John swung his axe again, a neat chip of wood cleaving from the block. He worked easily, with a practiced rhythm gained from many winters of work. The kindling he produced now would be useful come morning for stoking the glowing embers of their fire back into life for the day ahead.
Finishing the current log he moved onto some bigger pieces, embedding the axe first into top of the block and then flipping the whole piece over, using the weight of the wood to split itself in half on the blade as he brought it down on the base block. From the doorway to their hut, Jessica watched her husband labour away. Despite the coming winter, he worked without his shirt and she enjoyed seeing the muscles in his back flex and move. He’d been at it for almost an hour now and the sweat was thick on his skin.
Not that he was anything exceptional. The gym junkies she knew from a past life had more definition built from the luxury of spare time spent in endless reps. But he was strong, all the more so from the effort she put into maintaining their health. In a world of poverty, she had the means and knowledge to ensure their diet and health needs were provided for. The whole village benefited from her expertise. She was now the unofficial village healer but it had been a close thing. In the early days, the miraculous cures that she was able to work in the villagers brought accusations of her being a witch.
She had fallen into the role quite naturally, her training as a nurse far surpassing anything available in the village. And so, when she had found out about the minor ailments that became so destructive to her new neighbours, she’d simply applied what she knew. Of course she couldn’t cure everything, but what she could do was nothing short of a miracle to them. Despite the fledgling status of their relationship at the time, John had been her main protector during the months that controversy had raged over skills. It was he who had come up with the idea that stilled the tongues that were calling for her to be tried for witchcraft.
It was so simple really, turn the accusers into witnesses. She had refused to provide any treatment unless one of her detractors was present to observe. At first none would take part and, as villagers started to once again succumb to illnesses that she’d previously treated, desperate family had petitioned the leaders of the opposition to take part. With the building pressure it had only been a matter of time until one cracked and she took full advantage of the reprieve.
Instead of treating the patient herself, she had informed her inquisitor that he would be doing the healing. His impeccable judgement would surely prevent him from doing anything that was in the least occult, unless he was unsure of himself? Unable to defend himself against the argument, he had tentatively followed her instructions, the extended pauses as he scrutinised each step quickly turning from comical to tedious as the treatment dragged on. But finally it was finished and they had left the patient with a much greater chance of survival.
The memory brought a smile to her face. John’s protection during those days had been critical to her acceptance within the community.
The baby kicked within her womb and she rubbed her hand over her swollen belly as if it would quieten her unborn child. On her petite frame, the change in her figure was more pronounced than any of the other women she’d grown to know in the village. Coming from a world that idolised skinny, she was now distinctly different from the ladies around her. Most of the men would look straight past her, preferring instead a much broader build. “Good birthing hips, that’s what you want”, but not her John. He loved her for other qualities, and it made it so much easier to love him in return.
A frown creased her forehead. She did love him she reflected. Truly she did. Despite the meagre life they lived. Despite the adjustments she’d had to make. Despite the vast gulf in their backgrounds, she loved him. And it only made it so much harder to deliver the news that she knew she had to.
A gust of wind brought a chill breeze down from the mountains where already a fall of snow had occurred. She turned and went back inside letting the flap of leather fall back across the doorway. He would be finished soon.
John split his final log and tidied up the pile. He gathered an armful of wood for the evening and pushed his way in through the doorway. Noticing Jessica brooding in the corner he asked, “What’s wrong?”.
She remained silent and he began to stoke the fire. “It’s going to be cool night with that wind”, he said. “I’m going to get more wood to keep us going”.
As he entered the hut a second time he said, “Come on, what is it?”
“I have to leave”, she replied.
John paused briefly and then resumed stacking the new load of wood into the pile beside the fireplace. “Don’t be daft”, he said, “you’ll be having the baby soon”. He continued stacking until finished and having received no response, looked over to where his wife sat.
She started directly at him, the fear obvious in her face. “I know”, she said, “that’s why I have to leave”.
(To be continued…)