February 12 in 12: Libby learns how to use natural cures.
|I watch as Mama's rough hands work the mortar and pestle, crushing the dried pepper into powder. When the pepper is thoroughly ground, I hand her another pepper. A trickle of sweat drips down the side of her face. The work is hard. It's also necessary. We couldn't survive the plague that ravaged our land and country without the natural cures.
"I think this is enough for today," Mama says, carefully dumping the powder into a small, glass jar. I read the faded label peeling off the front: Gerber. Mama once told me people used to buy their baby's food pre-packaged in these little jars. She had said there were once buildings filled with shelves that were covered with food. I had laughed. Mama was very good at making up stories. Everyone knew you had to make your own food. If you didn't, you wouldn't live very long.
"Time to go take care of the bees," Mama grunts, screwing a metal lid onto the jar. She reaches into the dark pantry and sets the cayenne pepper next to eleven other jars. We try to keep an even dozen on hand at all times.
"Aw, Mama! I don't much care for tending the bees. Can't I milk the goats instead?"
"No lip, now, Libby," Mama frowns. "Serah is in charge of the goats and Mikal is working the garden. If the bees aren't tended..."
"The queen'll leave and take our honey with her," I interrupt with a sigh, risking a scolding for sassing back.
Instead of lashing out at me with her tongue, Mama reaches forward and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. Her face softens as she stares into my eyes.
"Every hand is needed for us to survive, Libby," she admonishes me, "And you're old enough to take up your work without any complaints." I frown at her words. I've been reminded that everyone needed to work since the day I was born. However, Mama is looking at me with such gentle eyes that I bite back the retort that's forming in my mind. Instead, I allow a weak smile to flicker across my face and reach for the beekeeping supplies that are stored in the corner of the kitchen.
I step outside to find our neighbor, Braylon, pushing past our iron gate. He's holding a hand over his forearm and blood is dripping through his fingers. I spin on my heels and run back into the house, dropping the beekeeping stuff in my haste.
"Mama, Mama! Braylon's comin' and he's hurt!"
Mama hurries from the living room where she's cutting material for a birthday shirt for Pa. She's still clutching the sewing scissors in her hand as she ushers Braylon through the door.
"What happened?" Mama asks as Braylon lifts his hand. Blood bubbles from the gash in his arm and Mama gestures for me to bring the medical kit. Shoving aside bandages and homemade salves, she grabs a clean cloth and presses it against the wound.
"Fool knife slipped while I was skinning one of the chickens," Braylon grumbles as he sits on one of the wooden chairs that Pa made. He rests his elbow on the table and flushes in embarrassment at such a rookie mistake. Mama ignores his red cheeks and snaps her fingers at me.
I follow the signal and set a pot of water on the woodstove. Mama is using a low, calm voice to talk to Braylon. Her tone is the same one she uses when she talks to the kittens in the barn or the goat kids. I've watched her enough to know that's she's trying to keep the man calm while the water comes to a boil.
I'm finally able to remove the pot with my apron. I pour the bubbling water into a white pitcher until the vessel is half full and add several heaping spoonfuls of salt. When the salt dissolves I mix in cool water until the mixture is lukewarm and hand the pitcher to Mama.
"This will sting a little," Mama murmurs. Braylon fixes his eyes on the dill hanging in the corner of the kitchen. Mama is drying the herb for when we can pickles after harvest.
Mama places an empty bowl under Braylon's elbow and slowly pours the salty water over his cut, cleaning and disinfecting the wound at the same time. Pink water swirls in the bowl when mama is done pouring. She nods at me and I take the bowl outside and dump it into the compost. I hurry back to find Mama opening a Gerber jar of ground cayenne pepper.
"This will also sting," Mama says in a low, soothing tone. I flinch as she sprinkles the pepper over the cut. I had had the experience of cayenne pepper before. While it worked wonders in stopping a wound from bleeding, it also stung like the dickens. Braylon sucked in his breath as the cayenne worked its magic.
"Sanitize the needle, Libby," Mama says. I pull one from the med kit and hold it over the flame of a candle on the kitchen counter. When it is red and hot, I bring it back to Mama.
"What color would you like?" Mama asks Braylon. She lifts her eyes to his and grins as she dumps a baggie full of colorful thread onto a clean towel. Braylon's lips twitch in amusement.
"I've always been partial to blue..."
"Blue it is!" Mama chirps. The spool unravels and she snips off a long piece. She threads the needle with deft fingers and steps closer to Braylon.
"Can you hold still for this part or do I need to have Libby fetch Casonn to help hold you down?"
Braylon licks his lips and sweat drips from his forehead. "I can hold still."
Mama nods and sets to stitching the cut. She's one of the best quilters in our community and her skill shines through as Braylon's arm is zipped up with the blue thread. I find myself leaning closer and closer, fascinated with how the needle pulls through Braylon's skin, until Mama clucks at me with her tongue.
"Almost done," Mama assures our friend, tying a knot and snipping the last of the thread away from Braylon's arm. "I just need to apply some salve and a bandage and you'll be free to go."
The tin of salve has an earthy smell. Mama made it from plantain and comfrey, among other things. It was perfect for helping a wound to heal. She slathers the green goop over the stitches and then tapes down a white bandage.
"Change the dressing twice a day," she presses the tin of salve into his hand, "Don't forget to take your garlic...it's a natural antibiotic. I'm sure Perla has some on hand...?"
Braylon waves away the question, "We got a good store of it."
"Use the salve for a few days and then you can switch to honey, if you want," Mama says as she clears off the work area. I know she'll have the needle boiling in hot water before Braylon makes it to the gate, while I'll sanitize the table with the thieves oil Mama makes and cans every year. Not only would the mixture kill any and all germs Braylon might have left behind, but it would also make the kitchen smell wonderful.
Braylon stands and bows to mama. The community had stopped shaking hands years before. It helped keep germs from traveling when the plague first hit. Now it was just habit. Mama's dress flutters as she bows back.
"I'll have Arrow bring payment over by evening," Braylon promises.
My heart jumps at the thought of Arrow stopping by. Over the course of my sixteenth year Arrow seemed to constantly invade my thoughts. When I was sent with the other girls to drop off lunches for the men as they prepared the fields for planting, I often found myself watching as Arrow's strong arms swung a hoe or dug a hole. I couldn't help but notice the gentle way he cared for his horse or how he humbled himself to play with the children after church meetings. And if I wasn't mistaken, he had started to notice me as well. I bite my lip as I realize Mama was right, as usual. It was time for me to stop complaining like a little girl and start acting like a woman.
"Eggs or lamb?" Braylon asks as he steps through the door.
Mama's brow furrows as she thinks, "Lamb, I think. I've been promised eggs from Bree Withers for the rest of the year."
I scrub blood off the table with soap and hot water before spraying the surface with the thieves oil and scrubbing again. I smile as I remember Mama helping Bree birth her twins boys the month before. Mama had promised that she would let me help with the next birth. My apprenticeship was ready to advance to the next step.
As Braylon steps into the yard Mama nods at the beekeeping materials I'd dropped on the floor. Remembering my vow to act like a woman instead of a child, I smile instead of frown and hurry to complete the task.
Golden honey drips over the edges of the quart jar as I drop in a chunk of honeycomb. I hold the quart jar up and grin at the way the honey sparkles as the sun hits it.
A bleat comes from behind me. I slowly turn, careful not to aggravate the bees dancing around my head. Arrow is standing a safe distance from the hive with two sheep attached to one rope.
"Pa says one of these ladies is payment for patching him up," Arrow's eyes seem to shine as he watches me step away from the beehive. "They're the best in our herd."
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Mama would be expecting a lamb, not two pregnant ewes. The livestock is more than just payment for some stitches and herbs, they are a symbol of respect and honor. And perhaps something more, I realize, as Arrow nudges the second ewe forward.
"The second one is for you," Arrow's stubbled chin lowers as he looks down at me. "I'm declaring my intentions for you, Libby," he says. My heart lurches in my chest. I glance from the ewe to the man before stretching out my fingers and accepting the gift.
"Would you like to stay for dinner?" I ask, feeling a flush spread across my face. Arrow nods and holds out a hand. I hesitate before tucking my hand into his. I turn toward the house to show Mama the sheep...and my new beau.