It was hotter than hell and she was over this off the grid shit.
It was the third day working alone in the sun. There was no alcohol. And if she mentioned alcohol HE was going to start in about raiding a wild bee hive to get honey to make mead, and then, she thought, she would have to kill somebody.
She was astonished that murder hadn’t been done here already. Or maybe it had, and they ate the person. And speaking of murder……here came Luke. She gritted her teeth and started pulling weeds.
It all started because her friend met “Somebody”.
Laurie’s somebody had a plan. He explained it with great seriousness in a coffee shop based off the concept that the baristas wrote insults on your disposable cups, to discourage waste. Wendy’s said “Capitalist Sheeple”.
Laurie had “Privileged”. Jonn, on the other hand, went across the street to a thrift store and brought back a glass with My Little Pony on it. The barista made the latte IN a Styrofoam cup, then gave it to him to pour into the glass, but he was insult free, despite the fact that his thrift store heroism had not saved a single inch of space in the landfill.
Jon was lecturing. It was the obvious choice, Jonn said. Off grid wasn’t hard, just challenging. All you really needed to do, he pronounced, was to learn how to grow food. From there, everything was obvious. You wanted cheese, you made cheese. You wanted water, you dug a well. You needed clothes, you made them.
“Yeah!” Laurie said. “My grandma. She used to make us socks. She loved doing it. Think how relaxing!”
“Laurie. You said they were scratchy.”
“Well, they probably make yarn better now.”
“But you’re talking about making the yarn, Laurie. So you’d have to know how to raise sheep.”
Jonn was looking seriously at the two women, seemingly about to discuss sheep, but then he shrugged and took his hair down out of its man bun. “Well, the point is to not rely on anyone else.” He said “You’ve got to become part of the off grid community, that’s the whole point, so that you’re really relying on your own skills, your solitary efforts. That’s what it’s all about. Community. And I’m going next week”.
“Really, next week?” said Laurie.
“Yeah, I told Bobbie that he and I would test our skills on the river next week. It’s a promise to ourselves as men.”
“But how does going on a kayak trip help you test off grid skills, Jonn?” said Wendy. “I’m not following”.
“We’re going to travel as far as we can, living off whatever we’ve gathered that day. I plan on at least 2 weeks, but who knows? We might go all the way to the delta…”
“But I’ll worry if I don’t know where you are.”
“Oh, we’re going to document on Instagram. You’ll be green with envy when you see how good we’re gonna eat with those river catfish.”
That night Wendy did research. She outlined a lesson plan for her kiddos while she read about edible plants of the Southeast.
After she had an outline, she texted Laurie “Hey, lots of edibles along the Cahaba River.”
Laurie sent back “I looked it up too. It gave me a great idea”
“Let’s go do some off grid stuff ourselves while Jonn is gone and you’re on summer break”
Somehow, Wendy found herself agreeing that they should do a girls trip revolving around off grid skills. She had visions of a shady grove, camping, and berry picking.
Instead, to Wendy’s horror and amusement, Laurie had found a “prepper’s training site” where you could learn survival skills on a remote farm.
As they drove up, Wendy suddenly thought to ask Laurie how they people knew they were coming, since they didn’t have phones. Laurie had looked astonished and said “Well, they don’t know. I’m sure it’s fine”.
The introductions went well. Luke, a tall, dark, gangly guy met them at their car and yelled at them for 5 minutes. Apparently this was the time of year when most of the preppers went home to have hot water and internet. Luke was caretaker for the land, and NOT a babysitter, as he emphatically noted.
Laurie started crying, and the red faced Luke had actually thrown his hat down in the dirt. “Oh hell” he said. “I guess you guys can stay in the cabin tonight”.
“But we took the whole week off work!” wailed Laurie.
Luke stood there implacably. Until, that is, Laurie turned up the waterworks. Then he yelled some more, ending with “And you two had better be up at dawn!”
At that, Wendy had had it, and she said, “Or what, you throw your hat at us?” He stared.
“Cabin’s that way” he pointed. “Up at dawn.” and Luke the caretaker was gone in a pickup truck that was surely older than he was.
The two girls trudged in the direction of the cabin. Which was already inhabited by a boar raccoon.
That night, Wendy slept on the porch, and Laurie took the car.
The next three days were hell. Luke came every day and sent them to work in the gardens, which were currently producing only tomatoes and okra.
Wendy had eaten boiled okra for breakfast, tomatoes for lunch and okra with tomatoes over rice for dinner. It was like gumbo, Luke said with a grin. He declined to have any himself.
Laurie spent her days watering the garden. That was really all there was to do, said Luke. Wrong time of year for much else.
“What about making our own clothes?” asked Laurie?
“Got any cloth?” said Luke. “Unless you want to make the kind of clothes Adam and Eve wore, you need textiles”
“Ok” said Wendy, “what about churning butter?”
“Well, Wendy, we don’t have any milk.”
“I saw cows”.
“Yes, but no milk cows. And the nanny goat got eaten by coyotes.”
“So no milk animals? On an off the grid farm?”
Laurie spoke up “We can learn to make cheese though, right?”
Wendy and Luke looked at Laurie. Then they caught each other’s eye. For a minute, thought she saw a smile start to crinkle his eyes, and she grinned, but then he said “No. No cheese making. No textiles. Nothing but the garden, and you’ll learn to can tomorrow.
Now here he came to collect them. Wendy was starving to death, and dying for chocolate. Resolutely she turned and started yanking at the weed that had roots 2 feet deep.
“Need a hand?” came that smirking voice.
“No, I’ll get it. Are we going to can?”
“That’s the idea. That ferny plant you’re yanking on…did you know that’s edible?”
“Queen Anne’s Lace. Wild carrot. Yes, I know. Want it?”
She gave the thing an almighty yank, and then stumbled back when the taproot suddenly broke. She heard herself yelp before she staggered back and fell over at the man’s feet.
Wendy was so frustrated and hot, that she just laid there. She had worked all day, she was covered in so much red dust that she looked like a clay doll, and now she was staring up at a man who treated her like a brainless twit.
Luke didn’t seem to know what to do. He looked momentarily amused, but when she didn’t get up he frowned. Funny, that was twice she’d seen those grooves around his eyes crinkle like that, and it was…. cute.
Suddenly she became aware that she was hot in more ways than one. He crouched down next to her and splashed water on a bandana. “Here, now, you’ve gotten too hot” he started using the cloth on her face “When did you break for water?”
Just as he said that, she sat up and his hand made contact with a different part of her body. They both looked down at the red bandanna resting against her breast and the thin tank she had on. A few seconds ticked by in silence, and then Luke said “Hey. Hop in the back of my truck”.
He pulled her up and walked to the truck, where he handed her a bottle of cold water and let his tailgate down. “Up you go” he said “Sit right there and drink that while we go find Laurie.”
The wind blew across her sticky skin as they bounced across the pasture. She waved Laurie down, who was walking up with a bucket of water.
“Where are we going?” said Laurie.
“No idea, but I’m all for it”
They swung by the tool shed, and Luke motioned for them to stay in the truck. A minute later, he came out carrying buckets.
“Y’all just hold on back there”.
Wendy didn’t have a clue where they were going, but just sitting and feeling the breeze was the best thing ever. After about 20 minutes of backroads, they got out at a stretch of shallow creek.
The girls hopped out, and Luke said “Ok, we’re going to forage in the creek. I’m going to plant a few things in the water for you to find to get you started. Cover your eyes.”
Wendy was glad to look away, because that crinkle was back beside his eyes, and somehow seeing his long lean body from the ground up had taught her eyes to linger a little too much.
“Ok, wade through the water and see what you find. I marked the first two with bobbers”.
Sure enough, there were two tiny floats on the water, so Wendy waded out towards the first one. The creek water was cold and swift. She and followed the bobber string down….
Oh my god. It was a beer bottle… She turned around and Luke was right behind her “Help you dress that catch out, ma’am?” he said, grinning as he popped the top.
Wendy turned the bottle right up, and Luke laughed, but then she put her hand out to steady herself as she kept knocking it back and he got quiet as her hand found his chest and used it to lean on.
“um. I’m going to go help Laurie” he said, turning away “There’s more beer, and also edible shellfish.”
Somehow Laurie wound up staying with the truck while Luke and Wendy waded up creek. it felt like heaven to walk along with a full belly and a little buzz.
“What all should we look for?” said Wendy. “Periwinkles? Really?”
“You can find crawfish in rivers around here, and you CAN eat those periwinkles, but you don’t want to” he paused “Really, you don’t want to do much of anything you’re trying to do. What are you doing, Wendy? You don’t seem like a prepper to me.”
“I teach at a Montessori school. I’m here to maybe learn some stuff for my classes”.
He turned and looked at her, holding onto her arm “You want to teach preschoolers how to eat periwinkles?”
She laughed “not exactly. I thought I might use some stuff in class, but mostly Laurie wanted to and I couldn’t think of a reason why not.”
“And now can you?” his head dipped down, and he seemed about to kiss her, but then her foot went the wrong way and she fell again. This time she ended up on her knees, in the water, holding on to his thighs, and oh dear god, her face was…yep.
“Woah there! Maybe enough beer for you.” Luke said.
Wendy kept her gaze down as she clambered back up. She said “Do we have to keep hunting for dinner?”
“I’ll do it.” said Luke. “You go sit.”
Laurie and Wendy spent a companionable hour freeing shellfish. Later, Luke came wading up with a stringer of fish that they cooked over a fire. When a pickup full of his friends pulled up, they all drank beer and laughed beside the fire embers until the moon came up.
The guys were gallant to the dirty, disheveled women, opening their beer and joking with them about “living the off grid dream”.
Back at the cabin, Luke looked doubtfully at the sleeping bag on the porch, but Wendy said “Up at dawn. Gotta hit the hay, boss”, and he laughed and got back in his truck, taillights bouncing across the pasture.
Wendy woke hungover. She tried to come alive, eventually deciding that sunrise yoga was her only hope. As she was in downward dog, she heard Luke’s truck, but the voice she heard saying “Wendy, you’ve got to really FEEL the pose” wasn’t Luke’s.
She threw her head back and winced, both at the sunlight and the glowing red face of Jonn. Oh my god, that was really and truly the worst sunburn she’d ever seen.
Her face must have shown her shock, because Jonn said “Yeah, it was real survival out there”.
Laurie came running up and kissed him, but he said “take it easy. While you girls were playing around, we nearly starved.”
Wendy looked over where Luke was standing, but he was scowling at the ground and wouldn’t catch her eye.
“Why didn’t you have enough to eat?” said Wendy
“There were no fish! We ran out of granola the first day!”
“So you had to eat greens and roots? Low calorie” said Wendy.
“What are you talking about? We didn’t take groceries. We only had a fishing hook with line” muttered Jonn, his Day-Glo face starting to scowl but then smoothing out as he felt the pain of the sunburn.
“I know you didn’t take food. But what did you plan to eat besides fish? Along the Cahaba, there are cattail roots, lambs quarter for greens, and shellfish”.
“I just said there was no river life! No fish!”
“Did you look for crayfish? What about periwinkles?”
At this point Luke did look up, and those eyes were in full crinkle mode. Wendy had to bite her cheek.
“Jonn, you did research edibles, didn’t you?” she said
At this, Jon scowled, despite the sunburn. He said “that’s what I hate. People who think that living off the land is about knowledge… Babe, Bobbie dumped me here…I mean, I wanted to see you. Let’s go home, my face hurts.”
Laurie looked back at Wendy, who saw Luke nod at her.
Soon it was just the two of them standing there, watching Laurie and Jonn drive off.
“So, ma’am, it seems that you’re in need of a ride back to the big city”.
“Why, yes, Luke. I guess I am. I hate to take you so far away from home”.
“I may have to get a hotel room.”
Wendy said “Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary. No, I think I know just the right place for you to sleep over.”
As Luke held the door to the pickup for Wendy, he tipped her chin up so that she saw those eyes crinkle, and then he kissed her long and hard. “So”, he said “How do you feel about gumbo for dinner tonight?”