The Unsought Protectress

The Meeting Place. FOUR

photo by shf

Sprout had returned empty-handed and dropped the coin back into Evangel’s purse with nary an explanation. The farm they’d passed had clothes still on the line and its fences intact, but no one answered when he called, and he was too small to gamble his limbs on anyone who might be stalking the place. Before he emerged from his spy’s perch on the brushy rise nearby, he turned from the need for milk and ran like a white-tailed deer from a coyote, his fear the stronger of the fuels that moved him. Fear could only get you so far, Evangel had cautioned. Once the screaming is over, one must rise up and ignore the pounding heart and the mental lashings. She wanted him to learn that actions are best taken toward honoring one’s own desire to live, not escaping one’s desire not to die.

The wind whipped in the treetops as Evangel walked the circle around the fire, watching the smoke follow her like a servant. She had befriended a rabbit, feeding it roots she had pulled near the river. Now, it would be feeding her and the boy. She had thanked it as she broke its neck, and bit her tongue as she tore at its coat. She reserved the words brutal and cruel for others. For now, she allowed the rabbit to take a new form and to lend itself to the lives around it. The fate of all of us, she granted.

Sprout sat curled against a knobby pine holding his carving knife and a fallen branch he had shortened to the length and thickness of his forearm. What are you whittling? Evangel asked.

He looked at her with a steadiness that already told her what he would say. I’m waiting to find out, he replied, and he turned aside and scraped another strip of bark away, revealing the smoother, stronger wood.

They talked in riddles because it’s the only way they knew how. The inner and outer things of the world weren’t compatible in conversation between two so used to being on guard. Bad bloods had taken hold of them both, and they had learned that language could offer more menace than medicine, more manipulation than truth. Somewhere in their family lines, the ruthlessness of survival had twisted into betrayals and indulgences that skirted the common good. The twinge of conscience that lived in their bellies didn’t have a name, and the best they could do was speak in incomplete sentences that gave away nothing and ended in question marks or an ellipsis that dragged into the weeds. They couldn’t imagine broken ice, a swell of sincerity, a thesaurus of feeling words that would express their attentiveness to things as they are. Day and night, sun and shadow, leaf fall, bird nests, melting water, empty bellies, tired eyes, scuffed knees, stiff shoulders. She dreamed of pillows. He dreamed of bread.

They each had a story of how they had met. Nothing had come before. Nothing was guaranteed after. She appeared on the steps near the well at the edge of the village just as he did. They didn’t speak until a third visitor appeared, a man more interested in the boy than the woman.

Give me your hand, she directed the lad. She faltered and groaned in a play for her balance. The boy took the cue and sped to her aid like one who wanted no trouble.

We must get on, she said, as she brushed her apron and pressed the cork into her flask. The bearded man studied them as the pair crept away, Evangel limping as she gripped the boy by the shoulder, in full possession of him.

The Meeting Place series will continue next week with Part Five. See this post for an introduction.

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