The Charity of Ruin

  Photo by  Jeffrey Young

Photo by Jeffrey Young

You stand betwixt your sisters as the rain falls, the branches of your family’s ancient oak your only shelter from the storm. Racket still in hand, you stare at the shuttlecock laying discarded in the grass before you. You stare as hard as you can, glaring at it in the hopes that all your attention might be spent on the tiny, waterlogged thing, that ears might follow eyes, that you might hear nothing but the sound of the rain splattering against the birdie’s feathers, against the leather and cork of its cap. But there is no escape from the prattling fools against whom your shoulders now press, no escape from the yarn they’re spinning now that the game is over.

“And so,” says Mary, the eldest, “into the wash basket he went.”

Elizabeth, the middle child, chortles.

But you do not laugh. And when you do not laugh, you are nudged in the ribs for your slight against your sisters.

“Sarah,” Mary says to you, wrapping her slender fingers around your gloved hand. “Have you heard a word we’ve said?”

“She’s not listening,” says Elizabeth, tut-tutting.

When you were out west, you shot people for less. But you suppose you owe her at least one tut-tut for your willful disregard of her apparent wisdom.

“If you are to choose one suitor over another,” says Mary.

“Then you must be prepared,” says Elizabeth, finishing the thought, “to do terrible things to set right the mind of the also-ran.”

“They are,” says Mary, “both of them, enamored.”

Elizabeth plucks the racket from your grasp and tosses it onto the grass. And now each of yours sisters has one of your hands. For a blissful moment, you imagine them pulling in opposite directions. You see yourself suddenly as the sow your gang tied between its horses that one night in Arizona when it seemed the sun would never set. They had tortured the poor thing as they stole it from the delinquent’s farm, as they dragged it past that man they’d beaten bloody and left under the hot sun, and you had been happy to see it put out of its misery. You had even tied one of its legs to your own mount to help speed the process, to end the suffering. And just as you helped to draw and quarter that poor beast, you hope to be halved now. For that is the only way to satisfy them both.

But they do not pull you apart. Instead, they wrap their arms around you and you find yourself sandwiched between two women for the first time since that brothel in Virginia City.

The experience is not nearly as pleasant.

Later, in bed, Charity laughs as you tell her all this. And you smile as the guffaw catches her off-guard, as she covers her mouth with her hands and looks wide-eyed toward the door.

“Are you afraid you’ll wake Silas?” you ask her.

“Should I be?” she asks you. “He’s been your brother far longer than he’s been my husband.”

You gather her face in your hands and bring her mouth to yours, intending to make the kiss a short one, the briefest of pecks. But your tongue and hers, they have minds of their own, and soon you are back beneath the bedclothes.

At the breakfast table the next morning, sitting across from your brother, you stay silent on the matter of Charity’s empty seat. Silas has been staring at it since the moment you set his bowl down before him, has been staring so long now that your bowl is empty, that your spoon’s been set aside.

You watch the last bits of steam curl off his meal and into the air between you. You watch and wish there were something you could say to cure what ails him. But even an admission of guilt on your part, even the truth of why his wife came to his bed so late last night and has not yet risen today — even that would not lighten the burden he carries upon his shoulders. There is no sacrament save one that can undo the curse your mother visited upon him in her latter days. And it is only Charity who can give this blessing. But like Patience before her, she — or, rather, her body — has heretofore been disinclined to acquiesce.

You say, by way of a joke, “Perhaps the next time you marry, you should find yourself a woman of less virtue.”

He quits his staring finally, but only to cast his troubled gaze on you.

“Patience,” you explain. “And now Charity. Perhaps you should stay away from Hopes and Faiths the next time around.”

You hope he’ll at least give you a weak grin, but he can’t even manage that. Instead, he ignores your play on words and says, “My marriage is a young thing. It may yet prove fruitful.”

“It may yet,” you tell him, standing as you collect your bowl and spoon. “And at least she’s not a Prudence.”

“Or a Chastity,” he mumbles, finally beginning to eat.

You bend to kiss his forehead and acknowledge his attempt at levity, however half-hearted it might have been.

From the window above the kitchen sink, you watch the tide rolling out and think of the afternoon stroll that Charity has promised you. Arm in arm, you’ll walk the length of the beach that stretches from your front door to the mouth of Red River. Arm in arm, you’ll search for a quiet spot among the dunes. And then, arm in arm, you’ll plop your bottoms onto the sand, falling into each other as you laugh at your ruined dresses, as you laugh at the very notion of ruin itself.

“I am glad to have you here,” your brother tells you as the legs of his chair scrape across the floor, as you hear him hoist himself up from his seat.

You offer him a smile from over your shoulder as you get back to the dishes.

“And I am sorry,” he says, “that the lady of this house is so derelict in her duties.”

“I don’t mind,” you tell him, already finished with the task, already drying your hands.

“I know you don’t,” he says, a hand on each of your shoulders now. “You are a good woman, Sarah. As good as Mother once was.”

You shrug him off, unable to bear the reverence in his eyes. Then you hang the dishrag in its place and stalk off toward the door. It is a good, long moment before he moves, and though you’d like to believe he’d be less stunned by your disdain at this point, you know better.

“She was a good woman,” Silas is saying as he gives chase down the front steps. “A hard one, but good.”

“This is the part,” you say, wheeling around to face him again, “where you say ‘given the circumstances,’ right? Is that what’s coming next?”

“Our father — ” Silas begins, before you cut him off.

“Our father was not the only man overboard,” you tell him. “A widow is nothing special by the sea!”

And though he disagrees, though you know that every brick of his being has been laid upon the foundation of your father’s “distinct” demise, Silas says nothing. For he has seen the look in your eyes, a look he reveres, a fury that was your mother’s bequest to you, to you alone amongst your sisters.

“The way he looked at me,” you tell Charity later that day, as the two of you watch the Red River empty into the sea, “I swear he would’ve fucked me if I weren’t his sister.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference,” says Charity. “After all, his first love was his cousin, wasn’t it?”

You glare at her, a look she knows is meant to end the conversation. But she doesn’t stop.

“Circle the wagons all you want,” she says, “but Silas’ love for that girl will always be at the center of this.”

You scoff. “Tamson O’Rourke has nothing do with why you can’t carry a child.”

And now it is Charity who glares.

“What?” you say, though you know what’s coming.

“There is a curse upon that house,” she says, pointing. “Everyone knows it, every person in this town, all of us except for you poor wretches born beneath its roof.”

“If you knew it was cursed,” you say to her, “then why marry into it?”

She laughs. “Why does any pirate — ”

“You’re a pirate?”

“My people were,” she says. “Robbed and whored their way around the Caribbean for decades.”

“I didn’t know,” you say, though now you recall rumors, whispers. “So,” you say, “why does any pirate — ”

“Plunder!” she says, finally finishing her thought. “Why does any pirate plunder?”

“I don’t know,” you say.

“Well,” she says. “The money, for one. But beyond that, it’s the challenge. The notion that whatever curse has been laid upon the hoard, you can beat it.”

There is a tear in her eye as she says this, and something catching in her throat. Something like a sob. But she turns from you before you can be sure. And by the time you’ve circled round to see what’s the matter, she has recomposed herself.

“It has been wonderful to have you here,” she says, taking hold of your hands in her own. “But you mustn’t stay.”

“You don’t think I — ?”

She squeezes your hands to make you stop. “That house will make a spinster of you,” she says. “If you let it.”

“You would have me marry,” you say, “when you could keep me all to yourself?”

She looks down, manages a weak smile.

“What kind of pirate are you?” you say, throwing her hands aside and stalking off.

An hour later, as you mount your horse in the sun’s dying light, she has still not returned. You have told Silas to go after her, to fetch his wife, but he says he will wait and see you off. He holds open the gate in the fence your mother made him whitewash every Good Friday, and you smile at the bare wood you see between his fingers now. Whether by accident or intent, you are pleased to see that he has let some part of her go.

“Won’t you stay?” he asks. “I’m sure that whatever — ”

But you hush him with a raised hand before he can finish, and he gives you a resigned nod as you guide your horse from your mother’s home for what you hope will be the last time.

On your way out of town, you pass the homes of your sisters, twin monstrosities raised by their well-to-do husbands on sloping lawns that sit beside one another. No one is home at either place, so you leave notes on each doorstep for them and for their suitor of choice.

As soon as you’ve cleared the limits, you cut into the first piece of wild country you can find and you coax your steed into a gallop. The sun is stealing away from you. But you have a rope in your saddle bag, and a horse that’ll run itself ragged if you only ask it to, so you’re pretty sure you have a chance. You’re pretty sure you can catch it if you keep trying.

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