An Early Spring

     Gray clouds blanketed the countryside.  A cool March rain had confined even the men indoors for much of the day.  Tom Christiansen sat at his spot at the table talking with his oldest son. 

“I think, Peter, your plan to rotate that field north of Grandma’s house into alfalfa is a good one.  Make a good field of hay for you next year.”

“I hope so,” Peter responded absently, as he watched Elizabeth remove a stack of plates from the tall cupboard in the northeast corner of the kitchen and carry them to the sink.  Easter was two days away, early this year.  His mother was getting ready for the Christiansen family’s Easter Sunday dinner.  Elizabeth was washing the good dishes, Grandma Kraus’ china, reminders of a happier, a more prosperous time.

Elizabeth’s profile distracted him as she moved slowly past.  He ached to go to her, to put his arms around her and feel the fullness of his child within her; but he couldn’t.  Physically, she was recovered.  Except for the scar along her lip where the stitches had been, all evidence of the attack was gone.  That both had survived the brutal attack was a miracle all its own.  The doctor had been less than optimistic that the baby would live.

But the doctor had been right in other ways.  The emotional scars ran deep.  As of yet, a white curtain remained between them, one Peter had not been able to draw aside.  Their relationship consisted of routine.  That at least, seemed essential to Elizabeth.  Any emotional bond beyond that remained severed.  His new concern was that, lacking the ability to face a physical relationship with him, Elizabeth seemed to grow more and more withdrawn.  At times, it was almost more than he could bear. 

“Liz, would you take this tablecloth into Grandma,” his mother said, handing a lace tablecloth to her.  “I don’t know how things come apart lying in a drawer, but look at the hole.”  Laura’s fingers opened the rip.  “See if she can mend this.” 

Elizabeth took the tablecloth without speaking and walked into the adjoining room.  Peter watched her go and wondered if he would ever again see happiness in those beautiful, those tragic eyes. 

“We can talk about this later,” his father said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Dad.”

Tom gave him an understanding look.

“I haven’t mentioned this to Beth yet, but I think it’s time we open up Grandma’s house, move into our own home.  The weather’s improving, and she’s all right physically . . . Maybe if we’re alone . . .” He sighed.  “We have to sometime.  If we go now, it’ll give us some time before the baby comes.  A few months anyway.”

“Yeah, sure.  It’s worth a try.  You sure don’t have to go on our account.  You know that.”

“I know.  I just don’t know what else . . .”

Elizabeth reentered the room, headed back to the tall cupboard.  Cups dangled from their hooks.  She looked up.

Realizing that, because of the child she carried, she would not be able to reach them, Peter stood, walked quietly up behind her.  As Elizabeth’s hand extended upwards, he reached over her shoulder.

“No! No! No!” she screamed.  “Don’t touch me!  Stay away!  Don’t touch me!”

Time stopped.

Stunned, Peter watched her twist and turn away.  She raced for the back door.  Beating her to it, he held it closed, kept her from running out into the rain. 

“Beth,” he said calmly, yet with command.

Swatting at imaginary demons, crying hysterically, she backed away, tangled herself in the chore coats hung on hooks in the corner, an easy reach from the door. 

“Please don’t.  No!  Please!”

“Beth.  Honey.  It’s me, Peter.  Beth?” he repeated and reached in to retrieve her. 

She cowered before him, hiding now in the tangle sleeves, whimpering, pleading with her imagined attacker.

Penetrating the tangle of heavy coats, Peter took hold of her arm, gently extracted her, while she struggled against him, attempted to pull free, and when that failed, pummeled his chest and arms with her fists.

He took the blows without flinching; let them rain on his arms, his chest, even his face.  His mother moved to intervene.  Tom prevented her.  Anna Kraus stepped into the doorway, another witness to the scene.

Finally, grasping both her fists, Peter said, “Stop!  Beth, stop!  It’s me, Honey.  Peter.  It’s me!”

No response.

He shook her.  The force of his arms whipped her head back into the coats.  “Beth!”

Comprehension slowly filled her eyes.  Peter watched her face fracture like a china teacup as she realized what she’d done.  He watched, and in watching felt his rage rise yet once more at the man who’d done this thing, had hurt her so deeply.  Shaking the fists he clutched tightly in his own, he glared at her.  “Is that what he did?  How he grabbed you?

“You were going to have tea after you changed, remember?  And I was going to check the furnace.”  His voice softened.  He studied her face.  “Only, I never came back up the stairs,” his voice cracked with emotion.  “Is that how it happened?” 

Seeing the fear his words inspired, he softened his bearing, his expression, his words. “Tell me, please.”

Choking on the words, she sobbed, “I was reaching for . . . you didn’t answer me.  Oh, God!”  A deep, wrenching sob shook her.  “He grabbed me—put his hand over my mouth.  I couldn’t scream, couldn’t call for you.  He pulled me up the stairs.  Told me you were . . . you couldn’t save me this time.

“He locked the door!”

Peter released her wrists, and for the first time in months, she reached for him.  He held her in his arms and said, “It’s alright, Beth.  It’s over.  He can’t hurt you, not now, not ever again.”

“Oh, Peter.  I’m so sorry, but I . . . I can’t stop thinking about it.  It’s always there, circling round and round inside my head.”

“Beth?  Tell me.” 

Silence.  Silence then sobs.

He pushed her away, looked into her eyes.  His heart broke anew at the pain, the grief he saw there.  “Tell me, Beth,” he whispered, grasping yet another straw of hope. 

“I don’t want to tell you, but I can’t stop thinking . . . I . . . I think . . . I’m losing my mind.”

“Elizabeth, tell me.” 

The firmness of his tone brought her eyes up.  She looked at him.  At that moment, the world, for Elizabeth, held only the two of them.

Her eyes studied his through her tears.  Her lips trembled as she searched for words.  “Oh, Peter.  It makes me sick to think of it,” she sobbed.  “I don’t . . . don’t want to . . . but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Peter’s stomach churned.  His eyes dropped from hers.  He started to pull away.

Elizabeth grabbed him, held on.

“I hate him for how he hurt me, Peter!  I hate him for what he did to you!  But mostly,” she waited for his eyes, “Mostly,” she said in a soft whisper, “I hate him for . . . taking what was ours, what belonged to you and to me, and turning it into something . . .

“I hate him for what he took from us.”

Peter tore her hands from his shirt, opened the door, ran out into the rain.  As he fled from the room, from her, Elizabeth sank to the floor

“Peter!” his father called after him.

Peter’s boots slipped in the mucky clay as he raced away.  He wanted to strike someone, something, but there was nothing, no one for his anger to find but her, and that he could not do.  He ran west to the barn, through it, into the cattle yard where no one could see, and fell to his hands and knees.  Pink vomit spilled onto rain-washed earth rich with manure.  Long retching heaves cleansed him.  He had not conceived, even after everything that had happened, her terrible truth.

When the heaving stopped, he leaned back against the barn and cried, cried as he had not cried in all the weeks since he’d first seen her in the hospital bed.  “Why?  Why?  Why?” sobbed over and over again.

The plank was cold, wet against his back.  His feet hung on either side.  He studied the stars.  A million stars—a million or more.  So distant, so far away.  He had meant to get roaring drunk when he’d crawled, rain-soaked, into the car, but there had been too many people, too many questioning eyes.  Already, he felt the object of quiet conversation in a way that only deepened his anger, an anger that lacked remedy.  So he’d bought a six-pack and taken a drive.  He wasn’t sure how he’d ended up at the schoolhouse in his quest for solitude, for forgetting.  The empty bottles at his feet witnessed the length of his stay.  He’d been there some time. 

Peter wasn’t drunk, just numb.  The stars sparkled overhead.  He closed his eyes and remembered.  “It might be the last time,” he’d said, staring into violet eyes. 

“How long shall I wait?”  The trust in her eyes stabbed him anew with guilt, a guilt he’d carried constantly since the attack. 

“Ah, Jess,” he cried softly.  The stars blurred as he stared at their brilliance.  “I ran away for you, and you, you bastard!  How could you . . . ” his voice broke “How could you do that to her?  To me?”

His mind flipped a page. 

“They don’t taste half bad,” Jess said, grinning.  “Try one.”

The match hit the newspaper.  Fire curled the dry corn silk, the husk withered under the flame, burnt Jess’ fingers as he passed it towards Peter. 

“Holy cow, Jess!  What are you trying to do?  Burn down the place!” he’d yelled, stomping out the flames on the dirt floor of the crib as Jess doubled with laughter, slapped his knee, and pointed at Peter. 

Wiping his hand across his face, he sat up, gave himself a minute to find his equilibrium.  The merry-go-round moved as he stood.  He stumbled.  Collecting his empties, he dropped them in the school’s burn barrel, reflected that he shouldn’t have, but left them anyway. 

The house was dark, as he’d hoped it would be, when he parked outside.  Morning would be soon enough to face them.

“Peter?”

Peter stopped at the base of the stairs, turned towards her uneven shuffle.  “Grandma?  I thought . . .”

“I know.”  Anna Kraus’ voice was firm, her tone not to be argued with.  She walked past him into the kitchen and lit the lamp on the table.  Taking a coffee mug from the shelf, she filled it, sat it on the table and pointed to a chair, then motioned for him to drink. 

He did—a little. 

“How drunk are you?” she asked in the same tone.

His eyes found hers.  He looked away.  “Not drunk enough.”

“Good!”  She sat down opposite him.  Eyes popped with emotion, she said, “I have something to say to you.”

“Grandma,” he begged, “please, I don’t want to talk about this.”

Anna Kraus saw her grandson’s pain and softened a bit.  “I know, but you have to, Peter.” 

“No . . .”

“Alright, then, just listen.”  She took a breath, studied his down-turned eyes.  “What you did earlier was wrong, Peter.”

Peter buried his face in his hands.

“You can’t run away from this, and you broke that girl’s heart before because you did.  It broke mine to watch her cry herself to sleep.  She needs you, Peter, now more than ever.  She needs you to listen to everything she has to say.”

Holding up one hand, Peter shielded his eyes with the other before he finally was able to say, “All I want is for us to be happy like . . . like before. 

“I’m so afraid I’ve lost her . . . maybe forever.”

He took a deep breath, placed both hands on the table, and looked over, saw his grandmother’s tears.

Anna Kraus lifted his strong, gentle hand in hers, touched the gold band on his finger. 

“You will, Peter . . . in time.  She’ll let you close again.  But it can’t happen if you’re not here.  The right moment will come, but you must let it happen naturally.  And it won’t happen if you run away into some brown bottle.  You must be the man she trusted, trusted enough to marry.  And you must listen to her. 

“You aren’t the first couple this has happened to.”

She let him see a long hidden truth, watched the awareness of it dawn in him, then said, “You won’t be the last.” 

Anna’s eyes caressed her grandson’s, “With time your marriage will heal and, like a bone that breaks, when it does, your bond will be stronger than ever.  I believe that with all my heart.”       

Elizabeth lay on her side, turned away, facing the window when he crawled into their bed.  Her quiet regular breathing was a relief to him.  For several minutes, he lay on his back beside, but not touching her.  Finally, exhausted from the dreadful day, he turned towards her.  Carefully, so as not to wake her, he placed his face close to her pillow, breathed in the scent of her hair.  With his hand flat behind her, one finger touched her nightgown.

“I’m sorry, Honey,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”  Burrowing his face into his pillow, he let sleep take him.

Elizabeth stared at the pale moonlight from beyond the window, felt his finger touch the flannel nightgown, heard his whispered apology, and blinked quiet tears.  The child within her moved as she turned to him. 

“Thank you, God,” she prayed and touched Peter’s face.  “Thank you.”     

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