Except When it Rains – Part VII

PART VII: When It Rains, It Pours

The next morning broke dark and mysterious.

Bea sat in the candlelight, watching Martha sleep. The cascade of emotions swirling round and round her mind had awoken her over an hour ago, and now she began to think clearly. In thoughts, rather than tugs – tugs had been all she’d managed thus far. Her thoughts were of Prince and of Martha. Two people she dearly loved, and who would lead her in different directions. Toward Prince, away from Martha. Toward Martha, away from Prince – perhaps forever. 

These were wearying thoughts and they put Bea nearly to sleep.

Then there was a song out in the wood. Bea smiled, for she believed she was dreaming. A lovely, deep down dream that danced about her weary mind like fuzzy-headed dandelions. She was dreaming of that beautiful day when she had met Prince. When she had heard his laugh. When she had sung his song. And danced in the rain.

As the song drew nearer, it occurred to Bea that she was not yet asleep. And without a thought she stood, left the room, left the cottage, and went to the wood. And as the sky broke into a chorus of rumbling thunders and the rain dropped heavy morsels of wet on her shoulders, Bea stood. Listening. Waiting. Watching.

He did appear, of course. Just as he had that day. And they danced. They sang a little. When Prince took her hand and sank to his knee, they cried. And without a thought, Bea gave him the first answer that sprang out of her heart.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course I’ll marry you. Only I hope we needn’t move very far away.”

Because Bea hadn’t heard the news yet that Prince had been released from his post since his term of service had only just been finished. She didn’t know these things because Prince had never been able to tell her what he was doing out there in the wood all this time. It was a secret. Bea knew only that Prince’s work compelled him to travel quite often to sometimes remote locations.

But the truth came out now, and Bea cried a little more, as she fully realized that she wouldn’t have to choose between her husband and her sister after all. And it was very exciting. As they went to check on Martha, they talked in smiles and laughter, as young lovers often do. And Bea had her hand in Prince’s pocket. And as she drew it out, she discovered there a brief note that had been intended for her.

“Oh, blast, I knew I had forgotten something!” Prince took the note with the sudden realization that he’d meant to leave it on the door yesterday so Bea would know he’d gone. And he’d forgotten it.

“Sorry,” he grinned ruefully. “If not for my stupidity, you might’ve avoided all this.” But something else had got Bea’s attention. “That’s my grandfather’s handwriting.” For you’ll remember the complete lack of writing implements at his post, and so Prince had been forced to jot the note on back of an old recipe card he’d found in the kitchen. As Bea analyzed the card, it became apparent that in the well-known though faded hand was written a very old, very popular, very original recipe. For cherry currant wine.

So the story ends. Martha made a full and speedy recovery and cheerfully applied herself to the task of getting to know her new brother. Walter and his brother James eventually returned to Town where they established a new kind of dancing school, which takes place out of doors either rain or shine. Bea and Prince married and built another cottage on the edge of Wylles Wood. And the two sisters, having been left destitute by the loss of one famous recipe, quickly found themselves the sole beneficiaries in the sale of another.

And how came the recipe for grandfather’s famous cherry currant wine to reside in the kitchen at Prince’s outpost? Well perhaps that will be another story.

As for myself, you may have guessed by now that I had my own wee part to play in this story. It’s no secret that I watched Bea and Martha grow up; aye and saw their children and grandchildren grown too. And if you happen to spot a couple of twins in their nineties running around these woods, I beg you remember the difficulty they caused me one weary night in 1915.

Or 1914. The mind grows a bit dim in my latter years.

© Cortney Matz, 2009

Except When It Rains – Part VI

And now, a very long-overdue installment. We’re nearly home!  
-Cortney

PART VI: What Happened Next

Bea sprang to her feet. The weary doctor merely lifted his hand in protest.

“Now, now, she’ll be all right. Just a concussion, and a mild one at that. You’ll want to keep her quiet and comfortable for the next few days.”

Bea was visibly relieved, but good doctor Dunkirk seemed even more tense. “Now, er, Miss Bea,” and he turned a little aside, speaking in a low voice. Wyllesdale is a small town you see, and they look after their own. And here is Bea, with two strange men in her sitting room and an ailing sister next door. He was understandably concerned.

“I don’t want to seem untoward…” the rest he merely indicated with a few well-placed eye movements. And of course Bea understood, responding with equal gravity and care. “Don’t you worry, doctor. I’m in no better hands than with him.” She turned to look at Prince and caught a glimpse of Walter too. “I mean them.”

The doctor’s suspicion wasn’t thrown off so casually, so he elected to sit awhile as Bea left to see about Martha. And the depth and weight of the uncomfortable silence in that room was, I assure you, profound.

Martha was awake when Bea came in, and even though it had been only ninety-four minutes since they last spoke, they now had ever so many things to say to each other. They went on at a breakneck pace (it’s just as well there were no gentlemen present – they would’ve been run clean over) until at last Martha took thought of how she happened to be home when her last memory of conscious thought was in the wood.

“Why it’s too romantic to be believed!” Bea responded, beginning now to think of how perfect an end to the story it was. “I was besotted with fear and completely useless, and who would at that precise moment arrive…”

So Bea told Martha the whole story of her rescue, which I won’t bother repeating since you will have just read it (and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s the bit just before this entitled ‘Walter Comes Through’). She had her intended effect, taking Martha through all shades of emotion from disbelief to incredulity to surprise to admiration. Bea was and is a gripping raconteur.

Meanwhile, Walter had got over his self-inflicted social faux pas and was just working up the courage to try again. He didn’t understand how anyone could sit here in such languid silence, when there was so much excitement going on. Prince was cool as ice, draped across the sofa with only a furrowed brow to show any hint of anxiety. Dr. Dunkirk on the other hand, sat in an attitude of high alert, his fingers making a tent of observation, his eyes purposefully positioned on either Prince or Walter at any given moment.

“What do you do in fair weather?”

Almost before he knew it, the words were out of Walter’s mouth. He remained by the fire, poking it again when it needn’t be poked, and staring at Prince with a look of poorly feigned indifference that came off as wildly interested sleepyness. It was a mercy that no one had thought to light any candles.

But Walter’s words did have their intended effect, and Prince stirred a bit in his place. “Fair weather?” he repeated. And Walter explained that he’d been given to understand that Bea and Prince’s arrangement was kept on rainy days only. Naturally, one is curious what Prince would do with the fine ones.

He seemed reluctant to answer immediately, so Walter continued, intending to chat him up a bit and make things more comfortable. “I have a few theories, you know,” he said, going back to the fire which was becoming in real need of more wood. “A fisherman perhaps, or a- a gardener. Of course when you work outdoors there are all sorts of jobs that could be spoiled by rain.”

Prince surprised him with a smile. A smile that grew to a low kind of gurgling laugh. It was a beautiful laugh. “It’s too bad, you know,” said Prince. “I had good news for Bea, and was just on my way to share it when all this…” he gestured toward the adjoining room, but the other men knew what he meant. Prince looked at Walter. “I suppose I can talk about it now with no danger, as my post is being shut down. I’m a lookout for His Majesty’s Navy. I’ve been stationed about three miles from here, out in the middle of the wood in a hermit’s cabin for over a year. I stumbled on this cottage my second day out – well, that’s how I met Bea.”

“Let me guess, it was raining,” this was the first thing the doctor had said since his wee conference with Bea, and the others jumped a little. Out came Prince’s low gurgling laugh. “I was bored. Contrary to what you may think, there’s an alarmingly tiny amount of enemy vessels that make their way to this side of the continent. The Navy figured that out and shut down the post. Suits me just fine, my time is up anyway.”

Walter had ever so many other questions for Prince, but just then Bea came out and wearily thanked them all for their help. Taking their cue from her sagging eyelids, the men rose and excused themselves for the night – the doctor to home and hearth after many an hour of doctoring, the lads Prince and Walter back to the Morrisons’, the hospitality of which Walter had extended to Prince considering he was so far from home. Prince may well have later wished he’d made the long walk home rather than suffer Walter’s catalog of questions and surmises for what remained of the long night up until the candle went out and Walter had talked himself to sleep.

© Cortney Matz, 2009

Continue to Part VII

Interview with a Leper — Part 2 of 2

And now… the rest of the story.

Wow, the sun is barely up and already it’s in my eyes. My walk to the city is due east, and the glare is impossible to avoid. I look away periodically to recover, but the light plays tricks with my vision. See, there’s a blur of movement over there. Is anything there, or am I seeing spots?

No, somebody’s coming. Who would be out here at this hour? It’s uncommon for travelers to be leaving the city in the middle of the week. I wonder who it could be.

Yes, that’s definitely a man. No, a group of men. What could they be up to? Strange.

“Unclean!” My voice is rusty and thin from disuse. When was the last time I actually said something? I’ll have to add ‘speaking practice’ to my daily regimen. “Unclean!”

I’m lawfully required to warn them, even though it’s pretty obvious what I am. Soon they should switch tracks to avoid me. How interesting that they continue this way. They’re not stopping. I guess they didn’t hear.

I try yelling again, but I can see the man’s face now. His eyes are looking right at me, and here he comes. I’m more curious than anything – this is a highly unusual turn of events in my consistently predictable existence.

He persists in coming near to me. It’s not often that I run out of things to say, but as the stranger looks into my eyes – eye to eye, man to man – all I can do is wait for him to make the first move.

“Simon,” is what he says.

“How do you know me, my lord?” Racking my brain to remember this man. An old business associate? Some relative from my wife’s side of the family? I’m terrible with names.

He simply smiles in reply. A smile. What a surprise. “Do you want to be clean?”

What a question. Do I want to be clean? Not really. I’ve spent the past nine years industriously forgetting cleanness. I’ve reinvented my purpose, goals, definition of success. I’ve settled for manageability, staying power, the will to survive, man against nature. Without quite knowing it, I’ve somehow allowed a different category of life for myself, different from anything I’ve ever experienced but still worthwhile. I’ve created new wishes and new ideals, full of small and easy-to-reach plans. Nothing so wildly unattainable as cleanness.

And yet.

As he reaches for my shoulders – and now I realize this man is actually going to touch me – it’s apparent that he thinks he really can make me clean. And what if he’s right? If I can actually be cleansed of my leprosy, then what am I standing here for, like a stupid stick? He’s waiting patiently for my answer.

“Yes.”

It shocks me how the cumulative emotion of every day of those nine years can be present in the one word. Of course this is what I want. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted, I just never knew what it was called. Yes, sir. I want to be clean, if cleanness can be had for the asking.

A sudden breeze tickles my nose, caresses my face, ruffles my hair… What is this? I tug my bandages away and find whole hands – brown and unblemished, with fingers extending all the way down to the nail. My hands. My old hands, the ones that could work the land and hold my children. Hands that can easily manipulate the dirty cotton strips wrapped around them. Hands that catch hot tears beginning to fall from my face.

A strange joy surges up from my belly, pulling my mouth open wide and flooding the air with incredulous laughter.

“I’m clean!” Compelled as I am to say it, the word is still so odd in my mouth. I had better say it again and again, just to help me get used to it.

I’m clean! I’m clean. I’m clean. Clean.

© Cortney Matz, 2008

Interview with a Leper — Part 1 of 2

This is a short story that’s just a little bit too long – so I’m breaking it in half. The rest will be posted tomorrow. Enjoy.                 -Cortney

I’ve gotten used to being lonely. In my situation, it happens out of self-defense. When you live alone and you eat alone and – even if by chance you do come across another human being – you prefer to remain alone… there’s not much helping it. Loneliness becomes familiar, like a gimpy leg or the winter time. You just sort of persevere. 

So it’s pretty okay as long as I stay awake. When you’re awake you can control a lot of things – not everything, but enough to keep some sort of balance. Balance is key. If you’re off balance, then you can’t make sense out of the natural chaos that comes your way in life, which makes for stress. There’s always going to be something negative coming at you, no matter who you are, and the only way to beat it is to withdraw from the stress of it. Stress kills the little enjoyment people like me can derive out of life.   

This is another thing loneliness does to you; you become a philosopher. Not that there’s anyone around to listen to your great insights into the human drama. But I digress. 

I have a hard time sleeping. Not the way most people do – I fall asleep just fine. I even stay asleep with no problem. It’s the waking up part that unnerves me.

When I sleep, I sometimes dream about my life the way it used to be. And for a few moments – or hours, whoever knows how long dreams last – I’m not alone. I can smell the sweat of my team as we work to plough the land. I feel my daughter’s arms around my neck and hear my wife laughing as she chases us around the garden. 

The sounds are in my ears even as morning cruelly drags my eyes open. Like a massive scab being ripped off my soul. The realization hits in waves, tearing at my skin, dragging away at my hope with teeth and claws. To be forced to admit that I am dying, that everything I’ve ever loved and worked for is gone – that’s what sleeping means. Nothing is so demoralizing as to be confronted with reality when one has so carefully buried it with comforting distractions. 

I spend most mornings at the city gate. It’s a good place to meet businessmen as they head home, having sold their goods and filled their money bags. Puts them in a highly philanthropic mood. There are also various do-gooders who will pay their service to God by tossing a loaf of bread to one or the other of us – keeping careful distance, of course. 

About noon I’ll treat myself to a nice lunch in the shade. There’s a tamarisk tree about halfway between the gate and the tiny lean-to that I call home. It’s a perfect picnic spot for one. 

By evening I’ve tidied the yard around my house, stared at the sky for an hour or so and amused myself with some sarcasm and ridicule toward my neighbors. Take it from me, what leprosy doesn’t get out of the body it robs from the mind. Nine out of ten of these people should be mental patients, and the rest are self-absorbed naysayers. Get within a foot of them, and you’ll hear every reason they ever had to be bitter about life. Give me a break. We’re all lepers, in case you haven’t noticed. 

Evening is the best time for me to go to the river. The only known treatment for leprous skin is cleanliness, and it’s a dusty world we live in, so I try to wash every day. The others are all scared of wild animals, so they clear out by twilight. The water is cold by now, but it doesn’t matter much since I’ve lost all sensation except for a few patches on my legs and shoulders. I have the water all to myself. 

It’s easy to lose touch with the finer things when you live alone. So while I’m bathing I usually recite poetry, plays, or parts of the Torah – whatever I can remember from school. It keeps a bit of culture in my life, and enhances the romance of a starry night.  

After my bath it’s time to take myself home. I tell myself stories as I bandage my hands and feet. There isn’t much left of either of those, since the local wildlife enjoys munching on them when we sleep. That’s another major downside to losing consciousness for any length of time. 

So here I am – another morning, another trip to the city gate. It’s shaping up to be a hot day.  

So that’s pretty much my life right now. Not the lap of luxury by anyone’s standard, but it could be worse. I could be dead. 

That was a joke.

© Cortney Matz, 2008

Continue to Part II