Day One Hundred Twenty Three
I got up, brushed my hair and braided it, then went to the barn. Flecha was definitely better. Her injured hoof felt almost as cool as the others and I threw my arms around her neck and stood there for a few minutes, too relieved and grateful to even think. Then I fed her and the donkey, and went to see if the hens had laid any eggs.
Five! This was already a good day, and the sun wasn’t even fully up yet.
I could smell the coffee brewing as I went into the kitchen. Charles wasn’t around, and I didn’t know whether to be glad or disappointed. It’s embarrassing to confess your weaknesses to someone, and then have to face them the next day. I started setting out breakfast ingredients, concentrating on the task at hand. I had some tortillas left over from lunch the day before, and I had a sudden urge to make chilaquiles.
I hadn’t had a real home-like meal in so long that I was pretty excited, and when Charles finally came into the kitchen, he startled me singing over a skillet of eggs and cheese.
“You seem happy this morning,” he said.
“I guess I am.”
He looked over my shoulder. “Scrambled eggs?”
“They’re supposed to be chilaquiles. You got any chiles? Red or green, either is fine.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have any. I was disappointed, but the meal turned out okay, anyway. I had to show Charles how to scoop the eggs and cheese into the tortillas, and somewhere between the first cup of coffee and the last scrap of tortilla, I forgot I had used him as a confessor the night before and remembered only that he was a very good man. We cleaned up the kitchen together, and by then Rachel had arrived, and she and I went to the barn.
She felt Flecha’s hoof, then had me walk her back and forth. Rachel watched with a critical eye, then smiled. “She’s doing really well. You got lucky.”
“Don’t I know it.”
We put the boot on Flecha’s hoof and turned her out into the paddock. “I think you can back off the treatments,” Rachel said. “Just monitor her progress, use the boot a few more days, and let’s see how things go.”
This was wonderful news, and after Rachel left, I rubbed Flecha’s nose and congratulated her. “We grow up tough in the desert, don’t we?”
I sought out Charles to share the good news, unable to keep it to myself. I found him outside the barn, doing some maintenance on his donkey cart. “Flecha’s better!” I told him. “It looks like she won’t get a secondary infection, after all.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “So I guess that means no more running off to the barn every couple hours to put stuff on her hoof?”
“That’s right. She can spend all day outside.”
“So what were you planning on doing now?”
I looked around, as if some obvious task would catch my eye. We were caught up on work in the garden. Flecha didn’t need me. I had cleaned the house the day before. “Maybe I’ll look for wild plants and herbs,”
Charles set down his tools and looked at me curiously. “You know, that’s one of the things I don’t understand about you. I would’ve thought that after what you’ve been through, you’d be afraid to go into the woods alone.”
“You can’t indulge your fears for long during a war,” I said. “You learn to trust yourself again, or you die.”
“I suppose that’s true.” He picked up a sanding tool. “Just stay close, okay? And take a gun. It’s been a long time since there’s been trouble around here, but you never know. Even if you’re not sure if there’s a threat, fire three times in the air. I’ll come.”
Charles bent his head back over his work, but I wasn’t fooled. I went to his side and put a hand on his arm. “You don’t need to worry.”
“If you aren’t back by lunchtime, I’ll come find you.”
“That’s too soon.”
“I thought we’d take the boat out after lunch. Catch us some supper. Of course, if you have other plans. . .”
He knew how I loved the water. Was he trying to tempt me? It didn’t matter. I was going back out on the lake! I promised I’d be back soon, and went to find a basket.
I had pretty good success in the woods around the property. I stayed within sight of the trail, and found chokecherries, mushrooms, and spring beauty potatoes. I dug some birch roots and picked sassafras for tea. And in a grassy clearing, I found some clover and dandelions. I went back to the house feeling pleased with myself, and made quesadillas with the last of the tortillas. Charles asked if I was trying to turn him into a Mexican with my cooking. I told him to hush and eat, or I would send México Lindo to get him. “They’re the most dangerous group we had to fight,” I said. “Even more dangerous than the Texans.”
After lunch we gathered the fishing gear and went down to the boat. Once we were out on the water, we had to work silently, so as not to scare the fish. But it was a pretty day and it felt good to just sit quietly.
Sometimes when Charles thought I wasn’t looking, I studied him, noting the way his powerful hands worked with the delicate fishing lines and hooks, or the way his muscles moved beneath his shirt as he rowed. There was a stoic set to his jaw that made him look a little forbidding, but I knew better. He said he had lived alone for a long time, but it hardly seemed possible that such a gentle man and good provider didn’t have every local girl in the county on his doorstep, vying for his attention.
“I’m surprised you haven’t remarried,” I said, as we turned toward shore with our catch.
“Why do you say that?”
“What girl wouldn’t want a man like you?”
“What girl would? There’s things you don’t know about me, but everyone else around here knows very well.”
“They know you’re a nice guy who shares rabbits and food from his pantry with the poor. I hardly call that a bad quality.”
“Like I said, there’s things you don’t know.”
He seemed so solemn as we tied up the boat that I changed the subject to ordinary things as we went up the path to the house and cleaned the fish for supper. I let Charles cook, at his own insistence, and he turned out an amazing meal of fried trout with herbs and onions, with some of my wild potatoes and mushrooms on the side. I told him some of the stories from my travels as we ate, and he laughed when I told him about the carnival with the parrot and Aaron’s rigged games.
But when we went into the living room, Charles became serious. He didn’t even bother pretending that he would read, and instead sat near me while I darned one of my socks. “I feel like I owe you an explanation,” he said.
“You owe me nothing.”
“You told me some things last night that must’ve been painful for you, and you’ve asked a lot of questions that I’ve refused to answer. So yes, I do owe you.”
What he told me next was about as sad a story as any I’ve ever heard. Apparently the community had torn up the roads and felled trees to block itself off from the government during the worst years of the resource wars. “So they couldn’t come here and recruit,” Charles explained.
“You mean draft.”
“I mean kidnap.”
“That’s what happened to my father. I have no memory of him. He was picked up off the street in town and never came back.”
“That’s what we were hoping to avoid, but it didn’t keep the criminal element out. We had to organize.” His voice grew quiet. One night me and my wife were on patrol. We were supposed to work in pairs, but nothing ever happened on our watch and I had things to attend to at the house. Vickie said to go on, she liked the woods at night and not to worry. Raiders broke through the perimeter that night. I heard the first shot, but by the time I got to Vickie, it was too late.”
“I can’t imagine why you think your neighbors would hold such a thing against you. They must know that you’ve suffered for your mistake.”
Charles refused to meet my eyes. “The raiders went on to rob three houses and burned one to the ground. There were children inside. The scars you saw yesterday aren’t from me nobly trying to protect or avenge my wife, but from those children’s father. Some villagers stopped him, but I’ve often wished they had let him finish the job.”
“You should never wish that. There's no guarantee you could've stopped those men. And you do a lot of good.”
“It’ll never be enough.”
“I disagree, and so does Rachel. I bet a lot of others do, too.”
Charles shook his head, got up and went to the other side of the room and sat down as if he was going to read. I watched in silence for a minute, then laid my mending aside and went to him. “That’s not fair,” I said. “You can’t tell me that my mistakes are all forgiven because of the random good I’ve happened to do in this world, and then act like the same rules don’t apply to you.”
He didn’t answer and started reading aloud from one of his crazy books. It wasn’t shadows on cave walls this time, thank goodness, but it made almost as little sense. I stood there for awhile, thinking he would stop and look at me, but he didn’t.
What right did he have to comfort me over my troubles and refuse reassurance from me in return? It made me angry, although I’m not sure why. I turned away in disgust, stomped to my room and threw myself onto the bed. I wanted to cry, although there was no good reason to.
I must’ve dozed off, because what seemed a long time later, I heard a small sound in the doorway and sat up.
“I’m sorry,” Charles said.
“You should be. You just want to feel sorry for yourself.”
“Maybe I do.”
Then he left. I thought about going after him, but what good would that do? He has pretty things to say about forgiveness and doing good, and karma, and whatever other notions he’s got. He makes me believe it all and then refuses to apply a single word of it to himself. He’s selfish, is what he is. He thinks his own pain is different than anyone else’s. Well, it isn't.
I think I’ll go tell him so right now.
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