Day One Hundred Twenty Six
I think as long as I live I’ll never get tired of the feel of mist on my face, and the way it dampens my hair and clings in little drops on my lashes. People who haven’t grown up with sandstorms instead of rain can’t possibly understand how refreshing fog on a spring morning can be.
Flecha didn’t seem to have much of an opinion on the fog. And neither did Charles’ donkey. But on my way up to the house from gathering eggs (three today!) I saw a rabbit in one of the gardens, thinking the mist obscured him from view.
“How are we supposed to hunt in this?” I asked Charles over breakfast.
He looked out the window. “It’s not so bad. And it won’t last long.”
Of course he knew his land better than I did, and he was right. The fog soon lifted. We went to a section of the woods near the lake where no one lived any more, and split up. I found raccoons and rabbits in abundance.
There were plenty of deer tracks too, but we were only after small game. When Charles and I met back up, I had three rabbits, and he had four plus some squirrels. I was disappointed, since I’ve always prided myself on my hunting skills. Charles teased me all the way back to the house about what kinds of favors he would expect from me, having won the bet as to who was the better hunter. But when we got home and set to skinning our game, I noticed that some of his didn’t have wounds.
“You bastard,” I said, “You’re trying to pass off animals from your traps!”
He laughed and admitted it was true.
I did a re-count of our kill and declared myself the winner of the contest.
We built a fire outside so we would have room to work, and began making jerky. Charles cut the rabbit meat into strips, and I boiled it in a mixture of salt, pepper and honey. Then I fished the pieces out and draped them over racks and lines we had set out for that purpose.
When we were done, we covered everything with netting so the flies wouldn’t bother it, and declared ourselves finished. The project had taken the better part of the day and we were hungry. Charles had been stewing the squirrels in a pot inside a solar cooker while we worked, but they weren’t done, so I contented myself with some of the previous night’s leftovers while I cleaned up our work area and Charles took the rabbit hides and nailed them against the side of the barn to dry.
We had left one rabbit unskinned and uncooked, and now Charles suggested we take it to a neighbor of his—an older woman who lived alone. “I take her things from time to time,” he explained. “She doesn’t like me to, but I do it anyway.”
“Why doesn’t she like you to give her things? Is she too proud?”
Charles gave a shrug, but I got the sense that it wasn’t from ignorance, but because he didn’t want to talk about it. He put the rabbit in a canvas bag, then filled a basket with fresh vegetables and jars of preserves. We hitched the donkey to the cart and set out.
We drove down a well-used road, then turned onto increasingly smaller and narrower paths until finally we could go no farther. Charles helped me down from the cart, handed me the basket and slung the canvas bag onto his shoulder. “It’s not much farther,” he said. “But from here on, try not to make any noise.”
I did as he said, feeling increasingly puzzled as we picked our way single-file through the woods. Finally we came to the edge of a clearing, and in the distance was a little cabin. It didn’t look like much. It was still and silent, with no signs of movement behind the curtains, no plume of smoke from the stovepipe or chimney. The garden looked in need of weeding.
Charles took the basket from my hands. “Wait here.”
He went to the front door, set down our offerings, knocked, and ran back to me, dropping to the ground to hide from view and urging me into the bushes with him. I crouched down and peered through the leaves, watching the door, holding my breath and waiting.
But nothing happened.
Charles frowned. “That’s not like her.”
“Maybe she went to town. Or to visit a friend.”
“No. She keeps to herself.”
“How about I go knock?” I said.
Charles agreed that this was a good idea, so I stood up, brushed the leaves and pine needles off myself, and went to the door. There was something too quiet and spooky about the place. But I fought down my instincts and instead knocked at the door.
Again, no response.
Now I was curious. I went to one of the windows and tried to peek inside, but it was closed, the curtains drawn. The other windows were the same. Why would the windows all be closed in such fine spring weather? Something wasn’t right.
By now Charles had reached the same conclusion and come out of the woods. “I wonder if she’s sick,” he said.
“Maybe she moved away.”
“She has no place to move to.”
“Doesn’t she have family—siblings, cousins, children?”
Charles’ eyebrows flickered, but he didn’t answer. Instead he put his hand on the door and gave it a push.
The little cabin had been ransacked. Furniture was overturned, stuffing ripped from seat cushions and mattresses, mirrors broken, and books tossed about. Mud streaked the floor, and glass crunched under our feet. Mice scurried away at the sound of our footsteps, and there was a faint, familiar odor that I prayed wasn’t what I thought it was.
Charles’ eyes widened. He glanced all around, then hurried to the back of the house. “Ms. Stevenson! Peggy!” And then, “Mother!”
I chased after him and found him in the next room, standing in stunned silence in front of a bundle of quilts on the floor. They were rat-gnawed and spotted with dried blood. Here too, was the familiar smell, stronger now, but thankfully muffled by all the blankets.
I felt my heart skip a beat and slipped my hand into his.
He shook his head in bewilderment. “Who would’ve done this? She was just an old lady. Just a nice old lady who never bothered anyone, never wanted anything, and—“ He choked on the rest of the words.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I pulled him away, back into the other room, and made him sit on the ruined couch. I opened a few windows, then sat beside him and waited.
After what seemed a long time, he said that we would have to take her home, and in the morning we would take her to town for burial. We had a terrible time getting the body back up the trail to the cart, and the donkey didn’t seem at all pleased with his new cargo. But once we were back on the main road, we made good time. When we got to the house, Charles ordered me out of the wagon, saying he would handle the rest, and that he needed time alone to think.
I went inside, cleaned myself up and then remembered the squirrel stew we had left outside in the solar cooker. By now it was nearly dark, and the food had cooled, so I put the pot on the stove in the kitchen and heated it up. But when Charles finally came in to wash, he wasn’t hungry and instead poured himself a glass of strong–smelling moonshine and went off by himself. After I had eaten a little, I followed.
I found him sitting alone by a window, a book on his lap, staring at nothing in particular. The glass by his side was empty, and when I sat down beside him, I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I wouldn’t want anyone trying to say I killed her.”
“Why would anyone say such a silly thing as that? No one kills their own mother.”
“She wasn’t my mother, she was Vickie’s mother.”
Of course. He had called her Ms. Stevenson. I blushed at my stupidity. “Well, they still wouldn’t think you had done it.”
He sighed. “They won’t say so in your presence, but it’s what they’ll all think—not that I killed her directly, but that it’s my fault she was vulnerable. She was never very stable, and after Vickie died, she shut herself off from everyone, let the path to her house get overgrown, and refused to have anything to do with anyone. If she hadn’t been so isolated, something like this couldn’t have happened.”
“Maybe so, but who would want to kill an old lady?”
Charles sighed and took my hand. “There’s so much more to this than you realize. Just believe me when I say that she was always a target.”
“Was she a hoarder? Was she rich?”
His refusal to answer said it all.
“Well, I would’ve never guessed it, based on how she lived. So it had to have been someone who knew her.”
“That’s what worries me.”
Charles’ eyes met mine and I suddenly felt cold. “No one would come here and bother us, would they?”
He pulled me close and wrapped his arms around me so tight I could hardly breathe. “I would never let anyone hurt you,” he whispered.
I believed him at the time, but now that he’s finally asleep, after a second glass of moonshine and a lovemaking that almost frightened me in its intensity, I’m not so sure. I’m sleeping with my hunting knife under my pillow and with my pistol and shotgun within arm’s reach. I had thought this was a safe place, but I guess I was only fooling myself. There’s really no such thing.
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