"Into the forest the warrior goes,
Now past the glade where the tall grass grows
Beyond the river that sparkles bright
Then through the rain; and last, sunlight."
(Origin unknown: thought to be Delaware children's rhyme)
"Help me with the buckets, Ben," Alice called out, tucking wisps of sun-lightened hair out of her face as she straightened upright. Sweat ran down her back unpleasantly, making her long for a proper bathe in the stream, but that would have to wait until the regular cabin chores were finished. There was always so much to do. She and Cora had grown somewhat used to the work, which was more repetitive than strenuous: hauling water, preserving and preparing food, washing clothes. But with Nathaniel and Uncas spending almost all their daylight hours on the building of the new cabin, there was little time for sleeping in, idle walks to gather flowers, or swims that were anything more than a quick scrub of one's extremities.
The boy she had addressed appeared and took two of the water-filled buckets as she had requested. Though Ben was quick to obey and not lazy, it was difficult for any of the adults to induce him to speak in either English, of which his understanding was growing, or Delaware. Alice often wondered how long it would be before he was judged suitable for introduction to Chingachgook and the other relatives at the wolf camp, where he was to make his permanent home, if Nathaniel had his way. In the meantime, Alice did not mind his presence. Ben was biddable and, though still small for his age, surprisingly useful. They often sent him back and forth between the original cabin and the site of the new one with food or messages for the men, and he covered the mile in minutes. He had lost his initial wariness of Alice, but spent most of his time with Cora, whom he adored and would do anything for. Both Nathaniel, and particularly Uncas, Ben continued to regard with a watchfulness that bordered on suspicion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by any of them but which they had decided as a whole to overlook.
Alice took the last bucket, sliding it into the crook of her elbow where its weight rested a little more comfortably, and preceded Ben back up the path, now swarming with wildflowers, to the clearing. The sun was piercingly bright midday, and there was little wind to help offset its heat. Alice looked forward to the relative coolness of the cabin.
Indoors, she remembered that Cora had been intending to cook biscuits that day, and had a brisk fire going for that purpose. The warmth struck her afresh as she came through the open doorway. Cora crouched by the fire, her face visibly flushed even in the glow thrown off from the hearth.
"Aren't you sweltering?" Alice demanded, setting her water down. Ben lingered behind her in the entryway.
"Yes," Cora admitted, "but I wanted to try these again." She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked at the lumps of half-baked dough lined up near the blaze. Glancing back at Alice, she gave a laugh that sounded as if it meant to be lighthearted but couldn't quite manage it. "Not quite up to the standards of home, are they?"
It was odd to hear her sister say home and know that she meant England. Alice didn't herself know at which point she had come to think of the cabin as her home; perhaps it had been at some time through the long winter spent with Uncas, perhaps not till she had been reunited with Cora and Nathaniel and realized that this was home now...she wasn't certain.
"It's too hot to be cooking," she said again, finally.
"I thought it would be nice to have something different for our lunch." Cora meant the men's lunch, Alice thought, but did not say this. They usually ate only in the mornings and evenings themselves, not because there was a shortage of food but because they both instinctively knew that certain supplies would have to last a long time before they could be replenished.
"The morning's leftovers will have to do," Alice said, fanning herself. At least, Nathaniel and Uncas welcomed uncritically any food that found its way to them with the same level of appreciation every time. They worked from sunrise to its fall every day on the cabin and came home at nights ravenously hungry.
"I suppose." Cora rose and examined the contents of the pot on the ledge that usually held their morning and evening porridge gruel. "Bring it down to them, Ben?"
Alice glanced over to see the boy's face fall. No doubt he was growing tired of playing messenger several times a day, though he had not yet complained. Mustering up energy, she said, "I can go," and was rewarded by his slight, rare smile. She had wanted to sit and relax for a while in the cabin, but it wasn't cool in any case, so there was little reason to linger.
Deep green grasses plucked at the skirt of her dress as she waded through them, squinting to follow the new path that was by now becoming well-worn. It was a pleasant enough walk, at least in summer. The path worked its way on a slight decline, roughly paralleling the stream, down to lower terrain where the soil was richer. The new cabin was located right in the midst of what had been a thick cluster of trees, almost all of which had been felled in service of its building. A plot for a large garden was also being cleared nearby.
Alice had not been to visit the new site since the weather had gotten hot and she was momentarily astounded, as it came into view, at how much progress Nathaniel and Uncas had made. The walls, with their thick logs free of mosses and lichens, already rose higher than her head. She had known the men meant to finish the structure before the arrival of autumn but seeing it now she realized with a sudden pang that Nathaniel and Cora would no doubt be ready to move out much sooner than that. All that looked to be left to finish was the roof.
Well, their own cabin was far too cramped for four-five, counting Ben-people as it was, even if they were only all together in the evenings and at nights, she reasoned, watching Uncas who was piling stones for the chimney and who had no doubt heard her coming but had not yet looked up.
"Hungry?" she asked Nathaniel, who was closer by, hacking at limbs on a prone tree with one of their axes.
"Very," he said, pausing to wipe sweat off his face with a buckskin-clad arm, and setting down the tool. He reached for the pot in Alice's hand but she pulled it away with a frown. "Aren't you going to wait for your brother?"
Nathaniel grinned at her pertness, which she had only recently learned to cultivate with him, gave her a little bow, and said, "Naturally." He called over with a one-syllable Mohegan injunction that Uncas soon responded to by joining them.
In deference to the other couple, Alice and Uncas rarely indulged in any displays of affection, even minor ones, when not alone. Nathaniel and Cora could often be found sitting together, Cora would touch her husband's shoulder when speaking to him, or he would catch her hand; and they usually parted with a kiss in the mornings; but Alice had not yet learned to be comfortable with such intimacies in her own relationship. Uncas might have tried, though he was less demonstrative than his brother to begin with; but Alice had been quick to let him know, through avoiding any such gestures, that overtures were not welcome if anyone else was present.
So now, Uncas did not attempt to touch her, or otherwise impose on her person; he didn't smile, either, since his smiles were as rare as Ben's, being almost counter-intuitive in his culture; but his eyes were warm, and said, I am glad it was you today.
Alice ducked her head, embarrassed even at this tiny display of feelings. Not that Nathaniel seemed to notice, or would have objected if he had. After all, perhaps they were not exactly husband and wife, certainly not in the formal, established sense, but it was obvious what they were to each other. Or at least it seemed to Alice that it must be. That it should be, by now. That nothing needed to be said...aloud...regarding what anybody was to anybody else.
The two men crouched companionably on the ground, while Alice lingered. Uncas unselfconsciously offered her the pot but she declined, never having gotten completely used to the concept of communal consumption, and murmured something about already having eaten. She didn't mean to lie, but as she'd learned from her time spent at the wolf camp the summer before, it was problematic to refuse food. Better that they think she was full, rather than telling the truth, which was that if she didn't absolutely have to fuel her body she had no intention of willingly partaking of the monotonous gruel.
Alice swatted at a fly buzzing around the back of her neck, which was still damp with perspiration. There was no breeze here either. She thought longingly of the lake, but it was too far to warrant a trip at this time of day; besides, she doubted she had the energy to make it in this heat. And it wouldn't be fair to leave the cabin's duties to Cora.
"Hot," Uncas observed, without irony. Nathaniel shot Alice an amused glance, which she vaguely resented. It was hot. Why shouldn't that be remarked upon? But then she felt a little guilty for the momentary irritation and said, by way of repenting, "You have done a lot since I was last down here."
"Mm." Nathaniel finished the last mouthful from the pot, set the ladle down and looked reflectively across the newly cleared site at the cabin. "Could be ready to move in by next week, maybe. You'll be glad to have us out of your way, I guess, little sister."
"No," she murmured with some diffidence. "It's been nice, being together. Having someone to talk to..."
"Why, is this one not much for conversation?" Nathaniel elbowed his younger brother in the ribs, a move which might have unbalanced a person of less natural grace and equilibrium, but which Uncas adjusted to immediately by shifting lightly sideways, rising to his feet as he did so.
Alice tugged at the end of her plait of hair, embarrassed, though she didn't need to be for Uncas' sake. He never seemed bothered by Nathaniel's gently derogatory quips. Though she herself had grown comfortable over the past few months with the idea of Nathaniel as her older brother by law, she still found herself occasionally baffled by his shifts in manner from seriousness to teasing, and it was often difficult to tell which was which.
"I'll take you back now," Uncas said, mildly, to Alice. She began to protest that she didn't need to be accompanied, but gave up after an instant because she knew he was not making an offer, waiting on her acceptance, but informing her of his intention. If ever she was in danger of forgetting how vast the differences were between this Mohegan warrior and a typical British gentleman, it was moments like this that reminded her. Nathaniel's smile vexed her because she knew that just for an instant he had read those thoughts on her face, before he rose also and turned back to pick up his axe and resume work.
Uncas must have been preoccupied because he strode up the path as if he thought Alice would keep pace with him, for a few long moments almost disappearing into the trees ahead before doubling back and rejoining her.
"It is far too warm to move that quickly," she argued.
He scanned her face for an instant, reading it, as he always did, paying less attention to her words than to other minute aspects of her appearance; her stance, her eyes, the tilt of her head. "You did not eat."
Like so much of what he said, it was not accusing but matter of fact. Her gaze fell, betrayingly. "I'm not hungry."
"Hungry or not, you must eat." He took hold of her wrists casually, almost caressing, but she knew his fingers were measuring the beat of her blood.
"I feel fine," Alice said defensively, ready for him to say something about her lack of strength. She did feel fine, normally; it was the intensity of the summer heat which was, in its own way, as fatiguing as the bitter cold of the winter. Just when she thought she had acclimatized herself to the extremes of the American weather, she realized she was still expecting it to be more temperate, as it was on the other side of the ocean.
Pulling away, she started to pass him, but he caught her. "Wiyon-ashay. We have been busy. I have no time to spend with you. But it will be different soon."
"I know," she said, surprised, wondering if he were apologizing.
"You will tell me if you need anything?"
Alice shifted. "I think...I want to go to the lake."
She would always associate the lake with her memories of the consummation of their relationship, striking and sweet and frightening as that whole night had been; it was something precious and vital that she could never share with anyone else, something that was meant for the two of them alone. She blushed, now, to remember it; how confusing, but how meaningful the occasion had been. It was not a place she wanted to revisit often, for fear that would make the memories commonplace; but she wanted to be there now, in this season of heat and lush green growth, so different from the starkness of winter.
For a moment it seemed as though Uncas would assent, but then he squeezed her hand in regret. "Perhaps by the time of the new moon."
"That is far off," Alice said, trying not to sound childish. She had not thought he would refuse her. "I want to go now, while it is still so hot."
"We must finish the cabin," he reminded her.
"Surely one day won't make such a difference."
"Nathaniel and I used to say such things to our father, when we were younger. He told us we were wrong, that tomorrow's needs are like a woman's moods." He waited for a moment, then, seeing her frown, supplied, "Always changing."
"Do not quote your father to me," Alice said, crossly. "My father, if he were here, would say that we should take the time that has been given to us. We should use each day as it comes and not think on tomorrow."
Uncas glanced away, a subtle emotion flickering across his face.
"What?" Alice said, feeling as if she had just stumbled upon something that she had not been meant to see, even though she was not nearly as adept as interpreting the composition of his features as he was of hers.
He looked vaguely pained. "It is not for me to tell."
"Do you know something?" An awareness was growing upon her. She had suspected since the spring that she was being left out of a confidence, for when she had once mentioned to Cora something about their parent she had seen a look pass between her sibling and Nathaniel.
"You must ask your sister that." He sounded torn but determined.
Very well, Alice thought, I will ask her. Now. "I will go back alone," she said, quellingly. He made no move to follow, but watched her as she walked away through the forest and disappeared from his sight.
Cora was still in the cabin when Alice arrived. She had let the fire die down so it was not quite as stiflingly hot indoors, although it was still enough to make fresh perspiration spring to Alice's forehead as she stepped within. Ben was perched on a stool by the table, eating one of the biscuits. He always ate with that furtive air of one long accustomed to never getting enough sustenance. Cora was sipping tea and looking tired, Alice thought, but she hardened her mind against such an observation. She did not want to feel sorry for her sister, not now.
"Cora. We never talked about what happened last year when you and Nathaniel left me and Uncas by the river. You said that Father had been taken prisoner."
The older woman set her teacup down, and gestured for Ben to leave them, which the boy did, slipping off his stool and palming another biscuit as he left the cabin. Cora took a long breath. "Yes," she said quietly. "We believed that it would be best if you thought there was still some hope."
"Then he is..."
Cora nodded with an attitude of defeat. "It cannot be otherwise," she said softly.
Alice had expected to feel anger when Cora admitted what she had come to suspect. But now that it had been confirmed, she felt oddly blank. Hollow. She knew she should feel something upon discovering her father was dead...but what that something was, she didn't know.
"Why did you not tell me at the time?" she asked, a little dully.
"Nathaniel thought you wouldn't be ready to hear such news. I agreed with him. He was right, Alice, I think. There was so much else to consider..."
"It wasn't fair that I was the only one. Uncas knew, too."
Cora gave a sigh of acquiescence. "We meant to tell you. I'm sure we did...but then there was never a right time. And when we went to Albany, I suppose I assumed that Uncas might tell you himself. That was cowardly and wrong of me, Alice."
"I deserved to know," Alice persisted. "I am not a child."
"No, although I think you were...then. The winter changed you."
Cora reached out for her sister's hand but Alice avoided it, not willing to forgive just yet. Being on my own changed me. Knowing that I had to survive, that I had to prove to everyone that I am not as weak as I look. That was what changed me.
"I'm sorry," Cora said. "If I could go back, I would not have handled it the same way. Don't blame Nathaniel or Uncas. They knew it was my decision." She poured some more tea in the cup from the little kettle and pushed it across the table to Alice, her eyes appealing her to sit down and drink, to talk further. It was an invitation Alice had never yet refused. But she found she didn't have the will now to concede. It was easier simply to shake her head and back out of the cabin, closing the door as she went.