Day One Hundred Twenty Two
When I returned to the house, after stopping by the chicken coop and collecting only two eggs, I found a boy sitting at the kitchen table. Charles was rummaging through the pantry, filling a bag with food. I said hello to the boy and asked Charles if I could help. “Should I start breakfast?” I glanced at the boy. “There’s only two eggs, but with some milk, cheese and vegetables, I can stretch them out to feed us all.”
Charles glanced at the boy. “What do you think, Matt? Breakfast?”
The boy shook his head. “Grandma said to come straight home.”
“All right, then.” Charles added some potatoes to the bag.
After the boy had gone, Charles answered my inquisitive look with a shrug. “Can’t let neighbors go hungry.”
“Seems like living alone, you have as much as you can handle just feeding yourself and your animals.”
“Do good, and sometimes good things happen. Besides, it's what we owe each other in this world.”
After breakfast, we worked in the garden for a bit.
Then Rachel came with more ice and I went with her to the barn. “Flecha’s anxious to go outside,” I said. “She’s starting to put a little weight on that foot. What do you think?”
Rachel agreed it would be good for Flecha to go outdoors and move around. “I just don’t want her to pick up another stone, while that frog is still so sensitive. Maybe we can make a boot for her.”
Charles had a lot of hides from his trapping and hunting, and he agreed we could have one for our project. It didn’t take long to make the boot, since it didn’t have to look good. Flecha wasn’t pleased to have a leather bag on her foot, but we wrapped it tight, so it wouldn’t fall off or flap around, but once she was out in the fresh air, she forgot all about it and fell to cropping the grass. It made me happy to see her so content.
By now, Charles had come to see how our project was coming along. I didn’t realize he was watching me until he said, “I think you’re happier than she is.”
“You only say that because horses can’t smile.”
Rachel looked at us both in her curious way, but said nothing.
After she left, Charles said for me to help myself to whatever I wanted for lunch, but that he wouldn’t be joining me. He was going to check his traps and do some hunting.
“Can I come? I’m a good hunter.”
He said it in such vehement tones that I didn’t dare argue, although I found his attitude puzzling and not just a little insulting. I watched him head down the path toward the forest and thought to myself that I would have to tell him a little more about my past than I had intended. Once he understood that I was an experienced hunter, surely he wouldn’t argue with me about going into the woods to track deer or rabbits. If he was going to treat me like a delicate flower, it would be a long wait for Flecha’s full recovery.
With an entire afternoon on my hands and no one else around, I made some tortillas and then a quesadilla with cheese and vegetables. I took it to the dock to eat, enjoying the view of the lake.
Then I checked on Flecha, and was happy to see she hadn’t made any effort to take off her boot. She came up to the fence to see me, moving better than she had a few days ago, and I patted her neck and shoulder. It seemed ridiculous that it should be such a perfect day for travel, and here we were, stranded. “Soon, Flechita,” I told her.
I went back to the house and spent the afternoon doing ordinary domestic chores—cleaning things, sweeping, and selecting things to add to my mending pile so I would have work to do after supper. I went through Charles’ linen closet, but decided it would be best not to go through his bedroom, even though I was pretty sure he had socks that needed darning. All men have holes in their socks, but few seem to know what to do about it, other than get new socks. But I didn’t know Charles well enough to go through his things, so I contented myself with towels and pillowcases, and figured I could ask if he had any clothes for me to mend. He would probably say no, but it was worth trying.
Around mid-afternoon I returned to the paddock. It was time for Flecha’s poultice, and she was disappointed to be led back into the barn. I doctored her hoof, told her I’d be back in a couple of hours and started up the trail to the house. To my surprise and delight, Charles was back, and he had shot a couple of rabbits and a wild turkey! “We’re going to be eating good for awhile,” I said, entirely forgetting that I had been annoyed with him.
“If no one needs these more than we do,” he said. “But in the meantime, what would you like for supper? Rabbit or turkey?”
Decisions are so hard! I had been craving a good rabbit stew recently, but it had been a long time since I’d had turkey. “How about the turkey?”
He nodded and took the rabbits away while I plucked the turkey and prepared it for roasting. To make the cooking time shorter, I cut it into pieces, even though I love the festive look of a whole roast bird. I got the fire going in the cook stove and put the bird in the oven. Then I went to put on a clean shirt. As I was passing Charles’ room, I tapped on the door, thinking this would be a good time to ask if he had any mending for me. To my surprise, the door swung open at my touch. Inside, Charles was standing at the washstand, shirtless.
I drew in my breath, my hand frozen on the doorknob. Arcing across his back in a fleshy red crescent was the most horrible scar I had seen in my life. And when he turned to look at me, there were several more just like it across his chest and down his arms, as if someone had taken a jagged knife and sliced him up like the turkey in the oven.
He stared at me and I struggled to find my voice. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know the door would open. I only knocked to ask if you had any mending I could do.”
He said nothing. I was so embarrassed at the way his eyes remained fixed on mine, that I murmured, “I’m sorry,” and shut the door.
When he came into the kitchen a little later, I kept my head down, as if slicing vegetables required my full concentration.
I shook my head and kept working. “I should’ve been more careful and looked to see if the door was completely closed. I should’ve...“
He moved so close I could feel the heat of his body. His hand closed around mine, halting my work with the knife. “It doesn’t matter.”
I looked up at him. “What happened?”
“It must’ve been a big one.”
He let me go and walked away. I returned to preparing supper.
At the dinner table, we tried to pretend like everything was normal, but it wasn’t. There was something deeply personal about those scars, and whatever it was hung in the air between us as we ate. I sipped my wine and tried to make light conversation, wondering why I felt so foolish.
After supper, I settled in the living room with my mending, and Charles sat down and picked up a book, but didn’t open it. Instead, he watched me for so long that finally I asked, “Is what I’m doing that interesting?”
“I feel like I owe you an apology and don’t know where to begin.”
“If anything, I should apologize to you for being so nosy and demanding.”
He smiled slightly. “You’ve been nothing of the sort, and I’m well aware of what I look like. Of course you wonder.”
He sighed and picked up his wine glass. “I failed my wife when she needed me most.”
I didn’t speak for a moment, remembering that night in the mountains with my friends-- the night so many things changed. “I’ve failed people too,” I said. “Because of me, one friend died, and another was badly injured. I think I understand, a little.”
He moved his chair closer. “You seem young to have something like that to carry around.”
I shrugged and pretended to concentrate on my mending. “There’s a civil war in my country. Many of us joined up to fight at young ages. Bad things happen in wartime.”
“So it was a military conflict where you think you let down your friends?”
“No.” I set down my needle in annoyance. Who was he to pry into my private pain? The concern and kindness in his eyes brought me up short. I reached for my wine and drank some to give myself courage. Then I told him the story that I hadn’t shared in its entirety with anyone. I told him about my love for Robert, and how I convinced my friends to sneak out of camp with me to see him.
“We were inadequately armed and I had made no plan for what we would do if something went wrong. On the way back to camp, we were drunk and not paying attention. We took the wrong road in the dark.”
“That shouldn’t have been a fatal mistake,” Charles said.
“We were attacked. We didn’t have enough firepower to fight, and we didn’t know the roads. One of my friends lost control of her horse in the dark and brought down one of the other girls. I went back for them.”
“That was brave of you.”
“No, brave is when you think. I didn’t think at all.”
“What happened then?”
“I was too late. One of my friends had already died. The men surrounded me. I shot one of them, but there were too many.” I turned back to my mending, too embarrassed to meet Charles’ eyes. “I don’t remember much of what happened after that. They disarmed me and hit me in the head. When I came to, I killed the man guarding my injured friend, got my horse, and took my friend back to camp.”
Charles had been leaning forward, watching me intently. Now he sat back. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“How can you say that? If it hadn’t been for me, none of it would’ve happened. A girl died because of my carelessness.”
“But you behaved bravely and rescued your other friend. You can be proud of that, at least.”
I kept my head down, my eyes focused on my stitches. “That’s not the point. There would’ve been no need to rescue anyone if I had done right from the beginning.” And then, to make sure he understood things clearly, I added, “I had a baby later. It died and I wasn’t sorry.”
Charles didn’t say anything for awhile. Then he came to sit next to me. “No one should have to go through something like that. Especially not for making a wrong turn in the dark.”
I shrugged and refused to look at him, stabbing my needle at random into the towel I was trying to mend. His hand on my wrist stopped me.
“Will you please look at me?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t want to talk any more. I didn’t want to do anything, except take Flecha and ride into the night. But of course I couldn’t do that. I was stuck here, trapped with a man who felt sorry for me. “I don’t need your pity.”
“Good. A woman of your courage doesn’t deserve it.”
“I don’t need flattery, either.”
“You won’t let a man say anything, will you?”
Now I looked up at him. There was no judgment in his eyes, just a steady, honest gaze that made the knots in my stomach unwind. “I’m sorry. I told you my secrets and have no right to be mad at you for listening. That's not fair.”
“After what you’ve been through, you’re still looking for life to be fair?”
Charles took the mending out of my hands and drew me into his lap, where I rested my head against his chest. It was good to have his arms around me and I struggled to hold back my tears. After awhile I grew sleepy and I guess he must have felt the change in how I lay against him because he picked me up and took me to my room. I wondered what he would do next, and was surprised and relieved that he merely tucked me under the covers and kissed me on the forehead. Then he wished me good night and left.
I dozed for awhile, and when I woke up, it was the middle of the night and there was a patch of moonlight on the floor. It was so bright that I thought I could read by it, and since I was now wide awake, I got my diary and sat down on the floor, with the moonlight all around me.
The house is quiet and the night feels magical. I still don’t know if I did right by unburdening myself. I thought it would make me feel better, but instead I’m confused and a little numb. Maybe I’m just in shock. I’ve told my most shameful secret, and wasn’t rejected or judged. The earth didn’t swallow me, and lightning didn’t strike. In fact, not much has changed at all.
I’m going to get my pillow from the bed, lie down in this patch of moonlight and think about that for awhile.
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