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The first time I lay with the post boy was on a Sunday, and I broke three commandments to do it. Honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not lie, and remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Why couldn't I stop counting all of my sins? It was as if I was craving the wrath that was to follow them, challenging it, if only to make certain that I was, indeed, alive.
There used to be a time that I would have feared the consequences of acting out in such a way against the Lord, but not anymore, not after last winter, not after being trapped in the cabin for months and losing my mind and seeing the devil in the woods. Clearly, the Lord had forgotten all about me, and therefore I would no longer be following his rules.
"When I die, I will see Hell," I whispered after we were through with our sins of the flesh, but the post boy did not hear me over the sound of the water from the creek. "The devil has claimed me already."
I wished that the boy would turn over so I could study his face. I didn't know it very well yet, wasn't even sure if his eyes were brown or blue, to be honest, but I wanted that to change. This boy had saved me from my Hell on earth with the wonderful distraction that was his body. I should have known his name.
Henry, I remembered. His name is Henry. I asked him in a louder voice if he'd be coming back again to see me after today. He said he would.
"Good." I sighed and ran my finger slowly down his spine. "Because if you didn't, I would be cross with you."
He turned over then, not to kiss me like I hoped, but to contemplate me with genuine curiosity. His dark eyebrows furrowed. I noted that his eyes were green, like lucky clover, and that his nose was attractively askew.
"You're strange," he said after the silence became uncomfortable. "What's different about you?"
I was chilled at the question. Too many things, Henry, I thought. This is only the second time we've ever met. Still, the question awakened the memories of last winter unmercifully, the ones that were too painful to bear, the ones that ended up causing all sixteen years of my life to slip away from me like water through open fingers.
The screaming, oh, all that screaming, and the claws, and the bloody footprints in the snow, and the devil who knew my sins
I noticed that Henry was still watching me in silence, waiting for my answer. What's different aboutyou, Amanda
Verner? It would be a lie to claim that the question didn't irritate me; I was here for good feelings in abundance and good feelings only.
I pulled my frown into a shy grin. "I think I've already answered that question for you, have I not?"
"Oh, yes." He smiled, and kissed my fingertips. "I suppose that you have. The four-hour ride to get here was more than worth it, I would say. I hope you don't think less of me, pursuing your body with such haste"
"Of course not." I cut him off with a kiss. "I know it is sinful, but it also feels
necessary. How can that be?"
And it was true. Already I found myself wanting to be with him again, my flame in the dark, my rescuer.
"I understand exactly what you mean." Henry's hand slid down my side, and I forgot all about the devil in the woods, as well as the secret that made him come for me in the first place. "I wonder how I went so long making deliveries to Crispin's Peak, never suspecting that the lady of my dreams lived right on the other side of the mountain."
I didn't like to imagine Henry leaving the mountain to deliver post to other settlements. The idea of not having a reason to steal away from the cabin and my family whenever the tension became unbearable was troubling, but Henry insisted that he wouldn't stay away long.
"I'll come back as often as my schedule allows it," he promised. "Worry not, sweetling."
After Henry's trousers were back on and he was riding away on his horse, General, toward the trail that would eventually lead back to the settlement, I walked home through the trees, pulling pine needles from my hair and securing the buttons at the neck of my dress with fumbling fingers. At the sight of the cabin I became overcome with a most indecent bloom of shame, the shame of sacrificing my body and liking it, really liking it. Did it mean I had no conscience? Pa would have certainly thought so.
Ever since I could remember he'd ingrained in us the knowledge that to betray our Lord was to betray ourselves, our souls. A woman's body was to be for her husband only, and anything less would result in the Lord's profound disappointment and, by extension, the dismissal of the daughter from the family. I wondered if Pa would really cast me out if he discovered what I had just done with Henry. Part of me believed he would, but it was hard to say.
I wished I could ask my sister Emily.
Emily is my dearest friend, after all. I do tell her everything.
But I haven't told her about Henry. She doesn't even know that he exists.
She doesn't even know that he exists and I've lain naked with him in the woods not once, not twice, but eight times now. And it's because of this that I think I must have truly lost my mind, because after witnessing the birth of my youngest sister, Hannah, I wouldn't wish pregnancy or child birth on even my worst enemy. Hannah.
On more occasions than I care to admit, my mind creeps to a dark, spider-webbed place where my new baby sister is the reason I've turned into such a soulless liar.
Because sometimes in the blackest depths of the night, I pray for something bad to happen to Hannah. Sickness maybe, or a quick accident during her bath. The horrible thoughts pain me, cause me to sob quietly into my pillow, but I become temporarily numbed from the evil as I think about my ma and how much she has changed since the winter and the sickness and the birth.
How much we all have.
The woman who wove grass halos for Emily and me when we were children is long gone, a slave to the unconditional love she has for her poor, helpless baby, born deaf and blind and full of confused rage as a result of it all. Ma's worry for Hannah never ceases, never slows, constantly showing itself through dark circles under her eyes and a newly formed hunch in her stature that wasn't there before last winter.
(Could it be I who is responsible for those circles? I who have pulled her shoulders down with the weight of the entire world? I cannot bear the thought, no, it must be the baby, the ever-wailing baby who screams with such tremendous, earned rage.)
Surely if the baby hadn't survived the birth, things wouldn't be as dire as they are now, as positively changed. So I bring myself to pray for Hannah's death, beg really, and am afterward reduced to a shriveling shell of a girl with no soul and a craving for the odd post boy who likes having his parts tugged.
Of course, after the tears dry up and I'm left hiccupping in bed, I realize that what I'm doing is despicable and morbid and wrong. The Lord would hate me for wishing death upon one of his creations, but by now I am quite certain that the Lord hates me anyway.
Sinner. My wish for Hannah is my darkest secret, the one that called the devil upon me, the one that will be my undoing.
When I remember this the tears usually start again, this time rolling down a face that burns with regret and shame. Shame, the constant. Shame, the stain on my soul that can never be washed away.
I heard once that long-term isolation can have an effect most wicked on even the most competent of minds and seasoned mountain men, and also that guilt on its own is capable of ruin. By the time I met Henry the post boy in Crispin's Peak while I was in for supplies with my pa, I'd experienced both, and my mind was eaten with rot.
I believe a part of myself may have died last winter.
* * *
Sometimes I believe the baby will never stop crying. How scared she must be, or angry, or both. Ma often wonders aloud if it's possible she's in any sort of pain, cursing the absence of a real doctor on the mountain. Pa gets upset if anyone makes such remarks in front of him, and tells us that it's a sign of an unsympathetic heart. Emily watches from the outside, observant as always, a frown painting her face with unease at the sight of our parents quarreling.
After Hannah finally quiets down for the night and the cabin is saturated in shadow, Emily gets up in the dark from the goose-feather mattress on the floor that we share with our younger siblings Joanna and Charles. She walks on soft toes to my side of the bed and crawls in next to me without a word, then waits a few moments to make sure she hasn't awakened anybody before asking in a hushed whisper if everything is well with me.
"Why must you keep asking me that?" I whisper louder than I should, exhaling my irritation.
"You've been so quiet lately," she insists. Pa's snores cut through the cramped blackness of the cabin. "I know that something is happening in your head. Why won't you tell me?"
I want to, more than anything, but I cannot. I can hardly even admit what I've done to myself, even though my bleeding cycle has been missed many times, and my breasts ache like never before, and I feel horribly nauseous every single morning and sometimes late at night, just like Ma was when she first suspected she was with child with all of my siblings.
It shouldn't have come to this, but there is no way to avoid it. Not after the secret get-togethers in the woods behind my family's cabin, not after the hidden flowers and candies started showing up in the bushes by our meeting place, not after the kisses where Henry's tongue was in my mouth and his hands were pressing my body against his, like if he didn't have me soon he'd absolutely die.
Desire rules all, for better or for worse. I was doomed from day one.
And now I'm to be a mother, when I do not even believe that having children is smart or favorable or lovely. More mouths to feed, more people to keep alive, more chances for disease and pain and grief. In the end, it is hard to think that it could ever be worth it, all those years, all that unnecessary pain.
I search for Emily's eyes through the dark.
"Everything is well, sister," I lie.
After her frustrated sigh causes Ma to stir, my sister reluctantly turns over and falls asleep against her better judgment, I'm sure. Soon she is snoring softly, completely unaware that I am biting the corner of my pillow and curling my toes into the bottoms of my feet to keep from screaming.
Secret is not something that belongs in Emily's or my vocabulary. Then again, neither is anything about lying, or being with child at sixteen years old when I have no husband to claim the infant as his. I promised after last winter that I would never lie to her again, and here I am, betraying her trust. When she finds out about the baby, the brittle bone of that trust will shatter, impossible to fix, impossible to reverse.
Besides Emily, I also have the reactions of my parents to fear. Ma will weep, undoubtedly, too overcome with disappointment to function. Pa will call me a whore, he'll call me a sinner, he'll throw me out on my own as proof that my misgivings will not bring down his own faith. One bad apple could spoil the entire barrel. Unsympathetic hearts, indeed.
I might as well be dead.
what if I run away with Henry and they never have to find out? My toes curl in the dark even harder.
If I disappear, my family would probably assume that I was attacked by one of the many bears or wolves that roam the mountainside where our cabin sits, that I was ripped up and fed to a pack of hungry cubs in the name of the Lord.
They would be taken with sorrow over the loss, yes, but they would move forward eventually, especially knowing that I was with our Heavenly Father and waiting for them to join me. They'd never know the truth, not until they died and ascended into their eternal kingdom and noticed that I was still missing.
I must take control of my fate. Tomorrow is the first of the new month, and Henry will surely show up for a secret visit. So tomorrow, I will tell Henry about the baby. If he really loves me, as he's claimed breathlessly over and again during our nude entanglements in the forest, he should be happy. Maybe even more encouraged to bring me home with him this time.
With the resolution bound in my mind, I begin to cry into the pillow that I am still biting on as if my life depends on it. I will never see my dearest friend again. I imagine Emily alone with Joanna and Charles and Hannah. I imagine her taking a walk through the misty woods after finding out that I have gone missing, just so that she can cry and curse privately over her loss, and my heart aches unbearably.
This is when I identify the part of my resolution that I could never follow through with, and I adjust the plan accordingly by swearing to myself that I will come back for Emily, after the baby is born and I am married and can offer her someplace to live, along with a proper explanation of why exactly I had to do this.
I had to go away, I imagine myself telling her in the future. You know why.
And that is how I make myself comfortable with it, that is how I stop the tears and cool my face of its shame and uncertainty. I stop biting my pillow and lie on my back and fall asleep to the sound of Pa's serrated snores for what may very well be the last time. Emily sighs beside me and pushes her ice-cold feet against my calves to warm them.
I will miss her so much.
I dream about darkness and punishment and something that is squirming inside of me, writhing, growing bigger and stronger with every cursed, miserable heartbeat.