Where I’ve Been – Part 6

OK folks… This one I started awhile ago, and finally finished the other night when my husband was snoring so loudly I could not sleep. Small mercies as a writer to have those insomniac nights, I suppose, eh?

Anywho, here is Part 6, and funnily enough, it deals with the idea of how we handle destruction and human suffering, which is kind of on my mind with Haiti right now.

Where Ive Been –  Part 6

White flakes swirled around the window, and the front stone walkway was slowly being covered by thick, fat globs of snow. December had come with a vengeance, and Nessa was glad to be in the warmth of the kitchen, her cheeks pink from the heat of the stove.

The past few weeks had seen many changes in their small, sleepy existence. First, the men had decided to take a survey around the edges of the town, into the dense forest surrounding the back of the fields behind them. The mountains past that were inhospitable, and no one had ever come into their town using the steep slopes, but they could now not count anything out.

Then, they had checked the ravine side, and put up a fence as close to the edge as possible. After all this time, they put up a six-foot wire fence, using the leftover spools behind an old factory. For days, the sound of rusty wire breaking and twanging off the rock of the ravine had echoed through the town, and it had made Nessa laugh. Wasn’t the ravine enough? But, if it made the Council, and the town, feel safer, she supposed it was worth it.

Lastly, they had been working on updating the maps they had, with help from Barley, of what lay outside the big timber gates, and preparing the hotel in town, in case people came. There was debate on whether to even open the gates to travellers now, with some saying they must be compassionate with what the town had, and others not wanting to risk it for a few runaways.

Barley had been out with them, working alongside his father and hers, and she hadn’t seen much of him other than to drop off bread, or pies, or other food. Maury didn’t have a large garden, so everyone in the community was helping to keep Jessica and Maury with enough food to feed their new family member. She was sure Barley would be sick of potato pasta casseroles soon.

She was glad for him to be useful and working. When Maury would come over for coffee in the afternoons, he would beam with happiness that his son was home. Barley was reported to be slowly looking more normal and fleshed out, and was proving to be a sharp mind for details and strategy. All but Turner had accepted him back. Nessa had asked her father why Turner was so mad once, and Chris had just shook his head, and changed the subject. Turner refused to work with Barley, would never speak to him, and was avoiding everyone.

Nessa turned the mortar and pestle in her hands slowly, grinding comfrey root into a fine dust. Simmering on the stove was a pot of lanolin and beeswax. She worked the pestle absently as she thought about what it would mean if people began coming to their gates again. Part of her wanted the interaction with the outside world again. She played memories of the merchants who would come by, remembering the child-like glee at the clattering wagons filled with things, shiny metal and rich brocade colours leaping out at her, jumbled heaps of ropes and clothing, sacks of things like brown sugar and spice, their aromas mixing into the excited air around them. If they came, maybe she could maybe get some new medicines, or a new pie plate, or maybe even some fancy cloth!

But sobering thoughts of armed men, or violent runaways intruded. If they came, would Barley have to leave again? would they take more of the men? Would they take women too? The adventure would be just like out of a storybook, but Nessa was far from wanting to live one.

Her thoughts were broken when she noticed one of Hammond’s young boys running for all he was worth down the street in front of the house. Nessa peeked further down the road through the window, and could see no one chasing him. Hammond lived a street over, so he wasn’t running home. She thought it peculiar, but then shrugged. Boys did strange things at the best of times.

She dusted her hands, and opened the door to the kitchen, thinking to watch where he went to report back to his mother, just as the young lad was reaching the doorstep.

“Kenzi?” She asked, suddenly worried. “What’s happened?”

The boy leaned on his knees and gasped, then Nessa urged him into the kitchen and closed the door against the chill. Still breathing hard, he plopped onto a chair and attempted to speak.

“Your Dad fell on the back road – They’re bringing him in now – He hit his head.” Kenzington said between breaths.

“He fell?” Nessa said, stunned. She immediately went to the stove to pull off the balm mixture. It would have to wait. “What happened?”

“The horses spooked at something, and he came off.” the young boy said, finally catching his breath.

Nessa rushed from the kitchen yelling for her mother and Harriet, and relayed the news, not noticing that the boy had leapt up and run back out the door. Her father was never unhorsed, and this meant it was a bad injury, or worse, injuries. Her heart in her throat, she ticked off a mental list of supplies she would need. Linen, thread, tweezers, bandages, and splints all made their way onto the table from the cupboard.

The house swung into action, with water heating on the stove in various pots. As Nessa was dropping thread and needles into the water to sterilize them, the door burst open with a swirl of winter snow over the floor. Barley and London shouldered a very dazed looking Chris into the house. Blood covered the top portion of his head, congealing in the cold of the early winter, giving him a goulish nature to his face, his hair a mess behind him. Nessa’s mother immediately began fussing over him, Harriet pale-faced just behind her, gasped.

Nessa pointed to a chair near the kitchen sink, steadying herself and pushing the worry down inside. Better to worry later and get her father patched up now.

“Put him there.” She ordered, and lifted two ladels of water out of the larger pot into a steel basin. “Harriet, come here and take this.”

Harriet grabbed the basin and turned to her father, shaking. Nessa followed, and sent a prayer up to give her strength to heal him.

—–

Barley held Chris’ arms down as Nessa cleaned the wound on the top of her father’s head.

“Dad, if you don’t stop squirming, I’ll never get it clean.” She growled, concentrating, wet linen in one hand and tweezers in the other. She picked out bits of dirt, dropping them into another small bowl, the sound of gravel bits on ceramic louder than it should be in the now crowded kitchen.

Chris grunted in return, stopped fidgeting, then closed his eyes. Barley adjusted his grip when the man relaxed. He’d done this so many times for soldiers, holding them down while they were stitched, or worse, that it was almost second nature.

Only this time, it was Nessa’s father, and Nessa was the nurse. He felt dislocated, and forced the sounds from the battlefield to fade away as they rose up in his mind. This was not war, and this was not a mud-choked makeshift camp with no supplies.

“Will he need stitching?” Barley asked quietly.

Nessa nodded, pausing above her father’s head. Without looking up, she gestured to the stove.

“Harriet. I need the thread and gauze from the boiling water. Please get it for me.”

Harriet jumped up from holding her mother’s hand, who was sitting on the other side of Chris, helplessly looking on. London had left to see to the horses, and Barley had taken over the job of holding the big man down. He wasn’t sure if he was up to the job, but someone had to. The man would shake his family off like flies. He could likely do the same to Barley, but he was co-operating, despite the pain he was no doubt experiencing.

“You’ve done this before.” Nessa said once Harriet was gone, her eyes meeting his over her father.

“A few times. Battle means injuries.” he replied, watching her expertly pull a bit of gravel out, examine it briefly, then drop it into the bowl with yet another tink into the ceramic. “So have you.”

She grimaced, and nodded, putting the tweezers down and flushing the wound with water from her linen. “Yes. Somehow, I became the healer here over time. I have the most stable hands, everyone says.”

“Be quick about it, girl.” Her father ground out. Nessa patted her father’s shoulder, and stood for a moment to ease the crick in her neck. The wound wasn’t deep, but had been filthy, and she had taken care not to open it further when removing all the dirt. Barley noticed she had put some sort of balm in his hair, instead of clipping it off, and saving a bald patch in the middle of winter for her father. She was a smart girl.

Barley let go for a moment, and he too stretched, watching her put her tools down, and wipe her hands with wet linen. Her apron was covered in blood smears from her fingers, and wisps of hair had escaped to around her face. Her eyes looked worried, but animated, and Barley suddenly knew what calling Nessa had missed. He’d seen that look in the eyes of the doctors in the field, going from patient to patient. It made her look so alive, and passionate.

“You’re good at it.” He murmured, and tilted his head to stretch his neck.

She simply looked at Barley, and a small smile stole over her face, then was replaced with stern concentration again. Harriet returned with needles and what looked like black thread on a small cookie tray lined with more linen, and Nessa sat again. She rummaged into the small box of supplies she had toted in with her when she’d begun, and pulled out a tooth-indented, well worn thick piece of leather. She handed it to her father without a word, and he made a face.

“I suppose some of Mikaela’s whiskey is out of the question?” he muttered, turning the leather strip over in his hands, examining the crescent marks with his fingertips. Barley quirked an eyebrow at Nessa, and she pursed her lips and gave her father a withering stare. Chris simply looked at her unwaveringly, and she sighed, relenting.

“Mom, you know where it is.”

Nessa’s mother got up and went to the curio in the livingroom, and brought back a small, clear bottle with an off-yellow liquid. As she swirled it in the bottle, Chris grabbed it, pulled the cork, and took a deep sip. Once he stopped wincing from the taste, he took several more sips right away.

“it tastes horrific, but its good tonic if you need numbing.” He said, handing it to Barley. “Try it. Its her best stuff yet.”

Barley took a sniff of the bottle. It smelled not unlike the sterilizing alcohol they used in the field. The men would drink it if the beer was gone, and nothing else was to be had. He took a sip, and almost gagged.

“What does she use to make this?” He sputtered, amidst a giggle from Harriet, and a raised eyebrow from Nessa. “Its terrible!”

“Corn.” Chris replied. “Its commonly called Moonshine, from what Mikaela has read. Used to be very popular around these parts, and home stilled. Illegal too, apparently, not that it matters now.”

“Shall we continue?” Nessa said impatiently, and motioned to her father. He gave her a dirty look, and fit the leather strap into his mouth, biting down, grunting, and settling into his chair to await the stinging of the needle. Barley handed the bottle back to Nessa’s mother, and resumed his position holding Chris down.

Nessa paused with her curved needle and tweezers above her fathers head. Barley caught her eyes, and they looked at one another for a moment. The same feeling washed over him as it had the day he had come back and gone to see her that night. He wanted to fold her into his arms and comfort her, knowing full well she had pushed her own concern and worry deep down inside as she dealt with the matter at hand. He knew later she would let go. He hoped to be there to comfort her, maybe… if she wanted.

She broke the gaze, flushed slightly, and he looked to Chris, who had closed his eyes.

“Ready, Chris?” He asked.

A grunt from the man was enough, and Nessa began to sew her father’s head back together.

Nessa dropped into a chair, her apron and all the linen bandages cast aside into a bin with lye soap to soak the bloodstains away. He knew that her whole body ached from sitting for so long to take care of her father, and she rubbed the back of her neck and pried off her shoes. He could see her tension.

Barley put a hesitant hand to her shoulder, slowly kneading, then a second followed it. She dropped her chin to her chest and sighed. He held his breath.

“Oh my. That is lovely.”

he breathed out, relieved that she was accepting of his overture, and continued to push the stress out of her shoulders. “That was a lot of work. I’m surprised you can even move.”

She made a small noise of agreement, and let him work her shoulder a few moments longer, her head lolling as his thumbs pressed her skin back and forth. “S’hard when its your Dad too.” She mumbled.

“You did really well. I’d have you as a medic in my squad any day.” He replied, stopping.

She shrugged his hands off and turned, and he came around to sit in a chair near her, leaning on the table. She smiled, and patted his hand, and in a sudden fit of boldness, he grabbed hers, thumbing her knuckles.

“I hope you can tell me about your squad someday.” She said quietly, looking at him.

“I will, Nessa, just not right now. Its not conversation for a day like this.” He replied. He didn’t want to scare her, or anyone with stories just yet, and he’d kept them to himself on purpose. What they’d had to do, it wasn’t for delicate ears. he decided to change the subject.

“How’d you become the town healer anyways?”

“Its the usual.” she said, not removing her hand, watching his thumb. “They come to me to be patched, sewn up, medicine applied. Its been that way for four years or so. I enjoy the work. I have a couple of older books that talk about herbal remedies, and we’ve grown the herbs here for a long time, so I kind of fell into it.”

“Tea?” Nessa’s mother said as she entered the kitchen, and then stopped. Nessa’s hand was still in Barley’s, and her eyes swivelled to it, then back to Nessa.

“That would be lovely, Mrs. Wooler.” Barley said, standing, releasing Nessa’s hand. “Let me help, I’ll bring some in.”

Nessa’s mother looked from her to Barley, then nodded tiredly. Chris was fast asleep on the couch, and Barley knew she wouldn’t leave his side until morning. He dragged the kettle over to the pump, filled it, and then put it on the stove to heat. He poked the coals of the fire, added some wood, and then found the teapot on the shelf above the sink. Nessa watched him quietly, and he could feel her eyes on him.

“You look much more rested and healthy now.” She said.

he stopped, and turned. “Really?”

She nodded. “You aren’t a sack of bones anymore.”

He raised his eyebrows. “A sack of bones eh… and here I thought I was just wiry.”

She laughed, and he flexed his arms out, making a grimace. He relished the laugh, willing to do anything to hear it again, he had missed it so much over the years. As he finished preparing tea, he sat back down beside her and again leaned on his arm on the table. They looked at one another again, and he smiled.

“I feel better too. It must be all the home cooking both you and Jessica force feed me.”

He watched Nessa’s face, memorizing every detail as she seemed to study him in the same way. For so long he had held the image of her young face in his mind, now, he had to relearn the woman’s features. She had changed, grown, become an adult, but the Nessa he remembered was still there. The narrow bridge of her nose, the dimple in her left cheek when she smiled, the way she would play with her earlobe when she was worried. None of that had changed, and he was so glad for it, because he knew he was nothing like the young boy who had left. He knew he was likely as unfamiliar to her now as a stranger, not her long-gone friend. He hoped it would not be difficult for her to know the new Barley.

He reached out, and grabbed her hand again, feeling her fingers flex over his, hooking him into her if just for a brief moment, feeling her pulse through her grip. She bent her head, suddenly shy, and he could see the faint pink of a blush on her cheeks appear, then disappear. He squeezed her fingers and she looked up again, locking into his gaze.

“Thank you for that, by the way.” He added.

The kettle began whistling, making both of them jump, releasing their hands.

“Let me get it. I need something to do.” she said shakily and leapt up. He sat back, and watched her fill the teapot and return the kettle to the stove. She stopped for a moment, and her shoulders heaved once as she took a deep breath. The urge to hold her again stole up on him to, fold her into a hug, tell her it would be ok. But he didn’t. She needed space, it seemed.

“I don’t know how you did it.” She said suddenly, turning with the tray in her hands. “Seeing all that… terrible stuff all the time. Its hard enough with me dealing with cuts and bruises and broken bones, let alone… that kind of stuff.”

“You build a wall in side of you, you kind of get numb. ” Barley said, and looked to the floor. “You stop feeling human because if you do, you’d never stop grieving.”

He heard her take a breath in, then her footsteps swish into the livingroom, and the muffled whispers as she set tea down for her mother. He stayed looking at the floor, contemplating her words, and his response. He worried that if the army came, and forced recruitment, they would take her with them, knowing full well they would ask for the healer to mend injured soldiers as they furloughed in the town. He knew, if they took her, she would not be prepared for the carnage. He hadn’t been either, and he didn’t want for her to have to become less human than she was. It was a terrible thought.

He simply wanted to keep her safe, and knew, if it came down to it, he might not be able to. So did he tell her the terrible stories to prepare her, or keep them from her, to protect her dreams for just a few more nights? it was a hard decision to make.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.” she said, returning. “I’m sorry.”

Barley sighed, and stood, stetching. “No, its ok Nes.  Just lost in my memories. But, I think I should be getting home. Jessica probably has dinner on by now.”

She nodded, and at the door, they stood awkwardly, looking at one another. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, and she smiled a tired, but appreciative smile at him.

“Go to bed Nessa.” he ordered softly. “That was a tough afternoon for you. You’re ready to drop.”

“Thank you for your help with my father.” she replied, and suddenly rubbed at her eyes, tears glistening behind them. “I’m glad to know he has another person looking out for him now… Here.”

Barley pulled her forward into an embrace, and squeezed lightly. “I’ll try my best.” he murmured, and then let her go. Before he forgot himself, he opened the door, and stepped through, leaving her to watch him leave. Her tears could always eviscerate him, and he had to leave before he did something he would regret.

“See you tomorrow?” He heard her call after him. He turned in to silently falling snow, feeling the flakes sticking to his eyelashes, and he nodded, her form silhouetted in the light from the doorway, like a perfect charcoal outline on a page.

“Yeah. I’ll come by tomorrow and relieve Chris of some boredom, ok?”

Her tinkling laugh made its way through the snow to his ears and he smiled as he walked down the street. He’d do anything for that laugh. Anything.

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