Carefully I straightened my back and slowly stretched to remind myself where the pain was. It was everywhere.
Ahead of me was the ploughed soil from the day before, while behind me lay row upon row of planted seedlings. I fished around in my pocket for the last of the berries I'd kept from breakfast and threw a palm's worth into my mouth. I crunched on their tart skin and let out a satisfied moan as their moisture salved my tongue, “ah...” It had been an involuntary noise but suddenly I felt guilty. It wasn't that I was enjoying myself, it just sounded like I might be.
The quiet was shattered by a familiar shriek, “Slacking again? Slacking, you lazy pig? Just stuffing your face with berries and sleeping, eh?”
It was my wife, hands on hips, screaming at me. I didn't even need to look, I could see her vividly in my mind – head cocked sharply to the left, eyes slit, and phlegm dancing on her lower lip as she vented her fury. “You ever think how much it takes out of me to collect those berries? You ever wonder how hard a job I have forever seeing to your needs? No, you just tear everything from me and leave me with nothing but pain. Pain and disappointment. ”
When I turned to face her I saw row upon row of seedlings. Seedlings I had spent all day planting. Then I tilted my head up a little. Head haloed against the dusk, there was my wife. Behind her our home. Off to one side was the pile of lumber I needed to add the windows she wanted, and beside that the pipework which, once laid, would make give us indoor plumbing, fit to make anyone in town jealous. What more did she want?
Every little thing she wanted I gave her, or promised to give her, but I couldn't do it all at once, so sometimes I lied and made promises I couldn't keep right away. But that was normal, wasn't it? It was what everyone else did. If she wanted a sewing room she would get it, but first I would mark out the dimensions in the dirt and blame the weather for holding me back. Meanwhile I would see to the important jobs that fed us and kept the roof over our heads. I knew she didn't understand, so I kept quiet when she shouted. She was a good woman. It wasn't as if I wanted some timid mouse for a wife...
I looked her square in the face but all I could think of was the pure and simple love I had always felt for her. There had been nuances in our relationship but I was certain there had only ever been one important factor and that was that I loved her, and that in her way she loved me and wanted to see the best for both of us. She did not nag because she hated me, she nagged to make me love her more. This simple truth had buoyed me for fifteen years. It had kept me by her side in the rough shack that I had built, and then later in a rough house.
I idly wondered how it would be if I only grabbed her shoulders and shook her, would she admit my worth and see everything I'd given her? Or would she plunge a dagger in my heart and lap at my blood, then complain about the taste. I did not grab at her. I simply ached for her.
When she'd been a younger, she had turned heads wherever she'd gone. My heart welled up with pride knowing she was MINE. Now when I tried to meet her eye she looked over her shoulder and hollered, “Evan, get over here so you can look at your father.” My heart sank in my chest, though it had only a short drop left to fall.
Answering her call my son flew to his mother's side, skipping across the muddy earth to hug at her legs. He was thirteen and sickly, big boned but puny. I loved him dearly. I wanted to see him climb trees and stumble off rocks, roll in sand dunes and get bitten by dogs. Mostly though he kept by his mother's side. Now he glared at me without the slightest whiff of respect, utterly certain he would witness his mother humiliation of me yet again.
Now she threw down the sack of washing hung about her arm and stomped towards me, expression fierce but tinged with eager humour for the entertainment she was about to have. When she was directly in front of me she turned to our son and jabbed a wicked finger at him.
“Look at your poor boy!” she said. “Are you looking at him?” She was almost laughing. “If he ever turns into half the failure you are I'll crack his head open with a shovel.” She turned to our boy, “You hear me, Evan? I'll split your head with a shovel and you should thank me for it. You'll thank me, won't you precious?”
“Yes mama,” he said and a little something died in me. “I don't want to be like daddy.” he said, and the remainder also expired.
"I've done my best.”
“I've made sacrifices to see you have enough.”
“I have never put myself before either of you.”
“The only important thing in my life and that is my family. My family!”
“If only you had...”
I could have said any of this, but I didn't. I shrugged my shoulders, turned my palms up and shook my head. Surely she could understand the circumstances I was up against, the conditions I faced. She must have a clue what I had to put up with.
Of course she didn't. SHE was what I had to put up with.
“It'll be night soon so get a move on. Look at your wife and your baby out here freezing. I'm not hanging around here while you day-dream.” She beckoned our son to her. “Evan, you can come in when your father is finished, and pray he doesn't slack and keep you out here too long, so you catch a chill. He won't make you freeze, if he loves you.”
There was no way I could be finished tonight. She assumed I would strive to do what she told me to, just as I had for years. All I could imagine was telling her “no” or “you do it”. I almost laughed out loud at the thought. “Yes, dear.” I said. “Yes, dear.”
Eyes slit, brow furrowed, she looked me up one last time before turning back towards our house. She set off at a brisk pace, pulling her clothes about her. It WAS getting cold.
I shouted at her. “Wait,” I said, then “WAIT!” so she could hear me.
She turned and fixed her beady eyes on me. I felt naked under her gaze, standing there in the middle of a half-planted track of mud up to my knees in dirt. “Wait,” I said again and started towards her. Her face turned mask-like and she came charging back at me, not a word said.
We met close together, some hundred yards from Evan who stood confused by my defiance. I stopped when she was a half dozen steps away but she barreled on until her face was square against my chest, peering upwards.
“What are you playing at?” she spoke through clenched teeth. “Are you trying to make me look like a fool in front of my son? Haven't you ruined his life enough?”
There was so much I wanted to say but it was all mixed and jumbled in my head. I wanted to tell her we were finished, that I would make a new life for myself, and she must do the same. We would make new homes away from each other and find work. Perhaps in time we would raise different children.
“We are finished.” was all I managed to say.
She bent her head up towards me and sneered, “we are finished when I say we are finished.”
I wanted to pull her close but was afraid she would struggle and one of us would be hurt. Instead I just shook my head and said “We ARE finished. I love you but I no longer love being in love with you.”
She stared at me blankly. “What kind of addled-brained manure is that?” she said. “You have responsibilities here. What about your baby? What about me? If you can't even think about me, at least think about your son. I've always known this was coming but he is just a poor innocent child.”
I struggled to find the words I needed, but she took my silence as defiance. “So how will it feel to make his life miserable?” she asked. “Oh, I know you're just hurting him to make me miserable. You've always tried to hurt me, but I was always too strong. I knew how to handle you, how to ignore your petty cruelty.”
She started stabbing her forefinger into my shoulder, “How does it feel to be found out? How is it to be discovered, discovered and exposed as a craven rat?”
It felt good.
“And what will you do now,” she asked. “Where will you go? Who will take you in?” She clenched her face like a fist and spat out, “You are not welcome here any more!”
I turned and walked away, but something in the noise she made and something else, something growing in me, made me turn to face her again. She was about ten feet away from me. I took the seed bag from over my shoulder and threw it at her feet. I closed the distance between us pretty quick, my knuckles tight white on the seed drill in my hand like a spear.
I pushed it into her hand. “Set the seedlings within the next few days,” I said. “I paid extra for good stock, so it will be a good harvest if you're smart.” Still I wanted to stretch my hand to her face and stroke her cheek. Let her know I still loved her despite everything. I could not.
“What do you think you're going to do?” She asked. She was bewildered. Just the tone of her voice twisted my guts. She wasn't the strong arrogant bitch I knew. Now I could hear the little girl in her that I hadn't heard for years.
I took my chance and hugged her. Over her shoulder I saw my son, looking flabbergasted, and I winked at him.
I pulled myself away from my wife but leaned my face close to her. “I shall leave. I shall go away from here, far away from you. You don't need to think about my failings any more.”
“It was not always bad,” she said. “We could talk about this tomorrow. We'll go inside.”
“Come inside,” she said, “or I will drag you in. You're not staying out here at your leisure. You've work to do. You have responsibilities!”
I tried to turn but she was holding me now. I wanted to find something of the past within her eyes but all I could see was desperation, and not a trace of innocence. The girl I had known was long gone. I wondered then, as I looked into her faded, beautiful face and ached to kiss her, I wondered if she ever looked at me and ached for what I had been. And then I wondered if either of us truly ached, or did we simply mistake the hole where familiarity had been, for pain.
“If your mind is made up.” She shrugged, at last, but her gaze held me. “Where will you go, and when”
“I will be leaving now.” I said. It was getting on for pitch black and the stars were out. I pointed up, towards the night sky. “I shall jump away from here and seek a new life for myself on another world.”
At first she was puzzled, then she began to laugh. And as she continued to laugh, I also laughed a little. “If I can,” I said, “I may come back to see how you are. I...I cannot be sure it will possible.” I reached for her again, but the moment we'd shared was over and she slapped my hands away.
“You're going to run off to another world? Fine, my darling. Just promise you'll pay us some thought when you get there.” Hands on hips now, face screwed up, no longer pretty. “Don't worry, your son and I will be right here, unless we get the notion to go traveling the night sky to pay hither and yon a visit. Be sure to make an appointment before you come back from your little adventure, because I surely don't know where I might be when you decide to return.”
“I'll be going then,” I said.
“Fine!” she said, her voice rising to a shriek. “You take care. Be sure, your dinner will be wrapped and ready for you when you get back.”
She was not going to take me seriously and with a heavy heart I turned away, looked to the black night sky, sucked in my breath and began to run.
I ran for the bright stab of light in the night sky where I'd find a ready junction to the rest of the Galaxy. Fifty yards I ran and then I leaped at the sky, arms stretched to their limits and legs exploding like massive springs beneath me. My wife and son were watching though, so it was not to be and I stumbled and drove my face into the mud, slammed my shoulder hard against the dirt and felt my back twist hard on the impact.
I lay and groaned and whimpered but above the pain I could hear my wife and boy near bursting with laughter, fat with mirth.
“Oh, you nearly had it” she said.
“Is daddy on another world now?” my son cruelly asked.
I stood up, more hurt than I wanted to show. I felt ashamed, and wanted to hide myself away. I wanted to go somewhere to lick my wounds, to think about the day, and tomorrow I would come back to make peace with my family.
“Have a good trip?” shrieked my wife, laughing so hard she was exhaling snot.
“Daddy! Daddy! What do we look like from up there?” My son, squealing with delight.
And that was that.
I squared my shoulders, even as I turned my back on them again. There was the bright spot of light I had set my course on. There I would meet cultured folk just like myself.
I set off at a lope, building to an awkward painful gallop and eventually pushed myself to a blistering, excruciating sprint. I could still hear the choking laughter. My eyes and mouth were slitted, intense with concentration. Out of the field and halfway down the straight of what had been an ancient road, some seven hundred yards from home, now I reached my top speed and sprang for the sky.
I made a clean break with the ground and clawed further into the sky, pumping my arms and shoulders until I was a thousand feet above the earth. My momentum carried me on for another thousand feet but the temperature dropped rapidly and the thin air was already making me light-headed.
I don't know why it was, but I looked to the deep of space and knew I would not break free from the earth's jealous grip today. Already I was losing speed, and would, like as not, fall back soon enough. But still I wind-milled my body upward.
Ice clung to my clothes and body but it didn't matter. My teeth chattered and I let loose a stifled yell of freedom, and escape. Soon I couldn't move or feel my limbs, so caked in ice were they. Weighed down by the mass of frozen moisture, I reached the apogee of my escape attempt. Too soon. I crested an invisible peak and began to gather speed as I fell back towards the ground.
I accelerated towards the earth even as my clothes whipped away and the ice melted off my skin. I had a thought just before I hit the ground. Hopefully it wasn't very important.
The earth cratered about my landing site, pummeling a me-shaped hole into the ground, and raising a shower of dirt all about.
I wasn't surprised to survive the landing. You get used to these things. What did surprise me, as I lay prone and naked at the bottom of a shallow crater, was that people should find me so quickly. I must have crashed near a village, or town. It didn't really matter. Once I was fully recovered I would make my excuses and leave.
Then, there she was, crouched over me. I had never in my life seen anything so beautiful. Pure concern was written across her strangely wonderful, almond face. I winked at her and she smiled. It never occurred to me how horrible it must have seemed to have the pulpy mess that was now my face, awkwardly, and painfully, close an eye in her direction. Yet, it appeared to charm her. She whispered something at me in an odd language. Not so much whispered as cooed, and not so much that, as gently stroked my ear drums with her soothing, foreign babble. Like her, it was alluring,
I smiled back and hoped there weren't too many teeth missing for now. Somehow I managed to reach out a hand and stroke her cheek. She giggled and turned her head just so, and I knew then, without a shadow of a doubt that this was the woman I would settle down with and raise my children.
This time it was going to work.