fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Nineteen. {fiction}

I awoke slowly to the dim light, though it was already mid-morning. The room wasn’t particularly cold, despite the lack of a fire.

It made sense since the rooms were set deep into the butte. The sandstone interior maintained a fairly consistent temperature a couple of feet from the outside air.

I would bring my food stores and other belongings here. Whoever made this place hadn’t been here in a very long time and likely wasn’t coming back. Not only was I going to survive this winter, I was going to do it in this lovely, comfortable home.

I spent the morning hauling my supplies to the cave, setting my clothes on the wooden shelves next to the bed, the meager food onto the kitchen shelves. I considered the risk of someone spotting the door as I had, but thought it would be unlikely that anyone would be traveling here in the middle of winter. I would worry more about security matters come spring.

I would live like a queen. At least a queen from before intercontinental trading and grocery stores.

No more water to haul. A table with matching chairs and cushions at which to eat. I didn’t have to worry about mice or rats or other unwanted scavengers in the well-sealed cave. It wasn’t until I decided to try out the bathtub that I found out what royalty I really was.

I had assumed that only cold water came out of the faucets, and out of habit I used only the right-hand knobs on the sinks. But when I went to use the tub, anticipating a rather chilly bath, I held a bottle of shampoo in my right hand, so I reached for the left knob to release the flow of water. A few moments later, I saw steam rising from the clear, flowing liquid.

I blinked twice, then put two fingers under the steaming stream. It was hot! Like the hot springs.

I couldn’t believe my own stupidity, and luck. Of course there were hot springs in this area. They were too far upstream or downstream from the cabin for me to make use of in the winter, so I hadn’t given them a lot of thought. Whoever built this place must have piped the water into the cave. I said a silent prayer of thanks to the builder again, this time for the genius of providing hot running water indoors.

I filled the tub full and sank into it like a stone, up to my chin in the precious brew. I soaked until the water started to cool, then scrubbed the filth of the last few months away. For the first time since I arrived at the burnt-down village, I knew beyond a doubt that I had done the right thing by coming here, following Mama’s song.

That night, I ate something from the pantry. I was nearly out of my own food, and winter would soon return full force, probably until spring broke for real. I stood in front of the densely packed shelves, scanning the offerings, most of which I hadn’t eaten since before the virus. Then I spotted it. The one thing that made me think of home, of the life long past, more than anything.

Peanut butter.

My breath felt thick and my hand quivered as I opened the jar set on the thick wooden countertop. It felt almost sacrilegious. Once opened, it couldn’t be sealed again. The oil sat in a thick shimmering golden layer on top of the gravity-densified pulverized peanuts. Holding my breath, I poured the oil into a bowl carefully, not wanting to waste any of the treasure.

Then I pressed the tip of a sharp knife into the peanut clay at the bottom, scouring it over and over until chunks of it could be pried out and deposited into the oil. Then I used a metal potato masher to coax the peanut chunks into smaller pieces, blending those into the oil bit by bit. Straining with each depression. I stared down at the smooth, dark, oily mass, and inhaled the intoxicating scent of roasted peanuts.

I reached for a spoon in the drawer and scooped up a minuscule amount, lifting it to my nose for another deep huff. My tongue reached out, no longer under my control, and I licked the spoon.

My brain blazed with a frenetic swirl of memories:

Grandma Sita spreading peanut butter onto one slice of bread, and thick, shiny strawberry jam onto another. Her wrinkled hands brought the two slices together and she set the whole thing back on the plate. Carefully she cut the sandwich diagonally and handed me the plate, smiling broadly, no doubt in response to my own happy grin.

Daddy spooning a blob of peanut butter into a metal cage, a live trap, to catch a skunk that had taken up residence under our house.

Seth standing on a stool, just barely raising himself enough to reach the peanut butter jar on the counter. He grasps the jar, strains until his five-year-old biceps bulge, then triumphantly sets the lid on the counter. Eyes wide, he dunks his fingers into the jar, brings them up dripping, and starts licking as big blobs fall onto the counter, the floor and the stool.

I hear my own voice saying sternly, “You’re going to get us into trouble!”

Mama pulling a slab of solid peanut butter out of the refrigerator. It has been mixed with a little sugar and she will cut the confection into pieces which we will later dunk into melted chocolate, as a special treat.

I set the now cleaned spoon onto the counter and sank to the floor, my face in my hands. I trembled and gasped. I worried that I was actually going crazy.

Made crazy by a jar of peanut butter.

This is what we had lost. Once such an ordinary thing and we couldn’t ever have it again. It was gone, all except this little jar, which I had so impulsively opened. How much else was gone forever?

Gone were the trips to the cavernous grocery store with its multitudinous aisles, row after row after row of shelves towering high above my head, packed with a seemingly infinite number of foods. Shelves so high that Mama had to ask for help reaching things on the top ones.

Row after row after row of breakfast cereals, pickles, salsas, canned beans and vegetables, boxes of pasta and sauces to match, enormous freezers with every kind of meal imaginable, frozen in neat cardboard, ready to pop into the microwave for just a couple minutes, and voila, a whole meal.

Too many pizzas to even decide which one to pick, so Mama always picked the five-cheese and we’d add our own favorite things on top — green chile, bright red bits of bell peppers, and whole black olives — that Seth and I would stick on the ends of our fingers for fun before eating them.

Gone were the stacks of ice cream cartons of every flavor anyone could ever dream up, and nearly all of them I thought were so heavenly good that I couldn’t even say so in words, just “Yum!” Never again would we have ice cream.

Never again would we sit in front of the television and watch SpongeBob SquarePants or Dora the Explorer. Or documentaries on global warming, or the healthcare crisis, that Mama and Daddy watched after Seth and I were supposed to be asleep, but we’d watch from around the hallway corner until we fell asleep on the floor. Somehow, we always awoke in our beds.

Gone were the fiddle lessons, and Saturday mornings nervously playing for the customers at the Farmer’s Market — another place overflowing with fresh, miraculously varied foods. Gone were the camping trips all over the west — the Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon, the Rio Grande at Orilla Verde, the sand dunes of southern Colorado and White Sands Missile Range.

No more going to Puerto Peñasco to kayak, snorkel and fish.

Gone were the airplane rides to Costa Rica to hike in the rainforest and swim in the ocean, to San Francisco to see Daddy’s parents, and to Seattle to see Mama’s best friend Serena, who was also mine and Seth’s godmother.

After the virus, only on rare occasions did we spot an airplane in the sky, high, high, above us, and Mama said those were military planes and not ones that people like us flew in. But after a while, even those had stopped appearing in the heavens above.

No more trips to Grandma’s as a family, to hike in the forest, clamber through the rocky cliff dwellings that sat watching the west fork of the Gila river far below, or soak in the hot springs, lined thoughtfully with gravel while the snow fell onto mine and Seth’s outstretched tongues. We giggled at the notion that we could be outside, naked, in the middle of winter and be steaming warm at the same time.

Gone were too many friends, too many husbands, wives, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins and next-door neighbors. Death had stunk up every building, room and open space with rotting flesh and grief.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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