On the third day of the April rains, he left to check the fish mill. “That bitch,” as he called the river, was swollen and feisty with the flood. Left alone she’d burst the dams. He was not prone to sentimentality, but Kate could tell by the way he paused at the door that he didn’t want to leave. He never left her alone. In the last four years, she hadn’t slept without his arm over her torso. He lurked outside when her bowel movements kept her in the outhouse longer than usual. She didn’t bathe by herself.
But by day nine, Kate feared the bitch had taken him.
She’d have to wait until the waters receded to be sure. Lord willing. If the French Broad River had seen fit to carry him out of Henderson County, she’d never know. Roy didn’t carry identification, those hunter’s orange suspenders were good enough anywhere in the county, but Tennessee would be different. He might even make it to the Mississippi. Roy would be livid to have his bones rest anywhere other than here—the county he’d never left. But Kate thought there was something romantic about his body becoming part of the water. She imagined he’d get to touch the ocean. But she didn’t have time for imagining; there was too much to be done.
A cottage in the woods conjured quixotic visions of snuggling in heirloom quilts, sipping cocoa next roaring fires, idealistic notions of off-grid homesteading, organic gardens and frolicking wildlife. The cabin Kate shared with Roy was more hunt camp than bed and breakfast. It was cold and dark in January, hot and dark in July. A day didn’t pass where she didn’t trap or shoo something that slithered or squeaked from a hidden corner. The rot-riddled roof was little more than the final obstacle for the water to find its way around before it dripped off the ceiling beam and down the back of Kate’s neck. She’d made a tent over the baby’s bed with an old afghan. As the tent saturated, she switched it for a different blanket. The water didn’t evaporate this time of year. Soon she’d run out of anything close to dry.
She’d kept the fire going. It was harder done than said. It was Roy’s job to bring in the wood inside the house and let it dry from sodden to merely damp. On his last day, he hadn’t. Feeding the sopping logs she dragged inside to the hungry flames filled the cabin with smoke. She’d had no other choice. The fire was as ravenous for fuel as she was, as greedy as the baby for her attention, and as stingy with comfort as Roy, only occasionally providing her with a moment of warmth. Kate wouldn’t have described them as one of those couples who were just co-existing, but his absence showed her all the ways that she’d come to rely more on his labor and less on his company.
Roy was a quiet man. She wasn’t privy to his thoughts or plans, but she was surprised when she looked in the cupboard to find it so bare. She couldn’t remember the last time he went for supplies, but would have sworn that there had been extra oatmeal and shortening, and at least one more bag of milk powder. The rain did that to a person, though, made you think thoughts that weren’t your own. Sometimes, the roar of the water falling from heaven made it impossible to have any thoughts at all.On the tenth day, despite hanging, all of the blankets were soaked, the towels and the flour sacks, too. Everything smelled of must, sour, and smoke. Kate decided Roy would have to forgive her if she used his extra shirt to keep the drips off the baby. Crossing to the bedroom portion of their one-room cabin, she paused. He might not mind her borrowing the shirt, but he would hate her going in his trunk. It wasn’t only his thoughts he kept private from Kate. In the four years they’d shared that cabin, she’d never looked in the foot locker before. Army issue, from when his dad fought the gooks. It didn’t have a lock; the memory of his hand across her cheekbone was enough.
As she stood in front of the battered green box, the pad of her thumb traced the scar on her bottom lip, fingers pinching the always tender bridge of her nose. Her muscles remembered fighting his hands for air as he squeezed her throat. Her eyes saw stars again. A phantom of pain burned under her skin. The baby’s cry in the other room startled her. She closed her eyes and lifted the latch, opening them to find the trunk empty. Her breath caught in her throat. Disbelief struck her dumb; she blinked and rubbed her eyes. The black snake of doubt that she’d kept coiled in the back of her mind slithered out and she fell to her knees on the wood floor, planks swollen with damp, and she knew.
Kate never imagined a life in the woods. When she’d first seen Roy looking up at her riding the Ferris wheel at the Mountain Fair, in autumn of her senior year, she’d been contemplating her escape from under her parent’s thumbs. He was big, dark-haired and square-jawed. Standing with his hands in his pockets, his eyes never left her. Some of the girls in her class, the brainy and the beautiful ones, talked about escaping to university or to the city. Kate just wanted her own money and for her mother to stop hassling her about her back brace. The bend in her spine that made her stand with her hip out limited her dating life enough without the coordinating magnetic accessories. She’d wondered, in one of the many quiet moments in the expanse of time between that moment on the Ferris wheel and this one in the cabin, if the brace that had driven so many suitors away had been a draw for Roy. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Close up, Roy was older than she’d hoped, but the intensity of his gaze thrilled her. She’d intentionally walked behind the goat barn, the quiet darkness perfect for a first meeting. She’d never expected it would lead to this.
She ran her hand over the bottom of the trunk, her fingernails pulling at the edges, digging in the cracks. She scavenged the cabin fingering all his remaining things, finding them flimsy with abandonment. Rocking the baby next to the skimpy fire she poured over the morning he left. Their relationship was fraught with moments, days and weeks, even, of miscommunication; times when she had no idea what he wanted. Times when he chose to tell her with his fist instead of his mouth.
The events of that morning ten days before were still at the front of her mind as she re-buttoned the front of her blouse and placed the baby back in his bed. She found a box and made a place for him under the kitchen table. The labor provided her a respite from her thoughts, so she busied herself with tasks that taxed her body. Somewhere between priming the well pump and hauling the heavy pails of water into the kitchen for boiling, she realized that it wasn’t only the morning he left she should be examining. He had planned this. She pulled up her long skirt and peered at the calloused flesh encircling her right ankle.
When he’d first brought her to the cabin, she’d thought it had all been a misunderstanding. She had said, “Let’s go somewhere more private,” while he pressed her into the back of the goat barn and kissed her neck. The ride up the mountain under his arm made her pulse pound. Her friends were going to be so jealous. Even as he stripped her clothes, removed her earrings and broke off the pendant her parents had given her, it wasn’t fear that dominated her thoughts, but confusion. This wasn’t at all like the love scenes she’d seen on TV. It wasn’t until he closed the metal cuff around her ankle and locked it to a chain attached to the bed that fear came. Slow and cold, it filled her chest and weakened her joints, her heart beating like the wings of a hummingbird at her mother’s feeder. She’d beaten herself up for years since, laying in the dark and staring at the log beam above her head, his thick arm across her chest. The weight of the chain trapping her in the night took years to learn to ignore.
He’d finally unlocked the cuff when pregnancy swelling turned her foot purple. “I reckon you can’t run regardless,” he’d said, placing the cuff on the mantel. That was three months ago. He hadn’t touched her in that time, either. Kate found her mind spinning the same circles as it had her first year at the cabin. Nothing made sense.
As she lay in bed looking up at the beam, she felt too light without the weight of his arm. It was too quiet without his snores. He was gone. She was free. She took a deep breath. She was free— until the horror of the situation revealed itself. She was free, except she was starving, and had been for days. She was free, but her cabin was waterlogged, falling down and unfit to live in. She was free, but she had a newborn and no earthly idea where she was or where she could go.
In the beginning he’d brought her wildflower roots and seeds to plant around the cabin. He’d rubbed her sore ankle and applied a salve when her skin was raw. He’d brought her treats from the store when he went in for supplies. He was often gentle in the dark. If she could ignore the cuff and his waiting outside the outhouse while she shat, she could pretend it was a relationship. And now he was gone. If she didn’t leave, she’d be gone, too.
She put on her winter skirt and blouse, and strapped the baby to her front by fashioning herer shawl into a sling. She wrapped her feet in rags; Roy had thrown away everything from her former life and worn his only pair of boots when he left. Even if she had things to take, she wouldn’t. This could be a test.
He’d tested her before. The second spring, he’d taken her chains off and they’d gone down to the river. He’d stripped naked and waded, washing the winter off his body in the bracing water. She’d waited at the bank. Watched him move farther from shore. Calculated the distance and the time it would take him to get back to the bank. Casually looked over her shoulder at the density of the woods and wondered how far she could get before he even noticed she was gone. But she wasn’t watching closely enough. She didn’t make it to the rhododendron before his meaty hand squeezed her upper arm. Without a mirror, she didn’t know the damage that was done to her face, but her body was black with bruises. Her chains felt tighter for months.
He would test her. Now that the baby was a couple months old, he would watch from the woods. Now that she was almost on her feet again. He would test her. She was almost sure. Fear penetrated, lingered, like the smoke in her clothes.
She arranged the house so it looked like they were coming back. Leaving her collection of heart shaped stones on the windowsill made her chest ache, but he would never expect her to abandon them. The rain wasn’t as loud on the roof as it had been yesterday. She looked down at her baby’s smooth brow and knew it had to be now. She slipped out the front door and closed it behind her with shaking hands. The rags felt strange beneath her feet, but her toes had not forgotten the way to the gate. When she was heavily pregnant he’d allowed her to walk the gate path, back and forth, to encourage the baby to come. Then, she’d touched the padlock that held the halves of the barbed wire gate together with each pass, willing the next time for it to be open. Today she’d brought the axe.
The moss beneath her feet squished as she hurried toward the gate. A drop of rain slid off her nose and dripped onto her upper lip. Would he be sitting just on the other side of the gate? How far would he let them go before she felt his hand on her arm, squeezing? Would she survive this time? If so, what would she lose? Her teeth? A finger? The ability to breathe through her nose? The ability to walk? How many months would she wear his marks? Or would it be years? The gate was just around the bend. Everything in her said turn around. To wait him out. But she pressed on. It wasn’t much of a choice, really.she might die either way.
When she saw it, she dropped the axe and ran. The baby’s head hit her in the larynx with each step. She gasped and choked, but didn’t stop. She hugged tighter, pressing the baby’s weight to her chest, half in an attempt to breathe and half from the need to cling to something solid as everything she knew shifted. She stopped just short of the swinging gate. She watched the water form a stream in the beaten path, a river running away from their cabin, and she cried for the first time.
Meagan Lucas is a Canadian who found home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She writes fiction, and obsesses about the mire of morality. Amidst neuroses, she mainlines coffee and feasts on goldfish crackers to quell her nerves. Her work can be found in a variety of journals including: Four Ties Lit Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project and The Penmen Review. She lives with her husband and children, and teaches composition in Asheville, North Carolina.