Time has passed and the pain is as deep as ever. My shame though, if possible, is even deeper. It is not just my failure … but why the failure cuts so deep that has me wishing that I had died in the stocks so many months ago.
It is horrible. I love him. Despite all my protestations of honor I have fallen in love with another woman’s husband.
There it is, the thing that keeps me up at night when I’m not exhausted enough to force sleep. I’m no better than a saloon girl. And how stupid I must be not to have seen it sooner, not to have seen the danger of it. Did I really think I could continue to convince myself that I only saw him as a brother? And a little brother like Georgie of all things? Where did my vaunted commonsense disappear to?
I had a man, not my true husband, sleeping in my bed and I thought I would remain unaffected, untempted. It doesn’t matter that there was no physical act beyond sleep; the thought is as good as the dead. I had come to depend on his company, enjoyed spending time alone with him, imagined that he came for me and me alone. What a fool I’ve been. It was not kindness from me to him that asked for him to stay … it was my need of him, a need to pretend, not just to everyone else but to myself. Well now my pretending has spawned something awful and real and I am so ashamed I can barely look anyone in the eye for fear they will see it.
I certainly can’t face Cor. I’ve tried what few times I’ve seen him but every time he comes in my direction I have to run. I can’t bear to have him know … for that knowledge to make him feel even worse than he must already.
Seeing his pain … his and Francine’s … beside the small hole in the graveyard where they laid the mortal remains of their baby was bitter medicine that woke me up to my own behavior. Francine looked as fragile as spun sugar and she was quickly whisked away back to the house, unable to even toss a handful of dirt in the grave, as just as soon as the last words of the graveside service were spoken the sky opened up and began to cry great tears.
I felt I owed it to the babe to watch the burying to the bitter end. It had started with the washing and the dressing of the poor small thing and dressing it in a wee dress barely as big as a lady’s handkerchief; then laying its body in a velvet lined coffin that had started life as a jewelry box. Some questions were raised at that but I told them the babe was a jewel after all, a lost one, and nothing could be more appropriate a final resting vessel.
The hole that was dug wasn’t wide or long, but was just as deep as all the others that surrounded it. A stone would be raised there as soon as it was carved. All it would say was “Daughter” because Francine has refused to name the child and Winnie told me that Cor could not bring himself to do it without her. After I had watched them tamp the small square of sod back in place I finally gave up and ran across the forest and hid in the cabin. I puked for hours, praying that God would cut the feelings out of me; the grief, the shame. I couldn’t shake that this was as senseless and unnecessary a death as those of my family had been.
For his part Cor could not leave Francine’s side for more than a few moments at a time or she began to suffer anxiety attacks. Even with him there Lollie shared that she went through great shaking cycles of illness as her body was forced to adjust to the loss of the babe and the loss of the substances she had been dependent on at the same time.
After that first week she quieted down but then developed a fever and he could not leave her for fear he would miss her death. A courier was sent to the fort but the rain that had started on the day the babe was laid in the ground had continued and travel on the road was next to impossible on horseback or by foot … it would have been impossible to try it by wagon and several rivers were swollen well past their banks and unpassable.
I realized after the funeral that in order to live with myself I would have to find some purpose, spend my grief and shame in atonement. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean to fall in love, all that matters is that I did and I let it go too far; let the lie become all too real.
In order to sleep I had to work myself into exhaustion. I helped cart wood so that the carpenters could rebuild a bridge that had been wiped out by a tree coming down the river it went across. I planned the spring plantings with Jonah and the other field supervisors. I helped move all of the goods out of the village church’s cellar when word came that it was flooding. I helped to lay a corduroy road when a small wash out made traveling even more difficult. Anything I could find to do I did.
And it worked. I was too exhausted to think much beyond everyone’s immediate needs. I would collapse as soon as I entered the cabin and awaken before dawn and rush to start it all over again. I stayed away from the house because I had heard that any time Francine thought I was near she would become agitated. As a result I spent as much time working in the village as I could. I got to know the people there that I had never met, renewed acquaintances of those that had come to help with the harvest over last summer; paid them for their help then by helping them in this season with leaking roofs, flooded cellars, and soggy sheds. I helped with great cauldrons of soup to feed those that were running out of food because the planting of the spring gardens was being pushed back so far.
There was only one moment when I nearly gave in to my loneliness and pain. I had blown out my candle and was banking the fire when there was a knock at the cabin door. I automatically ran to open it but with my hand on the latch I froze. I knew that knock. I dreamed of that knock. I could feel him on the other side of the door. I could hear his breath through the spy hole. Then I heard his sigh and the scuff of his boots as he turned and walked away. I cried myself to sleep that night even though I knew I’d done the right thing.
The rain finally stopped leaving a mess behind which I threw my back into to help clean up. As the rains passed so did Francine’s fever. As the mud dried, so did her tears. And as soon as the roads were passable – a month after the baby’s death – Mona finally arrived but she was not alone; Docia was with her. Another wagon expelled a great number of Lathrop women including Muriel, Hazel, and Glyssen.
I waived Docia off from my place in the tree I was helping to prune. I knew that Mona brought her for a purpose and would need her. After the pruning was finished I went into the forest to gather the wild greens that were springing up everywhere knowing they were needed and welcome to feed the people until the gardens that were quickly being put in the ground could produce their own bounty.
It was late evening when I stumbled up to the back porch and silently left my offering for Mrs. Wiley and her helpers to find and take down to the cellar to keep for the next day. I thought I would get away undetected but Docia had been waiting for me.
She ran down the stairs and her embraced swallowed me. I tried to hold back but then nearly crushed her in a return hug.
“Come into the kitchen so I can see you,” she ordered in a way the old Docia never would have.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t want to create work for Mrs. Wiley and track mud into her domain. Go on inside Docia, it’s warmer than it has been but it is still cool for April. Best you go in before you catch a chill.”
She was adamant. “I’m not going to catch a chill.” She sighed, “But I suppose I can understand you not wanting to go into the kitchen right now and it has nothing to do with mud.” She put her arm through mine. “So let’s go to your cabin.”
I knew that tone. She hadn’t used it much but she could be as stubborn as I and that was saying something. I sighed and started to lead her to where I had been laying my head so long that it was a temptation to call the place mine even though I knew that temptation was the last thing I needed to give into.
We entered and I lit a small fire to take the damp off and then turned a full circle. “See? I’m as dirty as I claimed.”
I started to bend back down when she stopped me. “You’re not fooling me Fel McConnell. Now sit down here and really let me look at you and don’t you go hiding anything either. I bet I’m as good at seeing through you as I ever was … maybe better.”
I rolled my eyes and tried to pretend that things were the same as they ever were and let her have her way. When she was finished we sat for a quiet moment, she in the rocking chair I couldn’t ever see without thinking of Cor and me in the chair. The table between suddenly rocked as her fist hit its top and I jerked out of the doze I was falling into.
“What have they done to you?!”
“Huh?” I asked, wondering if I had finally slipped off into the next world. An angry Docia was something I hadn’t ever expected to see this side of the Pearly Gates, and on the other side there would have been no need.
“Look at you. You’re as thin as you were when we came east but if possible harder. Do they work you like a slave here?”
I gave her a look of incredulousness. “Of course not!”
“Then why do you look like a half downed cat? Your hair is a briar’s nest. You need a bath, and not just from today’s mud. Your leathers haven’t been waterproofed in I don’t know how long … your moccasins either. I don’t even want to get into the state of your feet. Fel! Had any of us sisters gotten to looking like this you would have taken us to the river and dunked us yourself. You know how important it is to stay clean! Are you trying to catch your death?!”
“Well, excuse me. When did you become such a lady?” I was sorry as soon as the words fell from my mouth. “Oh Docia … I’m … I’m sorry. I’m just tired. Go back to the house where you belong. They’ll take good care of you there, better than I can.”
Docia’s shocked face was the last thing I glimpsed before the dam burst. I tried to stop but all I could do was cry. Docia somehow dealt with my falling apart while at the same time getting water heated, filling the tub and putting me in it. She washed me, my hair, tended my scrapes and cuts then got me out again, dried me off and into clean clothes. I had to cinch the waste of the skirt more than I expected and the shirt hung on me in a way that it had never meant to but at least I was finally clean.
And I was clean on the inside as well … or at least I had made a start. I had confessed all to Docia. And when I say all I mean all.
“You mean … you and Cor have never …? Not even with him … you know … sleeping in here? I know you had made that your plan to start but … but I never thought you’d be able to stick to it. Not with Cor such a fine figure and him obviously admiring you … and you have a marriage license, a real one.”
“Never,” I admitted. “We made a pact, a promise of sorts, so that neither one of us would have to lose our honor. We’ve pretended for everyone’s comfort but even pretending has pinched us both something awful. Only I did the one thing I never should have Docia … I fell in love. I can barely stand myself. I wish …”
Then I heard the shutter bang and steps quickly running away. In a flash I was up and I saw a woman running toward the house. I knew that trot … it was Glyssen. And I knew the world was about to explode all over again.