To Lay At God's Feet
(C) Intelligent Studios and Nintendo
Daniel had to leave at dawn every day. That meant Natalie had to cook breakfast by candlelight.
She'd been doing this for years, first for their papa and then for her brother, ever since she was eight or so. Because of this, she had enough stamina to stand for long periods of time, so she was grateful for the work. Daniel was grateful too, or at least he'd better be. The stray thought made her smile as she smeared lard on the pan before lighting the wood under the stove with a match. They were running out of them quicker than she'd been expecting, which meant that her brother was filching them again for that nasty habit of his. She made a note about yelling at him later; right now there was no time. Behind her back, she could hear him curse as he tried to put on a shirt and resisted turning around, afraid she'd see new bruises or scarring on his back. Then she'd want to yell, even though it wouldn't help either of them by doing so.
They both knew what living this life would cost them. What was the point in lashing out now?
The lard sizzled, and she poured the batter for hot cakes--flour, egg, and water. Not much, but it was edible and easy to make all year round. She always made an extra one for Daniel to take for his lunch, since he barely had any time to come back home before the foreman wanted them up and working again. Flipping the cake, she waited until she smelled the first hint of burning before tossing that one on his plate and starting her own cake. She liked to eat with him before he left, then go back to bed until the sky was light. This was a privilege, she knew--if she had children, she wouldn't be getting any more sleep for the rest of the night.
By the time she was finishing his lunch, he was already sitting down at the table and tearing apart his hot cake into fluffy chunks with his fork. "This is really good!" he tried to exclaim around a mouthful of it, though the words that came out...weren't. Embarrassed for him, Natalie rolled her eyes as she took a bite of her breakfast. "What?"
"Daniel, don't speak with your mouth full!" she scolded him.
He swallowed before grinning at her, the candlelight giving his face an evil look she didn't like at all. It lasted until she lightly smacked the back of his hand, which was when he yelped and began nursing it like she'd done him a mortal blow. "Na-ttie, that's mean! I have to go to work injured now--"
"Oh, you!" She tried to hold a severe look, but when he burst out laughing so did she. That lasted until someone began banging on their wall from the left side, but it was well worth it. He shoveled down the rest of his breakfast before standing up, reaching over the table to tap her on the forehead. When she sputtered and glared up at him, he gave her a lopsided grin.
"Be a good girl while I'm at work, okay, Nattie-bug?"
She scoffed at him. "Who is older here, Danny? Take your lunch and get going. You don't want the foreman to have any reason to dock your pay."
"Yeah, I know." Daniel rolled up the hot cake left for his lunch and wrapped it up before putting it into the pocket of his worn pants. Before he left, he looked back and said, "Sis, I'm going to bring Dorcas over tonight. A big guy like him needs all the food he can get, right?"
"Why don't you give me more warning?" Despite her words, Natalie was a bit happy. Daniel had taken a real liking to his new friend, so she'd seen Dorcas at least once a week since he'd first come over a couple months ago. The summer was giving way to fall, so being able to work on a stew for hours provided the heat their little shanty so desperately needed. She still didn't know Dorcas himself too well, quiet man that he was, but she liked her brother having a friend that wasn't too objectionable. For all his bluster and charisma, he could be easily influenced. That was how he started up with the smoking in the first place.
Her brother grinned at her in that way that made her want to forgive him right on the spot, and then he opened the door and was gone.
The town never seemed so lively as when the priest came around.
Everyone in Bern believed in God and that the good saint Elimine was His voice, but the Bernese Head Church didn't send out its priests to tend to the flock as much as they could. That was what Natalie believed, because out over on Mount Uchitel there was only one priest going around to all the villages. While Natalie wasn't sure how many villages there were around the base of the mountain, hers was only graced with the presence of the holy man a couple times a year--though he could be persuaded to come around faster for a bit of gold dust pinched from the mine.
She didn't hate him and she didn't like him, the former because he did free healing on his normal trips and the latter because he never seemed to do enough to help them. His sermons never seemed to do a lick of good, but he worked just as hard at collecting water and cleaning the sick like any other villager.
He cringed when he first saw her leg, and although she couldn't blame him she never really forgave him for that either.
Now he was back in the village, staying at the home of the foreman, who answered only to the steward of the local lord, and everyone was clamoring for his attention on this holy day. Natalie was sitting right outside her open door while her brother leaned on the cheap pine wood wall next to her, the both of them watching as the dirt road crowded with everyone dressed in their very best. She'd had a lot of people coming to her for mending just to get ready for this day, though no one cared about their clothing on holy days when the priest wasn't around. For their part, neither she nor Daniel dressed up any better, though she did do laundry a couple days ago and their clothes were mostly clean. This holy day was to celebrate the coming of the new season, as Saint Elimine was also regarded as a sort of harvest goddess, though what everyone was hoping to harvest wasn't vegetables and fruit but gold. The festival had the priest walking down the main street with his bodyguard holding up an icon of the saint behind him, and everyone who wanted good luck in the season were to touch her feet and pray in supplication. Though she couldn't see the priest or the white cap he wore on his head to hide his growing bald spot, she could still see the copper of the icon, so unnaturally bright as it was against the pallid flesh of the miners and the washed-out colors of everyone's clothing.
Her brother drew out his cigarette tin from his pocket and tossed it idly from one hand to the other. "Say, Natalie, you want to touch the saint's feet?"
Making a noise at the back of her throat, she rubbed at the heel of her mutilated foot. "What good's that ever done me?" she said, trying not to sound too bitter. Ever since she'd seen that the icon's feet were perfect even though it was a statue, a statue that was carried around from place to place at that, she'd had an anger towards it that she knew was misplaced but she couldn't stop herself from feeling.
They watched the crowd come closer to them in silence for a few moments before her brother offered, "I'll carry you there if you want. So the crowd won't bother you."
"So I won't bother the crowd," she retorted, deeply embarrassed by her attitude but unwilling to stop. It was just--wasn't she allowed to feel like this? Just a little?
She heard Daniel grunt before he pushed off from the wall. "I guess there's always next season for you to pull yourself together," were the words he tossed behind his shoulder before he started forward, towards the crowd inching ever closer.
The masses of people, the chattering, screaming, crying; the sickly sheen of the icon with its greenish patches that were more and more visible the closer it got to her--all of it gave Natalie a headache.
She went back inside and shut the door behind her.
She stayed moody for the next week, annoyed by everything and nothing for no real reason other than that she was alive and forced to exist in this world. Not that she had any wish to die, either; it was just that sometimes she was sick of living like this, where nothing ever changed. Added to that was the fact that her body and mind seemed to be in two different places--her stitching was uneven, her cooking prone to burning, her brother trampling on her last nerve again and again.
And her leg was hurting something awful, enough to bring tears to her eyes when something pinched up inside her foot.
Today was no different, and that was why she was alone even though it was another holy day--her brother had escaped to the nastier part of the village after she yelled at him about taking her matches. With nothing to do--or rather, no interest in ruining things even further--she was laying on her bed, staring up at the uneven slants of the ceiling and hoping that, once the first rains of the season came through, the roof wouldn't leak onto her bed like it did a couple years ago. Daniel had gotten a friend of his to fix it then, but when she saw the black spider crawl out from between two slants coated in mud to hold them together she knew she couldn't expect a dry fall or winter this year.
After watching the spider skitter down one beam, she decided that some fresh air would do her some good. She could walk over to the river, though it was too chilly now to trust her feet with the water without getting a cold or worse in return. Grabbing a knitted sweater, over four years old yet still overlarge on her body, she made her way out the door and onto the road. She shivered as a cold wind blew past her, ducking her chin into the collar of her sweater as best she could as she walked down to the river. Due to the holy day, most people were either keeping indoors or were causing a ruckus gambling or drinking; the priest wasn't going to make an appearance today, so it was the same old, same old like any other holiday. It made her cringe to think of what her brother was up to, especially when he'd just gotten his wages yesterday, but she was the one who'd scared him off to begin with.
There was someone at the bank of the river, a huge lump of a man. Natalie blinked, then edged closer--he hadn't heard her, so he wasn't turning around, but he looked familiar. He had the muscled back of a miner, but what skin of his she could see was a light golden brown and none of the workers working in the mines from dawn to dusk could ever manage more than a pallid complexion at best. His head, which had been bowed when she first noticed him, lifted enough for her to see his short, auburn-red hair...
"Dorcas!" she half-called, half-exclaimed in surprise.
He had a way of reacting that she had never seen before, like he was utterly unsurprised by anything. It was more like he had a lack of reacting, which was so unlike her brother she wasn't sure what to make of it. As it was, he only glanced over his shoulder at her, then tilted his head, no expression on his face. "Natalie."
"Um, hi." She wanted to approach him, but he didn't exactly look like he wanted her around. It didn't help that she wasn't used to be around men when her brother wasn't there to intimidate them. "I'm...I'm sorry, am I bothering you?" He gave her an odd look at that, making her even more nervous. "I'll, um, leave you alone, then."
"You're sure?" she blurted out before she could help herself. He only stared at her, looking like it wouldn't matter to him either way what she did, and that strangely made her feel daring, like she wanted to challenge that bland expression on his face until either it or she dissolved like so much dust on the wind. Taking careful, slow steps so as not to strain her foot and embarrass herself before him--though that'd be some way to force some emotion on that face of his, she thought with some amusement--she walked up to the bank of the river and sat beside him, though not so close that she'd disturb him.
Since it was already mid-afternoon, there was hardly any birdsong or even birds; the cold became too nippy for them around mid-fall and they usually gathered up in huge flocks and headed west, towards Lycia, where she heard didn't get much snow even in the areas near the mountains like Pherae. They did get snow here sometimes, even down south as they were, but it usually ended up as slush that made the streets too dangerous for her to walk on and seeped into the wood of their shanty, rotting it bit by bit. She'd heard a couple years ago that the foreman was promising new wood so long as the quota was made--that was what the steward had told him and he was telling them. But they'd been scraping that mine clean for so long that there was no way that quota was going to be made, and the local lord took back his offer. It was one of the many reasons there was bad blood between the miners and the lords, and it was all well-deserved on the lords' side. Who knows why the lords treated them so badly when the mines were as they were--just as her papa used to say, there was just no getting sweat from a dead man.
There's no getting sweat from stone-like men either, she thought as she gave Dorcas a sidelong glance. He didn't notice, or give any hint that he had, so fixed as he was on a square of paper resting on his lap. Looking a little closer, she found that the mess of lines on the paper looked like the scenery in front of them--remarkably so, not like there was anything to be seen there. Both in real life as in the picture, there was the other side of the river, a bank of gray stones that sometimes the older kids could be found playing on once they were able to escape their chores, some bushes that, every spring, would be filled to bursting with red berries no one was stupid enough to eat unless they wanted to risk a twisting, eye-watering stomachache that would cripple the stoutest man and send him home from the mines for days. After that were trees that held green leaves even when winter brought the odd snowstorm or two, and in Dorcas' drawing they were smudged the nicest shade of dark gray, giving them weight they hardly had in real life.
It was a nice drawing, real nice. She never would've imagined anyone could make something so nice out of the surroundings she had to bear with every week for years. It made her want to say something, even though Dorcas' taciturnity made her even shyer than she already was. "That's a very nice drawing, Dorcas," she commented, to which he glanced at her, silently. She paused, waiting for him to say something, and when he didn't her bravery quailed and she looked down. "That's just what I think, that's all," she muttered, a little annoyed he wouldn't say anything at all. That was only polite, wasn't it?
There was a rustle of paper, and then she felt a nudge on her shoulder; looking up, she found that he was handing her a whole sheaf of papers. "Here," he intoned, and while she knew what he meant by the action the flare of irritation that she'd been suffering from for the last few days got to her mouth before her manners did.
He'd actually smiled at her, a slight one that lit up his dark, small eyes. "There are more here," he offered, still holding out the bundle of papers. Embarrassed at herself now, she took them without a word, back hunched over as she began to pore over the images of other worlds. That's what they were, entire new worlds; he had an eye for detail that seemed to miss nothing, opening new places she would never see in her life to her. Each paper was another place, miniature forests and rocky plains, a stable full of sleek horses, the town square of a village not much bigger than this one she lived in. It was this last one that caught her eye, this simple scene of a village nestled close to what looked like a forest. There were no people about, no people in any of his pictures in fact, but there were signs of life all the same, chimneys belching smoke, firewood gathered and left leaning against the wall of a house, a rabbit trap being fixed up at the porch of another house. It was all so pleasantly domestic, so full of a life she had never known and probably never would, that she felt her heart gripped by a powerful, blinding desire.
People lived like that. People could really live like that...
Natalie started, deeply shaken by the sound of his quiet rumble of a voice. "Oh! I, um..." She held out the picture, hoping he'd take it out of her hands so she wouldn't have to think about--about things she couldn't have, but he only gave it an odd look before returning his gaze at her face again. "This one just caught my eye, that's all," she answered, feeling oddly shy, like she was a little girl standing behind her papa's leg, gripping it when he didn't have hands for her so that she could stand upright.
The memory pricked at a heart already weakened by Dorcas' picture, and behind her tight lips she clenched her teeth.
Dorcas glanced at the picture again before shrugging. "Take it."
"...Take it?" she repeated, feeling slow. "You mean, you want me to have it?"
"Um...that's really kind of you, but are you sure you won't miss it later?"
"I won't," he said with a firmness to his tone that made her think he was already beyond this moment, that he already considered the picture hers, and it was with some heat behind her cheeks that she carefully folded the picture lengthwise, then half that, to fit comfortably in the pocket of her dress.
"Thank you, Dorcas." Handing back the rest of his drawings to him, she couldn't help but remark, "You do a lot of traveling, don't you?"
He shrugged at this, collecting his pictures and shuffling them in his large hands until they were all neat, with no corners poking out where they shouldn't. "Here and there."
Natalie half-smiled, starting to get comfortable with his quiet ways. "How long do you think you'll be staying here?" she urged lightly. He glanced at her, no emotion on his face--or, she wondered, was it just that she couldn't read what was there?
"For a while."
"This is a sad place to stay for too long," she commented. "There's nothing here...not enough for you to make drawings of, anyway."
"No," he said, before rising from the riverbank. She wasn't sure if he was agreeing with her or not, and suddenly he was a giant before her and the mood between them had been broken, making her not want to ask further. The offering of his hand was as much a surprise as the drawings had been, and she stared at the huge, calloused hand for a moment before he said, with absolutely no impatience, "Come on."
She put her hand in his, amazed by how his hand seemed to completely dwarf it without even closing his fingers over her hand. Standing up, she squeezed the palm of his hand before letting go. "Dorcas, why don't you come over for dinner tonight? I'd really like to thank you for this lovely picture."
"All right," he said immediately, and she smiled. One thing that she couldn't say about him was that he was willing to refuse a meal. They walked together up the street to her house, and she found it pleasant even without any words shared between them. A life of silence wasn't hers to live, she thought, but his presence made the walk not as lonely as she was used to it being, and it was kind of funny to see the few people out-of-doors giving them weird looks. Probably she looked real funny next to Dorcas' massive frame, or he looked strange keeping to her pace, hobbled as she was and only able to make half the stride of a normal person--let alone his legs!
She laughed, then looked away when she saw him glancing at her.
At the front of her little row house was her brother, smoking up a literal storm of nasty-smelling clouds. When he noticed them, he immediately dropped the cigarette and crushed it under one worn boot and she had to hold back a sigh; he didn't know this, but every time he did that he would just end up tracking it inside the house and giving her just that much more work. "Sis!" he exclaimed as they drew near. "Where have you been?"
"I was out taking a walk when I ran into Dorcas," she said with a forced smile. In the light of the setting sun, Daniel's face looked a little fearsome with worry, worry that hadn't lessened even though she was here now.
"Dorcas, huh?" You'd never know they were friends by the way he was staring up at Dorcas, Natalie mused, put out by her brother's odd behavior. "I thought your leg was bothering you too much for that lately."
With a frown, she walked up to her brother, saying, "Right, but I can't stay inside forever. Anyway, Dorcas is going to be staying with us for dinner tonight, so I need to get that started."
"Yeah, okay. You start that up. I'm going to have a friendly talk with him out here for a bit."
Something about her brother's behavior was grinding on Natalie's last nerve, and she was about to say something to that effect when she took one more step up to him and smelled...something. This something was a little cloying and sweet, whispering into her mind thoughts of breathless little giggles and bright, vibrant colors and the sound of clinking gold coins for certain kinds of transactions. Of course, her brother was a man and had his own affairs to deal with, but that realization, along with his sudden bad attitude, brought down anger as real and quick as a streak of lightning through her body. "Danny, you hypocrite," she hissed right up to his ear, and when she moved back she was grimly pleased at the color crossing his face and his wide brown eyes.
"S-sis..." Then, he seemed to get a hold of himself after a shake of his head. "Nattie, just go on inside. We'll be in soon."
He was trying to win her favor, using her nickname and that placating tone of voice, and the only reason why she didn't say another word was because they both knew the threat she'd laid was still there--she may let him have his way most of the time, but she was still his big sister and he still had to come home at the end of the day. So she went inside and closed the door behind her, and in the darkening room she could hear Daniel saying what do you think you're doing with my sister and she couldn't help but roll her eyes. "That boy..." she muttered.
Her hand reached down to her pocket, where her drawing was safely tucked inside, and she smiled.
-to be continued...-