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.