Min nudges my arm in the morning and passes two bowls of rice to me. I know one of them is for Cai and slowly make my way over to where she's sleeping. With her eyes closed, her face looks so peaceful. Her mind must be far from her usual worries. I hate to wake her, but now that we have some food I don't dare let her skip eating.
I briefly consider kissing her awake. What a thought! It doesn't go with my plans to extricate myself from our complicated romance. It is a romance. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is. The difference in how it has played out and how it might have with a girl at home is the hesitation, the fear, and the uncertainty because of our differences. I close my eyes briefly and sigh, wishing as I often have that we were people in a different place and time. Ultimately, none of these wishes matter. I'm stuck in limbo, and I have no idea what will happen to me or if I'll be alive from day to day. It's been that way for a long time, but I never get used to it. I refuse to pull CaI any further into my brand of jeopardy. She has enough problems of her own.
Cai stirs, and I silently mourn that I didn't kiss her. She'd let me kiss her now, but I can't. I won't. I won't keep doing this to her. Settling down beside her I smile.
"I brought you some food," I say, unable to hide the pride I feel at giving something back to her.
"Min told me what you did," she says offering me a weak grin. "Thank you."
"I'm starting to think it's a miracle that your landlord needs my help and will give us food in exchange."
"It's no miracle," she says. "You're more helpful than you think."
I shake my head.
"No, mostly I take from you and don't give, Cai."
She starts to eat, and I hear Min go outside, probably to care for the water buffalo. I know she'll be gone for a while. There's unlikely to be a more private moment for me to talk to Cai before leaving for the landlord's house.
"Cai, I, um, wanted to talk to you," I begin, my heart already sinking.
She nods unsuspecting and takes another bite of rice.
"Do you want me to talk to the landlord about anything while I'm at his house?" I ask her.
She cocks her head to the side as if thinking for a moment, her pale lips holding a bit longer onto the chopsticks than they might normally.
"No," she answers a moment later.
"Maybe I should talk to him about staying somewhere else," I say.
She sits up straighter and looks a bit stunned, making my insides twist with anxiety. This is going to be even worse than I thought.
"Why would you do that?" she asks, her eyes hardening.
"I just think I'm causing you problems: eating your food, ruining your chances to find a husband, maybe even making your neighbors angry."
Cai sits the bowl of rice down in front of her and lays the chopsticks carefully across the rim. Then she scowls at me.
"What do you mean, Peeta?"
"Which part?" I ask, stalling.
"You do eat food. That's true, but you helped harvest it. Not only that you are getting us more food. Those of my neighbors who are aware of your presence have been quiet about it. So, that leaves the problem of me finding a husband."
"I do think I'm hurting your chances," I tell her. "I wouldn't want my future wife living with another man. Your husband won't either."
"Gao lived here, and Fa didn't seem to have a problem with that," she tells me, her dark eyes impossibly fiery.
I sigh before explaining, "Gao was leaving, and Fa knew your marriage plans hadn't worked out. Cai, this is different. I'm a man. I think like a man."
The scowl deepens.
"Oh, Peeta," she seethes, "I know very well that you are a man, and you certainly do think like one. Like all the others you believe you are protecting me as you tear me down. You're right that you are destroying my chances with somebody else, but it's not in the way you believe." She pauses to take a breath. "If I wanted to send you away then I could, Peeta, and I would have already."
I finally lower my eyes, unable to look at her anymore.
"But I need to go away, whether it's what you want or not. Whether it's what I want or not." I swallow hard. "You know it's not what I want either. Don't you?"
Her voice is higher and finally breaks as she answers. My concern for her overpowers my shame, and I look up at her.
"I don't want to talk anymore!" she snaps. She tries to stand, but can't. Her legs are wobbly. She gets to her knees and slaps my arms away when I try to help her.
Grasping her hand lightly instead, I ask her to stay with me until I leave for the landlord's house. She refuses.
"There's so much I need to do since I've been in bed lately," Cai says, but the distress in her voice has nothing to do with work she might need to do.
"You should stop doing things for me, though," I tell her, as gently as I know how, but I can feel my chest tightening. I'm doing this all wrong.
"Fine! I will! Just leave me alone," she shouts as she starts to pull away again, but I see tears begin to roll down either cheek in uneven trails. They match the ones I'm managing to blink back.
Cai's eyes bore into mine with the incredible tenacity it requires for her to look at me at the moment. So much strength wrapped into a small person. Her shoulders start to tremble, and guilt overwhelms me.
"I'm so sorry. I never meant for you to think…"
She pushes her back hard against the wall, getting as far away from me as she can as if I'm attacking her even as I apologize. Maybe I am. I'm certainly not helping anyone.
"You think you are being kind, don't you, Peeta," she says. "You're not. We are stuck here together, you and I. Everything was fine as it was. Now I have to think about this." she pauses, looking to the side for a moment and then back at me. "You told me about 'love,' Peeta. You said 'one day you just realize you love someone.' Did that happen with me?"
Before I have a chance to think better of it I've answered her with a whispered and strained, "yes."
She drops my hands abruptly.
"It did for me too," she says, sinking down against the wall a bit more. "But what I want to know now is how to make it stop."
Tears are streaming down her face now. My right hand twitches with the instinct to wipe them away but I resist the urge knowing that would be unwelcome. I'm the cause of the pain, and I have to avoid intensifying it if I can.
"How?" she demands, angrily. "How do you make it stop?"
"I don't know," I tell her. "How it stops is probably just as confusing as how it starts. I don't think…"
Cai's eyes shift to the floor and my voice trails off as we hear her sister come into the house unexpectedly.
"Peeta," Min says, "the wagon is here to take you to the landlord's house."
I watch as Cai slowly lowers herself down on her mat and turns to face the wall, leaving her bowl of rice half eaten.
The wagon the servant drives is pulled by two water buffalo. The weather is cool but warmer than usual today, and the sun is bright as we stop by a farm nearby to deliver a few wooden boxes. I wonder what's inside them but never get a good look. In fact, the landlord's servant tells me to lie down in the wagon and throws a tarp-like blanket over me as we near the farm. I don't think that has anything to do with keeping me warm either. Fortunately, I can still see through the cracks of the wagon if I lift the blanket an inch or so.
A man is stacking wood outside his house while he talks to the servant. He's shorter than the servant, but able to lift surprisingly large logs off the woodpile.
"Where did you come from just now?" the man from the farm asks.
"The Lin plot," the servant answers.
"Are they well?" the man asks.
"Not very well."
I can't help but roll my eyes.
"How's Lin Cai?" the man asks, and I assume he means Cai and using her family name as well as the name she's usually called.
"Why do you ask?" the servant inquires. I detect a note of suspicion.
"No reason. I think I heard something about her being sick. That's all. My son asked about her," the man says.
"Oh," the servant says pleasantly. "You can tell your son that she's been ill, but her sister told me she's better."
I can't help but cringe. Why is this man's son asking? Is he one of the ones who attacked her and now feels guilty? He's probably known Cai all his life. I can't imagine physically harming a girl I grew up with just to get a jar of vegetables, but then again I was definitely not myself during the worst hungry periods of the last few weeks. Min is right that hunger makes people desperate.
"I'll tell my son. He'll be glad to hear it," the man offers. "Is that white man still living there?"
My heart skips a beat.
"What white man?" the servant asks without hesitation.
"The one living on the Lin farm," the man scoffs. "Don't tell me you don't know about him.
"I don't know about any white man living around here."
The other man sighs as if frustrated and turns back to the woodpile.
"Alright, well, don't tell me then," he replies. "I suppose your master thinks we have no right to know who lives beside us or what he might be doing there."
"I couldn't tell you what he thinks, the servant says.
The wagon lurches forward as I hear the two men tell one another goodbye.
Shuffling the papers around me I try to determine which might be the most important to the landlord. They are in English except for two, which appear to be written in French. I suppose those will remain a mystery. This area must have seen some Europeans or North Americans before for the landlord to have more than a few documents in these languages.
"Your kind likes papers," he says. "More than we do, anyway."
"Yes, Sir, they are important sometimes." Holding up a handwritten letter I ask him, "What exactly are you looking for?"
"I don't know. I found these among my father's belongings and don't know what they mean. Before I had nobody to ask."
I nod, looking back down at the documents.
"Have you and Cai married? I didn't hear if you did," he says.
"Uh, no," I stutter. "We've had a difficult time this winter."
The landlord tilts his head to the side as if listening carefully, and I wonder how he can show concern right now but seemingly ignore the fact that we were all starving to death and are just recovering a little bit of strength. I noticed earlier that he'd watched me struggle to walk through his house, holding onto the wall as I went.
"Are you planning to stay with her?" he asks, and this time I detect a different feeling than when he asked this question during my last visit with him.
I don't answer, not sure what's best for Cai and wanting to help her. He takes a step closer.
"There is someone else who asked about her," he says.
I can feel my heart beating in my ears all of a sudden. It must be the neighbor's son. He's probably a good candidate for a husband, and if he's interested in her he probably isn't the one who hurt her. I try to imagine a younger version of his father. I can visualize her with someone like that, but it turns my stomach because…because…I don't want to see it.
"He's a bit older," the landlord says, "but a large age difference is not that unusual."
The man at the neighbor's farm had no gray hair or signs of age apparent. In fact, I was kind of surprised he had a son old enough to ask about a woman in what I interpreted as a slightly more than friendly way. Then again, some people look much younger than they are.
"He has several children, though I suspect he'd like a few more."
My eyes dart up. Well, of course Cai would probably have children with her husband. Most people do. I just don't want to think about her children right now.
"Their mother died," the landlord continues. "She was a good woman but never really treated as a wife." He says. Even with the language barrier I get the feeling that the landlord is trying to tell me something more than his words reveal. "Peeta, you seem like a wise man," he says. "I am a man who owns land on which people live, and I want them to be at peace. Many of the young men were jealous of Gao. Cai was never someone they could consider as a wife because she was promised to him. As they all grew up nobody knew what to do with Cai. She's different than most of the girls. I think maybe that's one reason I wanted you to stay with her. I thought maybe you are what she needs to be at peace."
I clear my throat before asking, "why me?"
"Because you're from a different place with different ideas. Cai can seem so different that it's like she's from a different place too."
"How much older is this man?" I ask him.
"How old is Cai?"
"Oh, I thought she was younger than that," the landlord says, looking a bit relieved. I release a breath I didn't know I was holding in response. "The difference is not as much as I thought. He's about twenty-five years older. He has children Cai's age."
My heart skips a few beats, and I don't know if it'll right itself again. Twenty-five years? I repeat in my head. Then I realize I've repeated it out loud.
The landlord nods, "but I'd be more concerned about their temperaments being a poor match. He has little patience. He's an angry person."
A flash of an older man pushing Cai, hitting her, hurting her flashes in my mind. I can barely speak to ask the next question.
"Is he a farmer?"
"Well, yes. That is one good part of the match," the landlord says. "He farms the piece of land next to Cai's family's land. He had a good year. Better than most. It's a good time for him to take a wife. In fact, he bought some equipment for the spring and my servant was supposed to bring it to him today."
I finally lean forward, covering my mouth with my hand. As the players in the story solidify in my mind I feel sicker and sicker. The older man I saw would be Cai's husband. He sounds harsh, maybe violent. The landlord seems to imply that his wife was treated poorly and then died. My stomach twists in anxious knots, and I wonder if I'd feel any differently if the man interested in Cai was her own age and described as a perfect match for her. Would that make any difference? And as I wonder my stomach still twists and my face feels hot. I think I would feel the same way. A flash of her with someone else crosses my mind, a faceless, ageless, blurry man who could be wonderful or terrible. Either way it's terrible to me…only more terrible if he's mean to her. And then my mind shifts to being with her myself, and it's beautiful. I can't breathe.
"Peeta, he won't say anything if she's taken. I told him I wasn't sure of her situation. If she's not taken I don't have much reason to refuse my general agreement on their match. Cai could refuse him, but it would be an unpopular choice. He's older and more well-known than Fa. He has sons who could make her life miserable if she embarrasses their father."
"She could have died," I whisper, without thinking.
"Um, Cai's just…she's sick…I don't think now would be a good time for her to marry anyone."
The landlord shakes his head a bit. "Not too sick for some of his purposes, I'm sure, Peeta."
This man acts as though he doesn't want anything bad to happen to Cai, maybe that he's even trying to prevent it.
"Do you want her?" he asks me quietly. "Because if you do…"
"I do," I blurt out.
I exhale loudly, relieved to finally admit my true feelings.
"Good," he answers with a nod, "I think we understand each other then."
He taps he hand on the table to draw my attention back to papers strewn across it. I can't imagine that he thinks I can concentrate on them right now, but I must. After all, we'll be given more food if I do.
On the ride home all I can think of is the conversation with the landlord. Near the house, but far enough away that the women would not hear us I ask the servant to let me out of the wagon. He seems surprised but does as I ask and drives away with the same pleasant goodbye he seems to give everyone.
I sit down under a tree, stretch out my stiff leg and lean back to observe the sprawling limbs over my head. At first I just listen to the sounds of the night taking over the day. Then I let my mind wander to so many moments here in China, almost all of them involving Cai. With a twinge of pain I think of Delly back home, and then push the thought away. Delly will be alright without me. She has to be because she will be without me regardless. I only wish I could see her one more time to say goodbye. We didn't say goodbye well enough. Sometimes you fail to face what's happening to you until far too late to respond the way you'll eventually wish you had.
Then God and I have a long talk. I run my hand along the moss on the ground as a few tears fall over the fact that I'm so uncertain of what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life. I've always been uncertain. People that know confuse me. The only time I've felt certain of a big decision was when I enlisted in the army, and that decision has led to a spiral of ever more complicated doubts. There's been no escape from the complexity even as I was told to do as I was ordered to do.
My father told me when I was a little boy that God doesn't mind if you cry even if your baseball coach or your big brother does. I am thinking God doesn't care how old you are when you cry either. It seems to me that people are just people to God. Why would He notice the outside of them much when what He's given us to learn about Him speaks so much of the inside? Everyone's path is different, and some people step more sure-footedly than others. I can't make myself one of the sure-footed ones if I'm not.
The light begins to fade as night starts to fall and slowly I pick myself up off the ground. I feel as though I'm in a dream, numb and tingly at the same time. I walk inside the house, notice Min fast asleep and snoring lightly on her sleeping mat, and approach a startled Cai. The look on my face must reveal something unusual, something she's not expecting. Indeed, I hadn't expected it either.
I reach for her hand, and she hesitantly lets me take it. My voice comes out in a raspy whisper when I start to speak, and my head spins enough that I lose my train of thought. I chase down the words anyway.
"I want to marry you," I tell her.
She smiles a pained smile, looking a little disappointed.
"I know. You said that you would do that for me already, but you shouldn't."
"No, I can't do it like that. I want it to be real," I tell her, taking a step closer to her. "I love you, and I think about you every second I'm awake every day. Maybe we won't have much time, but I want whatever time I have to be with you. I'm never going to stop loving you, and I'm never going to want to be away from you."
Cai looks down thoughtfully. The pause is uncomfortable.
"But, if that's not what you want…" I start to say as I bring my trembling hands up to hold her shoulders.
Running my fingers along her collarbones and then up her slender neck I finally rest them on either side of her jaw just under her ears. My touch is more confident now, and I press against her skin just enough to hint to her to look up at me. She does.
"I do want that as long as you are sure, Peeta."
Her eyes lock on mine.
"I'm sure. So sure. I've never been surer of anything."
With that I lean in to give her a kiss that, unlike the others we've shared, is completely unrestrained.