فصل 11

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فصل 11

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Chapter eleven

A Time to Love

The cabin was hot and bright from the fire, and with the door shut it was hard to say if it was morning or night outside. Ruby had made coffee. Ada and Inman sat drinking it, so close to the fire that the melted snow in their coats steamed around them. Nobody said much and the place seemed tiny with four people in it.

Stobrod moved his head from side to side. His eyes had a look of confusion and hurt in them. Then he lay still again.

Tired and warm from the fire, Inman could not keep his eyes open. There were so many things he wanted, but the first thing he needed was sleep. Ada folded a blanket and put it on the floor. She led him to it and he stretched out and fell asleep fully clothed.

While Inman and Stobrod slept, the snow fell and fell, and the two women spent a cold and almost wordless hour collecting wood and cleaning out another of the cabins. They built a hot fire in it, then cleaned the turkeys, put them on the end of long sticks, and roasted them all day over a slow fire. For a long time they sat close to the fire together and neither of them spoke.

Night came, and Ruby said, “I was watching you this morning with him and I’ve been thinking.”

“What?” Ada asked.

“We’re just starting. I’ve got a picture in my mind of how that cove needs to be. It will take a long time but I know how to get there. War or peace, there’s nothing we can’t do ourselves. You don’t need him.”

“I know I don’t need him,” Ada said. “But I think I want him.”

“Well, that’s different.”

Ada paused, thinking hard. She knew that Inman had been alone too long, an outlier without the comfort of a human touch, a loving hand laid soft and warm on his shoulder, back, leg. And she too was lonely.

Finally she said aloud, “I don’t want to find myself someday in a new century, an old bitter woman looking back, knowing that I hadn’t had the courage to follow my heart.”

It was after dark when Inman woke. The fire had burned low and there was no way to tell what time of night it was. He turned and saw Stobrod, his eyes black and shining in the light. Stobrod looked at Inman and said, “Any water?”

Inman could not see any in the room so he rose. “I’ll get you a drink,” he said.

He stepped outside, and when he could see enough to walk, he went down to the stream and filled his bottle with water. He could see firelight shining yellow from the cabin where he had slept. And also from another, further down the stream. He smelled meat cooking and felt suddenly very hungry.

He went back inside and raised Stobrod and slowly poured water into his mouth. Then he built the fire up and, leaving Stobrod asleep, he walked down to the other lighted cabin.

“Hello,” Inman said, and Ruby came to the door and looked out. “I woke up,” Inman said. “I don’t know how long I was asleep.”

“You’ve slept twelve hours or more,” Ruby said, and moved so that he could come in.

Ada sat cross-legged on the ground beside the fire, and as Inman entered she looked up at him. Her dark hair was loose on her shoulders and Inman thought her as beautiful a sight as men are allowed to see. He did not know what to with himself, but thought that he would go and sit beside her.

Then Ada rose and did a thing he knew he would never forget. She reached behind him and put one hand on his back, at his waist. The other she pressed against his stomach.

“You feel so thin between my hands,” she said.

Inman could think of no answer that suited the moment.

Ada took her hands away and said, “When did you last eat?”

Inman counted back. “Three days,” he said. “Or four.”

“Well then, you must be hungry.”

Ada sat him down by the fire and gave him a plate of turkey with fried apple rings. Inman started eating hungrily, but then he stopped and said, “Are you not having any?”

“We ate some time ago,” Ada said.

Ruby picked up a pot of soup and stood up, saying, “I’ll see if I can get him to take some of this. And I’m going to clean that wound and sit with him for a time.”

After Ruby left, neither Inman nor Ada could think of anything much to say. Inman began commenting on the food, but then he stopped and felt foolish. He wanted to lie on the blankets with Ada beside him and hold her close. He knew that it had taken all her courage to touch him as she had. Now he had to find a way to say what he had to say.

He went and sat behind her, then reached around her and pressed the inside of his wrists and arms against her shoulders.

“Did you write me letters while I was in the hospital?” he said.

“Several,” she said. “But I did not know you were there until you were gone. So the first two letters went to Virginia.”

“Tell me what they were about,” he said.

Ada described them, and Inman said, “I’d love to have read them.” He held his hands to the fire and said, “Twenty-six years since a fire was lit here.”

This gave them a topic, and they sat for a time talking about the Cherokee village, imagining the lives that had been lived in that place. When they had finished, they sat quietly, and then Inman told Ada how, all the way home, his only hope was that she would have him, would marry him. But now, he said, he could not ask her to do so. Not to a man as ruined as he was.

“I’m ruined beyond repair, I fear,” he said.

Ada turned and looked at him over her shoulder. She could see the white wound at his neck, and there were other wounds in the look of his face and in his eyes, which could not quite meet hers.

She turned back. She knew that cures of all sorts exist in the natural world. Even the most hidden root had a use. She had learned this, at least, from Ruby.

Without looking at him, she said, “I know people can be healed. Not all, but some can be. Why not you?”

“Why not me?” said Inman, testing the thought. He reached to Ada’s dark hair, which lay loose on her back, and lifted it. Leaning forward, he touched his lips to the back of her neck and kissed the top of her head. Then he leaned back and pulled her against him, her waist into his stomach, her shoulders into his chest.

He held her tight and words poured out of him. He told her about the first time he had looked on the back of her neck as she sat in church. Of the feeling that had never let go of him since. He talked of the wasted years between then and now, and how you never get back the things you have lost. They will always stay lost. You can only choose to go on or not, and if you go on, you carry your wounds with you. But during all those wasted years, he had had the wish to kiss her there at the back of her neck, and now he had done it.

Ada knew that Inman was trying to thank her for the touch she had given him when he entered the cabin. She lifted her hair from her shoulders and put her head slightly forward.

“Do that once more,” she said.

But there was a sound at the door and Ruby came in, and saw the two looking uncomfortable. Nobody said anything.

“His fever’s down now,” Ruby said finally.

Inman returned to the other cabin to sleep. As he lay there, he tried to decide which part of the evening he had enjoyed most, Ada’s hand on his stomach or her request just before Ruby opened the door. He was still trying to decide when he fell asleep.

The next day was gray and even colder, with snow falling soft and fine. They all slept late, and Inman took breakfast in the women’s hut. Then, later in the morning, Ada and Inman fed and watered the horse and went hunting together. They walked up the hill and found nothing moving in the woods, not even animal tracks in the snow. Eventually, they came to a flat rock, and Inman brushed the snow from it, and they sat cross-legged facing each other, knee to knee.

Ada began talking. She wanted to tell how she had become what she was. They were different people now. He needed to know that. She told of Monroe’s death, and about deciding not to return to Charleston, and all about Ruby. About weather and animals and plants and the things that she was starting to know. She still missed Monroe more than she could say, and she told Inman many wonderful things about him. But she told as well one terrible thing: that he had tried to keep her a child, and that he had mostly succeeded.

“And there’s something you need to know about Ruby,” Ada said. “Whatever happens between you and me, I want her to stay in Black Cove as long as she wants. If she never leaves, I’ll be glad.”

“Could she learn to accept me? That’s the question,” Inman said.

“I think she can,” Ada said. “If you understand she is not a servant but my friend.”

They returned to the village that afternoon carrying only wood for the fire. They found Ruby sitting by Stobrod. He seemed to know Ruby and Ada, but he was frightened of Inman.

“Who’s that big, dark man?” he said.

Ruby wet a cloth and cleaned his face, and when she was done he immediately fell asleep. Ada looked at Inman, the tiredness in his face. She said, “I believe you ought to do the same.”

“Just don’t let me sleep past dark,” Inman said. He went out and returned a minute later with a pile of wood for the fire. Then he left and the two women built the fire up and sat together for a long time with their backs against the cabin wall, a blanket around them. Then they slept, and when they woke it was almost dark. Ruby went to check Stobrod.

“His fever’s up again,” she said. “He’ll stay or go, but tonight will decide. I’d better not leave him.”

Ada came over and felt Stobrod’s forehead. It did not feel too hot to her. She looked at Ruby but Ruby would not look back.

It was dark when Ada walked down the stream to the other cabin. She opened the door quietly and entered. Inman lay asleep and did not move. The fire had burned low. Ada took off her coat and put three branches on the fire, then went to Inman and knelt beside him. She touched his forehead and stroked his hair. He woke slowly, turning to look at her, but then his eyes closed and he slept again.

The world was such a terribly lonely place, and the only cure seemed to be to lie down beside him, skin to skin. Ada felt very frightened, but she put the fear away from her and started undoing the buttons on her pants. They were almost off when she looked towards Inman and found his eyes open, watching her.

“Turn your back,” she said.

“Not for all the gold dollars in the world,” Inman said.

She turned away from him, nervous and uncomfortable. But he leaned forward and pulled the clothes from her hands, and pulled her to him. Gently, he moved his hands up and down her, then pressed his forehead to her soft stomach and kissed her there. He pulled her against him and held her and held her. She put a hand to the back of his neck and pulled him harder, and then she pressed her white arms against him. And for a time that night, the cabin was a place that held within its walls no pain or even a faint memory of pain.

Later, Ada and Inman lay holding each other as the branches smoked in the fire and the snow whispered as it fell. And they did what lovers often do when they think the future stretches endlessly before them; they talked of the past, through most of the night, describing their childhood and youth in great detail. When they reached the war years, Inman only described them very generally and said little about himself.

“Then tell me of your long journey home,” Ada said.

Inman thought about it, but then he let himself imagine that he had at last reached the end of his troubles. He had no wish to revisit them, so he told only of how on his journey he had watched the nights of the moon and counted them to twenty- eight and then started all over again.

Then he added, “I met a number of people on the way. There was a goatswoman that fed me.”

They turned to the future and started talking about their plans. They imagined their marriage, the years passing happy and peaceful, with Black Cove organized according to Ruby’s plans. Ada described these plans in detail and the only thing Inman requested was that they should keep a few goats. In fall the apple trees would be bright and heavy with apples and they would hunt birds together, and in summer they would catch fish. They were both at the age when they could think in one part of their minds that their whole lives stretched in front of them. At the same time another part guessed that their youth was almost finished for them and that a very different country lay ahead.

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