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       Prized, p.6

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Startled, Gaia thought of Leon. “Not that way.”

  “Not at all?”

  Gaia glanced down to where the tips of her boots poked out from the hem of her skirt and frowned. “I left someone behind that I cared for,” she admitted. “We only knew each other a few weeks, now that I think of it.”

  “So you never slept with him?”

  Gaia laughed. “No.”

  “But you kissed him at least, right?”

  “Does this matter?” Gaia asked, hugging her arms around herself and leaning over her knees.

  “Just tell me.”

  “Yes. We kissed.”

  Peony sat back a little, looking more hopeful. “So it was serious. What was he like?”

  Gaia wondered why Peony cared about this, but she could see it was making her less anxious when Gaia talked a little about herself. She thought back for the first sign that he’d cared for her. “Leon gave me an orange once, before I even really knew what he was like. He sent it through prison walls to me when I needed hope more than anything. I didn’t find out until later that it was from him.”

  Peony nodded, smiling slightly. “You would fall for one of the nice ones,” she said. “I can tell.”

  Nice, Gaia thought. Intense, generous, troubled, smart: those were all Leon. But nice?

  “He wasn’t exactly nice in the normal way,” Gaia said. “We never had any normal time together.”

  “What were you doing in prison?”

  Gaia rocked her heels in the dirt. “I was only hoping to rescue my parents, but then I saw a pregnant woman being hanged so I had to save her baby. I got caught, of course, and I ended up arrested. I was kept in prison for weeks, without a trial.” She didn’t want to go into it further.

  Peony’s eyes were wide. “You’re really tough, aren’t you?”

  Gaia shook her head. “I don’t think so. Listen, I’d rather that people here don’t know about my jail time.”

  “We have mutual secrets, then,” Peony said. “Despite what I’ve just told you, it’s hard to trust anybody with this.”

  “You can trust me,” Gaia said. “Confidentiality is part of my work.”

  “How old are you?” Peony asked.

  “Sixteen.”

  “I’m seventeen,” Peony said. “You seem a lot older.”

  “It’s my scar that does that,” Gaia said.

  “No, it’s something else. You’re different,” Peony said thoughtfully.

  Gaia had always been different. She felt a rumbling in her gut and frowned. “I think I’d better head back. Are you sure you’ve thought this over?”

  Peony came to her feet. “All I’ve ever dreamed of is being a mother. If I have this baby, they’ll take it away from me and I’ll never be able to have a family of my own. But if I miscarry, I can marry and have a dozen kids and love every single one of them.”

  “Can’t you marry the father?”

  “He won’t do it. He says it isn’t his.” Her voice rose to a squeak, and then she brought it back down. “If I tell on him, he’ll be punished, but I’ll be ruined, too. It’s all a mess.”

  “Would anyone else marry you?”

  Peony laughed. “I thought of that. I thought of just picking someone, but he’d know, eventually. And what kind of life would that be, married to someone I lied to right from the start? He’d hate me.”

  “What if you tell the truth?” Gaia said. She stood, brushing off the back of her skirt. “I mean, this may seem brutal, but if girls are in such short supply, probably some man would want you even if you’re pregnant with another man’s child.”

  “In that case, I’d enter into a loveless marriage with a man who’s doing me a favor in exchange for a meal ticket,” Peony said. “I can’t do it.”

  They were nearly back to the road again, and Gaia paused, setting a hand on Peony’s arm.

  “Listen,” Gaia said. “There’s one more thing you haven’t even mentioned. There’s a life starting inside you. It isn’t much yet, hardly bigger than a grain of sand. But you need to think of that, too. You’ll always, always know you lost that life through your own choice. Can you carry that?”

  Peony went very still and her gaze went lost and lonely. She closed her eyes. “It’s going to eat me up,” she said in hardly more than a whisper.

  “Then don’t do it,” Gaia said.

  “I have to! Don’t say that!” Peony’s face contorted with misery and then Gaia reached to pull her into a hug. The choice was not simple for Gaia either, nor free of grief, but she had to support this girl in whatever she decided. Never again would she be party to the crime of taking choices away from mothers.

  “You’ll still help me, right?” Peony asked anxiously.

  “Yes. If it’s really what you want.”

  “It is.” Peony stepped back and wiped her eyes once more. “How do I look?”

  “Like you’ve been crying,” Gaia said.

  Peony’s smile was rueful. “I’m supposed to have dinner with my family tonight. I’ll just take the long way back.” She walked backward into the forest again. “You know your way?”

  Gaia nodded. “I’m on my way to the Chardos’ to see their garden. Norris thinks they might have some of the herbs I need. I’m looking for some tansy and blue cohosh especially.”

  “I’d help but I don’t know a thing about herbs. It’s not far,” Peony said, pointing up the road. She told her to watch for a barn on the right with some new construction. “I’ll see you around the lodge, okay? I live on the second floor there, in the corner room nearest the chimney. Will you come find me privately?”

  “Give me a few days to prepare what I need,” Gaia said.

  “And think it over. You can still change your mind.”

  “I won’t.”

  Gaia waited to watch the other girl start back into the woods, and then, feeling much wearier than she’d been before, she continued up the road.

  As she reached the Chardos’, she heard hammering coming from the direction of the barn, where a scaffolding of pale, new lumber indicated an addition in progress. Beyond, a couple of horses grazed in the pasture, and she recognized Chardo Peter’s horse, Spider.

  To the south of the house, on the sunny side, a fenced garden offered inviting colors, and more flowers ran along the wood rail fence by the road. Gaia spotted tansy before she even started up the drive, and her heart lifted. Perhaps she could take some on her way back to the lodge to start a tincture for Peony. The rhythmic bangs of the hammer grew louder as she reached the barn door, and as she paused there, a man inside propped a nail on a box of wood and hammered it home with one sure stroke. In brown trousers and a gray tank top, with bits of sawdust salting his brown hair, he worked in focused concentration, lining up the next nail.

  She didn’t want to startle him, but she didn’t want to spy, either. “Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

  The man turned his head, then straightened and took another nail from between his lips.

  “Mlass Gaia,” he said, his voice lifting in surprise, and then his gaze shot to a workbench along the wall. He set down his hammer, walked over, and twitched a blanket over a form on the bench.

  “We haven’t met yet,” he said. “I’m Peter’s brother, Will. He’s gone, you know. Back out to the perimeter.” He reached for a gray short-sleeved shirt and, despite the heat, slipped it on, doing the buttons.

  “I know,” she said.

  She tried to see how he resembled the outrider who had rescued her. Will’s face was more square than long, and he was clean-shaven, with a distinct jaw line. Something pleasing in his voice was like Peter’s.

  “He felt bad about your sister,” Will said. “He was afraid you wouldn’t understand. Have you seen her?”

  “I haven’t been allowed to,” Gaia said. “Do you know where she is?”

  He shook his head. “No. Is there something I can do for you?”

  “Norris told me to come see your garden,” she said.
“We need some herbs for my midwifery, and I thought I could take a look. I already saw you have tansy and ginseng out by the road.”

  “Peter planted them. He brings back plants he finds sometimes. I’ll show you around,” he said.

  “I don’t want to interrupt, though,” she said, glancing at the shape he’d covered. “I can see you’re busy.”

  “It can wait.”

  She couldn’t take her eyes from the blanket, for the distinctive shape of a profile was becoming clear through the material. Then she looked back at the box he’d been hammering. It was not a bit of wood for the addition as she’d assumed, but a coffin.

  She backed up a step. “I’m terribly sorry. I had no idea.”

  His smile grew strained. “It’s really all right. My client has an endless supply of patience. No one told you I was a morteur?”

  “No.” She was still adjusting. He took care of bodies. She’d never thought of a young man as a morteur, but here he was. Now that she knew what to expect, she could smell in the barn, very faintly, the first hint of decay.

  “Let me show you the garden,” he said.

  Instead, she took a step farther in. She’d never seen her father buried, or her mother, and now she couldn’t resist her own attraction to the death in the barn.

  She was intrigued by how inexplicably familiar it felt. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Who died?”

  “Jones Benny. He was a retired fisherman. He never had kids, but he and his nephews were very close. I always liked him. We’re having the service tomorrow up on the bluff, at dawn, because that was Benny’s favorite time of the day.”

  How she wished something like that had been done for her parents.

  “That’s beautiful,” Gaia said.

  Will nodded, watching her attentively. “You’ve lost someone recently, haven’t you?” he said.

  She nodded mutely. Who, she wondered, had taken care of her parents? Were they dressed nicely? Did someone comb her mother’s hair?

  “Was there a burial?” he asked. “Were you there for it?”

  She shook her head. She kept looking at the blanket that covered the corpse, as if it might move, as if it were a mistake. She touched a hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.

  “Please. Won’t you sit down?” he asked, gesturing to a bench by the wall.

  “It’s been a big day,” she said tightly. “I’m afraid if I sit, I’ll never get up again.”

  “Give me just a minute to hitch up the wagon, and I’ll take you back to the lodge.”

  She didn’t want to go back. Not just yet. “I’m really fine.”

  “If you’ll permit me, you’re not fine. When’s the last time you had a regular night’s sleep?”

  She tilted her face with a twist of her lips. “Good point.”

  His smile was slow and genuine. “You know,” he began, “you don’t need a gravesite to honor the person you lost.”

  “It was my parents,” she said.

  “Your parents, then,” he said quietly. “Do you have anything from them?”

  “My locket.” She realized she already reached for it often when she thought of her mother or father. It comforted her. She rubbed it slowly along its chain, back and forth. “It was a gift for my midwifery. I think it would be nice to have something different, though. Final. Something to honor them, like you said.”

  “Suppose you pick a time that’s special to you,” Will said. “You can keep that moment sacred for them. I have rain to remember my mother, whenever it first starts.”

  She regarded him thoughtfully. “When did you lose her?”

  “When I was seven. There was a fever in the village. My two youngest brothers died then, too.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said.

  Will smiled. “I don’t expect I’ll ever get over it, actually, but I don’t even try to anymore. It’s just been part of me for so long. What about you? Is there something like rain for your parents?”

  She already knew what it would be, and a calmness settled around her heart. “Orion,” she said. “The constellation. Whenever I see it, I think of my father anyway. He taught me about the stars.”

  “It won’t be out in the summer,” he reminded her. “But it’s the looking for it that will count, even if you can’t find it.”

  She glanced up at him. “You’re good at this,” she said.

  “You were ready,” he said simply. “That’s all.”

  She inhaled slowly and let out a long breath. Her eyes turned once more to the corpse under the blanket, and she slid off her hat, striding idly toward the workbench. “How’d Benny die?”

  “It was sudden,” Will said. “They said he clutched at his chest before he went. I’m guessing his heart gave out. If you please, don’t go any closer.”

  “Why not?”

  He stepped in front of the body. “I’d just rather you didn’t. Let me show you the garden.”

  “Are you doing an autopsy?” she asked.

  Will lifted a hand to his jaw and rubbed his chin. Then he laughed. “What are the chances?” he asked the ceiling.

  “What?” she asked. “I mean, it’s not surprising. You must do them all the time.”

  He shook his head. “I’ve never done one before. I could hardly get myself to cut into him. I had to stop because I thought I’d be sick. And now the one person who might know something about bodies shows up in my barn.”

  “News travels fast here, doesn’t it?” Gaia asked.

  “News about a new midwife? Yes. I’d say so.”

  She went to hang her hat on a peg by the door. “Just so you know, being a midwife does not make me an expert in autopsies, but I was born curious. Want help?”

  CHAPTER 5

  in the morteur’s barn

  SHE GLANCED BACK to see his eyebrows raised in gentle surprise. He put his fists on his hips and cleared his throat.

  “You’re serious?” he asked.

  “Sure. I find it hard to believe you haven’t done this before.”

  “There’s no point, normally,” Will said. “It can’t change the fact that someone’s dead. It’s my job to clean up the corpse the best I can, dress him, and make the coffin. I try to do it as respectfully as I can.”

  “Then what’s different this time?” she asked.

  “Benny was an expool,” Will said. “It always bothered him that he couldn’t be a father. He begged me before he died to try to see if I could find out anything that would help anyone else. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t know what to look for, but he made me promise. He said it was time I learned.”

  “Are many men here infertile?”

  “The expools are,” he said, nodding. “Every boy is tested around his fourteenth birthday. If his sperm aren’t viable, he’s out of the pool of eligible men who can marry.”

  “You’re kidding,” she said. “Is it very many men?”

  “It’s a lot. Maybe four or five hundred out of the eighteen hundred men here.”

  “I had no idea,” she said. “That’s horrible! What do they do?”

  “What can they do? They just go on like everybody else,” Will said. “Some try to get in with the libbies when they can. They really aren’t much different from the men in the pool who never marry. There aren’t enough women in any case.”

  Josephine had said something about Dinah having expool boyfriends, she recalled. She looked curiously at Will, wondering if he was an expool. She glanced at his hand to see his wedding finger was bare.

  She absolutely was not going to ask him if his sperm were viable.

  He smiled. “It’s okay to ask. Yes, I’m in the pool.”

  She closed her eyes, feeling her cheeks burn with color. “I wasn’t going to.”

  “We’ll just forget about it then,” he said, laughing. “On with the autopsy.”

  Grateful, she looked again at the form under the blanket, to where she could make out the ridge of his nose to the points of his toes. “I really don’t h
ave much experience with dead people,” she said. “Just two up close. Once I had to cut into a dead pregnant woman to save a baby. I didn’t have much time, obviously, and certainly no chance to look around inside, but I’ve thought about it since.”

  “I can see why,” he said. “Who was the other dead person you knew up close?”

  “My mother.”

  He took a long look at her. Then he walked behind her, reached for the great barn door, and rolled it closed, blocking out the sunlight. She was thankful he didn’t ask for any details.

  “Will anyone come in?” she asked.

  “No. My family’s down with Bennie’s people. Unlike you, most people avoid this place when I have a cadaver.”

  “Does Benny’s family know what you’re doing?” Gaia asked.

  “No.”

  He handed her a carpentry apron, which she looped over her head and tied around her narrow waist. A rectangle of sunlight fell through an open window of the loft above, and Will pushed the workbench with its burden into the light. When she touched the cloth by the cadaver’s head, Will put out a hand.

  “I’m keeping his face covered,” he said.

  She nodded.

  When he slid the blanket up, it was a lot of dead body, with only a modest undergarment covering his loins. A long, bloodless incision had been cut from collarbone to below the navel. The skin, devoid of the normal hue of blood in the capillaries near the surface, looked tough and gray. Benny had been a thin man, and his hipbones showed through his skin. She looked at the way the man’s ribs held up his skin over his chest.

  “It was the idea of cutting away the ribs that made me stop,” Will said. “I couldn’t think of any other way to get to his heart.”

  “Maybe we could look at other things first,” she said, “and come back.” There had been an anatomy chart in Q cell, and she remembered talking it over with some of the imprisoned doctors, but it had been a tidy drawing labeled with bright red and blue colors. There were no labels here. She gently tugged the cold, supple skin to the sides, and Will helped without needing to be asked. Everything inside was the color of skinless potatoes and turnips, glistening and streaked with black and green.

 
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