It was an oppressively hot summer day, not a cloud in the sky. Alex kept in the shade of the tree line with the excuse of gathering wood. He kept an eye on Marla laboring in the garden, and John was nowhere to be found.
He thought about summer days as a boy, dirty mouths full of chocolate, fingers smudging store fronts, and spying on the older girls through fences.
It hadn’t seemed so long ago, innocence. He could still name the streets he scarred his knees on, and the people he ran through them with. They were all freckle faced memories, vivid and reddened in the heat of the sun.
Marla meandered down the path leading to the creek, and Alex, with an unconscious will, started drifting that way too.
He followed the tree line to his usual spot, just behind a thick tree with bald roots, the perfect vantage point for spying.
His mouth became dry when she rolled up her matted skirt and slipped into the cool water, and every vessel of his body flexed with excitement when she undid the top two buttons of her blouse.
He could taste the chocolate on his lips, as he imagined her knowing he was there, just like the girls of his childhood putting on knot hole shows, their bodies blossoming in curious union.
She ran her fingers through the water and drank from it, letting it run down her chin and glisten on her chest. She was free, and unaware, beauty unseen. This was the purest gaze of love he’d have for her.
Alex awoke and stared into the trees, like faceless phantoms against the cold starry sky. The cottage was warm and dry, the way he liked it. He hated imagining Marla huddled and cold beneath her sheets.
He never slept through the night, always waking and waiting for something to happen. His life felt like a long breath waiting to be released and forgotten.
There was a rustling from the kitchen, and a shadow interrupting the constant glow of the fire in his doorway. Marla was restless again. Her deep sighs and squeaky shifts in the old wooden chair made him think she wanted company.
I was sleeping, but—
Oh, did I wake you? I’m sorry. I was trying to be as quiet as possible.
No, I was just going to say I never sleep through the night anymore. I would have been up anyway.
Their silence was interrupted by the pops and hisses of the fire.
I never make it through the night anymore either. I have such terrible dreams.
I need something to distract me, like maybe get so drunk I fall out of bed, and in that one moment before I hit the floor I’d be clear of every thought that constantly haunts me. Unfortunately John and I drank all the wine in our first two weeks here.
She stared into the fire, unmoved. He watched the fire reflecting in her eyes and wondered what it burned.
I was just lying in bed thinking of that story you told me once, the one about the man who spied on his lover just to see how beautiful she was when she was unaware of being watched. I wish you’d make up more stories to tell.
Marla’s eyes turned up towards the ceiling with thought, and then she smiled, and said:
I’ll tell you the story of the rabbit in my garden, if you’d like?
Yes, I’d love to hear it.
There was a little rabbit that came into my garden this summer, it was young and feeble. You had probably killed its mother, so I let it eat what little it could. And before long, that rabbit started visiting me every day. We grew accustomed to each other, neither of us in the garden without the other. But, as the weeks went by it got stronger, and more brazen, and soon it was eating more than I was willing to share. I decided I had to kill it, but when I lifted the ax, I noticed how unusual it was for a rabbit to let me get so close to it. It trusted me, almost as if I were its mother. I was conflicted. This animal trusted me enough to think its life was never in danger, and I suddenly cared for it.
What did you do?
I knelt down beside it and watched it eat my carrots, and then I reached out and touched it. It didn’t run away. I cared for and loved its life, and then I ended it.
Well, then it served its purpose.
And it was delicious.
The lesson there is, don’t feed the rabbit.
It’s too late for lessons. I think I’ll try to get some sleep now. You should too.
Marla gently placed her hand on Alex’s shoulder as she got up to leave. The residual sensation of her hand had not left his shoulder when he came to the sudden understanding that he was the rabbit.
It was early December, the afternoon of the first snowfall. None had fallen yet, but the clouds were bloated and anxious.
Alex woke up that morning, took a shot of cold air, and decided it was time to head back into the woods. He had lost his appetite for rabbit and grouse, and regardless, they had become scarcer in the field. Eating fish from the creek was no longer an option, not since strange things started passing by in the high waters of the fall.
The distant gun John and Marla used to hear had reawakened, and every night it poisoned their dreams. The planes became more frequent overhead too, all headed west, west they pushed forward.
The war was inescapable now. They were in the den of a brooding beast, waiting to be noticed, trapped.
Alex would ask Marla to go into the woods with him, and he knew she would. The more leery they grew in each others presence, the closer they became. Their bond had grown inseparable, like chains around their necks, each carrying the burden of the other. With every passing day the certainty of his lies grew as cloudy as the water they drank. Her hatred for him steamed to the surface, and it frightened him.
He once thought of himself as the shadow of a mountain shrouded in stormy clouds. He’d wait patiently for her troubles to pass and find him, chiseled and proud, a peak in the sun.
But she smelled the sour breath of his sins whenever he spoke. He needed to be clean again, and freed of his troubles. Perhaps if he laid her to rest beside her husband? His hands trembled even with the far off echo of such a question.
To kill for her was easier justified than he thought it’d be “But, my god, to kill her? Even darkness wouldn’t grant me pity.”
And why? Why were his thoughts so twisted? The memories of the man he once was were becoming distorted and faceless. They were ashamed by what they’d seen.
The air danced with the first breezy flakes of snow as they walked into the waiting arms of the woods. It was quiet beneath the blanket of pines. The birds called to them.
Deeper they went, Alex’s gun on his shoulder, and Marla’s hands in her pockets, to what end?
John and I walked this path the day the Nazis found us.
Marla stopped. Panic powdered her face as she absorbed her surroundings.
Marla? Is there something wrong?
No, I’m fine.
Then come now. The storm is getting worse.
Are you going to kill me?
Alex looked back at her with astonishment?
What? Why would I kill you?
You’re going to kill me, I know it, just like you killed John. You killed him so you’d have me all to yourself, but you didn’t think any of it through, you just did it. And now nothing is what you imagined it would be. I don’t trust you, and you don’t trust in my believing your lies. So you figured you’d take me out here, kill me, and then move on, blend in somewhere, and even if I am found I’ll just be another casualty of war, like all the other dead. No one will ask questions.
I’m not going to kill you, and where would I go if I did?
Why not? I’ve been planning to kill you, when you least expect it, just like the rabbit in my garden.
You’re not a killer, and neither am I.
Then where are those Germans that killed John? Why haven’t they found us yet?
I don’t know, but you need to calm down.
Marla writhed and wriggled with anxiety. Her tears washed over her blue eyes.
Oh, Alex, I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m so confused and afraid.
He took her in his arms, as she wept.
We’re both afraid. It’s alright. I’m here now, and I’ll never hurt you.
I don’t know what to believe anymore.
I saw his body Alex. I found it. I didn’t want to say anything to you because I thought you had killed him. But, I was never certain. All of my hatred for you was born from my doubts. I needed someone to hate, and you were there.
Alex felt an overwhelming relief and happiness. A bridge across the chasm between them had been revealed. She had finally found his arms, and now his ugly thoughts were still and hung like macabre art on his walls.
Yes. I understand more than you know. And I would never hurt you or John.
Then why haven’t you said anything to me about it in all this time?
Because I’ve been every bit as conflicted as you have. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m making everything up as I go. How do I comfort someone who has lost everything?
You could have talked to me.
I know, but I have trouble doing the right thing sometimes.
Alex pulled the gun off his shoulder and extended it towards Marla. She looked at it confused.
Take it, it’s yours to carry. It’s a sign of my trust.
Marla watched as the snowflakes fell and melted on its wood and steel. She uneasily took it from him.
Now let’s go back. You look cold.
What about the deer?
I’ll get one tomorrow, don’t worry.
He walked ahead of Marla to lead her out of the woods. She stood still and stared at the gun for a moment. It looked foreign in her grasp, the same way it looked in John’s hands. She looked up the path where John’s body still undoubtedly laid, then back at Alex who had stopped and waited for her.
continued in part 11…