Day One Hundred Twenty Seven
But getting Charles’ mother-in-law to the village for burial was no dream. He readied the wagon, grim and silent, while I stood with Flecha in the paddock, apologizing to her for what would certainly turn out to be another day of neglect. I had hoped to trot her on a lead today and check her gait. Well, another day of cropping the grass wouldn’t hurt her any.
We drove through the woods in silence at first, but as we neared the village, I asked Charles why we weren’t burying his mother-in-law on his own land. “You seemed concerned last night that people would make a big deal out of it,” I said. “It seems like we’d have been better off handling it ourselves.”
He looked at me in surprise. “I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, but all deaths here have to be registered, especially if there’s property involved. I’m her only heir, even though she hated me at the end. I don’t want her land for myself, but I do want legal rights to it so I can properly dispose of it.”
“What do you mean, dispose of it?”
“Give it away, of course.”
“The other reason we’re going to town,” he said, “Is because I want her buried next to Vickie.”
He said nothing else until we reached town. This time we bypassed the area where the festival had been and went straight to the heart of the village, passing the town hall. . .
And finally ending up at what seemed like a very nice house.
“Who lives here?” I asked, as Charles halted the donkey. “They must be rich.”
“If we get another cholera epidemic, I’m sure they will be,” he said. “This is the funeral home.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I followed him to the front door. Our knock was answered by a pretty young woman only a few years older than me. She had big brown eyes and shiny blonde hair that reminded me of morning sun reflected on the lake. She seemed startled to see Charles, then recovered and gave him a smile that implied a lot more than just pleasure at the chance for her family to do some business. I was jealous, even though I knew I shouldn’t be. Who was I to care if a local girl liked him? I would be on the road soon, and he and this young lady would probably live out their whole lives in this place.
I tried to push my feelings aside, even though the young woman, whose name was Susannah, gave me a nod that I could barely describe as civil and then proceeded to ignore me.
Charles was too distracted to do more than pace the room while I sat in a shabby chair and wondered what would happen next. Susannah left and returned a few minutes later with a teenage boy who hardly looked old enough to be an authority on much of anything, but he and Susannah urged Charles into a seat and set about the business of arranging a burial. Such formality seemed strange to me. Back home, we buried our own or took them to the local church. Here, death seemed to be a business, and it was hard not to show my disgust when Charles counted out some gold and silver coins into Susannah’s hand.
“I want to keep this private,” he said. “No special notices beyond what’s required by law.”
Susannah nodded and gave her brother a sharp look. “That means don’t tell Caleb, or he’ll tell all his little paper-hawker friends.”
“I don’t know how you think he’ll not find out,” the boy said. “Should I lock him in his room until after tomorrow? Mom wouldn’t like that.”
Susannah sighed and turned to Charles. “We’ll do our best.”
With the arrangements made, everyone shook hands. When Susannah turned to me, I forced myself to smile, in spite of the hostility in her eyes and the way she held Charles’ hand longer than had seemed professional. “Will I see you tomorrow?” she asked.
When I assured her that she would, she turned away. Well, let her be mad. If she wants Charles, she’s had years to let him know. Now she can darn well wait until I’m gone.
Our next errand was the town hall, where I spent several boring hours waiting for Charles to handle some administrative matters. At one point he was told that the certificate the funeral home had given him wasn’t the right kind. “Can you go back and ask them for another?” he asked me. “We’ll get through faster if I don’t have to leave and come back.”
I had no desire to face Susannah again, but anything was better than that we should have to begin bureaucratic negotiations all over again. I returned to the funeral home and knocked on the door.
This time a little boy answered. He had unruly hair and a splash of freckles across his nose. When I asked to see Susannah, he took off at a thundering run that rattled the windows. After a few minutes, Susannah came into the room, sedate, serious, and clearly not pleased to see me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “But a man at the town hall told us we need a different type of certificate.” I handed her the one she had given us and explained what was needed.
She frowned. “This is the kind we always give out.”
I shrugged. What did I know about it?
She snatched the paper from my hand and stomped over to a desk. “Stupid bureaucrats,” she mumbled, more for herself than for me. “You’d think this was a city, with the way people carry on. Like we don’t all know each others’ business anyway.”
After rummaging in a drawer, she pulled out some papers and made a new certificate. She stamped it with a seal and handed it to me. It looked no different than the first one, except that the paper was pale blue instead of white.
I thanked her, but to my surprise she wouldn’t let me have the document. “How long are you planning on staying around here? People say you’re going to be Charles’ next wife.”
I dropped my hand, stunned. Although I had toyed with the notion of staying, hearing it spoken aloud was another matter. “He hasn’t asked me,” I said. “I’m only here until my horse is better, then I’m leaving.”
She looked like she didn’t believe me. “If you’re not marrying him, how come people say you are?”
“I have no idea, but I swear I’m on my way to Kentucky. Besides,” I added, “I can’t marry him. I’ve already got a husband back home.”
I waited for her to express shock or disgust, but instead she smiled. “You’re serious? He really hasn’t asked you to stay?” She pushed the certificate into my hands. “You look so much like Vickie, I’d have thought—”
I suddenly felt sick and didn’t hear the rest of what she said. I looked like Charles' dead wife? A lot of things now made sense—the way he looked at me the night I showed up on his doorstep, the way Rachel smirked and seemed so sure that something would happen between us, and the way people stared at me at the festival. Now it all added up.
“I had no idea I looked like anyone but myself,” I said, trying to cover for my confusion. I looked at the paper in my hand, trying to focus my mind on anything but the inevitable conclusions my mind was trying to draw. If I looked like Vickie and shared some of her interests, did Charles even like me at all, or was he just living in the past?
“Thanks for redoing the certificate,” I said.
I turned to go, but Susannah put a hand on my arm. “Are you okay?”
I said it in such firm tones that she didn’t dare argue, but she tagged to the door after me, anyway. Just as I was starting down the steps, she said my name. I turned around.
“You got a proper dress for the funeral tomorrow?”
I hadn’t even thought about it. “No, but I’ll figure something out.”
“I think I’ve got something that will fit. Tell Charles you need to come a little early, okay?”
When I got back to the town hall, Charles was impatient and took the certificate to the authority who had been giving him so much trouble. I went outside and found a place to sit under some trees. I tried to think, but thoughts wouldn’t come, other than the same ones that had already been whirling in my brain. I looked like Vickie and I liked the same things she liked. Charles didn’t want me for who I was, but for who I represented.
A street musician approached and I let him play a song for me. It was a sweet, romantic bit of drivel, and I gave him a coin to go away. He left me to enjoy the far superior songs of the birds in the trees, and I lay back on the grass and tried to get my bearings. It was restful to have the ground supporting the full length of my body. Lying on the living earth like this, I could almost feel the planet breathe. The world was alive. There were no problems I couldn’t overcome. I closed my eyes and tried to draw the strength of the world into my body.
When Charles sought me out an hour later, he found me asleep with a chipmunk watching from a nearby rock. Or at least, that’s what he said. I didn’t see the chipmunk, so he could’ve made it up.
It was nearly dark by the time we got home, and Charles looked at the darkening sky in frustration. “I had hoped to go back to the cabin and do some investigating,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow or the day after.”
“You decided not to have the policeman do it?”
He shook his head. “I don’t trust him to do it right. He’s got other concerns.”
We had some of yesterday’s leftovers for supper tonight, along with a dessert of stewed plums from the previous summer’s canning. I drank more wine than I should have, and fumbled with my mending after supper. Charles didn’t notice. When we went to bed, I couldn’t enjoy his lovemaking because I kept wondering if he was thinking about Vickie instead of me. I was glad when he fell asleep and I could come out here to the kitchen and pour another glass of wine.
I don’t want to have to think any more tonight.
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