Sunday, July 29, 2007

Part Two: Chapter One

Diana fumbled with the latch to the chicken run. Her cold fingers slipped and she nicked herself, but felt no pain. She touched her tongue to the spot of blood as she pulled the gate open with her other hand and slipped inside. The hens crowded around her feet, pecking at the toes of her shoes. "Don't be silly," she told them. "You act like today is any different from yesterday."

She walked to the low feeding trough, scattering chickens ahead of her, and poured in a mixture of grain and table scraps. As the birds huddled around their breakfast, she patted their smooth, plump bodies. "Better watch it, Missy," she told a particularly fat one. "You're about ready for the frying pan."

While the birds were thus distracted, she went into the hen house, carrying the empty bucket. A few hens sat on their box nests, watching with sharp eyes.

"You know what this is about, don't you? But I'm bigger than you, and I want my breakfast." It struck her that Amalia would have been pleased to hear such a statement from her on the subject of food. Then again, maybe not. It seemed she was hungry all the time, when she wasn't sick to her stomach. She had a horrible suspicion as to why.

"I know," she said as she reached under the belly of a squawking hen. "You want what we all want— to be left in peace. Too bad for you." She pulled out a smooth, warm egg and put it in her bucket. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

She went to the other layers, clucking to them as she gathered the eggs. There weren't very many today, but that was to be expected. Although technically it was spring, the nights were still cold, and the hens wouldn't begin laying in earnest until warmer weather settled in for good.

As she walked the path to the house, she glanced toward the far edge of the paddock. Sometimes she saw a movement among the trees. Her guard. When she had first seen him, she had been annoyed, but Rebecca reassured her. "It's nice of Unitas to do that for you, although it isn't necessary. They’ve never set a guard for anyone else who has stayed here."

Diana knew why Robert had posted the guard and was both comforted and embarrassed that he had gone to the extra expense on her behalf. That the guard was still here nearly three months after her arrival must mean Amalia had told him that she hadn't meant all those harsh words she had said to him. So why hadn't he come to see her, or at least written? She had been so sure he cared.

Diana didn't feel sure of anything anymore. She had slipped into the childhood rhythms of farm life so quickly that it left her disoriented. It had come back too easily— feeding the chickens, milking the goats, making yogurt and cheese, and doing all the simple needful chores that must be done to get through one day and prepare for the next. Although this mountain farm was different from the flat desert rancho of her childhood, the pattern of daily life was the same. After years of nomadic living, she found herself both comforted and confused by it all.

And so she moved through the days in a fog. She did the things that were in front of her to do, without question or prompting. Rebecca's quiet comings and goings wove through Diana's hours, leaving plenty of time for pondering, but thoughts wouldn't come, beyond those associated with the immediate tasks at hand. Every time she tried to push through the barrier that separated the present moment from what she knew couldn't be ignored forever, she came up short. It was too complicated, too tiring, too much to think about. There was only this hour and this moment to get through. Anything more exhausted her. The rest would have to wait, even though she was beginning to sense that time was running out.

On this particular morning, she was startled to return to the kitchen and find Will warming his hands over the stove. He had written several times over the past weeks— short notes that said nothing in particular. None of his letters had said he would come to see her. What was he doing here now? She closed the door and stared. After weeks with no one but dainty Rebecca for company, Will seemed to fill the room, taller, stronger and more commanding than she had remembered him. His cheeks and ears were tinged red with cold and he flexed his fingers, trying to work some feeling back into them. Diana looked around, but Rebecca was nowhere to be seen.

Will gave a tentative smile. "Look at you, farm girl. I guess I should've known you wouldn't spend any time resting and would go straight to work."

Diana set the bucket on the floor. "I had to do something. I couldn't just. . ."

"Couldn't let anyone take care of you, could you?"

She fumbled in her mind, unable to call back the memory of what Will had done that made her reluctant to throw herself into his arms like she used to. She was fairly certain it was something he said. . .

"Is this any way to greet a man who rode two days in snowmelt to see you?" He folded her in his arms and Diana leaned into him, resting her head against his chest. His clothes were cold and smelled of spring mud, and his wool sweater was scratchy against her cheek, but he was comfortable and solid, like a tree. Her body melted into his out of long habit and she felt his fingers trace the braid between her shoulder blades. "I've missed you," he said.

She pulled away, remembering now why her first impulse had been toward caution. He had told her he loved her the day he left her here, and he had said it in a tone that suggested more than the ordinary love of a brother for his adoptive sister. She picked up the bucket of eggs. "You must be hungry," she said, walking toward the sink. "I was going to make migas this morning." She washed the eggs and began cracking them into a bowl, avoiding his eyes.

He watched in silence for a moment, then sat at the kitchen table. "That'll be fine. I didn't eat so good on the road."

Diana looked at the breakfast ingredients spread out in front of her, suddenly at a loss. She had laid everything out before she went for the eggs, but now the tortillas and chiles looked unfamiliar and she couldn't for the life of her remember what to do with them. She grabbed the coffee pot and began working the pump handle. "I wish Auntie had come with you. There are things I need to talk to her about."

“I’ve come to take you to her.”

Diana turned around, startled. “Is she not well?”

“She’s fine. It’s just I thought you'd like to go home and be with us again.”

Diana set the coffee to boil and now the rest of the meal made sense. She began heating oil in an iron skillet. "Maybe you should find Rebecca and let her know I'll have breakfast ready soon."

Will left the room. With a sigh of relief, Diana began browning peppers and pieces of stale tortilla. What did he want? How long was he going to stay? He didn't really expect her to go back with him, did he? It was impossible. The thought of those dark, smoky mines and all those people who knew the mistakes she had made, the death she had caused, and the things those men had done to her— the very idea of going back sickened her.

At least here in the mountains with only Rebecca and the animals for company, she had found some measure of peace. She was safe. She could forget. No one expected her to kill, lie, or rescue anyone. No one needed her to be brave. And no one watched her, fussed over her, told her what to do and then plotted and gossiped behind her back.

She poured the eggs into the skillet and began scrambling them with the chiles and tortillas. She wasn't going back. Not now, and maybe not ever.