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The Woman Who Went Away (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981; iuniverse, 2000)

Chapter 11

When she woke in the morning, the first thing she thought of was the food she had brought that she hadn't put away. She swore softly and put on a robe.

The house was cool and quiet. It was the first time she had ever been alone in it. A little chill passed over her, and she almost wished for a minute that she had brought Buffy with her.

She went downstairs. The milk and the chicken in the insulated box were still cool to the touch. She put them in the refrigerator along with the butter and the eggs and the vegetables, and made coffee.

She took the coffee and a piece of toast out to the bluff and sat on a rock in the warm sun, looking out at the lake.

He stood at the kitchen window watching her. With
her back to him, she stirred in him an old, obscure image of a woman whose face he couldn't remember but whose back, standing at a sink, walking out a door, had persistently returned to him all his life.

He watched her until he was sure she was not anyone he had to be afraid of. Then he looked into the refrigerator to see what she had brought with her. He was light-headed from lack of food. He took a slice of bread and went back into his little room to eat it and to wash himself. He looked at own eyes in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.

He wondered what kind of woman would go alone to a cabin in these woods. No kind he knew, he thought. And he wondered what was making her so sad. Her sadness bothered him. It matched his own, which was so much a part of him that he no longer even identified it as a separate or separable entity. To be relieved of it would be like relieving a man of a gangrenous leg. He would miss it, hardly know how to function without it. Yet he wanted to console her for hers, and he thought he could.

Because her back was to the house and because he moved so quietly, she didn't hear him leave the house. He went around the whole house to appear to have come down from the trail. He hid his backpack in a clump of ferns by the trail. He called out to her from a good distance, so as not to seem to have sneaked up on her. She uttered a little scream anyway, stood, and clutched her bathrobe around her.

“I’m all right,” he called, waving. “I won’t hurt you.”

She looked wildly around, ready to run in any direction.

"My name is Luc," he said carefully, standing well off from her. He spelled his name. "I heard you swimming last night. I was worried about you. It's dangerous to swim alone at night, isn't it?"

She stared at him, trying to place him. Was he one of the Wellers? Or a McBride? His chiseled face was softened by his light curling hair, his soft, gray, intelligent, attentive eyes. His long throat, she thought. His pale blue workshirt open at his throat. His mouth. He came a step or two closer, smiling, friendly, sane, as if there were no reason for her to fear him. She stepped backward again, one foot in the lake.

"Who did you say you were again?"

"My name is Luc Synge." He spelled his last name.

"Pronounced Sing," he said.

"Wellers? McBrides?" Sing made no sense at all. He must be attached to someone on the lake. A Weller. A McBride. "Are you one of them? Where are you staying?"

"I've been camping in the area."

She stared at him, tried to picture the other camps, his relation to them. "Where were you last night, that you heard me?"

"Passing by on the trail." He lied easily.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"I was afraid of scaring you. In the dark." He smiled.

"Wouldn't I have?"

She considered herself a good judge of character. His smiling forthrightness, his little touch of teasing irony, had the ring of the credible. He stayed where he was at a safe distance, very aware of her terror, very desirous of easing it.

“Are you all right?” he said.

She didn’t answer, tried to concentrate on him. He was young, pale, rather delicately attractive in an unmannish way. Not scary, she decided. He was too thin to be scary. Oddly pinched, as if he hadn’t been eating. He looked — as Tina, a walking thesaurus, might have pointed out — undernourished, frail as a lily, insufficient, meager, a shortcut, a shaving, a rail, weedy. Tina could have wiped him up with one hand tied behind her back, no doubt. But still, Margot thought, there was something about him that might appeal to a woman of a certain age and yet not to Tina.

Are you?”

“Yes.”

To disarm her, he sat on the grass.

She kept standing, trying to remember where in the house she had left her handbag with the car keys in it. Damn Ed Finney, she thought. The car half a mile away because of him. "Where have you been camping?"

He flushed. There were some people you could disarm only with the truth. Because she wouldn't sit, he knew she was one of them. "I've been sick," he said. "You won't like this. But I've been here for three days. I broke in."

"In the house?" She was incredulous.

"I had to. I got sick. I had the flu. I had no place else."

He picked a blade of grass and waited, meekly.

"You were in the house last night?"

"Last night I slept out here," he said. "On the dock." It wasn't true, of course, but there was no need for her to know everything. He could see she was a nervous, high-strung woman. She would have to be handled delicately. He had a feeling that she was a schoolteacher and could summon a fearful authority with very little warning.

"How did you get in?"

He had taken a window off. The window to the little
room off the kitchen, where he had slept. She stared at him.

"It unscrews on the outside," he said. He looked up at her from the grass. She would either run him off the place or let him stay. He wanted to stay. She shivered, took her eyes off him for a minute to look at the house.

She remembered now that the original wooden window in that room had rotted out. They had replaced it years ago with a regular aluminum stock window that had fit right in, with the aid of a few shives. And Ben had screwed it in. She remembered watching him do it.

This person, then, had coolly unscrewed Ben's screws and gotten into their house and slept in their spare room and made himself at home. She looked down at him on the grass, felt a surge of anger.

"I didn't do any harm," he said. "I ate some soup. I made tea. I was planning to go this morning. No one ever would have known. But you came. I thought you might need . . . someone.”

She studied him. It did happen in the woods that a family arrived in the spring to open their camp and found that someone had broken in during the winter. Sometimes, the intruder had entered to steal. But usually there was a more innocent explanation: He had gotten lost in a winter storm, or caught unprepared in one, or fallen sick. Sometimes, he left a note to explain, and as Ben said, you had to be grateful that your house could shelter a man, even save his life. The tradition in the woods was to help anyone in need, go straight to the rescue when a man was at the mercy of the wilderness, or of his own frailty, no questions asked.

And he did look as if he'd had the flu. She had had it only once herself, but it had taken her two weeks to get her strength back.

She asked him how old he was and where he had come from and where he was going, and he said he was twenty-seven and came from ten different places because he'd been (she thought he said) a forester's child. But he had said foster child, and he reddened, as if it were a thing he was ashamed of, when she asked him about it.

She was more embarrassed than he was.

She sat down on the rock. He stretched out easily on the grass, to neutralize the last dregs of her fear. "You scared me," he said. "I was asleep when you came. I woke up and heard somebody walking around upstairs."

"Why didn't you go?"

“Why don’t you?”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

She looked at him, stretched out on his stomach on the grass. “I guess you don’t scare me,” she said.

He smiled. "Didn't you see the empty cans in the
garbage?"

"No."

"There were wet tea bags in the sink."

She hadn't noticed them.

"You're careless," he said. "Coming here alone. Drinking alone. Swimming alone at night. What's wrong with you?"

They talked, like people who haven't talked to anyone for a long time. He was a carpenter, and he came from Elmira, New York, mainly. He had a strong aversion to cities, or settled communities larger than, say, Elmira, Corning, Painted Post. He had lived in forests, or in such clearings in them, all his life. He found it peculiar that the rustic ideal appealed to her only in the summer and only for part of it at that. "If I had this place," he said, "I'd never leave it." He looked hungry when he said it.

"You'd get tired of it," she said.

"No," he said. "I wouldn't."

They talked for a long time, with a certain growing joy at having found each other. And then he looked up at the sky. "I have to be going," he said. He didn't want to go.

They had sat for so long on the grass that it was already the middle of the day.

She was still in her nightgown and robe. The day seemed to have stood still, to have gone on like a day in a jet progressing forward through space, backward through time, arriving home at the time of departure. In some suspended momentum, they had gone places without having moved, had arrived somewhere without having meant to. She touched her throat. Didn't want him to go. She looked at Luc Synge, pronounced Sing. He looked hungry, and she wanted to feed him.

“Stay and eat,” she said. “It’s twelve o’clock.”

He smiled. He wouldn't want her to know she was the softest woman he had ever met.

They ate sandwiches on the porch. And after they ate, they went around to the back of the house to look at the frame of the window and the little Phillips screws he had unscrewed. He told her just how he had unscrewed them, climbed in, gone through the house to unlock the door, gone back around the outside to set the window in again. And locked himself in, made himself some tea, went to bed, and slept for three days.

"And I could sleep for three more," he said.

She looked at him. He looked debilitated, blanched.

"It comes and goes," he said. "It comes back every afternoon."

"Stay," she said. Even saying it, it seemed to her that she had sealed her fate in some way she had wanted to, without knowing it.

He looked at her. "In the house?"

"Yes."

"How can you let a stranger stay with you?"

"You've already stayed." She wasn't afraid of him. They had talked all morning.

“But when you know, it’s different.”

"You can go," she said. But she didn't want him to. Wanted someone near her now. Someone. In case the Indian came around.

"I think I'll stay," he said. She needed someone, and he would be good for her, he decided. He went down to the trail and got his backpack out of the ferns where he had left it.