The cabin was small – there was just one room with a bed, a fireplace, a cupboard, a small wardrobe, a table and a couple of chairs. There was no toilet – just a shed outside – nor running water, but I thought I had seen a well when I had risked a glance out the back window. The window shutters were closed, and I left them so. Thus there was little light inside. I opened the wardrobe: a gun and some spare hunter’s clothing were all there was. I had more luck with the cupboard. It was filled with canned food – meat, beans, tuna – even some fruit. And there were some silverware, dishes and pots and pans. A few shelves completed the furniture. In a word – I could really live here comfortably enough.
I sat down at the table with a couple of cans and the water bottle. I did not want to start a fire, so I made do with tuna and fruit. I then collapsed on the bed and fell asleep. I slept fitfully all afternoon, and awoke towards evening. Sleep had not refreshed me at all, but had left me with a mild headache and a strong sense of longing.
The sun was rapidly setting behind the trees. I could hear the sounds of the forest, and strained my ears for more, but could hear nothing unusual. I then decided to risk a quick walk outside. I needed to go to the toilet – now that there was one, albeit primitive. And I wanted to draw some water from the well.
I went out. The air was crisp – definitely cooler then the days before – and I couldn’t help thinking that it would be cold outside tonight. The wheel at the well was rusty and it stuck at first, but the lid was still in its place, so that the water was clear and there was plenty. I filled the pail I had found in the cabin and went back in. With water at my disposal I undressed and proceeded to make myself more presentable. I washed with a rag towel and changed into the spare clothes I had brought with me. The ones I had had on since the day I had left were dirty and torn in places, and I marveled at the damage that few days in the wood had done. I had no comb or brush, so I used my hands to tidy my hair.
As clean as I could be, I sat on the bed and looked around. There were an oil lamp and matches on a shelf, so I took one and lit the lamp, screening it partially with a rag, so that very little light shone. I put a blanket around my shoulders, laid Windy on the pillow next to me, and opened Mother’s book. I was not hungry at the moment and – since I was supposed to wait – I settled down to read.
“Long are the hours of waiting,
When alone you lie with yourself.
They will soon be over,
Forgotten in the happiness of reunion.”
Was it just my imagination, or there always seemed to be an appropriate line in the book I was holding? I had experienced it before, in the many hours of reading and re-reading. It was as tough my mother and I shared the same thoughts – it gave me a sense of communion that was soothing and invigorating.
I wished Paul were here already, and at the same time I wanted to freeze this moment in time. What would we do? What would he tell me, and what would I tell him? I wished there could be just the two of us, and that any decision could be postponed indefinitely. It is of the young to search deferral, as if a problem would go away just by not thinking about it.
And I felt lonely. Lonelier than I had felt in the wood. I had gone there of my own volition, and it had seemed fair to me that I should be alone. Loneliness was my haven and I felt safe. Now that we had met, and that I was in an unfamiliar place, loneliness weighted upon me as it had never done before.
“Loneliness is a mere state of affairs; whether it becomes friend or foe is a state of the mind.”
I kept reading, flicking through the pages – retracing my previous readings. There were things in the book – things I had collected and then used as bookmarks. And so a bird feather found its way into my hand; a dried flower kept silent vigil on my mother words; a brown leaf – now worn out by use – kept track of an inspiration. Each item was part of my past, and I reminisced every moment.
I loved to keep track of time. That’s why I used to keep a diary. I wanted to keep the images of my life sharp – to be able to track events that were long gone. I loved to look at the family’s photo album for instance, and I was always the one to suggest we take a photo. If it were up to my parents, we would have none! I had dozens of boxes of various sizes – candy boxes, soap boxes – anything would do – and I used to stuff them with things: a stone, a strip of clothing, a used pencil, a dog-eared notebook. They were mementos, and I had collected already so many that I wondered what would happen when I got older. I could not bear to think of throwing something away. I had had a terrible row with Mom once because she had disposed of a pen she thought I no longer used. But I had made my point clear then, and nobody had ever tried to touch my things again.
I was still following my strain of thoughts when I heard the beating of hooves outside. I extinguished the lamp and kept still. I heard somebody get off the saddle, tie the horse at the rail and come to the door.
Paul knocked and came in. I recognized his figure silhouetted in the pale moonlight. I struck a match and lighted the lamp again, and he closed the door behind him. He was carrying a bag and a sack, which he let fall on the nearest chair. We were in each other’s arms in a matter of seconds. We hugged and kissed and then he looked at me.
“They have caught me going back and they know everything. Let us sit down and I’ll explain everything to you.”
We sat side-by-side on the bed, and he started talking. He explained how, while going back, he had encountered my father, together with some friends, and had not been able either to hide or to make out a good excuse. But he had succeeded in convincing them that I was all right. He had pleaded they go back home, and he would tell everything. And so they had done. He had walked home with them following the path to the road, and then up – first to his house to reassure his parents, and then to mine, where Mom was waiting. Mom had prepared lunch, and he had sat with them.
He had told them what I had told him, trying to break to them as gently as possible the news of my pregnancy. Father had been very upset and had walked outside in the middle of the meal. Paul had sat there at the table –silent – Mother watching him all the time. Then my father had come back, and they had resumed talking.
At the end of the meal they had decided that they all needed time to themselves, and so Paul had gone back home. They had agreed to meet again in the evening. He had told the story to his parents – more or less as he had told mine. Just after dinner my parents had showed up. Mom had prepared a bag with clothing and other stuff for me, and they had asked him to give it to me. He was to tell me that I need not fear, that they were waiting for me and we would work things out together. They had sat long in the sitting room at his house – that’s why he was late. After a while he had taken a horse from the barn. When he had left, our parents were still talking.
I had been sitting next to him, stiff and silent. Now he rose and went to the fireplace. There was dry wood and kindling, and he had a fire going in no time. Then he went out to fetch some water and hung the pail on a hook over the fire. He must have done that other times. While the water was heating up, he set the table – taking food from the sack – and opened some of the cans in the cupboard.
“Your Mom has sent tea; would you like any?”
I sat at the table, nodding assent. He heated the beans directly in the can, and served me a platter of cured beef to go with them. When the tea was ready, he sat next to me and watched me eating.
“I’ll stay with you the night and tomorrow. I’ve brought the books with me, in case I have time to study a little.”
“I’m so sorry, Paul! I’d completely forgotten about the exam! You have to take it. It’s so important!” I felt guilty for having forgotten. Of course it was very important that he take it and get his diploma. No matter what he was going to do later – and I doubted that, given the present circumstances, his mind was set on College – he needed that.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve studied all year long. I’m not going to be more prepared than I already am. I need to be in school Wednesday morning and then again until the end of the week, but we can be together in the afternoons.”
It was Monday, so he had just one day before the exams.
“Why don’t we go to your place tomorrow? You have to trust your parents. They need to see you and talk to you. I’ll be with you, and we’ll work things out together.”
“I don’t know. I feel as if… Oh, I don’t know how I feel! It’s just that I’m afraid, that’s all.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Heileen?” His face was stricken, and it was clear that he badly needed to know, but did not know how to ask. Maybe there was no right way to ask.
“I did not want to force you. I wanted to have you because of me, and not because of the baby, or responsibility, or other people’s opinion. It’s not for lack of trust, and I love you so much I don’t want to lose you. I meant to tell and kept putting it off. I’m sorry.”
“You must not worry. I’ll never leave you, and everything will be all right.”
We smiled, and I finished my meal.
It was cozy now in the cabin. The fire sent out a warm glow. There was little light – from the lamp and the fire – so that everything looked softer – the lines smoothed by dimness. It was time to go to bed. Now that Paul was here with me I had calmed down. All I needed to do what get a good night’s sleep.
While Paul was out to see to the horse, I got ready. He had brought in more cold water, together with the one he had set to boil, so that I could wash myself better. Moreover, Mom had sent comb and brush, together with soap and a toothbrush. I had all I needed. When I was ready I slid under the covers.
After a while also Paul came to bed. He had banked the fire for the night. Everything was quiet. The wood was dark and no creature stirred. I felt at peace. We put out he lamp. I could feel his body, gently brushing against mine as we lay on the bed. We had never slept together before – lying in the barn was not quite the same thing! – and I rejoiced in the intimacy. To me it was a taste of our future life. We fell asleep like that – too taken by the moment or too shy (how ironic!) to make love. We did make love eventually somewhere in the middle of the night, and fell asleep again to wake up in each other’s arms in the morning.
It was he again who rekindled the fire and prepared breakfast, while I got up and dressed. The horse must have heard us, because it snorted in response. We opened the door and walked outside.
“This is Pearl. Pearl, please meet my sweet Heileen.”
It was a brown mare, her eyes calm and benevolent. Paul gave her an apple, and she munched on it, crushing it with her back teeth. He told me she was used to sleeping in the barn, but that he had already ridden her to the hut, so that she was used to the surroundings.
We went back inside to our breakfast, which consisted of bread and jam – thoughtfully provided by Paul’s family – and tea, of course. My family liked to have coffee with their breakfast, but I loved tea, and was happy to see Paul did, too. We were still eating when we heard movement outside and then a knock on the door.
It was my mother. Her eyes were red, and she hesitated before entering. We embraced, and I hugged her hard, keeping her close to me for a long time. She sat at the table and looked at us, her eyes going back and forth from one to the other, as if she were trying to familiarize with the new situation.
“Come home to lunch today. Paul’s parents are coming, and we have much to discuss”, she said. Then, as if foreseeing a negative reply, she hastily added: “We won’t keep you there. You can come back here if you want to. Just don’t hide anymore. We need to see you; your father needs you, too.” They were both staring at me; could I refuse? I nodded. She told us what had happened after Paul had left the day before. Our parents had talked a lot, until the wee hours when everybody had resolved to go home and defer further talking to the next day. That’s why they had planned to meet at my house. After a while she rose to go. We kissed, and she started down the path.
I thought about her and all the things she had done for me. I was an only child; my mother had had a difficult delivery, and doctors had told her she should not have any more children. So Mom and Dad had reserved for me all the care and the dedication. They did not spoil me; I really don’t think so. Dad believed in a certain amount of discipline, and I was taught from an early age to do my part in the house. And Mom was always gentle but firm. My father was practical, whereas she was more the spiritual type. Not in a religious way – we went to church on Sundays and holidays, but were not very pious. She would always come up with a saying or moral teaching, and when she didn’t have any, then she would make one up for the occasion. And she was sure to write her thoughts down; that’s where the book had come from. There would be more in the future.
We went back inside and busied ourselves with tiding up and other chores. I did not know whether this would be our home for some time; actually, I could not envision myself really living here, as romantic as it would look. We probably needed some time to ourselves. So while he was fetching wood and carrying water to the horse trough, I swept the floor and made the bed. It did not take long, and I was sitting idly at the table when he came in. The fire would need more wood, but he let it die down – it was warm enough, and we didn’t need to cook.
I realized I’d let him take care of things – even the ones that were considered to be a woman’s job, like cooking. All this seemed unreal. I had wanted it when I had decided to run away, but never could I have imagined how things would develop. As I said, it was much easier to let things take care of themselves. He had probably realized it, and had accepted it, presuming I’d go back sooner or later to being my normal self again.
“Promise me something. Whatever happens, you’ll never hide anything from me again. All right?” Those black eyes were fixing me again. And for the second time that day I just nodded.
Closer to midday we left the cabin together. Paul sat on Pearl and helped me on behind him. The path was longer than I’d thought –it wound through the wood before reaching the paved road. There were several houses on that road, which was the only one up the hill and to my house. Everybody knew one another, although some kept more to themselves. The news of my running away had spread by now, and the people along the road waved at us in greeting.
When we reached the house, Paul turned toward me and kissed me lightly on the lips; then he helped me off. Mother had heard and was there. She told him to put Pearl in the barn with the other horses. So it was just Mom and I who walked into the house.
Dad was sitting on the couch in the living room. He looked up when we entered, and I went to him, squatting down at his side. He looked gravely at me.
“Next time you run away, leave a note, will you?”
“I won’t run away again.”
He tried to smile, and I saw relief in his eyes.
Paul – who had remained outside – entered now with his parents. I had met them, of course, on more than one occasion – I had even been to invited to lunch to their house once, but – our families not being close friends – I had had no occasion of really getting to know them. They were – relatively speaking – the only newcomers in the neighborhood. They had bought the house about three years before, and tended to keep to themselves. Or maybe we were just so used to our friends – who’d always been there and whom we took for granted – that we’d always acted aloof towards them.
Mom had done her best. She was a good cook, and had outdone herself for the occasion. We sat at the table and started talking at once – everybody saying his or her opinion, giving advice. We spoke of our love, and of how it had evolved over the months. We made it clear that what we had done had been – yes – foolhardy, but that we did not regret it at all. The child had brought us closer then we had been, and – we believed – closer than couples in general are at our age. If it meant having to grow up faster than expected, then grow up we would. We wanted to stay together from this very moment, and we would not accept to be separated. We had the cabin in the wood, if nothing else. In general, there was an air of amiability, which struck me as very odd – I had thought we would be reprimanded.
On the contrary, they did not waste time in pointless remarks or regrets. Since nothing could change the situation, our parents were trying to make the best of it. After a while I understood that our families already had something in mind – which they had probably worked out the day before – and were simply awaiting the right moment to tell us, so that we couldn’t refuse.
As it turned out, they suggested we go and live with Paul’s parents. There was enough room. Moreover, one of their sons had left when he had gotten married, and there also were a couple of rooms in the back, which nobody used. We would have our own privacy, and they would help me once the baby was born. Paul would work on the farm, as he was already planning, and they would pay him a wage, so that he could provide for his family. I could go to school the following year and get my diploma. After that, it was up to us to decide what to do. We would of course be welcome to live there as long as we wanted, but we could also decide to put money away and live on our own. My parents were supposed to leave in a few days, and would do so. They would have much preferred to have me close to them, and find us a place in the city, but it was clear from the beginning that that was not what we wanted. They had decided to sell the house and move to the city because the income from the farm and been very low in the last years, and they wanted a better life. They had thought of renting instead of selling it, and – since it had in fact not been sold yet – they were evaluating that solution, and would help us by sending money. The people who were working already for us – we had three workers that came in every morning – would keep working on the farm and take care of the animals there. One of them had been our overseer for as long as I could remember, and they trusted him to carry out their interests. Maybe one day – why not? – I could go back there to live myself. As far as the very near future was concerned, I still had three days of school, and Paul had his exam, and my parents were inflexible about that: tomorrow I would go to school.
It took lunchtime and part of the afternoon to work these things out. As far as we were concerned, we were more than happy about what they were proposing. We felt very lucky to have such parents, and I must say that – to this day – I am still overcome by emotion when I think of what it had involved. We had thought that we would have to live apart for the sake of decorum – until we got married. That’s probably what would have happened had my parents not planned to leave. As it was, it wouldn’t have made any difference for me to live at Paul’s house and not share his bed – people would talk anyway.
They also warned us that it would not be easy – both because starting a family is a serious undertaking, and because of what other people would say and do. Ours was a small community; people knew everything about one another and tended to talk and judge. We had broken one of the most deep-rooted moral rules, and we would have to deal with it.
By and large, the cabin in the wood looked like an island of tranquility. On the other hand, if I had to face the community sooner or later, I’d rather start by going back to school, where I was sure to have some friends, and to find – I hoped – some sympathy.
Then it was settled: we were allowed to stay at the cabin for a few days, until we could move in with Paul’s parents. We would go to school and help them in the afternoons, since it was their hospitality we depended upon. And we would negotiate a truce with the community. And so we did.