I forgive her.
A few hours ago, before sunset, the blood on my hands was fresh crimson. Here I’ve sat, watching it drip, watching it dry. Now, under the moonless sky, it seems a deep midnight purple. Almost black. Almost nothing. What do I make of that?
Cecilia is just across the clearing. No, that’s not quite right. Cecilia is far, far away, and yet very near. I know that if I get up, walk over to the conspicuous nest of felled oak branches, and brush a few of them aside, I’ll see her body lying there pale and blue, but that’s not really her. It's a cold, empty vessel.
Cold. I’m cold. I ought to make a fire. I must’ve had this same realization half a dozen times. My hands are splintered from cracking twigs for kindling. The pit is lined with piled stone. I pull out my lighter and begin by igniting the dry autumn leaves at the edge of the pit. The fire crackles to life with weak orange flame. Already I feel it thawing the tips of my fingers. It’ll do. I suppose I could split some logs to build it higher. Trouble is, I can’t remember where I’ve left my axe. Even if I could, the thing is broken. Not the handle, mind you. The blade itself is warped and useless.
Under the intense heat of the flame, leaves curl up and turn to smoke. Thin layers of bark peel away from the burning branches. The fire is small, true, but it’s strong. Strong enough to reduce me to ash.
Despite all this, the damn thing won’t burn.
I’ve bound and muzzled the beast that took Cecilia from me. I tried hacking it to bits, but with each blow it wove itself back together. I tried drowning it, but it didn’t seem to have need of breath. Stomping on the thing was like stomping on a boulder. The wretched black creature squirms and squeals and hisses in the fire now, but again, the damn thing won’t burn.
We’ve been arguing, Cecilia and I. Constantly. The kind of arguing that circles around, but never touches, some undiscovered root issue. The kind of arguing that can go on forever, until you’re left bitter and unrecognizable to one another. The kind of arguing that could, say, drive a young woman to wander away from camp on a moonless night, leaving herself vulnerable to all manner of things which make the inky dark their home. Sharp words made me slow to chase after her, and for that I will forever be sorry.
The eyeless black thing in the fire is struggling hard, hissing and spitting, the way you do when you’re desperate to hold back a deep sob. The ropes I’ve used for his binding are thick, but I’m beginning to worry they’ll burn before the creature does. The more pressing worry, though, is whether he's wandered away from a pack. Every time a gust of wind rustles the trees lining the edge of the clearing, I snap my head around to look. No place will humble a man quicker than the forest at night.
Suddenly the hissing and squealing is joined by a tumbling-rock rattle. As the fire finally deals its first blow to the creature’s shell, wild licks of green flame explode from the site of the wound. The shell splits again, and again, and soon the whole fire is a shimmering emerald green, almost blinding. Even so, I can see the creature’s wounds closing, and the ropes around it are dangerously frayed. The wind blows my way, bringing the flame close to my bloodied jeans. I leap up and back away from the fire, but it’s too late. An acrid, noxious smell fills the air around me. My world spins, and I am unconscious before I hit the ground.
I gasp the first breaths of wakefulness, then sigh as I realize I’m at home. My hands are clean of blood and I’ve had a change of clothes. I don’t remember how I got here, but I am in a most excellent mood. Why? Frankly I’m glad to be alive, and to have something to look forward to. It’s a quarter past five. Cecilia should be home from work shortly. I’ll wait on the porch for her with her favorites, lemon cookies and honey tea.
Six o’clock passes. Seven. Eight. Night falls and a full moon looms high in the sky, shining a ghostly white light that makes everything in sight a shade of gray. I’ve been waiting an awful long time, but that’s okay.
I haven’t been making things easy. Things should be easy for a woman like Cecilia.
I forgive her for her part, as I hope she’ll forgive me for mine.
It looks like she’s not going to show up tonight either. That’s two weeks now since she disappeared and stopped answering my calls. I wish she’d at least come get her coat. A good fur-lined coat isn’t cheap, and it’s going to be a very cold winter.
In all my anxious waiting, I’ve gorged myself, leaving her nothing but crumbs and an empty teapot. Now what will I leave as a peace offering? I lock the door and head back inside to wash up.
As I’m cleaning out the teapot, there’s a knock on the front door. A cold shock shoots through my body, and my heart thumps heavy in my chest. Finally, she’s here! Oh no, she’s here. All the clever words I’ve been preparing escape me. There’s so very much I’ve got to tell her! But then, where do I begin? Nevertheless I bound, in fact, practically sprint to the front door, undo the latch, and rip it open. There are two shadowy shapes in the doorway. My gut twists. Neither of them are Cecilia.
It’s an Officer Carroll and an Officer Hale. They’ve come to take me down to the station. They are tight-lipped and unamused when I ask if Cecilia sent them.
I’m in cuffs under an ugly fluorescent lamp. Officer Hale tells me a story about a contentious couple, an angry, violent man, and a dead woman. It’s a story about myself I can’t fully accept. Still, I have no choice but to admit that some of the beats are horribly familiar. The whole time he’s talking, I can’t take my eyes off my hands, and the thin crescent of dried blood under one of my fingernails. I decide that, if half of what he suggests is true, I ought to be punished for the whole.
If I hurt her at all, I ought to be cut, drowned, stomped, and burned.
Forgive me not.