammed, and I saw Redell striding down the lane to the stables, still in pajama pants, but under an umbrella.
If I ruled the Estate, I decided, I'd look into an outside kitchen, the kind we saw on field trips to the California Missions and historical sites, which were only loosely connected to the main buildings if at all, and had big wood-burning grills and ovens, so that the living space wouldn't be overheated in the hot months. But it wouldn't have to be wood burning, if it was outside and away from the house, in keeping with Grandfather Reich's paranoia. Away from the house, it could have propane tanks at the ready, and the family need not suffer if the power went out like this again. Maybe it should be capable of both -- and that would work well in the summer when we could use a charcoal fired grill for barbecues, a sweet pleasure we rarely got unless we went to the county fair or specialty restaurants. Barbecued chicken! Fire grilled hamburgers! Flame roasted corn on the cob!
My stomach growled aggressively, making me grab my stomach. Without the stove, the breakfast would once again be cereal, some flakey and nerdly crunchy unidentifiable substance that tasted only of sugar, doused with milk that would also take on sugar as a flavoring. Before the fire, I allowed myself to think about bacon, and eggs scrambled with potatoes, and summer mornings when we had fresh tomatoes to eat with bread spread with mayonnaise.
I knew that if I decided to write in my journal today, it would end up looking like a cook book or several seasons of programming on the cable channel devoted to food.
Except for Grandmother, the family had gathered in the study by the time it was fully light. I'd filled them in about the generator, and the plan to take horses in to town for supplies. Redell joined us. He had changed from his pajamas into blue jeans and a heavy sweatshirt.
"Here's the plan we've come up with. We're going to start clearing the fire road as soon as everyone is geared up. We have got to be able to take a vehicle into town as soon as possible, but that road will take at least a whole day to clear, if not longer. Morton is going to take the mare, and Putter, and the ponies to get some propane for the camp stoves. He's going to need someone light to ride with him."
"That would be me!" Kelsa jumped up. "I'm the lightest person in the whole house!"
My mother frowned. "Surely someone on the staff can go with Morton."
Redell looked unhappy. "Aside from the grooms, none of the staff know anything about horses."
"Can't we both go?" Michel pouted.
"Two of the horses will have to carry full packs, so Morton said just one other rider."
"Kelsa, that is going to be a ride that will take all day. All. Day. Redell, what about the warmbloods?" Aunt Sully asked.
"Maida and Gary are taking them up to the road to drag cut wood out of the way, along with as many of the staff as can be spared from the house."
"That makes sense."
"Can I go with Morton? You haven't said yes or no."
Mother looked to Aunt Sully for help; Aunt Sully shrugged. "Once you're on the way, there won't be any turning back if your rear gets sore or you're cold or tired," she warned. "And there'll be no leeway for complaints or tears."
"I understand -- can I?"
At Mother's nod, she squeaked happily and ran upstairs to get boots and a coat.
"When are we starting the clearing operation?" I asked.
"Within the hour, Sir."
"Good." I stood up and started for the stairs.
"Owen, what are you up to?"
"My dear mother, it is a fact that the sooner we have that road cleared, the sooner we can take a truck or a jeep in to town, and purchase a new generator so that the kitchen is functional again. I am ruled by my stomach in this matter, and my stomach says haste is of the essence, lest it be ruined forever by Oat Crispies. Therefore, I will help clear debris."
"Sheesh," Marca said. "You could have just said, 'I'm going to help.' Mom, I'll go help, too. Sitting around in here is making me crazy."
"Me, too, since that greedy sister of mine stole the chance to ride."
Aunt Andersol, watching Oesha staring at her hands, and not volunteering suggested, "Oesha, that leaves you to keep an eye on me and your mom and Claire."
Oesha smiled at her in gratitude. "I can do that."
On our way up to the fire road, we were passed by Morton and Kelsa, who waved gaily at us from the saddle on her white pony. Ahead of us were three men with chainsaws, and two more with long poles with some kind of hook on the end. Looking behind us, I saw other staff members trailing up the hill, and just coming into sight, Maida and Gary leading the warmbloods, who were wearing dragging harnesses.
It was still drizzling a little; the birds in the area must have decided to sleep in, as tired of the rain as we were. The only sounds we could hear were our footsteps on the grass and the muddy road.
The way the people were converging on a particular place with one goal in mind, speaking little, walking determinedly, reminded me of going to church. All the people would be getting out of their cars and walking towards the front doors, some earlier than others so as to get their preferred seats, others straggling in a bit late, but all intended arriving at the focal point of their attention. Church. What day was it? I couldn't remember. Ah, the primitive life! Eat, sleep, keep warm, and take each day as it comes! We, the primitive, slowly made our way to our forest cathedral, to pray with our work for better fortune and hope for our future!
Such was the folly of my inexperienced mind. The hardest work I had ever done in my life was my fencing lessons, so I had no idea that my comparison of our task to going to church was within a matter of an hour, going to change so radically that I would begin to see our toil as a vision of Hell.