The Marriage Bed(4)

By: Stephanie Mittman

"Olivia?" Emma said softly, fingering the edge of the envelope that lay on the counter beneath Olivia's sweaty palm. "You want me to Send it?"

"Yes," Bess said with determination, as if she could will Olivia the courage to do it.

"Yes," Olivia said to Emma, and then turned a bright smile to her sister-in-law. "Yes. Send it. Right away. Today. As soon as possible."

"Quick," Bess said. "Before she changes her mind."

The three women laughed and Charlie Zephin looked down at them from the ladder on which he was perched counting cans. "What are you three witches cackling about?" he asked good-naturedly.

"Just cooking up a little magic, Mr. Zephin," Bess said, then rubbed her hands together like an evil witch.

Olivia felt a chill run down her back. This plan could blow up in her face, she knew. Spencer could hate the children. Hate her for bringing them. Lord, he seemed to hate everything else these days.

"Magic," Charlie said. "Well, you be careful there ladies. We sure don't want the devil in Maple Stand, do we? They may not be burnin' witches anymore, but they sure ain't too popular 'ceptin' on Halloween." He laughed at his own joke, nearly lost his balance on the ladder, and then righted himself. "Well! No need to kill me off, ladies. Your secret's safe with me."

"Speaking of secrets," Emma said in a loud whisper, "I hear there's talk about that railroad spur again. Hear they might even be paying money for the land it's gonna run through since they've got to get to Sturgeon Bay. And they're sending an agent.'' This last detail was acompanied by a flush to Emma's cheeks.

"Well," Bess said as she sighed and rubbed again at her aching joints. "Don't suppose that'll matter much to us out on the outskirts. I'd about give my whole cherry orchard for a hundred dollars cash."

Olivia tsked at her and laughed. "That's my family's farm you're giving away, my dear. I'll thank you to take better care of it!"

Bess nodded but the smile was gone from her face. It made Olivia think, only for a moment, that perhaps she really meant it.

"Guess we'd better be getting home," Bess said after they had traded banter a few moments longer. "I got three little boys and one big one that'll be clamoring for supper before I get my own front door full open."

Olivia knew what was waiting for her at home and was in no rush to get there. For a moment she considered taking the letter back from Emma and forgetting the whole idea.

"And they'll all be wanting hugs and kisses as much as bread and butter," Bess added, as if she knew just what Olivia was thinking and could feel that extra encouragement she needed.

Children waiting for her who would want hugs and kisses. She sighed and caught herself, realizing how foolish a woman of her age must look daydreaming in the middle of the mercantile.

"You send that letter," she said to Emma as she tied her hat ribbon beneath her chin.

"Atta girl," Bess said, and looped her chubby arm through Olivia's thin one. With their woolen coats on, it was a tight fit.

"That's easy for you to say," Olivia said as they headed for the door.

"Oh, no, it's not," Bess said more solemnly. "I don't know where I'll put the four of you if comes to that."

Olivia stopped in her tracks and even Bess's bulk wouldn't budge her.

"It won't come to that," Bess reassured her. "Don't worry so. It'll all work out."

Bess had promised her that before. When, after more than a year of marriage, Olivia still hadn't conceived, Bess had assured her that time would take care of everything. But it hadn't. And now Spencer hardly touched her in bed, as if he believed there was little point in it. And in some ways she was glad for his lack of attention. If there wasn't any hope of children, she'd just as soon never be intimate with her husband again. Each union     left her strangely bereft, as if her body was as sad as her heart. And except for that moment on their wedding night when she had begun to feel a heat that spread from her most private places, she had never felt even remotely warmed by what they were doing.

In fact, despite the intimacy of the situation, she felt lonelier when they were making love than at any other time in-her life. And lately it had gotten worse. Now Spencer didn't just collapse against her and moan. Now he got up and left the room, claiming a good cigar relaxed him and helped him sleep. As far as she was concerned, all it did was stink up their home.