R. C. Smith — Short Stories and Vignettes

Do not read my works if you are offended by descriptions of sexuality and violence.
(Do not read them just for those descriptions, either.)

The Promise

“You have lied to me, have you not?”

It was not a question, but his voice betrayed not so much anger but surprise.

Yes, I had lied when I had told him to hide under the bales of straw because I was not allowed to entertain a visitor in my cabin.

Who would have cared?

And if they had, what could it possibly mean to me now?

It was the second time that I had lied to him, but he didn't know it yet. He would, soon. It had been those four weeks ago, the first morning after he had arrived, in the darkness, in the night, in the thunderstorm, coming up that steep and narrow and half-forgotten path, only the flashes of lightning showing him the way, when it had been a miracle that the storm and the pouring rain had not wiped him off the scarp and to his death.

“I have slept soundly and without dreams, for the first time in months,” he had said, when he had woken up long after the sun had risen, after I had given him a warm meal in the evening, after I had hung his wet clothes in front of the fire to dry them, after our first love-making.

“The thin air up here made you sleep,” I had said to him, before we made love again. I had not told him about the herbs I had put into his tea.

In the following weeks we made love often, though love-making probably isn't the right word. There was no love involved, certainly not on his side. I was his to be used, a soft feminine body, open to his desires, and he used me, in the usual ways, and in others. He never hurt me, though, not badly, not so that I couldn't do my work. He liked to watch me when I worked, outside, with the animals, or in the cabin. Naked — he liked to see my body, and he liked to see my bruises — unless it was too cold, when he told me to get dressed, before I even noticed that I had goose pimples all over. Sometimes he helped me with my work, sometimes we went on walks, though he didn't like to go far, but most of the time he kept to himself, content to watch me, and to use me when he felt the need. And I, did I love him? But what do I know about love, what do I care? All that I needed to know was that he had come.

A huge surge of anticipation made me shiver, and I was glad he didn't notice.

That time, our first morning, I had lied to him because I had not wanted him to know what I then already knew. I had not wanted him to know that I had searched his knapsack and read his diary during the night. He never suspected it. He didn't even know that I could read, I think.

This time, before the two boys had come to drive the flock that I had tended over the summer down to the valley, I had lied to him because I did not want to embarrass him.

“Hide, because they might remember your face, when my dead body will be found” — how could I have said this to him?

They were gone now, we were alone again.

Some time during the last weeks I had shown him the path across the mountains, to the South.

“How long before the snow will make it impassable?” he asked.

I looked at the sky, I felt the air. “A week,” I said, “at the most.”

He nodded.

“You will not take me with you,” I said. It was not a question, just an acknowledgment of an obvious fact, and there was no need for him to reply.

“I have to make everything ready for the winter,” I said after a while, to end the silence. “It will take a few days, but if you help me, we can do it faster, and then there will be more time for ... for ...” My voice failed me. “For what you will do.” There, I had said it. “Time,” I added. “Days ...”

It was then that he realized that I knew.

That I had always known.

What had I expected he would do now, or say? Would he savor the moment, or would it make him feel awkward? Would he be kind to me, or be cruel? Would he cast down his eyes, or look into mine? Would he be strong, would he be brave ... as strong and as brave as I was? Though was I strong and brave, when I relied on him so much? No, it was for him to be strong and brave — did he understand how much I needed him?

He did not look at me when he spoke. “No,” he said. “No, you are mistaken.”

I felt as if he had hit me. Spat at me. Thrown me into a cold void, a freezing abyss, a pitch-black nothingness.

“But the diary,” I said, wondering that I could even speak, not sure, and not caring, whether my words could actually be heard. Maybe he didn't need to hear them, to know what they were. “The girl you have killed, before you came to me. Like the others before. Tortured her for days. Broke her bones, cut off her fingers, her toes, her breasts, her labia, her lips ... skinned her ... cut out her eyes ... raped her ... sliced off her meat ... cooked and ate it ... why? why? why her ... why not me?” I started to cry, and I cried so hard that, had he said anything, I would not have heard him — I cried, and I longed for him to touch me, to hold me, to punch me, to kick me — anything — but he didn't, and there came the moment when through the dark fog of my despair I realized that I had stopped crying.

All through my crying, he hadn't moved. He hadn't left me, at least this he hadn't done. When he thought I was able to listen, he spoke again.

“It's not my diary. It's not my handwriting. If I had a pencil, I could prove it to you.” It was true, I hadn't found a pencil among his possessions. I didn't have one, either — but even if I had, he could disguise his handwriting, couldn't he? I didn't want him to prove it, did I? I didn't want it proved. I wanted it to be a lie. I had lied to him, why shouldn't he lie to me?

“I took it from a man whom I killed,” he said, answering a question I had not asked. “This, and his boots, and the knife.” I had seen the knife, too, that first night — the one in his knapsack, not the one that he used during the days. The one with the shiny blade, double-edged, and the smooth polished wooden haft — I had seen it, and taken it, and pressed it against my skin — moved it all over my body, naked, shuddering from its cold touch, from its glaring heat — on my breasts, my belly, my thighs, between my legs — I had kissed it, cutting my tongue on its sharp edge, tasting my blood — then I had wiped it clean and put it back, knowing it was there for me — meant for me — as he was — soon — now ...

“I better go now,” he said. Over the mountain. South. Away. Leaving me abandoned, alone with my pain, my need, my hopeless thoughts. “I'm sorry.” Sorry for what? For not being who I had thought he was? Or for his weakness, his lie, his deceit? I would never know.

I thought of asking him to leave me the knife, even though I knew that without him it would just be a dead keepsake, without power to hurt and to heal, but I was too afraid he'd deny me that, too. “Go, then,” I said, and lay down on the cot, on my side, facing the wall, away from him. I heard him move, and for a moment I expected him to come to me, after all, but then I realized that he put on his coat, and picked up his knapsack, and walked towards the door. Before he closed it behind him, he said something, but he was already half through it, and there was the sound of the wind blowing in, and I had started to cry again, so I could not make out the words, and when I asked him, silently, crying, to repeat them, he was already gone.

I lay there for a long time, waiting, but he did not return.

I got up, and washed my face in the cold water, and made everything ready for the winter, then I began my descent down into the valley, which I reached before the snow fell. I had the strength for this, I had the strength to get up again, because, you know, as I lay there I had listened to his parting words in my head, over and over again, straining my ears, shutting out all the other sounds, the wind, my crying, until there was only his voice that I heard, clearly now, each single word. Two words only, they were. Next year, he had said.

One more year. If next year really is what he has said. If he will remember it. If he will be able to make it. It will be a long year, to wait, and to hope. But after all these years, hope for him is all I have, isn't it?

(07/2009, finished 12/2014)

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