By Thomas H. Cook
Watching them from a distance, the way she rocked backward and forward in her grief, her arms gathered around his lifeless body, I could feel nothing but a sense of icy satisfaction, relishing the fact that both of them had finally gotten what they deserved. Death for him. For her, perpetual mourning.
She’d worn a somber gown for the occasion, her face sunk deep inside a cavernous black hood. She stared down at him and ran her fingers through his blood-soaked hair, her features so hideously distorted by her misery it seemed impossible that she’d ever been young and beautiful, or even felt delight in anything.
By then the years had so divided us and embittered me that I could no longer think of her as someone I’d once loved. But I had loved her, and there were times when, despite everything, I could still recall the single moment of intense happiness I’d had with her.
She’d been only a girl when we first met, the town beauty. Practically the only beautiful thing in the town at all, for it was a small, drab place set down in the middle of a desert waste. To find something beautiful in such a place was nearly miracle enough.
She was already being pursued by the local boys, of course. They were dazzled by her black hair and dark oval eyes, skin that gave off a striking olive glow. I yearned for her no less ardently than they, but I kept my distance.
Looking out my shop window, I would often see her as she swept down the street, heading toward the market, a large basket on her arm. Coming back, the basket now filled with fruit and vegetables, she’d sometimes stop to wipe a line of sweat from her forehead, her eyes glancing briefly toward the very window where I stood, watching her, and from which I always quickly retreated.
The fact is, she frightened me. I was afraid of the look that might come into her eyes if she saw me staring at her, their pity, perhaps even contempt, for a portly, middle-aged bachelor who worked in a dusty shop, lived alone in a single musty room, had no prospects for the future, and who had nothing to offer a vibrant young woman like herself.
And so I never expected to speak to her or approach her in any way. To the extent that she would ever know me, it seemed certain it would be as the anonymous figure she sometimes noticed as she made her way to the market, a person of no consequence or distinction, as flat and featureless in her mind as the old stones she trod upon. My fate would be to watch her silently forever, see her life unfold from behind my shop window, first as a young woman hastening to the market, then as a bride strolling arm-in-arm with her new husband, finally as a mother with children following behind her, her beauty deepening with the years, becoming fuller and richer while I kept my post at the window, growing old and sickly, a ghostly, gray-haired figure whose life had finally added up to nothing more than a long and fruitless longing.
Then it happened. One of those accidents that make a perpetual mystery of life, that bless the unworthy and doom the deserving, and which give to all of nature the aspect of a flighty, cruel, and unloving queen.
One of my customers had tethered a horse to the post outside my shop. It was sleek and beautiful, and coming back from the market, the girl of my dreams stopped to admire it. First she patted its haunches. Then she moved up the twitching flanks to stroke its moist black muzzle. Finally, she fed it an ear of corn from the overflowing basket she’d placed at my feet.
“Is it yours?” she asked me as I came out the door, my arms filled with wood I used in my trade.
I stopped, astonished to see her staring at me, unable to believe that she’d actually addressed her question to me.
“No,” I said. “It belongs to one of my customers.”
She returned her attention to the horse, drawing her fingers down the side of its neck, twining her fingers in its long brown mane. “He must be very rich to have a horse like this.” She looked at the wood still gathered in my arms. “What do you do for him?”
“Build things. Tables. Chairs. Whatever he wants.”
She offered a quick smile, patted the horse a final time, then retrieved her basket from the street and sauntered slowly away, her brown eyes swinging girlishly in the afternoon light, her whole manner so casual and lighthearted that only after a sudden burst of air from my mouth made me realize that during the time I’d watched her stroll away from me, I had not released a breath.