3. The Turning of the Year, Pt 2.

By Calico

4TH JULY 1858
“By taking a second wife he pays the highest compliment to the first, by shewing that she made him so happy as a married man, that he wishes to be so a second time.” Samuel Johnson
“Summer’s lease has all too short a date…” Shakespeare.

LOUISA

The early morning light filters in through the curtains. The window is open an inch or two so every so often the breeze flutters the sprigged cotton. I snuggle down just a little closer – if that is possible – my head on Alex’s chest. I hear his heart beating, slow and steady now, under my ear. His arm is circled round me – hand slowly stroking the curve from my waist to my hip, over and over.

“That was…just…” I break off and sigh happily.

“Go on,” says – my husband. “It was…?” I cannot see from where I am nestled, but know he is wearing – that smile. “I’m hoping for ‘breath-taking’, or – ‘awe-inspiring’. He drops a kiss on my hair, before carrying on, “Of course – if you were about to say, ‘not up to standard’ – please do continue with the tactful silence.”

A – contented – pause.

“IS this a – tactful – silence? Or are you still searching for a sufficiently flattering adjective?”

I hug him tight, then pull myself up to kiss first the little hollow at the base of his throat, then his lips. “Will – just perfect – do? Or did I say that last night? Do I have to think of a new one?”

“I think last night – I was ‘wonderful’,” he says.

“Well – you always think that,” I venture. He laughs. I love it when I make him laugh. I am stroking back his hair. His eyes meet mine and hold. I feel my throat tighten with happiness. I lean forward and whisper in his ear, “I always think that, too.”

The words are still joking, but his voice has thickened as he says, “Well, a couple should agree about these important points, huh?” He kisses me, lightly at first, then more seriously.

I love him. I love him so much. I love him so much that…

I love him so much, that I cannot think of any way to end this sentence…without it sounding – lame.

This last couple of weeks have been – the happiest of my life. Except – no! Not except. When I am with Alex – like this, it is… I suppose I need him to give me a good enough word. I would just say – ‘perfect’ or ‘wonderful’. I never imagined… Well, I DID imagine. I just never imagined – all this.

And, a house of my own! That is wonderful too. Having the place to myself is – the ‘w’ word! When Alex comes in – and it is just us two – that is even better. It is perfect.

Except. Well, except it is not just us two – is it? It is when Hannibal stays over at the Curry farm – like last night. But – not otherwise.

Of course – I did know that!
I knew – it was bound to be difficult. At first.
But, I thought…
I do not think Alex realises just how…
The harder I try the more Hannibal…
Hannibal is SO unreasonable. And, all Alex says is, ‘of course he is unreasonable – he is six!’
That is not quite true. That is not ALL Alex says.
He does speak to Hannibal – but he says talking is not going to change anything. Only settling into new routines that become – ordinary – as Hannibal and I get used to each other.
He says I should not try so hard.
Does he think it is MY fault?
Anyway, Hannibal is not six – he is very nearly seven! He should behave better!
It is NOT my fault.
I HAVE to try, because…
Because if Hannibal continues to – to HATE me… Alex might think it IS all my fault. It might make – it might make Alex love me less.

And – if Alex stopped loving me – I would just – die.

Before that night by the water – I used to think, ‘if Alex ever kisses me – so I know he loves me – that will be that’. I thought I would never have to worry about saying the wrong thing, or – what Alex thought of me, ever again.
When I realised that was not true – I thought ‘well, if he asks me to marry him – THEN – that will be that’.
Next, I thought ‘after we are married – surely then – that is it’.

But it is not. I used to worry he would never love me. Now, I worry how much he loves me. I worry – he might stop.

Anyhow, this morning it is just us two. Alex DOES love me! I have just made him laugh – and now he is kissing me, holding me. So, everything is – wonderful. He rolls over, picks up his watch and looks at it – sighs. He swings his legs out of bed, reaches for his clothes.

“Oh!” I protest. “Don’t go!” I reach over, look at the watch myself. “It’s not even NORMAL time!” I kneel behind him, put my arms over his shoulders – let my hands run down his chest. “Alex, don’t go.” I nuzzle the back of his neck – he likes that.

He catches my hands – stops them. “I’m beginning to think you’re insatiable!”

Is he smiling? I cannot tell.

“You don’t think I’m…I’m…?” I do not quite know how to ask.

He turns and gently pushes me back onto the pillow. “Don’t think what?” He IS smiling. “That you’re insatiable? Insatiable – and wanton – and a brazen hussy? Oh yes – I DO think that!” His hand runs over me. “Can’t believe my good luck!” He kisses me, adds, “I must go soon, though.”

“Nothin’ starts ‘til eleven,” I say. I mean the fourth of July celebrations. “We’ve got AGES. Besides – we don’t HAVE to be there for the start!”

He strokes me – hand reaching a little lower each time. I shiver in anticipation.
“I promised Caroline I’d be there by nine thirty,” he says, “She needs a hand setting up.”

“Oh!” I can hear my voice sounds – curt.

He does not pick up on it. His lips are following the stroking hand as it travels down – dropping little kisses on my body. I cannot help saying – something.

I unwind my fingers from his hair. “Can’t she ask someone else for a change?”

His hand stops – he looks up. “She didn’t ask – I offered.”

“Figures!” I say.

“Mrs. Sayers was saying Caroline needed someone to…”

“Oh! So SHE’S goin’ to be there too!” I say it before I even think. “When did you call for this cosy chat with…” My voice is heavy with sarcasm, “Mrs. Sayers?” I sniff, “Or should I say,” I make my tone a mockery, “Ka..ate?”

He pulls himself up and leans on one elbow, to look into my face. I turn my head away – feel myself scowl.

“I spoke to -” he pauses, “Kate Sayers on Friday. I met her in town when I took the horse to the blacksmith. She told me Caroline needed a couple of fathers to help set up. I went round to the schoolhouse – and offered.” His voice is even. I know I should not say any more. But I feel… What DO I feel?

“I bet you did! An’ I bet she snatched your hand off!” Did I say that?

“Is that supposed to mean something?” I hear the edge of annoyance.

“No,” I say.

I do not want to make him annoyed with me.
I want…I want him to…I do not know!
I want him to – to crush me to him and swear no other woman even exists. I want him to – to be carried away with passion and forget everything – except me.

“Just…” I say, “Just … you think she’s SO smart! An’ SO wonderful!” I hear myself mimic him again – not very well, ‘Caroline is such a talented teacher’…’It was a good day for this town when Caroline took over the school’…” I cannot stop myself, “An’ – when I found she’d the nerve to call HERE…’I’ve come to visit you, Louisa’… Yeah – right! That’s why she spent two solid hours yakkin’ with YOU! Laughin’ at everythin’ you say – You showin’ off – Pair of you usin’ so many fancy words you’d think you’d swallowed dictionaries! Bet you both wished I’d not walked in! Not that you took much notice! Not that you’d have noticed if I’d just – disappeared!”

He rolls away, sits on the edge of the bed.

“I don’t know why you didn’t marry HER – since she’s SO wonderful! Everyone knows she was anglin’ for it!”

“Nonsense!” he snaps.

“Mama says…” I see him stiffen. Why am I saying this? Even to myself – I SOUND like my mother. “… She says, that Old Maid is plumb crazy about you! She says – your first wife was a fool to put up with it! Not that I needed tellin’ – it’s plain as the nose on her face! You needn’t think I shall just sit back an’ let the pair of you – carry on!” I sit up too, pouring out words to his back, “As for that – that…” I do not say the word, “Sayers woman! Everyone KNOWS why you didn’t have to marry her! EVERYONE knows she fell on her back soon as you snapped your fingers! If I EVER see you so much as speak to HER – let alone if she has the brass neck to call – I’ll…”

He turns round. I stop. I have never seen him like this. His eyes are real dark – and kind of hard. He looks so – angry. “Go on…” he says, “You’ll – what?”

“Nothin’,” I say. My throat tightens up. I am going to cry. I drop my eyes.

He turns his back again – stretches over for his clothes.

“Don’t go!” I say, reaching out. “I didn’t mean it!” He removes my hand and stands up, buttoning his pants. “Please don’t go!” The first tears run down my face. Alex does not see – because he does not look.

His voice is real cold. “I have to go. I have to get the chores done, pick up Hannibal and head into town.”

“There’s still time – ” I begin.

“Reckon not!” he snaps, “Not when I’ve so much adultery and fornication to fit in! In fact – I wish I hadn’t wasted so much energy earlier. I might need it!”

“That ain’t – isn’t what I said!” The first sob shakes me. I manage to gulp it back. “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean it! Don’t just – go!”

He turns round to face me, as he pulls on his Henley. “Strangely enough, Louisa – I don’t feel particularly amorous at the moment! Listening to my neighbours being slandered – let alone myself – is not something I find arousing. Nor is hearing my wife display a mind like a sewer. If you’ve quite finished all you’ve got to say…?” Hands on hips – he waits for an answer. “My turn?” he checks.

I manage a nod – though I cannot meet his eyes.

“Mrs. Sayers is a neighbour. I’ll speak to her whenever I choose. If she calls here – I’ll treat her with the same civility as any other neighbour. I expect – or at least until this morning’s exhibition I DID expect – my wife to display the same good manners. Is that clear?”

I turn away – try to hide that I am crying. My head hangs down – but I nod. I pull my nightdress across the bed – clutch it to cover myself.

“Caroline Field is more than a neighbour. She was one of my …” he pauses. He was about to say ‘my wife’s’, “She was one of Sarah’s closest friends. She still IS a friend of mine. YES – I admire her and like her and enjoy her company. That’s all. Any – what you so elegantly call ‘carrying on’ when you are NOT present – consists of precisely the same activities as when you ARE. She’s made every effort to befriend you – always tries to include you in the conversation. If you choose not to respond – that’s your problem. I’ve not asked you to give up any friends – I’ve no intention of altering my behaviour to Caroline one iota. And – she’s welcome in my house anytime she likes.”

“Alex, please…please don’t!” Any moment now I will not be able to hold back – I will blub.

“I haven’t finished!” he snaps. I flinch. “Less than a fortnight ago, you received a vow of lifelong fidelity from me. Did you think I was lying?”

“I’m sorry!”

“I daresay you are – but that’s not an answer. Did you think I was lying?”

I shake my head; manage to whisper, “No.”

He reaches for his shirt. My eyes follow his hand. I had looked forward to this – and I have spoilt it.

“In that case,” he says, “…This conversation is pointless – as well as degrading and vulgar! You may do as you please – but I’VE no intention of taking part in anything similar ever again. If there’s a next time – you’ll be speaking to empty air. Have I made myself completely clear?”

I give up trying to hold it back. I blub. “Please don’t! Please don’t be angry! I’m sorry!”

He is pulling on the shirt. He looks over. I do not think he quite realised how upset I was.

I am starting to hiccough with sobs. “I didn’t mean it! I don’t’ know… I couldn’t help it! Please Alex! Don’t’ be angry! I just can’t bear it! I get so… ”

He still looks impatient, but he comes over – sits by me. He leans over to open my drawer – fetches out a handkerchief.

I am still blubbing how sorry I am.
“I couldn’t help it … I couldn’t bear it if you… I’d die if you loved anyone else …”

His arm is round me, voice soothing. “Come on, Louisa,” he says. “Stop it, now.”

“I’m sorry!” I hiccough.

“I know,” he says, “Shush.” He has both arms round me now. I am sobbing on his chest. He cuddles me, strokes my hair. I quiet down – take a few deep breaths. “Are you going to let me get up now?” He says it very gently – but I think… No! I KNOW he is still annoyed. And – I can tell he really does want to go.

I try. I sit up, blow my nose hard, wipe my eyes. He stands, starts to button his shirt. Then – he notices. Even before – before I spoilt it all, I was not sure he WOULD notice. Men do not always spot these things.

“Is this – new?” he says. I nod. I laid it out last night. I HOPED he would notice. “Did you – make this?” I nod again. He straightens the collar and looks down at himself. I am pretty sure it is his favourite ever shade of blue. I did ask once – ages ago. I mean – years ago. Like it was years ago I plucked up courage to ask when his birthday was.

I suppose it is too much to hope that he will realise it is far and away the best-made shirt he has got. Not that that was so hard! Sheesh! Sarah Heyes could not set a collar straight to save her life.

Like I say – a man will not notice how tiny and how even the stitches are. But, he IS – looking – as he buttons the cuff. “This must have taken – hours,” he says, quietly.

“I’ve been – hidin’ it,” I say. Then I blurt, “Is it – the right colour? Do you like it?”

He looks over. I have – very nearly – stopped crying. But I must look a real mess. Still, his face – softens. “Very much. Thank you, Louisa.”

“I put – somethin’ – in the pocket,” I say. Will he – like it? Or will he think it is just – silly? He feels inside the pocket, looks over, shakes his head. “I mean – on the material inside the hem.”

He turns the edge over – moves to the window where the light is a little better. It is embroidered very small – blue on blue – and inside. So, it cannot, you know, embarrass him by anyone else seeing. It just says, ‘I love you, Alex’. I did think of trying to find something better in one of his books. But, then I thought – I might pick the wrong thing. So – I left it.

He is quiet for a moment – gives a kind of half laugh. “You do realise, Louisa. If you keep this up, you run a grave risk of making me,” I get – that smile, “…just a shade conceited!”

I think he did like it. Is he still annoyed with me though – about before?

“You do,” I gulp, “…do still love ME?” I realise what a stupid question it is. What on earth will I do if he says ‘nope’?

“Er, let me think…” He jerks his head, “Get yourself over here, gorgeous – help me decide.” His voice is all teasing. I do not mind THAT. That means – ‘yes’. I jump down, run over, get hugged till I squeak. “After due consideration – I think…” he breaks off, “Sorry – what was the question?”

“Alex!” I protest. Then, I say, “I’m real sorry about – before. I just couldn’t bear it, if…” I stop, before I say anything else wrong.

“I’m sorry too,” he says.

“No – it was all my fault!”

“Well,” he kisses my hair, “You apologised – and I should have shut up then! I didn’t mean to make you cry like that.” He tilts my chin up – so I have to meet his eyes. “You do know, though – it was very -” Please, I think – please do not let him say ‘vulgar’ again. “- foolish?” I do not mind that! I nod.

He smiles, “Even if I had the inclination to philander – where would I find the time – let alone the stamina? What with you being – completely insatiable!”

—oooOOOooo—

Larson Creek – later that morning.

CAROLINE

Hannibal trots up to me, Jed Curry at his heels.

“Can we help, ma-am?” he asks, “‘Cause – you’re getting that all crooked. You need someone to hold it – while you push in the tacks. An’ it’d look better – with loops.”

“So – I’m being offered both practical help AND advice on the planning side?”

He grins. “Uh huh.”

“Sounds good. Who’s looping?”

Hannibal takes over ‘looping and placing’. Jed, with admirable patience for his years, follows – ‘up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, nope…the other left’ – instructions. I push tacks into bunting. I WAS half humouring Hannibal, but actually – he is right. It looks much better.

Alex wanders over to admire.

“I think Hannibal gets credit for the aesthetics…Jed for the execution.” I say.

“What about you?” he asks. “…Labouring – or merely providing applause?”

“Applause principally. But, I also supplied the raw materials – so I don’t feel too much like a spare part.”

“Pa,” says Hannibal. “Can I ask Miss Field to join us after? You know – for the picnic part.”

There is a pause, so short I wonder if I am over sensitive and imagining it.

“You may ask,” smiles Alex, “…of course, she might have other plans.” Several sets of parents have told me I am welcome to join them, but I have not made any definite plans. “Please join us if you’re free,” he says.

Hannibal looks at me, expectantly.

“Er -” I hesitate. “Won’t Louisa have only catered for three?” What I really mean is – will she mind? But this lets him withdraw tactfully – should he wish.

“I don’t see that being a problem!” he laughs. “Her portions are on the generous side and, I’m pretty sure she’ll assume Jed and the rest can eat TWO picnics.”

“I won’t be eatin’ none of it!” scowls Hannibal. “You won’t neither – will you, Jed?”

Poor Jed! He has obviously decided to support Hannibal ‘right or wrong’ … but would prefer to feel less suspicion that his friend was – ‘wrong’. Or at any rate – not exactly ‘right’. He darts a guilty look at Alex, then decides to find watching Mr. Godfrey hammering in the distance – suddenly fascinating.

Alex does not let any annoyance show. A tiny shake of the head tells me not to reprove Hannibal.

“Plenty for you then, Caroline,” he says, calmly. He gestures over to where he has been working. “Come and applaud MY efforts now.”

“Are you finished?” I ask, sceptically.

“Nope. But you can make ‘looks good so far’ noises. Or alternatively – suck in your breath, and mutter ‘last time I trust HIM with anything that needs more than hitting with a hammer’…” By this time, we are out of earshot of Hannibal. He turns round, “Just so you know – I’m concentrating on a civil minimum of ‘good morning’, ‘good night’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. And dealing with open rudeness – where there’s no ambiguity. I’d appreciate it if you’d let – the nuances – pass without comment. As for the ‘I’m not eating it’ – ignore him. He does it mostly with – treats. Cakes, cookies, pies – anything made especially for him. He won’t starve. He has to say ‘thank you’ – to Louisa for making it. That’s all. I don’t particularly want to provide repeated opportunities for a battle of wills. I’ve asked Elizabeth too – to keep it consistent.”

“Poor you!” I say.

He shakes his head. “Don’t waste your sympathy. At home, Hannibal is lavishing displays of exclusive – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say EXCLUDING – affection on ME. ”

“In that case – poor Louisa.”

I hear, “Good mornin’ Alex.” After a moment, a cold, “Miss Field,” is added.

MRS. MUELLER

“Good mornin’ Alex,” I say. After a beat, I add, with a sniff, “Miss Field. Fine day for it. Where’s Louisa?”

“She’s coming in a little later with Elizabeth,” Alex says. “But Jed and the girls rode in early with me and Hannibal.”

“Alex offered to help and I got four extra pairs of hands thrown in,” says Miss Field. “I call that a bargain!” I do not respond. Neither does Alex. After a moment she says, “I’d better get on.”

She walks away back over to where Hannibal is. He looks up sees me scowls hard.

“When are you goin’ to give that boy the whippin’ he deserves?” I ask.

“You think that’s the best way to fill him with the milk of human kindness for Louisa, huh?” Alex snaps.

I open my eyes a little. He is usually carefully civil to me. Since that one time before they were married, anyhow.

CAROLINE

Well! I think as I walk away. Whatever Alex saw in Louisa Mueller – one thing is for certain – it was not the prospect of that woman for a mother-in-law, which tipped the balance!

Actually, I think with a wry smile, I should be grateful to Mrs. Mueller. She prevented me hearing the news from – him. She might have had the satisfaction of seeing – whatever she saw. But better her than – him. As far as Alex is concerned I was surprised – that is all.

By the time I saw him, I had had a whole evening – a whole night – a whole morning to tell myself what a stupid, blind fool I had been. To remind myself that any – any hopes I ever had were just that. I never received a word, nor a glance on which to build – expectations. To remind myself that whatever men like… I do not mean ‘like’. They – ‘like’ – me just fine. Anyhow – whatever the word – I have not got what it takes to need it frequently in my vocabulary. I had time to reflect it was only for a very short period of our friendship I had – hopes. They could be – crushed – now they were superfluous. Meanwhile, Larson Creek is not full of people with whom I can trade quotations, disparage Scott as compared to Thackeray and argue the respective merits of Fielding and Richardson. Larson Creek is not full of people – not even of parents – who can be relied on to see the point of making education mean a little more than the laid down curriculum. I cannot afford to let romantic delicacy rob me of a trusted friend. Even if I could afford it – romantic delicacy is not very good company. So, why should I?

When, next day, I saw Alex, I summoned up a cheerful smile. “I hear – congratulations are in order.”

He started. “Huh?” For a dreadful moment I thought – did I mishear her? Then his eyes widened. In fact – did he flush? “Er…”

“I’m sorry. Was it supposed to be a secret?” I said.

“How did you…?” He stopped short, realising the question was about to sound a touch – curt.

“Mrs. Mueller told me – after school, yesterday.” He definitely flushed then. He looked – annoyed. I gave an apologetic smile, “I appear to have been impertinent. My apologies.”

He shook his head.
“No! I just wish …” he looked at me, “I wanted the first person I told to be Hannibal – and I planned on picking my moment. Guess someone else had other ideas on – the timing.” He gave a rueful shrug. “Still – ‘if it were done when ‘tis done…’ Telling Hannibal I mean. Not…” Then, “I hope you know – you’d have been first to hear anyhow. Well, yourself and Elizabeth.”

“Congratulations,” I said again. “I hope you’ll both be very happy.”

He looked – happy – and boyish – and sheepish. “She’s – lovely – isn’t she? Oh, not just the looks. She… I don’t think she’s got a mean bone in her body!”

‘Uh huh?’ I thought, but said nothing. Oh – I do not think Louisa Mueller has meaner bones than anyone else! In fact, I will do her the justice to place her inside the sweeter natured half of the human race. All the same …

“And so – so understanding,” he carried on, “…We agree about – nearly everything.”

I did NOT yield to the urge to tilt my head on one side, open my eyes as wide as I could, part my lips just a fraction and breath, ‘Oh, Alex. I think that too.’

“I never thought I’d… I didn’t expect to – to feel this way again.” He drops his eyes, “I suppose you think it’s a bit soon?”

“I don’t think Sarah would have wanted you lonely or unhappy for a day if she had her way,” I said, firmly. THAT was easy – and perfectly true.

“And – I DON’T believe you should waste – well…” I struggled to express what I wanted to say, “I don’t believe happy marriages result from finding some kind of unique soul-mate! What are the chances of that – when you only meet a couple of hundred folk out of a world of millions? You might need a generous dose of compatibility – but mainly good sense and day-to-day effort. However special what you and Sarah had – half of it was you, Alex. I don’t see any point wasting – well – a gift for being happy in a couple.” That was also the truth – and nothing but the truth, as I see it. It was not – the whole truth. It did not express the questions still swirling in my brain. Why her? When? How?

BETH

We are all helping Miss Field with what she calls – finishing touches – when we see Pa pull up in the wagon. Ma, with Ruth and Louisa – I mean Mrs. Heyes – although it seems funny calling her that – sit up front. The boys are in the back with the picnic baskets. She… I think I am going to keep saying ‘Louisa’ in my head – out loud it is awkward. I usually do not call her anything, out loud. I give an extra smile instead – where I might put a name. Anyway, Louisa looks over. Mr. Heyes turns round, sees her. He smiles – real wide – and hands what he is doing to me. He starts to stride over – then breaks into a run. She had been looking – anxious – when she first saw us all. But, once Mr. Heyes runs towards her she smiles – goes real pink. Instead of just offering her a hand down – he lifts her right up – holds her for a moment – then swings her round. Like he might swing Jed.

She squeals, “No! No, Alex!” But she is giggling – and going even pinker. So, though she says ‘No’ – I do not think she means it. Mr. Heyes sets her down – he is still grinning. Then, he holds out his hands so he can take Ruth – while Pa helps Ma down. Mr. Heyes keeps hold of Ruth as he walks back over. He balances her on one hip – and puts his other arm round Louisa’s shoulder.

“Hello, Louisa,” calls Miss Field, “What do you think? Sufficiently – celebratory?”

Esther runs over. “Whaddya think of the streamers? Me an’ Beth did most of ‘em. They’re good aren’t they?”

“Real good!” Louisa smiles. “Could see ‘em flutterin’ from a real way off!” Then, she takes a little breath, widens the smile – and says, “It all looks – real fine – Caroline. You’ve sure made it all look – real pretty.” Mr. Heyes has let go of her. He has set Ruth down on the grass – and Ruth runs over to show Hannibal her new hair ribbons. But he turns round as Louisa says this. He smiles at her, as if she had just paid him a compliment – not Miss Field.

“The part you have to lavish most praise on, is over there,” says Miss Field, pointing. “Let me forewarn you though – words not to use – crooked, askew, off-centre, slanting…”

“It is NOT crooked!” protests Mr. Heyes. “From the back – it is a marvel of parallel lines! Is it my fault the ground dips in front?” By this time Ruth has plumped herself down on the grass and is busy removing her shoes. He stands up and looks over at his handiwork. “Louisa, back me up! It looks good, huh?”

“Real good,” she nods. She is right. I think she would say it anyhow – but I think she is right.

“And – not crooked?” asks Mr. Heyes.

Louisa stares over – flashes him a little look – tilts her head on one side, stares again.
“Er…”

Miss Field laughs.

“Some people,” says Mr. Heyes, sitting down and pocketing Ruth’s shoe as she solemnly passes it over, “…I mention no names – but SOME people might find themselves climbing their own ladders next time! And since SOME people weren’t even pinning bunting straight, until the Heyes men,” he leans over and ruffles Hannibal’s hair, “…lent a hand…”

Miss Field laughs again. “THAT is certainly true!”

Louisa takes another little breath. “Caroline, would you – would you like to join us after? For the picnic, I mean? If you ain’t – haven’t promised someone else?” Once she has said it, she flicks a glance at Mr. Heyes. He looks real surprised – but pleased too.

“She’s already comin’!” snaps Hannibal. “Didn’t need YOU to ask. I asked her, an’ Pa said she could – if she wanted!”

“Sheesh, Hannibal,” says Mr. Heyes, “I hope I sounded a little more gracious than that!”

“Oh!” says Louisa, “That’s fine, Hannibal!” He just scowls. He sees his Pa is about to tell him to take the scowl off his face – so he stops. Louisa hesitates a minute – then walks over to Mr. Heyes. She is about to sit down, when Hannibal shuffles over right next to his Pa. He puts his arms round his Pa’s waist and hugs him, staring up at Louisa. She sits down the other side of Ma, instead. She is looking at Hannibal – trying to stay smiling. It is hard to smile at someone who will not smile back. “Hannibal,” she says, “you’re not wearin’ your new shirt.”

Hannibal is wearing the old shirt he arrived at our farm in yesterday. It is just a bit too small for him. Louisa had made – and sent with him – a brand new one for the fourth.

Ma speaks low – but I just hear. “I didn’t think you and Alex would want me to push it, Louisa.”

“I don’t like it. It – it don’t fit! An’ – the colour’s all wrong! An’ – it scratches!” He looks up at his Pa, then over at Louisa. “But – thank you very much for making it.”

Hannibal is saying ‘thank you’, because otherwise his Pa will have him doing extra chores. Mr. Heyes always says extra chores should ‘combine a modicum of utility with the maximum possible tedium and barely tolerable length’. He does not punish you except for things you have been warned about first. But, when he does – Zach says he is real good at thinking of dull stuff, which takes – forever

CAROLINE

I open my mouth to reprove Hannibal – remember Alex’s request and shut it again. Four adults here have a better right to correct his behaviour. No – make that three. Nathanial Curry has wandered over to Mr. Myers and Doctor Wallace. He is animatedly explaining something. Possibly about sorghum. Or wheat. No – from the ‘let me out of this’ body language of Doctor Wallace – sorghum. Elizabeth looks away from Hannibal, face firmly neutral. Heavens! I think. If that was ‘a nuance’ – what is Alex counting as unambiguously rude?

Nate Curry frowns at Hannibal, but his voice is mild enough as he says, “Has nobody ever told you – ‘if you haven’t got anythin’, nice to say – it’s better to say nothin’ at all’?”

Delight flashes over Hannibal’s face. “Reckon – that’d be – ‘a lie of omission’!” he triumphs. “If I say I like somethin’ – when I don’t – that’s a plain old lie. I DON’T hafta lie – Pa said. He said – I just hafta observe normal decent courtesies! I DON’T hafta lie.” He gathers himself for the argument Nate has given him the chance to deliver. “BUT, plain old lies are – are ‘lies of commission’ … like saying you didn’t break somethin’, when you did. There are also – ‘lies of OMISSION’ – Pa says. That’d be breakin’ somethin’, hidin’ it an’ sayin’ nothin’! SO – I reckon not sayin’ WHY I don’t like stuff -,” another look is shot at Louisa, ” … Mrs. Heyes, my father’s wife – does … would be one of them – ‘lies of omission’. An’ Pa said – I’m not expected to lie.” He turns to Alex, “That’s right – isn’t it?”

I blink. I rethink – ‘ignore the nuances’. I decide I agree with Alex. Where politeness shades into deception – is not a moral argument to pursue with a stubborn near seven year old. Best stick to – ‘No name-calling. Always say thank you’. And – ‘Mrs. Heyes, my father’s wife’! What a perfectly judged combination of strict accuracy, technical civility and hurtfulness.

“I think, son – you’ve mixed up ‘sin’ and ‘lies’ and also missed the spirit of the underlying ethics,” says Alex. “Even if there was anything wrong with this shirt – which I doubt, a tactful silence is not quite the same as pushing a broken vase to the back of a cupboard and keeping your mouth shut. However, I’ve no intention of arguing ‘why?’ for the next hour. So, a modified ‘yes’. I will NOT ask you to tell lies.”

BETH

Louisa is getting upset. She looks down, bites her lip.

Then – as if she cannot help it – she blurts, “It musta fit! I was real careful. An’ – I asked Mrs. Curry about the colour! An’ I washed it through TWICE – so – it DON’T scratch!”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Ignore him!” says Zach. “We all know he’d find somethin’ to whine about if you’d made it outta cloth o’ gold an’ lined it with ten dollar bills! We had to listen to him once this mornin’ already! Don’t set him off again!”

“Zach!” says Ma. Zach shuts up. Esther takes over.

“THEN…he went on an’ on an’ on askin’ the time and complainin’ his Pa was late! Complainin’ it’d be your…” she nods over at Louisa, “…fault.” In a mutter, she adds, “Hannibal’s turnin’ into a right pain in the butt!”

“What was that – at the end?” asks Ma.

“Nothin’,” says Esther.

“Good! Keep it that way,” says Ma.

“Next time you leave him somewhere – I’d forget to fetch him at all, if I were you Mr. Heyes!” says Zach, ” – Just don’t make it our place!”

“I’ll never do that!” says Mr. Heyes. He puts an arm round Hannibal – who is scowling hard at Zach and Esther – and hugs him tight. “He knows that! Even when he’s being – what Esther DIDN’T say – for some reason I’d still rather have him around! No accounting for taste, huh?”

CAROLINE

I watch Louisa as the Curry children express their opinions on Hannibal’s behaviour. These opinions may lack understanding of the mix of jealousy, betrayal, loyalty to the memory of his mother and helplessness all raging to lash out. Nevertheless – Zach and Esther have a point. Hannibal is being – a pain. He is trying to cause – pain. And, since he has not inconsiderable brains, planning skills and determination – he is succeeding.

Poor Louisa, I said earlier – rather glibly. Watching her now, I think again, poor Louisa. Maybe this time, I feel it. There is no doubt, as she determinedly tries NOT to cry, she is over-reacting to the rejection of a shirt. But, it is not a shirt is it? It is she. She is clearly getting rejected at regular intervals. And, this time is in front of an audience. She has her eyes firmly on the grass – and, I believe, has managed to blink back the tears. I see Elizabeth covertly reach over and press her hand.

Alex is trying to put over ‘I love you whatever’ – without either condoning the bad behaviour, or escalating it. Hannibal gives a shrug – but leans into the hug all the same.

“You WERE late!” he states, firmly. Zach rolls his eyes and throws himself back on the grass.

“I did apologise, Hannibal,” says Alex, “…and, it was only six or seven minutes.”

“Still LATE. Miss Field…” I start slightly, “…she says, ‘Punctuality is the courtesy of princes’. She don’t allow us to say – ‘it was only a minute’,” says Hannibal. “Isn’t that right, ma-am?”

“Teacher’s pet,” mutters Zach.

Alex meets my gaze. His eyes laugh, as he raises his eyebrows questioningly.

“Er…yes,” I confirm, apologetically. “I do say that, Hannibal.”

Alex’s dimples show as he says, “Miss Field is of course, absolutely right. Once again – I am well reproved. Once again – I’m sorry I was late, Hannibal.”

LOUISA

He is saying – she – is right. Sharing some joke with her. Oh, nothing – you know. Nothing that means anything. I do not really think – that. It is just… She seems to make him laugh so easily. And, Hannibal likes her. MY husband is sitting over there, away from me, sharing a joke with Caroline Field. While I sit all the way over here – because Hannibal ALWAYS comes first when it comes to getting to sit by Alex. Trying not to cry – because Hannibal has humiliated me in front of her and Elizabeth. And, Alex does not even care.

Suddenly he catches my eye. His eyes are real warm. He mouths – something. I think it is, ‘Well done’. Even if it is something else – I guess that is what his eyes are trying to say. I feel a bit better. He means – well done for not crying – or getting into an argument with Hannibal. I DID snap back at Hannibal and I AM nearly in tears – but – Alex does care. He knows I am trying. I KNOW if he wanted, he could force Hannibal into a new shirt; or, to eat his supper. But – I suppose – I see he is right. It will give Hannibal something extra to sulk about and he will just find some other way of – getting at me. That is not going to make me feel any better.

All the same – it is still not fair.

“Alex,” I say, “I think I’ll just run over – say ‘hello’ to Mama.”

He smiles. “Sure.”

“Can I… You don’t mind if…” I am dithering. I spit it out, “She’ll – she’ll expect to join us this afternoon … Leastways, she’ll expect me to ask. Can I …”

“Sheesh, Louisa,” he says. Not cross though – teasing. “I appreciate you trying to build up an image of my ‘awful rule and right supremacy’ – but I don’t think anyone is fooled!”

“Er …you don’t mind?” I ask again.

“The more the merrier,” he smiles.

I know he DOES mind. No – that is not what I mean. He will not mind Papa and my sister and the boys. He gets on just fine with Papa. But – he does not like Mama. He has never said, obviously.

But ever since…
He said… No! SHE said that HE said that SHE was – ‘forcing the pace’.
When I next saw him I did not mean to mention it. But of course – I could not help it! Because – if he did not really want to marry me – I would die. So I did say something – and – it came out wrong.
I got upset and started saying ‘You do still love me don’t you?’ and stuff like that. He was asking – ‘what’s brought this on?’ And I told him – what Mama said.
I could tell he was real cross – though not, I think, with me. And he said – something about those not being his words – and about context.
I asked – what HAD he said then.
He told me what he HAD said – was that since he had explained he needed to talk to Hannibal and maybe arrange for us to get to know each other a little better first – he would have appreciated being listened to. OR – if that was too much to ask – being forewarned announcements were in progress. I suppose I saw his point.

Then – then he put his arm round me and said there was something else.
I remember my heart sank to my boots. I thought – he is going to tell me it was all a mistake – he never meant any of it.
But, he did not do that. He said some stuff about me being young. Maybe I should take time to be sure I REALLY knew my own mind.
I thought – is he trying to get me to break off the engagement? I felt my eyes swim with tears. I said, “Do you want me to – to break off or somethin’?” Before he could say ANYTHING, I was blurting how much I loved him – how I would NEVER change my mind – how I could not bear it if he stopped loving me – and – and I kissed him.
Of course, I was only being silly. He did still love me. He just did not want to be – he said selfish – and rush me into anything.
I said – I would marry him tomorrow, or right then and there – if it were up to me.

By this time he had pulled me onto his lap and I was all wrapped up in his arms. He laughed at me – teasing I mean – said I was not exactly one for ‘letting concealment feed on my damask cheek’ was I? Did I not think I should give him an OCCASIONAL coy and cold shoulder – just to keep him on his toes?
I stopped kissing his neck – which is what I was doing – and blushed. Did he think I was too… you know – too forward?
He said ‘no’. In fact – just then – I happened to be neither too forward nor too far back – but perfectly positioned.
I said – ‘huh?’. He said, ‘nothing’ – and kissed me. Then he said I was not too forward at all. I was perfectly natural – and utterly beguiling.

CAROLINE

As Louisa turns away, I stand up too.

“I need to go speak to Mrs. Wyatt,” I say, “See you all later.” Then, I call, “Louisa, wait! I’ll walk over with you.”

“Try not to let Hannibal upset you,” I say, as we walk. “I’ve seen plenty of pupils acquire new step-parents over the years. He’ll settle. Once everything becomes – routine and ordinary.”

She shrugs. Not rudely – but not encouragingly. I am not quite sure why I carry on. Perhaps I find the silence awkward. Perhaps I am just fond of offering advice. The latter – has been remarked on.

“This – rejecting your best efforts – is to be expected,” I say. “Maybe the right thing would be to play down things you do for Hannibal. If you’d just put that new shirt at the bottom of his drawer – let it work its way naturally to the top – he might never even have noticed.”

She shoots me a look. “Did Alex tell you to say that? ‘Cause – it sounds like him. Has he talked about me – about this – with you?”

“No – of course he hasn’t.” It feels perfectly true when I say it – then I hesitate, “That’s to say…Alex just asked me not to react to Hannibal’s behaviour. That’s all!” She still looks annoyed. “I’m sorry,” I say, “It’s none of my business. Besides – I’m sure any advice I have – you’ll have heard before. AND,” I smile, “…feel free to comment that dishing out advice is the easy bit! Following it is when the problems start.”

LOUISA

She is trying to be nice. Part of me thinks – she is NOT trying – she IS nice. So, I suppose I have to be nice back. Otherwise, I would feel a bit mean. AND – I will be in the wrong. Another part of me thinks – yes, but if I am nice – she will keep calling and talking to me and – and being there. Me doing the ‘right’ thing will never get me what I want.

It is like Hannibal. I am supposed to keep working away doing nice things, not drawing attention to them and not expecting any thanks. If I do it quietly enough and for long enough – he MIGHT just put up with me. I will not get what I want – which is for him to … Oh, I do not know! I suppose I would like him to throw his arms round me and tell me he is real glad I am his new… Tell me he is real glad I am there. When Alex is looking. Some hopes!

It is just NOT fair.

—oooOOOooo—

4TH JULY 1858 – Larson Creek – later that day.

JED

Han and I sneak into the back of the wagon.

Han’s Pa told us, a fella called John Adams said the fourth, ‘ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations’. He – Han’s Pa I mean, not this other fella – says he has no disagreement with that. BUT – anyone under voting age can be spared the ‘pomp and parade’ part if they want.

So – we run off, while all the talking and clapping bit goes on. We sit by the picnic baskets.

Han says, “C’mon Jed, let’s just see what’s in ‘em.”

I say, “I don’t mind – SEEIN’! But Ma says – anyone takes so much as a mouthful ‘fore she serves up – she’ll…” I take a breath before finishing, “…she’ll do somethin’ SO bad – she can’t even TELL us. ‘Cause then she’d hafta wash her own mouth out!” I think for a minute. “What’ll happen – if we take somethin’ outta YOUR basket, Han?”

“Pfftt! Nothin’!” he says. “Even when she gives me a chore, she lets me off ten minutes later! Makes my Pa real cross if he sees. He tries to pretend it don’t, when I’m there – but I’ve heard him! Heard him tell her, not to keep lettin’ me off.”

I think about that. Han tells me – she – is real mean and real sneaky. When I ask – ‘What does she do?’ he says things like;

“I’ll be helpin’ Pa. Or we might be – say, fishin’. An’ she’ll come buttin’ in. Pretends it’s to bring cookies or somethin’. But, she stands there – tryin’ to smile, even after I’ve SAID, ‘No thank you.'”

Or,

“When Pa’s – you know – giving me my bedtime story, she’ll come up. Into MY room – an’ pretend it’s to kiss me goodnight. But really – she wants him to hurry up! She never says THAT of course! Too sneaky! She SAYS – ‘Can I listen too?’ – or STUPID stuff, like that! An’ when I say, ‘No!’ an’ she goes back down – sometimes you can tell she’s gonna blub. She’s stupid! Blubs a lot!”

In stories stepmothers beat you, or feed you gruel, or starve you, or turn you out of the house. If Han’s stepmother IS mean and sneaky – she is not very good at it!

He has his picnic basket open.

“Er – are you gonna take somethin’?” I ask.

I know – she – made half the chicken the way Han likes it best – and half the way I like it best! She told me. And, her pies and stuff – when Han is not there, so I get a slice, are real, real good. Ma says – ‘Whatever else – Mrs. Mueller certainly trains her daughters well in the domestic arts.’ She did not say it to ME. I heard her say it to Mrs. Wyatt. Ma likes Mrs. Wyatt. AND she said, ‘You can see your face in the copper. And – I never even knew the table scrubbed up that colour! I wish she’d come do mine!’

So, when I say, “Are you gonna take somethin’… to carry down to the river?” I was – sort of – hoping Han might say, ‘yes’. Even though I know we should not, really.

“Nah!” he scowls, “I ain’t touchin’ none of it! Looks like – like dung!” He looks over, “Don’t it?”

I look away and – I guess I shrug. I do not want to argue, but I do not want to – to lie – either. I do not – exactly – mind saying, ‘no thank you’, when I am offered a cookie or slice of pie. Well – I DO mind. But, if it pleases Han – I do NOT mind. If you see what I mean. What I really mind is – it all seeming silly. And sometimes, kind of…mean.

Han opens up something wrapped in a white cloth. His face goes – I think the best word might be – sour. I lean over to look. There are lots of little cakes. They look real good. Each has writing on. In frosting I mean. One near the top says ‘JED’. I cannot really read except the letters in ‘Jedediah Curry’. But I see an ‘E’ – so that might be ‘Esther’? And, on an extra small cake an ‘R’ – ‘Ruth’? They have other stuff on too. I THINK the ‘Jed’ one has an eagle. To say it is made out of frosting – it looks like an eagle anyhow. The tiny ‘Ruth’ cake has a flower. It might be a butterfly on the ‘Esther’. One cake is wrapped up extra careful – in a little cloth of its own. You can see it has been packed where there is least chance of getting knocked. Han opens it. It is an ‘H’ – I cannot read the rest, but I guess. It has… what is it? I bend down to look. I did not know you COULD pipe frosting that thin! I think – I think she has kind of pricked out lines to follow, with a needle. You can see it is supposed to be an elephant. Like the ones on his headboard.

Han looks at me. “Down at the river, let’s collect a loada toads an’ frogs. We could wrap ‘em up in here. When she opens up, wantin’ to – to show off, it’ll make her jump outta her skin!”

I wriggle. “Can’t we – can’t we just drop one down Kurt Mueller’s back – or somethin’?” I say.

I say this because Han does not like Kurt Mueller. Well – NOW, he does not like any of them. What I mean is – he did not much like Kurt Mueller even before. He would not tell me why – but Zach told me. It is because when Han first started school Kurt used to say his name, ‘Hannah Belle’. Zach had to say it a couple of times before I got it. Zach said – he wished he had thought of it! I said – it was mean.

“…Be – more fun! Makin’ HIM jump.” I say. I want Han to – to change his mind. I want him not to mean it.

“Nah! C’mon Jed! Can’t you just see her face?” he urges. He grins – as if it is just fun. But his eyes – they do not look fun.

I wriggle again. Yes – I can see her face! I think she will be real upset. Not angry – kind of, hurt. And, she is… Well, she is a girl. Some girls do not like things like frogs and toads jumping up all of a sudden. That might be silly, but… But, I would not like anyone springing toads on my sister, Beth! I look at the cakes; count them – well as I can. I THINK she has made one for all her brothers and sisters too, as well as mine. We would be spoiling it for – for everyone. And – and I do not really think she has done it to show off. Maybe a bit. Maybe she wants us all to think she is real nice. But – but if you do nice things – why should you NOT expect that? If I spend a lot of time making something for someone – surely it is not wrong to want them to – to like it?

I want to tell Han all this – but of course, I do not know how to say it. “Dunno, Han,” I say. “I don’t wanna…”

“Not scared are ya?”

“It ain’t that,” I protest. “It’s…it’s mean!”

He stares at me. Then, he says, “Sissy!”

I drop my head. I gulp. But – but it IS mean. I climb down from the wagon.

“I – I don’t wanna go down to the river,” I say, “I think – I’m gonna go sit with Beth.” Beth is sitting in the shade, looking after Ruth.

“Go on then!” he says. “Go play dolls with your sister! See if I care! Sissy!” As I walk away, I hope he will call me back. But all he does say is, “Tell tales too – if you want! I won’t care!”

I turn round – angry. “I don’t tell tales!” I shout. “You KNOW I don’t. An’ – an’ I’d rather play dolls than waste the rest o’ the day with a real mean pain in the butt like you!” Then I run over towards Beth before he can say anything else.

—oooOOOooo—

4TH JULY 1858 – Larson Creek – later that afternoon.

LOUISA

Alex is hitching up our wagon. He is real angry.

Hannibal pipes up. “I didn’t mean it to…”

“Shut up,” snaps Alex. “I don’t even want to hear your voice.”

I blink. I wish – I wish I had not…
It was not my fault of course. But maybe…
Alright – I did overreact. If I had – laughed – would we still be enjoying the day?
But I HATE slimy things. They were – on me! And – all that WORK!
Besides – Hannibal did not mean me to laugh, did he? No one thought that for a minute.

If only… If only my mother had not been there.
She says I am handling it all wrong. But, she made it worse.
I – I smacked Hannibal. But – THAT did not make Alex mad.
It was what got said.

Mama said, “I think you’re a revoltin’ little spoiled brat. An’ if your father had any sense he’d …”

Before she could get any more out, Hannibal shouted over her. “Well – I think YOU’RE a – a schemin’ witch! An’ SHE’S nothin’ better’n a trick-tease! An’ – an’ the pair of you planned getting your claws into my Pa ‘fore my mother was even cold!” It was real quiet for a moment. It was worse because – you could tell he was quoting. Nearly.

First, Mama went red. Then she started to hiss at Alex, “Are you goin’ to let him talk to us like that…?” But, before Alex could even draw breath – she turned round to Caroline Field. “Was it YOU? Sayin’ this stuff to him? Just ‘cause you can’t get a man of…”

“That’s enough!” snapped Alex. “Hannibal, apologise – to Mrs. Mueller and to Louisa.”

“She…” started Hannibal.

“Just do it!” Hannibal did – just do it. “Now, go wait by the wagon. We’re going home – before you spoil the day for everyone more than you have already. Nate, Zach – get these things back where they came from.” Then, he looked, all hard, at my Ma. “Do you not think another apology is due?”

She went red again, said, “Don’t try an’ tell ME how to behave! It don’t impress ME!”

Anyhow, I tell myself, there is no point running over and over it in my head.

“Get in the back,” Alex says to Hannibal. Hannibal opens his mouth – looks at Alex’s face – shuts it again. He gets in the back. Alex helps me up. He does not say anything until we are about halfway home.

Then, he puts an arm round my shoulder and says; “Don’t let it ruin the whole day for you.”

Because, you see – I had begun to enjoy myself. Wearing my best dress – the one I had new, to be married in. Lots of people coming to talk to us. Giving congratulations, if they had not seen me since the wedding. Chatting with Laura and Mary. Them being – well envious is not really the right word – ‘nice jealous’, if you know what I mean. Alex all extra cheerful – because he likes a social occasion. And, because he nearly, nearly won the rifle contest.

When we get back, he jumps down and says, “Go wait for me in the barn, Hannibal.” Hannibal looks – disbelieving. He is going to say something, but Alex snaps, “You heard me!”

HANNIBAL

I wait in the barn. It seems AGES. He is in the house with – with her. Is she blubbing again? Are they talking about me? The thought of my father talking about me – with her – makes me feel…It is not exactly angry. It is more…

Is he going to – to whip me?
Last time, I…
No, I am not going to say what I did, the last time. I HAD been warned. It was worse than today. I think.
Unless – unless he thinks today was worse, because of her.

He did not hurt me, much. I am not saying that in a ‘don’t care’ way. I mean, he did not want to hurt me much.
It was still horrible though. I felt – small and, kind of ashamed.
Afterwards, I tried to pretend I did not care. But, I could not keep it up even for half an hour.
Because – because …

It sounds sissy. Even though I am only talking in my head it sounds sissy.
It was because I want him to be – proud of me. Have his face light up, when he sees me. I pretend not to like it when he ruffles my hair – because it is babyish. But he knows I DO like it.
Now I am too old to sit on his lap, I like to perch up on the arm of his chair. If he is reading, he puts the arm holding the book round me, so we can both see.
I like to get taken fishing or swimming. Sometimes just us two, sometimes now Jed comes.
I like to hear about when he was a boy, or when he came west, or when – when he met my mother.
After I am in bed, I like it that sometimes it’s a story, but sometimes he just sits and chats.

It is alright pretending not to care when you are certain sure you can have it all back anytime you want. It is real hard keeping it up – pretending I mean – if you start to worry, ‘suppose I have made him so cross, HE will not care any more?’

It feels like hours. Is she telling him to whip me? Bet she is.
No. No, I do not.
I wish I DID think that. Then I could hate her – and not feel…
I was SO glad when she hit me! Because – finally – everyone could see through all that pretending. Pretending to like me. Pretending to be…
Just wish it had been hard – not a silly, little, girly slap.
I wish she had not bleated ‘sorry’, straight afterwards.

I can hate Mrs. Mueller just fine. No problem. She smacked me last week. That WAS hard. I told on her, to my father. I thought he might be mad.

I think he was annoyed, but all he said was, “Where?” I pointed to my cheek. He said, “Not your ear?”

I wanted to say ‘yes’ – because he says never hit people on the ear or the eye. Well, he says, you should not hit them AT ALL. But, even if someone else starts something – you stay off ears and eyes. You can do what he calls ‘lasting damage’. But, Mrs. Mueller had not hit me there. So, after a long think – I shook my head. The extra chores for lying go on forever. And, he usually knows when to check up. Not always – but usually.

He squatted down and said, “Can’t have been too hard, can’t see anything.” Then, he touched my cheek, all gentle.

I kind of yelled, “Ow!! Ow!!!”

He looked at me. “You pointed at the other side, son.” That was – sneaky! “What did you do to her?” he asked.

“Nothin’!”

“What did you SAY, then?”

“Nothin’! I didn’t say nothin’!” I added, “Not really.” That makes it – not lying. That is just – equivocating – like the Djinn do in stories.

“Uh huh?” he said, nodding. “Mrs. Mueller simply – hit you for the exercise, huh? Guess she was feeling energetic.” I bit my lip, dropped my eyes. He stood up, put his hands on his hips. “I reckon the best thing, son, is for you to think REAL hard – see if you can recall what happened just before you got smacked. Whatever it was – if it happens again – most likely you’ll get smacked again. That’s what scientists call, ‘cause and effect’. If you don’t like the effect – stop doing whatever’s causing it.”

What are they doing? It must be hours! What are they saying?
IS he going to whip me?
Is he just going to – to leave me here all night?

I stop pacing up and down, go squint at the sun. Try and work out what time it is – from it and from the shadows. How he taught me. The sun does not seem to have moved at all.

I go sit on a bale of hay.
It was all fine, before she came. It was starting to be fine, anyhow. We were – OK – just the two of us.

I start to think of before it was just two of us. It seems – ages ago.
I cannot remember what colour my mother’s eyes were. I mean, I KNOW what colour they were. But I cannot REMEMBER – in my head. I cannot see them anymore.

Whenever SHE does something my mother used to, it makes me think…my mother will never do this again.
I knew that anyway. But I might not think it so much – if she was not there.

I need to stop thinking about my mother.
I will never see her, ever again – and that is that. The end.
She was not coming back before. She is not coming back now. And my father does not even – even miss her any more.
I need to stop. If I do not stop, I will cry.
I cannot be crying when he comes in.
OK – I need to STOP crying. If I can just stop before…

I hear the footsteps. He comes in. I swizzle round, real quick, so my back is to him. I do not rub my eyes because he will see.

He snaps, “Have you anything to say?” He sounds real mad still. And – cold.

I cannot talk – he will hear I am crying. So, I shake my head. Maybe I can still stop, before…

“Pleased with yourself, huh? Managed to spoil everyone’s day. Ruined somebody else’s hard work. Managed to finally goad Louisa into slapping you. Managed to reduce her to tears.” A beat. “That was basically the plan, huh?” I hunch round a little further. I shrug.

If I can just stop. Please.

“Don’t shrug! Stand up, get over here and answer me!” I get very slowly to my feet. “You heard! Get over here!”

I drop my head, but soon as I turn, he will see I am in tears. Since it is too late now – I rub my sleeve over my eyes.

He is leaning against the doorframe. I go over. He points at a spot in front of him.
“Stand there – and get your eyes up off the floor. I think I’ll have the courtesy of you looking me in the face.”

I lift my chin up, but keep my eyes on the ground.

“I’m waiting,” he snaps. I wipe my eyes again, look up. There is a silence. I have to look away, give another rub with my sleeve and meet his gaze once more. His face softens a tiny, tiny bit. He probably thought I was sulking when he came in. Now he knows I was trying to hide – this.

“Have you anything to say?” he repeats. There is another silence. “Why did you do it?”

I do not think I even know. Finally I say, “It was – a joke.” After a second, I drop my eyes. Because – it is not EXACTLY a lie, but, I know it is not true.

“A joke? Did you really – even for a second – think Louisa would find that funny?” he asks.

I squirm. I shrug. “Dunno.” He waits. “Guess not,” I add.

“Is it – a joke – if you know the other person will be upset or hurt?” he says.

I wriggle. I have been told this before. “No.”

“No – what?”

“No, sir,” I say.

“What is it?”

“Just mean – sir,” I say.

“You knew that, didn’t you?” I do not answer. “Come on! Even Jed knew that! Sheesh, Hannibal. When even Jed thinks you’re wrong – it must have given you a clue, huh?” I feel myself go red. He says, “The only decent thing you did all afternoon, was put that poor boy out of his misery, when you owned up and said he’d not helped!”

You see, when she opened up – and screeched – and got jumped on. I did not laugh at all – but Kurt Mueller did. A lot.
So Mrs. Mueller was looking at me, beginning to say, “You did this, you horrid little…” Then, she heard. She started to say, “If I find out it was you, Kurt…I’ll…” He was saying, “Weren’t me!” But, he always says that.

Until the cloth got opened, Jed did not know whether I had done it or not. We – we were not speaking. When it happened – he went red as fire. His Ma saw.
She said, “Jed – did you have anything to do with this?” He clamped his mouth tight shut, shook his head. “You sure?” she asked. Then, “You know something – I can tell.”

Even his ears were burning scarlet. He put his hand over his mouth and his eyes got all wide. He glanced at me, all quick, shook his head again. He was going to get in trouble. I could see he did not want to tell tales. It is not his fault he is still too little to be much good at – well – at secrets. Or – equivocating, when you do not want to tell real lies.

So, even though we were not speaking, I said, “Wasn’t Jed at all. I mean – he didn’t help nor nothin’. He – he wouldn’t. Was all me.”

My father looks at me. “Did Jed tell you – it was just mean?” he asks. After a moment I nod. “And – really – if you’re honest – you knew that. Didn’t you? Because – really – you did it, just to make Louisa feel bad?”

I do not nod at that, but I cannot say, ‘no’ either.

“What about the – the name calling?” he says. “What have I told you about that?”

“No callin’ names,” I mumble, “- not behind folks backs, not to their faces. ‘Specially not – grown ups. ‘Specially not ladies nor girls.” I look up. “SHE started it! She called me…”

“I don’t care!” he snaps. “No name calling. Especially grown ups. Especially ladies.” Then he says, “Have you ANY idea how bad the name you used was?” I suppose I have. I nod. “Do you know – what it means?” I do not know why he is asking. Of course I do. I nod again. I think that surprised him. Made him angrier. “Go on then!” he says.

“Er…” I start, “…Kinda an ugly, mean, old woman. Makes bad stuff happen – does spells…”

“I meant – the other name,” he interrupts. “What you called Louisa.”

I think back. “Trick-tease,” I say. Is that real bad? ‘Trick’ is OK and ‘tease’ is OK. It cannot be as bad as, say – ‘butt-face’ – where ‘butt’ is already rude.

“What did you think THAT one meant?”

I shrug. “Er…” I think – trick? “…Maybe – kinda sneaky?”

“No,” he says.

“What then?”

“I’ve no intention of correcting either your definition, nor your consonants,” he says. “Just make sure I never hear it again.”

“It wasn’t me!” I protest, “I heard…”

“DON’T tell me,” he interrupts. “I don’t want to hear! You knew perfectly well it was name calling, it was rude and that you had no business repeating any of it! Though, I do accept you didn’t realise just how bad it was!” There is a silence.

“Are you goin’ to – to whip me?” I ask.

“It’d sure be the easy option. For both of us, huh? Especially you. Save you having to think of anything else to say.” A beat. “Is that what you wanted?” He waits. And waits.

“No,” I mumble. Before he snaps ‘no, what?’ I change it to, “No, sir.”

“What did you want?” he asks. I am not quite sure what he means. He sees this. “Let me answer that. You wanted to upset Louisa, make her miserable – show her you don’t like her. It worked! Mind you – I think you’d already managed that over the past few weeks. Right. Now what? She’s tried every way she can to please you. Done her level best to be nice. Nothing’s worked. She’s got the message. I’VE got the message. You win. She’s miserable. Strikes me, YOU don’t look happy. So…what are you actually wanting to achieve?”

A beat.

“Even if you make Louisa so unwelcome she WANTS to leave – and, heaven knows, who could blame her – she can’t. We’re married – that’s that. The chances of Mrs. Mueller allowing a married daughter to move home are – precisely zero. You can do this kind of thing every hour of every day. Sure – it’ll make us all miserable, it won’t change anything else.”

I squirm. He does not tell lies – so I suppose what he says about Mrs. Mueller is true. I had not exactly thought – ‘she might go home’. But, I cannot think of an answer if he asks me again, ‘what do I want?’

His voice softens a little. “I know it’s hard for you, son. But – please – I would SO much rather you took it out on me. She’s trying so hard – ”

“It’s all pretending!!” I blurt. “She’s just – just pretending to like me. She don’t really wanna be nice to me at all! She only does it to – to show off to YOU. Try an’ – an’ make you like her more’n you like me. Try an’ win! Why should I hafta – hafta be nice an’ say ‘thank you’ for stuff I never wanted. She’s always tryin’ to do stuff that – that…” I am going to cry again. “She’s not my MOTHER!!” I shout. “It’s just – pretendin’! Pretendin’ to like each other – an’ I WON’T!” My face must be real red by now, “…She hates me! She wishes – wishes I’d just go away!! She wants it to be – just you an’ her. An’ – an’ YOU want that too. You side with her ALL the time. Keep sayin’ how well she does stuff – an’ she DON’T. Nothin’ worth doin’! She ain’t nothin’ compared to my mother! I wish you’d never… Why did you…? You don’t care about my mother no more… Or me… Not that I care! I HATE you!”

I hiccough on the ‘I hate you’. I try and dodge past him to run out into the yard. He catches me. I struggle and kick real hard – but of course I cannot even move his arm from round my waist.

ALEX

As Hannibal blurts out his anger, my own recedes. I catch him. Hold him tight.

“Stop it!” I say, “Stop it NOW!” Helpless – he does stop struggling. “Well,” I relax my grip, “I did say, I’d rather you took it out on me!” I turn my son round, to face me. “There was a lot of stuff in there, son,” I say. “Let’s go sit down.”

“No!” he shouts, “…Not if you’re gonna say – stuff – about my mother!” I am unsure of what he means. “You’re not – are you?” he says. “Not gonna say – stuff – about what she must be thinkin’ ‘bout how I’m behavin’ …lookin’ down an’ weepin’…turnin’ in her grave…?”

Who has been filling his head with this?

“Certainly not!” I say. “No!” I take a deep breath, “Hannibal – you have my word. I will NEVER stoop so low. First of all – it is definitely hitting below the belt. Secondly, however badly you behave – you can NEVER hurt nor disappoint your mother. Nor can I. She loved us both very much – and was real, real proud of you. Can’t be changed. Ever.” He looks at me. His expression becomes calmer. “Who’s been saying this stuff?” A sudden qualm shakes me. Before he can answer, I ask tentatively, “Has – Louisa said any of that?” He shakes his head. I feel a wave of relief. If Louisa HAD been using that kind of …She has not. Good.

We go and sit down.

“I don’t wanna hear – other stuff – neither!” he says, “I don’t care! I – I hate you!”

He sounds so young, so vulnerable. His voice falters on the final ‘I hate you’. My throat tightens. Maybe – that woman – is right, I am too soft. I want, so much, for him not to be hurt. I have left Louisa, also still so very young, so easy to hurt – and come out here, to make him treat her better. Simply adding to the list of prohibited words, phrases, facial expressions and behaviours I enforce – will just make Hannibal get creative. Neither of the two people whose happiness I now care for most will get much real benefit. But, IF I can get him to WANT to behave better – he will also feel less miserable.

Like the Spartan king answering the Persian king – the operative word is, ‘If’.

“Hearing the other stuff’s not optional, son,” I say. I give a little smile. More to myself than to Hannibal, I add, “IF I can think of any that is!” He scowls, looks away. “Take off the scowl and listen.” A beat. I can see he tries to stop scowling. He does not completely succeed. But what is left is, I think, him trying not to cry again. I put my arm around him, “Are you going to listen?”

He shakes his head hard. Another – long – beat.

He is too stubborn to nod. He shrugs.
After the shrug – I squeeze his shoulder just for a second.
He hutches up, leans back against me. Rather like when he sits on the arm of my chair, if we read together in an evening.

“Alright,” I say, “…let’s see whether I listened to you. You said – Louisa is not your mother. And – she doesn’t really like you. Any nice things she does for you – she’s only pretending to. She’d prefer it, if you went away.”

“An’ – you!” he adds. I tighten my arm. He is trying to keep his face – neutral. The first bit is easy. All the affectionate displays to me, over the past couple of weeks, have made the question, ‘you do still love me, don’t you?’ clearer than any words could.

“Not me!” I say. “Having you stay with Jed for a night or two is more than enough for me. Any more – I start to miss you. Like I said today – no accounting for taste!” He shrugs again. But, I feel him lean into the hug.

I take a breath. “Hannibal,” I say, “…Louisa is not trying to take your mother’s place. Not with you – not with me. Nothing can change how much I loved your mother. Nothing will ever make me love you less. I am just very lucky to find – someone else to love, as well. Love’s – not like money or – or cake. You don’t run out. You don’t have to take any away from one person to give it to someone else.”

A pause.

“As for saying,” I carry on, more slowly, “…saying she’s – ‘pretending to like you’. Well, it’s got a grain of truth – but it’s a very harsh way of putting it. She WANTS to like you. She’s trying as hard as she can to – well, to make friends.”

A pause.

“You’re making it very hard work. So – yes. I suppose Louisa is doing nice things, smiling – trying to talk to you pleasantly – when, maybe it’s not how she feels. But – pretending like that – is not the same as lying. Don’t you sometimes make an effort to keep your temper when Jed, or Esther – or even little Ruth is being annoying? When you started school – didn’t you think of something nice to say – when you were trying to make friends? If we all only did nice things when we actually FELT like it – Sheesh Hannibal, the world would be a much meaner place.”

I stop for a moment. I think he is listening. Whether it makes any sense to him – I am not sure. I know he CAN respond to logic – IF I can express it rightly.

“If you gave Louisa just a tiny chance – it’d stop being pretending so quickly. Because – she’s aching to be friends for real. And – you say she’s only doing it to please me. Well, that’s something else that’s, kind of, half true. Sure – she wants me to be happy. I’m never going to be – really – happy, if I know you’re not. So – she wants to make you happy if she can. Is that so bad? But she’s being good to Jed and the others too. She IS kind and nice. She likes other people to be happy! Even if I wasn’t around – she still wouldn’t want to see you all sad.”

Another pause.

“No one will ask you to tell lies. No one is asking you to – call Louisa ‘Ma’ – or ‘Mother’ – or expecting YOU to say you love her, or anything like that. No one’s expecting hugs and kisses.”

I take a breath. I have not lost him yet.

“But – I am going to ask you, to – to behave as if you WANTED to make friends. If that’s pretending – so be it. I don’t mean ‘pretend to like EVERYTHING about each other’. Just do ordinary stuff you’d do for someone when you’re trying to be nice. Because – if you don’t at least try to be friends – sooner or later, Louisa will stop trying too. Think hard – do you really want to spend the next fifteen or so years, till you’re all grown up, living in the kind of home that will give us?”

I think the last part was a mistake. He cannot look forward the way I can – see how bleak it could be for him, sharing a house and life with Louisa, if he allows no ordinary day-to-day fondness to grow between them.

He shifts against me.

“She fusses!,” he blurts, “An’ she’s stupid…” He looks up. He shakes his head; as if to say – he is not trying to be rude – he is struggling to find the words he wants. “I mean – she kinda acts as if – as if she’s goin’ to blub, or as if…” he wriggles, “…she says stuff like…” I can see he is trying to explain rather than complain. “…When she gets upset over somethin’, she kinda – puts her hand over her mouth – then says, ‘Don’t say nothin’, don’t tell your father’… she says that if she does my chores for me too – I don’t ASK her to – she says, ‘Don’t tell’…An’ she keeps doin’ stuff … an’ – an’ FUSSIN’. I mean – it might be – like you say, tryin’ to be nice… but …”

I feel a twinge of impatience. I have TOLD Louisa not to let him off chores, not to let him off any punishments I give. And the words ‘Don’t tell your father’ – are not the best message to put over. I give myself a mental shake. It is only a couple of weeks since she acquired a farmhouse to run, a husband and an extremely difficult six year old.

On the first point, the house appears spring cleaned from top to bottom without me being disturbed. We have flowers on tables and windowsills. Muslin bags of herbs appear mysteriously in drawers. The sheets smell of – something good. The hens lay better on whatever Louisa gives them. Even the vegetable patch looks – tidier, lusher. I am waited on hand and foot the moment I step through the door and am in grave danger of gaining weight.

(NOT that I married for practical reasons. NOR do I expect – the spoiling. But, I suppose, after that evening back in April, I did, at some level, think – surely feminine home comforts will be better for Hannibal.)

On the second point, well, she loves me. In fact I am positively adored. No man can ask for more than – to be loved. This morning’s scene certainly took me aback. But, we all blurt out things we do not mean from time to time.

It is rather demanding to expect instant perfection dealing with Hannibal too! Particularly since I have nearly seven years practice – and still get it wrong. The ‘don’t tell your father’ gives me a pang. Poor Louisa, have I been – too critical? Does she think I will – will scold her? However, Hannibal does have a point.

Very tentatively, because I do not want to get sucked into criticising Louisa, I say, “If Louisa – if she agreed to try and – fuss less, would you try too? Just try – ordinary being nice. If she does something – ordinary nice, you are ordinary nice back – and she tries not to fuss.”

HANNIBAL

I suppose I can see what he is trying to say. Being – mean – to her is not really…
Even Jed thought I was just – just mean.
When I ‘win’- I do not feel good. Not for long anyhow.
I still think she is only pretending – but yeah – you DO do nice stuff when you are trying to make friends.
I do not really WANT to make friends, though.

I blurt out some stuff about her fussing. I am not trying to be mean about her – honest. Not then. But, she does FUSS.
He is asking – if she tries and fusses less – will I try and be nice.
I do not exactly want to say ‘Yes’. It seems a bit – babyish – if I say ‘No’. And a bit – mean – to say you will not even TRY to be nice.
He calls it – ‘ordinary nice’. He means there does not have to be any – any sappy stuff.

I shrug. Then – because I do not really have a choice – I nod. “I’ll try – try not to be mean on purpose. If she’ll – kinda…” I do not know how to say it.

“If Louisa will not make a big deal out of it?” he asks.

That IS what I meant really. “Uh huh,” I say.

“And – I’M allowed to say how nice things in the house look and praise her cooking and things like that – without you getting upset. Because, you might think those things dull – but that doesn’t stop them being hard work! Just like she’ll have to listen to me praise your schoolwork, if you come home with good marks. OK?”

I suppose – that does sound fair enough. “Uh huh.”

“You do realise, Hannibal – you’re still going to be punished for today.”

“Can’t you let me off,” I ask, “- now I’ve promised to – to try?”

“Do I ever let you off – once I’ve said?”

I sigh. “Nope.” Then I say what he always says; “You’re excused extra chores – if both arms fall off. If only one drops to the floor – you can carry on.” A beat. “What have I gotta do?”

“It wasn’t me you were rude to,” he says, “Go and ask Louisa how you can make it up to her. I’m sure she’s plenty of things she’d like a hand with.”

No way will SHE think of anything that takes forever. I bet she just asks me to do something I like doing anyhow. And – she might let me off.

“OK,” I say. Then I look at him. He meets my eyes. Something makes me ask, “Have you – have you told her what to say?” He does not answer. He just, kind of, smiles. I slump.

“And tomorrow,” he says, “You can go apologise properly to Mrs. Mueller – and whatever she wants you to do – you’ll be doing that too.”

“NO!” I protest. THAT is not FAIR!

“You will,” he says, “Won’t you?” After a moment he adds, “Answer me, Hannibal.”

“Yes – sir,” I mumble. Because, I know he will make me. Then, I say, “Will you – will you come with me? ”

ALEX

“Will you come with me?” he pleads.

“Sure,” I say.

I do NOT add – ‘For Pete’s sake, Hannibal, don’t be rude to my mother-in-law again. I’m never going to hear the end of THIS time. Please don’t give that – that woman – any more ammunition!’

—oooOOOooo—

AUGUST 1858
“Summer waxes long, then wanes, quietly passing
Her fading green glory on to riotous Autumn.”
Michelle L. Thieme, August’s Crown

LOUISA

Alex is propped up on the pillows; hands behind his head, watching me brush my hair. I smile at him – in the glass – he smiles back. I stand up, reach towards my wrap.

“Don’t go,” he protests, “I’m enjoying the view.”

I sit, turn back to my reflection – watch his eyes in the mirror, slowly rising until they meet my gaze. Our eyes hold. A blush starts on my cheeks – sweeps over my face, over my neck – and down. Even the top of my – my breasts are all flushed. I – I love him looking at me. I feel… I just love it. I love him.

He laughs. “How do you DO that?” he asks.

“I – I can’t help it,” I say, “It just – happens.” I turn round. “Shall I – go fetch your birthday present?”

He raises his eyebrows. “Another one? I thought I’d had my present earlier!” he teases. “I was laying here thinking – how did she know? Exactly what I wanted!”

I blush again – and giggle. “Alex!”

I go and lie next to him, leaning on one elbow. “Alex…?” I say again, making it a question. I start to stroke his chest, let my hand move a little lower – and lower.

“Uh huh?” he grins. “Something I can do for you, Gorgeous?”

—oooOOOooo—

I brush my hair again – it got all tousled. This time, I just do it quick as I can. I need to get breakfast and pack the stuff I baked. Alex needs to get the chores done – so we can all drive to the Myers’ place, where the barn raising is to be.

He puts down the towel and reaches for his Henley. “I saw Laura in town, yesterday,” he says, “She was asking after you. Saying she’s not seen much of you, this last week or so?”

I stiffen. “Oh yes?” I say, “Are you sure it’s ME she’s askin’ after? ME she’s so keen to see?”

He looks over – sighs. “Please…” he says, “Don’t start,”

—oooOOOooo—

You see – I hosted the Quilting Circle, the week before last. I asked Alex first, if he minded.

“You don’t need to ask permission,” he said. Then he grinned, “Or – are you telling me, tactfully, to make myself scarce? Do I just stay away, until I’m called?”

“Well,” I said, “…if you could – maybe – be an hour later’n usual? An’ – if you wouldn’t mind a cold supper?”

It went real well. Everyone complimented the refreshments. I made the house look extra nice. I wore my new collar, the one with the crochet edge.

When Alex came back, the married ladies had all gone – suppers to get. Mary and most of the other younger girls had gone too – with their Mas. But, Laura was still here. Her Ma had not come. Sometimes Mr. Wyatt is – funny – about his wife going out. Laura and I were just chatting. She was asking about – about what being married is like. I did not tell her of course. Well – I told her a bit. I could not help it. I asked – who was courting? Any new gossip? You know! I suppose we lost track of time.

Alex walked in – all hot from working.

He said, “Hello, Laura.” Looked at me, said, “Nice afternoon, Gorgeous? I’m not interrupting am I?”

Laura said, “No! We were just talkin’ about – about…” We giggled.

“The faults and flaws of men?” suggested Alex, with a smile. “So – that’s ‘yes’. I am interrupting.” Then, “Do you mind if I come through – fetch a clean shirt?”

He fetched a clean Henley and shirt – went back out to the pump to wash up. I started to bustle around. Making fresh coffee. Setting a place for Alex at the table. I suppose – showing off a little, to Laura. When he came back, Laura was running her finger along the bookshelf.

“Oh, Alex.” He asked her to call him ‘Alex’ after our wedding, because – well I suppose because she is one of my best friends. “I’ve brought your book back.” She fished in her sewing bag – handed it over.

I did not know he had lent her a book!

“That was quick!” said Alex. “What did you think?”

“I LOVED it,” said Laura. “Couldn’t put it down! I couldn’t believe it when George Osborne died. It made me feel – so – so sad. Even though you knew he was – kinda worthless.”

Laura sat down – and Alex pulled up a chair next to her. I poured his coffee.

He said, “Thanks, Gorgeous.” He was looking at the leftovers. “Did all the – you know – the little strudels go?” Of course I had saved some. They are one of his favourites. He smiled – that smile, “You spoil me! You do know that, huh?”

Then, he turned to Laura, asked, “What about Becky? Did you end up admiring her – despite everything? Well – except possibly her shortfalls as a mother?”

He just carried on talking to Laura about – this book. I have not read it. Well, if it has been round at Laura’s place, I could not have read it if I wanted to – could I?

Laura talks a lot – always has. She kept laughing. And, she made Alex laugh too.

Then, he said, “Anything else you’d like to borrow?”

She said, “Oh! Why don’t you recommend something?” So he did. And – it all started again. Her twisting her hair round her finger, giggling and laughing. Him talking away.

Then, Alex stood up – looked out of the window. It was not dark. Not at all. But it was – evening. In another hour – it would get dark.
“Is – is your father, or anyone, collecting you, Laura?” he asked.

“Er…I think Pa’s busy,” she said. Laura’s Pa is not really – very thoughtful.

“I’d better see you safe back,” said Alex.

“Oh, no need to trouble,” said Laura. “It’s not real late.”

Alex smiled, “No trouble – it’s a pleasure.”

I said, “What about your supper?” Even to myself – I sounded, whiney.

He looked at me for a second. Then, gave me a – I suppose it was a teasing smile.
“I thought I was only getting cold scraps? More than I deserve, for sure – but it can’t spoil, can it?” He took my hand and said, “Come along? Please. It’s a lovely evening. We could walk back the long way. Star gaze – see who spots Orion first, huh?”

I could have gone. Elizabeth Curry had Hannibal staying over. Looking back – I see how silly I was not to grab my shawl, tuck my arm through Alex’s and look forward to walking home – watching for the moon to come out, once we had dropped Laura off. But, at the time, I felt… Oh! I do not know!

I snapped, “I’ve too much to do! Besides,” I added, “…it ain’t – isn’t dark!”

What I meant was – for them both to see, I was mad. She should have said – ‘I’ll go by myself!’ He should have said… Well, I am not quite sure WHAT he should have said! He is the one who always thinks of something. He should not have gone, though! He KNEW I did not want him to! He MUST have known!

But, they did – just go.

First, I was mad. I worked out what was the absolute quickest he could walk there and back. No dawdling to talk. No…no…stopping. For anything.

Then, as I watched the clock, I got all miserable. I – I cried a bit. I tried to plan what to say. I did not want to make HIM mad. But, I needed to know if…

I thought;
Suppose – suppose Laura stayed just so Alex would walk her home?
Suppose – she planned it?
Suppose – he only kept her talking so it would be evening when she left? So he had an excuse to walk along.
Why did he lend her a book? WHEN did he lend her a book?
Suppose – suppose he likes her more than me? No – that is just silly.
But – if he did. What would I do? I would die.

By the time I heard his step on the porch, I had stopped crying. I checked the clock. It was a bit longer than I had worked out as the quickest possible time. I grabbed my knitting. When he walked in, I did not look up. After a moment – I suppose he was hanging up his hat and jacket – he leaned over the back of my chair, put his hands on my shoulders, kissed the top of my head.

“You’re in my light!” I said, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

He walked over to the stove, poured a coffee. “Coffee for you, Gorgeous?” he said.

“No,” I snapped. I still did not look up.

He came and sat down. “Erm – any chance of that supper now?” he asked.

“What am I? Your servant?”

It came out of my mouth so fast! It is EXACTLY what Mama sometimes says to Papa! I sounded like her too! I did look up then, met his eyes. “Sorry,” I said. I began to fold my knitting.

Alex got out of his chair – squatted by the side of mine. He, sort of, pushed me back – real gentle. “No,” he said, all soft,”…you stay there. You’re quite right. I’ve got FAR too used to being waited on! I’ll fix myself a sandwich. Can I get anything for you?”

I shook my head. I felt…all mixed up. Most of me knew really – nothing at all had happened. But, I still wanted to – to say something. To make sure. No – not to make sure. Just to – to SAY it! And – him being nice – was making it hard.

When he came back with his plate, he said, “What are you knitting?”

“Nothin’,” I said. Then, because that sounded stupid even to me, I changed it to, “Only socks.” I did not look at him.

“Uh huh?” After a beat, he picked up his book.

I tried NOT to say anything. But I could not help it.

“Laura got home safe then?”

“Uh huh,” he said. He turned a page and added, “Mrs. Godfrey was round her place, visiting with Mrs. Wyatt. She was singing your praises as a hostess. If she gets her way, I guess Hannibal and I are going to find ourselves banished again – before the nights draw in.”

He finished his sandwich, took the plate back. Poured himself another coffee, sat back down with his book. Got all absorbed. The way he does get – reading.

I cleared my throat. “Do you think she’s pretty?”

His eyes did not move off the page. “Huh? Sorry?”

“Do you think she’s pretty?” I repeated.

“Who?” still reading.

“Laura! Who else?”

“What about her?”

I raised my voice. He is SO annoying when his nose is stuck in a book sometimes!
“ALEX!” His eyes came up. “Do you think Laura is – is pretty?”

He looked at me. The question sank in. “Laura? Yes. Yes, she’s a very pretty girl…”

“Huh!” I sniffed. What did I expect him to say?

“Why – don’t you think she is?” he asked.

He was beginning to be annoyed. I should have stopped. I shrugged. After a moment I said.

“Do you – do you like her?”

“Well,” he said, “I suppose I didn’t know her all that well – before we got married. But since she’s a good friend of yours – I’ve made an extra effort – and yes. She’s a bright, sociable…”

“Sociable! Pfftt! I suppose that’s one word for it!” I blurt.

“…outgoing girl. I like her fine,” he finished. He was still looking at me. He waited for a moment – to see if I was going to say anything else. Then, he drained his cup and stood up. “Any last questions – before I go to bed?” His tone was – curt. I thought if I said anything else – he would get really cross. I shook my head. A little softer, he said, “Are you coming?” I shrugged. “Good night then.”

And – and he just went to bed. I sat for a while. I thought he might come fetch me. He did not. When I went into the bedroom – he was asleep. I made sure I woke him up – banging things. Then, when I got into bed, I had to wake him up AGAIN. Men! I pretended to want to – you know. Well – I did want to. At least – I wanted to make him want to.

Then, when his hand moved – you know – there, I said, “No! Don’t! DON’T!”

At first he said, all concerned, “I didn’t hurt you, somehow, did I?”

“No!” I pouted. “I just don’t – don’t want to.” He looked at me for a moment. It was the first time I had said ‘no’. And, I suppose – I HAD started it. I was waiting for… I do not know. But, nothing happened. He just turned down the lamp, then moved – so he was, kind of, cuddling me from behind, kissed my neck and settled down. After a minute I thought – if I do not do something – he will fall back to sleep.

So, I said, “Don’t you – don’t you want me anymore?”

“For Pete’s sake, Louisa – you just said ‘no’! Let me go to sleep.”

“What’s the matter?” I said, “Aren’t I – pretty an’ outgoin’ an’ – an’ SOCIABLE – enough?”

He sat up, turned up the lamp, looked at me. “Listen Louisa,” he said, “If you’ve anything to say – say it!” He waited a moment. “No? In that case – stop sulking. Stop playing games. Go to sleep. If you can’t manage the last one – at least let me go to sleep. When you wake up – make it in a better mood. Now – did you get all that?” I shrugged. I turned away – I could feel my eyes filling up. “I think I’ll have a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, please,” he said, “which is it?”

“Yes,” I gulped.

He turned the lamp down.

After a moment – because I cannot bear him being cross with me, I said, “Sorry. I didn’t mean it. Sorry.”

He put his arms round me, nuzzled up. “Forget it. Go to sleep.”

I lay there – thinking how stupid I was to make him all cross. But – I could not help it! I get so…After a minute or two I said.

“Alex.” Nothing. “Alex!” I nudged him, “ALEX!”

“Mmm?”

“You do – do still love me, don’t you?” Nothing – just breathing. I nudged him – hard. “ALEX!”

“Huh – what?”

“Do you still love me?” I repeated.

“Can I sleep on it?” he mumbled.

“You do – don’t you?”

“Uh huh.”

“Really?”

“Even when you’re slamming drawers and dropping boots from a great height in case I haven’t heard you come in. Like I always say – there’s no accounting for taste. But please – please – if YOU love ME, Louisa – for Pete’s sake, let me sleep.”

—oooOOOooo—

So, when Alex mentions Laura, says she is asking after me – I cannot help it. I stiffen.
“Are you sure it’s ME she’s askin’ after? ME she’s so keen to see?”

Alex looks over – sighs. “Please…” he says, “Don’t start,”

I try. I do try.

“I’m not starting nothin’,” I say. A beat. “But – but, she does like you! She thinks you’re real smart an’ – an’ real good-lookin’. She said!”

He was starting to get annoyed. Now, he grins, “Like I said – she’s a bright girl!”

My mouth falls open. I know he is teasing – but… It is NOT funny! And – does he not believe me?

“I asked her,” I tell him, “I said -‘Don’t you think Alex is real smart?’ – an’ Laura said -‘Reckon so’. An’ I said – ‘He’s real handsome, too, huh?’ An’ she said – ‘Yes’.”

He throws back his head and laughs. “Poor Laura! Talk about leading questions and being caught between a rock and a hard place for an answer!”

“She DID say that!” I repeat.

“Louisa,” he smiles, “how can you be so – so infuriating and then so adorable in the space of a minute?”

He thinks I am adorable! He said!

He looks at me, “Have you considered exactly how you’d react if your best friend said ‘Actually Louisa, I’ve had more intelligent conversation from creatures lurking under stones than from your husband. AND, in my opinion, his face could curdle milk at twenty paces!’ huh?”

Oh! I – sort of – see what he means.

He squats down by the bed, takes my hands. “Listen, Gorgeous!” he says, “Just stop it! The jealousy. Stop it! All you do is get yourself worked up – and you know perfectly well it’s ridiculous. Do you really believe – I mean just think back ten minutes…” he meets my eyes. I do think back. I blush, “…and be honest – do you REALLY believe, I’ve got eyes for anyone else? Can’t you tell how – how happy you make me? Can’t you tell I love – making you happy? And, I promised to go on loving YOU and ONLY you – no matter what. Remember? Better or worse. Period. Please – please stop spoiling it. Will you try?”

I do know all that – really.

“I DO try! Honest Alex! I don’t MEAN it. I just love you SO much…I can’t…” He shushes me. I think about what he has just said. I nuzzle him. “Do I really make you happy?”

“Yup! And exhausted – and hungry!” He stands up. Goes to fetch a shirt. “So – get dressed and get my breakfast on the table, woman!” He is teasing, “- Do you think I keep you just to sit around in underwear – distracting me?”

Alex walks out of the bedroom. I follow a moment later. Hannibal is up – because the table is laid. It is one of his chores. He is not there – and the egg basket has gone. Alex opens the door, still buttoning his shirt – waves. Hannibal runs back. Alex gets a hug and a cuddle – and a ‘Happy Birthday’ – and another hug. I get a ‘good morning’.

ALEX

Things with Hannibal have been better since the fourth. Not exactly good. Not what I hoped. Certainly not what Louisa hoped. But better. She hoped for exactly what I have asked her not to attempt. The ‘sappy stuff’. Grateful hugs. Goodnight kisses. I tell her – ‘maybe one day’. She still gets some cold-shouldering. But it is not so – so planned. Sometimes, the ‘ordinary decencies’ warm up, so I dare to hope Hannibal is growing fond of her.

Things are more relaxed when Jed – or any of the others – are around. Louisa has so much less riding on Jed liking her – that she is just her natural, warm-hearted self. No – no straining to be loved. On Jed’s side, there are no feelings of disloyalty to his mother when HE responds to affection. So, Jed chats away to Louisa and Hannibal finds it easier to – join in. Everything is less awkward.

LOUISA

I say, “Good morning, Hannibal. Nice day.”

Hannibal says, “Guess so.” He adds, “It’s gonna get hot.” This is – ‘ordinary nice’.

I look in the basket.

“Oh – I haven’t done yet!” Hannibal says. Still – nice enough. “Only looked in half the places! Just wanted – you know – to say ‘Happy Birthday'” He looks up at Alex. “I put your – your present on your plate. Like usual.”

Alex ruffles his hair, says, “I saw – thanks, son.”

“Aren’t you gonna open it, Alex?” I say. I try not to sound – too gushing, nor too ‘don’t care’.

“No!” snaps Hannibal. Straight away, he gives me a little ‘sorry’ look. “I mean – no. We don’t open presents ‘til after breakfast. An’ – an’ we usually have the first slice of the cake then too!” He scowls – but not at me – at the floor.

I want to hug him real tight. Kiss him. Tell him I know he is remembering on Alex’s last birthday – his mother was here. But – if I hug him he might get all cross.

HANNIBAL

I am saying what we usually do on birthdays – when I remember. I do not exactly mean – remember. I had not forgotten. But, I suddenly think – it is not ‘WE’ – anymore. Not like last year. ‘We’ meant my mother and father and me. Now, it is me and my father and – and her.

My father ruffles my hair again. Gives me a hug. He knows. I look up and – and I think he feels it too. His eyes have gone sad. He gives me a little smile. When he looks up – at her – he is trying NOT to look sad. He cannot say anything – because of her.

Suddenly I think – maybe she did not know what she was meant to do.

I say, “‘Course – if you haven’t MADE a cake, it – it don’t matter. I forgot to – to remind you! Sorry.”

She looks – surprised – then goes pink and smiles. Not the ‘trying’ smile. The one you get when she forgets and is just smiling because she is REALLY happy or pleased. She squats down. She is not going to – to be sappy is she? I feel myself stiffen, in case. She touches my cheek – just a touch.

She says, “Hannibal! You know I love bakin’! Do you really think I haven’t done a cake? You just give me a wink when it’s supposed to come out – OK?”

I nod. I am – I suppose – pleased she has done one.

“In fact…” she laughs, “- I made two – so there’d be enough for Nate an’ Jed an’ everyone. Is that silly? Writin’ ‘Happy Birthday’ on two? I guess only one can be – THE cake.”

That was nice of her. She does not NEED to – the others like her, anyhow. And – she is not exactly making a big deal of it. It comes out gruff, because I do not want her to get – sappy, but I say, “Guess it’s always good to have a back-up.” Then, I say, “Reckon I’ll finish fetchin’ the eggs.”

“Let me take some now – for breakfast,” she says. As I hold out the basket, she adds, “Sheesh – we are doin’ well! I never find near as many when you ain’t – aren’t here, Hannibal! I reckon – you’ve a few secret places to look!”

I do not mind her saying stuff like that! She is just being – ordinary.

“I’ve worked out a – a method!” I say.

“Do you plan sharing it, son?” asks my father. I grin, shake my head. He gives me a teasing smile, “Guess we’d better not trade you in for a puppy, just yet, then.” I run off.

LOUISA

As Hannibal runs off, Alex hugs me, kisses my hair. Murmurs, ‘bless you’. He is so pleased when things go well, between me and Hannibal. So am I! I am – so very nearly – perfectly happy. In fact, I decide – I AM perfectly happy.

Alex walks out, to fetch wood for the stove.

When he comes back, he says, “Louisa…when I was in town yesterday – I got asked something.” He looks – rather pleased.

“What?” I ask.

“I was asked – to join the school board.”

Does he – does he REALLY think I am going to be pleased?
Does he think – just because I have made an effort to be polite to – to that woman… Tried to ignore the fact that she is… is…
Friends – Pfftt!!
If he had asked HER to marry him, she would have bitten his hand off!
She is all over him! He LAPS it up.
Well – maybe I do not quite mean that. But he does like… He likes the…
It is not EXACTLY flattery. She does not exactly…
I suppose I HAVE to believe nothing happens – even when I am not there.
But… Oh! I do not know!!
Yes I do. If I am honest.
He enjoys talking to her in a way he does not enjoy talking to me.
I do not mean – exactly – more. It is just – different. Things I cannot share! It is NOT fair!
He said once, ‘Well – don’t you enjoy a good gossip with Mary and Laura?’ But that is DIFFERENT! They are girls – same as me!
I want… I need…
I need to know he – he likes me best ALL the time!

“Figures!” I say. “When did she ask you that?” I reach for a pan. “An – an how many cosy little meetin’s is that goin’ to mean?” The pan bangs on the stove. “Not that it’ll make much difference! Always cosyin’ up! Yakkin’ ‘bout -” I am doing it again. I am mimicking their voices. I am still – very bad at it, “…proper history per-prer…” I flounder.

“Historical perspective,” he says, quietly. He is getting cross.

“An’ – an’ prarrels… an’ – ‘breadth versus depth’, an’ – an’ independent thinkin’ rather than – than…er…”

I wish I had not said anything. I have said one or two things since that morning I blurted out all that stuff about Caroline Field and Mrs. Sayers. I cannot help it. It – it annoys him. So – part of me KNEW not to. I wish…

I am going to cry.

“Rather than reliance on rote learning,” he says. “And – it’s parallels…parallels with current situations. Really Louisa, if you are going to attempt mocking parody it might be an idea to listen occasionally, so you remember the words, huh? You never know! You might even learn something!” I feel myself go scarlet.

He turns round, “Caroline – I assume that is to whom you refer – did NOT ask me to join the school board. She has no influence on the appointees. Your father and Godfrey asked me. Am I allowed to speak to them? Or are they on the growing list of people you prefer me to avoid? Oh, of course not! That list only has WOMEN on it!”

I feel silly. Pa asked him. I – I should have known that. I should say sorry. But then I have not got my way have I? I NEVER do! Maybe I was silly to think it meant ‘cosy meetings with Caroline’. But it will give them something extra to talk about. It will give her another excuse to call. I want…

I hear my voice all shrill. “You’re only pleased because – because…”

“Stop it NOW!” he snaps. He is putting stuff together to walk out and do his chores.

The first tears fall.

“It’s not FAIR! You’re always makin’ me out in the wrong. But I AIN’T wrong. I wasn’t wrong the other week about Laura! ‘I make an effort to be sociable – because she’s a friend of yours, Louisa.’ Yeah, right! Sociable! Not what I’d call it!” I blurt. “Her laughin’ at everythin’ you said! Flickin’ her hair! Battin’ her eyes. Sociable! Pfftt! It was a bit more’n sociable. An’ Caroline. Friends! I used to watch her – every week before – before we were engaged. She was all over you! Hardly took her eyes off you. She’s STILL all over you! They both are! You lap it up! You DO! An’ you expect me to just – just sit there!” I take a big gulping breath as the first sob shakes me. “Anythin’ SHE says is always right! You don’t REALLY love me. Don’t matter what you say. If you did you’d … You’d never have married me if – if…”

He has not looked at me once. He opens the door walks out.

ALEX

As I walk out Louisa is crying.

She bleats, “I’m sorry … I don’t mean it…” I do not hear the final words. I know what they will be – ‘I can’t help it’. If I hear ‘I don’t mean it. I can’t help it’ one more time, I will…

I reach the barn. I cannot finish the previous thought – because – what can I do? I AM going to hear it again. That much is obvious. Today is the first time, since the fourth, she has given such a – full – outburst. But, it is beginning to seem we scarcely get through a week without some snide comment, or a sulk. I can stop her. The moment I show anger – she stops. What I do not seem able to do – is prevent it starting again. Reassurance, logic – do not work. They SEEM to work. Everything seems fine – then, she starts. And, it is so – so STUPID! So – embarrassingly VULGAR! I am NOT going to walk on eggshells in my own home. I am NOT going to avoid mention of other people simply because they happen to wear a skirt! I am NOT going to change my behaviour to half the human race! Sheesh! If I had known she was so – so…

There is no point thinking – ‘IF I had known…” Too late. I said it myself, not half an hour ago. I am honour bound to love Louisa for better or worse. What does that mean if not however she acts? Whatever she says? It cannot mean ‘only when her behaviour makes me FEEL warm and tender and loving’.

But, I fume, it is all so – so CHILDISH!

I take deep breaths as I mechanically perform the routine of morning chores. Yes. It is – childish. It is not – malevolent. Not planned. Not – not vindictive, nor spiteful, except in so far as she blurts whatever is going through her head. I remind myself that the – the possessive spurts, are outnumbered tenfold by Louisa’s efforts to be polite and friendly to Caroline. Outnumbered a hundredfold, by myriad little acts showing how much she loves me. I remind myself how hard she tries, NOT to show jealousy of Hannibal when she has to… When she has to ‘wait her turn’. I remind myself of everything Louisa does just to … to please me. How she glows and basks in my approval.

If I did not realise how – how very young and vulnerable she still is, until after we married, whose fault is that, other than my own? On whom, other than myself, does the bulk of responsibility rest, for making this marriage work?

That sentence I walked out on, comes back. “You’d never have married me if…”

I feel a pang. Poor Louisa. What was she going to say?

“If – I had not followed you?”
“If – when you turned, saw me silhouetted against the evening light, head tilted to one side – ‘Sarah!’ had not flashed across your mind? Leaving you so – so exposed?”
“If – when you yielded to the impulse to kiss me – then began to say ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have … I’ll take you home’ I had not thrown my arms round you, stopped your mouth with mine, twined my hands in your hair, poured out how much I loved you – adored you?”
“If – you had not seen me dazed with joy that you – you noticed me, at last?”
“If – that had not made your blood race, your heart pound, your throat tighten with happiness?”
“If – the tenderness welling up when you held me, had not – not filled the empty hollow inside, for the first time since Sarah died?”
“If – you had not ached to – to be in love? To be loved?”
“If – ‘falling in love’ were not so inexplicable and so undefined?”
“If – we had not been seen, coming away from the water together?”
“If – I, bursting with elation, had not told?”

“If – those last two things had not made the choice so quick and so stark. ‘What are your intentions?’ Court me – or break my heart?”

Probably – none of these.

The door creaks behind me. It is Hannibal.

HANNIBAL

I finish collecting eggs and go back to the house. I feel – happy. My father is bound to like what I have made, when he sees. Then, later at the barn raising, Jed and I are to be ‘gophers’ for his team. Not the kind that burrow! We have to – ‘go for this’ ‘go for that’. Really, we know they would let us go play if we wanted. But, I do not want to. I WANT to ‘gopher’. Zach showed off so much last year – about being on the team and not just playing. She remembered to make a cake even though I forgot to remind her. And, she did not – did not fuss this morning, at all. Not last night neither. Nor for a while.

After breakfast, I will ask if she needs help packing the stuff she is taking to the Myers’ place. That would be – nice. AND – I can see if she has made any of those – those puff things with jam, that Jed and I like. If she has – and – and she is still not being sappy – I might tell her Jed really likes them. I THINK she knows that means I do too.

When I walk in, she is not finishing up making breakfast, the way I expected. She is just sitting at the table – all slumped over. She looks up as the door opens. Her face – falls – when she sees me. She has been – blubbing. Her eyes are all swollen. She pushes away from the table, so hard the chair falls over – and runs into the bedroom. She slams the door. Well – it slams. I do not mean I am real sure she does it on purpose. I hear the bed creak – and more crying sounds.

I feel confused. And – and cross. I have not done ANYTHING! I have been NICE! There is NOTHING for her to blub about. If I get told off – it will be real unfair. I pick up the chair. Then, I take the scrap bucket out to the pigs, rinse it clean at the pump, put it back by the door. I have finished the chores I have to do before breakfast. The barn is open – that is where my father is. I go over.

He turns as I walk in. I am not QUITE sure what to say.

“She – I think she’s…cryin’,” I say. I do not say – blubbing. Real quick, I add, “I didn’t say nothin’! Honest! She was – was doin’ it when I went in.”

He looks – is it impatient? Or, maybe – embarrassed? I do not think he is cross with me anyhow. I shuffle my feet.

“Did YOU say somethin’ – somethin’ mean? She looks real upset.” I repeat, “I didn’t say – nothin’!”

He opens his mouth, shuts it again. The way you do when you are thinking what to say.
“I know you didn’t Hannibal. It’s – it’s my fault.”

“What? Why? What did you do?”

“We’ve just – just had a bit of a row. That’s all.” Before I can ask any more, he says, firmly, “It’s nothing. Just – arguing over nothing.” He smiles, “Grown-ups do it too. Even though we should know better.” He looks at me. “Hannibal – will you finish up here for me? I’ll go – go make up. OK?”

I nod. I thought – at least at first – I thought if he saw she was stupid…I do not quite mean stupid. If he stopped thinking she was – so great – I thought I would be pleased. But I am not pleased. I am – confused. What are they arguing about? Is it me? It is not fair if it is! I have been – trying. Mostly. I have done nothing today anyhow – and nothing last night.

I go over, take the brush.

“Thanks, son,” he says. I look up. “It’s nothing,” he repeats. He ruffles my hair – gives me a smile, which means ‘don’t worry’. I watch him walk away.

ALEX

For a second, as I see Hannibal all disconcerted, my anger flares again. Blurting vulgar nonsense at me is one thing. She should NOT allow silly irrational jealousy to upset my son. But – actually – this is the first time. So, maybe, I ought rather to think how well she has done up to now. I do not regret walking away. I said the next – tirade – would be delivered to empty air. However, walking out is one thing. Leaving Louisa to her misery longer than it takes me to calm down – when I know perfectly well she was pouring out apologies before I made it through the door – is another.

When I go into the bedroom, she is not face down, sobbing into a pillow – as I expected. She is hunched over the wash-stand – heaving. She turns round. Delight that I have come back, trepidation in case I am still angry and – plain old chagrin that I have seen her looking this bad, chase across her face. A tender pang sweeps over me. I left my young bride to – literally – cry herself sick.

Louisa starts to say, “I’m so sorry…please…” But, another spasm shakes her. I hurry over to hold her head – keep back her hair – as she retches. When she has finished, I get rid of it, fetch clean water – help her mop herself up, wash her face, bathe her swollen eyes, take a drink. I shush the ‘I didn’t mean it…please…please’ until this is done. Until I can sit next to her, cuddle her – soothe her.

She is saying, “Oh Alex! I’m sorry! ‘Course Pa an’ the others asked you to join the school board. You’re the best choice. I’m so – so sorry! You know – I don’t mean none of it!” Then, “Sheesh! Listen! Talk about – grammar! No wonder they asked you! Wouldn’t never ask me, would they?” A very small voice adds, “Guess you’re right. I don’t talk real good!”

It is so – so unaffectedly humble; so free of resentment. Guilt washes over me, as I think back to my cutting remarks.

“Louisa – why didn’t you just throw the pan at me? Tell me not to be such a pompous – pretentious – ass?”

“No – you’re right!” She gulps, “I know I – I let you down, Alex.”

“Nonsense!” I say, firmly. “Never! Didn’t I tell you once – you were perfectly natural and utterly beguiling? You NEVER let me down.” I look at her, seriously, “Well – only this kind of silliness. But – you’ll REALLY try not to do it again, huh?”

She nods. “I DO try – honest, Alex.” I shush her as she carries on to, “I can’t…”

“Don’t say that. You CAN help it! Think how many times you have – stopped it – straight away. I know you can.” I hug her, to show this is supposed to be encouraging – not scolding. “Do you feel better now? Not sick anymore?”

“Uh huh,” she gives a wavery little smile. “I think – it’s partly the heat. I’ve felt – queasy – a couple of times. It soon passes. I’ll go – get on.”

As she says this, a thought strikes me. We have been married – what – nine weeks? Or is it ten? During all that time, there has been no – no interruption to…Well, to love making.

“Louisa,” I ask. “Are you – late?”

LOUISA

I am about to go finish breakfast. Alex pulls me back, very gently.

“Louisa,” he says, “Are you – late?”

Of course we are running late! But – we still have time to get to the Myers’ place. If he is worried about being late – why stop me getting on? He sees I am confused.

“Your – time of the month. Are you late? Or, are you not – not very regular?” I blink – blush. I had not thought. I still do not see why…? “Louisa,” it is real soft, “I think you might be pregnant.”

Am I? Am I – going to have a baby?

“Is – is that what it means?” I ask.

“Didn’t your mother talk to you about any of this, either?” he asks. Before I shake my head, he says, “Guess not, huh?” He knows she did not tell me anything about…about being married. He lifts me onto his lap, wraps his arms round me. “Louisa, as well as making you feel sick; this might be why – why you’re getting all upset.” He strokes my hair. “And I was so impatient. Forgive me?”

“Are you – are you glad?” I whisper. Please – PLEASE let him be glad.

“Glad!” he exclaims. His arms tighten round me, “Glad doesn’t begin to cover it!” The hug clasps me closer – he kisses me. Then, he stops all sudden – relaxes his arms. “Sorry – I didn’t hurt you?” Huh? He NEVER hurts me. I laugh – shake my head.

“You’re not goin’ to stop huggin’ me?” I ask. I think is he not going to…No! “You’re not goin’ to stop…doin’ anythin’?”

He smiles, shakes his head, kisses me very gently.
“Maybe, though – we should let Doctor Wallace check you over. Make sure everything is – OK?”

Huh? Mama never sees a Doc until the birth. And – mostly not even then! Then – I remember. I look at Alex. Yes – he looks happy. But – it is all mixed up with …

ALEX

She throws her arms round my neck, hugs me with all her might. She searches my face – eyes shining with concern.

“Alex – don’t worry!” she blurts. “Please! I’m just like Mama. I mean – looks an’ build. The dead spit. It’s always been – shellin’ peas! Honest! Papa said, even the first – more or less. Please – please don’t think…Don’t worry!” She clutches her bottom lip between her teeth, tries to see if she has managed to reassure me. She nuzzles her face into my neck. “Please – don’t worry. I’ll be just fine.”

Of course she has read my thoughts. It is so long for me since this has been anything other than – bad news. More than bad news – a harbinger. The – the utter delight with which I would welcome another child is choked with anxiety.

She is so – so generous. So sweet! I swear, the next time she irritates me I will remember this and be ashamed. I give a shaky laugh. Kiss the top of her head. My voice sounds gruff because she has brought a lump to my throat.

“This is the wrong way round, Gorgeous. I’m supposed to say comforting, reassuring things to you. You – you spoil me. You do know that, huh?”

—oooOOOooo—

Later that day

CAROLINE

Zach, Hannibal and Jed run over to say ‘hello’. School starts again in less than a fortnight. Zach pulls a face at the thought of returning. Jed will not be coming anyway. He unreservedly regrets losing his playmates five days out of the seven. Hannibal is, I think, torn. He certainly feels a pang at the end of long sunny days messing about… I do apologise! He feels a pang at the end of long sunny days devising and executing plans. BUT, if Zach were not listening I think he would own up to looking forward to school.

A voice from the barn calls, “Zach – get back over here!”

Hannibal looks chagrined. Then, with dignity, explains, “We – we hafta go too, ma-am. They meant – ALL of us. ‘Cause, me an’ Jed, we’re on the team this year.”

“Jed and I,” I correct, automatically. “I THOUGHT you looked busy over there,” I add.

“We’re – gophers,” puts in Jed.

“Gophers?” I say, fascinated. He nods, solemnly.

“Gophers are – kinda – the linchpins of the team!” inflates Hannibal. “Can save a lot of time. An’ even a few minutes makes all the difference between winnin’ an’ losin’!”

“I suppose it can!” I agree. “You’d better get back then. Good luck!”

They run off.

JED

Every so often we are called for a ‘gopher’ errand. In-between, to one side out of the way, we are sorting tools. They looked pretty sorted to me before we started. But, Han says we should put them in – ‘categories’. His stepmother comes over. She says ‘hello’ to me. I explain the – the ‘categories’ – well as I can.

“Is that right, Han?” I ask. Because, I do not think I explained it same as him.

He shrugs.

“Uh huh. Pretty much.”

Han is not looking at – her. He is not scowling. Just – not looking. She has brought over a couple of cookies and some milk. She says – ‘to keep us going’. She must have put the milk in the creek, or something – because it is real cool. Han drinks some of the milk, says ‘thanks’ – but is still not looking.

Nate has come for a claw hammer – but asks, “Any of those cookies going spare, ma-am?”

She says, “Sure, Nate.”

When she has gone, I ask, “Is – is something wrong, Han?” Because, he has not been like that with his stepmother for ages.

He shrugs. “Nothin’,” he says, “Just…nothin’.”

“What, Hannibal?” asks Nate. He is fishing out a handful of long nails. He smiles at Han. “You know what they say – a trouble shared…”

“Nothin’,” says Han, again. Then, “She was all – cryin’. An’ then sick. They – Pa said they had a row. He said – it wasn’t nothin’ about me. They had the door shut for – for AGES. When they came out they were all – all sappy again. I mean – real sappy. He kept – tellin’ her to sit down. Let him do stuff. But – but it musta been about me!”

“Uh huh?” smiles Nate, “…why’s that? Other than – because you’re kinda always the hub?” He is just teasing Han – not mean.

Han wriggles. “I heard,” he looks down, “…overheard. Pa said – ‘We’d better not say anything to Hannibal yet. Not until we’re real sure.’ An’ she said, ‘Guess not. How long before we’re – sure?'” He looks up at Nate. “You see – it WAS somethin’ about me. They’re gonna – gonna do somethin’. Change somethin’.”

Nate laughs. He ruffles Han’s hair. He is about the only person – other than his Pa – Han lets do this. “Don’t reckon it’s about you, Hannibal. If you ask me, I reckon…” He stops, shakes his head.

“Uh huh?” says Han.

“Nah – I probably shouldn’t say.”

“Go on!” says Han. “What?”

Nate shrugs, smiles. “Could be wrong – but I reckon it sounds like you’re getting a new brother or sister.”

I blink. I know Nate is pretty smart, but… how did he get that? Han looks – as if someone has just hit him with a plank.

“No!” His lip wobbles. “That’s – that’s just stupid! They didn’t say nothin’ like that, Nate.” I can see he believes Nate, though. He does not want to – but he does. Han scowls – not at Nate, nor me – over towards where the ladies are setting up. “I – I …” he gulps, “It’s all her fault! I wish…” He stops.

Nate used to tell Han to shut up if he was mean about his stepmother. But now he gives him a little smile. “Fault’s not the right word, Hannibal. An’…it does take two, y’know?” We both look at him. We both open our mouths to ask … He flushes and, very quickly, says, “Besides – bein’ an older brother isn’t so bad! Might be for me…” He grins and gives me a gentle – just joshing – punch on the shoulder. “…But no need to think you’ll get such a little pain in the butt as Jed to put up with!” He ruffles my hair to show he does not mean that.

Han is still looking… I am not sure whether it is mad – or miserable.

“Really, Hannibal,” says Nate, “…It’s not so bad at all! Wouldn’t be the same without havin’ Zach, Jed and the girls around! Quieter maybe – not the same!”

“S’right Han,” I say, “…Ruth’s kinda – annoyin’ sometimes. But – I still like thinkin’ I’m a big brother now. Not just – the youngest.”

“An’ – I’m only guessin’,” Nate reminds him.

Han looks over to his Pa. He is sawing away, with Will Myers. Han stands up. Nate stands too, puts his hand on Han’s shoulder.

“I’m not goin’ to say – ‘Don’t ask your Pa’,” he says. “That’s up to you. BUT – if I were you, I’d wait till he’s on his own – somewhere private. I really would wait, Hannibal.”

Han looks up at Nate. After just a moment, he nods. Nate walks back to the working area.

Han says, “Like he said – he’s only guessin’! Bet he’s wrong. Bet you – a…” We never really have much to bet with.

I ask, “Why – why does it make you so cross, Han? It’d not be so bad.”

“I’m NOT cross!” he scowls. “I – I don’t even care! Why should I?” I see his eyes go over to his Pa. His lip does NOT wobble. He is clenching it shut too tight. I shut up and sort tools.

CAROLINE

I remember the barn raising last year, when I first met Alex and Sarah. Once again, I watch Alex work. There is a repeat performance of strolling casually along high beams. I feel glad he is happy enough to retain that boyish urge to show off.

Alex swings down and strides over to where a water barrel is set up in the shade. He takes a drink from the dipper, then uses it to soak his bandana. He opens a button, bathes his throat. I realise I have stopped listening to whatever Mrs. Wyatt is telling me.

I nod and smile politely, then say, “Excuse me a moment.”

I walk over. He sees me coming, smiles – that smile, calls ‘hello’. Then – although just maybe I imagine it – his eyes flick over to the ladies.
I glance back, see Louisa watching. I raise my hand, smile. After a tiny pause – she waves back.

If only Louisa and I got on better. She never relaxes. Conversation never – flows. She is civil, but…I sometimes think she prepares a polite remark or two and, once they are delivered – she is stuck. When Alex or I try and draw Louisa in, her answers are…I think the best word might be – careful. Does she think I am going to – to pounce on her opinions and turn them inside out? Separate supported facts from mere assertion? Point out discontinuities in linear reasoning? Ask for proofs? Challenge implied but unstated first principles? Maybe. It is – after all – what Alex and I do to each other’s contentions.

Surely she realises any contribution SHE makes always meets with encouragement. The trouble is – since she will not join in, I – and I suppose Alex – become absorbed, then are suddenly, uncomfortably aware she has been left out.

“I hear you’re joining the board,” I smile, “You don’t fool me with all this pretended interest in education, Alex. I believe it’s all a ploy to shut me up by pulling rank, when you’re losing an argument.”

“Cunning, huh?” he grins. “Mind you I don’t recollect ever losing. I recall you being too all-fired stubborn to admit defeat a few times…”

“These memory problems,” I smile, “do you think they’ll worsen with every birthday?” He laughs. “Many happy returns, by the way. Oh… I got you something.” I hold it out.

This time, it is unmistakable. His eyes go over to his wife – he hesitates.
“Er…thank you.” He does not step forward. He reaches – takes it almost at arm’s length. “You – you shouldn’t have.”

The phrase is conventional. But – although he smiles, I realise the words are truer than he meant them to be. Evidently, I should not have.

“It’s nothing!” I say, keeping my voice light. “It’s not even a new copy. Donate it to the community stock once you’ve read it – if you like.” I try my best to downplay it as a gift.

Alex tears a corner of the wrapping. An involuntary grin shows that, whatever other mistake I have made, I chose something he actually wanted. Then, his glance goes over again. There is a pause. Short, but I am NOT imagining it.

“Thank you,” he repeats, “I’ll go put it safe. Then, I’d better get on – before I get accused of slacking.”

He strides away – actually breaks into a trot as he gets close to Louisa. I watch. She is waiting for him – glances at me. She gives me a tight – careful – little smile. TRYING to look friendly.

At that moment, I stop fooling myself. Alex’s wife will never relax with me. Never. She knows. She probably knows better than I acknowledge in my own mind. This spring, I was ‘in love’ with her husband. She believes I still am. I – I would not care to examine that particular contention with any rigour. NOT interrogating my own line between ‘friendship’ and ‘love’ is a self-discipline I impose rigidly. MY feelings are – irrelevant. Alex’s for me are untouched by ‘eros’. I sigh. Either, Louisa knows – and is still disinclined to share the crumbs. Or, she refuses to believe the Greeks wiser than us, in handling such distinctions in – love.

My chest tightens, as I think back to last year. I miss Sarah so much. I miss Sarah and Alex together so much. I am going to miss him.

LOUISA

Alex shows off – walking along a high beam. I think – I think he is showing off for me.

He swings down, strides over to the water barrel, soaks his bandana. I watch him open a button. As he bathes his throat, he glances over, grins at me. I want… I want to go home! I wonder if Hannibal will ask to go with the Currys. He might. Then – then we will not have to wait until he is asleep.

Oh! Alex is talking to Caroline Field. I tell myself to – to grow up. SHE walked over to HIM. He can hardly just turn his back. Besides, I am NOT going to – to spoil things. Alex looks over. She looks too, raises her hand – smiles. I should wave back. I do! I am NOT going to think – silly things.

I wonder what they are saying? He laughs. What did she say to make him laugh? She – she gives him something. Is it…? Yes – a present. A book?
I feel… Oh, I do not know!

Suppose, he likes it better than what I gave him? Still talking. No, he is coming over. That was quick! In fact – he breaks into a run. I make sure I smile at Caroline – to show I am not being silly. Alex smiles at me – that smile.

It IS a book. He shows me – then just puts it under my seat.

He squats by me, says, “How are you feeling, Gorgeous? Not too hot? Not – not sick?” I smile, shake my head. He lays a hand very gently on my stomach. “Sure?” he checks. His eyes are so – so warm.

“Certain sure,” I say. Alex’s hand is still there. He spreads his fingers, looks at them – then back up at me. He mouths ‘love you’. I feel so – so happy I could burst. I lace my fingers through his.

After a moment, I say, “Aren’t you supposed to be – working?”

“Want to get rid of me, huh?”

“Well,” I venture, “…since we’re at a barn raising you might – you know – want to raise a barn?” I push back a strand of his hair. “Just a thought!”

He laughs, kisses my forehead, warns me to stay in the shade – strides away.

I do what I did last year. I do what I do every barn raising, I watch Alex work. This time though he is MY husband. I feel a surge of hope and delight. Next year he will be the father of MY child.

—oooOOOooo—

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