Wildflowers: part 5

by jamesmerolla

Marla spent the day tending the fire and gnawing on grass for sustenance.

She wondered if John would return. It had started snowing an hour earlier, a blinding snow.

Her starving brain was too weak for thought when she saw two figures lumbering through the storm.

There should only be one man approaching her cottage.

She reached for the fire poker, and then stood ready to strike. She eyed the door, waiting for the first head to peek through, when she heard the familiar stomping of her husband just outside the door.

She lowered the fire poker, but did not put it down.

When the door opened, John reached out to Marla and swept her into the other room. She saw a snowy breath of a stranger over her shoulder while she slipped away.

John spoke in a relaxed tone, but with obvious smatterings of fear and panic. Something had shaken him. He asked Marla to get some blankets, for their guest, and insisted she not engage him. She could hear Alex nervously shuffling by the fire.

John hurried back into the kitchen, and Marla followed after with blankets, and dry clothes. Her clothes looked like wet laundry on a line, as she buried her burned hands into the ragged sleeves of her sweater, unable to extend them when she greeted her guest. John made sure to keep his wife positioned behind him.

The sight of Marla’s body, crooked and frail, and the poetry in her eyes, like death psalms, hurt Alex deeper than he could have imagined.

     You’re both starving to death, and I’m freezing to death. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this is divine intervention.

     I’ll believe in anything if it keeps me alive.

Marla said in a withered voice.

John stepped forward, blocking Alex’s view of Marla.

     I guess I would too.

Alex said, as he reached for his satchel, and pulled out two small slabs of meat, wrapped in a makeshift grass weaving.

John, still holding both guns, took the meat from Alex, and gave it to Marla, who hurried to the stove.

As the smell of meat filled the warm cottage, John invited Alex to sit beside him by the fire. They were uneasily relieved of their suffering for one more day.

     What kind of meat is it?

Alex shivered under the blankets; his bare feet resting too close to the fire.

     I find when I’m starving, it’s best to ask that question after I’ve eaten it.

He pulled his feet back from the fire.

     So what are you doing out here?

John asked.

     I think it’s obvious I’m doing the same thing you’re doing.

     What’s that?

     Hiding.

     Hiding from what?

     You don’t have any reason to fear me. I don’t want anything from you but shelter. We’re all good people here.

     We’re all desperate people.

     But good people.

     Maybe you haven’t been desperate long enough.

     And maybe you’ve been desperate too long.

     What are you hiding from?

     You first.

     This is my cottage, and I see it’s only right that you tell me first.

     This could be anyone’s cottage.

Marla found the strength to contain her hunger for a few extra moments, so she could burn the meat in protest of their conversation.

     It doesn’t matter.

She said, quieting the two men, and assuring that only the hiss of her cooking would speak for all three of them until dinner was served.

Alex agreed to take a smaller portion, and kept composed while John and Marla dug with their hands into the charred casing of the fatty meat. They ate as fast as their shriveled stomachs and weakened teeth would allow, and washed it down with a cup of snow water. For the rest of the night they felt the meal sloshing in their bodies.

That night Marla rolled over in bed to whisper in John’s ear. Her stomach was round and full, stretching out from her body.

     I think he should stay and go hunting with you tomorrow.

John, with the taste of his meal still in the bristles of his beard, thought for a moment.

     Maybe.

The next morning Alex and John were sitting motionless and silent beneath a tree. They tracked the landscape with roving eyes.

Alex suddenly perked up, and gracefully drew his rifle to his shoulder. His eyes were steely, and his hands were as steady as stone, as he slowly, effortlessly pulled the trigger. The burst of energy rattled the forest, and turned John’s vision red for several moments.

The deer staggered, and fell. John was nauseated by the smell of gun powder, and the sudden reel of nightmares spinning in his head. Alex gave him a moment to collect himself before they headed for the deer.

The two men barely spoke a word to each other the entire day, but there was an understanding that revealed itself in their walk towards the wounded animal. Alex walked with confidence while John stumbled.

They could hear the gasps and gurgles of the deer over their footsteps in the snow. Its hind legs kept pumping steadily as if the animal was still running, somewhere far off in a dream.

Alex straddled the deer, and slit its throat, letting its life spill out into the cold. Its pumping legs slowed to an eventual stillness, then silence.

As John watched Alex wipe the blood from his hands, he knew their lives and Marla’s, would be forever linked in time.

That night, after a quiet dinner, and a shortage of conversation, Marla whispered in John’s ear again.

     I think Alex should stay.

     No.

     It’s the right thing to do.

     We don’t know who he is.

     He was near death when you brought him here. He’s just as lost as us.

     That doesn’t mean he can’t take from us.

     He could have done that already, but he didn’t.

John rolled away, and tightened the blanket between them.

     We need him as much as he needs us.

     That deer will feed us for months. Tomorrow we give him whatever we can spare, and we wish him the best.

     You know he won’t survive.

     That’s not for us to worry about.

     You owe it to him to give him the winter.

     I don’t owe that man anything. I brought him in and gave him shelter for two days. He gave us food. That’s all we owed each other.

     You still owe each other. We all owe each other. The world is coming to an end and we need all the friends we can get.

     Shhh..I think I hear church bells.

Marla grimaced at her husband, but she knew he understood. He was a good man, and wouldn’t lead another into death. Every layer of his being was threatened by Alex’s presence, but, the thought of a man dying for reasons of pride and prejudice sickened him.

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