Wildflowers: part 4
A stranger visits…
In the morning, the sun snuck past the sleeping trees and reflected off the snow like a mirror. What was at first a thing of beauty and peace became a deepening reminder of desolation and colorless anger. It spotlighted John and Marla’s hopelessness.
Marla rested her head on the window sill, watching the sunrise. John was clumsily getting ready to take a walk in the woods. He purposely made enough noise so that Marla would stay awake.
They talked a lot more now. It was one of the ways they reminded each other they weren’t alone. They would talk about anything just to hear another voice. Sometimes they spoke without words, just sighs.
Every day John tried to convince Marla that he would bring them home something to eat, and Marla went through the motions of being convinced.
Her stomach had been cramped for three days. The pain had become so severe she couldn’t stand upright, so she made sure to walk her husband to the edge of the woods that morning.
They methodically crawled deeper into the uncharted wild. No one had warned them it could be so dark. But, what warnings could make sense of blurred places between oneself and the beast of fear?
As John circled the woods, following in the same tracks as the day before, he began to wonder what would be best for his wife. He wondered if his inability to hunt was torturing her into a slow death. And then he wondered if he could kill her without having to hear a gun shot.
His failures were written on her grey skin, and weighed heavily on her hunched body. Maybe all they needed was mercy.
Marla had been sleeping through the day and waking up just in time to make more grass and potato soup for John’s return.
Her hands shook as she tried to cut the shriveled and rotten potatoes, the last three they had.
Her thirst, and frustrations, had become unquenchable. There was no amount of snow she could eat to heal her cracked lips, steady her quaking body, or smother her growing rage.
It was an unrecognizable rage, one she did well to ignore at first, but, its seductions were persistent.
She tried to calm her trembling hands by the fire as she waited for the soup to boil. She waited there every day with an undecided mind.
The soup will be ready in time for when he comes home.
Should I let him eat some soup before I kill him?
John stomped the snow off his boots in the same rhythm every time he entered the cottage. He put the gun in the same place he found it too, before peeling off his top layer to sit down at the table.
They acted out their habits, existing separately from each other in the same room, the same nothing conversation exactly where they left it.
Then John asked for tea. But, in the cloud of his hunger he had forgotten they ran out of tea several weeks earlier.
Marla laughed at his request. It was the first time she had laughed in months. It felt good.
She reminded him they ran out, and kissed him out of thanks for the laugh.
John didn’t see the humor, and it became the faintest spark of resentment that started a wild fire of anger.
Their anger burned white hot, as resentment, streaked with hatred, screamed from the bottom reaches of their desperation.
They were not lovers in that moment. They were twisted bodies of nature clawing for their lives, painting the walls with the brutality of their words, pain feeding pain.
Finally John, weakened and exhausted, stumbled into the bedroom, unable to scream at his wife any longer. But Marla wasn’t done. She grabbed the handles of the boiling pot with her bare hands and followed in after her husband. She threw it at him, narrowly missing him, before she ran out of the cottage.
She collapsed to her knees , holding her burnt hands high into the freezing air. John followed quickly after. He cradled her in the cold wet of winter, and calmed her screams as he gently placed her hands in the snow.
That night they laid awake afraid to speak.
Marla thought of every moment in her life that unfurled and led to this one. Death felt like an altar to her, and she imagined her and John kneeling before gold, and awaiting the everlasting, together. Their smiles seemed nervous.
John thought of his family. That’s all his sadness would allow. And no matter where he placed his thoughts of them, Marla was there too. She was always there, his family.
Through the winter, the cold draft of the cottage had eroded a valley between their bodies. Among the whistles of the night wind, they both wondered who would dare breech the valley first.
Will my hands be scarred?
Let me see.
She reached her hands defenseless across the valley. He took them with care, and gingerly tended to her wounds.
You’ll have scars, but no one will notice them.
That’s if they have a chance to heal.
Don’t be so dire. They’ll heal.
What’s going to happen?
I don’t know.
Marla knew she could straighten up, and kill their next meal. But with a fool’s stroke, she refused to betray her faith in him. It was the last shred of sincere faith she owned, and she clung to it as the days grew darker.
The next morning Marla watched John instead of the sunrise. She wanted to see how committed he was to his morning routine. She searched for cracks in his faith, and feared he’d to keep going through the motions for her. She wanted him to go out in the morning like he still believed there was a chance they’d survive. Every time he faltered in his routine, she looked to the sunrise.
When he was ready, she put on her boots, and walked him to the edge of the forest. He kissed her, and told her they would eat that night. She swallowed hard, and believed him.
In the afternoon, after following all his paths, looking mostly at his feet, John found his favorite tree, and rested beneath it. It had been a few weeks since he had made it as far out as that tree. That day he felt he owed it to himself and Marla to give that extra effort, just enough to say he tried.
He thought about tying a few rabbit snares again, but he knew it was too late. If he couldn’t teach himself in the summer with a bellyful of food, and the warm easiness of the sun on his back, he wasn’t going to do it now. It was only a gunshot that could save them.
When he felt the cold beginning to numb his extremities deeper, he decided to go back. He picked up his rifle, and used it to ease himself up from the tree. When he turned and looked down the path, his eyes met those of a frightened man. John clung to his rifle, and ducked behind the tree.
The stranger, startled by John’s reaction, tucked himself behind a fallen tree.
A suffocating silence heightened their senses.
Do you speak French?
The stranger finally said, in perfect French.
Do you speak German?
He said, in perfect German.
French or German?
The stranger hollered.
Are you German?
Are you German?
The stranger asked.
What are you doing out here?
Do you live out here?
What’s your name?
That sounds German.
I assure you it’s not. What’s your name?
He refused to answer.
Look, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, but I’m going to freeze to death soon if I don’t find some shelter.
Do you have food?
Yes, I have some. I’m going to come out now. My hands are above my head. I don’t want any trouble. I just want to get warm.
John watched the man steadily approach. He gripped his rifle tightly and raised it to his eye. The stranger halted, his eyes widened with fear.
Don’t move. Throw over your satchel and your gun.
Alex pulled the satchel and gun off his shoulder and tossed them to John. The gun didn’t make it all the way, and landed in between them. It sunk into the deep snow.
John knelt and fumbled to open the satchel while keeping his gun pointed at the stranger.
Is this all the food you have?
Yes, and it’s enough to feed both of us.
He stood and threw the satchel over his shoulder. He was terrified by the hopeless look of the stranger. He wanted to kill him. If he didn’t, he felt he risked everything.
Please don’t kill me. You could just let me go.
John crept closer, and dug the rifle out of the snow. He stepped back before he leveled the gun off at the stranger’s forehead. They both stood as still as the trees, and held their breath for what felt like hours.
Let me go, please. I don’t mean you any harm. You don’t want to do this.
I’ve killed men before.
Alex tried not to look at John. He kept his eyes fixed on the imprint his rifle had made in the snow.
How long have you been out here?
Two days, and I won’t survive another night.
Where are you coming from?
That’s a difficult question to answer—
Where are you coming from?
Paris…I’m from Paris.
Why are you out here?
Please, I’ll answer any questions you have if you just let me get warm.
Feeling the panic in Alex’s voice, John got the sense the battered looking stranger wanted to run. He lowered his weapon carefully.
Even if you are a German you’d still be begging for your life.
Either way, I’m defenseless.
What was one night in exchange for a meal?
I’ll give you one night. Then tomorrow you’re gone.
I can’t thank you enough. You won’t regret this.
Continued in part 5…