Preparing for Winter
I had originally planned to start working on turning the grass stalks that the other kids had gathered for me into my pseudo-papyrus, but it seems like fate had other plans for me .
“Maine,” says my mother, grabbing me by the scruff of my neck as I try to slip out the door .
“Eep?!” I squeak, startled .
“Where do you think you’re going? I told you, today we have to start preparing for the winter, right?”
I was trying to go down to the well so that I could start working on extracting the plant fibers from these stalks .
Soon, we’ll all be stuck indoors as the long winter creeps in, so we’ll have to make preparations in advance . Why, though, am I being pressed into service? I’m so weak that I’m not good for anything! According to Maine’s memories, all she ever did was catch a cold, then spend all that time uselessly wandering around . In other words, I’m completely useless . (I’m hoping I don’t actually catch a cold, though . )
“You’ll go help your father, Maine . Come,” she says .
“Doesn’t Daddy have work?”
“It’s his turn to take a few days off . It wouldn’t be good if the soldiers couldn’t prepare for winter, you know?”
…Giving employees time off to go prepare for winter is an unexpectedly reasonable thing for an employer to do . On top of that, is preparing for the winter really so hard that it requires a man’s help?
Regardless, even if my father is home, it’s unusual for me to be paired up with him . He’s a muscle-headed soldier, after all, so it’s usually the much more fit and energetic Tory that winds up going with him .
Since the entire family’s home, I don’t think I’ll be able to escape . And, since it seems like my father’s specifically nominated me, I’ve got no choice but to follow him .
“…So what are we going to do?” I ask .
Next to the kitchen window, my father is pulling out some things that look like tools .
“We’re going to go through the house and do a little maintenance on anything that needs it . The door’s what’s going to protect us from a big snowstorm, so we need to make sure the hinges are tight, there’s no rust, and there aren’t any holes in the wood . When we’re done with that, we’re going to clean out the chimney and the flue for the stove . We don’t want to have any problems with those during the winter . ”
I understand what needs to be done, but how the hell am I supposed to help with any of that? I can barely hold a screwdriver, much less turn it . I can’t carry anything heavy, either! You can see these skinny little arms right?!
However, if I’m enthusiastic about doing whatever little bit I can to help out, it’ll go a long way to helping build up my family’s confidence in me . I can definitely help identify the loose parts on the hinges, and my modern-age knowledge will make spotting rust a piece of cake .
“Daddy, on this hinge, isn’t this nail getting rusty?” I say, pointing at a nail .
My father bends down to study it . “…Looks like it’ll hold for now . ”
Uh, wait, no matter how you look at it, a worn-out nail like this is going to rust away, right?
I’m immediately worried by how confidently my father said that . Once winter hits, this door’s our main defense against a snowstorm, so it breaking down halfway through would be very bad for us . I climb up on a chair so I can reach the door, and try to rattle it back and forth . No matter how confident my father may be, if I’m able to break it like this, then surely he’d recognize my superior judgement .
After I wiggle the door a few times, the top hinge pops off with a sharp ping, and the door starts to precariously sway on its one remaining hinge . I nod in satisfaction, but my father’s face goes ghastly white as he sees the door wobble .
“Looook, it broke!” I say, pointing at the door . “It wasn’t going to last the winter . Make sure you fix it, Daddy!”
My father, pretending to ignore his judgement error, helps me down off the chair . “Maybe you should go help your mother now . ”
Perhaps he’s upset that his daughter pointed out his mistake? I shrug my shoulders, shaking my head . It can’t be helped, I’m not going anywhere . My mother specifically assigned me to help my father, so I’m going to stay next to him and continue my inspections . I’m going to make sure that we make it safely and comfortably through the winter .
“Huh?” I say . “I’ve got to make sure you’ve found everything! We’re fixing things so they don’t break in the winter, so we shouldn’t leave things all beat up like that . ”
“We can’t afford to fix everything, and I can’t have you around breaking everything you can . Go see your mother . ”
…Money problems, again!
I thought I’d be able to make my father take things a little more seriously by breaking the hinge . Instead, I’m having to quietly make my way to the bedroom to go help Tory and my mother .
The two of them are hanging shirts and blankets from clotheslines, as if they were trying to dry them, and rearranging the beds to be closer to the kitchen stove, trying to make the place just a little bit warmer .
“What’s wrong, Maine?”
“Daddy said that I should come help you instead, Mommy . ”
“Oh? Well, we’re almost done with this, so next we’re going to work on getting some more light in here . We should have some beeswax this year . We’ve also got some tallow and some tree nuts, so we’ll spend some time squeezing some oil for the lamp and making a few candles . ”
Just hearing about the work makes me wrinkle my nose . I’ve been smelling the stench of animal fats coming from various other houses lately, but the thought of filling our own kitchen with that stink makes me feel really uneasy .
Tory heads off to the storage room to start pressing oil out of the nuts . I, however, don’t have enough strength to swing a hammer, so I can’t seek shelter in the storage room with her .
Next to my mother, our largest saucepan sits over the fire, filled with nothing but beef tallow .
It stinks!! Hang in there, me…
I might be able to bear this stench for now, but it looks like the total extent of my mother’s preparation is only just melting the tallow alone and skimming off the impurities that rise to the top .
“Wait, Mommy, is that really all you’re doing? You’re not going to ‘salt it out’?”
“Hmm? What was that?”
Oh, crap . “Salting out” is so extremely obvious, but it looks like she doesn’t know about it .
I try not to flinch as my mother’s stare drills into me, as if she’s asking me if I really have a problem . As best as I can, I try to explain the process using only simple words .
“It’s, um… where you add salt water, then you cook it over the fire a little more, and then you strain out the dirt multiple times?”
“Salt water?” she asks .
“Yeah . When you leave it alone and it cools down, only the fat on top will harden, and the water on the bottom will stay liquid, you know? Then, you can take out the water, and only use the fat that was on top . It’s more work, but it will smell a lot better, and it’ll be a higher quality fat, too . ”
I don’t know if it’s because I said “higher quality” or not, but my mother starts salting out the tallow . The quality of the candles that we’re going to be burning throughout the entire winter is literally a life-or-death matter for me . We’re going to be trapped indoors with it, after all . Living in a house filled with that kind of stench for the whole winter would be far too much for me to bear .
I don’t actually know the right concentration of salt we should be using, but even just a little should make things better, right?
I guessed on the concentration, but as we salted out the tallow, it gradually started turning from a dirty yellow to a pure white . We’ll be able to use this to make candles, and then when spring comes around and we need to make soap, we can melt the candles again and re-use the tallow .
Not one to waste anything, my mother uses the chunks of meat and bone that we filtered out of the tallow to make a delicious soup stock, which we have for lunch . After that, we start making the candles .
“Now then,” says my mother . “Tory, please work on the candles . Your father and I will go and start working on the firewood . ”
“Okaay!” says Tory, cheerfully .
…Uh, what am I supposed to do, then?
The three of them stand up and get to work . I think about it for a little while, then decide to follow along behind my mother, who’s about to step out the front door . I guess I’m going to continue trying to help her out . She notices me, however, and points firmly back towards the kitchen table .
“Maine, go help Tory with the candles . Try not to get in the way . ”
“…Fine . ”
Why do you have so little trust in me?
I turn back to the kitchen, where Tory is cutting string into lots of equal lengths to use as wicks . She ties them to wooden sticks, letting them dangle . She takes each stick and starts to dip the strings into and out of the pot of tallow, one by one . As she dips them over and over, tallow starts to soak into and harden around each string, gradually building in circumference with each repetition . Slowly, candles start to take shape .
“Huh, so is that how you make candles…” I muse .
“Maine, don’t just watch, help me!” says Tory, scowling .
Tory’s starting to get mad, so I decide to help out . I chop up some herbs to erase the scent, then take some candles from the pile so that I can start rolling them in the herbs . They’ll have some effect when they’re stuck to the outside of the candle, but next year, I’m going to make sure that these herbs get mixed in to the tallow as it melts .
“Maine! Don’t play around!” says Tory .
“…I’m only going to use these ones . It’s better to have candles that aren’t smelly, right? Please, Tory!”
“Okay, fine, but only those ones!”
I nod vigorously to show that Tory’s made herself clear .
I don’t know if this will work or not, so I wasn’t planning on doing this to every candle anyway . I get the herbs attached to five of the candles, varying the amount and positioning so that I can try to figure out what will produce the best result .
While Tory and I keep working like that on the candles, our parents work on preparing enough firewood . There’s so much careful preparation that goes into preparing for the winter, but it’s necessary if we don’t want to freeze to death . To supplement the kindling that Tory brought back, my father’s brought back a huge number of logs, each half a meter long, that he went out and purchased . He’s currently splitting them into firewood, his hatchet beating out a steady rhythm as he works . My mother collects the wood as it splits apart, then carries it to another room to stack it up for later .
“Mommy, where are you taking that?” I ask, startled, as she opens a door to a room I’d never seen before . This is the first time I’ve noticed it, but attached to the storage room is what seems to be an additional storage room . It looks like it might not be used for anything but storing materials that were prepared for the winter . Already, the room is half-filled with chopped wood .
“Huh?” I ask, following her in . “What’s this room for?”
“It’s… the winter storage room, you know?” she says . “Maine, why are you asking about this now?”
Come to think of it, I had been wondering where the heck all of the firewood that Tory had brought back was being stored, but it looks like it’s being kept in here . We typically keep the firewood we use on a day-to-day basis in the storage room, so I guess I just never noticed the other room .
“…It’s cold . ”
“Well, this is the farthest place in the house from the stove, after all . ”
Our house doesn’t have a dedicated living room with a beautiful fireplace, so the kitchen stove is the only real source of heat in the entire house . We spend most of every day in the kitchen, as a result .
Also, since the bedroom is separated from the kitchen (and the stove) by a wall, we’ve pushed all of the beds in the room up against the closest wall . While the stove burns, the heat radiates through the wall, so when it’s time for the children to go to bed the beds are quite warm . They’re only warm right when we go to bed, however . Our mother quenches the fire before she goes to bed, so the room is piercingly cold by the time we wake up .
This winter storage room, however, is the furthest room away from the stove, so it’s very cold in here . During the winter, this room looks like it would be great for storing food, preserves, and maybe even oil for a while, kind of like a natural refrigerator .
“Wow, we have a lot of wood,” I say, amazed .
“We might just barely have enough, don’t you think?”
Even though the room’s half-full?!
Looking at the pile of firewood before me, I suddenly start thinking about the problem of deforestation . If a single house burns this much firewood over the course of the winter, how much wood does this entire city go through in a single year?
“Maine, don’t space out,” says my mother . “Make sure you’re ready for your handiwork . ”
I’m not spacing out!! Deforestation is a serious problem that merits significant thought!
Even as I try to object, my mother’s already heading back out towards the kitchen . I hurry after her . I really don’t want to be in that gloomy, window-less room by myself .
“Mommy, what’s handiwork?”
“Hmm… well, the men might do things like repairing the tools they use for their jobs, or maybe use the time to make furniture . We need to make sure we have enough materials ready for that . ”
“Oh, it’s the jobs we do during the winter?”
As I’m asking my questions, my mother is counting out how many balls of yarn she has . “That’s right . As for women, making clothes is our most important job, you know? If we don’t spin enough thread for weaving cloth or sewing, and if we don’t dye things in advance, we won’t be able to make anything . My job is dyeing thread, so I already have enough of that for now, but I’ll need to spend some time preparing some plants, like nilen, to spin into more thread next year . ”
“On top of that, your sister’s baptism is next summer! We’re going to need brand new clothing for that, since it’s a special day… Hm, and I’m going to need to make that this winter, while I have time…”
My mother’s face goes fierce as she concentrates, calculating whether or not she’ll have enough materials for the task . I don’t want to interrupt her at all, so I quietly migrate downstairs to the well, where Tory is working .
“Tory, what are you doing for your handiwork?”
“I’m making baskets! I’ll sell them in the spring . ”
Tory’s already started preparing the materials she’ll need for her work . She’s brought down a bundle of sticks that she’d gathered in the forest, soaked them, and peeled the bark off . Now, it looks like she’s using a knife to shave them down, parallel to the grain .
“Maine, what will you do?” she asks .
“Me? I’m going to make some ‘pseudo-papyrus’ . ”
“Eheheh, it’s a seeeecret!”
Following Tory’s example in getting a head start on my winter’s work, I’ll start separating the fibers I’ll need to make my pseudo-papyrus . This is an extremely important part of my preparation! This is a necessary task that nobody could possibly get mad at me about .
To extract the fibers, I can probably do something similar to what Tory’s doing . I’ll strip the skin off of the grass stalks, soak them in water, and then dry them . Since there’s not very much time left to finish our preparations, I wasn’t able to get a whole lot of grass . Now, though, I can finally start working on separating out these plant fibers .
“Hey, Tory,” I say, “can I get some water?”
“…Sure . ”
“Hey, Tory,” I say, “how do you think I should take just the fibers out of this?”
“Hey, Tory,” I say, “these won’t fly away if I dry them like this, right?”
I bundle up the plant fibers that I’ve managed to extract . There aren’t a whole lot of them, but for the purposes of my experiments I should be able to make maybe one or two pages with this amount .
And, so, I conclude my final preparations for the coming winter . Whoof, man, I worked hard!
Huh? Why’s Tory looking so exasperated?