The next morning, Suzanna wakes in the cabin loft with a headache and a pain in her chest. She rubs her hands over her face. Why does she feel so miserable? So exhausted? Then she remembers. Encarnación. Dead.
Suzanna closes her eyes against the hopeless tears. They won’t do any good. Her friend is gone. Never to join her here in these mountains. Nausea grips her and she fights it down, then gingerly pushes herself from the sleeping pallet. The only thing that might help is to move, to get outside, to breath the fresh outdoor air.
She dresses, climbs clumsily down the ladder, and retrieves the egg basket from the kitchen. Ramón nods to her somberly but she can’t meet his eye. She slips out of the house to the barn.
There’s a small door at the end nearest the corral, there to provide foot access when they’re not leading animals in and out. The door is partly open, though it provides little light to the interior. Suzanna steps inside and stops to let her eyes adjust to the dimness. She can hear Gerald and Gregorio in the far stall, preparing the mule for Gregorio’s return to Taos. As she crosses the straw-covered earth floor toward them, Gregorio says, “A knife was found.”
Suzanna freezes. He has clearly waited until now to tell Gerald about the knife. There must be a reason he didn’t mention it yesterday. She swallows against a sudden surge of anxiety and closes her eyes, listening.
“It was that big horn-handled one Enoch Jones used to carry.”
Suzanna’s throat tightens. Her fingers are cold on the basket’s woven handle.
“Jones is dead,” Gerald says, his voice stiff.
“So we believed.”
“No man could survive that wilderness with those wounds. If nothing else, the wolves would trail his blood and finish him off.”
The mule moves impatiently. Gregorio speaks to it softly.
Gerald clears his throat. “Someone must have found Jones’ body and stolen the knife.”
There’s a pause, then Gregorio’s reluctant voice. “There have been stories.”
Suzanna starts to move forward, then thinks better of it. They’ll stop talking the moment they know she’s here.
“Encarnación laughed and called them ghost stories,” Gregorio says. “Tales of a man shaped like Jones in the mountains.” There’s another pause. “Between here and Don Fernando,” he adds, his voice dropping. Suzanna has to strain to hear him.
“I did not wish to alarm la señora,” he adds. “Especially with the child coming.”
“I appreciate that,” Gerald says. “They may just be stories.”
“Sí, they may just be stories.”
Suzanna opens her mouth and steps forward, then stops. They’re only trying to protect her. And there’s no point in worrying them about worrying her. She moves quietly back to the door and the cold sunshine. She waits a long moment, then shoves the door open all the way and reenters the barn.
“Hola!” she calls. “Gregorio, are you leaving so early?” The two men turn toward her almost eagerly, as if they don’t want to think about what Gregorio has just said.
After Gregorio returns to Taos, a pall falls on the cabin, a haze of pain that refuses to lift. Gerald seems anxious and unwilling to stray far from the hillside. Suzanna watches him impatiently, suddenly refusing to believe her own fears about the man she saw on the ridge. Somewhere deep in her belly, she knows she’s being unreasonable. That the stories being told in Taos and the presence of the knife beside Chonita’s dead body mean that it’s likely Jones did somehow survive that terrible knife fight and has returned from the wilderness.
But surely that’s impossible. It must be someone else who’s haunting the mountains between the valley and Taos. She simply cannot allow herself to live in terror of any other possibility.
Besides, if Gerald believed that Jones had returned, he would have told her so. He’s said nothing about the Taos rumors or Jones’ bone-handled knife. He’s staying close to the cabin solely out of concern for both her and Ramón’s emotional state. There’s also her physical condition. The baby is due soon and Suzanna is increasingly uncomfortable.
The shock of Encarnación’s death has hit Ramón hard. The realization that she lay dead while he happily anticipated their marriage has left him in a kind of stupor. He still cooks and tends the animals, chops wood and hauls water, but he goes about his tasks in a sort of daze, eyes glazed with pain.
Suzanna herself finds that she’s sitting for long stretches, hands empty in her lap, staring blindly at the windows, glowing yellow with afternoon light. It’s hard to imagine a world without Chonita’s vital laugh, those knowing eyes, that gift for las natillas. Even the mica windowpanes remind her of the other woman. Suzanna smiles, remembering the arguments between her father and the cook about the need for sunlight and fresh air through the old-fashioned kitchen windows with their carved wooden grills, the ones her father wanted to replace with mica.
Ramón enters the room carrying an armload of firewood. Suzanna looks up at him. “You know, I think Encarnación was right,” she says. “The clear light from an open window aperture is so much brighter and truer than sunlight filtered through mica.”
Ramón kneels to add the wood to the small stack at the far end of the fireplace. “It is so,” he says. “She—” Then he stops, a piece of juniper still in his hand. He shakes his head, carefully positions the chunk of wood on top of the stack, then stands and moves toward the kitchen without looking back.
She closes her eyes. She shouldn’t have spoken. It only deepens his pain. And yet, how can she not speak, when everything seems to remind her of her dead friend? She sighs and sorrowfully rubs her belly. She had assumed Encarnación would come for the child’s birth, to assist her through it and perhaps stay on with Ramón.
Grief overwhelms her again, and Suzanna creeps across the room and climbs clumsily up the ladder to the loft. Out of the way, where she can’t do anything else to increase Ramón’s pain.
When the tears finally wear out, Suzanna lies limp on the blanket-covered pallet and stares at the bare rafters overhead. The weeping will erupt again. She hasn’t completed grieving for her friend. But the pressure in her head and chest has subsided a little. She wonders if Ramón has wept at all, if he’s found an outlet for his grief. But he’s a man. Men learn early to suppress their emotions. Perhaps speaking of his loss to another man will be all he can manage.
But when she asks Gerald that night if Ramón has spoken to him of Encarnación’s death. Her husband shakes his head.
“It will fester in him if he doesn’t express it.” Suzanna pushes another pillow behind her back, trying to get comfortable on the thin bed. “It isn’t good to hold in that kind of pain.”
“You don’t know that he’s not expressing it,” Gerald says. “We each have our own way of dealing with grief.” He leans down to give her a kiss and pokes at the pillows behind her. “Are you comfortable yet?”
“Not until this child decides to be born,” she says, exaggerating her grumbling tone, glad to have something else to think about. “Ouch!” She presses a hand against her lower chest. “That foot just jabbed my rib and now it’s pushing straight out.”
“Pushy little thing, isn’t it?” Gerald grins and he stretches out beside her. “Must be a girl.”
She gives him a slit-eyed look. “You certainly are in a good mood tonight.” Guilt wells up in her and she turns her head away. How can she be happy when Encarnación is dead and Ramón so bent with grief? Tears brim into her eyes. “When my father arrives for Christmas, Chonita won’t be with him.” She gives Gerald a bleak look. “If I can’t bear the thought of that, how must Ramón feel?”
Gerald lifts himself onto one elbow and gently strokes her dark hair. “I don’t mean to be hard hearted. I know your heart weeps for her and that Ramón is burdened with grief and self-reproach.”
“He believes that if he’d insisted that they marry when we did, she would have been here and safe, instead of on that acequia path.”
Suzanna’s eyes fill again. “On that path with potatoes from my patch, so far away from the village.” She shakes her head. “And I was so willing for her to stay in Don Fernando, so quick to leave her with all the work while I took what I wanted. When I left, she remained to arrange everything, to take all the responsibility for my father. And to have none of my joy.” She turns her head away from his sympathetic eyes. Her voice shakes. “I’m more to blame than Ramón!”
“Neither of you are to blame,” Gerald says firmly. “Encarnación insisted, remember? She decided what she wanted to do and that was it.” He chuckles. “Did you ever know her to change her mind once she had decided a thing?”
“No, not that I can remember.” She manages a small smile. “In fact, it was never clear whether she or my father was the first to decide that she would be our cook and housekeeper. I’ve always suspected it was Chonita’s idea before it was his, even though she was only fourteen at the time.”
Gerald grins. “She set you a good example.”
She narrows her eyes. “Now what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
He laughs. “Only that you and she both know how to get what you most want.” He leans forward and kisses her forehead. “Now please relax and let that baby finish its last bit of growth so it can arrive soon.” He reaches for her hand. “Ramón and I expect to have a surprise for you tomorrow morning, but if it’s to truly be a surprise, you’ll need to stay up here until we’re ready to show it to you. Can you do that?”
She grimaces. “Since I now need help to get down the ladder, I suppose I don’t have much choice, do I?”
He laughs and squeezes her hand. “I suppose not.” He looks around the loft. “You have the lamp and your books. The chamber pot’s empty and the wash basin has clean water in it. Is there anything else you need?”
“Chonita to be alive and this child to be born,” she says, closing her eyes. She can feel the grief pulling at her again.
Gerald touches her hair. “I wish I could make both those things happen,” he says. “I didn’t know Encarnación well, but I also feel her loss.”
Suzanna reaches for his hand. “I don’t mean to be such a weepy woman about it. I suppose it’s as much the weight of the child as grief for Chonita. If my time doesn’t come soon, I may dissolve in a lake of tears.”
“When the baby does arrive, it will be a comfort to all of us.” He looks up at the rafters. “Though I dread the process of its coming.”
“I’ll be fine.” Suzanna puts more courage into her voice than she actually feels at the moment. “We both know what to expect. After all, cows aren’t much different from humans.”
“Still, I wish you could be in your father’s house.” He turns his head, eyes dark with concern. “I shouldn’t have taken you from Taos.”
“It’s too late for that now,” she says. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure of it.”
He rolls toward her. “I’ll certainly be glad when it’s over,” he says, his face against her shoulder.
Suzanna turns her head to kiss him gently, then turns back to stare at the rafters herself. She can sleep only on her back now. Every other position is uncomfortable. As she stares into the darkness, Gerald’s body relaxes into sleep.
She can’t let go that easily. Despite Gerald’s reassurances, she still regrets her eagerness to hasten her own marriage and delay Encarnación’s. One of them needed to stay in Taos with her father and arrange for and train a new housekeeper. She had selfishly let that person be Chonita. Who is now dead. The tears slip silently down Suzanna’s face.
Finally, she sleeps. She wakes to a muttered curse in the room below and a muffled thud on the plank floor. “Are you two moving furniture?” she calls, but the only response is the scuff of boots across the floor and the thud of the front door shutting.
Suzanna frowns. What are those two up to? Oh, yes. The surprise. Well, if it distracts Ramón a little from his pain, it’s a good thing.
She closes her eyes against her own grief, then sits up. Her bladder is full to bursting. Or at least it feels like it. It could just be that the baby is pushing against it again. That nothing much will happen when she uses the chamber pot.
She gets up anyway, then slips back onto the thin pallet. She shifts impatiently, trying to get comfortable. The loft’s floor boards seem especially hard this morning, the pallet especially thin. It’s no use. She’ll read for a while, until they’re ready to show her the surprise.
She pushes herself into a sitting position. As she reaches to light the lamp, the door below thuds open again. “Shhh!” Gerald hisses. “Careful now! She’ll hear us!”
Suzanna pulls her hand away from the lamp and lies down again, a small smile playing on her lips. Let them think she’s still sleeping.
She’s actually dozed off again when Gerald’s head appears at the top of the ladder. “Wife?” he says.
“Your surprise is ready.” He sounds so pleased with himself.
She sits up and stretches her hand to him.
“Well, almost ready,” he says. “You have to see it before it can be completed.”
She chuckles. “Now I’m really curious.”
“Don’t look over the edge of the loft,” he warns. “And you’ll need to close your eyes on the way down.”
“Isn’t that’s rather dangerous?”
He laughs. “You haven’t been able to see your feet on the ladder rungs for the last month,” he reminds her. “I’ll stay right below you just like I’ve been doing, and you’ll be perfectly safe.”
“I put myself in your hands,” she says, smiling. She wraps a shawl around her shoulders and ties it firmly in place. “All right, I’m ready.”
Gerald guides her carefully down the ladder, then places his hands on her shoulders and turns her, eyes still closed, toward the fireplace. “Here it is!” he says.
Suzanna opens her eyes. A bed stands between the fireplace and the window. A real bed, large enough for two people, with a sturdy pale-gold wooden post at each corner and thinner pieces forming the frame. Strips of rawhide have been woven together and attached to the frame to create a mattress support.
“It isn’t quite ready,” Gerald says apologetically. He slips his arm around her waist. “We’ll bring the pallet and blankets down and make it up properly.”
Ramón stands on the far side of the bed, watching her. His face holds the glimmer of a smile, the first she’s seen since Gregorio arrived with his news. “It is for you and the little one,” Ramón says. He glances at the ladder to the loft. “You will be safer here.”
“It’s beautiful.” Suzanna leans against her husband and smiles at Ramón, both hands on her protruding belly. She looks at the bed. “The wood is such a beautiful soft yellow. Is it aspen?”
“Sí,” Ramón says eagerly. “And we have coated it with a thin layer of resin, to preserve it. It should last all your days—” He stops suddenly and looks away.
Suzanna’s throat catches. She turns to Gerald. “I want to try it right away,” she says. She moves to her chair and eases herself into it. She looks at Ramón, her eyes twinkling. “I’m afraid you’ve made more work for yourself, because I’ll also need the lamp and my books.”
The men move up the ladder to do her bidding and the cabin is filled with activity, pushing the loss of Encarnación into the shadows, at least for a little while.
You’ve just read the tenth chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.