Silence hung in the air, deafening her mind as she stood at the doorsill watching, waiting. Each day passed thus. She would rise, send the children on their way the seven miles to school, the old buckboard wagon bouncing and rutting its way down the dust-risen road.
Rushing through the chores, she would take up her vigil, day after day. Sometimes he came but far more often he did not. The anticipation, mingled with apprehension, was reflected in the constant movements of Sarah’s body. Anchored to the sill, she would stand on her toes, lift one foot then the other, tap her feet to a beat matching the craziness within. Even she could not explain the waiting.
When he came it was not with an ease of manner or a smile. . . her husband. They had not been married but a few weeks when he told her that, under no terms were they to have a child. He didn’t want the burden; feared the responsibility. Marriage, in and of itself, was difficult enough to his way of thinking.
Jeb loved her, surely he did, but it was wound up tight by possession and the need for control. His father had been the same; it was the way he knew. Their passion drove everything else away. . . all the thoughts of everyone else, of friends, relatives, even the workers on the farm.
Their voices ebbed and flowed, in torrents or tranquil waters, as he slowly, inexorably, bent her spirit so that it lived only in his presence. Never a strong person, she would bury thoughts of anger, injustice, and a longing for more deep within her core.
In the beginning, she brought herself to a medicine woman in hopes of ending this threat to the marriage. The old woman smiled her toothless smile and shook her head, “Child, there are babies inside you waiting to be born. That man ain’t nothing but a curse on you. Someone must have been a heap of angry at you to darken your path with the likes of him.” The young woman dutifully listened, an obligatory measure to ensure the help she needed.
Shaking her tousled, gray head, the medicine woman shuffled over to her cabinets and opened the doors to her secrets. She instructed the girl how to prevent contraception and made to send her on her way. The younger one’s fear creeping high as the sun moved across the sky. “He doesn’t know I am here,” she confessed, “He believes my mind can control my body, stopping seeds from sprouting – it being only a matter of conviction.”
To accept help from any outsiders would be a sure sign of weakness. When, despite her fear, she thwarted the old medicine woman’s cures and became pregnant, it was an unconscious need to be unleashed from his tyranny. She had a trembling weakness to be loved more than anything else and, she had to admit, a stirring of defiance whirling in the murky waters of her mind. For so long she had held such thoughts at bay but the cage she beat her wings against seemed rustier and more confining by the day.
As her womb swelled, Sarah’s defiance swirled between shrinking to a fearful whimper to surging bright and fearful clear. Jeb reacted as expected. . . with bitter rage and raw nerves. He began to hit he then. Always seemingly accidental and in areas that wouldn’t show, and all too often, directly against the precious life growing inside.
Jeb swore he wouldn’t acknowledge any child, wouldn’t support them, get to know them and, true to his word, on the day she went into labor, he gathered his things, crossed the doorsill, past the old barn with cattle mulling, ready to be milked, lowing in the evening breeze. He lit across the wavering fields and disappeared in the distance. He didn’t look back once – she knew for she watched through the rustling curtains, clutching her stomach as the labor pains struck. Until that moment, she didn’t really believe he had meant it.
Sarah went out to the barn, trying to do what she could before it was too late. She couldn’t bear to see the cows suffering from swollen bellies much as she herself was. She needed to relieve them of their pain – she could do that much even if she could not for herself.
Within the bed she had lain long nights reaching out to touch him, dreading him awakening, dreading him not, her thoughts and feelings swirling together in one cacophony of torment. She was married to the man – she loved him, hated him, feared him – all mixed up, intertwined in a thousand knots. She was always afraid she would break in half from loving him so hard.
Sarah lay in bed, crying, curled up into a tight ball as her swollen belly lurched and heaved in contractions. As luck would have it, her midwife arrived for a weekly check-up in time for the final throes of delivery. The squalling, pink babe was a small girl, already carrying a haunted look in her eyes. Preternaturally wise, the eyes spoke of the knowledge of those pokes and jabs meant to be spent on an innocent fetus.
Jeb would show up from time to time, taking what was his – her body – even as the baby cried in another room, her needs going unmet. Sarah dared not leave his side unless she was prepared for a beating As it was, she was likely to suffer through one if he couldn’t take the baby’s cries. For as much as she knew his love was tainted and not fully encompassing, she couldn’t turn him out of her bed and her heart.
He was quick to leave once his needs were met, taking whatever he could find to support himself. Workers from nearby ranches were helping out on their free days – concern showing on their faces as they watched the drawn, pale woman pull in on herself. She struggled hard to make the farm keep going. Slowly she added on a worker or two to handle the heavy work while she maintained the gardens and livestock. Sometimes, at day’s end, she would feel the breeze of the air against her face and know a freedom nothing else in her life brought.
Soon those around her noticed her belly swelling again . . . how she dragged herself across the fields, caring for the livestock, her baby strapped to her back waiting its turn. And a few months later, another child, a boy, was there to suckle, drawing nourishment from a woman who had long been denied that same nurturing spirit.
Jeb was her albatross and her obsession. In the denying of his love, he fueled a need within Sarah so powerful she was helpless to resist. She gave all she had to the farm and her children. She was a good woman, kind and grateful to those who helped her. She loved her children and gave them the attention she herself deserved. But she couldn’t rid herself of that one weakness – Jeb. And he, miserable wretch that he was, wouldn’t release her from the slave chains he wrapped around her spirit.
When he disappeared for good, heading for the West and its claims of gold, she was released from his bondage. She prayed and wept and at last divested herself of the need for him. And after a period of mourning, her rage exploded, sweeping clean the last vestiges of subservience and shame. No longer trapped in her cage, she lived a life of toil but triumph. Her ranch did well and she gave her children the love she had in abundance. All those things had been there before, but as long as Jeb ruled her consciousness, she couldn’t truly appreciate them. Now she was a woman free, no longer fettered by the twisted, convoluted love she shared. And unwilling to ever walk down that road again.