“Hate me? Why? Have we met?” I asked.
“No. No we haven’t met. The fact that you are here and still breathe should be enough.”
I was beginning to have my suspicions which were confirmed when I heard the Captain yell, “Cor!”
I tried to swallow around the desert that had suddenly sprung to existence inside my mouth. All we could do is stare at each other. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes but in his there was a look of barely controlled fury that warred with what look suspiciously like unwilling pity. I didn’t care for the fury and despised the pity.
Before either of us could utter a word however I heard boots clomping down the verandah stairs from the back of the main house and the Captain calling once again, “Cor? Where are you son?”
The man in front of me sighed and answered, “Over here Uncle Rob.”
I started to edge back into the shadows as much as I could and was giving serious consideration to the idea of escaping through the small window opposite the door way. What light had been coming in around the man now leaning on the doorframe was blotted out as the Captain stepped in beside him.
Cautiously he looked and then saw me. I straightened my shoulders. I didn’t like feeling trapped, not that I hadn’t been figuratively trapped in some way for several years, however I refused to reveal my fear but for different reasons for each man. The Captain I respected and didn’t want him to think me weak. And for the other one, I would no more reveal my fear to him than I would to a hungry, hoary beast.
The Captain snapped, “Cor! There is no need for this.”
I could see the man take immediate offense and God help me I don’t know why I had to put my foot in it. “I don’t know what you’re thinking Captain but I just got caught up in memories and the dust of this place. He didn’t do nothin’.”
The man didn’t appreciate it any more than the Captain seemed to believe it. He snapped, “I have a few things to say to you … you …”
The Captain growled, “Her name is Fel boy and there is no need to act like this.”
Losing patience I told the Captain, “I may not like what his words he chooses Captain, but he has the right to say them. Words won’t break me.” Then I turned to the man. “But you raise your hand to me and you’ll be pulling back a nubbin’. You want to spew your venom fine but you’ll be spewing your innards if it is more than that and damn the consequences.” Turning back to the Captain I added, “I don’t need a nursemaid and it’s best just to get it all done and over with.”
Looking at us both as if he were somehow disappointed he said, “I will be with Winnie.”
After he had gotten out of ear shot I mumbled, “I never know whether it is a threat or not when he says that.”
The man said, “You think to make me your allie with such words?”
I shook my head, “No more than I’d believe you’re willing to be my allie in this life.” Sighing I said, “If there is going to be shouting at least let us move further away from the house. I don’t want to upset Winnie; she’s sick enough as it is.”
Squaring his shoulders he said, “Nor do I wish to upset my wife … Francine.”
He was already drawing lines in the sand. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any less but for some reason I had expected someone more like the Captain and it hurt that he so obviously wasn’t. Though why I expected anything else is beyond me. I’d already been told how he would feel and I should have been more suspicious of the comings and goings of the couriers and the Captain’s and Winnie’s dour moods.
We walked silently until we reached a small structure near a stream. I’d taken to coming out here in the hottest part of the day when no one wanted to work and dangling my bare feet from a bridge over the icy spring-fed water.
“How fitting,” the man said with a sneer.
“How so?” I asked.
“As if you didn’t know.”
I didn’t want to antagonize this man. I kept hearing that he wasn’t a hitter but in my experience even a normally calm man could hit if provoked. And this man was already provoked and being honest with myself I knew he had reason to be. No telling what I would do in his boots; I was having enough trouble not chewing the woodwork as I walked made my own footprints.
I asked him, “What do I call you?”
I repeated, “What do I call you? I hear people say you go by Cor but you’ve not give me leave to call you anything. People call me Fel.”
Angrily he said, “I am not your friend.” For some reason that struck me funny and I laughed before I thought. Even more angrily he asked, “You find some humor in this?!”
I sighed as all the fun evaporated. “Not really. Just when they first shoved this situation down my throat people kept telling me they weren’t my enemy and that I had nothing to fear from anyone. Now you say you aren’t my friend in a way that says the opposite of what others were trying to convince me of. It’d be nice if you people would make up your minds so I could figure out just how much misery I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life.”
After a few moments of angry pacing the man said, “Cor … just … just call me Cor.” More belligerently he said, “But that’s all you’ll call me. You aren’t my wife.”
“No, no I’m not.”
My response finally got through his fog of anger and penetrated his thick skull. He growled, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I agree with you. I’m not another wife to you. I don’t believe in multiple spouses and that sort of thing. You might try and force me to be your whore but I’ll fight you every step of the way no matter how accommodating the Captain and Winnie are trying to convince me to be … accommodating for your own good I might add.”
He sneered, “So you think you can ruin me?”
I shook my head. “You know, when you get done being angry and are ready to think you might find out it doesn’t have to be their way and your life doesn’t have to be ruined … there might just be another solution. I don’t want what has been done to me. I don’t want the future they are trying to force on me. I can’t escape it all though so I’ve been thinking on just how much I might be able to escape. I doubt you’ve got that far yet considering you’ve probably only found out about how people have been planning your life for you.”
A flash of fury had him balling his fists and I set myself for a beating. I didn’t cringe but I got ready to move so that the hits didn’t land too squarely. Instead he surprised me by turning and walking a few feet away, like maybe he didn’t trust himself not to do something that would only make him feel worse than he already did.
“What did they give you to do this to me?”
“To do this to you? I’m the one bought and paid for like some saloon girl. I don’t know who to claim is the pimp … them Lathrops, your precious Council, maybe even the Captain and Winnie; they’ve all had a hand in sticking me where I’m at. Even you.”
“Me?! I don’t want you here! I didn’t even know about you until a few days ago.”
“If you had picked a wife that could …”
He was in my face as quick as a snake and just as quick I knew I’d gone too far and turned to run. But I’d forgotten how much junk was hidden under the leaves that lay all over the ground and when I turned I wrapped my foot in a tree root that had worked its way to the surface. The toes on my bad foot slid between a bend in the root and the ground and as I went down the thin leather of my moccasin finally gave up the ghost. I’d left off padding the area where the little toe was missing and as luck would happen that is exactly the skin the root seemed to attack with as much fury as the man himself was feeling.
I closed my eyes and fought, dividing my strength between my pain and the man. It wasn’t until the man growled, “Will you hold still, you are only making it worse” that I realized it wasn’t a pounding he was trying to give me but help in untangling.
“Don’t touch me. Leave me be. I’ll …” I had to swallow around the bile that had crept up my throat. “I can take care of it myself.”
“A likely story. You’re the color of moldy cheese.”
“You’d know given what I found growing in your pantry t’other week,” I told him, hoping to make him angry enough to back off.
Instead he said, “Hold still or I’ll fetch Mary to sit on you. She’ll be happy to if you’ve been bothering her kitchen.”
“It ain’t her kitchen, it’s yours as the head of this lunatic crew you got. Besides Mary ain’t here. She left the moment we arrived saying something about her daughter giving birth and that she would be seeing to her for I don’t know how long.” Slapping his hand away I added, “And if you mess with my skirts one more time I’m gonna make your head lopsided with whatever I can find to do it with. I may not be strong enough to stop what you’re after but I’m not gonna just give up without a fight.”
With that he sat back and scooted a few feet away. “I wouldn’t touch you if it meant freeing me of all my debts.”
I straightened my skirt that was made from what was left of the leather aprons at Gramp’s smithy and told him, “Good. ‘Cause I’ll never be no man’s willing whore no matter it is supposed to be for the good of your precious family and of Kipling itself.”
I pulled myself up though it hurt to put weight on the blasted foot and limped out of his reach. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of checking to see how much damage I’d done.
“What’d you do to your foot?”
I told him, “It’s none of your concern.”
“It is if I caused it.”
I shook my head, “It’s an old injury. Nothing for you to have to think about.”
He looked me over from head to toe. “You look like something the dog dug up.”
“And you smell like something he’s fond of rolling in. Got any more ways to tell me you find me unsuitable? I’ll let you know when you get around to finding one I haven’t heard before.”
He snorted. “You’ve got a mouth on you.”
“Yeah. Pot meet kettle. You aren’t exactly slow with the insults yourself.”
That stopped him. Instead of taking notice of what I’d just said he asked, “If they aren’t paying you to do this to me why are you here? To torment Francine?”
I shook my head. “The only time I see her is when she comes to eat ‘cause she’s learned I ain’t gonna haul a tray up to her sitting area when it only makes me more work and she won’t even bring her dishes down. And by the way do you know how many dishes I found up in that blasted sitting room when I finally got around to cleaning it? It took me a whole day just to get ‘em all washed properly and we ain’t even gonna discuss the nasties that was growin’ in ‘em when I finally found ‘em. I was having to feed everyone out of trenchers and pots ‘cause I didn’t think you owned any table dishes! I’s never been so embarrassed in my life and it sure did give the village women something to look at too.”
Confusion was beginning to replace anger on his face. “What were the village women doing in Francine’s sitting room? Did she have them in for company?”
“They were company but not the kind you mean. Jonah sent ‘em to help me clean the house.”
“You asked Jonah to send them?”
“Of course I didn’t ask Jonah to send them. I didn’t even know there was a village nearby. He did it on his own because he saw it was going to take me ‘til the Dark Days come back around to get it all done by myself.”
He shook his head and chose not to go down that path. “So, you aren’t being paid and it isn’t about Francine. Just exactly why are you here?”
“I wake up every day asking God the same blasted thing only He never answers. Why don’t you ask Him if you’re so interested. If He let’s you know would you mind passing it along? I’d appreciate it for sure.”