Title: Sourwood and Sweet Maple
Author: Elliott Silver
Summary: "What is it you're afraid of, Christy?" he asked. "Wanting, or giving?"
Author's Note: After recently re-reading the book again, this story came to me. I suppose it could take place near/at the end of the book, or after "The Road Home" in the tv series. Anything italicized below is cited directly from the book, Christy by Catherine Marshall (New York, Avon Books). No infringement intended.
The woods had stilled now, the tall trees a mere shadow of their summer selves. Buttons' hooves crunched on the litter of dried leaves beneath her feet, sometimes on the sharp crackle of frost. The air was so crisp it almost hurt to breathe it, the sky above a silken tapestry of blue as far as the eye could see. There would be snow soon, maybe even tonight.
November had come, swift and merciful, and with it, the typhoid epidemic had finally subsided.
After weeks of worry, long and slow recoveries began, including my own. Other areas were not so lucky, and the worst over in Cutter Gap, Miss Alice headed for Big Lick Springs, leaving us – the children, Miss Ida, David and I – to loads of scalding laundry, dirty dishes, and scrupulous cleaning. Even the Doctor left us, leaving behind half-filled vials, medicine bottles of chloroform, quinine, and strychnine, and the lingering scent of pipe tobacco in his wake.
I didn't realize how much I missed him, how much I needed him, until he was gone.
The trail twisted up the mountain, switch-backing high above Big Spoon Creek. A jay called, raucous and shrill, in the high branches above as I rounded the bend.
Neil was there as if he had always been, and perhaps he had. He sat on the porch like he didn't quite know how to rest, watching me as I rode up as if he had been expecting me. As I came closer and dismounted, looping Buttons' reins over the post, he put down his pipe and rose slowly, waiting as if it was so easy to do.
My heart skipped a beat as I came to him, and then it beat on.
He was wearing brown corduroys and a plaid hunting shirt, open at the neck. The shirt rippled over his broad, muscular shoulders, his sandy-red hair – tousled as always. The colors, browns and reds, matched the woods, bark and leaf. He was such a part of this world, but not of it.
I went to him perhaps because, or in spite of, that.
I handed him the mismatched vials and glasses, the tools of his trade, as if that was why I had come. He took them without comment like wayward children against his chest, nudging open the cabin door with his foot and disappearing into the darkness of his study. The rooms smelled of tobacco and coffee, sweet and heady, as I followed him. Deer heads stared down from the walls, their antlers casting webs of shadows, reflecting against all the framed pictures of great men, good doctors on his walls. Somewhere I wondered if someone had a picture of him on their walls. The London clock ticked away on the mantel as he bent and roused the glowing coals to flame.
He offered the chair, the one with the dainty spindly back that seemed so unsuited to the room, to the man, as if he wasn't curious about my unexpected appearance. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, but then he had such a reserved and stubborn nature thatI seldom understood him, though I wanted to, very much so, sometimes more than I realized. But I knew he shared with me what he didn't with anyone else, his research, his past, and I understood he had compassion, that I had seen it, felt it. He had strength too, of a different kind, he persevered, he challenged, sometimes he raged in that flashburn Scotch-Irish way. But he could delight, making light of a tough situation, calming a frantic patient, humming mountain ballads, whirling reels at a mountain wedding. I knew there was darkness about him, and I had seen much of it, but there was joy too, hidden away though certain.
"I'm leaving Cutter Gap, Christy," he said at last, rising from the fire. He offered no preface, no apology, and shock spilled over me, frigid and numbing as the first time I had been in this cabin, after falling with Theo into the cold mountain waters. How different things had been then, or had they? He was the same, though perhaps I was not.
"You?" I managed. "Where?"
"Vienna," he answered, not looking at me. "For two years or so."
Now he did look at me and his hazel eyes were dark. "I've an invitation from Doctor Ernst Fuchs to work with him, to complete my research on trachoma."
I couldn't speak, couldn't even think about being here without him.
"It's a great opportunity for me, Christy."
Finally I swallowed and made myself speak. "But we need a doctor here!"
He looked at me in surprise, his sandy-red eyebrows raised. The lines of his face were deeply etched, rugged as if carved. I had thought that since the first time I saw him, in the Spencer cabin, that night when he bored into Bob Allen's skull and saved his life. But I had rarely thought how handsome those lines made him, the unpolished quality it gave to him, how appealing it made his unperfection. "I've contacted several colleagues who are willing to practice in Cutter Gap until I return."
"But it takes years for the mountain folk to accept foreigners! Look at me – "
" – or Miss Alice, or yourself."
"Christy – "
I rose now and whirled in the middle of the room. The floorboards creaked as if I had been dancing. Neil had once said I had fire in me, and that he liked fire in a woman, but now all I felt was burning, desolate and desperate.
"How many people will die if you don't stay?"
He followed me to the center of the room and stood close, looking down at me.
"How many people could I save if I go?"
I realized I was looking at him through the sheen of tears. He gave me that same measured look he had given me before when he had been tending to Tom McHone, when he asked what my vision was, what I believed in, when I couldn't tell him and hadn't known what I wanted. Did I know now?
"What reason is there for me to stay?" He was holding me to my curiosity, never one to hedge onto a subject delicately. He shunned small talk, like Miss Alice, but his penchant for silences was more defined than hers. He let the tension spin out until it became unbearable between us.
"What reason?" he asked again when I hadn't answered him. I stared at his hands as if they fascinated me, and they did, these sinews and tendons that could wield a scalpel so certainly, these calloused fingers that could stop a child's tears. He had gentle hands.
He sighed and began walking around me, squeezing the unruly ends of his hair as he always did.
"What is it you're afraid of, Christy?" he asked. "Wanting, or giving?"
I could feel his angry movements along the boards beneath my feet, rattling my entire world, changing the very way I stood, how I balanced.
"We need you," I managed. I felt his bulk as he passed me, the muscular weight of his body. He was so solid, so unyielding, so unlike David who even Miss Alice said would disappear if he stood sideways. I could feel Neil from across a room, even now.
He snorted at my answer, the soles of his boots snapping against the floor as he walked. Over his shoulder, I saw the light begin to slip below the edges of the mountains. It would be dark soon, and I would have to leave. I closed my eyes to avoid being dizzy by his movements, by the darkness.
"I need you."
He stopped suddenly and I opened my eyes.
"Do you?" He looked at me, at the space between us, and his hazel eyes burned. His closeness sucked at the core of me, and my chest hurt from holding my breath. I didn't realize I had been. I was dizzy, but he didn't offer me a chair as he had at Ruby Mae's wedding, after dancing. How did he make me feel like this? Why was it like this, as it wasn't with others? Why was it always like this with him?
"Yes," I answered.
He walked slower now, moving closer as he paced, circling and circling, almost as if he was spinning a web and me in it. Now there was no rush or hurry to his movements, and he moved as if drawing out every move like a chord, like a prayer. He was so close now, almost touching me as he spun round and round, like a bowdrill and spindle to catch flame to kindling. I could feel the brush of his movements on the wrinkles of my jacket, the folds of my skirt. I could smell the scent of woodspice and lye soap from his plaid shirt, smell black coffee and salt on his breath as he spoke.
"Are you sure?"
I felt his words tangle in the knots of my hair, and I knew this was none of it about leaving. It was about what would happen if we both stayed.
I turned to him. "Are you?
He stepped away and motioned towards the door. I walked towards it.
I knew so little about him, it seemed. I knew about his ancestors, about his schooling, about his medicine and his research. I knew about his wife and lost baby. But what about him? Did he feel a surge of victory when he saved a life, the small way I felt when one of my students made a breakthrough? Did he too rail and rage against the dirt and unfairness, the ingrained superstitions? Did he awake and marvel at the sun breaking over the far ridges of the Smokies, the light that fell so sharply on the mountains as if it might break and shatter like a dream? Did he feel the same way I felt now, like drowning, like burning?
I stopped and faced him. When I finally met his eyes, I knew the answers. He felt, like me, too deeply and too well. What had Miss Alice said about him? Neil is a man who carries dreams in his heart. I knew this for certain now. How long and how far he had carried them, these precious dreams.
If I hadn't known what I was doing before, I knew now.
I leaned forward, across what seemed like time and space, and touched my lips to his. David had kissed me so many times like this, like it was nothing, so that I thought it must be. But this was Neil, and his hazel eyes were dark like thunderclouds over the Smokies, dark in ways I couldn't yet understand.
He came with the force of a storm that nearly took the breath from me as he held me to the sturdy door frame, pinned me there with his body. I could feel the lines and whirls of his muscles holding me in place, as if this was where I belonged, for certainly I fit.
His coolness had nettled me before, but there was nothing cool about him now. I could feel his breath against my face, the beat of his heart against mine, rushing.
And then he was kissing me, kissing me honey-rough as if he would never stop, and maybe he wouldn't. I could taste sourwood and sweet maple, the bitter lisp of coffee on the edges of his lips as he held me against him. It was like dancing, as we had at Ruby Mae's wedding. I knew I didn't even have to think; I could just give myself to his arm around me with assurance. The guiding arm was so sure and firm, the rhythm such a part of my body now … I felt the curl of a smile on his lips, as I kissed him back, following his movements. He opened his mouth and traced the line of my bottom lip with his tongue. I gasped and shivered and felt the grip of his hands on my arms.
"I'm not afraid of wanting or giving, Christy." He stood back and looked at me. "Ask yourself, are you?"
Standing there with him, I felt a part of something, a part of his overflowing vitality as much as the world around me, at peace with it. The world, our mountains, was perfectly still as dark settled over the ground and the smoky ridges rushed to sleep. The first flurries of snow trickled from the sky like stardust, and I realized how tightly we were holding on to each other, how we could not let go. When I answered, I knew that this here was all the things, dark and complicated and beautiful, I had come to Cutter Gap for.