Beet Dreams Are Made of These…

BeetsA few housekeeping notes: Join me starting April 7 when the third novel of Carding, Vermont, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, debuts in this space. If you subscribe to my website, you’ll find an installment of my new book in your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday for 12 weeks.

A paper edition of Dazzling will be out in May along with the ebook. Then in June, I’ll release the first Carding Omnibus, all three novels with a couple of kicker short stories.

The Carding Chronicles will be suspended while Dazzling appears in this space because I have a new novel and a new non-fiction book on publishing that need my attention. The Carding Chronicles will resume once Dazzling comes to an end.

Lee Tennyson frowned as he watched his wife’s car disappear over the hill, headed toward town and the hospital where she worked. Six months pregnant, and she was still doing twelve-hour shifts on the floor of the ICU.

He didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all. Yes, he was proud of Christine, and he knew she was an amazing nurse. And yes, he understood how passionate she was about her work.

But he also sensed how much of their sons’ growing up Chris was missing.

“Are you ready, Buddy?” He bent down to question his oldest, curly-haired Noah. “Time to get to the bus.”

“Can we walk to the bus stop today?” the child asked.

Lee smiled because he knew the real reason behind the question. “It was cold overnight,” he said, “and the water in the ditches is still frozen. How about John and I meet you at the bus after school, and we can play with the water on the way home?”

Noah started clapping and jumping. “And you’ll bring my water boots to the bus?” he asked, referring to his favorite pair of bright yellow knee-highs.

“I’ll bring the water boots, promise,” Lee said. “Now let’s git.”

That’s what Chris misses, Lee told himself as he rumbled down the long driveway in his farm truck, his sons taking turns imitating the grinding noise of its old gears. She’s missing draining puddles, redirecting streams, and making sand dams.

And the thing of it is, if she’s not there today, she can’t get it back.

After they waved Noah off, Lee faced dressing John for their daily trek to the barn. No matter how much he cajoled and promised, it always took Lee longer than he planned. “I swear you are the wiggliest child ever born,” he muttered as he searched for a second arm to stuff into the empty sleeve of John’s blue jacket.

John jabbered incessantly as he propellored himself toward the barn. He pointed at the dwarfish spikes of grass beside their path, crowed at the rooster who crowed back, stopped to examine the sculptural qualities of various sheep droppings, and threw kisses to their head goat, a buck aptly named Houdini, who turned his face away as if offended by contact with a lower form of life.

The boy was so busy, he didn’t notice his father’s contemplative silence. Lee’s eyes flicked from one part of the Tennyson family farm to the other as they walked, adding up the annual worth of each income stream that the land represented—logging, hay, wool from their growing flock of merinos, maple syrup, heirloom and commercial apples plus blueberries.

Lee grew and Chris canned or froze most of their vegetables, and they sold corn in season at a roadside stand. and through the Coop general store. He wasn’t sure about Chris’s latest project—goat cheese—but he was willing give it a try even though Houdini spent more time wandering outside his fenced pasture than servicing the harem he had in it.

“He’s just an intelligent Nubian goat,” Chris grinned when Lee complained. “You’ll notice he never takes his ladies outside the fence, and you always find him somewhere close to them. He just refuses to accept the fact that you think of him as a domesticated animal.”

Lee’s jury was still out on the goats until he tasted Chris’s first batch of Tomme de Chevre Aydius.

The real question was this: If the cheese was a success, would they make enough for Chris to stay home after their third child was born?

Lee mulled the money issue over as he moved from chore to chore, hay for the sheep and goats with cracked corn for the chickens while he and John gathered their eggs. For all the boy’s inability to stay still, the child had a well-tuned instinct for carrying fresh eggs without breaking them. And John was the only one could get into the small nook where one of their Ameraucanas liked to hide her pale blue contributions to the Tennyson breakfast table.

When John started rubbing his eyes, Lee sat him up on a stool next to their seed sorting table, gave him a small bag of apple slices from his pocket, and then poured a jar’s worth of beet seeds across the sorting surface.

He and Lydie Talbot were both avid seed savers, and had been swapping and testing antique vegetables from each other’s gardens for a few years. This year, Edie Wolfe, Charlie Cooper, and Ruth Goodwin were part of the swap that Lee planned to host in his barn early in April.

With one eye on John and the other on a small glassine envelope, Lee counted out twenty seeds, rolling each one of the nubbly nuggets free of the group with his thumb.

“This is for Edie,” he told John as he opened the flap of a second envelope, and started counting again.

He was on the fourth packet when his thoughts strayed back to the library’s annual midwinter fundraiser, a Taste of Carding, that he and Chris had enjoyed. There were always strange concoctions to try—zucchini pickles, hot pepper jelly, flat bread pesto pizza, a wide variety of cheeses all made in Vermont, and relishes, chutneys, salsas, and sauce.

There was this one jar at a tasting table filled with a curried sweet potato salsa that beckoned every time Lee walked by. He and Chris eventually struck up a conversation with the vendor who called herself an “aggie entrepreneur,” and their talk turned to value-added farming.

“Dairy farmers got tired of seeing all their profits go down the hill in a milk truck, and so they started making cheese which added a value to the milk that people were willing to pay for,” the woman said. “We all know how the price of milk fluctuates but the price of a good cheese…well…that’s pretty constant.” Christine’s head had snapped up when she heard that, which is the reason why they owned a billy goat named Houdini and three does named Bippity, Boppity, and Boo.

“I looked around and realized no one was doing much with sweet potatoes,” the woman continued, “so I figured I had a niche.”

Lee picked up one of his beet seeds, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger while he imagined a beet empire based on salsas, relishes, pickles, barbecue sauce, pesto, and chips. Did he dare? Could he do that?

The cock crowed, and so did John. Lee finished his packaging, labeled the small envelopes, and then lifted his son to the floor of the barn. The little one looked up, his cheeks brightened by the cool air of early spring. “Ready Daddy?” he asked, curling his fingers around Lee’s index finger.

Lee slipped the jar of seeds into his pocket. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I think so.”

The next Carding Chronicle will be published on April 1. And then six days later, on April 7, I’ll start sending you installments of The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, the next novel about Carding, Vermont.

If you enjoy your visits to Carding, please tell your friends and encourage them to subscribe. The more the merrier, eh?

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