The first couple of days after Pita was born were … odd, strangely blissful. That isn’t something that I would normally say, certainly nothing that I ever contemplated feeling. I felt like I’d run a race, a long hard one, through someplace that was a cross between the worst of both a desert and a swamp. At the same time there was that feeling that I had accomplished something so spiritual that there weren’t words to describe it. I was physically tired but mentally and spiritually energized. I felt high as a kite, only in a good way that left me with my reality intact. I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want the real world to ooze back into the magical we had built for ourselves.
Kerry, bless his little heart, was at first excited to finally see the baby; but the new wore off in short order. About the forth night running when Pita let it be known that she required multiple feedings just to survive the night Kerry stepped out into the hallway rubbing his eyes and said, “You know, snoring at so bad.”
Poor little man; he’d been the sole focus of the house so long that having a new baby underfoot was a challenge, especially one that tended to get mad a whole lot faster than she got happy. But the first time she would only smile – even if it was just gas – for him he got just as besotted as Dino. Now Pita can do no wrong and I can see me a long, hard slog in the future trying to keep the two of them from spoiling her to the point she’s just plain rotten.
About a day after Pita was born there was a short scare when I developed a fever that spiked pretty high but then it went back down and I haven’t felt ill since. I figure it was reaction and nerves but Dino has been real resistant to me going back to chores. He was also careful about how and when he raised the issue of Sol’s visit.
“Hey Riss, what’s wrong? You hardly said anything when Brother Calvert came over for supper? Was it too soon?”
I sighed in agitation. “No. It was our turn and I was happy to have him. Besides, you aunt did everything; all I did was sit there and feed my face.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
I fidgeted unable to find any relief. “Oh Dino, I’m …” I stopped because my hormones were still close to the surface and finally got myself under control. “Don’t mind me, I’m just sore in places I refuse to talk about.”
I mistook the look on Dino’s face. “If you laugh at me so help me I’ll make you sore in the same places.”
He put a perfectly blank face on and said, “Whoa Honey, I’d never laugh because you were in pain. I don’t see you laughing at me because I’m sitting here with a compress on my knee.”
I took a deep breath and tried to master myself. “I’m sorry Dino. I know you and Cheryl tell me this will all blow over but … I can’t get comfortable and it is making me foul. I can’t sit for long and you can guess why. I can’t lay down ‘cause it’s like trying to get comfortable with two boulders stuck on my chest. I can’t sleep because just as sure as I do Pita will wake up wanting to be fed … I swear she knows when I close my eyes for a rest. Standing for very long still makes me feel like my insides want to drop out. So I’m taking turns at all those positions and it only makes me more … more tired.” I ended on a boo-hoo.
“Aw Honey,” he said. His real sympathy only made me want to cry worse.
I wiped my eyes and said, “Don’t pay any attention to me. ‘And this too shall pass.’ Or so I’m told. I just have to hang on to thinking that.”
It was after supper and everything was quiet. Aunt Adona finally went home with Alec giving us the first true bit of privacy we’d had since I went into labor. Kerry was in bed asleep and even Pita was asleep after having guzzled her portion for the next little while.
Dino asked, “You want me to make you some warm milk? AJ sent those bars of chocolate out as a baby present. I could make you some cocoa.”
“No,” I said shaking my head. “I want to save it for the holidays unless you want some yourself.” At his negative answer I finally got around to telling him, “Don’t take this the wrong way but your cousin is some passing strange. Whoever heard of giving chocolate to a baby?”
Dino smiled, “The blanket and rattle were for the baby, the chocolate was for you and so was the perfume.”
I rolled my eyes, “So? That only proves my point more … it was a baby gift, not a mother/baby gift. Of course, he could have just been trying to tell me the same thing that Sol did.”
Ooops, I let the wrong thing fall out of my mouth. “And exactly what did Sol try to tell you?” Dino asked in a strained voice.
I sighed. “I suppose I can’t put this off forever.”
“I won’t force you …” he said though I could hear the longing in his voice to deal with it.
I got up and dragged the rocker over to his side of the fire place in the master bedroom. I was as quiet as I could be so as not to wake Pita. I had to put a hand on Dino to keep him from getting up to do it for me. That would have meant him taking the compress off his knee and I could tell how it was swollen that butchering those two deer, riding the fence in the damp and cold, and trying to do my share of the chores on top of his own was aggravating the injury he had barely recovered from. “I know. And thank you for not teasing me to talk about it sooner. I really don’t want to talk about it but I can’t run from it forever. The longer I leave it the worse you think it is.”
“It wasn’t … bad?” he asked hesitantly, a little disbelieving.
“Oh it was bad … but not because he really did anything more than run his mouth setting me to run mine. It was just seeing him. I run out so abrupt that night that I let a lot of stuff build up and get poisonous. And every moment he ran his mouth I kept feeling like a bigger and bigger fool.”
“I’ll slap his mouth shut for all eternity if he …” Dino growled.
I put my hand over his arm to calm him. “Dino, I’m gonna tell you what was said and I promise I won’t leave any of it out. Just don’t go off half-cocked. I won’t lie because it would only trip me up at some point down the line and I don’t want any of that between us even from good intentions. But … but I’ve had a bit of time to think on it.” I sighed. “I didn’t behave very well either. I didn’t do a thing to help myself. I had hard feelings and I let them bust out all over the place. You know how I can be, I was pretty nasty a couple of times myself.”
“You couldn’t be …” he tried to denied. I don’t see how he can still think I’m a sweet, mild-mannered thing after the time we’ve been together.
“How about the fact I called Shantelle a two-dollar whore?” At his surprised expression I corrected myself. “Well at least I said she smelled like one for wearing and I quote, perfume just to please him, end quote. He said she dressed pretty and had nice manners and smelled nice … never acting or smelling like a field hand.”
He got agitated again, saying some choice words. “Quiet Dino, please don’t wake the baby. I can’t take no more crying or suckling right now.” He calmed for my sake and I told him. “Trust me, I didn’t take any of his sass. But I’m not sure I really should have paid any attention to him at all to begin with. He only said things like he did because he knew it would get a rise out of me … and I gave it to him. Better had I acted like Aunt Adona. Instead I acted just about as immature as he did.” I shook my head in disgust. “I don’t know what makes me feel more foolish, being an idiot the first time around or letting him draw me down to his level this time.”
He fidgeted a bit and then said, “I don’t want you near him anymore without someone else around.”
That surprised me. “Why on earth would I be around him ever again?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want you to have to see him again either, but … life happens Riss. I can’t …” He stopped and shook himself unable to find the words he was looking for. “Just to be on the safe side I’m asking you to heed me on this. Please.”
I leaned over as much as my top side allowed and kissed him. “On this, gladly. I just … it isn’t Sol that has been bothering me. He irritated me, more than a little I’ll admit but it was mostly just irritation at him … and at myself. He did manage to hurt my feelings. But I have you now and all of this we have between us, he shouldn’t have been able to and the only way he could have is if I gave him the power to do it. That was just plain dumb. I really don’t care what he thinks anymore. You know he called me fat?! I mean, well duh, what did he expect? I was as pregnant as a horse and that meant I wasn’t going to exactly be as skinny as a rail for pity sake. That was just plain ignorant on his part and I hope come the time that Shantelle beats him if he acts the same way with her. And he’s a hypocrite ta boot; complaining at me that I hadn’t asked how he had been doing but there I was standing there …” I trailed off feeling myself get angry again. Sol Bly was nothing to me and I needed to start acting like it instead of letting my emotions rule my commonsense.
Dino snorted. “Honey, from what you’ve told me the new Mrs. Bly may have different priorities and have some idea of how to use procreation as a means of controlling Sol.”
Having heard similar stories about certain types of women I shrugged. “Well, whatever. It’s none of my business.” I got on with the telling of the tale and though it did stress me in parts overall I found it what they call cathartic to get it off my chest. It was especially nice to have Dino so on my side.
“All right Riss, all right. I can see how you got your own back,” he said after I pestered him on it. “But if you expect me to just let it go that he delivered such a shock to you the way he did and then left you to …”
I could hear the bear noises creeping into his voice and quickly told him, “It just proves he’s immature and nowhere near the man he claims to be. You should have seen him run Dino. I thought at the time he was running from me, what I’d said, but looking back I’m wondering if maybe it wasn’t Harry he was running from.”
Dino looked at me a long time. “You aren’t just saying that are you. You really think it.”
“I’m starting to. And no, it isn’t to give Sol some kind of credit or anything or to let him off the hook. Harry …” My chest felt so heavy for a moment I had to stop. It still hurt so bad to know I’d never see him again and that he’d died in such a way with such a burden. “Harry made reference in his letter to some talk he’d had with Sol and knowing Harry he likely said some raw and painful things. Harry could have a bad temper; not often, but it still happened. He didn’t yell or scream, it was the words he used and how he said them that could make you feel cut in a thousand places. He and Sol used to get into quite a lot when they first moved to the farm. I never understood it, maybe Harry had seen Sol better than I had all along. Or maybe not. Harry seemed as stunned and as hurt by what Sol did as I was.”
“I read the letter,” Dino admitted. “I hope you don’t mind.”
I shook my head. “I figure you had. Besides, I don’t have any secrets worth keeping from you. If you know my middle name, you know the worst.”
We smiled a bit as we’d turned the whole middle name thing into our private joke. Dino sighed from way down deep where all his emotions were. “I’m sorry Riss. War can be brutal. I knew it would change Harry, he was so open and honest and … and naïve in a way about people that had to … to go if he was going to survive. I just … I guess like you I knew what the possibilities were, but I never thought … “
“I don’t guess anybody ever wants to think about it happening to one of their own. But it does. Every time someone dies they belong to somebody somewhere. This time it was Harry and he belonged to us.” This time when the tears came I didn’t hold them back, but it wasn’t like last time. Dino was there and he anchored me … with his own experiences in war, with his love, and just by being him.
“Riss, the seal wasn’t broken on the legal documents. Did you even look at them?”
I tried to remember then shook my head. “I … I remember them. It was that packet of papers. I guess I …”
“Hey, don’t now,” he said as he shifted closer to me. “I didn’t say you should have, I just asked if you had. Do you … do you want to know what’s in them?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. Is it … is it bad? Like his medical records or … or … death certificate?”
“You’re white as a sheet. Aunt Adona warned me off bringing this up. Maybe we should just …”
“No,” I told him. “Don’t, please don’t, treat me like a child. I know I’ve acted … acted weird … and I’m sorry for it Dino. I didn’t even act like this when all my family died. I don’t know what … what got into me.” And I didn’t. It made me feel ashamed for a couple of reasons. I felt ashamed for acting like I did, but at the same time I felt ashamed for not acting the same way when I lost my mother, brother, and everyone else … I didn’t even act that way when Daddy died.
“You were a child when your family died Riss. And had you broke apart no telling what would have happened to you. God protects children with … with a kind of forgetfulness or innocence or something; or maybe it’s a strength we lose as we get older. I don’t know what to call it but I know it exists. Besides, it isn’t like it didn’t touch you. Maybe if you had acted out you wouldn’t have built up such barriers around yourself.”
I looked at him sharp but not in anger. “What do you mean I have … er … barriers?”
He shook his head. “I’m not saying you haven’t needed them. You use … well you use humor and the way you talk to … to build walls. It creates an impression of who you want people to think you are; they wind up underestimating you and missing your strength. Sometimes it backfires but most of the times that I’ve watched you do it, it works. Like with AJ. Cheryl said something about AJ thinking you were a ‘funny little thing’ with lots of chutzpa.”
“Am not,” I said aggrieved that the one thing AJ had said was that I was short.
“Are too,” Dino laughed. “But I also saw how you maneuvered him into being a part of things. AJ has trouble with that. Alec … I don’t think he even realizes he’s doing it … but Alec treats AJ just like their father treated him. He keeps him at arm’s length and because they’re different Alec is suspicious of everything AJ does. He’ll call on him fast enough when he needs him but he keeps him at arm’s length when he around and it wears him out because he isn’t like that naturally or with anyone else.”
“Well,” I said relieved. “I was wondering if I was misreading things. AJ was a little reserved but I can tell he isn’t an especially cold person. He’s just good at what he is good at. But he’s got walls as thick as the ones at Jericho. I tried, Dino, I really did but I just couldn’t draw him out.”
He sighed and stretched his leg before repositioning it. “That’s AJ, it’s his defense.”
“But he doesn’t act defensive. It is all ‘take me as I.’”
“Yeah, just he never expects anybody to do it. Accept him for who is he I mean.” Then after looking at me he said, “You’re like that to a certain extent too. And you only do things to make sure people think twice about whether they should.”
“Hey, I don’t … well … I don’t on purpose.”
“Sometimes you do and you know it. But most of the time it’s just part of who you are. It’s how you’ve kept yourself from being anymore hurt by life than it already has. For instance, you’re friends with the older folks and the little kids but most of them in between you expect to turn on you. Unfortunately it’s because from what I can see most of them you have let inside those walls have done exactly that. I heard people talking at the wedding; you used to be good friends with Cindy and a couple of them other girls in that crowd.”
I shook my head. “Maybe so but that seems a lifetime ago. As soon as I got into trouble …” I just sighed figuring I’d traveled that road in my head too many times; it was starting to develop ruts.
“Except for Harry,” Dino said quietly.
My breath was gone just like that and I could barely nod and agree, “Except for Harry.” I had to master myself again then it was almost like I was giving a testimonial. “Right off he was friendly; a little silly but still friendly. I figure it was just him being a boy. We were both barely thirteen but I swear I felt like an old woman compared to him. Do you know they didn’t even know what a squash was?” The memory made me laugh quietly. “I mean Sol did but all Hannah kept saying was Ew. But Harry said he’d allow he was so hungry he’d eat one if I would show him how.”
I leaned on Dino’s shoulder for a while. “And Harry fit in faster than any of them did too; him first then Mr. Bly. We had such fun. Hannah used to rag on Harry because he picked up my way of talkin’ but I swear it was like having a brother again. We did nearly everything together … chores, huntin’, playin’. We used to drive Mrs. Bly crazy climbing them pecan trees in the fall; it was a contest to see who could empty a tree faster, they were our soldiers and no nuts could get left behind. Even when we got too old to play like that we still hung out together. Not even Sol got in the way of that; at least I don’t have that guilt to bear. People used to point and say it wasn’t proper but we never thought of each other like that. Matter of fact people seemed surprised that it was Sol I got in trouble with and not Harry. A couple of them even thought Sol was taking the fall for his brother.” I shook my head as another thought caught me, “I guess you remember everyone called him Opie … I guess from that old show with that red headed kid in it. He grew to hate it but he didn’t fuss about it until he was practically a grown man.” Then I did fall into the weeps. “Dino … he never really got to be a grown man. Some crazy person put a bomb on a baby and killed him before he ever had a chance to even enjoy life right and proper. And he went to his grave so heavy laden and I wasn’t there … I wasn’t there for him like he was for me.”
“Oh Riss.” I must have cried a five gallon bucket full. The only reason I found strength to stop was I heard Pita grunt and chewing on her fist.
“Look at me,” I said blowing my nose. “I’ve probably soured my milk.”
“That’s an old wives tale Riss,” he told me wiping my face with one of the cooled off clothes he had been using to hold the warm compress to his knee.
“Huh. I guess we’ll see won’t we.” I got Pita and brought her over and she started to nurse and it was like I entered another world. Hormones are powerful things. If we could bottle that feeling that you get when you nurse and pass it out when folks got cranky the world would be a whole ‘nother place.
I guess he felt me finally let that bone melting feeling take me over. “Riss, those papers aren’t anything to worry about. Harry has left everything he has and might have in the future from the military to Pita. In the end he tried to do the right thing his brother never did or even offered to do and that will always gall Sol; that his little brother, even blown in half and on his death bed, was a better man than him. That’s probably why he ran. It’s nothing he can escape though he’ll spend his life trying and nothing he’ll ever be able to change now. And he’s probably seen the knowledge in his own mother’s eyes too. Harry will always be the better man now. Can you imagine, with his need to see himself a certain way, what that is going to be like to live with? It’s the best legacy Harry could leave to the world, that example he set.”