Chapter One Hundred One: Lying In It

7-29-2006-01 I awoke to cold and darkness.

How long had I slept?

I shivered.

Unable to sleep the night before due to nerves, worrying over how the events at the cemetary would unfold, exhaustion had carried me away on sleep here. I had let down my guard.

I was hungry.

Placing a hand on his warm chest, I felt the rhythmic rise and fall. His breathing was regular, even though I could feel the deep rattle of wet lungs.

As I sat up, my hand landed in a puddle of wet soaked up by the bed sheets. A frantic search by my fingers found that he had urinated on himself and on me. 

Damn it!

Leaping up, cursing under my breath, I felt my skirt to discern the extent of it, then felt the bed and his pants. It was cold now and had soaked through the layers of skirt to my stockinged leg. 

I started to undress.

Tears stung my eyes again. Urine? On me? It was fine from an infant but from a grown man? 

Should I wake him? 

No. Not yet.

I stepped out of the black crepe dress and the black petticoat, leaving them in a pile. The stockings came off next. That left me in a chemise and corset. 

Somehow, in the light of day, I would have to figure out how to launder everything. I detested laundry.

I knew, even in the dark, that there was no where else to sleep save this bed and the hard floor. It was too cold. I could lie down on the other side of him perhaps, but just in case of further leakage, I took off the corset. I debated about the chemise, too, to minimize the risk of extra laundry. After all, I had dreamed of lying naked in his bed just this morning, hadn’t I?

But no. Not like this.

What time was it?

I crawled into the bed, feeling the way with my hands to make sure the area was truly dry and slipped under the coverlet. I hugged the wall, unable to sleep. He moaned and shifted, turning over, placing his hand on my breast. 

His face was next to mine. I turned away to avoid his breath but his hand remained in place.

I attempted to move closer to the wall but the plaster would not take me in. Hard and cold and unforgiving as it was. I tried to move his hand away but he stirred so I gave up. I was not yet prepared to interact with him. Would he even sober enough? 

You made your bed…

I tried to remember what his touch had been like before, when I had craved it with such hunger, but that did not help. I was still there with his sleeping shadow, acutely aware of where his hand lay, unable to relax enough for sleep to reclaim me. Instead, I passed the night lying awake for the hours before dawn arrived again.

Chapter One Hundred: Fluids

IMG_2141And so I went back.

I climbed each of those steps again, more slowly this time, filled with dread of a much different sort.

He was still lying in the floor, and had urinated on himself, but was coherent enough that he could assist me in getting him to bed. I helped him stand, leaving the bottle of spilled liquor in the floor.

Halfway across the room he began vomiting. 

Oh, God.

I stopped and waited for it to pass, the vomit splattering to the floor. Bits of it splashed up onto my skirt. I fought back my own urge to retch.

When the contents of his stomach had been completely evacuated, we resumed our halting progress.

His eyes held no recognition. I did not know if that was because of the alcohol, the head trauma, or something else. He groped my breast as he stumbled with me into the bedroom. I brushed his hand firmly away. 

“Stop.”

He didn’t fight me.

His eyes closed as he fell onto the bed, dust rising up from the mattress. He appeared to be unconscious, though his brow remained furrowed. 

I undressed him anyway.

His abdomen was swollen, full of fluid that shifted with every breath, every touch. His legs were doughy, my fingers left a deep imprint that lingered wherever they touched up to his thighs. I could see that he had scratched his jaundiced skin bloody in several places with long fingernails, leaving deep excoriations. The dried blood was still visible under those nails. 

His personal hygiene had been neglected for some time.

It is difficult to watch someone you love, someone you have been so intimate with, so changed. I wrestled with revulsion as I bathed his body with the water I found in the pitcher on the worn dresser. How long had it been there? At least it was cleaner than him.

I realized, as I scooped the vomit into an old dirty towel, that I still cared for him, otherwise cleaning this vomit from the floor would not have been possible.

I walked back to the bedroom and lay down on the mattress next to him and wept. All of his secrets, his pain, his mortality were all on display here in this dimly lit room. We had both suffered. My heart ached.

Chapter Ninety-Five: Drawing Closer

Moon through a telescope

The whistle blew its loud, piercing warning. I ran back through the station and was helped up the steps by a conductor. Several heads looked up to stare as I rushed to settle myself in a vacant seat. One by one they returned to their own conversations.

Several moments of deep breaths and I regained my composure.

I clutched the overfilled valise to my chest as the train lurched forward.

A black crepe mourning dress was folded up within. It would end up terribly wrinkled by the time I was able to put it on but it would have to do. I would need a bonnet and long veil at the next stop in Leeds.

The brooch, my Recuerdo, would do nicely. I touched it absently, pinned to the bodice my traveling dress. I had carried it with me all these months. I wanted to open it again, to see his woven hair within but I resisted the urge.

Maybe some jet earrings to complete the ensemble?

Not that anyone would be able to tell beneath the veil…

The fatigue began creeping up on me again, but I was afraid to close my eyes, to let down my guard. The hard wooden bench would not offer a bit of comfort and so I willed myself to remain awake, staring at the passing scenery.

I leaned my cheek against the cool glass of the window.

Soon. 

Soon I would see his hand, his fingers. His face itself was dimmed in my mind but I could remember the feel of his hands in great detail. I had spent many hours in the dark of night tracing the nails and callouses and the feel of the knuckles over and over again in my memory, how my hand always seemed to fit perfectly within his as if they were meant for each other from the beginning.

His words whispered into my ear cloaked in blackness in Edinburgh so many years ago, the words that still sent shivers down my spine… Forgive me.

Love. 

What was love that it could drive a person so mad? Was this love? Or was it something else, something more sinister? How could I really know?

I had thought that Anne would be my consolation, better than a brooch, a living vessel to pour my love into. She was not enough, though. Not when I saw him in her eyes each day, looking back at me.

God forgive me, I had not known. 

If I had it to do over again, what would I choose?

This.

This was the only way to find peace.

What would tomorrow or the next day bring?

I shifted my cheek to a new spot on the cool window glass and closed my eyes for a moment. It was such a chore to focus on the fields of the passing farmland outside with such heavy eyelids.

The color of the red sun filtered through my closed eyelids. The light faded as the train turned, moving my side of the car into the shade, becoming gray and then finally black as we entered into a tunnel…

Chapter Seventy-Seven: Promises

045

“Where is he now?” I asked.

We eyed each other across the vast expanse of the worn wooden kitchen table, a chasm made wider by our mutual pain and mistrust. I had not bothered to cover it with a table cloth. Why worry with niceties when your rival is sitting across from you? The surface was crossed by knife gouges and my fingers traced the marks absently as I watched her face. Her eyes clouded with something… Anger? Pain? A secret perhaps? Then it disappeared, hidden.

Finally, she spoke. “He is in Edinburgh. Probably drunk.”

We sat in silence again.

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes.” She smiled slightly. She was beautiful. “But not as before, not in the same way. I want him to find the happiness he could not find with me.” She seemed earnest, though I wondered. Who could be human and yet so magnanimous? 

“And your daughters?”

She sighed. “With him.” She saw my concern and hurriedly added, “They have a governess. An old, ugly governess. No sense tempting fate.” A bitter laugh escaped from her red lips.

“What do you intend to do?” I watched her face again. There was resignation this time.

“I will go back. I have no choice. I have no money of my own and no means or skills by which to support two daughters.” She stared at me, pointedly. “What do you intend to do?”

What could I do?

“I will continue to go on as I have.” I shrugged. “No choice but to keep going forward.” I stopped as realized her intent. “If you are worried that I will attempt to take him from you, I can assure you that I will not.” She nodded solemnly. 

Shame and pity washed over me. 

I held out my hand to her. 

She hesitated but took it. I squeezed. We had made a pact, she and I, two women hurt beyond recognition by love. How happy would we be if he had never crossed into our lives? We would never know. There was nothing to be done about it now.

“I am sorry, you know.”

“I am, too,” she whispered softly.

She gripped my hand tighter.

“I know of another way.” She rushed through the whispered words.

My heart pounded. “What?” Did I hear her correctly? Surely not.

“I know of another way,” she said, this time louder. “We can both have what we want. You want him. I want freedom. I know of a way but I need your help.”

“You know of a way?” My voice sounded incredulous. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time without the edginess. “You know of a way?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I cannot tell you just yet.” She stood, still holding my hand. “Give me one year to make the preparations. I will send you a letter with instructions.” She was squeezing harder.

“One year?”

“One year.” She spoke with urgency and determination. “You promise to help me?” Her grip was beginning to hurt.

“Yes.” I stood up. “Yes, I will help you.” 

“You will raise my daughters as your own?” I nodded. “Say it! Say you will do it!” She grabbed my other hand and we stood facing each other, her eyes searching mine, looking for some clue. Could I be trusted?

“I will.”

She let go of my hands. She gave me a tight, quick hug and then held me out at arms length, joyful. 

A smile.

And then? Then she was gone. 

She walked out of my house. I watched her red dress fade into the distance from the parlor window as Anne began to fuss from the nursery, letting me know she was hungry.

One year.

Chapter Sixty-Five: All Through The Night

IMG_4283.JPG

Her screams were muffled by the bits of cotton jammed into my ear canals. She bellowed out her displeasure at everything I tried to do to sooth her. I felt guilty that I had to resort to this, but I had no choice. All of those elderly women who were deaf…they must have had a child like this…

Face red and scrunched up. The screams pierced like tiny knives and inflicted real pain, physical and emotional, that bored itself into my heart.

How to love you, my baby girl?

Every evening it was like this. Screaming, crying for hours. Food, clean diapers, cuddling…nothing calmed the raging beast.

It was not at all how I dreamed motherhood would be…

The midwife was called. She made an elixir of oil of dill and sugar. I rubbed her bowels with warm olive oil at the suggestion of the cook. Caraway tea. Even rhubarb and magnesia. Nothing helped. Between the hours of 8 and 11 at night, she kept us all awake.

“Give her time,” the old women said. “Eventually it will stop.”

She fed like a greedy monkey during those times. I began to think that I should have hired a wet nurse… but no. I wanted to do this myself. She was my only connection to him. It was my duty, my privilege, my penance.

So each evening I plugged my ears with the bits of cotton and paced the floor with her, whispering and singing.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er they spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.

Love, to thee my thoughts are turning
All through the night
All for thee my heart is yearning,
All through the night.
Though sad fate our lives may sever
Parting will not last forever,
There’s a hope that leaves me never,
All through the night.

Her creamy smooth complexion was now marred with tiny red pustules. The hair, that foreign brown hair, was falling out at the crown, leaving a ragged fringe about the periphery of her scalp that gave her an appearance more like a miniaturized wizened old man than the sweet, beautiful baby girl she had once been. I kept her head covered perpetually with a tiny white bonnet to avoid seeing the hair, or rather lack of it.

My heart ached with sadness for her secret and for myself that I could not take away her pain.

But sometimes, sometimes she looked at me with understanding eyes, piercing the depth of my soul. Then she would give a light, sweet laugh and drift off to sleep. Those moments kept me a slave to her.

Chapter Sixty-Two: Stealing Away

The train lurched to a stop at the Bristol station, the brakes giving their customary screech in protest. It woke me up from the semi-trancelike state that I had been in for the past half hour. I looked out the window at the pillars that held up the roof of the station overhead, my face close enough to the glass that it quickly fogged up, obscuring my view.

“…and so I told him to just leave it to me…” Her lips did not stop moving, even for a breath it seemed.

The middle aged woman sitting before me had not stopped talking since we had left Paddington station. Her hands had remained folded in the lap of deep burgundy traveling dress. This had been disconcerting. Someone who talked that much and with that degree of animation, typically used their hands. I had stared at her, trying not to seem rude, but I had been irritated that I could not think my own thoughts. Fortunately she had not required much beyond the occasional nod or gasp to feel I was engaged.

Excusing myself, I stood to stretch my legs, stepping onto the platform to walk a bit before continuing the journey to Cardiff, in Wales. I could still hear the woman talking to herself behind me on the train car.

I glanced around quickly, looking for recognition on any nearby faces. Fear gripped me, momentarily as I surveyed the crowd.

I was aware of the life growing inside of me, the fullness there. My precious gift. Only I knew the secret that I carried with me.

At any moment, it could be gone, this second chance. Miscarriage. Malformation. Still birth.

My sweet baby Levi.

This could be the same. Please do not let this one be the same. I remembered Levi’s cleft lips searching for something to eat, his intestines peristalsing in my hands outside of his little body. He had wanted to live but he had not been given a chance. All I could do was helplessly love him.

I wanted to pray, to beg, but I was not sure I had the right to make such requests of God at this point… even if I wanted to so desperately. Would God hear me? Would God care? Did he understand my loneliness and my sadness?

Only time would tell.

I wore the brooch with Nathaniel’s hair and words every day. It was almost a superstition now, a belief that this, and somehow he, would somehow protect me and protect the baby I carried. The piece had turned out beautifully. The jeweler had produced quality work, true to his word.

A stranger, a man, nodded at me as I passed. No one else minded me as I walked up and down the covered platform. I recognized no one and so relaxed somewhat, deliberately slowing my pace.

I had selected Cardiff due to its rapid growth. With so much flux in the population, there would be little attention paid to me, I hoped. I would tell everyone that my husband had died of typhus after returning from the war, thus explaining the pregnancy and my loneliness. Once I had delivered, I would move on elsewhere, and then move again, putting as much distance between me and any question of my character as I possibly could.

The enormity of everything was not lost upon me. On some level I was stealing this child. I struggled with the urge to let Nathaniel know, I did not want to do this alone, but in the end what would that accomplish? Only more heartache for everyone. How could he be expected to choose between two families? And what if he tried to take this child from me? I would be destroyed. No, this was a secret I must bear alone.

The train whistle blew, startling me… piercing my thoughts.

Sweeping the stray wisps of hair back under my bonnet, I carefully climbed back into the car and took my seat, steeling myself for the onslaught of words.

Chapter Sixty-One: Doubt

I waited anxiously for the days to tick by. Still I had no long term plan. I felt I could think better once I had the brooch and so I put off any serious consideration until I had my bit of Nathaniel back in my possession.

Time slowed, it seemed, almost to a standstill. My days were marked by words and meals, both of which were meager. The stories had stopped coming. There was more, much more, to say but it would not flow out of me onto the paper in any coherent fashion. As for the food, I had no appetite. Why pay for something I could not eat? And so I did not.

Sunday I decided to venture out to church, more out of boredom than piety. The streets were thick with those hurrying to seek their weekly absolution. Children, scrubbed clean, were dragged behind their mothers and fathers dressed in Sunday best. Old women walked more deliberately, likely held back by their rheumatism. Everyone was on their way to pay their respects to the almighty. Or at least they were making sure everyone else saw them doing it.

As I took the great stone steps myself, I realized that my heart felt bruised and tattered and that the holes had been filled by resentment. I was not ready to let go of all of the anger that was holding me together. Somehow, I knew that stepping across the threshold would start to chisel away at it. Once that was gone, what would I have left but grief and despair? Resentment and anger might not be the most pleasant of emotions but it was better than the alternative at this moment.

And what of remorse? I felt none for my love of Nathaniel, for my time with him, naked. Wasn’t remorse required of me prior to crossing this threshold? I searched my soul. No. No regret. I would live those moments over and over a thousand times a day if I could.

I hesitated at the heavy, ornate door, not entering. It must have been a lengthy pause. Someone behind me shifted and then coughed impatiently.

Turning, I found a young married couple waiting expectantly. The woman stared at me, clearly irritated that I was blocking their path. She did not know that I could not be hurt by her. She was too young to have been affected much by life. Soon, that would change, I felt certain. Instead, I pitied her.

“I beg your pardon,” I whispered to them as I passed. The gentleman touched his hat to me, nodding slightly. The woman glared from beneath her green velvet bonnet, her matching green eyes flashing.

Walking back down the steps, I pulled the black cloak tighter around me. Inquisitive looks from other parishioners followed as I retreated. What were they thinking about me, I wondered.

Coward. Sinner. Heathen. Damned.

It was only a few blocks to the hotel and I hurried as quickly as I could, not wanting to be out here in the open where I suddenly felt so vulnerable. Why was everyone looking at me? I touched my veil, the bonnet, smoothed my skirt…making sure nothing was out of place. It must be my imagination. I looked over my shoulder. There! A man in a black frock coat was looking back at me over their shoulder. It was real. But why? I am supposed to be an apparition, dressed in mourning. Does the magic not work on holy days, then?

Back in my rooms I sat holding the Bible I had purchased a few days previously. I did not open it.

All of my life there had been a nagging undercurrent of disbelief, that feeling that what I had been taught about God was not quite real because it did not make sense. Yes, I had read the verses. I had heard the sermons. But there was something missing. They were all leaving out the most important part but I did not know what that part was specifically. All I had was that suspicion, the doubt. It was this doubt that I now grabbed hold of with both hands.

Chapter Sixty: The Color of Blackness

I resolved to stay in London for a few weeks. I took up residence in a modest but respectable hotel as I gathered my wits and continued to write the stories of the people I had met in Scutari and Balaklava.

The first real order of business was pressing.  I had to purchase new clothing as what I had brought with me from the Crimea was very worn and several seasons out of fashion. I spent money on three lovely new dresses, undergarments, and shoes only to find that as a single woman there was much curiosity. Everyone from hotel staff and shopkeepers wanted to ask me personal questions and I had much difficulty explaining my situation.

In order to make life easier, I decided to enter full mourning again. No one would hassle the grieving widow. I moved about the crowded streets unhindered, an anonymous figure cloaked and veiled in black. When William had died the clothing had seemed a prison. Hot, stifling, uncomfortable. Now, as a shadow, I was unrecognized, untouched. Eyes were averted. No one spoke to me except to quickly give me what I wanted or needed, hoping I would move one quickly before I brought bad luck or my tears or worse. It was freedom itself. The color suited my grieving, stained heart and the veil hid my deep sadness.

Nathaniel’s gift I kept with me at all times but as the paper began to show wear quickly, I realized that it needed to be better preserved. Still, to do so meant giving up my one relic, if only for a time, an act that was painful to consider even if it were temporary.

Eventually I enquired after reputable jewelers from the desk clerk at the hotel and had been directed to an establishment several blocks away that specialized in memorial pieces. I had a very specific item in mind. A gold brooch enameled in black with the word Recuerdo engraved upon the face. A reproduction of the one worn by the young lady in the painting in my rood in Edinburgh oh so long ago. Inside, behind a thick crystal, would lie the bit of his hair and the message…Victo Dolore. Thusly, he would be locked away, my secret, but I could still have him close to my heart.

“Good day, Madame,” the jeweler croaked as I entered the shop. He was a tiny, wizened old gentleman with a loupe stuck into one squinting eye. Much of his posture and appearance reminded me of a troll, but he did not seem unpleasant. He had looked up from his current project when he heard me enter.

“Good day, sir.”

“I will be with you in a moment.”

He continued tinkering away on an exquisite garnet encrusted bauble as I wandered past the display cases with their jewels reclining luxuriously on the folds of red velvet. Pearl necklaces, onyx crosses, emerald earrings, diamonds watch fobs all twinkled and shone in the late afternoon light. Each was constructed with a place to stash some memento of a departed loved one, tucked away behind glads. As I examined the pieces I began to doubt that my design was elaborate enough to serve as a fitting memorial. I began to panic a bit.

At last the jeweler cleared his throat and stood, putting down his tools. His fingers were gnarled and misshapen. How could he do such fine work with hand like this?

“How can I help you?” he asked after what seemed a lengthy period. The loupe was gone, replaced by a pair of wire rimmed spectacles.

Wordlessly, I showed him my crude sketch, smoothing out the folded paper on the countertop. He nodded, peering over the wire frames. A “Hmmmmmmm…,” escaped his lips.

He looked up at me. “I can have it ready in about two weeks time, I believe.” Glancing down at the drawing again, he was apparently lost in thought, tabulating some important variable. “Yes. That should be sufficient time. Is that acceptable?” He again looked up at me, this time quizzically. A wiry gray eyebrow was raised as a question mark.

“That soon?” I was taken aback by the speed of his answer and the promised time to have the order completed.

“Certainly.” He shrugged. “It is a simple yet elegant piece.” My heart lifted a bit at his praise. He would know beauty when he saw it, wouldn’t he?

We discussed price with some good natured haggling. Eventually we agreed on an amount. Truthfully I would have paid any price.

“Well then, that is most agreeable.” I handed over my precious bit of hair and the scrap of paper, aching as I did so, then paid him half of the agreed upon sum. “I will return in two weeks.”

He nodded acceptance of the arrangement, then returned slowly to his workbench, easing along with an arthritic shuffle. I turned to leave.

“This will not make it better, you know.”

“Pardon me?” I paused with my hand on the door handle and turned back, not sure I had heard him correctly. He was staring hard at me.

“This will not make it better,” he repeated.

“I understand,” I said, bowing my head. But I did not. And he did not. No one could understand because I could not tell them this dark black secret of mine.

He settled back to setting the showy garnets in their new golden home.

The door jingled as I closed it tight behind me, taking a deep breath.  The air inside was less polluted but had been stifling nonetheless.

I walked slowly back to the hotel. His words bothered me. I was not sure that I wanted to feel better. Somehow the pain made it feel more real and suffering seemed necessary to atone for my sin. I had enjoyed my sin, making it all the more sinful. Certainly this fellow was attempting to assuage his own guilt for capitalizing on the grief of others by offering bits of pseudo-sage advice. I would never see him again after I paid for my brooch and I was glad.

I felt lost without my treasure, ungrounded. This was silly I recognized but I was unsure how to change the fact.

I found myself wandering the streets wondering how would I fill up my days and my nights. I played through the moments with Nathaniel again, hidden behind the black veil. I hoped that the more I relived those feelings, the deeper they would be etched into my memory. I did not want to lose even a second of that precious time. The sea of people parted easily for me as I passed, no one wanting the bad luck of touching me, the widow twice over.

Chapter Fifty-Eight: Dinner

There was another knock. Dinner? This must be food at last!

I hurried to the door, opening it eagerly. There, on a cart, were many covered dishes, domed in silver. I could not see anything aside from my distorted reflections, but the smell made my stomach begin to gnaw on itself. Divine.

A dark bearded steward nodded silently rolling in the wooden cart. He began laying it out on the heavily carved, if not somewhat worn, table in the corner of the sitting room. He shook out a table cloth, covering the surface in white linen, then began laying out and uncovering the dishes. I could see it was too much food. I could never eat all of this. Roasted chicken with rosemary. Potatoes. Creamed spinach. A lovely cake.

Candles? He lit them.

Two plates?

“Sir, excuse me.” I put my hand on the steward’s arm to make him stop. He paused, confused. “There is only me tonight. Only me eating this. Not two.” A stab of guilt hit me, remembering what the hospital staff and patients were subsisting on. “I am sorry if I was not clear. Please take most of this away. Don’t waste it.”

He shook his head and went back to hurriedly laying out the dinner service for two. Silverware. Napkins. Crystal. Wine, poured from a sparkling decanter.

Another knock at the door.

Then I realized what was happening.

The steward was looking at me, expectantly but I was rooted to the spot. I could not open the door. I put a hand up to my hair. I must look dreadful. I smoothed my skirt down unconsciously, grateful that I had taught myself how to wriggle into a corset despite my crippled hand.  Damn it!

“May I?” the steward asked. I glared at him, unmoving and silent. He shrugged and moved to the door, taking his cart with him. His work here was done.

And then there was Nathaniel, handing a wad of bills to the steward who bowed slightly and murmured his thanks as he closed the door behind him.

Silence as we stared at each other from across the room, taking measure. He leaning on his cane, me holding a chair with my good hand for support.

I spoke first. “I told you no,” my voice was shaking.

“I understand if you do not want to be seen publicly with me. I thought this might be an acceptable alternative. You must allow me to show my gratitude, to say thanks in some small way for saving my life.” His eyes pleaded with me.

“A note would have sufficed,” I said stiffly.

“Evelyn.” He sighed. “I do not wish to cause you pain. I will leave if you wish.”

I considered this for a moment.

No. The food must be eaten. Dinner does not constitute a betrayal. I did not speak or give him permission. I merely sat myself down in a chair, placing my napkin into my lap. He followed suit.

I served myself from the food and ate in silence that was punctuated only by the sound of silverware on the china and the ringing of crystal when it hit something else on the table. Sadness wrapped itself around my tongue, deadening the flavors. The only thing that tasted good was the wine. Eventually I gave up on the food, pouring myself a second glass.

He avoided my gaze, examining the room. I stared at my wine, the deep red seemed to glow from within. I could feel the alcohol recreating that tremulous feeling in my arms and legs…not the rubbery, off balanced kind of feeling one gets when seriously inebriated. It was the delicious alive feeling, almost bordering on joy, that comes more early on.

I searched my brain for something clever and biting to say, but there was nothing that came to me now. There would be later, surely. There were always plenty of words when there was no longer any opportunity to use them.

Instead, I settled on staring at him, looking him in the face. It gave me courage.

He was still so handsome. Was it the wine? The candlelight?

He looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back, wistfully.

“Would you care for some cake, Evelyn?”

“No. No, thank you.” We regarded each other for several minutes. A battle of wills to see who would blink first. Finally, he decided to allow me this one victory. He cleared his throat, dabbing at his whiskers with the linen napkin, placing it neatly beside his plate as a gentleman should. The war had not changed him in that way.

He stood, grabbing his cane. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then closed it. I stood, taking his cue. He wanted to say goodbye, surely.

I crossed to the door, thinking that I would have a third glass of wine once he had gone. There would be no sleep without it.

He followed me across the small room, over the worn carpets. Those carpets had been something in their day, majestic even.  One could tell in spite the shadows they had become.

At the door, he took my damaged hand, bringing it to his lips. My fingers were tickled by his facial hair, the parts that still had feeling. The old me would have giggled. Instead, I frowned, sadness welling up from within. No matter what happened from now on there would be pain, always pain.

How it happened next, I could never be sure no matter how many times I reviewed it in my head. In the end I knew Nathaniel was mine and mine alone, if only for this brief moment.