Day One Hundred Thirty Three
I went to the barn, where I let Flecha and the donkey out into the paddock. I checked the chicken coop, where I found an unusual number of eggs, and then I went back to the house.
Still no sign of Charles.
So I ate breakfast alone. The silence of the house was more damning than any baleful looks he could’ve given me. I felt guilty, condemned, and waiting for judgment. It wasn’t wrong to want to seek out my own destiny, but I had been careless, not thinking how my actions might make him feel. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t think ahead and see situations through to their obvious conclusions?
I couldn’t finish breakfast. It was terrible of me to waste good food, but with my stomach starting to tighten up in knots, I couldn’t eat another bite.
I cleaned up the kitchen then went to my room and counted out my money and valuables. I tried to think of all the treatments Flecha had—ice, packs with iodine in them, drying poultices, new shoes. . . I sighed and scooped everything into a kerchief, knotted it and put it in my pocket. It wasn’t enough, but maybe Rachel would understand.
I left a note on the kitchen table, telling Charles where I was going, and then I saddled Flecha and headed up the road to Rachel’s place.
When I got there, I found her busy in her garden. She looked up at me in surprise. “What brings you here? Flecha’s not having trouble, is she? How are those shoes?”
“She seems fine,” I said. “I just wanted to get one last check before I head out tomorrow. And I wanted to pay you and thank you for all you’ve done.”
Rachel stood up, rubbing her muddy hands on her pants and frowning. “You’re still planning on leaving? Did Charles not ask—“
She ducked her head. “He asked if I thought he should. I said why not? You can’t go through life afraid to ask simple a yes or no question.”
I jumped off my horse. “That was hardly a simple question. I’ve got the whole rest of my life to be thinking about, and I’m not ready to be making those kinds of commitments.”
“Just how old are you?”
Rachel looked at me sharply. “The way you carry yourself, and the experiences you’ve had, I would’ve thought you were several years older.”
“What difference would that make? I’d still be my own person, with my own plans.”
“That’s true.” She took Flecha’s reins and led her back to the road. She seemed to be thinking, so I remained silent. “You mind if I ride her up and down a bit? I want to get a feel for her gait.”
I didn’t mind at all, and watched as she trotted Flecha back and forth, then cantered her and even kicked her into a brief gallop. She pulled up in front of me looking pleased.
“Now you do what I just did, and I’ll watch.”
So I tried to mimic the exercise, feeling happy with the way Flecha tugged at the reins when I let her gallop. She wanted her head, wanted to go fast, and that was a good sign. “What do you think?” I asked, walking her back and forth afterwards.
“I think she’ll be fine, if you’re careful. How far were you planning to go each day? And do you have a route?”
I didn’t have a route, so after Flecha cooled down and we turned her loose in the paddock, we went inside the house, where Rachel had some maps. She made herbal tea for us both, and we sipped it as we discussed routes east. I was dismayed to learn that I was too far north. Heading due east would put me in Illinois, not Kentucky!
“Depending on where in Kentucky you’re headed, it might be for the best,” Rachel said. She pointed to the state lines. “Cross the southern tip of Illinois, and you’ll be in eastern Kentucky.”
I wasn’t interested in such fine distinctions. “I just want to get to Kentucky. How do I do that?”
Rachel sighed and muttered something that sounded like, “I guess you really are nineteen,” then she proceeded to show me a route that would take me to a river town. “From there, you can catch a boat down the Mississippi. Get off at any of these places,” she pointed again, “And you’ll be in Kentucky.”
“I can’t take a boat. What about Flecha?”
She laughed. “Honey, the boats are huge. You can take your horse, and a dozen more if you’ve got them. Trust me.”
I tried to picture a boat big enough for people and horses, but the only image that came to mind was that of a painting I once saw of a big wooden boat with white things like wings. The boat was being tossed around in a storm, and the thought that I might have to endure something like that worried me. “Aren’t there any bridges?”
“None left that I would trust. You’re better off on a boat.” She patted my hand. “It’ll be okay. Really.”
I nodded, pretending a confidence I didn’t feel at all. “It’s just I don’t know anything about boats and rivers so big you can’t see the other side.”
“They didn’t teach you these things in school?”
“I never went to school. There hadn't been one for years in the valley where I grew up. My mother taught me to read, and I’ve read a lot of books, but none about boats.”
Rachel got up and went into another room. When she came back, she had a book for me. “It’s not about boats,” she said, “But it’s about a man who traveled on a long and difficult journey by boat, and about the interesting people and strange creatures he met along the way.”
I took the book and frowned at the unfamiliar title, trying to pronounce it: Odyssey. Seeing from Rachel’s smile that I had pronounced it correctly, I thanked her. “I guess it’s kind of like my journey? Full of adventures?”
“Well, hopefully you’ll meet with no monsters or witches, but yes.”
“I think I’ll like it, then. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a new book.” On impulse, I stood up and hugged her. This seemed to take her by surprise, but then she put her arms around me and held me close.
“Do be careful out there, okay?”
I nodded and pulled away, taking the knotted kerchief out of my pocket. “How much do I owe you for Flecha?”
To my surprise, she waved her hand. “Don’t worry about it. It’s been taken care of.”
“Don’t be that way. Besides, I don’t want Charles paying for things for me. He’s done enough.”
We bickered for a bit, finally agreeing on a price that didn’t seem too ridiculously low. I left the money on the table, and we went to get Flecha. I hugged Rachel again before I mounted, trying not to cry. I would miss her.
“If you don’t find what you’re looking for in Kentucky, we’ll still be here,” she said.
I nodded and said I wouldn’t forget, but I think we both know I won’t be back. I gave a curt little wave and kicked Flecha into a fast walk, then a trot. I needed to get away fast, or I wouldn’t ever do it.
When I got home, there was still no sign of Charles, nor any sign that he had even read my note. I flung myself on the sofa, feeling sorry for myself, and opened the book Rachel had given me. I read for awhile, then dozed off. I was awakened by a knock on the door. I was getting to my feet to answer when I heard a shout from the direction of the herb garden. It was Charles, calling to whoever was at the door.
I peeked out the kitchen window and saw a boy with a basket trot up to Charles, who took the basket and removed a note from inside. He read it with a frown, then crumpled it and shoved it in a pocket. He pocketed something else that I couldn’t make out, then filled the basket with sprigs of peppermint and coriander, and sent the child on his way.
I wanted to go out to the garden, but felt suddenly shy. Surely if Charles was back from wherever he had been all day, he would come in soon. So I started preparing supper. And I ended up eating it alone. By now it was dusk and I couldn’t see Charles anywhere. I knew he was safe, since I had just seen him a couple hours before, but why wouldn’t he face me?
Running around looking for him would only make me look like a fool, so I covered his plate and put it in the warmer. Then I poured myself a glass of wine, put a fresh battery in a lantern, and sat down in the living room to read. But Charles’ empty chair in the corner seemed to fill the room, accusing me of so many horrible things that I finished off my wine, went to my room and threw myself on the bed.
And finally, the tears I couldn’t find last night came.
I didn’t hear Charles’ footsteps, but I felt his hand on my back. Somehow I had known he would come, and I cried harder. He didn’t say a word at first, only lay down beside me and drew me into his arms, where I cried all over his shirt. If it hurt his arm to hold me, he gave no sign. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I shouldn’t have pressured you. It wasn’t fair.”
“No, I wasn’t fair. I—“
He wouldn’t let me continue. “You always said you were leaving. I just didn’t want to hear. I thought you could learn to love it here. And maybe love me a little, too.”
That made me start crying all over again. “But I do,” I said, when I could finally choke out the words. “But that’s not—“
“I know. That’s not the point. And you’re right.” He fumbled in his pocket. “I made something for you. Want to see?”
I wiped my nose with my sleeve. Great. The best of my two tattered shirts was now dirty. “You don’t have to give me presents to make me stop crying, like I’m some kid.”
“But you are a kid. A very stubborn one.” He handed me a small wooden object.
I sat up, blinking, wiping my nose with my shirt again, since nothing else was handy, and my shirt was dirty, anyway. “It’s cute,” I said.
“I’ve been working on it for a few days. An appropriate gift for talented rabbit hunter.”
“Do I get a little bow and arrow, too?”
He kissed me and stood up. “Listen to you. As careless of your toys as you are of my heart.”
Before I could figure out if he was teasing or not, he added, “Since you say this is your last night, why don’t you change out of those dirty clothes and join me in my room?”
I sniffled and nodded. “Give me a little while. I need to wash up. But I’ll be there.”
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