Well, maybe I did it and maybe I didn’t … fix Francine’s wagon that is. She’s been fairly decent to be around and work with … for Francine anyway. I was irritated that it took a threat to get her rear in gear but whatever; sometimes you take what you can get in this life. To be honest I’m not sure if she came to her senses or if she worried that I’d really write that letter … which had she pushed me I surely would have … but either way life is starting to roll along better than a bent up baby carriage like it had been.
Cor seems to really like the new Francine … except for one thing. The new Francine is just as big a busy body as the old Francine was about demanding that Cor “honeymoon” with me a week out of the month. I suppose you can’t have everything in this life because it wouldn’t be good for you … like too many sweets or something … but if he had been given a choice I bet he would have been willing to give up something really nice to get out of that particular “pleasure.”
The day of the freeze we were both exhausted and filthy by the end but the pipes were replaced – good thing that Cor’s da had stockpiled a bunch of cast iron pieces when he originally had the well dug and run using some old tech he had managed to replicate. “Could have used clay,” Jonah told me. “But still nice ter have all that cast iron.”
When my part was finished I went off to the cabin and then realized that even though I was so tired my head felt like it was going to fall off there was no way I could sleep in the mud and dirt I was caked in. I felt like saying another bad word but figured I had used my quota when I had said one that morning. I stumbled into the cabin and re-lit the fire. I was so tired I was shivering and if I hadn’t been so filthy I would have just said to heck with it but I was and there was no getting around it. I would rather wash my body on a cold day than before forced to wash all my bedding because I had been too lazy.
I went back outside and brought the small tub in that I used to wash my clothes and my body in when I wanted to do it privately. It was still a little light so I didn’t have to worry about falling into the stream to get water but gracious that stuff was heavy and cold. The fireplace in the cabin was decent sized so I was able to have a pot over the heat to get the water boiling while I put more in the tub just to have it ready.
I pulled out my drying cloths and hung them on a rack by the fire too to get them warmed up. Took long enough that I started to doze but finally the water was boiling and I took it off the fire, replaced it with my teapot, and then poured the boiling water into the barely above freezing water already in the tub. It warmed the water up so I wouldn’t feel like a piece of ice floating in a small pond, but it wasn’t much warmer than that.
I washed my hair first. That was a major chore right there and I wouldn’t have done it if the heavy mass hadn’t soured. I’d been glad to find soapwort in the estate gardens and dug a bunch of roots. I used a solution of defused soapwort root and dried chamomile to get the dark brown mess clean and after rinsing used what had gone into the tub to wash the rest of my body. I was just about ready to come out of the tub and dry off when the cabin door banged open.
Seeing who it was I shouted, “Shut the door! I swear one of these days I’m going to scalp you!! Didn’t your Ma ever teach you manners?!”
Cor shut the door with a bang then kept his back to me and shouted, “And didn’t yours ever teach you to lock doors?!”
Shouting right back, “This is the first door I’ve had to lock in several years. I keep forgetting there’s a latch to keep looby men like you out!”
He was still facing the door but I saw he shoulders shaking. “I am not looby,” he snickered.
“Are too,” I groused back just as ready to chuckle at the situation as he was.
“Uh … we need to talk,” he said.
I said, “Not until I’m dressed we don’t. Don’t peek.”
I hopped out of the bath and dried off as fast as I ever had in my life but wound up wrapped in a quilt trying to dig out clean clothes. Cor asked, “Can I turn around yet?”
Frustrated I said, “Only if you want your eyes to burn from your head. I haven’t done any wash and I’m trying to find some clean clothes in all this mess. I put your packages over in the corner but …”
“They aren’t my packages and there might be something in there you can use.”
“Are you … uh … decent?”
I mumbled, “Depends on who you are talking to. Why?”
He snorted. “I mean have you got all of your … uh … parts covered that are normally covered.”
“I’m wrapped in a quilt lunkhead. What do you think?”
Carefully he turned around and peeped between his fingers. When he saw I was more covered that normal he relaxed. I told him, “There was this monster called Medusa that used to turn men to stone. That’s the way you treat me.”
“Ha!” he muttered. “With your hair all over the place like that you might just be kin to her.” Then he stopped and looked at me. “Where did you hear about Greek mythology? I thought you said that your town didn’t approve of females getting education.”
I nodded. “They didn’t but Da didn’t care much what anyone thought. He said he wouldn’t go to his grave not doing his duty as a father and leaving me ignorant in the world. What he didn’t teach me directly I picked up here and there. I used to find pieces of stories and books in old buildings and bring them back to my sisters. Usually it was only bits and pieces but one time I found this whole book and it had all these stories in it. The author was even a woman. Her name was Edith Hamilton.”
Cor nodded and then randomly he said, “One of my sisters that died was named Edith. She was the one closest in age to me. I can barely remember her except for the time she threatened to drown me for doing something to some doll of hers.”
He’d caught me off guard with his story and I laughed. “You probably deserved it.”
“Probably,” he agreed. “I was a rotten kid. Now here, open this.”
Before I took it from him I said, “This is that thing that you can’t bring Francine back things unless you …”
Impatiently he admitted, “Yes but that’s not why I did it. Look, I just … felt bad … that you got dumped into this situation because my father couldn’t pay off his own debts. I just … look, open it already.”
Trying to think of a way to tell him that he didn’t have to make up for every little thing his Da wrought I pulled back the paper and found what I thought at first was a dress. Only it wasn’t a dress it was a real night gown like I had seen in Francine and Winnie’s laundry. Only it wasn’t the thin see through things that didn’t do much but add a layer of shadow; it was thick like a man’s shirt and kind of looked the same around the neck.
“What is it?”
“It’s … er … a … um … night gown.”
“I know that I mean what is it? It’s so soft and warm and what are all these squares of color?”
He relaxed. “Oh. The material is called fleece and the pattern is called plaid. It was one of the things we traded for up in the north east. I figured you wouldn’t have anything warm … I mean … coming from the Outlands and Winnie suggested … uh …”
I shook my head. “You um and uh and er more than just about anyone I’ve ever met. But if you really mean for me to have this … it is mine to keep?”
“Of course it …” he started outraged. Then he got that kindness in his eyes that always confuses me and makes me wonder what kind of person he could be if he didn’t have all the worries always hanging onto him. “It’s yours Fel.”
I scooted behind the screen and then shivered my way into the night clothes and then laughed at how I looked.
“Does it fit?” he called.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve just never had anything new and that came all the way to the top of my feet before.”
I came out and pirouetted for him and he smiled and shook his head. “Come here and open the rest of these. You’ll like them too I hope.”
I’d never gotten so many presents at one time in my whole life. Da would give me things when he could but life was hard and if he had set me too much above the other girls that wouldn’t have gone over very well with the town elders.
“What are these?” I held what looked like moccasins only they were made of the same material as the night gown.
“Slippers. They’ll keep your feet warm on cold nights like this. And that’s a robe and will help too. We don’t usually get real cold weather until January but Jonah said he thinks this year is going to be bad.”
In another package there was a comb, brush and a couple of things that Cor told me were hair nets. In another there were several pair of wool leggings to go under my skirts. Feeling overwhelmed I said, “Cor … you … you didn’t have to do all this. Besides, wouldn’t it have been better to pay off debts with all the coin this cost?”
“It didn’t cost me coin Fel. It was part of the barter.” Seeing the look on my face in the firelight he added, “I really did want to make sure that you had things of your own. Winnie told me you didn’t have hardly anything when you came but the clothes on your back. There are some bolts of fabric up at the house. Mrs. Wiley said she’d get them made up into clothes for you. I see they got you to give up some of your leathers but you need more than what you’ve got. I don’t want people to say … well … what some of them are probably already saying. And I saw your sister Docia again when I was taking the salt the fort. She told me to tell you not to be such a fuss budget and that I was doing my husbandly duty by you.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think we’ve had that conversation already.”
“We have. But think on this … it makes me feel better to know that members of my household are taken care of. Our agreement might be a little … different … than most but that doesn’t mean I don’t still consider you a member of my family which means I have a responsibility to take care of your needs. At least Francine has that part right.”
I looked at him and saw an awareness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Francine was messing up. It didn’t have to be as hard as she was making it and if she didn’t stop things would get a whole lot harder.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have hollered at her like I did,” I said regretfully.
He sighed. “You weren’t wrong. What’s wrong is that it took hollering to reach her.” He sighed again and then looked around like he wanted to change the subject but couldn’t. “She … she still won’t let up about me … us … spending …”
Trying to make it easier on him so I would have to see the pain in his eyes I asked, “Does it have to be all day or will she settle for you sleeping here at night for a week?”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “She agreed that we both had work to do during the day but she’s adamant that I spend the night in … uh … your …”
I shook my head and told him, “The word you are looking for is bed.”
He cleared his throat and said, “Yeah. She made me promise to sleep in the bed Fel. She’ll ask me and I can’t lie to her about it on top of everything else. She’ll know. For the … you know … that other part … sex … I can say we are sleeping together and that’ll satisfy her, she won’t ask intimate questions but she’ll know if I try and hide that we aren’t at least sleeping in the same bed.” Then he steeled himself and looked at me and said, “This has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I can’t believe my wife wants me to sleep with another woman. Why?!”
I shrugged and then sat on the rug in front of the fire since he seemed in the mood to keep talking. “It’s the way she was raised. If you were raised like that it wouldn’t seem such a strange thing to you.”
“Strange isn’t what I call it,” he muttered. “Could you … share I mean?”
Looking into the fire I thought about it. “Cor, I never thought too hard about the future if I could help it. The picture was never pretty and was often just plain frightening. If I thought about it at all I figured some man in the town would finally force himself on me giving me no choice or I’d be sold to another town and given no choice that way. As bad as you find this situation we are in it is still better than what I was living and had to look forward to.”
He shook like a dog that had felt a flea crawl on him. “That’s bad all right, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
I snorted impatiently. “Well then the answer is no. There are a lot of things I have no problem sharing but my body with more than one man would be at the top of the list of things I wouldn’t do.”
I looked at him thinking he’d lost his mind and then saw he was really serious. The things I talk about with this man I wouldn’t have ever even talked to Docia or Hannah about. I sighed and answered, “Because I have enough trouble with the idea of sharing my body with one man. I doubt I could get that close with more than one, especially not at the same time.”
After a moment Cor nodded. Finally getting up the nerve I asked, “Cor, are you and Francine … you know … getting along OK? I mean you don’t think it is some kind of excuse so that she doesn’t have to be … I mean … with you … like a … you know … a wife?”
He adjusted his shoulders and then settled back down. “I suppose you deserve a chance to ask questions if I ask them of you.” He shrugged. “That’s part of the reason I don’t understand Fel. We’re just fine in that department; always have been right from the beginning. She seemed awful surprised by it too … like she’d been listening to the wrong kind of stories. She was … uh … eager and … well, let’s just say even being parted from her for months at a time I’ve never even had the least desire to stray. All I’ve ever wanted was to be with her and now she wants me to … to be unfaithful.”
He seemed so forlorn I reached over and patted his knee. “Well we fixed that part of it. Thing is, I work all day … I can’t just sit up all night talking Cor. And there’s only one bed and it would look funny putting in another one this late in the game. It’d probably make people talk.”
He sighed and said, “Yeah.”
Taking the problem in both hands I said, “You know how I told you to think of me like a sister?”
He turned his head and gave me a cautious look. “Yeah.”
“Well, what I propose is you keep on thinking of me like a sister. It is too cold to sleep on the floor for either one of us. I shared warmth with my sisters when we lived all together in the long house. I think we can share the bed … sleep … and no one will be the wiser and twit us about it. What do you say?” He looked alarmed but after a few more minutes of talking he finally admitted it was the only real solution to it.
It was growing late and there was still a lot of work to do tomorrow as we intended to start slaughtering animals to cull the herds down to a manageable size for a hard winter. I crawled into the bed and then sat up waiting for him to do something besides stare into the fire.
Finally he sighed a deep sigh that sounded like it came from his soul. Not looking at me he said, “Turn your head.” I opened my mouth to say something and he added, “Humor me.”
So I closed my eyes and turned my head towards the wall. After what seemed like a long time I felt him get in bed. “Lay down and go to sleep Fel.”
I don’t normally put up with being bossed around but he sounded so sad and uncomfortable that I did as he said and felt him dragging what turned out to be the heavy bear skin over us. It had been a long day and I was exhausted. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep but something woke me in the middle of the night.
The cabin was dark except from the glow of the coals in the fireplace. I could see a lump sitting in the rocking chair and realized that Cor had gotten back up at some point. I sighed and got out of bed. When he didn’t react I realized he was asleep. I shook my head at his foolishness and then pulled the bear skin off the bed and draped it over him.
It was early morning but still dark when I felt the bear skin being laid back over me. Then Cor crept quietly toward the door. I stopped him with a question. “Did it freeze?”
After a moment he said, “I think so but not as hard.”
“OK. Give me a minute and I’ll be up to the house.”
And that’s all we said. He came the next night and we talked for a while and then he climbed in bed, I woke up to find him in the rocker and I covered him with the bear skin, and then he left the next morning early. This went on for four nights. That night when he got in beside me I said, “When you get up, take the bear skin with you.”
He grunted, “I don’t want you to get cold.”
“I get cold having to get out of bed to cover you up so you don’t get lung rot. Just take the bear skin.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
It seems to me that Cor is holding onto his scruples to the point of foolishness. But if they bring him comfort I’m not going to tease him about it. I did almost laugh when the week was over with. He acted like he’d been pardoned of some heinous misdeed.