The morning brought peace and golden ribbons of sunshine through the trees. Marla was in the kitchen with cracks of light angled across her face. It sharpened her blue eyes to see through the shadows and into Alex’s room, where he slowly and dispiritedly readied to leave.
She mourned his life in one tearless blink, and cursed her troubled morals on her short walk to his room.
Alex’s eyes rose at the sight of her lazy figure in his shadowy doorway. She tipped ever-so gently against the wall, and smiled.
Good morning, Alex.
Did you sleep well?
Yes, these two nights have been good.
I’m glad, and we’re very grateful for what you’ve done for us too.
There is no need to thank me.
You can stay if you want.
Alex opened his mouth to speak, but surprise had muted him.
It’s too cold for you to go back out there. It only makes sense for you to wait out winter here.
What does your husband think?
I’ll deal with my husband.
He stared into her eyes clear from the fog of starvation, now open and brilliant. It caused a delicate ripple to drift through his curiosity.
I would be lying if I said I wanted to go back out into this weather.
Then you’ll stay.
Only if it’s okay with John.
He already agrees.
You don’t believe me?
No, I just….Where is he?
Getting firewood, he’ll be right in.
John’s familiar stomping was heard from outside the cottage door. A burst of cold air brushed against Marla’s heavy skirt as John pushed open the door.
The sour gulp of doubt burned John’s throat when he saw Marla’s shadow through the strands of sun standing in Alex’s doorway. He approached carefully.
John, I was just telling Alex how we’d love for him to stay the winter.
Yes, remember when we both agreed it was the right thing to do. You said something about ‘the thought of Alex dying out there sickens you.’
I don’t recall saying that.
Well, I don’t remember what you said, but we agreed that it would be inhumane to push him out into certain death.
Alex took a half step forward to speak.
I can leave if this is going to be a problem.
John bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He could taste it on the back of his tongue as he tried to calm the fear that crashed within him.
No, Marla is right. You should stay. We have plenty of room.
Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to repay you.
We’re just doing what any decent person would do.
Well, if it’s just the same to you, I’ll do everything I can to help.
John forced a smile, and left the room. Marla lingered a moment. She whispered to Alex.
She left him still and nervous. He wondered if she was aware of his thoughts of her. He wondered what terrible games they’d play.
A mouse scurried from under the bed and slipped behind a shelf.
That night John made love to Marla loud enough for Alex to hear. He was telling Alex he was a man, and Marla belonged to him. Marla was telling Alex she was a woman, and does what she pleases.
Soon the days began running together like colors in an oil painting. Menial tasks were performed with only slivers of conversation in between. A distant familiarity grew between them like frustrated strangers waiting for a train together.
Alex in particular was growing restless. The tension between him and John was cold and impenetrable. Their eyes were deadened with the veiled resentment between them.
He spent most of his time filling every empty day with his growing curiosity in the beautiful Marla.
In the months Alex had been there he had several visits with Marla that hadn’t gone unnoticed by John. One such visit happened three months earlier, when the spring was just starting to claw through the snow.
Before long, the food began to run low, and they needed more than the stray rabbit or squirrel outside the cottage. John and Alex would have to go into the woods again. They both dreaded that day.
Marla was down by the creek washing her clothes, when Alex snuck up behind her. His gaze lingered a moment, before he gently made Marla aware of his presence by throwing a stone in the creek just beyond her reflection.
She pretended not to be startled when she looked back at him, but he saw her jump when the stone landed.
Did I frighten you? I’m sorry.
Don’t mistake surprise for fright.
He walked over to the water and squatted down to look at his reflection. He dipped his hands in and drank from it.
The water is so much clearer now.
If it was a river it would be muddy.
Alex brushed some melting snow off a large stone, and sat down to watch Marla continue her chore.
You come down here a lot. I mean, I’ve noticed over these months how much time you spend by the water.
You notice a lot of things.
Yes, there isn’t much else to do here.
What happened to that chess set you said you would make?
I discovered that despite my prior certainty, I can’t whittle……Cigarette?
Marla smiled and pulled a cigarette from Alex’s extended offer. He lit it for her, before she went back to her task.
Do you still love him?
Marla’s smile went away.
I hardly think that’s an appropriate question.
I think it is a reasonable question any one friend would ask another.
It’s a familiar question. We’re not familiar.
And since when do you worry about such things? You went out of your way to let me stay here and—
I didn’t go out of my way. I did what I was supposed to do, and so did John. I think maybe you misinterpreted my intentions.
And tell me, what did I think your intentions were?
Marla hesitated. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering such a question.
You waited a long time to do this. I would have thought you’d approach me much sooner.
I was spending all that time waiting for you. The way you looked at me when you manipulated John into—
I didn’t manipulate anyone. It was my decision. There was no need for manipulation.
There she is. That’s the woman I met three months ago. Where has she been hiding all this time? I swore I saw her when you kissed my cheek on the New Year, but maybe I was merely seeing things.
There is no hiding here. I’ve been doing what I have to do, and counting the days for this to be over. However you chose to see me is up to you.
No, you’ve been elusive. Is it because you’re afraid of me?
Have I seemed afraid to you?
You haven’t seemed like anything to me. I’m not a German by the way. There were times when I wished I was, when I was afraid. But, I’m just another person for them to hate.
Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help you.
What else could I do?
Go talk to John. Don’t sneak around me.
He doesn’t have anything to say to me, and as it turns out, I don’t have much to say to him. He’s just waiting for me to leave.
I could be waiting for you to leave too. In fact, shouldn’t you be leaving soon?
Yes, but I don’t think you want me to go. Why else would you risk so much for me to stay?
You’re assuming too much.
You should know me well enough by now not to doubt me.
And you know nothing of me.
They smiled at each other before Alex headed back up the path.
In the evening the winter rolled over in its death bed to remind them it was still alive. It could barely muster the breath to freeze the falling snow as it drifted to the ground.
John often liked to go outside in the evenings to listen to the air. That night he asked Alex if he would join him.
They watched the heavy snowflakes fall against the line of trees in the distance. The moon glowed through the thick and heavy clouds.
Alex broke the silence.
For the bitch that it is, winter can still be beautiful.
Alex reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. He offered one to John. They smoked and listened to the faint din of night.
How many cigarettes do you have left?
Three and a half packets, including this one.
Do me a favor, and don’t give any more to Marla. I don’t want her to smoke all of them on you. She smoked all of ours in the first few months we were here.
It’s really not a problem.
But it is.
A night bird flew over the clearing.
continued in part 7…