He got up off the ground where he’d been sitting and then started to come towards me. I wasn’t born with half a brain no matter how I sometimes acted and tried to move out of his way.
In frustration he said, “Enough. Just … just let us sit over there. We need to talk and I mean to have my say.”
“Over there” was an old log that had been split in half long ways and made into a bench. The wood was so old and hard that not even the bugs bothered with it so the only thing I had to deal with was the damp and lichen that covered the flat surface like puffy cushions.
When we were both sitting, him on one end and me on the other, he said, “I did not choose this.”
“So I’ve been told by the Captain and Winnie. They even said you’d react like this. I think they were hoping you wouldn’t but they’re smart enough to know that hope ain’t enough to make something so.”
This time it was a question. “You didn’t chose this either?”
“Choice? I had no choice in this all the way back to when my town used me and my crèche sisters to pay the debt they had built to your Kipling. The way it was told to me maybe even before that as your Council worked it so that no one else would help my town and that they would have to pay at least some of their debt in marriage aged women.”
In a disgusted tone he said, “That certainly wasn’t my idea.”
“No. The Captain told me you were smart enough to fix it so you’d not have to do such a thing on your run to the Southern Region.”
He looked at me sharply. “And you believed him?”
I shrugged. “The Captain has never given me a reason to think him anything other than an honest man.”
Cor fell silent again for a few moments. When it looked like he couldn’t find the path he wanted to take I just sat there and let him take his time but was ready to move if he turned on me again. “You really don’t know what this place is do you?”
“This cabin. It is was used for …” He stopped and sighed. “Every wife is supposed to have their own living space. The early Corman men found it was better if their wives were separated not just by walls but by land, that each would have some bit that was theirs and theirs alone. Dotted throughout the estate are the remnants of cabins built for the other multiple wives … some seemed to need more space than others. This is the only one that still stands and it just happens to be the one that is closest to the main house.”
My pleasure in the place was lost. I doubt I would ever be able to come and find the same kind of peace on this spot again. It must have showed on my face because he said, “It’s a likely spot no matter what it started out being. Other members of the family have lived here over the years. There used to be a lot more children and they needed places to raise their own families.”
I shrugged. What was I supposed to say? I knew the history, I just didn’t want to be a part of a repeat. I looked over and saw him hunched over his hurts like he had a belly ache and suddenly felt something I hadn’t expected to feel. I didn’t pity him, he annoyed me too greatly for that, but I realized I could feel a little sorry for him. “Do you mean to fight or give in?” I asked.
In a voice dripping with sarcasm he said, “I have a responsibility to the family. I’m the leader.”
It was obvious the Captain had already been at him. I shrugged, “That don’t tell me nothing.”
Sitting straighter and snapping his said, “I have higher responsibilities than my own desires. If it was only me you could rot for all I care but a lot of people are dependent on the estate and surrounding farms for their sustenance and support. If I don’t allow this to happen there are some that will use my father’s debts to destroy the Corman family, I’ll lose control of the estate, and in the process other people that depend on me will get hurt.”
“We both know that for a fact but that’s still not what I’m asking.”
“Then stop your prattling and spit it out,” he snarled.
I sighed. The man was even more prickly than I was and that was saying something. “There are things we can’t change. There are things we can change but to do so would hurt others unnecessarily. There are things that are completely out of our control through no fault of our own. It’s not fair but neither is life. But …”
“But that doesn’t mean we have to just roll over and let them turn us on their spit and cook to their pleasure. They tell me you’re smart … real smart, not just book smart. If I’ve thought of ways to get partially around this situation surely when you slow your anger down you can think of some more.” He looked at me with distrust. I told him, “No need for that. It was Winnie and the Captain that explained things and you know they wouldn’t do you harm. I know what your father was and the grief it brought. My own Da was some different than yours but that don’t mean I can’t understand some of what you must have gone through.”
“We’ll not speak of that,” he told me firmly.
“Fine by me. What your Da would do if he were here doesn’t have to have anything to do with what you chose to do. What we chose to do if we were to … to … well … be friends of a sort.”
When he got a disgusted look on his face I did as well. “I ain’t talking about that kind of friendship. As sick as it obviously makes you imagine me at the idea of being the ‘other woman’ when the first one is your little Francine. She’s so weak she can’t even seem to take care of her own underlinens and the way she is would make folks taking her part want to burn me at the stake.”
“Do not malign my wife.”
I chose my words with extreme care. I had my opinion of Francine and her tricks but if Cor was blind to them nothing I could say would make him see. But we had to get a few things out of the way or nothing would come out of this whole mess but more mess.
“It ain’t maligning if it’s the truth,” I told him. “I don’t want to fight over it but you have to see the only reason they were able to put me here is due at least in part because of the way she acts.” The shake of his head was only half-hearted and I decided it would have to be enough and let it go.
After a moment of staring off into the trees he finally turned his gaze on me and asked, “So what am I missing that you see? How do we get out of this … situation?”
“We can’t, not all the way. Not if you are going to save your family and your place here. We are both being used as chew toys by you Council. On the one hand we got people that are turning too ambitious to make things comfortable, ambition that if not curtailed will change the face of the whole region. On the other, we have those that are set on maintaining the status quo; some because it keeps the balance and some because they are simply afraid of being lorded over by someone with too much power.”
“Then what are you proposing woman?” he asked showing his frustration again.
“Well, it can’t be too dramatic or it will draw notice where we don’t want it. But we have to be strong enough that those that want to manipulate you can’t gain a purchase and cause cracks to grow and weaken your plans which is what I think the Lathrops might be after as much as they are after to make their ways the ways of the whole region.”
“Even if I concede the points to you, what you’ve said still doesn’t say how we do this.”
It was now or never to make the leap. “Well for one … well … they can call us whatever they want but … but that doesn’t mean that … that we have to be what they call us.”
Irritated he asked, “And what by the Great Conflagration is that supposed to mean?”
I knew I could ruin this with one wrong word. “They already call me your wife but we both know … even Jonah has mentioned … that you … er … haven’t bedded me.” I could see the anger in his eyes again so I rushed on. “It doesn’t sound like that is what you want and not to hurt your feelings any but the idea of it makes me want to run and go puke in them bushes. But it’s been my experience that people pretty much think what they want to think no matter what the facts really are. When someone calls you a wife they pretty much think there is a husband in the picture and that the husband is being … husbandly if you get my meaning. So we let ‘em think what they want … but keep the true facts to ourselves.”
He didn’t exactly look like I’d hit him in the face with a pan but it was close. “So you’re saying we should lie about it.” Rearing up he said, “I’ll have you know I made a vow of faithfulness to Francine. I won’t ruin my honor by word or deed.”
I shook my head. “You know if I didn’t know you were a man fully growed I’d wonder at your naiveté. Your Francine is one of the ones that has been pestering the life out of you to take another wife and don’t bother to deny it, I’ve heard it from her own lips what little she actually speaks to me.”
Not wanting to admit the truth he said, “It’s the only life she has known.”
I shrugged. “So? She married you and said she agreed to take on your way of life but since day one she’s been trying to force her way of life on you. And she worked with her family to get her way and don’t think she wasn’t part of it. Had she objected it would have been a lot harder for her family to have done what they did.”
Shaking his head he said, “She’s too sweet and loves her family too much to deny them anything. It’s just that she knows that … that … Look, she’s not blind to the fact she was never taught to do some of the things that have been expected of her as my wife. If the estate was better off she would have never been put into the position she’s in.”
There are none so blind as those that will not see. I told him, “Even saying you’re correct it doesn’t make what she’s done right. The road to hell is paved with lots of good intentions my Gran always said. I won’t judge her but it wouldn’t have been all that hard to get Mary or Winnie or even Mona or someone else to teach her what she needed to know. She made the choice not to learn. And quite frankly it has left you in a fix.”
He fought the truth but it surprised me some that after a few moment he gave a short nod and admitted, “Aye, it has. She’s like a child at times and it makes it even more important that I protect her.”
Grrr. Two steps forward and one step back. Whatever, it was his choice. “So at least you can see letting people call me your wife isn’t going to hurt her feelings since she is one of the ones that wanted it in the first place. And the rest we can just keep to ourselves.”
He looked at me and I could see he was trying to control his disgust which should have made me angry but in reality made me want to laugh. He had no idea that I felt much the same for him but at least I had the sense to know that sometimes you just had to take what life dished out.
“Do you even know what you are saying?” he asked. “They’ll expect me to … to spend nights in your bed. Even Francine has said …”
He trailed off but I didn’t say anything. I had the sudden impression that more than anything had caused him some confusion and hurt since likely the idea of sharing her with anyone made him want to tear something and make it bloody. Quietly I answered, “No one said it would be easy. Not for you. Not for me. We just let them think whatever their desires lead them to think … and instead we read or play chess or sew the holes up in underdrawers or something like that.”
A bark of surprised laughter was his response. It was loud enough to scare a grouse out of the brush and without thinking I threw the knife I had and then limped over to wring the bird’s neck so it wouldn’t suffer. I was tired of dried beef and pork and grouse pie sounded pleasing for supper.
I turned to find him looking at me in a strange way. “You’ve had that knife the whole time?”
“Well sure. Don’t tell me you walk around alone and unarmed.”
“That’s not the point.”
Then I wondered. “The Captain never said there was a rule against females carrying blades.”
“There’s not,” he admitted.
“Then what did I do wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing. But you could have used it against me at any time.”
“Oh is that all. Honestly. Look, my skin and the Captain’s good opinion is worth more to me than what they would have done should I have killed you dead.”
He gave me an even stranger look and asked, “You hunt?”
“I’ve only had time to do a little; that house of yours has been a right awful mess to clean not to mention all the cooking and washing. But Jonah’s passing strangeness has helped with some of it.”
Curious against his better judgment he asked, “You see Jonah as strange?”
“Oh sure. My Da taught me that if you kill a beast it is your responsibility to clean it for the cook. I tried to explain that to Jonah but all he’ll say is that my Da isn’t here and to give it to him and stop fussing. He says that about a lot of things.”
Cor sighed and nodded, “Strangely enough Jonah used to say much the same thing to me once upon a time. ‘Your Pa’s no here lad so stop yer noise.’”
I turned away so he wouldn’t see how surprised I was to feel like smiling. I’d come into the woods expecting a fight at the least and possibly getting hammered on. Smiling just didn’t seem like the right way to end it.
It was his own confusion that saved me from showing mine. “I … I need to think … and see Francine. She’s is probably worried sick.”
I nodded my relief that our first meeting was soon to be over. To add even more reason I said, “And knowing the Captain he is waiting for a full report and if he doesn’t get one soon he’ll come in after us.”
We didn’t exactly walk back to the main house as friends but at least we weren’t ready to give each other a knife in the ribs either.