That evening after milking and doing chores, I saw Will coming back to the house with the rifle over his shoulder.
“Got the leader of the pack and wounded two others,” he said simply as he walked by me and into the house. I breathed deeply, relieved at the news and turned to follow him inside.
The days were getting longer now and the evenings were warm. We sat around the dinner table for a while talking and getting to know Daniel. Then, after a while, Mom took out her violin and Dad got out the drum and they played some fun old songs.
Will pulled me up out of my chair to swing dance with him. Although I’d danced with Jake and Will for as long as I could remember, suddenly I was embarrassed to dance in front of Daniel. But I couldn’t refuse or I’d have to explain, and then I’d be twice as embarrassed. So I danced.
My sundress swung around me like it was made for that evening as Will and I did the Charleston, the bow tie and he twirled me under his arm again and again. Jake danced with Susanna but she kept laughing and laughing until she couldn’t dance anymore and Jake got mad at her. Anna was begging to dance, so Jake ended up carrying Anna in his arms and twirling her around.
Daniel watched us, open-mouthed in amazement. I wonder what he was thinking. Mom played Splish Splash, Rockin’ Robin and then passed the violin to me so she and Dad could dance. Will played the drum. I’m not as good as Mom is on the violin but I kept it simple so I wouldn’t make a mistake. I played a tune from the Carolina Chocolate Drops that doesn’t have any words.
Susanna asked Daniel if he wanted to dance with her. He suddenly appeared disinterested in what we were doing and just ignored her. He didn’t know Susanna; she kept asking him until he had to respond. He told her shortly that he didn’t know how to dance, to which Susanna happily replied that she would teach him. I had to tell her to leave him alone or she would have kept pestering him all evening.
We danced until it was dark, then Mom and Susanna went to the kitchen to get the stuff to make popcorn while I got the porch kitchen stove heated up and put the kettle on for hot tea. The boys were setting up the Pente board and Dad lit the kerosene lamps.
“Why are you doing that?” Daniel asked Dad. I could hear them through the open porch windows.
“Because it’s getting dark,” Dad answered.
“Why don’t you turn on the—” Daniel looked up at the ceiling and then around the room. “Where are the lights?” he asked. “Don’t you have any lights in this house?”
“These are our lights,” Dad explained. “We live without electricity, so we use kerosene lights when it gets dark.” Daniel laughed nervously and looked at Dad with suspicion.
“You don’t have electricity? People can’t live without electricity.” He looked a little panicked to me, as I peeked through the porch window. Then his expression turned a bit smug.
“You do have electricity. You have a toilet and running water.”
Dad was just silent but Will turned around and said,“Toilets and running water don’t need electricity. Just gravity-fed water. You don’t plug your toilet in, do you Daniel?”
“No-o-o,” Daniel replied, uneasily.
Dad nodded and turned to look at Daniel, “Your water in the city is probably brought to you by an electric pump, so as long as you have electricity, you also have water. Our well is pumped by a windmill that brings up water whenever the wind blows. The water is stored in a tank that is uphill from the house. When we open the faucet or flush the toilet, the water simply runs downhill from the storage tank right to us—without electricity.”
“Oh.” Daniel finally looked convinced. “That’s cool. That’s kind of amazing. Why doesn’t everybody do it that way? If the electricity goes off, at least you could still have water. You could live that way.”
“You sure can,” said Will, “ . . . and if people could live that way, there’d be a lot fewer people paying their electric and water bills.”
Daniel was silent for a few minutes. He walked around the room and looked through various doors, as though checking for light fixtures and electrical outlets.
“So do you have a computer or a phone?” he asked Dad. “I thought you were a programmer.”
Dad nodded. “We have a phone jacked into the truck. Mostly we don’t answer it, we just look at the messages and call back when it’s convenient. I have a computer hooked up to a solar panel and batteries in my office. Right now, the programming work helps keep the farm running. It’s our goal to get this place self-sustaining enough for me to completely unplug.”
I came back into the house. Daniel looked at me and I could tell he was seeing more than he had been a few minutes earlier.
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“Putting a kettle of water on the stove.”
“Outside? Does your stove work without electricity?”
“Yes. It’s a wood burning stove.”
“Do you have to build a fire in it when you want to cook?”
“Yes, but we just keep some hot coals in it all the time, so it’s always warm. I just had to throw in a few pieces of kindling to get it going. It’s not hard.” Daniel’s expression was pretty intense and I could almost hear him thinking.
“Can I see it?” he asked.
“Sure.” I opened the door and led him out onto the kitchen porch to the stove he had walked past a dozen times already that day. I opened the front door and tossed in another piece of cedar kindling wood and felt the side of the stainless steel kettle.
“Is it getting hot?” he asked. I tried not to laugh. His questions reminded me of Anna. I had to keep myself from saying, “Stove. Hot. Mona is cooking on the hot stove.”
Instead I said, “Feel it.” Daniel put out his hand and felt the kettle, and then held his hand a few inches over the surface of the stove.
“How much of it gets hot?” he asked. That was a pretty good question.
“It’s hottest right over the fire,” I said, and then moved toward the opposite end of the stove. “But it’s warm all the way over to this end. I can put my hand right on it though, see?” Daniel put his hand next to mine on the surface of the stove farthest from the fire. His fingers were as slender as mine.
“This is the oven,” I said as I opened the door and bent down to put my hand inside. “See, it’s warm but not hot enough to bake. We usually bake our bread in the mud oven, though—once a week. It tastes better baked in there.”
“You have a mud oven?” Daniel asked, incredulous. “Is it really made out of mud?”
“Yes, but the mud is dry now—it’s more like concrete or stone. It’s out the back door, through the kitchen. We bake on Saturday, so you’ll see how that works. We build a fire inside of it and the whole thing gets very, very hot. Pizza is really good baked in there.”
“You eat pizza?!” Daniel exclaimed, relieved. I couldn’t help laughing this time and Daniel grinned apologetically. “I was beginning to think I was on another planet,” he said, as Mom and Susanna came out with the popcorn and a pot.
“You might be,” Mom smiled at him. “But our alien ways could grow on you.”
He watched as Mom poured some olive oil into the three gallon pot and added a chunk of butter. It sizzled and melted. The stove had gotten pretty hot while we were talking. Susanna reached into the canister of popcorn and then threw three or four kernels into the pot before Mom put the lid on.
“Those are our spies,” Mom explained. “They will tell us when the pot is hot enough to make popcorn.” I tried not to laugh at Daniel’s expression. He started to speak, but I put a finger to my lips and said,
“Shhh . . . listen.” We were all quiet. And then, pop! pop! pop!
“It’s ready!” Susanna practically shouted and Daniel jumped like somebody had shot a gun right next to him. Mom poured in a cup and a half of popcorn kernels and put the lid back on.
“It’s popping!” Daniel said, in surprise. Mom took the pot by the handles and shook it forward and backward. The popping increased.
The kettle started to sing and Daniel moved around to the side to watch me take the kettle off of the back of the stove and move it over to the warm end.
“What are you going to do now?” he asked.
“Make peppermint tea with cream and honey,” I answered. “Do you like cream in your tea?”
“I don’t know. I guess so. Is it good?”
“It’s wonderful!” Susanna exclaimed. The popcorn was slowing down to a pop! pop! pop! once every second.
“It’s ready,” Mom said, and took off the lid. The pot was full of popcorn. Daniel laughed aloud in wonder as Mom dumped the pot of corn into a large stainless bowl waiting on the nearby table. I shook the salt shaker with one hand while tossing the corn with the other.
“I’ll take the kettle in and make the tea,” Mom told me, “you guys go ahead and start on the popcorn.”
Daniel opened the door for us and followed me in.
“That looked easy enough,” he said.
“Yeah, it is easy. But I guess we’re pretty different in some ways, huh?” I put the popcorn bowl down on a short table Dad had made and took a handful. The boys and Susanna crowded around. We sat on fat pillows and started eating the popcorn. The lantern-lit living room was cozy and warm.
“We’re probably alike in a lot of ways too,” Daniel said, leaning toward me. His pillow was next to mine. “I just never heard of people living without electricity before. I mean—now, in the age of technology.”
Will stood up to take the pitcher of tea from Mom and I took the cups from her and passed them around. I could feel Will getting ready to say something.
“Technology can improve life or hinder it,” he said, without looking up from pouring the tea. “Just because it’s called ‘technology’ doesn’t mean it makes life safer or better. In a lot of cases, it makes life more complicated and dependent on that so-called technology instead of on knowledge and nature.”
Will handed Daniel his tea and Daniel bent his head to taste it.
“It’s good,” he said. “Thanks.”
Will nodded and continued, “That tea is in a cup Mom made in her pottery shed, fired in a kiln Dad built with us boys. The tea is peppermint that we grow by the water tank. The cream came from our cows, milked this morning. The honey is from bees down in the valley that Grandpa and I keep.”
Daniel’s jaw began to sag a little and his eyes flashed from Will to his cup of tea and back again. I looked around at my family. They were all grinning and I realized I was too.
“I grew the popcorn!” Jake interjected.
“You did?” Daniel ate another handful slowly and thoughtfully. “It’s good,” he added, as though he expected it to be second rate and was happily surprised.
“Who made this bowl?” Daniel asked, tapping the stainless steel bowl the popcorn was in. We all laughed and he looked around awkwardly. “What’s so funny?”
“We didn’t make that one, we bought that one.” Dad explained. “We don’t make everything we use—but I guess more of it comes from our hands than even I had realized. And that is awesome. Isn’t it awesome?”
“It’s pretty cool,” Daniel agreed. “And amazing. My friends at school won’t believe me. They won’t even be able to imagine it. They’ll think I’m lying.”
We were quiet, thinking about that. Are people that far removed from reality? I wondered. I guess we’re odder than I thought.
“But I don’t care,” Daniel added, looking at Dad a little apologetically, “I believe it. And . . . and . . . what else do you not make?”
Everyone began to speak at once.
“A lot of our clothes!”
“We make a lot of them, though.”
“But not the fabric.”
“Some of it!”
“No, just the knitted stuff.”
“Yeah, but we could make them. Will could.”
“I have made some before.”
“Yeah but they aren’t tough enough.”
“Getting your toes stepped on by a cow.”
“We don’t make sugar.”
“That’s because we use honey most of the time.”
“We still couldn’t make sugar.”
“And Mom could make underwear.”
“Out of wool! Holy crud, that would itch.”
“Can we grow cotton here, Dad?”
“Can we grow silk worms, Dad?”
“What about hemp? Is that legal? We could grow hemp.”
“No dummy, hemp cloth.”
“What about shoes?”
“We use leather for shoes.”
“Yeah, but they’re not tough enough.”
“So next time I’ll carve you some clogs. And some wooden underwear to match.”
I started laughing. This was more like my family. All talking at once, eating and joking with each other. And there was Daniel in the middle of it all with a wide smile on his face and a cup of tea in his hand.