Wildflowers: part 8
It was getting later in the summer and the three ragged refugees all wore their exhaustion like sweat shined masks. That morning, like the one before, and the one before that, was too warm for comfort. The sun’s hot breath beat on Marla’s neck as she labored in the garden alone. Alex was sure to find her.
He came up the path from the creek, and stopped at the edge of the garden to watch Marla.
The Garden is in full bloom. You’re good at this.
Alex knelt down and fondled some of plants, feigning interest.
Did you hear the planes overhead this morning?
The first planes I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They were German planes of course. Luckily they were too far off to see us.
Marla pulled a carrot from the ground, and cleaned the dirt off in her watering bucket.
Where is John?
He’s not feeling well.
Is he sick?
No, some days he just can’t get out of bed.
I know the feeling.
Not this kind of feeling, you don’t.
He worries about you. He often wonders what would become of you if something happened to him.
He knows I’ll be fine. He’ll be fine too.
I promised him I’d take care of you if anything should happen.
That’s kind of you, but nothing will happen.
Let’s hope not. I told him how I feel about you, that I love you. He deserves to know.
Didn’t I deserve to know?
Yes, that’s why I’m telling you now.
Marla stood up and wiped her hands on her skirt before pulling a ripe tomato from the vine. She held it close to her nose to smell it.
I don’t believe you, but if it keeps you occupied then you’re free to do so. Don’t tell John such things though.
You’re right, I didn’t tell him, but I do love you. That much is true.
You’re like a nervous little boy, so eager to please.
I’m only that way with you. I don’t care about anything else.
The first time I saw you I pitied you. You looked so frail and pathetic. But, as I saw the life flood back into your body I saw a beauty I never could have imagined. It’s an effortless beauty and it has bonded with me. It is all I see in the light, and all I feel in the dark. I want to make you happy and forgetful of your struggles, Marla.
Your flattery is appreciated, but you must keep these ideas to yourself. I can only love one man and you are not him.
I won’t stop trying.
Then you need to leave.
Do I leave and face an almost certain death? Or do I stay and die a thousand deaths?
Your dramatics won’t win you sympathy. Death is not a certainty if you leave, and you are free to stay, and even love me, provided you are a civilized gentleman.
Will you ever be warmer to me?
Will you ever love me?
Marla hesitated for a moment long enough for Alex live a lifetime in.
Thank you, I think I would like to stay.
Good, now help me pick these tomatoes.
Marla looked out into the night with hope she’d see the familiar movement of her husband coming up the path. She did her best to dismiss the dark concoctions of her worried mind, but it was obvious something had happened. John would never have stayed out this late on purpose.
She had made dinner hours earlier, and even ate her share. The table was still set, John and Alex on the ends, and Marla in the middle. There she sat, alone, looking at her clouded reflection in the window.
There was suddenly movement in the dark, slow and plodding. It was a tall man, with the vacancy of wandering in his stride. It was Alex, painfully alone.
In a panic, Marla rushed out to meet him, and dragged his listless body into the cottage. He stammered nonsense and his eyes were in the grips of shock.
Marla begged him to tell her where her husband was, but he could only reply with mumbled fragments.
Germans…blood on the leaves….I saw a deer run from me.
Where is he? Please tell me.
The jagged waves of panic were in Marla’s voice as she held up Alex’s body. When it dawned on her he was stumbling toward her and John’s room she began to fight and scratch to keep him from their bed. She wedged her small body between Alex and the bed, but he easily overpowered her, and collapsed face first between the grooves worn in by Marla and John’s bodies..
In the scrum Marla had fallen to the floor. She lay defeated beside the bed as Alex mumbled himself into unconsciousness.
She stared up at the ceiling listening to his breathing. Her mind fluttered and blinked through all the possibilities, but it was her darkest suspicions that growled from the cold recesses of her being. It fed an instant hatred for Alex, without certainty of why.
She repeated a single sentence.
I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you die…
The hopelessness made her sick to her stomach. She heaved and buckled as she picked herself up off the floor, and very suddenly, she found herself at the mouth of the forest. The impenetrable black deadened her cries for her husband. She screamed until she was hoarse, then lowered her head and gave her body to the darkness.
When Marla opened her eyes again, the room was dyed with the purple hues of the afternoon. She was in her bed, hoping before she took a breath that death had found her, and perhaps it was John’s disembodied presence she felt so heavy in the other room. But the painful reminder of life came when she peeled her bloodied knees and elbows off the sheets, and sat up to the reminder of death. Her clothes were tattered, the gritty taste of earth was on her tongue, and it was Alex’s earthbound flesh that disturbed the quiet in the kitchen.
She found him slumped at the table, a stray leaf in his hair, and noticeable scratches from her nails across his face.
Are you okay?
She poured herself a glass of water and drank it so quickly it leaked out the sides of her mouth. When she was done, she poured herself another.
It’s a good thing you didn’t venture too far from here. You could have been lost. I looked for John after I brought you back. At first light I’ll go back out and search or him some more.
Marla refused to turn and face him. She stared out the window, her dirty cheeks streaked clean from the water.
The moon was just bright enough for me to find some of the paths you and John had made. He spent so much time in those woods before you found us. I always wondered what he thought about out there. When I became too weak to walk I crawled, and when I couldn’t crawl I ate the dirt where I lay, in hopes that some part of him had seeped into the soil and would call for me.
She turned to look at Alex’s sullen face.
The bird songs heard outside the windows were in stark contrast to the silence inside the stuffy cottage. Alex’s eyes could only stay fixed on Marla’s dirty feet. He had no immediate affection for them, but he wondered how callused they were.
I’m just so grateful you survived. I don’t know what I would have done if I were left alone.
His eyes lifted to meet hers, with a teary flash of surprise.
I’m sorry I couldn’t save him. It all happened so fast. We must have ventured too far, because the Nazis were everywhere. They chased us down like dogs. I heard gun shots, and then I turned and saw John firing back at them. He told me to keep running, but I should have stayed with him.
She sat beside him, and took his hand in hers.
You did what you had to do, I’m sure.
I promise I’ll find him, even if it kills me.
He’s gone. Let him be.
I can’t give up that easily. I owe it to you—to him.
Those soldiers could still be out there. We need to stay close by and hope they don’t find us. Now get some rest.
She helped him up from the table, and walked his weary body into his room to lay him down. He stopped her before she could leave.
Where are you going?
Just down to the creek. I’ll be back before dark.
Marla stripped naked and waded into the creek. She gingerly washed away the blood and pus from her scrapes while she angrily whispered incomprehensible words.
In the blurry hours of morning she had found John’s body. He was twisted awkwardly like a rag doll that had fallen from a tree. His eyes were wide open looking up towards the heavens and flinched not when the flies landed on them.
There was no evidence of a struggle, not the trampled forest of soldiers, not a fight for love and life, but a crumpled corpse with a seemingly harmless hole in its head, and miles of nothing as witness.
She felt very little in that moment, too surreal for her to comprehend. She could only notice that his body was no different than the mossy log it rested near. She would not bury him with her bare hands instead she would let him be the decomposing marker for whomever carried out such an ugly deed. That person would have to pass that way again, and they would be met with the stench of their actions.
In the cool waters of the creek she lay, letting her anger and desperation drink her in. It was Alex who had taken her husband, whether it be the truth or not meant little to her now. Her wrath was all she had left, and it would be known to him.
When she returned to the cottage Alex was sleeping. She stood in his doorway and watched his unconscious body, her bottom lip quivered like a weakened dam. She wanted to tear into his flesh and rip him limb from limb. And it could have easily been done in that moment. Her hands trembled with the rage of armies.
And there was such self-hatred that spat up from her boiling gut. To be the fool who had underestimated the stranger was unacceptable.
She wanted to end it all in one flash of violence, but that would be too merciful for him. His suffering would have to be ageless, remembered as a stain spread out through time like the rusted ugliness of dried blood.
continued in part 9…