Softly, She Treads Ch. 03byXyJonah©
He saw no sign of her for days after his outburst; neither food nor drink was prepared or brought for him, the fire was not stoked and no outline of her appeared upon the pile of rocks, though the weather remained fine. Hester struggled to supply his own needs; a fact which added further shame to that which he already felt for his outburst. He took to the woods, collecting mushrooms and berries, clumsily digging up roots and struggling to cook them into anything barely edible that could fill his belly.
He learned very quickly how to light a fire and how to draw clean water from the nearby stream. And, in the evenings, he discovered how to char the ends of twigs into charcoal so that he could spend his time writing an abbreviated journal before he slept. He found a bolt of seemingly ancient cloth tucked under the bed - no doubt spoils from another wreck, and tore it into rough pages which served as a make-do notebook. Writing gave him peace, and he forced his mind to recall the medicinal remedies she had applied to him, describing in detail the Dill seed, and drawing them as best as he could remember.
On the fourth morning after she had vanished, Hester felt not only entirely free from pain or injury, but stronger, too. Bruises were fading, small cuts and grazes were all but healed, and his shoulder offered him little pain and only a slight stiffness. Thus recovered, he determined to pick his way back down to the beach and search for remnants of the shipwreck. He hoped that some debris may have washed ashore, things that could make his now solitary life easier. Or, at the very least, a barrel of rum to offer him escape from his continuing guilt that followed his attack upon the woman. He spent the day trailing up and down the shoreline, kicking through rocks and pebbles, searching in odd, shallow caves and inlets for any sign that there had ever been a ship at all.
Nothing. Nothing at all. By the time the shadows began to lengthen and the wind grow hard and chill, Hester's previous optimism had been replaced by bitter disappointment that he had not even discovered a single shred of wood, let alone anything more substantial and significant.
He picked his way back up the cliff and over the grass, rousing himself from his dejected reverie when he glanced up at the hut - light was flickering in its small window; she had returned.
He hurried over the last few yards and threw open the door, shouting "You're back!" with glee before taking her up in his arms and crushing her to him. He had missed her, but had not realised how lonely he had become without her. She gave a surprised laugh, but then stayed quiet until he had released her, remembering his decorum and previous accusations and attack, and sat himself down upon the bed in mute embarrassment.
"Wanted to see how you were faring," she said, her tone blank and her expression unreadable.
He shrugged a little, his dejection lifting at the sight of her. "Fine. Really, it's a challenge, but I'm fine."
She shook her head and sighed. "You make a bad liar," she said. "The fire's been burning too big; it's scorched the stones at the top. And your food... the dogs wouldn't even eat that. There's no meat... mushrooms and wild radish? You'd starve to death."
He winced and nodded. "I don't know how you do it," he admitted, "I couldn't."
"Well," she said, "Succubus or no succubus, you need me for some things."
"About that-" he began, but she held her hand up to quieten him.
"You're frustrated. A long way from home, hurt in a storm, and met by a woman who thinks you're silly for believing in gods. I don't blame you." She shook her head and took up a knife upon the table. "But do it again, and I'll kill you." She offered him a level look; he did not doubt her word, even though it was casually given.
"Anyway," she said, putting the knife down. "Dogs helped me bring down a boar. I need help to bring it in - it's a big one. Thinking you could do with some solid, hot food. And I want to check your shoulder."
"Oh, it's fine," he said, covering it with his hand. "No more pain or swelling."
She nodded, smirking a little at his modesty but making no more of it. "Come on, then. Let's be about it, or it'll be too dark to find the pig."
He nodded and rose to his feet, heading to the door which he held open for her. She laughed at his chivalry before dancing over the grass towards the trees. He followed, watching her, doubting his own judgement again. Would a servant of evil return to feed is victim? Would a servant of evil withstand violence against it without retaliation? Would a servant of evil sympathise with frustration and seek to keep it company?
Hester watched the girl running light-footed over the grass and decided the worst thing he could accuse her of was godlessness. The sight of her reminded him of the Greek stories of satyrs and nymphs, frolicking and dancing in their dusky woodland demesnes. He struggled not to compare her with those fey creatures as he followed her into the trees and toward their destination - a large, long-tusked boar which she had hidden beneath some fallen branches.
"Are you strong enough?" he asked her as he stared down at the beast; it was indeed immense.
She laughed and shook her head. "But we don't have to carry it."
"No..." She took up a long, straight branch, as thick as her wrist, and thrust it at him. "Strip this of leaves and twigs, and I'll show you." She took up another such branch and quickly began the task of removing the greenery that still clung to it before laying it upon the ground and fumbling at her waist for a thick of cord of string that she had wound about herself. Hester placed his branch next to hers and watched, fascinated, as she used the long string to form a kind of stretcher. The cord held the two branches evenly three feet apart along the centre, with a long space at either end of each pole. He smiled in appreciation of her plan as she knelt to grasp the hind legs of the pig, nodding for him to grasp the legs at the front. Shortly, the pig was upon the stretcher, and, with Hester hauling upon one branch and the woman hauling heavily upon the other, they dragged the boar behind them in silence back to the hut.
They continued to work together as they gutted and butchered the beast, she leaving him alone with a wooden bowl for the innards while she slipped inside and prepared the meat for roasting, rubbing it with wild garlic and sticking it with sprigs of heavily-scented herbs before rubbing the skin with honey and oil pressed from seeds gathered in the summer.
They finished at roughly the same time, both sighing with relief that their task was over. she appeared again, rubbing the top of her arms against the chill that had grown in the air, and was noticeable now that neither was working hard. She hung the meat high up on the outside wall and rubbed it with salt before turning to him and smiling. "You're filthy," she observed. "There's water over the fire and a cloth on the table. Else there's the stream, but I think it's a bit cold."
He nodded and started inside before pausing. "Would you wait out here?" he asked meekly, grateful that the darkness hid his blush. She nodded and smiled, clearly struggling to bite her tongue and not laugh out loud. But wait she did, and moments later he appeared in the doorway, cleaned and dressed, once again, in a tightly-bound blanket. When she stood before the fire, she made no similar request for him to avert his eyes, though he was careful to do just that, filling his mind with thoughts of his wife - as much good as that could do now.
"You live well," he observed when they had finished dining in amicable silence. "Not in a way that anyone could describe as... not in a way that I'm used to, but better than I could alone here."
She nodded and considered this, his change of phrasing not drawing remark. "I do what I can. Here you surrender yourself to the weather and nature, and things come soon enough. There's no point trying to be any other way. Embrace it, or be killed by it."
He nodded, his three days alone aiding his understanding of her sentiments.
"Do you have a name?" he asked.
"I did, once. It doesn't matter any more; there's no-one to use it. Call me whatever you like."
Hester blinked for a moment, unable to imagine not knowing his own name. In spite of her invitation, he struggled to find a suitable epithet; that she had no name, in itself, suited her best.
"How did you come here?" he asked her, warming to the enigma before him.
"Same way as you. Only, I wasn't hurt that badly, and it was summer, so there was food enough that I had time to make mistakes."
"Are there many shipwrecks?"
"A fair amount, but you're the first to make it ashore." She glanced at him, quickly adding, "Apart from me." Hester glanced at her for a moment, thinking he had detected a note of guilt or deception in her voice.
He nodded again, somehow doubting her and was about to ask another question when she asked one of her own. "Why did you get married?"
He glanced at her in surprise, choking back a reflexive retort but understanding now that she did not intend to offend him. Instead of sniping at her, he considered his response before he gave it. "Because she was suitable."
"Doesn't that make you sad?"
"Not at all. I've seen many worse marriages than ours. Amelia is safe, suffers not for want nor violence, and has borne two lovely daughters. I have a wife who knows how to behave and manage a house, and whose father supports my career."
"Ah," she said, leaving the table to fish around under the bed. She drew out a large bottle, half-full with dark liquid. "It's not what you're used to," she explained, "But as an occasional treat, it'll do."
"What is it?" Hester asked, eyeing the liquid suspiciously.
"Wine. My own making." She sighed, opened the bottle and took a long draught. As she handed the bottle to him, she gave a cough, a splutter and a low laugh. He sniffed at the top; the wine smelled fruity, sweet and seductive, and reminded him vaguely of the brandied cherries his mother used to serve at Christmas. He sipped; it was heady brew indeed, and set his gullet on fire as it slipped down him. He took a longer draught; while not instantly pleasant, there was a certain quality to it that he enjoyed. He nodded his appreciation and handed the bottle back.
"So it would be fair to say," she said, guiding the conversation back on course, "That you married your wife because of her father?"
"Naturally," Hester replied. "Isn't that why all men marry? And seek to marry well?"
She stared at him, lost for words but clearly outraged, and Hester wondered if ever they would be able to converse without one or the other of them growing offended. But she remained silent, studying him with her big dark eyes and sipping occasionally at her wine. Finally, she placed her bottle upon the table and stood up.
"Time to go," she announced.
"Go where?" he asked in surprise.
"Home," she answered, collecting her shawl and throwing it around her shoulders. "You've food enough for three or four days - especially if you return to the place we found the boar. There's potatoes and onions growing wild around the trees. Dig and you'll find them. I'll be back to check on you soon."
"But..." Hester rose to his feet, suddenly reluctant to let her leave. "Home? This isn't home? Will you be all right?"
She laughed loudly and opened the door. "I was fine before you arrived, and I'll be fine again. There's only one bed, and I prefer to sleep naked. Be comfortable, Richard Hester. I'll be back."
Hester stared at the door long after it had closed behind her, before reaching for the bottle and nursing it in bed as he gazed into the flames and considered the strange woman and the conversation they had had. None of it made any sense. But, in some comforting way, that in itself made sense. No, she was no Satanic creature, he was certain of that now. In fact, he found her remarkably reassuring and had been fascinated by her company and their conversation. He admired the ways she had found to provide for herself, even if her directness made him somewhat uncomfortable. And the way she had forgiven his attack against her...
Still, his stomach lurched at the thought of being without her for days more to come - which only served to inspire more guilt. He drained the last of the wine and turned in under the covers, forcing his wife's face to loom in his mind and willing it to stay there while he fell asleep.
The next day he followed her suggestion and returned to the woods. After struggling to dig with his hands, he found a thick branch that had splintered at one end, and used it as a shovel to dig into the ground. Within a couple of hours, he had found for himself a pile of potatoes and onions of which he felt unashamedly proud. He lifted up one corner of his blanket-dress in the way he remembered cooks back home doing, filed it with potatoes, grabbed the onions by their shoots and made his way back to the hut.
But as he walked, he considered all the wood that had been blown from the trees in the recent storms; certainly a raft could be fashioned together. When he deposited his vegetables, he sat down at the table with several lengths of charred sticks and some rough parchment, and began to sketch a plan.
The two obvious flaws of building a raft were the weather and the cliff which barred his way to the beach. It would take him several weeks to build a vessel that he could put his faith in, which would put his launch back to mid-winter. It would best, he decided, if he waited until Spring to make his attempt to leave; the tide would be fairer and he would have plenty of time to build his craft without having to hurry.
The cliff was a far harder problem to overcome; he could either search about for an easier way to access the sea or build his raft upon the rocky shore. As he considered this problem, the dog cave came to his mind. The more he considered it, the better a plan it was. He would store the wood and other materials in the cave over the winter, and apply himself to building the raft upon the beach as soon as the weather cleared. Else he could hunt for a cave with a wider entrance that would allow him to build parts of his raft over the stormy months, before lashing it all together on the beach.
It was a plan he could imagine working, and he felt inspired to begin immediately. However, the shadows were already growing long upon the ground, and the chill that heralded nightfall was heavy in the air. He stoked up the fire and absently cooked and a passable dinner, all the while considering his escape plan.
The next morning, he rose from his slumber early, feeling the same powerful need to begin that had assailed him the previous evening. He warmed a little of the leftover stew before hurrying back to the woods. By that evening, a fine pile of wood had been stacked outside the hut, ready to be delivered to the cave the following day. He slept that night, physically exhausted, but content that a god plan was under way.
Rain caused him to abort his plan the following day, though he tried to grip and move the logs from the hut to the cliff. But the rain made the branches slippery and hard to move, even as it lubricated the grass and teased him with how easy it would be if only he could find a way to carry the things. Instead of taking the wood he had to the beach, Hester busied himself in the woods, collecting yet more branches and hunting about for some kind of twine or rope that he could use to lash his wood together. By the time he returned to the hut, he was too exhausted to do much more than hang a side of boar over the fire and lie upon the bed until it was cooked. He fell deeply asleep as soon as he had eaten the meat, images of the strange woman filing his mind in an odd daydream before slumber took him.
At dawn on the fourth day, he was woken by the sound of barking, and hurried out of bed, expecting to see his nameless companion. In a way, he was correct, but instead of the girl, he found the brindle terrier and the big black dog from the beach. They bounded cheerfully up to him, sniffing and licking his hand. He gave them some boar bones and leftovers, and sat next to them while they launched into the meat avariciously.
His shoulders ached and his hands had great blisters upon them from heaving the wood, so he decided to abandon his plan for the day and rest instead. Deciding the day could be Sunday as easily as it could be any other day of the week, Hester decided to attend "church". When the dogs had finished their meal, he dressed as well as he could and walked to the natural rock platform where he had once seen the girl. He sang what hymns he could remember; he quoted from the bible and made his silent prayers before reciting the Lord's Prayer several times over. When he had finished, he felt greatly buoyed and renewed. The dogs had fallen asleep to one side of his dais and barked happily when Hester rose to his feet and made his way back to the hut.
He expected the girl would be there by now, but when he opened the door and stepped within, he saw that he was still alone. The dogs made themselves comfortable in front of the fire as he prepared the last of the meat for dinner. Potatoes, onions and pork again. As his meal cooked, he sat at the table and considered what could have happened to his companion. Lost? Injured? Forgotten about him? He decided finally that she was just busy elsewhere and tried to eat his meal as if her absence didn't matter to him.
But it did; he missed her company, having expected it today. Morose and subdued, he left the dogs by the fire and curled up in bed. It was usual now for him to imagine his wife as he fell asleep, for not to was to have images of the nameless woman tease and haunt him. But, though he had not been upon the island long, he was already finding it harder to conjure his wife's image. Amelia, with her white face and blue eyes. Amelia with her fair hair always tied up in the most complicated style. Amelia with her mouth pursed in constant disapproval. Amelia, with her sharp tongue and resentment of his profession.
Feeling as if he had just fought with his wife, his mind filled with the traits he liked least about her, he allowed himself to release Amelia's image and allow the strange woman to fill his mind instead. Unpredictable but, somehow, far more capable, beauty without effort, nature personified. His thoughts embraced her and he slept.