Surprised to see me again so soon, are you pie-lovers? Well here's a little in-between pie-loving to tide you over. It's a short (ish) story I wrote a little while back, called Free As A Bird, and as you have probably already surmised from your above average intelligence and my astounding redundancy, in comes in two parts, of which this is the first. Some of you will have read this before, (being the "some" whom I force to read my new endeavours whenever they rear their ugly little heads), but others will not have, so I post this here by way of apologising for my lack of posts recently. I'll post part two in a day or two. Please excuse any typos and/or grievous spelling errors, I hate going over my own stuff like a bastard. And also, please note that this is written, like a lot of my things are, in a sort of a fabricated style (and time setting) of antiquity, so what may seem like a grammatical error is actually a piece of stylistic bullshit on my part. Or an error. One or the other.
Free As a Bird
A Love Story
In Two Parts
“Free As a Bird”
It’s the next best thing to be,
Free as a bird.
Home, home and dry,
like a homing bird I'll fly,
like a homing bird I'll fly,
as a bird on wings.
He loved her. That’s why he kept with him at all times a small piece of something meaningless; something pretty, or interesting, or shiny, or old, or made by his own hand in his small room by the light of the kerosene lamp that made living shadows of his work. He kept such things in his messenger bag, the old leather one once meant as a portfolio for his father’s charcoal sketches, and presented them to her great and always unbounded delight whenever he met her again. He’d choose the moments to hand them over for their silence- pleasant silences, not ones that begged conversation for comfort- so the gifts could have the moment to themselves.
She loved each one intensely, and kept them all. She had her favourites: a small swan he’d folded out of old wrapping paper, patterned in baroque gilt swirls; a small hair comb, the kind you use to secure a lock of hair twisted into a bun; a grubby little tin box that had small strips of rolled up paper inside, each one (to be opened one a day) with a little phrase written in his disjointed hand, telling her how much he loved her, couldn’t wait to see her smile again, assured her that even as she was reading this note he was probably thinking of her and smiling. She loved him.
Their world was one of antiquity, subject to a fragility that was born of the times. They were both people who lived their lives very much alone. Even when they were together they were in some sense alone, but when they were together, they ceased to be lonely. They both recognized the beauty in that, and appreciated it with immense relief, being able to sigh off some posture of the day and simply relax in each other’s company, alone together- but their separate states of loneliness were very different ones indeed.
She, Lorelai, was lonely in the midst of dozens of people during the day. At night, she was lonely when everyone had gone home and she was left with her father in the large, empty manse that was their home. Her father was a politician of one kind or another, and kept his days busy by being seen hosting fund raisers, charitable galas and many an altruistic shindig at their home. People would be in an out of the manse at all hours of daylight- servants and caterers and guests, and visitors to the house. Naturally, she was tutored at home, so even on days when high society did not invade her senses, she was still surrounded by tutors and maids and au pairs and… well. But by dusk the servants shuffled off to their quarters on a far side of the estate, and the guests left, (a trail of used cocktail napkins and sandwich crusts in their wake) and the tutors packed up their slates and books, and the lights were lit and the whole house was boarded up.
This was calming to her, perhaps, or could have been, if not for her father’s habit of never opening a bottle he didn’t intend to finish. He always felt the day’s good hard work worth a celebratory nip of something or another, and he could afford the good stuff. From inherited crystal decanters, with the passing of the day’s light and the induction of artificial ones, came a torrent of anger and bile that spends its time eating away at him until it can find its way out and onto her.
When it was him and her alone in this stone castle, he would beat her remorselessly. He knew his way around a belt, a broken chair leg, or the flat of his own hand. He left no marks where they could be seen in polite company, but losing his mind he would go ballistic- the image of a gun that the word recalls quite appropriate to Lorelai’s mind. If he’d had enough of throwing her around, if his arm grew tired or the drink wore him down and weighted his lids, he would drag her to one of the empty rooms in the house and lock her in. Through the night, she would hear him scream threats and desperate accusations at her that were somehow also directed somewhere else at the same time. Most of the rooms were unfurnished, as they had never had any need for so many, so she would curl herself up into a small ball on the floor, still in her party dress or pleated skirt. She would press herself into the small of the room, the corner farthest the door, and sleep. There had been times when he would forget about her, or would continue his binge the next morning once he woke up, and would leave her there for days at a time. On weekends there was no one to visit to miss her presence, and if her absence was noted at a social event her father would simply make well oiled excuses for her, and all was alright. Those days she would spend thinking, making up songs and stories for herself, or would try to sleep it through. She hated that after two days she could smell her own body, a rank, meaty smell, and that her hair matted together and became greasy to the touch. She disgusted herself at these times, and sang her aimless songs so she would not have to be there when she had to find a way to relieve herself in captivity.
This had been happening for many, many long years. Her mother had died or ran off when she was only about six months old. She never could get the full story out of her father, and she had no other real relatives to ask. Oh, she had relatives, but they were not the type you approached with sensitive questions. They were all from her father’s side of the family- Aunt Joan, so cold and thin, ever making remarks about Lorelai’s posture and her weight, or the state of her toilette. There was Aunt Matilda and Uncle Jorge Evesbrim; as fond of their drink as her father, and instigators both. And of course Grandmother Evesbrim, her father’s mother. The woman was never meant for motherhood, and grandmotherhood hadn’t suited her much better. She loathed the features of Lorelai’s face in which she saw the girl’s foul mother staring back at her. Lorelai felt an indignant sting at the sight of Grandmother Evesbrim’s nose, which she could quite objectively recognize as her own. She could not stand the thought of having anything in common with the people who shared her surname, but the physical evidence of genetics apparently had no care for what she could or could not stand.
This is how she had spent her life for eighteen years, surrounded by patrons of the arts, generous donors to children’s organizations etcetera, family that rang hollow and a father who saw in her only his wife, and whatever grisly end the marriage may have reached.
He, Jude, lived on his own. His house wasn’t far from the Evesbrim Manse, but it was certainly in another world entirely. He had built it himself on ground that belonged more or less to no one, much as his neighbours had done. It was not a shack, but it was not far removed from such a description. It was not made out of cardboard or discarded sheets of corrugated iron, but of good, solid wood. Perhaps not the highest quality, and some of it of admittedly dubious moral origins, but wood nonetheless. It had a front room with an old couch that someone else had no longer wanted, a small wooden side table set in the middle of the room, and a counter with cupboards below that served as a makeshift kitchen. He had a fully plumbed bathroom and one bedroom, which was his retreat from the world. This is where he spent his time, making little things of varying nature to either sell or give to Lorelai, where he mended things of all kinds for extra cash, where he read, when he could get his hands on something worth reading, and where he slept on a mattress that was much, much older than he was. When you sat down on the bed, or lay down to sleep, you could feel the support bars of the base beneath, and the outline of the plywood board he’d set beneath the mattress was etched into your ribs. But it hardly mattered to him.
He had a small bookrack (born of the same wood that held up the roof), with about 25 or 30 books neatly stacked in no particular order. This he treasured over all the things (such as they were) that he owned. Most he’d bought second hand, at corner bookshops or estate auctions, some he’d fished out of dumpsters, having long learned that there was much use to be gained from that which other more fortunate people had set aside.
But a small handful of these books were pristine, having come into his ownership brand new, and took pride of place on the very first shelf. These had been gifts from Lorelai, who always wanted painfully to give him things that were as precious as the tin-foil jewels he had given her, but she knew she hadn’t the talent or the imagination for it that he did. All she knew was that he loved to read things, things that could matter to him, so she made special pains to find him books to add to his collection. Books that might perhaps matter.
He was twenty-one. Skinny as a rake and tall, he gave off a sense of physical strength and build his actual body did not quite merit. He had dark tousled hair and the most intense, almost desperate expression to his eyes, and it often unnerved those who did not know him. His eyes seemed to want something from you, some secret that would make it all make sense, that would set his soul at rest, and your heart ached that you could not give it to him. Perhaps that is why Lorelai liked so much to simply look at his face while he sat drawing or whittling, perhaps that is what attracted her to him so at the first. By now, they had known each other for ten years, since Jude had come to Evesbrim Manse as a runty eleven-year-old, looking for work in the garden. He had not gotten it, but had by some synchronicity been turned down the post in the den where Lorelai sat reading, and once her father had dismissed him and stalked off to his study, the two had got to talking about her book.
After that, they had met up regularly each afternoon in the lush expanse of the estate’s gardens. Under the shade of fragrant trees and on immaculately trimmed grass, they sat and talked, and talked, and talked. She was only eight then, and not quite accustomed to the idea of boys as a force of attraction, and even he could be said to have been rather naïve in his experiences of the fairer sex, but still, so young, something in their lonely and singular existences had found each other, and had claimed kinship. By the time he was fifteen and she twelve, they both had realized a love for each other that spanned further than their previous friendship, and not long after had shared their first very tremulous kiss. It was wet and strange, and neither quite knew how it worked, and they had spent the rest of the afternoon in embarrassed but comfortable silence, their hands clasped sweaty between them. He loved her. She loved him.
It took her some time after their first meeting to confide in him her father’s nightly habits. She could have been no older than nine or ten, but the relief of having a confidant for the first time in her life was something she could never, ever have fully expressed her gratitude for. For her, having someone to share it with was enough, but this was not his view. All of thirteen, fed on chicken stock and marrow broth, it filled him with visions of fire and brimstone, an anger that he had never experienced before on behalf of any other living creature, and which fuelled him immediately to want for action. He would rip the man apart with his bare hands, skinny little Jude would burst in on him while he was soaking up single malt and burn him alive in his own juices, and would set Lorelai free. He was absolutely set in his desire for this man’s utter destruction, and it took Lorelai days to calm him down sufficiently to make him see reason, to understand that even drunk to the point of excess her father could still take him out with a single blow- and certainly would.
Jude calmed down. He hugged her, held her and let her cry onto his shirt sleeves, and never again brought up the idea of retribution. But the anger never went away, and every time she’d come with a new story of hurt and humiliation, he could feel it snake up through his insides, white hot, and would clutch her tighter to his chest. It was around then that he took to bringing her back to his house in the evenings so she would not have to face going home- at least not yet- and she started to find the same safety and familiarity in his room that he did. It was still new at that time, his father having gone the way of many in a little noted mining accident that killed four others. Jude was on his own, but he was a hard worker, and did anything and everything, and got by. Only two houses down stayed Missus Wakely, a pleasantly plump lady with her husband and five children. They stayed in another proudly self-built house (although somewhat larger and maybe more skilfully built than Jude’s), and also got by in the way people did when they had no other option, and she had been heartbroken to see Jude, so young, left on his own. She had kindly and sincerely invited him into their ever growing family, but he had declined, being a solitary person such as has already been explained, but she had always made a pointed and heartfelt effort to keep two eyes on him whenever she could. So even when he found himself slightly short of bread and with no clear idea of where the next would come from, or clean out of kerosene for his lamp and gas for his little stove, she would always find a way to make sure he was taken care of, even if she had to force it into his proud hands.
So Lorelai would come to visit him at his house, and soon made fond friends of all his neighbours, Wakely and beyond. She was pretty and well scrubbed, and one of those people that make good company in anyone’s house, and she was greatly popular- especially amongst those who were anxious to see little Jude make a friend. For a while, whenever there was time for a visit, she found a small nucleus of appropriated family for herself there, and could lose a little of the loneliness with them too. But more often than not, they would stay in, and retreat to the warm centre of the universe that was Jude’s bedroom, and together they would lie on the horrible mattress, under a scratchy blanket in the dark- not even the lamp to flicker picture shows on the far wall- and he would tell her stories.
She loved stories, and much as she tried to amuse herself with her own ones when she found herself locked up in some forgotten store room in the west wing of the manse, she knew she had little talent for it. Her imagination could stretch no further than elements she had to borrow from real life, and that was no good at all.
But Jude, he told the most magnificent stories. Like his little gifts they were each one dispensable on their own, usually one offs he would make up as he went along, but she clung to them like a life vest in the ice of the north Atlantic. Her favourite story, though, one of the few that made repeat appearances on her request, was one so colourful, so bright and ridiculous, that she would return to it in her head often during the day. It gave her exactly what she ached for the most- release. It was of freedom and travel, of a world outside of the small town and the only slightly bigger city her own comprised of, and was informed by the many books that Jude had read of all these different places. He could describe each new destination like a native, and even the smells and distinct colour palettes of each tattooed themselves through repetition in the ether of her soul. It went something like this:
Close your eyes, Lori.
There was once a very strange and eccentric man. I suspect his name was something like Otto. He could only be eccentric you see, because rich people are never mad, only eccentric, and he certainly was rich. Picture in your mind Peter Sellers, Lori, with a bristling moustache that requires vigilant combing, a sharp tailored suit in navy blue, with a skinny little tie tucked under his matching waistcoat. Can you see him? I bet he’s got his hands in fists, both on his hips, standing dapper and looking off valiantly into the horizon, hasn’t he? I think you’d like him if you met him. He’s probably always talking, but in his own head like, and the whole world fits inside it.
He wanted to see everything, which is one of the reasons why I think you’d like him. He would travel the world. But he wouldn’t do it by car, he said, because he didn’t drive and was damned if someone else was going to drive him on his adventure. Besides, where would he get a car that would drive over oceans? He wouldn’t take a plane, because he was not a pilot, and sitting in some little cabin, looking out a small round window could hardly do this world any justice, could it? Instead, he made for himself a hot air balloon. A beautiful thing, it was, with panels alternating blue and red, with gold edging for decoration, and a splendid basket below that would keep him comfortable on his journey.
In that balloon, he had the best view in the universe. I promise you Lori, God envied him his vantage point, and the landscapes below. He took no one with him, because he liked the lonely thin air- like the times when he was so high it was cold and crisp, and he could smile because he couldn’t feel his nose or chin. He had the best cheeses and wines and doughy foreign breads that smelt of tapped beer-
-And grapes and mangoes?-
-Yes, those too. And chocolates, by the caseload. None of that cheap stuff either, the real nice kind that’s dark and bitter on the outside and has something sickly sweet and gooey inside. The kind you have to bite in half or stick your finger in first to see if it’s orange liqueur or praline in the middle. (God, now I’m all hungry, are you? Never mind, we’ll make some sweet tea later.) He wore little flying goggles and an aviator’s cap that covered his ears, made of real leather and lined in wool. He looked really silly, but still so grand- I think you know what I mean. When the wind rocked his basket up high, or he hit an air pocket, he’d simply sip his tea (lemon and three sugars) and rub his nose warm again.
He went to brilliant places, Lori. He stopped often, and met the most interesting people right around the globe. Maharajas in India, royalty in Europe, cowboys in America. He learned to smoke opium from a hookah in shady opium dens like what Sherlock Holmes used to visit, and he saw frantic visions with the Native American Indians, made all the more beautiful and scary by the peyote they love. He danced in Mexico to Latin beats in a ridiculous feathered headdress, and ate candy skulls with them on The Day Of The Dead. They make them out of Marzipan, like a wedding cake.
And music. There was music. He heard every kind of instrument in the world, played by people who lived and breathed their music, so he got to hear it like no one ever does by the time it reaches them second hand on vinyl. The sound of India was loud and noisy and sometimes not even all that melodic. America favoured the tinny sound of a mouth organ played around a desert fire, where it smelt of orange dust and sun warmed rock. (He learnt there that you can drink the water found inside a cactus, but you’d probably rather not.) Bagpipes in Scotland not so far away was more familiar to him, although hearing them up close didn’t make him any wiser as to why there should be bagpipes in the world at all. There were funny kind of guitars they call sitars and ukuleles and lutes, and something called an accordion which was also something of a mystery, although sometimes in France they made the most beautiful, heartbreaking music with it.
He couldn’t bring the music home with him, but he always took something. His whole balloon was weighed down by the tons of little somethings he carried home with him. Like the things I bring you, almost. He was going to bring them home, and show them to the people he’d left behind to go on his adventures, and he always said he’d go home after the next stop, then the next. There was always one more place to see, something else to find out. Alright, he said to himself, I’ll go home once I’ve heard the most beautiful music in the world, and seen the light of a thousand stars up close.
But he never went home again. He could always convince himself, through tears, that the music he was hearing was yet to be topped somewhere else, that the view of the heavens from where he was standing could still be surpassed in some other land. He was happy, Lori. He never went home. He was happy.
Sometimes the story went a bit different. If Otto was being was especially dapper or brave, like the time he fought off a massive lion in sub-Saharan Africa wearing a little beige safari hat, he was Roger Moore, not Peter Sellers. When she had had a particularly bad day, or a terrible dream, he took on this description instead to make her feel protected, because while he was telling his story with his arms wrapped around her on the bed, Jude was Otto for her. Or Roger Moore, Otto 007, strong enough to beat off her father and steal her away to show her the world.
Of course, no matter how beautiful the stories he could spin for her, eventually she would always have to look at her silver pocket watch, wipe her face and make ready to return home for the night. Her father was angry enough that she had started taking to coming home so late, but if she dared spend the night in the safe cocoon of Jude’s room, something far worse than a few bruised ribs waited for her. After her adventures, she would always have to go home.
He always walked her there. Poor though his little portion of the world may have been, it had always been thought of as a safe neighbourhood, and certainly hers was as safe from random and violent crime as any was, but he knew what awaited her at the manse and he was determined that nothing else should have to befall her.
He knew about the beatings, but it was only after they had officially started holding hands that he found out about the cold nights and days she sometimes spent locked in empty rooms. The old anger, like something godless from a time before time, came boiling out of him afresh. It was all he could do not to throw up out of frustration, but he could see as she was telling him all this that if he was to react too violently it would only shake her more. It came only very reluctantly out of her. She trusted him with her life, with her soul, even credited him with them, but she had not been able to tell him everything all the years they had known and loved each other. Until then, at least. It wasn’t an issue of trust, and it wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted to confide in him- in fact; she’d felt guilty, always so guilty that she’d never told him. It felt like lying, or withholding, and she knew he’d be hurt she hadn’t said sooner.
But she was ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed of her time spent in those rooms. Dirty and smelly, starved and the times when she had had to squat through the window to pee, or find something to do her other business into, to be cleaned and cleaned and cleaned later through stinging, tearing eyes. She didn’t want to think of herself that way, and she certainly hadn’t wanted him to have that picture of her in his mind. It was undignified and disgusting. She was disgusting. But she told him all. She knew now that she loved him the way that grown ups seem to love, she knew she wanted to kiss him, and have him hold her face, and with that she knew she’d have to open it all up for him. Perhaps even the feeling of safety he gave her, of security, could never be absolute until he knew all the things he was saving her from.
He certainly was disgusted, but not by her. The thought never even began to flirt with his mind and what he felt for her definitely wasn’t pity as for some poor mistreated animal or helpless girl. He had no room in his heart for anything other than a bitter bile loathing for her father, the man who had done these things to her, made her to feel so without humanity, robbed her of her dignity. He was older, but age had not brought him brawn or strength, although his mind had never for a minute stopped working. Like years before, he held himself in for her sake and simply held her when she needed to be held, and wove dreams for her that spread through her bloodstream like an opiate, and quietly stowed away visions of red, red blood.
Once, her father had announced that he would be away on business, out of town for a week. Relief numbed her at the thought of a whole week- seven days!- that she could spend on her own, that she would not have to be wound up tight as a kite string at the apprehension of his temper. He left her there, now completely alone in the massive house, and what she thought was relief turned nasty on her. She walked in the halls and could feel radiated from each of them a past malice, a resonant threat that had borne itself into the very walls. She seemed to hear echoes wherever she walked, though she had never particularly noticed them before. Every movement in the corner of her eye snapped her head around like a branch in a gale, the whites of her eyes bright in the blue light that lit the corridors as she imagined ghosts in every corner. Usually the servants lit up the rooms that would be in use before they left for the night, but since her father would be away, he had given them leave until his return. The only lights that were on were the ones she had lit herself, but there were so many. At the sound of nails scraping down the papered walls of one of the spare bedrooms, she fled the house barefooted in only her nightdress, despite the biting chill of autumn outside. For the first time, she ran the road to Jude’s house alone, sure all the time that there was some demon at her heels.
She got to his house breathless and freezing, and pounded her fists at his door. As he flung it open she catapulted herself straight into his arms, her eyes still wide as saucers- he picked her up, closed the door behind her, and carried her to the room. She sat there on the bed curled up into herself and told him of the noises and ghosts, tears streaming down her face. He wanted her to spend the night- he’d been wanting her to spend the night for a long time- but he knew if he asked her to she would say yes. And if she spent the night, word was sure to get back to her father, and he did not want to add to her burden when he did not yet feel ready to confront the man.
So he bundled her into the heaviest and only coat he had, wrapped up her feet in three pairs of socks (all in varying states of disrepair), and walked her home. But he was resolute; he would not leave her there alone. For the first time since that first, when he had come in as an eleven-year-old runt looking for work, he stepped over the threshold of the Evesbrim Manse. She was right, he could feel cold steel coming off of the walls in waves; the place was infected with the terror her father had insinuated there. It was like nervous anticipation, the promise of pain to come, ever looming but never landing. And it was dark. She had started shaking again, and he was sure that years of memories were forcing themselves on her like unwanted advances.
Silently he took her hand and said:
He led her round the entire house, all three floors- it took them the better part of the night and the wee hours of the morning. From one room to another they walked and she told him. She told him everything. He’d always known about the beatings, and then about the imprisonment, and each time after a bad night she would share with him the story in broad strokes, but he had never heard in such detail, with the offending rooms as illustration all around him. The worst nights she had always kept to herself and he would be able to tell that it had gone too far when she didn’t want to talk about it the next day. He had always been careful not to push. Now, she told him the missing stories also. Again she felt ashamed and debased, having to show him where she’d have had to claw out old sheets of waxed lining paper from a drawer to lay on the floor for herself, or tell him of the time when she had been locked up for 6 days without food or water- by the time she got out she had been pulling fistfuls of hair from her head as it fell away.
This was before he even knew her, when she was barely six years old. Once he knew about the locked doors, if he realized her absence for too long he would go around the house, calling up at each window until he found her, and would sit below it. They wouldn’t talk, it would be dangerous, and difficult to shout besides, but she would feel better just for knowing he was there. He would throw food up through the window when he could, and toilet paper, but that was also very risky. If her father caught him there (which had happened once or twice) he would receive a sound beating himself, and they would have to be careful about seeing each other for a few days.
He palled to hear one reminiscence after the other, each one weighed him down further like lead braces, but he could see Lorelai’s load lightening in response. With each story, she found it easier to tell, even if it held worst secrets than the last. As they visited each room like a pilgrimage, she would switch on the light. They would leave it on behind them, leaving dark the rooms, which she had been spared. Once they were done- the sun close to rising- the Evesbrim Manse was lit up like a jewel, a fire burning in almost every room, light sterilising the filth and blood from the walls. They spent what was left of the night in the den on one of the big couches, her lying on top of him, the rising and falling of his chest like the steady beat of a metronome lulling her to sleep. She loved him.
He did not sleep. He did not sleep for some nights afterwards.
Whatever happened to
the life that we once knew?
the life that we once knew?
Can we really live without each other?
She was eighteen, he was twenty-one. He loved her. He had been saving his money over many, many years, and he knew what he wanted now. A decent house in a better neighbourhood, maybe, a life with Lorelai. He didn’t have much, even after a decade of doing every job a man can do with two able hands and resilient shoulders, and he knew he couldn’t offer her the splendour of the life she had known, but he also knew that that wasn’t what she wanted. He had found a job, closer to town, as a builder. It paid well, it was solid and stable, and he would volunteer for all the tasks the other builders didn’t want, the dangerous ones that paid extra, because he had a plan.
He wanted to be able to take her to see the world.
But first, and more than anything else in all of the universe, he wanted to marry Lorelai. He had bought a ring, something delicate and beautiful, agonized over in the choosing. With one small pearl in the middle, surrounded by dark, tarnished silver filigree and marcasite, it reminded him of her. Classic, but somehow different, standing out even in a world full of beautiful things. He hated her father, he longed to see the man suffer as he had made her suffer, but he intended to do things right. He would ask the man’s blessing to marry Lorelai, and when he was refused as he expected to be, he would have the license to take her away from him summarily.
He whistled that whole day. He was working transporting lumber from the yard to a building site, and was back and forth all day carrying heavy wood, but his mind was a million miles away. He checked his back pocket with sweaty, grubby hands every five minutes almost frantically for the ring, and went over what he would say a hundred times. He would ask Lorelai first, even if that was not the convention, because he knew that he was only approaching her father out of some need for validation in his intent to steal her away. God, he hoped she would say yes, she simply had to. What if she didn’t? What would he do? These thoughts ran around and through his addled mind in circles and drove him to the brink of madness, until it came to about that time and he could clock out for the day.
He hurried home and took a bath, rehearsing his proposal. He dried his hair, going over his speech. He got dressed and combed his hair out, memorizing it word for word. He was dressed in the best clothes he had, the ones he used when he went to apply for a job- what might once have been a fine navy suit, complete with waistcoat and mismatched tie. It was weathered and frayed in places and perhaps a size too small for him, but tonight it looked princely. He walked over to the manse, taking his time, dabbing every now and then at his forehead with a piece of cloth that served as his handkerchief.
When he got there she was waiting for him as they had arranged. As it sometimes happened when he had been working during the day, they had not had their afternoon visit, so she was jumping out of her skin to see him, believing that they would simply do their usual evening routine of stories under the blanket.
He looked at her with the eyes of a man who knew he was now looking at the woman he was about to propose to. She was wearing a pale green dress that hung thin and almost like a nightgown, feminine and light in the summer air. Her dark blonde hair hung loose about her shoulders, wild as though it had had a busy day and had migrated from something more formal to its present feral state. And her eyes, God, her eyes, so happy to see him, lit up like a coal by the smile that seized her face, and then her arms were around his neck.
He kissed her, much better at it now than that first time, and he led her to his home.
She made no comment on his formal dress, and if she found it strange she did not show it. Perhaps she thought he had come from some interview, or maybe he was simply in the mood to look sharp tonight. Frayed and too small, she found it princely on him too, despite not having the advantage of knowing the gravitas of the occasion. She was eager and had been looking forward to listening to his steady voice in the dark, was intending on requesting an Otto adventure tonight. She jumped into the bed before him, and snuggled in under the blanket.
“Put out the lamp!” she reminded him as he came into the room.
He did so, and carefully slipped off his old brogues before climbing in behind her still in his suit and tie.
“I want Otto tonight,” she said as he curled his arms around her and his hands found hers. They were coiled together like Caduceus, like healing.
“I have another idea,” he said. All speeches and over-baked words too heavy to convey what was in his heart fled from his mind, and quietly, without ceremony or drama or hitch, he simply slipped the ring onto her right hand.
It took her a moment to grasp what had happened, and for unbearable long seconds the only sound was her breathing in the dark, as he found himself unable to. She spun around to face him as realization sunk in. She grabbed his face in her hands, and in the dark looked at him intensely, questioningly, afraid that she had misunderstood. Their eyes had adjusted somewhat to the dark, only enough to make out broad shapes, but he didn’t need sight to tell him what her expression was asking of him. He rushed forward to kiss her in answer, and finally they loved like grown-ups do.
He knew he had to be gentle with her- not just because it was her, and not just because that was how he knew their first time ought to be, but because he knew that she still had bruises, cuts and many tender wounds about her body, in places he touched softly with his fingertips. He touched them in acknowledgement, like a mother kisses her child’s sore finger better, in affirmation of the protection this promise offered her. She had sometimes shown him the places where her father had hurt her, lifting up her blouse to expose her ribs or hiking up her skirts to reveal her thigh, but that had always been the most he had ever seen of her. Here she was now, with every scar and cut open to him, and he thought perhaps they were both scared at that much honesty.
But she wore the ring. Perhaps she felt that she would never have to go home. They were happy.