“I won’t say I’m sorry you’re gone, Fredrick Hart,” she whispered. “I loved you the best a wife could. But whatever it was that happened, it was comin’ to you.”
A twinge of guilt washed over her, and unwanted tears came. Was she to blame? She cursed him that night, after all…
Fredrick paused in his drunken humping. “Won’t it shut the hell up?”
“She’s probably hungry. Babies get that way. Finish what you’re doin’ and I’ll go feed her.”
Her husband returned to business for a few seconds, then rolled off her. “Shit. Just take care of it.”
Talia stood, pulled her gown down, and made her stiff-legged way to their daughter’s cradle. “Hush now, Mary,” she said, shrugging one full breast out of her gown and offering it to the baby. Mary fussed for a few seconds, then latched on. Talia winced, but made no protest — Mary was just a baby after all. Life was pain, the preacher said, and that was true. Mary’s hunger, Fredrick’s meanness, the endless work in between, from pain to pain. Maybe she should take to hard drinkin’ the way her husband did. Was doing now, from the sound of it.
After a while, Mary slept and Talia returned to bed. Fredrick yanked her gown up and rolled on. “Saddle up, boys, this ride ain’t finished yet,” he chuckled, thrusting —
Mary started wailing again.
“That’s it!” he yelled, jumping to his feet. “I’m takin’ care of this, once and for all!” He stomped toward the cradle.
“Fredrick, no!” Talia screamed, grabbing his arm. That was all she remembered for a while.
Talia awoke on the floor, face on fire. Her husband sat at the rough table, whiskey jug at hand. Something’s wrong… “Mary!” She scrambled to her feet.
“Died in her sleep,” said Fredrick, staring at the ceiling. “Prob’ly choked on somethin’. I went and gave her a good Christian burial out back. You say anything different, and you’ll be there next to her. Understand?” He took a long pull from his jug, then laid his head on the table.
“The Devil take you for what you done, Fredrick Hart,” she hissed. “And may he do you ten times worse than what you did to an innocent baby, for all eternity.” Then she passed out herself.
Fredrick Hart had a still at the back of his property, shielded from sight by a rhododendron hedge growing along the creek. He got a fair income from whiskey, and might have got more had he not been so fond of his own makings. This new moon night was just right for the work: plenty dark enough to keep trespassers at home, no wind so the fire wouldn’t get out of hand. The wife was keeping the house… not like she’d done much else these last few months. Never spoke unless spoken to, and only one or two words if that. Which suited him just fine —
Snap went a twig, and Fredrick slipped into the bushes. He left dry twigs all around the still, to give him fair warning. He drew his boot knife, slow and silent, and listened.
A squall went up. Fox got a rabbit, but it kept on like a hungry baby.
“What the hell,” he muttered, slipping around the rhododendron and along the soft moist creek bank. The wailing kept on, leading him. “Died in her sleep,” he whispered, not realizing. Truth be told, he didn’t remember what happened to Talia’s brat. He must have buried it, though. He’d later paid good coin for a crude headstone:
B. JAN 26, 18—
D. APR 4, 18—
B. JAN 26, 18—
D. APR 4, 18—
The wailing. Fredrick wrung the hilt of his knife and followed the noise up the bank. Too dark to see, but he knew where he was.
Now the noise was behind him. He trotted along the edge of the river bank —
Talia found him the next afternoon, just above the still. He’d slipped and fell onto one of his own traps; the sharpened stick went in between his legs and came out behind his shoulder. From the look on his face, he’d lived a little while. She nodded and took the wagon into town for help.
Wiping her eyes with her free hand, Talia walked to the wagon. Without a word to anyone, she rode away, still clutching the bunch of late-summer flowers.
At home, she went to Mary’s little grave. Something — maybe a gopher — had dug a hole in the middle of it. Talia slipped the flowers into the hole. She glanced at the headstone, but her tears hid a line that had not been there before: