Friday, March 16, 2012

EPILOGUE

EPILOGUE

When I was a slave I thought as a slave and coveted even the smallest things that I might call my own even going so far to try and hide their true value to me. One thing I coveted were the small scraps of books that were left from before the Dark Days. Often in my early life these scraps were only a few pages long, maybe a single page, most often just a piece of a page with a few faded words still legible upon them.

One of my most precious possessions is a scrap of paper that I found not too long after my parents died. It was the first item I collected to rebuild some sort of life for myself with and it had simply blown into my lap on the wind like it had been meant for me alone to find. Upon that scrap of paper is written these words:

Life is not always easy. And that is a major reason why it is so precious. Many of life's best rewards are possible only because you must work your way through difficult challenges to get to them. If everything in life were easy, there would be no opportunity for real fulfillment. If the only things you experienced were pleasure and comfort, it would be impossible for you to fully appreciate them. A life of total ease and a complete lack of challenge would be unbearably tedious. When the next challenge comes your way, when the next obstacle blocks your progress, find it in yourself to be thankful. For the difficulties provide you with truly magnificent opportunities to create value, to find meaning and fulfillment in living. The challenges enable you to give of yourself and to make a real difference. And that's something you desire at the deepest level. Life is not always easy. And because of that, you have the opportunity to make it truly great.

Even all these years later I still don’t know who wrote that piece, all I have are initials. R.M. I always thought that if my Gran had ever been educated she might have said something like those words. But she wasn’t; instead she went one better … she lived those words.

I’ve tried to live those words too though I’ve let life trip me up and have fallen short a time or two. Still, I don’t think I’ve done half bad. As I sit here in my chair and think on it there are a few things in this life I regret but I can also say there are fewer than there might have been had I not kept reminding myself over the years of those words and what they mean.

At the creak of the rocker I look over and see he’s finally settling for the night after reading a bedtime story of knights and maids all fair. He asks, “Glad to be home?”

I nodded. “Always.”

He nodded as well. “Me too.” A few moments later he says, “Festival was nice this year but I miss Uncle Rob.”

I pat his arm and remind him, “You know the heart just went out of him last year when Winnie passed. At least he stayed around long enough to see his first grandchild draw breath.”

A little curmudgeonly Cor mumbled, “The whole flaming territory has seen that child. If that boy crows any louder they’ll hear him clear across the ‘Cific.”

I had to laugh because honestly that wasn’t far from the truth. What I won't say is he was every bit as loud if not more so when our first was born. “I don’t know who was more surprised that he got up the courage to approach the Captain and Winnie about asking for Rachel’s hand … Topher or your uncle.”

Rocking quietly Cor admitted, “I have to admit, it was a sight funny to see a grown man nearing thirty dancing around like an idiot because he’d been given permission to call on that wild child. Funnier still when Uncle Rob told us how relieved he was he didn’t have to be the one to go to Topher and beg him to take Rachel off their hands. She’d scared off every other suitor that had come calling and more than a few that never actually made it to a first meeting.”

I smiled, “Strange how quiet and responsible she’s grown since she’s been blessed with the mother’s curse.”

“The what?” he asked.

I explained, “Winnie must have cursed her and told her she hoped she had one just like her.”

We both laughed at the idea and then laughed some more when we thought of our own brood. Four boys and four girls all living … and two little ones beside a third out in the family graveyard that I put flowers on every month so folks won’t forget them for I never will. If our brood ever gets around to having families we’ll have to think about rebuilding the cabins on the estate.

When I raised the idea once he was fiercely against it. “No I tell you. May what remains of all those blasted buildings rot to their foundations. I’ll not have what they stand for in our family. For each of us there is only one other and that’s the way it is and the way it’s mean to stay.”

“Easy Husband, you’re getting a wee bit cranky in your old age.”

Outraged he’d said, “I’m not getting old … and I’ll prove it to you.” I laughed remembering how he’d chased me all to the way to the top of the house and how we’d nearly been caught in the attic by our youngest who’d started to wonder if rats had gotten in somehow.

I found I’ve never needed the suggestions in that little book I found in Cor’s mother’s things so many years ago. Seems after we got through that first series of challenges the others that came behind it were easier to face and easier to come up with solutions for … including the “moods” he had … and my own as well.

No, life has not been easy. Life has caught us by surprise a few times. A few of my sisters never made it out of their second decade on earth. Accident, disease, childbirth … life … it happens to us all and all we can do is be as prepared as possible to face it when it does.

And Francine … poor Francine. Cor and I went to her funeral. I know it made some talk but there was once a sweet young girl that my husband loved and we went to mourn that memory as much as the senseless and tragic death of the woman she grew into. Her fantasies became such that she pretended a pregnancy and then birthed a doll. She carried that doll everywhere, treated as a real babe … more real than she had ever thought of the one she’d really birthed. Then there came a flood and the cabin that Francine kept to got caught as a nearby levy gave way. They got her out in time but when she realized her “baby” was still in the cabin she broke away from those caring for her and drowned trying to rescue it. There’s a lesson in there but it is so bitter that to try and put it in words would dilute its message.

Elder Lathrop didn’t live but three months beyond that incident and we again attended the funeral. Hazel pulled me to the side and told us how grateful the family was that we’d forgiven them and given them back some of their standing in the territory by openly showing up at the nearly back to back funerals. I hadn’t even thought of it like that but I suppose there was some forgiveness in there. Strange how a kindness grows bigger than you expect it to. Cor is still sensitive of speaking of that time in our lives but mostly I think it is because he doesn’t think people will understand. I’m pretty sure he is right. Sometimes the only way to really understand something is to live through it and then accept that the God that breathed the world to life knows what he’s doing and admit you'll never grasp the whys of some of it.

Cor and I may have had the hardest start of all my sisters but in some ways we’ve come away with some of the greatest blessings; or it feels that way most of the time.

And now that I'm free with my slave years far behind me I realize it isn't the things that you keep close to you that are of the greatest value but the things that you give away.

“Life is not always easy. And because of that, you have the opportunity to make it truly great.”

Cor and I say that to each other every day. And I know we both intend to continue living it until the Good Lord calls us home.


THE END

Chapter 64

Chapter 64

I just stood there staring until he asked, “Would it be all right if I came in?”

I peeled the cobwebs off of my brain and then by way of answering stood back so he could enter. He turned and then with a look at me, shut the door and after another quick glance my way, threw the latch.

My toes curled under my gown and I hadn’t the foggiest idea what to say. He slowly put the rocker in front of the fire and then like he wasn’t sure whether I would accept or decline he picked up a chair that had been against the wall and brought it forward and sat it beside the rocker. He looked around but then scrunched his eyebrows and said, “We’ll need to find a little table to … uh … I … er … well … I mean if … hmmm …”

His hesitancy finally broke my silence and I gave a small grin and shook my head. The was Cor, I knew the man, warts and all, and he was worried that I was going to pitch a fuss over a thing as simple as a table and he’d still risk the kick just to please me even if it embarrassed him. “It’s all right. We don’t have to have a table.”

He seemed to relax a little bit but then instead of sitting in the rocker as he normally would have he went around the room touching things. Stopping at the little table that held the pots and bottles he said, “This is ... I mean was ... my mother's room."

Startled I said, "Someone should have said. You should have said. I'll move. I really don’t mind being up in the …"

"No. I ... I just ..." He stopped at a loss for words. Then he started up with another strange statement. "The room through that connecting door,” he said pointing to the third door that I hadn’t opened. “It was my father's study. He ... uh ... slept in there most of the time. I ... I was ... thinking ..."

He fell silent again and I finally asked him, "What were you thinking?"

He was silent another moment and I could see he was channeling his emotions or mustering his courage. "Fel, if I move in that room, will you stay here ... in the house ... with me?"

I opened my mouth even though I didn't have the least idea what I was going to say. But I didn't have to come up with anything because Cor kept talking. "Please Fel, hear me out. I ... I know you don't have a lot of reason to listen to me by now, probably lost a lot of trust in me if you have any left at all. I'm just asking for a chance."

I just looked at him but he kept waiting for me to say something. Finally I sighed and told him, "I'm not stopping you. If you want to talk then talk."

He swallowed. Blew out a breath then began. "Back … back when … when the baby … died … I never should have said what I did. I didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did and I said it in the heat of the moment out of shock and hurt. I said it to you when I should have been saying it to Francine if I said it at all. I was half out of my head but that’s no excuse. I know I've messed up, probably to the point things will never be what they could have been. I'd ... I'd still like to try ... that is if you ... you don't ... I mean if you are willing."

My head felt suddenly full of air. I had to sit in the chair because I was so stunned by his words. It sounded like one of those fairy stories I used to read to my sisters. But the problem was my life had never been a fairy story and I knew it wasn't likely to start being one out of the blue. Then I had a thought. "Cor, if this is about you thinking you'll never be free to marry if I'm around so you’ve decided to make the best of it ... well … we can work something out. You don't have to sacrifice your honor or the coin from the estate. I can ... just fade away. No one has to know. They'll forget about me and ..."

He walked away from me and leaning on the fireplace mantle while looking into the fire’s depths asked, "What if I'll never forget about you?"

Still not sure what he was getting at and refusing to believe in the impossible I told him, "We've never really been man and wife, not really ... just on paper. Your conscience will be clean."

He shook his head forcefully. "No it won't. Not my conscience ... nor my heart."

That sure shut me up.

He finally seemed to find it in him to look me full in the face. "You told me once to fall in love again. Do you remember what I told you?"

Quietly I answered, "Yeah. You said you didn't want to."

He gave a self-derisive laugh. "More like I couldn't Fel. I was already in love ... with you. Only it's taken me forever to admit it ... to myself, to you. I ... I wasn't free to feel the way I did for you. I wasn’t free to do the things I wanted to do with you … to you. I came close so many times … all I would have had to do was reach out … touch …” He shook his head and slammed his fist onto the marble he was leaning on. “But I don't care what the council said, what anyone said ... I wasn't free. I had obligations of honor to the vows I spoke with Francine." He looked away again. "Then things got even more messed up ... the baby, Francine, coming to terms with what she did, my injuries, her leaving us ... I wasn't fit to try and make the decisions that needed to be made. I couldn't make sense of anything, much less understand why you were still here.” Breathing heavy he said, “God forgive me Fel but by the time we went to the festival I was eager for it to be over with. I was tired of making excuses for her, tired of making excuses for myself … tired of denying myself the one thing that I wanted that half way made any sense in my life. Then when I missed the dance I ... I was sure that I had lost you, that I had hurt you so badly on top of all the other times I had hurt you that … that ... I just kept waiting for you to find a good enough excuse to leave. I kept waiting for the pain of the idea of you leaving to carry me off. Then I thought maybe you were just waiting for me to leave so there wouldn't be a scene.” He swallowed then quietly added, “I knew you deserved your chance so I made up my mind that one way or the other you were going to get it."

He turned to me and I could tell he was confused. "But then you didn't want me to go on the run with Luke and you didn’t leave, not even after having a chance to go with your father's family. I ... I still don't understand that. The night after they left – when my rights I should have been mourning you leaving me forever – I was left grappling with what you had said. You had made a commitment. You said you wouldn’t abandone Corman but I couldn’t decide if you meant the estate, the people of the estate, both … or if you … possibly you could mean me.”

He started pacing. “My head was so full, and the memories in that other room where people expected me to live as if nothing had happened … gah! ... I couldn't sleep. It felt like my head was going to explode so I went for a walk. It felt like I was out for hours and then somehow I wound up at the cabin.” He stopped and got down on his knee beside the chair I was sitting in, “I can't sleep without you here Fel. God knows I shouldn't ask, but don't leave. Only … only there’s more ... I'm asking that ... God Fel … this is so hard."

His head was buried in his hands and I worried his hair wasn't long to stay there the way he was tugging on it.

"Stop doing yourself damage," I told him reaching out and untangling his fingers from his locks. I felt again that rightness that I had felt when I had given my Da’s family my answer. "I'll stay as long as you need me to. But no ... no make believe Cor. I don't need fairy stories and don't believe in them. I'll stay if you need me to and I'll stay for the people on the estate.” I brushed his hair with my fingers so it looked less like a rat’s nest and told him bracingly, “There now, it's obvious you are just out of sorts. If you want to sit in the rocker that's fine. If you want some companionship or warmth I reckon we can both fit there on the bed; either way neither one of us needs to take on so."

He wasn’t finished however. "But what about you Fel? What do you need? Just tell me. I'll do everything in my power to ..."

Feeling uncomfortable I told him, "Oh don't. Don’t take on so, it isn’t healthy. I like being needed I tell you. I don't want to cripple anyone by making them need me; just I like being needed is all. That’s all."

“But what do YOU need?” he persisted.

I could see he wasn't going to turn loose of the question so I sought an answer to satisfy him and found one that was surprisingly simple but honest. "I need a place and people I can belong to. And I already have that here. I will leave if that's what you need but I'll be honest and tell you that my druthers are to stay in some capacity."

His breath caught for a moment then he let it our slowly. Quietly he asked, "What if that capacity is as my wife, my real wife? Not ... not just a paper wife."

He'd left me speechless again.

Chapter 63

Chapter 63

“Do?” Cor asks. “You’ll hop in that bed and let Mrs. Wiley and the others spoil you for a bit so they can feel like they’ve taken part in your rescue.”

Raising one eyebrow at him despite it causing a small scratch on my forehead to sing out I asked him, “Rescue? Really?”

“Really,” he said trying to make it sound like something wonderful.

I sighed. “Just how bad is bad Cor? The cabin …”

He walked forward then clumsily reached and tugged me into a hug. I don’t know who was more startled, me or him for me letting him. “Uh … er … It … um …”

He sounded so much like he had when I’d first come to the estate that I relaxed and smiled. Pushing back so I could see his face I told him, “You still say uh, um, and er more than any man I’ve ever met.”

He started guiding me towards a bed that was fancier than any I had ever slept in. It had a real canopy and mosquito bar and bed curtains. In fact I was beginning to notice the whole room was a lot fancier than I was comfortable with but Cor wasn’t giving me any choice because when I slowed down he simply picked me up and carried me the rest of the way and then placed me on the bed. “Humor everyone Fel. It won’t cause your reputation irreparable harm to allow us to spoil you just this once. And tomorrow, rain or shine, I promise we’ll go look at the cabin together. Just give Jonah and I a chance to look things over properly so we can answer all of your questions.”

I was beginning to wonder if I even wanted those questions answered if it was as bad as he was obviously trying not to say so I nodded my acceptance. And apparently just in time too. There was a no-nonsense knock on the door and Mrs. Wiley marched in with a mug and a tray and after setting it down on the bedside table she said, “I expect both ter be clean before I get back. And mind yers, not a crumb left. Peoples are wanting ter know how yer be but I told ‘em they’re to wait til after yers have had a nip and a tuck in as yers hadn’t had a bite since suppertime. But they won’t wait much longer.”

Cor gave a small smile and whispered, “Told you.” Then he left the room hurriedly followed my Mrs. Wiley. That was the last bit of alone time I had for hours.

And hours.

Finally after a supper tray, that several of the village ladies stayed to oversee that I ate it all properly, was taken away I managed to escape any more visitors when Lollie declared that I needed to rest and that she was sure I’d be up for more visitors the next day. She told them if I rested properly I might even come down stairs for a bit.

I had reached my tolerance level for all the fuss and bother long ago but was too tired, sore, and … and appreciative … to complain more than mildly that none of it was necessary; that it certainly wasn’t necessary for them to come out in the rain and take time away from their own needful things.

No one listened. Most of the time that is how my life went anyway so I wasn’t sure why I should have been surprised. But the quiet that was left in their wake was a wonderful thing and I soaked it in. The Captain and Winnie coming to tell me goodnight was the only interruption and it was minor as they were both tired. The excitement of having such a ruckus going on had set Rachel off and then on top of it all the women insisted on holding her to “give Miss Winnie a break” which of course only added to her acting spoiled rotten which everyone but Winnie thought was just as cute as cute could be.

The problem was I had rested about all I could all day long and now though I was worn out sleep was elusive. I also wondered where Cor was. Topher had brought me things throughout the day saying, “Mister Cor said to be sure you got this.” Or “Mister Cor was just sending me to check to make sure you didn’t need anything.”

Of course that caused a bunch of twitters and knowing glances from my visitors and I could have just sunk into the floor boards. They were rewriting history again and it was awfully uncomfortable to be handed a script one line at a time and not knowing the direction the play was going to take. I kept wondering if I had been given the part of the fool but no one had the heart to tell me.

I got up and wandered quietly about the room noticing things to keep my mind off the fact that I had gotten used to Cor being around at night. There was a glass cabinet with books on recipes, herbs, poetry, and a few other titles. I opened the case and took out a pretty little book without a title or author on the cover that had made me curious but then I slammed it shut and put it back quickly with a blush and a gasp after seeing a few pictures that finally explained the cover page which had read “managing the many moods of your husband.”

With that rather discombobulating bit of surprise roaming around in my head I quickly went looking elsewhere for distraction. There were three doors off the room. Behind the first door was a rather ornate indoor outhouse with a large tub bolted to the floor in addition to a smoothly carved sitter – no splinters in the bottom for the one that used this room – and a real mirror that hung above an ornate porcelain wash stand. A towel rack hung conveniently on the wall and then there was a whole little cedar closet that held drying clothes that looked like they hadn’t been aired out in quite some time.

Back in the room I walked passed a poofy little high stool that was tucked under a small table that held old coloring pots full of dried powders and a few ornate perfume bottles. The top of the table obviously lifted open but after the incident with the book I was less easy in getting that much of my curiosity satisfied.

An open shelf held some delicate figurines and other useless objects several of which looked like they might have come from before the Dark Days. I shrugged and then opened the second door. This one led into a small room that was too dark to see in but when I felt around I realized it was the empty version of what Francine had called her clothes closet. There were racks and drawers in there meant to hold clothes, shoes, hats and underthings and after walking out I realized that was why I hadn’t seen a wardrobe or chest in the bedroom proper.

I shut that door and then debated whether to open the third door but decided against it. All I was doing was delaying the inevitable. There was no way Cor was going to come be with me tonight. He would come to the cabin – there was enough distance between it and his memories of Francine – but he wouldn’t do it here where her ghost still lingered. If I felt like she was looking over my shoulder and the woman was hardly dead, it would be next to impossible to expect him to not notice it. I’d just received a letter from Hazel telling me how Francine had started to revert to again believing that her time with Cor was just a half-remembered dream. She was still making Elder Lathrop’s life uncomfortable though as she kept trying to take her turn at her “wifely duties” never quite understanding why he kept saying maybe next time. But that wasn’t a problem I would touch with a ten foot tent pole; it was hard enough having Hazel give me the details that my imagination then took to the next level; no way was I going to involve myself further. Shudder.

I sighed and then bent to bank the fire in preparation of trying to sleep figuring maybe if I pretended hard enough eventually I really would. The house was dead silent and depressed me even more. At the cabin I could hear the outside world through the eaves and shudders, in this room I felt shut in and muffled from everything; uncomfortable in surroundings I didn’t think I belonged in.

I had just taken off a slipper when there was a quiet knock on the door. I turned and walked over and just before I reached it the door knob turned on its own and the door slowly opened to reveal Cor standing there with “his” rocking chair.

Chapter 62

Chapter 62

“Fel! Fel!! Can you hear me?! Don’t move, stay where you are! I’m coming to get you!!!”

-----

It had been raining for three days straight. Not a little bit of rain either but the kind that brings to mind stories of Noah and his boat. The gardens were drowning, streams and rivers were flooding, roofs were leaking. The animals were miserable and so were the people. It wasn’t the kind of rain the kids could go out and play in or that men could go out and work in and expect to get anything accomplished. For two days everyone was shut up in their living quarters trying to wait it out except for when they were feeding and otherwise tending to animals.

On the third day it got worse. A nasty bit of wind was added to the rain and people were forced out into the storm whether they wanted to go or not. Shingles had to be nailed back down. Items that were getting blown around had to be brought in or secured in some way. Chimneys had to be capped to keep the rain from coming down and into the house in rivulets. It was a right huge mess.

The first two nights of the rain Cor came to the cabin as usual. He was soaking wet but the look on his face that first night dared me to say a word so all I did was help him to hang his clothes in front of the fire then tried not to tell him off when he shivered half the night with a fever. The next night he came prepared wearing a poncho and with dry clothes in an oilcloth bag. But the day the wind arrived he was called away in an emergency near dinner time when a barn used to house some estate equipment collapsed on one side and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him that evening. I stayed awake half the night wondering if the looby had taken a rain slicker. Being unable to sleep was the likely the only thing that saved me.

In the middle of the night the rain stopped but the wind increased dramatically. The whistling of it through the trees finally drew enough of my attention that I grew concerned. I got out of bed with the intention of going to the door to check to see just how bad it was and if I needed to move to the cellar when there was a mighty crack and my world went dark.

It was still dark, both figuratively and literally, when I heard him calling.

“Fel! Fel!! Can you hear me?! Don’t move, stay where you are! I’m coming to get you!!!”

“I … I think … I think I’m stuck!”

There was a moment of silence then an urgent, “Fel?! Are you hurt?!!”

From beneath what I found out was part of the cabin roof I told him, “I … don’t think so. But … but I *cough, cough* smell smoke. *cough*”

I heard a fury of snapping and breaking and then Jonah’s voice, “Is she still in there?

“She said she smelled smoke!” Then I heard some more noise and then Cor called, “Boy, stay out of the wa … what are you doing?! Get out of there!”

I must have blacked out for a moment because the next thing I remember was Topher saying, “The fire was starting to smolder Mister Cor. Some clothes got knocked into it. I can just barely see her, it’s as dark as the belly of a black cat in there. She’s under rafters over near the bed.”

“Not on the bed?” Cor asked urgently.

“Naw sir. Beside it, but on the floor.”

I didn’t hear anything after that for a while until I could hear Lollie ordering someone about with directions how to put me on a door and carry me to the house and to, for the love of God, not be so ham-fisted as to bump me around.

“I don’t need to be carried. I can walk.” I had meant for my voice to come out stronger than that but drawing a breath hurt more than it should have.

Cor snapped at someone about being careful and then leaned over me and said forcefully, “You’ll let yourself be carried and not make a fuss about it Mistress Fel. We’ve been half the night and the rest of the morning reaching you and you’ll give us the satisfaction of treating you as we see fit before we lose what bit of sanity we have left.”

I was wondering what he was overreacting for but then bobbled off into the dark again to the sound of Cor’s creative descriptions of what would happen to anyone that jostled the door again.

I finally came all the way awake when I felt my night clothes being taken from me. Lollie and Winnie held me still and Winnie said, “Easy Dear, we’re just getting you out of these wet things so Lollie can check your ribs. Now don’t fuss and let us do this quickly. Cor is on the other side of the screen and about ready to chew the paneling off the walls.”

Groggily I asked, “What’s all the fuss about?”

Cor must have been listening because he snapped, “Fuss? Fuss?! The flaming cabin fell on you that’s what the fuss is all about!! If you had been on the bed rather than beside it …” He sputtered to a stop, gobbling like a turkey.

I made a face then remembered he couldn’t see it. I sighed. “The wind started making some odd noise so I got up to … to …” Then what he said struck me and I yelped, “What do you mean the cabin fell on me?! What happened to the cabin?! Stop Lollie I need to get up … I need …”

That was too much for Cor’s equanimity. The screen was moved with a crash and before I knew it I was being wrapped up in a quilt and carried out of the parlor where I had been lying and up the stairs. As he pounded up the stairs in a royal snit he said, “You’re not going anywhere, not a dem place,” he growled. “You …” He stopped to clear his throat and I suspect that is when he realized he’d just seen me naked because he stumbled on the last stair before the landing; but then he shook himself and continued on.

“Jonah must have lost the last few hairs the top of his head could still lay claim to. Topher was driving us all mad with his frantic scrambling in and out of the rubble. We had most of the village tromping all over the yard and threatening to help if we didn’t hurry up and get you out in one piece.”

He’d been progressively holding me tighter and tighter until I finally had to tell him, “Let me go or finish squeezing me to death will you … this inbetween stage is starting to get downright uncomfortable.”

“Huh?”

Lollie and Winnie who had followed him up said, “You’re holding her too tight, let the girl breath for heaven’s sake.”

“Oh! Wait … did I hurt you? Here let me loo … uh …”

I patted his shoulder and told him. “I’ll take it from here. You’d better go tell everyone I’m fine before they start tromping through the house and giving Mrs. Wiley palpitations. And then come back and tell me what’s wrong with the cabin and what I’ll need to do to fix it,” I ordered.

He opened his mouth to say something but I caught Winnie shake her head. “What?” I asked.

“We’ll talk about it later Dear.”

“Oh no we won’t. We’ll talk about it right now. I … OUCH!”

I would have continued but Lollie had decided the best way to deal with me was to start poking and prodding and discovering every bruise I had on my body. By the time she was finished I was exhausted but still determined to find out what was going on. They had left thinking I was too weak to get out of bed but they were wrong. I was trying to rig some clothes for myself when Cor knocked quietly then entered with a bundle under his arms.

“They don’t know you very well do they?” he asked.

I wrapped the blanket around myself tighter and said, “Apparently not.”

He shook his head and said, “I brought your clothes. Uh … I’ll step out or … if … uh … I can just turn my back.”

I sighed. “Turn you back … and no peeking. If you go out they’ll just wonder what I’m up to. And remember I said no peeking.”

He slowly turned his back and I heard him mutter where I wasn’t supposed to hear him, “Stop saying it and I wouldn’t be tempted to.”

His words should have caught my attention but they didn’t because the only clothes he had brought me was another night gown and a wad of my underthings. “Hey!”

“I know Fel, I know,” he said. “But Lollie says your ribs are bruised. And to be honest it isn’t worth you going down there right now. It is starting to rain again and … and it is a mess. We’re getting out what we can but we have to be careful not to bring the walls down.”

That brought me up short and as I finished dressing and tapped him on the shoulder I asked quietly, “Just how bad is it?”

Turning slowly he said, “Bad. It’s … it’s repairable but it is going to take some time. A tree washed out near your creek and when the wind got into the top that was already heavier than usual from all the rain, it just toppled.” He got upset and finally choked out, “One of the main ceiling beams came down right on the bed. If you’d been in it …”

I saw he was really upset and told him bracingly, “Well I wasn’t.”

“Almost,” he said.

“Almost only counts in horseshoes and …”

He finished, “… and fire pots. Yeah. But you could have been …”

“But I wasn’t.”

“But you could have been.”

I shook my head, “But I wasn’t so just stop worrying it to pieces. And neither were you so unless you want me to make a fuss about that just let it go.” I turned away to look out the window of the bedroom I was in and saw that it was raining just as he’d said. I leaned my head on the glass pane and asked myself more than him, “Now what am I going to do?”

Chapter 61

Chapter 61

The man I was staring at in horror put the little girl down and told her to go get her brother. All I could do was just stand there and force myself to remember how to breathe. A boy who would have been about Georgie’s age came jogging up and I started seeing spots. Georgie had had the exact same shaped ears and the same snub nose.

I did not like the buzzing that had begun in my head and I stepped back. “No. You ... you can't be. I buried you. You and Ma and Georgie and Gran. I buried you. I ...”

I took yet another step backwards and jumped when I ran into something that shouldn’t have been there. Turning I see what it was I found a man a bit older than the first that somehow looks even more like Da than the other apparition did. Not only is my head buzzing but now I’m seeing spots in front of my eyes and I can feel myself sliding to the ground. I would have gone all the way but the older man tries to grab me bringing out my survival instincts. I evade his hold but rather than be upset as I expected, my move elicits a strange response.

The second man looks at the first and says, “By God, she got out of that the same way Dred would have ... the exact move.”

I froze. My Da’s proper name was Dredward the same way mine was Felicia only most knew him by Dred. Snarling, falling back to my harshest Outlander feelings of self-preservation, I demand, “What do you know of my Da?!”

The Captain came forward and gently said, “Easy Fel. Do you remember long ago when I questioned you about where your father came from?”

Thinking back but only having a vague recollection of it I said, “I suppose.”

He took a step closer and then got between me and the men. “Well, I’ve had occasion to deal with the territory of Dover on occasion over the years – it lies a bit northeast from here – and found it extremely strange that you would know of the place. They aren’t what you would call friendly to strangers.

The older of the two men smiled and said, “Now now Rob, you’re being a bit harsh don’t ya think? We haven’t skinned a stranger in years.”

The young boy said, “Oh Uncle George, don’t say that, you’re gonna scare her.”

His father said, “She doesn’t look scared to me. A little too familiar with that Green River she’s fingering the hilt of if you want to know the truth.”

When I continued to just stare at the two of them the older man asked, “Aren’t you the least bit interested in finding out who we are?”

I snorted, “I figure you’ll eventually get around to telling me. Men are like that.”

A young woman I hadn’t seen stepped from behind some horses and started laughing. “Wow, you are just like Aunt Felicia, look like her too. Mother tells us stories of when they were all younger together and I I bet she was just like you. Mother said she was the terror of all the boys in the village.”

It took a bit of time for me to calm down but when Winnie came out and put her arm around me and said, “These are your family Dear … your father’s people” all I could do was stare.

The older of the two men was George McConnell, the eldest brother. There was an older sister and she was the one named Aunt Felicia. Then there was another sister named Sarah who was married and traveling with her husband while they surveyed some land far to the north. Then came my Da in line. The youngest was the man that had first startled me and his name was Winston … though he said, “I freely give you leave to call me Uncle Win as the only person that called me Winston was my mother and only when she was less than pleased about something.”

George said, “Which was most of the time.” A bellowing laugh followed that pronouncement though “Uncle Win” didn’t seem to mind and in fact seemed to relish the idea.

The young woman was George’s daughter and her name was June. She is the one that explained, “Everyone gets named after someone. There are a lot of Felicia’s in the family as you’ve no doubt realized. I’m named after mother’s side of the family. She said there was no way she was going to add yet another Felicia to the village roster.”

Still stunned by the idea that I had a family … a blood one … I said quietly as we sat on the porch eating snacks that Mrs. Wiley supplied, “I had a little brother. We called him Georgie.”

The older man looked choked up at the idea. “Dred and I … we … we didn’t part on the best of terms. I sided with father, tried to force him into working the surveyor teams when all he really wanted to do was make blades and the like. Can’t believe he’d … he’d name a son …”

I told the older man what my Da had told me. “Da said there once was a little boy who got stuck in a tree. His brother went up the tree but when he got there all he did was tell him how to climb down by himself. He cried for his brother to take him down but the older brother refused and insisted that the young boy do it himself. He said ‘Fel, I was that little boy and my brother George is the one that taught me how to climb down that tree. When I asked him why he said because he might not be around next time and he didn’t want to see me get hurt. He didn’t just teach me to climb down a tree that day, he set my feet on a different path, one of not having to rely on others to get me out of scrapes I would get into.’” I smiled at the memory for a moment then finished by telling him, “He went on to tell me that’s one of the reasons he taught me all the things he did, that he didn’t want me to rely on folks that might not always be there.”

Uncle George’s eyes were suspiciously bright and he lost his voice for a bit. June asked me, “What else did your father tell you?”

“Oh this and that.” I repeated a few of the stories that I’d grown up hearing and my relatives would add bits and pieces that I’d never known about.

After one such story I told them “He’d tell me tales but sometimes the stories made him sad. He didn’t regret finding his own life but he regretted having to leave his family behind to do it.”

Uncle Win nodded and said, “Dred always had a mind of his own.” He sighed. “Rob told us … how Dred died. Do you think you are up to telling us yourself?”

So I did and somehow, while it hurt as it always did, this time it was like Da was there with me and giving me the strength to share what had to be told.”

Cor had followed me back from the spring but he stayed to the side of the crowd of people on the porch, letting me handle how much I wanted to get to know my family although he insisted on telling how I’d fought in the battle … even saying he was proud of all that I had accomplished then and on the estate when he wasn’t around. It surprised me when he said it and something began ticking that I had thought had stopped for the last time. He was also honest about how I’d been treated unfairly and that he was sorry for the misunderstanding that had put me in the position I was in.

Towards the evening Uncle George said, “Well, if there was any doubt in the beginning there’s now none. You’re definitely a McConnell, the daughter of my brother we thought lost to us forever. And even though he no longer walks this earth, you’re still here and I want you to know as I’m sure the rest of the family does, that you have a place with us and a free to come live with us should that be your choice.”

I was stunned. I’d never given serious thought to finding my father’s family. To me they were simply a legend, ground in truth but forever out of my reach. And then when I least expect it they show up … and then not only that do they accept me, they tell me I have a place with them. It was a lot to take in. It was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure what to say … and then suddenly, as if my Da was whispering in my ear, I did.

With as much dignity as I could muster I told them all, “I would like to visit one day but for now what I want isn't as important as what I’ve committed to here. You tell me my father was always one to do things his way and if nothing else I have always been my father’s daughter." To no one and everyone I said, “My place is here. I won't abandon Corman.” In my mind I thought, let them make of that what they will.

While many people seemed disappointed and a couple seemed stunned my Uncle George smiled and said, “I’ll hold you to that visit now … an one or more of us may just be back around before you know it to bring our sister who is not going to be willing to believe it until she sees for herself the face of her namesake. As a matter of fact, though we’ll need to be back on the road tomorrow to meet up with the convoy we are traveling with, I’d like June to sketch you out so we can take your likeness with us.”

My family and I talked late into the night and then while I’d only just found out about their existence it was a wrench to watch them leave the next day.

Winnie asked me as they rode away, “Are you sure Fel? It isn’t too late.”

I shook my head. “No. My Da told plenty of stories of his family and he did love and miss them but the reason he left is because they were forever trying to order his life for him. He wasn’t a person to take to that. To be himself he had to leave and roam far away from their influence. And while I know I like these people who are my Da’s family, they were already telling me what I’d do if I came to live with them, how my life would be ordered and how I would fit in.” I shook my head again. “I reckon I’ve got enough meddlesome people around here. I don’t need to go find more that are even worse.”

She’s hugged my neck and seemed to understand what I wasn’t saying. Mrs. Wiley and Jonah beamed and I had to peel Topher off of me so that he wouldn’t be late for his chores. “Yers not leaving me!” he said happily.

“Of course not,” I replied. “I’ve still got enough to teach you that should keep you busy for quite a while yet. And when I do go to visit, assuming you want to, you can come with me and we’ll both see a bit more of the world.”

That seemed to satisfy him and he left with a kick in his heels that cause the mule he was riding to give me a disgruntled look as if to say, “Did you need to wind him up quite this much?”

The rest of the day people kept coming by like they couldn’t believe I was still around. They kept getting underfoot but for some reason I didn’t mind. It was nice to know that people were happy I’d chosen to stay. But after the late hour the night before and the excitement of trying to get on with my life during the day, I was ready to go see my pillow as soon as dinner was done. As tired as I was thought there was still much to do before I could seek my rest.

I washed a basin of underthings and hung them to dry by in the corner of the room. I washed my hair because it had gotten full of prickles when I’d had to dig a nest of kittens out of a clump of bushes to save them from a snake that had gone in after them. Then a few more things here and there and before I knew it, the hour was much later than I had meant to be up and about.

I had drawn down my covers and had just put my foot on my bed stool when there was a knock at the cabin door. Thinking that the only thing that would bring someone to my door at such a late hour was an emergency I ran over and opened the door without looking first.

It was Cor and he was standing there looking like a lost pup. I didn’t know what to say and just stood there in shock looking at him. Finally he mumbled, "I ... I can't sleep."

Blinking in surprise I told him, “I wouldn't be able to sleep standing out in the damp and chill either.”

He continued to just stand there looking lost, neither going nor coming. Finally I took his hand and drew him in. He continued to seem like he was only half in this world so I led him to the rocker by the fire where he finally sat. I sat in the chair and stared at the fire with him. Finally I’m beyond wondering and turn to ask him what he’s doing here only he is asleep.

All I can do is cover him with the bear skin so he won’t catch a fever and go climb into my own bed. In no time I was asleep as well but right before dawn I waken to the feel of him laying the bear skin back over me and then creeping from the cabin quietly.

I wasn’t sure what to make of his night time visit. I would have asked but I didn’t see him at all that day. I thought perhaps he was avoiding me until Jonah mentioned that he’d gone to inspect the roof on one of the grain silos at the rice production facility. He didn’t even make it back for dinner so I decided to let it go. He’d seemed half asleep and I thought perhaps he was now ashamed of what he’d done.

But I was no sooner ready for bed than there was a familiar knock at the cabin door. This time I opened it with more caution but that only seemed to make him stand there even longer and say even less. Again I took his hand and he came willingly enough and sat in the rocker. As soon as he was there he seemed to ease and then go to sleep. All I could do was shake my head at his strange behavior.

This continued for a week and I began to suspect that Cor was simply trying to replicate the normalcy we’d once managed to create. I decided if it brought him comfort and made him feel closer to Francine somehow that who was I to stop him. He did seem like he was more relaxed as the days passed, even Winnie remarked upon it, wondering what he was doing that was different. I certainly wasn’t about to enlighten her.

At the end of the week I expected him to go back to sleeping at his house but I have to admit it was nice to be reminded of the old days when we were more at ease in each other’s company. I refused to hope for much more than that. Perhaps it is helping him to come to terms with Francine’s loss.

But I got the biggest shock of my life when I was listlessly getting ready for bed on the eighth night when there was the familiar knock on the door. I was so surprised I almost didn’t answer it. But then I heard the scratch of his boots on the grit just outside the door and I ran over and threw it open.

This time he came in on his own but wandered around a bit before settling into the rocker. I sat in the chair beside him but time stretched and he didn’t go to sleep. Finally I found the courage to ask him, “Cor, why?”

Quietly he asked, “Does it bother you that I prefer it here?”

Honestly I tell him, “No. But you can't be resting well sitting up in that rocker. “

He just looks at me so I shrug and go to bed as always but then he gets up from the rocker, banks the fire and comes to stand by the edge of the bed. I move over and he silently climbs in and it was like it was before. He lies there stiffly for a moment and then slides into sleep but he always slips away before dawn.

I’m not sure what to make of it. Every night he comes. In fact tonight he didn’t even make a pretense of roaming around the room. I twisted my foot when the stool I’d been balancing on to reach a new braid of onions had tipped from in under me. Tonight he came earlier than he normally did and silently insisted on soaking my food and then wrapping it in a long cloth. Then he carried me to the bed without me asking and climbed in beside me. He was hardly stiff at all and then with a great sigh was asleep.

I wonder. Does he do this for me or for himself or is it something else entirely? If I could be sure he wouldn’t suddenly change again I think I could relax as easily as he has begun to. We still don’t talk much about anything except estate matters but he’s begun to ask me what I think of some plans he has for the future. Tonight he did the strangest thing of all. After we had settled in the bed he reached over and pulled my braid above the covers. I have no idea why. It was such a strange and simple thing but I don’t want to read more into it than what is there.

Chapter 60

Chapter 60

"Try to hit the bucket this time will you?" The only response I got was a moan and the wet sound of slop hitting slop. Shaking my head I said, "Next drunk you take, I would stay away from that fancy swill you was drinking. It obviously doesn't set well on your stomach."

"Never *heave* never ever *gag* again *retch* !!"

I snorted derisively. "Never say never. You're a man ain't ya?"

More retching then he decided to get right by praying, "Oh God."

Not feeling particularly angelic myself I told him, "I wouldn't plan on Him answering for a bit. For one your breath could knock a grizz out and has probably evaporated your words before they could get where you were sending them. And for two, you deserve a worse head than you've got you lunkhead. I can't believe you thought I'd take off just 'cause you missed a dumb ol' dance."

More groaning and retching met my words but he was still bowing at the bucket like it had become a deity in his life.

I had the window up trying to keep the room aired out but was only half way successful. I griped, "And what on earth did you eat any way? Ewwww!"

"Fel ... I ... I ... sor ... sorrrrr ... *retch*"

I shook my head. "Focus less on sorry and more on aim or you will be cleaning this up yourself," I told him with absolutely no sympathy.

-------

Three days later we left the fort to return to the estate. Cor had developed a mild fever after his hard drunk and got a huge lecture from Robbie's father. Didn't get Cor better any quicker but it apparently made a few other folks feel better. Cor and I only spoke one more time about it.

I was packing my things early so I could have one last full day with my sisters before we left. He came into the room and said, "You haven't had your turn."

"Turn for what?" I asked busier counting my underthings to make sure I had them all than listening to him say sorry again.

"At roasting me."

I sighed and stopped what I was doing. "Cor I'm not interested in wasting my breath. You are a man full grown. If you take it into your head to get a drunk on there is not a blessed thing I can do about it."

Both looking and sounding like a sorry hound that was waiting for a kick he said, "I missed your dance."

"And?"

"You have to be angry."

I shook my head. "I don't have to be anything. I certainly don't have to be angry. To be honest I just don't have it in me to get angry over this anymore. It is what it is. You're hurting enough for both of us and I would be a fool to not understand that. And since I'm not partial to acting or feeling foolish I say just let it go."

Trying to sidle up to me he said, "Winnie said you were disappointed."

Getting aggravated I said, "Cor I know the difference between what is important and what isn't. The dance wasn't. Now I am done talking about this." And to make the point I left the room and didn't see him again until we went to dinner.

The ride in the carriage was a quiet one. Rachel was sleeping and we all wanted her to stay that way. We were all in the same carriage this time because the other was filled with trade goods and things that the estate people had sent to the fort for for their personal pleasure. It slowed us down a bit but that was fine as I had no desire to be bounced around like we had been on the trip out.

Looking out once I saw Topher scrambling about and watched him nearly fall off the top of the wagon carrying the luggage and remaining goods we were bringing back with us. He turned with a triumphant look on his face only caught that it hadn't just been the men watching him but me as well. The Captain chuckled and said, "If that boy moves more than a few inches the rest of the trip I'll be surprised. That is a truly fierce look you just gave him."

I growled, "He better hope I cool down before we get back to the estate or a look isn't all he is going to get." Cor and the Captain both snorted in sympathy with the boy until Winnie shushed them and reminded them who'd be taking care of Rachel if they woke her from her nap.

The trip home was an otherwise uneventful one and once back and unpacked with all of our hellos said and a good night’s rest under our belt work returned to normal though the season was cooler and wetter than had been for a few years presaging another unusual winter though those with arthritis refused to say for sure yet whether that was a good thing or bad. The unusual weather also exacerbated the reported illnesses among the remaining bands of raiders. They carried the illness into the territories surrounding Kipling that had harbored and then allied with them and because of this the threat of attack greatly diminished as the days went by and would likely disappear as those that managed to survive would be rushing back to where they came from before winter set in.

We replaced the few trees in the orchard that had been lost. All of the fire damage was finally repaired on the estate wall and in the village and work groups went from estate farms to outlying farms to help them as well. June changed to July and the harvests proceeded as they were supposed to. In fact everything was proceeding as it should except it all felt so empty.

I tried. I truly did. I went through the motions. Cor and I spoke to one another but something was missing that had once been there and I didn't know how to recapture it. Worse, as bad as I felt I wasn't sure if I wanted to try to. I wasn't sure I could open that part of myself again and still play the role life had apparently given me.

One afternoon I took a hike to Tumbler's Spring by myself; I just needed some time alone. But I wasn't to get it. I had put a fishing line in the water and was just beginning to relax when Cor showed up. "A moment of your time Mistress Fel?"

I grimaced. "Ok, just drop the title ... it sounds silly when you say it."

"Why?" he wanted to know.

I shrugged. "I don't know, it just does."

We sat together quietly for a few minutes but I no longer felt relaxed. Finally Cor said, "Luke came by this morning."

I rolled my eyes but kept them on the line I had in the water. "What did he want?"

"He is putting together a run to the northeast. I'm thinking of going."

I was definitely no longer relaxed. "What?!"

He sighed, "I take it you aren't in favor."

I jerked my line from the water and snapped, "No I am not in favor. You are just now getting your full strength back but you still have a fever every now and again."

He sighed. "I have to go at some point."

"I know that. But go after you actually have a decent chance of coming back!

“What if I told you I needed to go?”

Frustrated I answered, “I’d still want to know the reason.”

He sat with his back against a tree but he looked no more relaxed or comfortable than I. “Nothing has been the same since Francine left. It has only gotten worse since the night I signed the papers. Perhaps if I go, some distance will grow and I’ll be able to manage the results.”

Suddenly I was furious. “Curse her anyway for doing something and leaving us to try and fix the mess! Again! Look what she has left us with this time!”

Trying to calm me Cor said, “It is not Francine's fault. She’s ill. There just wasn’t enough love to fix it and then it died.”

Desperately I told him, “Then fall in love again.”

He shook his head, “I do not wish to fall in love again.”

I knew it but to hear him say it made me hurt for both of us but I was determined to not let him give up on his future and hurt himself. “All right then don't fall in love again. Find some new way to move forward. Adopt a son from one of the female lines of the Cormans. It seems you were related to have those silly boys at the festival. Find a young one the raise one of them to inherit. Don’t go haring off like this! The people need you.”

He shook his head not even pretending that he didn’t know what I was talking about. “They don't need me. You are the one that they go to; I don't even know half the things that you do.”

“And I knew none when I started. You learn as you go and you learn from who you work with. They’ll be more than happy to teach you!”

“It is too late,” he said quietly.

“It is never too late! You have to try. If you try and fail then that is still better than never trying at all. Francine stole your heart; do not let her steal your self-respect or your people's future!”

Then I saw it. A spark of anger … possibly of pride … in his eyes that hadn’t been there in a long while and I had hopes that I was reaching him. But I never got to find out whether I was or wasn’t because Jonah chose that moment to enter the clearing and say, “Hate ter interrupt but the Captain says ‘tis important. There’s riders at the house and Mistress Fel is needed right away.”

Irritated at the interruption I asked, “Who are they?”

“Don’t know Gilly. Cap’n didn’t say; all he’d comment was that it was important and that you were ter come right away.”

I looked back at Cor but I could see the moment for talk had passed. Gathering up my things I left without saying a word and jogged down the path trying to think what could be so important that the Captain would actually send for me.

By the time I got to the back of the house I was running full tilt and barely saw a little girl that was doing the same thing. I skidded to a stop in time but she couldn’t and she bounced off of me pretty hard and straight into the gravel that fills the drip line around the house. The poor mite got scared and started to cry. I was worried she’d really hurt herself but when I checked her over she’d only scraped a knee. She was pretty young so I simply picked her up to take her to Mrs. Wiley to ask who she belonged to, she wasn’t a child I recognized.

I turned the corner to the front of the house only to be confronted by a man calling sternly, “Felicia McConnell what are you into now?”

Hearing my name like that – very few people living know that my proper name is Felicia – I looked up to see a face that left me gasping for air. The little girl slid from my arms and ran to the man and I was caught between fear and confusion as he hoisted her up on his hip and she wrapped her arms around his neck.

All I could do was gasp, “Da?!”

Chapter 59

Chapter 59

“Hannah, is Docia really serious about wanting to do this?”

My bleary-eyed sister, the mother of unexpected twins, looked at me and asked, “Would I be here if she wasn’t? I was up all night with the babies and Nel is going to bounce more than dance though this.”

I snickered because it was true; Nel did look rather like a contest-sized pumpkin. “Is that one of Carter’s leather shirts or did you borrow someone’s tent to dress her in?”

Hannah snickered quietly but said, “You better not let her hear you. She’s … uh … a little sensitive at the moment and might decide to scalp you.”

Having already been singed a couple of times by the normally quiet young woman I decided the better part of valor was just to let the subject drop … but that meant we were back to discussing what we were all there for. I looked around and asked, “Has anyone tried talking her out of this?”

Nel pierced me with her light blue eyes and I took that for an affirmative. I sighed. Docia had her heart set on this and I didn’t want to disappoint her at all but wearing the ceremonial dress and moccasins that she had given me made me feel like I was playing dress up. “Docia, why could I not have just worn my old leathers. They are mine and …”

Docia looked at me sternly and wrinkled her nose. “Because they stink. You work in them all day and there aren’t any decorations on any of the parts.”

“They don’t stink … they’re just a little musky is all.”

Daphne said, “Musky in the same way a hound is musky after it has had a run in with a skunk. Stop fussing Fel and let me finish your hair. It’s even longer and thicker than Hannah’s and I want the braids and beads to look just right.”

“Ouch! Comb my hair not my ears!”

“Then sit still and stop wiggling!”

I groaned. “Docia …”

“Fel … you are going to be in this circle dance with us if I have to tie you to a pole and plant you in the middle. Wait … maybe that’s a good idea. We’ll tie ribbons to you and …”

“Don’t … you … dare!”

All of my sisters were there and laughed … even poor, uncomfortable Nel. They know I hate ribbons. It’s not anything against anyone that does like them but for me they are always catching on things or leaving bits and pieces of themselves for my enemies to track me with.

Docia’s brilliant idea was going to be the death of me. Somehow my sisters had turned being an Outlander into an asset. Or maybe it was just the way the families they married into treated them. On the other hand, while I wasn’t treated bad for being an Outlander I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. Or maybe it wasn’t being an Outlander at all, maybe it was just being me. Either way this blasted circle dance was just going to make people stare even more than they already did.

“Docia, explain again why we are doing this?” I asked.

Docia gave me an exasperated glance before turning back to work on another sister’s braids. “I’ve already explained it Fel. Some of the wome from the different estates have shown off their sewing talents, some have shown off their singing or other musical talents. Some paint, some do other artsy crafts. Then there are the things that the families show off … like pottery or jewelry or ironwork. Each of us sisters have done things with the ones we married but it has been so long since we’ve all been together I wanted us to do something too … as a family. You know it’s right, so stop fussing.”

I rolled my eyes. “Says you. The whole lot of you are as pretty as spring roses … big bellied and blooming or blushing from being a new mother. I’m gonna look like a stick … or a brick … and I’ll wind up embarrassing myself, you, and … and the family I live with.”

Strangely enough it was Daphne of all people that put her hand on me in comfort. “Fel there isn’t a thing wrong with the way you look. You’re just built like a warrior and not soft and rounded like we are. And I can’t imagine you looking any other way. It is part of who you are and if people can’t accept that then that is their problem not yours. Now turn here and let me color your eyes.”

I squawked, “What?! Now I said I would play dress up with you lot but I’m not putting war paint on my face.”

Daphne snatched my ear and kept me from leaving the stool I had been sitting on. “It isn’t war paint and you know it. You think I want to ruin the effect by painting your face so you can hide in the bushes? Or is that what you really want because you are trying to slip away unseen?”

Nel snickered and said, “What you get for calling me a pumpkin earlier.”

“Humph.” I have to admit I was having fun for all the fuss and bother of it. What I wasn’t looking forward to was going out and getting stared at.

Docia started lining us up as we had practiced for years. “You go in front Fel.”

“Why do I have to go in front?!”

Docia stamped her foot. “Because you start us off just like always and that means you either go in front or last and since I can’t seem to trust that you’ll actually make it to the stage if I let you go last then in front it is and that’s that.”

I groused, “You weren’t so bossy when we were just girls.”

She snorted, “But you were so you can imagine who I learned it from. Now stop being such a scaredy-cat and dance for Cor if you can’t do it for us.”

I found some steel for my spine at her words and knew that if I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself I needed to start acting with a little more grace. I mumbled, “I’ll just pretend we are playing by the stream like we used to. No one is around, just us.”

Docia smiled and I realized she really was beautiful now that she was taken care of the way she was always supposed to be and not always having to look over her shoulder, worrying which monster was going to try and get her next.

In some clans there are instruments and words that go along with their dances but in our town the women only used their hands and feet to mark the beat they danced by. The music came as the claps and stomps and steps wove together like the ribbons wove together as we circled around the pole that stood in the center. The only other sound was made by the dance leader to call the sudden changes in steps that came faster and faster and faster as the dance reached its finale.

As we walked onto the dais that was being used as a stage people didn’t quiet down like they did for other performers and I knew from a few covert looks they were trying to put us in our place. That more than anything gave me the courage to go on. I chirped the first moves and in no time, despite my intent to rub the faces of the crowd into the dust, I had forgotten all about them as my sisters and I relived one of the few pleasures that had been allowed to us.

Round and round then reverse and round. Stomp and clap. Bob and weave. I whistled, chirped, and called. Twist, snap, stomp. Round and reverse. As we moved the ribbons began to weave and unweave. The steps sped up and it was a game to see how fast we could move in time and not cause a knot.

Now we were all smiling and laughing … stomping, clapping, bobbing, round and round, revers and round again. We’d gone faster as girls but I don’t think we’d ever moved as sure footed. Then in one quick flash of feet moving so fast they were nothing but a blur, hands flying this way and that with our partners, the dance came to an crashing end and the ribbon was perfectly woven and tied in bows all along the poles length.

There was utter silence then Carter jumped over the table he’d been sitting on and swooped Hannah up into a huge boyish hug and said, “Gosh all mighty Wife, I sure gotta prize in you!”

Carter’s brother wasn’t so far behind but he stopped short when Nel said, “You’re not dumping me on my head. I’m so heavy I’ll snap your back … a kiss’ll do just fine thankee.”

Soon there was laughing and clapping all around and other husbands came forward to claim their wives. I saw Lem bending and kissing Daphne’s hand like she was royalty out of some storybook before placing her hand in the crook of his arm and leading her off. Others were drawing their wives away for a cool drink … we were all hot and sweating from the dance. Robbie claimed Docia and I hugged her and then turned and wove my way to go off stage. I hadn’t seen Cor and I was bound and determined that no one was going to see how alone I was.

I was all changed out of the leathers and back into my own clothes when Winnie found me. “Here you are. I had wondered where you had gotten to.”

Her voice was over bright which told me she’d noticed that I was the only one to walk off stage alone. I refused to be an object of pity. I told her, “I wanted to take this off and air them out. They belong to Docia. Besides these ornaments clinking and clanking drive me mad; I can barely hear myself think with them on. Give me a moment to finish packing these in her bag. Was there anything you needed?”

“Fel … he meant to be here …”

“Hmmm?” I asked like I hadn’t really been listening to the question the first time around.

“Fel … please, let me explain. The divorce papers came in and the council wanted them signed right away.”

I stopped dead still. “Of course they would. They couldn’t leave the man alone for just one night could they? No, they want to sweep things under the rug as fast as possible regardless of how they do it.”

“Don’t be mad at him.”

I shook my head. “I’m not. I wasn’t mad at him to begin with.”

“Then who are you mad at? The Council? They are just trying to do their job.”

I snorted. “That’s your opinion. But no, not the council either. Myself. For being a foolish maid.” She put her hand on my arm and I jerked away. “Just leave it be Winnie. It is what it is.”

I walked away. I think she would have followed me but some woman or other called her and then hugged her in some boisterous greeting. I made my way to the room I’d been sleeping in. I was in no mood for any more celebrations and just wanted to escape in sleep. I gave serious consideration to drinking a mug of tea to help me sleep but that only brought more thoughts of Francine and why Cor had been there to see me dance. I looked at the open window and the roof beyond and developed a need to sleep out in the open like I used to.

I found the wooden shakes too uncomfortable once I was out there so I knew my idea of sleeping on them was too foolish to try; but I did decide that I was going to sleep there for a while. I leaned against the wall, hidden in a shadow so no one below would see me, and then let my mind wander in the stars above.

Hours later I heard the latch on the door lift and the door pushed open.

“Hush Cor or do you wish to wake the whole building? I’m surprised Fel hasn’t already come in search of you.” I only heard a loud bit of mumbling and then the bed make a loud squeak. “Wait here. I’ll see if she’s in the sitting area.”

“She’s gone I tell you … gone. For good.”

I heard the Captain mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, “Idiot boy.”

I clambered back in the window and smelled it right away. “How much has he drunk?” I asked making the Captain jump.

“Where … ?” He looked out the window then back at me and said, “You may feel the need to go out there for a bit again.”

I shook my head. “No. I’ll sit in the chair to make sure he doesn’t fall out of the bed.”

The Captain and I removed Cor’s boots and then as he made to leave he said, “You don’t seem surprised.”

“Winnie told me.”

“Oh.” After a moment he tried to say, “Fel, he’ll …”

“Stop,” I said holding up my hand for emphasis. “No more. No more meddling or excuses or anything else. I’m tired of it all; it’s like ashes on my tonge. I’ll live with the way things are so stop worrying. But if you want to make it easier for me just … just stop with the fairy stories. I don’t need ‘em. Don’t want ‘em. Life is what it is. The sooner we all come to accept it the easier we’ll all sleep.”

Quietly he said, “Very well.” He turned to leave then turned back and add, “You’re a good girl Fel … a good Mistress for the estate. If that is all Cor can see you as then he’s still a dem sight luckier than he was before.”

I latched the door behind him and then moved the chair so I could prop my feet on the bed. I needed some rest, after all tomorrow would be just another day.

Chapter 58

Chapter 58

I am sooooo ready to leave this place. There have been moments of fun but for the most part it has been like a visit to the witch doctor to have a poisoned tooth yanked and they had to do it twice because the first time they only got half the tooth.

I swear there are some useless people in the world. Da used to tell me of the time before the Dark Days when people could lay around letting machines do things for them, or letting them go undone and they didn’t have to worry because eventually someone else would come along and do it for them. It was a time when food came from boxes and was cooked fast in boxes and that there was so much of it you could grow fat and no one would notice because nearly everyone looked like that. Where you could be fat because there were only a few monsters you had to run from; and where if you did run no one worried about winning because no one was allowed to lose. Where the government would pay for your care when you didn’t have enough sense to stop smoking the peyote or drinking the shine to feed yourself and care for your children. Where prisoners had playtime nearly all day long and workers had hardly any play time at all because they were working to pay for the prisoners’ life of ease. Where stuff was more important than your family and families could be separated and no one seemed to care as everyone was always trying to get away from where they came from.

I can’t even imagine living such a purposeless life in such a purposeless time. Where’s the challenge in it? Where’s the reward? And what would you do with all of that extra time? For that matter how would you learn to appreciate good times if both good times and bad looked the same?

We had ceremonies and feasts where I grew up and I know there’s nothing wrong with that. I even admit that a day or two of fun and games would have been nice, but this festival has been going on a week and has another to go and the “fun” is no longer fun but tedious repetition. How many times can you stuff your face with too much food and drink and still expect to be respected by your neighbors when they know your people struggle to put meat on their tables? How often can you brag about some accomplishment or other when everyone knows that it is in reality not you but your people that do all of the work? How many suits of clothes can you wear with pride while the people on your estate struggle to find enough cloth to cover their babies’ bottoms?

Those are the families that disgust me. I suppose I must be honest and say there are only a few that are that bad but they seem to have such an outsized presence. And the young unattached males from those families go beyond annoying to be a menace. I flat out refused to go to one function which caused me to get in an argument with the Captain, Winnie, and Cor.

When they asked me why I was being so stubborn about it I finally lost it. “Because I am tired of having to be even more careful of my person than I was back in the place I came from!”

Cor’s head jerked around from where he’d been pouring himself a drink and said, “What?!”

“You heard me and don’t act so surprised! Just because you could care less what other men think they can get away with me doesn’t mean that I appreciate their attentions! I can’t stand it!” I was in such a mood I was pacing around the room. “You go off and talk with real men in your closed meetings where you do nothing more than jabber and test each estate’s liquor and tobacco while I get stuck trying to avoid that bag full of puppies that passes for the younger ones. My sisters don’t have to put up with that nonsense. Why do I?!”

I had let the fact that Cor didn’t seem to need my company hurt more than it should have. I had tried to live with it, and I could have if we had stayed at the estate; but, living with it and trying to not beat the heads in of those men that went out of their way to annoy me was faced getting out of my reach.

“Who is bothering you Dear?” Winnie asked. “I’ll speak to their mothers.”

I rolled my eyes. “And they are supposed to be men when you have to speak to their mothers about keeping their hands out of the cookie jar?!”

The Captain smirked and I told him, “Oh yes, you can laugh. You’re not the one forever having to walk through a crowd like you have the palsy just to avoid all the unwanted touching. I leave these blasted get-togethers feeling like I need to scrub with strong lye in the hottest tub of water I can stand!”

The Captain then laughed with a loud “Hah! They don’t seem quite so eager since you bloodied Turlington’s nose with your elbow.”

“Yes well,” I said grudgingly. “It is what he gets for literally trying to show me how his male hounds greet one another. Just because his dogs are praised for their strength and speed doesn’t mean he has to go around mimicking them. He certainly doesn’t have their smarts. The idiot.”

Cor had been silent since his first question as I looped passed him in another tromp around the room he grabbed my arm and I realized it was anger that had held his tongue. “Why did you not say something before this? Do you think I am too weak to defend you?”

Struck by what a stupid question that was I told him, “Don’t be a looby, even in your state you’d skewer most of those nitwits with one toss of your bowie. Which reminds me I don’t see why you get to carry your blade when I have to leave my blade in our room. It’s not f…”

I stopped myself just in time and sealed my lips but Cor’s temper had evaporated for some reason and his lips started to twitch. “You didn’t nearly say the word fair did you?”

I jerked my arm away, stuck out my tongue and turned my back to him and tried to walk away but he pulled me back. “You leave your blade in the room because you would have skinned the … uh … bag full of puppies by now for a new coat. And I am sure there are several mothers grateful that you have not.” More seriously he asked, “Fel, why haven’t you said something before now? Why let it come to this?”

Frustrated I said, “Because I am trying to fit in to your infernal society. Because it looks like this is the way everyone expects it to be. But now I’m finding I will never fit in and I’ve lost all patience. Work is piling up on the estate. I have lists and lists of things that need doing. I’m missing the first harvests and going with the children into the forest to pick berries. I’m missing the strawberries!”

I felt like stomping my feet and it must have shown. The Captain and Winnie quietly left the room and I strained away from Cor’s hand that was still holding my arm. “Fel, I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was such a struggle for you.”

He finally released me and I put some space between us. “You know my Da was only able to part way civilize me. I’m all thumbs at these parties. These clothes are uncomfortable. The talk where I am seated is boring. I have no desire to get to know these flibberty gibbets I’m expected to charm and impress. I want to play in the games Cor … throwing, archery, even the wrestling. I want to be free to talk to people that interest me and not just those that seem to have no more than air between their ears. I can’t even go in the library and look at the books there because you men have taken it over like a private study.”

“You’re bored,” he said.

Turning to him I nearly yelled, “I’m half crazed with the waste of it all! The time, the coin, the energy, all of it! What is the purpose to it?! I’ll never be good enough, I’m tired of being laughed at and treated strange, I’m tired of the snide and nasty comments hidden between lines of talk. I don’t want to be here anymore! I want to go home!!”

“Home?” he asked quietly.

“Fine, if you want it that way … I want to go to your home. I want to go back to the cabin where even if I have nothing else I have some peace!”

He had followed me across the room and said quietly. “That’s not what I mean Fel. Of course the estate is your home now. I’m … I’m just glad you can call it that.”

“Then let’s go Cor ... let’s just leave all this … this … gaaahhh … I don’t even know what to call it.”

Quietly he asked, “What is it really? Is it having Hazel here?”

“What? No. No, she’s nice. Besides she spends all of her time with the older women trading recipes and woes about having too many sons. I’ve already told you, I don’t mind that you still love Francine and I don’t mind the reminders of it. Nobody has the right to …”

“Yes, you have said that a few times,” he said with a sigh. “I still prefer not to have it thrown in my face as some are doing.”

“Tell me who and I’ll …”

He snorted and said, “And that’s precisely why I ignore it so it doesn’t upset you.”

“What upsets me is if they are upsetting you otherwise it doesn’t bother me in the least.” It was a small lie but one I could live with.

“Then if it isn’t Hazel is … is it … Luke?”

I rolled my eyes at the absurdity of his question. “And he’s got to be the biggest puppy of them all. The only difference is that he has manners and knows I’ll break his hands if they wander where they aren’t welcome. I think I’ve thrown him off by putting him on the scent of Lem’s cousin. I know she’s a little cross eyed but given that he’s not exactly an Adonis they should match pretty well.”

I’d caught him off guard and he gave a great bellow of laughter and then grabbed his side. “Cor?!”

“No … no I’m fine,” he gasped. After regaining his composure he said, “Oh Fel … I’d leave this place tonight if I could but the truth is I do still owe a few debts and I need to make the contracts that I am negotiating; without them it could be another few years before I can finish getting the estate out from under the burdern. The interest will compound and kill us if I’m not careful. As it is the raiders have crashed too many of my plans … and the other things that have happened …” He shook his head; he always talked around the situation, never about it directly. “If it isn’t Hazel … or Luke … what is it?”

“I’ve already told you what it is. And I just hate feeling stupid.” I turned my head away so he couldn’t see just how much I hated it.

“You aren’t stupid.”

“Says you. You aren’t the one always having to watch what comes out of your mouth for fear you’re gonna cause someone to faint … or at least act like they’re going to. I swear life here in Kipling is so different from what I grew up with. And these people …”

“Fel listen to me. They’re just trying to test you and putting on airs. Ignore them.”

I growled, “That’s what I’m doing! But I’m getting fed up and if they don’t smarten up and leave me alone …” I left it hanging because we both knew I had a short string. “I’ll be good Cor … I just can’t stand the idea that I’m embarrassing you and the others that are counting on me to make something of this ridiculous muck up.”

He shook his head and said, “You don’t embarrass me Fel, quite the opposite.”

I blinked like an owl in the sunlight. “Huh?”

He smiled and for the first time in a long time the kindness I knew him to possess peeped out at me. “I said you don’t embarrass me. If anything you should be embarrassed of me. I’m a mess Fel and barely fit company for anyone much less you … after all you’ve been through, after all you’ve put up with …”

I wasn’t sure what to do so I poked him. Hard. With my finger right in his chest.

“Ow! What was that for?!”

“For being a looby. I’m not ashamed of you. You earned your bumps and bruises trying to save the estate not falling out of a rocking chair where you were lazing away.”

I have a feeling if my hair had been in braids he would have tugged one but the mess was all piled on my head since I was supposed to be pretending I was a fine lady of the estate. “And who was it that really saved the estate by killing the snake?” he asked.

I had my own issues I suppose and accepting that was one of them. “So I did but not because that’s what I set out to do Cor. And that one act is not what saved the estate but all the acts by all the people, including you, that came before it. I … I lost my mind there for a bit after I saw you fall. It was like losing my family all over again. I’ve accepted it but it isn’t anything I’m proud of and I’d … I’d prefer others not to know of it.” In a very quiet voice I added, “Please.”

“I won’t say anything so long as you promise to believe that I’m not ashamed of what you did … or of you.”

I looked at him from beneath my lashes. “That’s fair close to blackmail.”

With an exaggerated look of innocence he said, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I sighed, “It’s really important that I come to this flaming dinner?”

Cor gave me another kind look. “I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t. We have to show a united front.”

I sighed. “Yeah, yeah. We’re the biggest, strongest, baddest little estate in Kipling.”

He chuckled, “Exactly. Besides, I’ve heard there will be news about the raiders shared by one of Uncle Rob’s friends that is in charge of the Kipling militia. If you truly wish it, you can come to the library with me after dinner, some of the … the wives … do.” He gulped and then continued, “And Docia said there is to be a surprise tonight as well.”

“Oh glory … tell me she didn’t really say a surprise,” I moaned.

“She did. Why?”

“Never mind, you’ll see soon enough. Just keep in mind that you said I wasn’t an embarrassment to you.”

Chapter 57

Chapter 57

I watched Cor for signs of pain but it only caused him to get angry. “I already had a mother,” he snapped. “I don’t need another one. Stop fussing.”

Then we hit a bump and he cursed nearly as creatively as the old Headman could when something would knock his gouty foot. When Cor finished I asked, “Not even to wash your mouth out for you?”

He threw me a look that would have scorched water but I remained calm and unaffected by his roasting glance. Topher snickered at “the Mister” being stared down but when Cor turned his look on the boy, the boy was smart enough to scramble out the window and sit with the men riding up top on top of the carriage we were traveling in.

I shook my head. “Topher didn’t mean any harm. He’s just excited about going to the fort for the first time in his life.”

Cor crossed his arms and sighed. “You spoil him.”

I shook my head. “Not really, I don’t have the chance. I don’t see him near as much as before he was taken. He grew up so fast.”

“Oh for the love of … the boy’s just eleven years old,” Cor said irritably.

Getting a little testy myself I told him, “And doing a man’s work helping with the patrols and such.”

Cor snapped, “Because you taught him what to look for.”

I snapped back, “Was I supposed to leave him ignorant of how to defend himself? Or let my Da’s skills die with me?”

Cor opened his mouth but we hit another hole and we both pitched forward onto the floor. “Are they trying to kill us?!” Cor asked irritated while we tried to untangle from one another. The absurdity finally caught up with me I tried not to laugh. When he noticed he asked, “Enjoy being pitched around like a child’s toy do you?!”

I chuffed a laugh as we righted ourselves and regained our seats. “Oh settle down. I know it’s uncomfortable but it’s just the road’s in bad shape. If they didn’t insist on treating us like we were important we would be riding horses like sensible people do in these conditions. Instead we’re being taken care of like royalty.”

Cor reached over and brushed some dirt off the sleeve of the blouse I was wearing, just one of several new ones that Winnie and Mrs. Wiley insisted I have. Cor asked more calmly than he had to date, “What are you smiling at now?”

“Just remembering Winnie’s look when I asked her exactly why I needed more clothes than I already have. I wish you could have seen it, she looked like she’d just taken a big swig of vinegar. And I still say it is like trying to teach a pig to use coloring pots to tot me out like this. What on earth am I going to need all these changes for?”

He shook his head. “I should have thought of it myself. Francine always …”

He clamped his mouth shut and looked out the window. I sighed and changed seats to sit beside him. Putting my hand on his forearm I told him carefully, “Cor, you can’t keep avoiding her name. You love her. You likely always will. Stop fighting it and just accept it. I’m so sorry you didn’t have your happily ever after but you can’t go on torturing yourself like this forever.”

Carefully he said, “Winnie said you would … would find it insulting if I mentioned her name.”

I blinked. “That has to be the first lame-brained thing I have ever heard that woman utter.” At his surprised look I told him, “No one has the right to ask you to give up your memories. Your dreams might have to change but that doesn’t mean you should forget the good times that created them.”

He looked at me sharply. “You don’t care if I love Francine?”

I shook my head. “I’d be surprised if you still didn’t; you’ve known and loved her most of your life. Who am I to tell you who you can and can’t have feelings for?” After a moment of thought I added, “Besides, I’m sure the subject of Francine is bound to come up – people trying to be kind, people being curious, and some likely being nasty – and we’d best prepare ourselves and have an answer handy.”

He relaxed. “You’ll do fine, probably better than she did at her presentation. She was nervous and terrified of what people would think of her. You could care less what they think of you and will likely be bored to tears with all of their airs and ways.”

I snorted a laugh. “You know how strange that sounds? I still don’t understand the whole presentation thing. But if it will get those loobies off our case and show them they’ll get more than they bargain for if they come after us or our people I suppose I can put up with the strange starts of this flaming First Families crowd of yours for a few days … but no longer than a week mind you. There’s a lot of work I’ve left behind to show off this council of yours.”

I leaned back and watched the scenery go by and remembered the conversation that night at dinner when I first heard of the festival. It was the Captain who described it best. “There are games and competitions and dances and other entertainment but the most important portion of the entire thing is the meet and greet between the families. Think of yourself like a heifer on the auction block. By selling yourself to the crowd and by showing your own value you are also setting the estate’s value. Weak leadership means a weak estate. A weak estate puts blood in the air for the predators to sense. The opposite is also true. Strong leadership assumes a strong estate. A strong estate earns respect. Respect keeps the predators at bay. The festival is where the start of contracts and marriages between families begin, where the young women are shown to their best advantage and the men try and catch their attention.”

As soon as I saw it I asked in absolute exasperation, “Are you sitting there telling me this festival of yours is nothing more than a great big pecking order party where all the roosters go to strut and mount the hens?!”

Winnie wound up getting the giggles so bad she had to leave the table and go tend to Rachel. Cor tried not to but he finally smiled reluctantly and the Captain pinched the bridge of his nose. Sighing he finally answered, “I would not put it in quite those terms but yes, for all intents and purposes I suppose that is a true enough description.”

A sudden weight against my shoulder drew me from my reverie and I turned to see that Cor had fallen into a dose and slid against me. I suppose I should have pushed him back but I decided to indulge in a momentary fantasy and imagined that things were better between us than they were.

Hearing him mention Francine had startled me. It was like a prick to my heart to know he still had such deep feelings for her; but, at the same time I knew he would not be the man I fell in love with if he could simply fall out of love with Francine so quickly … or at all.

I worried about him. Neither his appetite nor his health had fully come back yet. He tired often and still napped every day, sometimes twice. He bruised so easily that even a small tap could end up looking like a hammer blow. Even now if he overdoes it he’ll run a slight fever. The infection that had kept him from healing for so long has depleted all of his reserves and Lollie has warned us that a minor cold could set him back weeks if he isn’t careful. I know it irks him to be so weak. What man would it not? I ignore it when I can for his sake but sometimes it is simply a reality that we must deal with and I hate the way it shames him.

I noticed he was drawing his arms up to his chest like he was cold despite the heat of the day. I used my foot to draw the blanket from the other seat but before I had finished draping it across his lap he put his hand on mine. “Thank you,” he said in a voice thick with fatigue.

I knew he was awake though the fact that he didn’t move made me feel as warm as he was chilled. Quietly Cor said, “They’ll … they’ll have us in the same room Fel. We’ll … we’ll have to appear …”

Just as quietly so as not to break the partnership, brief though it might be, I told him, “Let ‘em think what they like. If it bothers you …”

A moment of silence and then he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”

I swallowed, “Then there’s naught to worry on.”

“You sure?” he persisted.

“I wouldn’t lie to you Cor,” I assured him.

He sighed and then went fully back to sleep leaving me to think. It was so seldom that anything came close to being what it used to be. I knew this wouldn’t last. He’d start remembering and blaming himself and feeling ashamed and we’d be back to square one all over again.

Too many people have good intentions where Cor and I are concerned. If I hear “Just have patience, he’ll come around” from one more well-meaning person I’ll likely do some damage to something. People want happy endings; it is almost like they need happy endings … especially for those they care about. I’m not so foolish, I know happily ever after happens a lot less than people want to believe. I’m not so sure my fantasies will ever be reality.

My own guilt over the situation has subsided. I’ve searched and searched my heart and know I never meant Francine any real ill will. She was never my friend but I never truly counted her an enemy. I did what I could to make her life easier without turning into her lap dog. I even compromised my own code of ethics to do it. I cared for her at all stages as much as she would let me, and a little beyond that when necessary. But she still chose her path, though whether or not she is fully accountable for it I’ll have to leave to God to determine.

Lord knows she’s beyond my help now. Hazel writes to me for some reason. I always write back and try and keep it light but I think perhaps in some way I have made Hazel regret the path she walked. I hope she is not unhappy and if it eases her to vicariously live her life over through me then I see no harm in it so long as she doesn’t try to meddle. And she sends news of Francine … news that is not always happy.

Francine has discovered that though she will be a wife to Elder Lathrop, it will be in name only. She cried and cried over that, asking why she was being punished, asking what she had done to deserve such a fate. Hazel says it is as if Francine has forgotten her baby and that she appeared to be forgetting her marriage to Cor completely. I wondered whether to tell him about this, whether it would hurt or relieve some of his guilt, but then the Captain let slip that Elder Lathrop was keeping Cor abreast of things. Some of it a legal necessity but part of me wonders if he needed to share quite so much. But I can’t ask him.

Cor and I never talk the way we once did. I miss it. My life is less interesting because of it. Who do I remember the strange scraps of paper I found as I dug through the rubble of old Saburbia? The Captain would think I was cracked and Winnie has no time between tending the Captain and tending Rachel. Who does that leave? The animals that come to Tumbler’s Spring to drink? The cows in the barn as I sit and milk? I’m not comfortable sharing my past with anyone else. It took a lot to trust it with Cor, I don’t think I have anything left that would let me feel the same with anyone else. I’ll confess, I feel as lonely as I did before Cor and I discovered we could be friends.

I think I could live with it all if we could just be friends again. I’m not sure that will ever happen. Cor’s pain has chewed at him so that I worry that by the time he can put himself back together there will be no place for me amongst the pieces.

I have to be prepared for that but it leaves my life so uncertain. And I grow tired of that. Tired of wondering if I’ll be around tomorrow to see any fruit from what I do today. If he would just look at me … see me … without the guilt in his eyes. If I could just feel a little secure, a little hope. Perhaps if I just show these people that I’m good enough … maybe not good but certainly good enough … to have a place, things will get better and we can find something even if it isn’t what it was before.