The woman stood behind the ragged screen door of her peeling house. It had been yellow in the beginning; just as the lawn had been green and the black-eyed susans bright golden stars against the red fences. Now everything had faded. The lawn was tan and brittle. The black-eyed susans were tall gray stalks and spiky heads. The house was no color at all anymore, but here and there, where the wind hadn’t been able to scour it bare, lurked a few memories of yellow, faded to ochre.
The woman inside the screen door was as a faded as her house, all wind shear and wrinkles, and a bun slipping sideways off the back of her head. Curls turned to frizz straggled against hard, high cheek bones and a long, gawky neck. Brown arms ropy with narrow muscle wrapped her waist, just above where the waistband of her apron sat.
She wore shoes, flat, gray laceups with thin white anklets. Slender calves turned scrawny disappeared under a loose housedress starred with tiny white daisies. The fabric had seemed fresh, crisp and dainty when she bought it. She had made the dress to fit. Now it hung loose, limp and faded, as tired as she.
Still she put it on. He had loved her in this dress, once. Maybe he would again. She doubted it. Hope was a luxury she could no longer afford. Even when he had loved her, she had not hoped. It would have been sin. She had worn another man’s name like a hair shirt, wore it still.
The name meant nothing, and everything. The name meant that her children were fed and clothed, that when she went to town tradesmen hurried to serve her, that each Sunday she sat in the front row at church.
It also mean that she cooked each morning, cleaned each day, and lay each night with tears slipping out the corners of her eyes and down her temples into her hair. And even when his face was above her, eyes hard and dark with passion, he did not see. Or maybe he did, and just didn’t care. After all, she had his name. It should be enough.
She wished she could give it back, but such a thing was beyond her. And so she wore it, and when she saw the hired man’s eyes when she wore her daisy dress she wished the name she wore was his. She wished, but she did not hope. Even the wish was a sin.
The name she wore had broken her. And this morning, the man who had given it to her had blackened her eye again. The first time had been the day their youngest had driven off to college. Before it had only been words, the occasional slap, bruises under her dress. But then the freeway went in in 1970, and chance travelers no longer stopped. And then the children graduated and left for college and homes of their own, and when their youngest left they had waved him out the door, down the dusty, empty road, and over the hill to the freeway on-ramp. She had turned to walk into the yard where the rusty swingset sat forlorn under the chokecherry trees.
“What’s for dinner?” he had asked.
She hadn’t answered. She hadn’t even really heard him. She was looking at the swingset and seeing it full of her children’s ghosts—all pigtails, plaid shirts, white petticoats, and spiky red hair. She was thinking of how it had been, and realizing that how it would be forever more was how it was now, empty, moved only by ghosts and breezes. She had not really heard.
And so quickly, efficiently, almost conversationally, he had blacked her eye—grabbed her slender arm—it was still slender then, not thin and ropy like now—spun her around and into his fist. The blow spun her back and she staggered, then fell to her knees in the bare patch under the swings, the one that turned to mud each spring and fall, hands clasped over her burning, throbbing eye. When the tears cleared enough to see he was gone. She pulled herself up on the swing chain, lost her balance, and grabbed for the chain again. It snapped in her hand. She stared stupidly at the broken swing, and at the bloody slices on her fingers. Then she limped into the house, into her bedroom.
She curled up on the bed, cradling her cut hand. She did not think anything at all. She slept.
In the morning her eye had swollen shut, and her hand was stiff and throbbing, the slices angry, puffy and red. The man who had given her his name saw her hand, swore, and pulled out the alcohol. He poured it over her hand, then strode out to the barn refrigerator and filled the syringe he used to treat the sick heifers with the antibiotics the vet had given him. He shoved it roughly into her flank and rammed the plunger home. He didn’t do anything about her eye. Maybe he didn’t see it any more than he saw her tears, she thought. She didn’t mention it. It wasn’t really his fault. They both knew he had gotten a bad bargain in the end. But not in the beginning, before she had learned the danger of hope.
In the beginning she had given full measure, pressed down, heaped up, shaken together, and running over, trusting he would do the same. And he had—to the land, to church, and later to a shadowy figure she suspected she knew but did not know she knew.
When he bought the acreage next door the hired man had come with the land, seamed, gray, and stiff jointed. And there. When she needed the refrigerator moved he was there. When peaches needed picking he was there. When groceries needed carrying he was there, silent, strong, brown arms in rolled-up dusty sleeves. And then one day, his arms full of groceries, he had turned to her and laughed. It was over nothing, really—her youngest had come racing around the house covered in mud and screaming joyfully. And the hired man had laughed gently, quietly. The sun glinted on his dusty silver hair and in his warm brown eyes. He walked around her muddy son, up the steps, and into the house. She stood there, stunned with summer sun and love, staring at the kitchen door where he had disappeared, trying desperately to remember the last time she had shared laughter with the man whose name she wore.
The screen door opened and she jerked her eyes away and reached blindly into the car for another bag of grocieries, knowing everything had changed forever.
The first few days were agony. All the meetings and exchanges that had been so easy and pleasant suddenly became fraught, freighted events. She blushed. She stammered. Guilt drowned her like a rat she had once seen in the huge vat of molasses her husband kept for the cattle.Each day she woke filled with fear and trembling. What would happen today? Who would at last see her turmoil and divine its cause? No one, it turned out.
She started taking extra care with her hair, adding the cheap, pretty little necklace she had not worn since the birth of their eldest— a daughter, and a deep disappointment to the man who had begrudgingly given her his name.
She went to town and bought fabric and made herself a new house dress. It was simple and plain, but the daisies were cheerful, and she took extra care with the fit, and the handwork. The day she wore it first she had seen a light in the hired man’s eyes, and watched it blink out when he remembered whose name she wore.
She had trudged back up the steps to the kitchen door, throat aching, bitterly regretting the dress. She had wanted to look pretty for him, to give him what pleasure she could. Instead she had brought pain to both of them. She went inside and took it off and buried it in the shadows where her closet ceiling slanted down close to the floor. But it was too late. A person seen cannot be unseen. Even her husband, busy as he was with the land, the church, and his woman, began to notice, darting angry, suspicious looks at her, showing up at the house at odd moments, finding fault with them both.
Every night, his face loomed over hers and he hammered away at her, beating her into submission. And all the while, the children grew, spread their wings, and flew away. They didn’t come home. Why would they want to?
One morning she stood washing the dishes and crying. That was in the days she still had tears. The hired man had come to the door, needing a key, a shovel, an opinion. In the end it didn’t matter. He saw her face and his arms were around her, her face buried in his dusty denim shirt.
It only lasted a second. She stepped back out of his arms, muttered, “I’m sorry,” and went back to washing the dishes. Silence stretched behind her.
“I would help you,” he said at last.
“I know,” she said. “But I can’t.”
“I know,” he said sadly.
And then her husband drove up. She just kept washing the dishes. He took the kitchen steps two at a time and slammed into the room, eyes darting between them.
“South field needs plowing,” he said.
“Okay,” said the hired man. She heard the door open and close, heard his feet thud carefully down the stairs.
“I don’t like him in here,” said the man whose name she wore.
“He needed something,” she said to the soapy plate in her hand.
“I bet. From now on he stays outside with the rest of the dogs.”
She finished the plates and moved on to the serving dishes.
“Come here.” His voice was loud in the heavy silence.
She finished washing a platter and started on the mashed potatoes bowl.
“I said come here,” he snarled, and suddenly she was flying around, iridescent soap bubbles drifting around her.
And then he took her, there on the kitchen floor, where anyone could see, and on him she smelled the shadow woman’s sweet perfume, and at last the shadow woman had a face.
When he finished she just lay there, huddled in the ruins of her dress. What if she just didn’t get up? But she had to. It was time to start supper.
She pulled herself up on the cupboard doors, stumbled to the refrigerator, peered blankly inside. Her brain was numb. Supper must be made, but of what? Food sat in the Frigidaire’s chilly depths, food she used to make meals every day. But this day the food had no meaning. It sat in the refrigerator. It was beyond her to imagine it might ever do anything else.
Potatoes, she thought wearily, seeing the broken shards of the mashed potatoes bowl on the floor. Boil potatoes. She peeled and quartered them by rote, dimly aware that she must be careful.
A shout from the barn startled her. She jumped and the knife sliced deep across the heel of her hand. Her head spun as the blood surged and flowed. She wrapped her hand in her apron and pressed on it, bent nearly double to ease the dizziness.
There were no more sounds from the barn. At last the bleeding stopped and she finished the potatoes. They boiled dry while she sat at the table, trying in vain to bludgeon her mind into some kind of plan. But plans were beyond her these days. What plan could a woman like her make?
Once, she had planned. Now she just put one foot in front of the other.
The smell of scorching potatoes at last penetrated her fog. She shuffled to the stove. The pan was black and smoking. She pulled it off the burner, set it in the sink, and ran water in it before she remembered that she should shake the top potatoes into another pan first. She watched the black water inch its way up the potatoes and thought of nothing at all.
She left the pan in the sink, went back to the Frigidaire, and took out some green beans. She set the bowl she had intended for the potatoes on the table, snapped a bean, stared at it, snapped another, and lost track of what she was doing. She just sat and listened to the great silence from the barn.
Her husband strode into the house at sunset. His hands were blistered. He took one look at the scorched potatoes, the two lonely beans lying snapped in the bowl, and her careful, blank face and said, “I’m going to town.”
She sat there until the kitchen grew dark and the owls began to call. And then she went away for a while. When she came back the hired man’s pickup sat in the driveway. The next morning her husband was home and the pickup was gone. When her husband next went to town she screwed up her courage and scurried out to the barn. The earthen floor was covered with fat, sluggish flies. In the tall grass behind the barn there was a bare patch of damp brown earth. Her heart thundered in her chest.
She stood beside the turned earth and thought, “I should call the police.” And then she burned with shame at the presumption of it. Her husband was a good man. Everybody said so. Of course he hadn’t killed the hired man and buried him out here!
But why had the battered old pickup spent the night in her driveway? And why had it been gone this morning? Surely the man who loved her wouldn’t come sneaking in like a thieving fox to take what was his, anyway!
She drifted back to the house, mystified and frightened. She stood in her kitchen and knew she should make lunch, but what would she make? Her appetite was gone. At last she did what she had done before—she fell back on habit, peeled a few potatoes and set them to boiling, then snapped beans and took a chicken breast out to thaw, ready to cook when her husband came home.
But he didn’t. The house slid into darkness while the chicken breast bled pink into a pan of water and the potatoes burned black again. When the pan caught fire she turned off the stove, but didn’t bother to dump the potatoes. What did they matter? What did any of it matter?
She spent the night sitting at the kitchen table, staring out at the starlit barn, and thinking about the patch of turned earth behind it. And then somehow, without quite knowing how, she found herself standing beside the ominous patch, a shovel in her hand.
Digging was harder than she had thought it would be. The shovel was almost too heavy to lift. It took her hours, but at last she felt the shovel touch something not-earth, soft and yielding. She dropped the shovel and fell gasping to her knees. With fearful, frantic hands she scraped the earth aside. And then she touched the not-earth, the merest touch, and her breath caught in her throat. Her hands slid out, down, forward, touched the not-earth thing again, scraped away the final veil of earth. She stared down not at dusty denim, as she had feared, but at tiny, cheerful daisies on crisp new cloth. She looked down at her knees covered in the same cloth, and then she knew the worst. She had lost her mind.
Maybe it’s just someone with the same dress, said the logical, rational woman who still, against all odds, lived deep within her. You haven’t seen her face. There was a lot of fabric on that bolt. Maybe it’s the other woman. She could have bought the same fabric. She could have made a dress.
She sat beside the grave, panting and shaking, planted squarely on her knees. She knew she should. She had to. She reached out, set a tentative hand on the earth below her. She would. Her fingers curled, felt the earth damp and crumbling. She would. Her fingers curled, grasped, scraped the heavy soil back away from where she thought the face might be.
She leaned farther forward, scraped with both hands, and then she felt it, cool, flaccid, and somehow heavy and resisting against her fingertips. She recoiled, gasped, swallowed, and started scooping again, lifting careful handsful of earth away, away, trying not to know when her fingers touched the not-dirt, no-longer-a-person thing.
The last earth crumbled away. She had miscalculated. She had not found the face after all. But she didn’t need to. The neck lay thin, white and slack in its earthen nest. It was bent at an odd angle. Livid bruises and scrapes marred its surface, but her eyes were locked on something else, something that at first mystified her, then came crashing down in a rubble of knowledge. She stared not at bruises, but at the one thing unmarked by death, a cheap, pretty necklace—her cheap, pretty necklace—that lay sparkling against inert, shrinking flesh.
Her hand flew to her own throat. The necklace’s twin slid between her earth-stained fingers. “No!” she whispered. And everything went dark.
Light. Lord, what a dream, she though blearily, lifting her head from the kitchen table. The scorched potatoes still sat on the stove in their blackened pan. Outside, car doors slammed, then laughter. The man whose name and children she had borne shouted something. A woman’s laughing voice answered.
A fugitive flicker inside her found life and energy to whisper, “How dare he?” She watched them through the open door. Her husband slid his arm around a woman in a red dress and spike heels. The woman stumbled against him and he caught her, then held her, his hands sliding over, under, the slippery red fabric here, there, everywhere.
The flicker spread as the woman watched. The woman in the red dress wasn’t young, or even particularly pretty. The woman in the kitchen realized she had been right; she knew her. Red dress and faded jeans reeled up the steps in a miasma of guilt, sex, glee, and shame. The screen door squeaked open.
The woman at the table stood. “How dare you?” she gritted. “In my house!”
They stumbled past her, laughing, panting, groping, open mouth on open mouth.
“How dare you?” the woman screamed at their backs. “Get out!”
They disappeared up the stairs. She heard their feet and voices fade, heard zippers slide, heard clothing hit the floor, heard the moans start. The headboard slammed against the wall, over, over, over in a maddening rhythm.
“They’ll ruin the paint,” the housewife in her worried, even as the wife in her raged at the contempt they had shown her. They had walked right by her as if they hadn’t even seen her!
That stopped her cold. The afternoon behind the barn came flooding back, the heat, the feel of the slack skin against hers, the necklace. And they hadn’t even looked at her, hadn’t jumped when she shouted at them. Surely her husband would have done something at such defiance. They hadn’t seen her.
“But he never really has,” she comforted herself. Only the hired man had seen her. A wave of grief swept her. She had thought he was dead, had feared it, had searched for him to the limits of her own courage. But he was alive. Just gone. He had abandoned her.
But no sooner had she thought it than his truck rattled into the driveway. The moans and cries from upstairs continued unabated. The pickup door slammed. He started toward the barn. A wave of horror swept her. He must not see that thing! Faster than thought she was there on the path beside him.
“Stop,” she said breathlessly. “Don’t go there.”
He jerked, and his eyes flew to her, through her, past her.
“Stop!” she cried again. And then, brave as she had never been in her life, she seized his arm. His shirt was rough and sunhot under her hands, his arms hard, the hair wiry and springing against her fingers. She wished she had time to relish it, but he was gone, slipping away from her like a trout in a stream, disappearing into the morning shadows beside the barn.
“No,” she panted. He must not see! And she was there, beside the shrinking, stinking thing, now only half covered. She dropped to her knees and scraped desperately at the earth, seeking to hide the thing, to hide herself. But the earth flowed through her fingers as the man she had loved had done. How had she unearthed that terrible thing? Why could she not undo that act? Why could he not hear her?
And here he came, standing in the barn doorway, hands shaded over his eyes. He started down the path, eyes drawn to the freshly churned earth, just as hers had been. Weeping she tore at the earth. A few grains rolled under her bleeding fingers. No more.
And he was there, staring down at the not-earth, no-longer-human, no-longer-her thing. He squatted on his haunches, drew a cigarette out of his breast pocket, lit it, and puffed, staring not at the shriveled skin or the cheap necklace, but at a dusty fold of lavender fabric covered with a crop of white daisies.
He finished his cigarette, stubbed it out, tucked the butt into his breast pocket, and only then did he reach out a battered careful hand to the daisies. He stroked the fabric once, twice. A shining droplet fell on the back of his hand and traced a dark, shining path to fall on the daisies.
A damp spot bloomed by her knee.
“I would have helped,” he whispered. And then he did the thing he must do. He knelt by the thing—by the body, she at last let herself know—and brushed the dirt gently back from her face. He cupped her cheek. And then he stood.
“I’ll be back,” he said, but she didn’t know if he was speaking to her, or to the thing in the ground. She refused to know that it didn’t matter. He brushed off his knees and started back up the path.
That broke her. All the love and pain in her heart, all the touches untouched, the kisses unkissed, the laughter unlaughed, the children unborn, crashed against the wall that had always restrained her, that she had thought was virtue and only now realized was cowardice. It smashed the wall and she stood bare and trembling, open at last to life even as she realized it was forever beyond her reach. And then she knew that regret, not love, and not hate, is the strongest of all.
And he saw her. She saw his eyes find her, settle, and light. And then darken. His jaw tensed and he swallowed.
“I love you,” she shouted.
“I know,” he said.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I have to. I have to take care of this.”
“I know,” she said sadly as he began to fade.
“Wait for me,” he said. “I’ll be back. Don’t go without me.”
And then she smiled at him with her whole heart, as she never had had the courage to do before. “I’ll be here.”
And then she went away for a while, to some dim, misty place. Vague shadows of familiar things faded, returned, faded again. Time wasn’t. Sometimes rage surged and flickered like heat lightning, or sorrow swelled thick and pregnant, like storm clouds. She didn’t understand. She just waited. She forgot why.
Light. She sat at the table. The house stood around her, layer upon layer, the house she remembered, and behind it the shadowy, dusty shell that served as its placeholder in the land of the living.
Movement flickered in the layers. Occasionally the flickers touched her and she touched them, but mostly not. She waited. And now she remembered why. He was still there, in the land of the living, in the shadows, the man she had been too cowardly to love.
She stood in the doorway each afternoon and struggled to make out the bright shadows, and she waited. And all the while, weeds split the faded asphalt strip that had been the old road until the freeway went in, until her life had shrunk from quiet backwater to stagnant puddle.
Big-fendered black cars and red, rattling pickups roared past in her memory; in the bright shadows where he lived the road hardly existed anymore. The man whose name she had borne lived in the house again, though you could hardly call it that.
In the beginning there had been denim and red dress, then shouting, then red dress weeping at the table, then silence.
Long silence. When she next saw him flickering in the shadows he moved slowly, heavily. He looked wasted, prison pale. A few times their eyes caught and he started and blanched, and once he said, “What the fuck do you want from me?” And his voice trembled.
She didn’t bother answering. His fists slid right through her. He was irrelevant now. She was waiting for someone else.
Only once did she intervene. It was the night she saw him lying on the bed, a cigarette smoldering in his fingers, an empty whiskey bottle on the bed beside him. The cigarette fell to the mattress. A black circle grew. She summoned all her strength and brought water in a glass, dropping it on the bed, drenching the blackening circle. He startled awake, saw the circle, the glass, felt the mattress clammy under his hand. His eyes searched for her, but she was already slipping away, deep within the brightness of the house she knew best.
“Thank, hon,” he said, and afterward he told his parole officer that it proved he was innocent after all. Wasn’t she looking out for him?
His parole officer just nodded and kept on filling in forms, wondering if maybe it meant she couldn’t stand the thought of being forced to share the house with him in death, as she had in life.
And so she was, touching the world in flickers, drawn like a moth to the thing she could only approach, see in glances, and never touch. The man whose name she had borne disappeared one day. She didn’t notice.
And always she waited, while the grass in the road grew tall, turned brittle and dry, and grew yet again. In the end, waiting consumed her. She didn’t roam the house. She didn’t seek the shadows. She didn’t remember, or note the passage of days. She just waited, standing by the door, staring out into the blazing, sunlit summer day that held the road as she had last seen it.
A then, into the sameness, something flickered. She shaded her eyes, more from dead habit than necessity. The road shimmered, and vivid shadows bled through the mirage, then burst, and there was a truck, dusty, rattling, and though she didn’t remember why, she knew the waiting was over.
The truck rattled to a stop. The door creaked open. A shrunken, wizened man eased out in the bright shadows, but in her world she saw him truly—tall and strong, weathered and creased. His eyes were still brown and warm.
Impatience drove her into the bright shadows as it hadn’t for a very long time, and she went to stand tall beside the shrunken, aged shell of the man who had loved her, who would have helped her if she had just had the courage to ask. Just in time she remembered to walk, not flicker. And he saw her. The brown eyes, nearly hidden in creases and runaway silvery eyebrows, lit.
“Well, look at you,” he said, and reached for her. His hand slid through her arm like a warm draft. She tingled.
“You came back,” she said, and her voice caught as if she had a lump in her throat.
“I said I would.”
They climbed the steps together, and she carefully matched his painful gait. He sank panting into a cracked kitchen chair and braced his arms on his knees, head between his shoulders, gasping. She hovered, only half visible in her worry. Her hands twitched with the need to help, but the day was gone when they might help each other. His breathing eased at last. He straightened and looked around.
“I’ll get some sleep and start cleaning in the morning. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
She nodded. The house she saw best never changed, never got dirtier or cleaner. Now, though, in the bright shadows, she was ashamed. What must he think of her, letting things fall apart like this?
He climbed the steps one at a time, found the sturdiest bed, beat it a few times to knock the dust free, spread a bedroll over the rotted sheets, and lay back with a sigh, arms crossed on his chest.
Greatly daring, she drifted nearer. His eyes followed her. And then she did the unthinkable. She lay down beside him, careful to rest on the bed rather than hover above it or sink through. She thought she had judged it perfectly. He turned his head and smiled at her. His hand and hers lay on the same piece of quilt, occupying the same place, she in her world, he in his.
His eyes drifted closed, and he slept. All through the night she lay carefully beside him, watching him breathe. It seemed so little, after all this time. She waited. Was this the thing she had been waiting for? She didn’t think so. She had had this before, looking, loving, never touching separated by a slip of reality.
The night deepened. His breath rose white above his mouth. She watched him puff little clouds, such small things, and so telling. No clouds puffed from her mouth. He shivered in his sleep. She struggled with his bedroll, trying to tuck it around him. His eyes opened, warm, loving, and so very, very tired.
“Leave it,” he whispered. She saw his meaning in his eyes.
“But you’ll die,” she said.
“I know.” He patted the place where their hands rested together.
“It’s all right. You waited for me.”
And then she knew. She lay beside him on the bed, watching, waiting, wishing she could weep. She thought of her life before as she hadn’t for a very long time—sunny days, warm brown eyes, red-headed children on swing sets. She looked at the man who had bidden her wait, who had come to her to die, whose promise had kept her in the land of the living, linked with the unfinished promise of what might have been—had been—and was no more.
He came to her, could be with her forever, here in the shadows. She thought again of her children, grown, gone, only present in her memory. She thought of the man whose name she had borne, and of all the blazing, healing summers she had wasted.
The tiny puffs of air rising above her lover’s mouth stopped. Started. Stopped.
Suddenly she felt the weight of his hand on hers, and she knew the waiting was over. She had only to lie here, quiet, as he sipped from the bright shadows of his world into the world her memory had built. They lay in a place between, neither one thing nor another. She could let him be, hold out her arms, and welcome him into the quiet shadows, watch him shed the years like a snake sheds its skin. They would be young together, as they never had been. She thought of that, watched his face smooth and tighten, watched the age spots fade from his hands.
And then she felt it, felt herself slipping away even as the thing that had bound her to life—waiting—ended.
Suddenly she saw the lie of it. They would not be together. They would both be lost. She realized the truth: she had waited because she loved him, had loved him always, because she had promised, and when you loved, you kept your promises. But in the end, everything dies. Even Love. In the end, she had forgotten how to love; only her promise had bound her.
She thought again of hot summer days, of warm brown eyes, of muddy children, and suddenly she remembered what she had forgotten, the flood of love, the joy of shared laughter, the pounding blood in her veins.
And in that moment, as he lay beside her, close enough to touch, his body firm and solid under her hand, she did the only thing love could do. She seized his hand, squeezed as hard as she could, and thrust him back, back, toward the bright August days, the red-headed children, the ripening wheat, the fertile earth.
His eyes flipped open as he felt her thrust him back into life, as he felt the newly remembered love that threatened to split her soul. And then he did the only thing that love could do.
He seized her hand as hard as he could and yanked her back with him.
She lay stunned on the bed. Rough. Dust. Mice. Her chest heaved. Her lungs jerked. Her heart leaped, leaped again, settled into a steady rhythm. She gasped. Air seared. She choked, coughed, gagged on the dust swirling around them. She rolled to her side, curled up, coughed as though her lungs would explode. At last she caught her breath—her breath! He sat beside her, a grimy glass in his brown, worn hand. She took it, lifted it easily, sipped. It tasted of iron and dirt sitting in pipes. It tasted wonderful.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. The bed gave under her. His arms, strong, heavy, muscular, came around her.
She leaned into him, clutched him, and suddenly she was weeping a storm of tears, a lifetime of them.
“How?” she asked. “How?”
“I don’t know,” he said., “and I don’t care.” And his arms tightened around her until she thought she might break.
“Neither do I,” she said, and touched his face with her new, radiant hand. Already the shadows were receding. In the morning they would seem like a dream. In a week she would forget they had ever existed.
“Let’s get some sleep,” he said. “Lots to do tomorrow.”
“Not quite yet.” And she leaned forward and kissed his lips, making love to him with her mouth, doing the thing she had waited a lifetime to do.
In the morning she woke to see the sun high and hot in the sky. Footsteps tiptoed past her door. A giggle drifted on the morning breeze.
Fear slammed into her. What had she done? But then she remembered, just in time, just long enough. She had done what love must, and somehow, against all odds, it had come out right.
She slipped out of bed, bent and kissed the tall, strong worn man who slept in her bed, and went to fix breakfast for her children.