“I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose.
We'll only know that whatever that sister life was,
it was important and beautiful and not ours.
It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us.
There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
She knew he was gone.
Belinda Carrick turned Jackson and Buck into the round pen and walked across the dooryard toward the house. Bundled in her short canvas coat, she watched the chimney, wishing for a puff of smoke, a puff of hope. There wasn’t even the smell of a fire gone cold.
She went in through the back door, unlocked as it always was. Snow had blown in between it and the threshold and now sparkled across the kitchen floor. The house was still, even the furniture frigid, radiating cold in the late afternoon gloom. She put her hands to the stove in the corner. It hadn’t been hot in days.
Her voice rippled against undisturbed air.
She stood in the kitchen, examining the tired oak flooring his father put down fifty years back. There was a clear path in it now, worn by Richard’s mother Kay, and then Richard’s wife Barbara, as they’d each taken their turn as lady of the house.
Belinda had missed her chance.
She stuffed paper and kindling in the stove and turned open the damper, then struck a wooden match against the underside of the kitchen table, lit the lamp setting in its center, and then the paper in the stove. She left the stove door ajar while the fire caught and roared in the stovepipe. She added more wood, finally shutting the door and turning the damper down. In moments, heat wafted through the room. She filled the coffeepot with water from the pitcher pump at the sink, blindly reaching for grounds in the drawer of the wooden grinder setting nearby.
She was delaying and she knew it.
Richard had taken sick in February. She found him one afternoon, resting in a wan patch of sunlight on the porch. It must’ve been no more than twenty degrees. He was coughing. Still, he managed to smile at her, those agate-brown eyes of his brightening as she came to help him up. “I’m glad to see you, Belle,” he’d whispered hoarsely against her temple.
She pulled his arm over her shoulder and took as much of his weight as she could, but he towered over her, outweighed her by sixty pounds at least, the two of them stumbling drunkenly into the house and into the bedroom. She was uncomfortable there. There where they had been so urgently intimate years before, while his mother was busy with her Sunday school class and his father was running the disk in the east pasture. Richard had told her he loved her then. Asked her to marry him. It was the only time he ever did.
And she said no.
She had her own place to take care of, her own stock, her own fields. Pride had stolen the years they might have had together. Nothing, however, could rob them of friendship.
She rubbed her arms and glanced toward the hallway. She’d put Richard to bed and stayed for two days, which was all the time her place and her stock could spare. He’d stripped down to his skin while she stood and watched, and she would have, too, if he hadn’t been so sick. Instead, she killed a chicken and made soup, along with some of the noodles she knew he loved. She went out to the smokehouse and brought up a ham so he’d have some meat in the house, then she baked two loaves of bread.
By the end of the second day, he looked and sounded better and was dressed and sitting up in the parlor. She had to fight him to keep him from going out to feed stock and break water. “It’s already done, Richard,” she told him. “I’ll go take care of things at my place and be back as soon as I can.”
He slumped in the chair, his brown gaze burning her. He reached forward, leaning to pull her close, his big arms lashing her to him, his voice muffled, thick. “You’ve always been here, Belle. No matter what. No man could have asked for a better friend.” He coughed, the sound rumbling deep in his chest. “You’ve been the one constant in my life, besides this place, this land.” He looked up at her, his face as familiar as her own. “You were my first love.”
She swallowed, then swallowed again before she could speak, her fingers in his hair, sifting through the thick silver strands as she tried to smile. “You promise me you’ll stay in the house. I fed everybody up. The troughs will freeze over tonight, but I’ll be back the day after. They won’t die without water for a day.”
Richard pressed his forehead against her waist, nodding as he held her. She felt him taking in great drafts of air, breathing her in.
As she promised, she was back in two days. Richard was up and moving, but he’d kept his promise and stayed in the house. He seemed thinner.
“Let me take you into
to see Doc Fletcher,” she said.
“I’ve seen Doc Fletcher.” He turned away toward the window. “Come to bed with me, Belle,” he said, gazing out across the long pasture. Ice spiked the weeds, heavy mist rising from amongst the naked cottonwoods along the creek.
She stayed for another two days, at the end of which Richard seemed much improved, although the cough nagged him. “No need for you to wear yourself out driving that team back and forth, Belle. I’m fine. Truly. I’ll be fine.”
They sat across from one another at the kitchen table that should have been theirs. Her eyes slipped to the chairs that should have held their children, their grandbabies.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too.”
She’d gone then, returning to her place along the Little Laramie. “I’ll be back in a few days.”
“I’ll be here.” He stood in the doorway and watched her go.
The stove ticked as it warmed, the metal expanding. The coffeepot began to perk. Belle took off her coat and hung it over a kitchen chair, then went up the hall.
Richard was in bed. At the last, he’d thrown the blankets back. Belle covered him to the chin, smoothing his mother’s wedding quilt close around his shoulders. Stiff-backed and efficient, she went to the dresser and withdrew clean drawers, clean socks. She went to the wardrobe and pulled out his Sunday suit. She lifted the hanger on which he kept his ties, and did not begin to weep until she saw the note he’d pinned to the old blue one with brown dots—the very color of his eyes.
“This one, Belle. It was always your favorite. Love, Richard”