Day One Hundred Thirteen
I chased him down the hall, but the hall was no longer the hall of Auntie’s home with Miguel, but the tunnels of the mine we sheltered in two winters ago. When I caught up to Will, he refused to look me in the eye. He was closed off from me and defiant. I knew he would never forgive me. “But you betrayed me, first!” I said. Still he wouldn’t look at me or speak, and I knew he thought I was being childish, as if it mattered who had behaved badly first.
I woke up ashamed of myself, and so sad that it was like a physical pain in the pit of my stomach. Will and I had once been so close! He saved my life in Valle Redondo, and for many years he was everything to me. What kind of blindness had kept me from seeing that he was in love with me? And what kind of insanity made him think that if I married him in a moment of confusion and desperation, there could be any better outcome than this?
But the failure of our marriage was my fault, not his. I was weak to have married him when I loved someone else, and I was weaker still to not work through the problems we faced. Out here on my own, away from all the people who have tried to shape my life to suit their needs, I’m finally growing strong. Time and distance are wonderful—they make everything much more clear.
So I boiled some coffee this morning and watched the sky turn pink and gold through the branches of the trees. Now that I was completely awake, my dreams and memories receded, the way the morning mist on a lake is burned off by the sun. I could do nothing about the past except not repeat my mistakes in the future. In fact, maybe that’s the only honorable way to make amends for bad behavior—go forward and do better.
“I’ll become a good person, yet, Flecha,” I said. “Just wait and see.”
I continued my journey by skirting the rest of the plateau, after letting Flecha graze a little on the outskirts of a meadow. Then we went back into the trees and continued on our way.
The land became hillier. We were in an area that wasn’t mountainous in the way of the mountains back home, but by early afternoon I was definitely in an area that could no longer be called hills.
I was riding down a narrow, twisting path through the trees, relaxed and not nearly as alert as I should’ve been, when suddenly an arrow flew past, just missing Flecha’s chest! I reined in sharply, reached for my pistol and looked all around. I heard the twang of a bowstring and another arrow went by, this time not endangering us, but still near enough for me to wonder just what was going on. I pointed my gun in the direction the arrows had come from. “Who’s there? If you’re going to shoot, come face me like a man!”
There was a pause, then a rustling in the bushes. A moment later, a boy emerged, dirty and dressed in clothes that seemed more mud than cloth. He hardly looked old enough to handle the draw on the bow in his hand, but he met my gaze without fear. “I wasn’t shooting at you. I wanted that squirrel.”
I didn’t turn to look in the direction he indicated. I wasn’t that dumb. No telling what this kid would do if I turned my back. “Well, you missed it by a mile,” I said. “Why don’t you just set traps instead?”
“Traps don’t work.”
“They do, too. And what do you want a squirrel for, anyway? If you’re hungry, catch some fish or a shoot a rabbit.”
The boy sighed in exasperation. “I’m trying, okay? It’s hard.”
“Haven’t you got a grownup to help you?”
“Not until my dad gets back.”
The boy’s name was Tristan and he went on to explain that when his mother “took sick,” his father went to get medicine. He was supposed to be back in a few days, but days had become weeks, his mother had died, and his father still hadn’t returned. “I don’t mind so much,” Tristan said. “But my sister cries all the time and says she’s hungry.”
“Well, I’ve got food I can share. Take me to her.”
So he did. Their cabin was set back from the road, in a clearing. It seemed in pretty good repair. There was a well and evidence of some gardening going on. Flecha balked as we came near the cabin, though, and with good reason. I wrinkled my nose and tried not to breathe more than I had to.
“Where did you bury your mother?” I asked.
Tristan looked at me and didn’t have to say a word.
I tethered Flecha to a tree, rubbed a kerchief with herbs and tied it over my nose and mouth before following Tristan inside. How he could stand the stench was a mystery to me, except that I guess by now he was used to it. In the front room of the cabin, a thin girl of perhaps four, sat listlessly on the floor clutching a toy duck.
“Hey, Jade,” Tristan said, “This lady says she’s got some food for you.”
Jade got to her feet. She didn’t say anything, but the hope and hunger in her eyes was painful to see. I had brought in one of my packs, and now I set it on the floor and took out two of Ruth’s biscuits from the day before. I handed one to each of the children and they devoured them so quickly that I couldn’t help wondering if I had imagined the biscuits, and they had never existed at all.
The crumbs around Jade’s mouth served as proof, and now she came closer and looked in my bag. “No,” I said. “I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve eaten, so let’s make sure your food is going to stay down, first.” At the look of panic in her eyes, I added, “Don’t worry. You’ll get more. You’ll be fat as a spring robin before we’re through. Just be patient, okay? Food won’t do you any good if you eat too much, too fast, and it all comes up again.”
I looked around the room. It was cluttered and dusty, but not squalid. The children had either not been making any messes or had been taught to clean up after themselves. The source of the foul odor wasn’t in this room, so I figured it was coming from behind the door at the back of the cabin—the door that led into what must be the parents’ room.
Tristan saw where I was looking. “I thought I should wait until Dad came home,” he said.
“That was a good idea,” I said, “But I think you’ve waited long enough. But let’s go have a picnic and talk about it.”
I took the children outside and found us a spot upwind where I could take my mask off and breathe some fresh air. We spread a blanket on the ground, Tristan drew a bucket of well water, and we had a simple lunch of eggs, cheese, more biscuits, and dried fruit. I made the children eat slowly so they wouldn’t get sick, even though I think they would’ve gladly gone through my pack with the speed of marauding insects.
“So where would you like to bury your mother?” I asked when we were through. I could think of no delicate way to ask it.
Tristan frowned. “With Grandma, I guess.”
He did. It was a pretty good spot, away from the well and the gardens, and at the edge of the tree line.
“You got shovels?”
He did. And so while Jade nibbled raisins in the shade of a tree, Tristan and I dug a grave. The ground was sandy and easy to work with, thank goodness, and Tristan was pretty strong, for a kid. We finished in late afternoon, and stood at the edge of the hole, admiring our work. “How about you take your sister to pick some flowers?” I said. Then I leaned closer so Jade wouldn’t hear. “I think it would be better if she didn’t see me bring your mother out here.” I didn’t mention that it would be better for him, too.
Tristan nodded. “Come on, Jade. Let’s go pick flowers for Mommy.”
Once they were gone, I made my way back to the cabin, scanning the grounds for anything like a cart that might make this task easier. But of course I had no such luck. I pulled my kerchief back up over my face and went inside.
It was worse than I had imagined. I’ve buried people before, but never after more than a day’s time, and always in the desert, where the dead are more likely to mummify than rot. But this—oh, I already knew about maggots and blowflies, and similar disgusting things, and I thought I was prepared. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to deal with the dead woman, and I especially hadn't expected to find an infant with her, bloated and half-consumed by the disgusting creatures that feed on the flesh of the dead.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did was open the window and the second thing I did was lean out of it and puke into the bushes below. The herbed kerchief did little to mask the smell and couldn’t help at all with what I had seen. I was dizzy, disgusted, and terrified all at the same time. I half-expected to feel a touch on my shoulder from some rat-nibbled, maggot-infested specter of living death. Only the thought of the children made me strong enough to turn from the window and return to the bed, holding my breath and averting my eyes.
I wrapped the two bodies together in the blankets from the bed. Once they were tightly bundled, I felt a little better. I opened the rest of the windows so the room could air out, then dragged the bodies out of the cabin, down the path and to the grave site. I shuddered at the sound when I tossed the bundle into the hole in the ground. Then I pulled the kerchief off my face, and since the children weren’t back yet, I gathered a few pine boughs and threw them in to help counter the last of the smell.
It was dusk when the children returned with the flowers. By now I had lit a few candles around the grave. I washed the children and myself, we all put on clean clothes and had a candlelight funeral. I spoke what words I could remember from Auntie’s Bible readings and from Joaquin’s service for Ishkin in January. I asked the children if they had anything they wanted to say, and I let them ramble for a bit. I let them cry, too. Then we tossed a few flowers and token handfuls of earth into the grave.
Then I sent the children into the house to light the stove, bring in some water and get everything ready so I could cook supper. While they did that, I shoveled the dirt back into the hole. It wasn’t as hard a job as I had feared, since we had piled it up beside the grave and it was a simple matter of shoveling it back in. I tried to mound it neatly over the top like I had seen Sebastian do with new graves at Valle Redondo, but I guess there’s an art to doing it right, because it looked uneven and sloppy. But with the rest of the children’s flowers scattered about and a lone candle burning, it looked all right. We could finish tidying it up in the morning.
I went back inside and made us a supper of fried potatoes and boiled jerky. There were nuts, dried apples and birch tea for dessert. After supper, I tried to tell the children some stories, but Jade kept interrupting with questions about Heaven. As if I knew anything about it! But I answered as best I could.
When I tried to put the children to bed in their own room, they refused. They had been sleeping for so long in the front room that it had become habit. So while they stretched out on the sofas, I made myself a pallet on the floor. I think they were glad to have an adult nearby, because they fell asleep quickly. Poor things probably hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since their father left to get medicine.
I wonder what happened to their father? I don’t mind leaving the children here with food, if he’ll be back, but what if something happened to him on the way? If he’s never going to return, I need to get the kids to a safe place.
But that’s a lot for me to think about tonight. The cool night breezes are blowing through the open windows, fluttering the curtains and blowing away the last of the smell of death. Already this house feels friendlier, more at peace. I’ve had a hard day and I’m exhausted.
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