Friday, July 12, 2019
Even An Ox
[Written for Gentle April '19 part of the SizeRiot contests. Illustrations by Morganita. If you'd like to thank her for her work you can do so here. If you'd like to commission your own art you may do so here.]
The letter was for Paul, but addressed to Ellen. An awkward compromise, but there was no
practical alternative. It arrived the last day of August when Paul was in the deep woods gathering trees for his cooking bonfire. Paul preferred being alone in the woods to being gawked at by the mailboat pilot.
Ellen read the letter three times before Paul strode out of the forest carrying an armful of freshly
plucked trees. Roots longer than her body dry-dripped a trail of dirt behind him. Ellen used to joke they looked like backwards carrots once he stripped the branches.
Ellen tried to tell Paul over lunch, but she chickened out.
There were other times she could have told him. In between chores. As he prepared the bonfire or
tossed stock into the cauldron. Paul always cooked; it was as practical as her getting the mail.
Ellen still hadn't told him by the time he invited her to cuddle and watch the sunset by the river.
Paul wasn't optimistic when he asked. It had been a hot summer. The kind that made her hate touching him that long. Before the accident it'd felt like hugging a furnace; afterwards like laying down on one.
Ellen said yes this time. She was going to tell him.
Paul lay on his back by the river, staring up at the stars dancing in their constellations; Ellen lay on
Paul, watching the Kearsarge empty into the Contoocook over the horizon of his shoulder. Feeling
his heart beat against her back from scalp to ankle; her body raised then lowered with each
“It's not too hot?” Paul kept his tone soft, mindful of the size of his voice and his wife's ears.
“You sure I'm not cooking you down there?”
“I don't mind. Not tonight.”
Paul knew she wanted to say more, but she didn't.
They lived in a smart little cabin and a cramped circus tent on the banks of the Kearsarge River.
Their neighbors were oak, and birch, and the few pine that had survived the hurricane of '33. The
nearest road was 5 miles south; the nearest people 12, by river. They moved there 21 years ago. Four
months after Paul's accident; three after he he was sick of feeling like a freak.
“Was that the mail boat I heard earlier?” Paul was cooking lunch four days later. “What's that?
Three times this week?”
“I guess we're just popular all of a sudden.” Ellen tried to sound casual, but she was looking at the
bonfire, not his face.
“Are you having an affair with our mail man or are you trying to protect me from something?”
Paul stirred the stew.
“Bonnie's straight.” Ellen said to the fire.
“Then I guess I don't have to shot put a grizzly at her boat. Good. Bear bites sting like a son of a
Ellen didn't laugh.
Paul took the stew cauldron off the fire; it looked like they had a lot to talk about.
It took Ellen several tries to get it all out. Paul was patient. They spoke through lunch and dinner. Spoke until the sun set then shared a silent cuddle by the river bank. Paul laying on the soft earth; Ellen laying on Paul. He couldn't tell if the warm wet on his chest was their sweat, her tears, or a mix of both.
They hadn't planned on falling asleep there, but they did.
Ellen woke on his beating heart, rocked to the steady tides of his breath, comforted by the furnace heat of his skin.
By the time he'd woken she was standing on his neck, forearms deep in his salt and pepper beard, palms flat against his hidden chin.
“Your beard's a mess.”
“Not from where I'm standing.” Paul smiled down his nose at her.
“You're not standing.”
Ellen pulled off her Blue Jays cap and perched it atop a straggle of beard, tying a few loose strands
through the closure in back.
“You love it and you know it.” Ellen watched the hat bounce as Paul spoke. “Who else would put
up with someone raised in a barn?”
“Like I'd ever fit inside a barn. Those things are tiny.”
“I suppose you think that's clever?”
“I'm sharp as a tack.”
“Sit on me and find out.”
“Keep it clean, Jolly Green. You're talking to a married lady.”
“I don't see any husband.”
“He's around here somewhere.” Ellen massaged her fingers deep into his beard scalp.
“Where'd you meet this alleged husband?”
“Only losers meet online.”
“I'm standing right here, fuck you very much.”
“Language, madam. Language.”
“I was provoked. Or does calling someone a loser a compliment in raised-in-a-barn land?”
“Clearly you're the exception that proves the rule. And one fine lady.”
“It's getting pretty deep in here.” Ellen dug her nails into his skin.
“That feels amazing. Whatever it is keep it up.”
“Well I think my hubby's quite the catch.”
“Is he tall?”
“You wouldn't believe.”
“What about dark?”
“He's closer to the sun than most people. So he's pretty tan.”
“If he trimmed the damn beard.” Ellen dove her head under the hair and kissed his chin.
“Sounds like a real ogre.”
“Aren't ogres supposed to eat people?”
“Good, cause I sure could go with a little fee fi fo cum right about now.”
“Madame, what would your husband say?”
“If he knows what's good for him he'll say yes.”
“What's the magic word?”
“'Eat me, big boy.'”
“And they say romance is dead.”
They didn't talk about it much. The tests had been checked and triple checked; there was no room
for misinterpretation. The doctors couldn't say when, only that Paul's last Thanksgiving was behind
As the weeks passed the trees became harder to uproot. Paul came up with excuses why he was
carrying fewer home each trip. Why he struggled more with the ones he'd managed to harvest. In early October he stopped hunting altogether. Ellen was happy with cold suppers so long as she had a warm husband.
Paul took longer getting up. Slept more. Got tired faster. Their trips up Mt Sachem took longer. Drained him worse. Paul got so pale the last time she thought she was going to lose him there. The next day she came up with an excuse not to go. One that saved his pride.
“You're wearing your good suit.” Ellen said. It was almost Halloween.
“Pinstripes make me look tall.” Paul forced a smile.
“It's just … you only wear that for our anniversary.” Ellen didn't like the way the jacket hung so
loose on his chest. It fit perfect in July.
“Do I need an excuse to dress up for my best girl?”
“Why don't you grab your pruning shears and head up to the roof. Maybe you can do something
with this squirrel's nest.” Paul scratched his beard. “I'll even let you clean up the eyebrows.”
“You want to look nice?”
“I know I'm not giving ya much to work with, but … yeah.”
Ellen knew what he was asking; she wasn't ready for it to be so soon.
Paul had been waiting a long while by the time she made it to the roof. She tried hiding her red
eyes and raw nose.
“I don't think I like that guy you met on the net.” Paul told her.
“Why?” She couldn't look at him.
“He made the woman I love cry. I'll never forgive him for that.”
Paul put a fingertip under her chin then lifted her face up until he could see her quivering mouth
and the hot wet pools of her eyes
“I don't want you to go.” Tears flowed down her cheeks salting the words in her mouth.
“They fucked up.”
“No they didn't. It hurts. Like bones poking through my blood.”
“You can't …” She couldn't say the word while facing him. “You're too strong.”
“Strong as an ox?”
“Even an ox dies.”
“I want to be by the river. When it happens. Stay in the house. I'll call when I'm there.”
It had been two days since Paul dressed up. He'd spent both nights sleeping in his good suit, scared
he'd be too weak to put it back once he'd taken it off. He knew Ellen couldn't dress him. An army
couldn't dress him. He didn't want to pile guilt on her grief.
Ellen did her best feeding him, but there was a reason he'd done all the cooking. She could fill her
stove with food, but an hour's work was less than a bite to him.
Ellen wore a footpath on his collar bringing him those bites.
Paul stopped eating after the first night.
Ellen sat in the rocker by the unlit fireplace. The walls could keep the winter cold out, but they
couldn't insulate her from the sound of Paul struggling on the other side. The porch roof creaked as he
rested his hand there for balance.
She bolted for the window when she heard the crash, terrified it was over; relieved he was on all
fours. His chest strained so much, but at least his pain meant he was still with her.
If she were stronger she'd have gone back to the chair and waited for Paul's call. If weaker she'd
open the door. She stayed where she was and watched as Paul's breathing calmed. He wasn't able to
walk to the river. Ellen watched him crawl.
She wanted to pick him up and carry him the rest of the way. It broke her insides she couldn't.
It was dark by the time Paul made it to the river.
Ellen waited till he was out of sight of the house before following. Waited till he called before
walking out of the night. He didn't need to know she'd seen him struggle like that. His strength was
gone, but he still had his pride. Ellen wasn't going to take that from him.
This is the last time I'm going to do this. Ellen climbed his cuff and made the trek to his face.
“It's wasn't dark when I started.” Paul's breath was weak; Ellen barely felt his chest move. “Are the
“They are.” Ellen climbed his beard, lay on his cheek, and looked into his eye.
“Is it pretty?”
“Pretty as you?”
“Not half as good looking as that guy I met online.”
“I don't like that guy.”
“Stop being a dick.” Ellen cried gently onto his cheek.
Ellen couldn't feel his breath under her anymore.
“Don't be dead. Please don't be dead.” Ellen crawled to his mouth and pressed her tiny lips against
his. “Don't let the last thing you heard was me calling you that.”
“I dozed off again.” Paul barely opened his mouth. “It's getting harder. I think … I don't think I'm
gonna wake up again. I need to tell you something. Something important.”
“I had this speech. … It was pretty and sweet. Like you. …. Wish I could remember it. … I'm
gonna miss you so much. I love you.” Paul whispered the last three words.
“Don't go. Please don't go.”
Paul didn't say anything else.
“Paul? … Honey?”
Ellen's tears fell into his open mouth as she kissed him one last time. She numbly crawled through
the grey hairs to his chest. Burrowed under his tie and shirt. Lay on his fading warmth, over his heart.
Rode its final echoes.
Paul didn't wake up again, but she spoke to him. Told him how much she loved him. She didn't
know if he could hear her, but if he could she wanted him to know she was still there; that he wasn't
Ellen spoke to him until his heart went still; his furnace grew cold. Then lay there speaking to
herself until the sun rose.
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