Title: What love is
Word Count 1924
Disclaimer Not mine
What Love is
Note: This is a Bush Fiction. It pretty much stands alone. It is set at about the same time that we first meet Horatio.
“Here is good.”
The cart lurched to a stop. The oxen stood, stolid, brown backs slicked with rain. Will shouldered his bag.It was soaked too, and the canvas rasped.
“Thank you, Sir, for the lift. I'd have had a long wet walk without you.”
The old man smiled. “Aye. And instead you had a ride in the rain. I was glad of your company. Always glad to help a King's man.”
Will Bush smiled in return. He slid to the ground, and felt the water soak into his shoes. He straightened his Midshipman's jacket, and turned for his gate.
Ellen met him on the step, the door was open for him, and the familiar smell of home smoke came out all around.
“Oh, Will, you're here.” She pressed against him, kissed his wet cheek. She drew back to look at him, her gray eyes so like his own.
“Am I too late?” he could tell nothing from her eyes, her mouth.
Ellen sighed. “No, she's lingering. But you should be ready. She sleeps now, most of the time. The doctor came this morning. He says it won't be long now.”
Will let her draw him to the hearth. He set his bag down, against the wall. He shrugged out of his jacket. She took it from him, hung it over the chair back to dry. She stroked the blue wool. Her hands were chapped.
“You look so fine.” She said. “You've got so tall. Sit down, I'll make you a plate. There is time for that, at least.”
So, he sat, in the old chair by the fire. Ellen, rummaging in the pantry, spoke over her shoulder to him. It might be ten years ago, Will realized. He felt no older than he had at seven. Except: Except that his sister had her hair up now, she was a woman, 20 years old. And he was a man, 17 years old in his blue jacket. He was a Kings man. Mr Midshipman Bush. His mother was dying, and his sisters were counting on him.
“Where are the others?”
“Sally is in with her now. Patsy has gone for eggs. We send her out when we can. It's hard for her Will.”
Ellen set the plate before him. “There, get that inside you.”
She sat down in the chair beside him, reached for her darning. She smiled at him. It was the same smile he had seen his whole life. It lifted her eyes, and set tiny wrinkles across her freckled nose. It was a smile that drew the gaze, a smile that others sought to bring forth. It was very like Will's own smile, but William Bush did not know this.
He ate quickly, out of habit, now, as much as hunger. Ellen watched in silence. Her needles clacked. After some time, she stood. She touched his shoulder, and turned for the closed door. “Ill get Sally,” She said. “She'll be so pleased.”
He mopped the last of the gravy up. The soft tack was a delight to his mouth. He had a china plate, here, chipped and crazed with age, but all his own, and a pat of butter, and a cup of cool mild milk just for him. He couldn't get it all down fast enough.
Sally had a light quick step. Her arms were around him before he could stand. Her embrace was tight. She was taller now, Will realized. She tucked right up under his chin.
“Will. You came.”
Her eyes were swimming. He felt his own eyes sting and fill in response. He shook his head hard, blinking.
“Course I did.” He said.
Sally took a deep breath. Right to the point, that was his Sally. She knew what he wanted to hear.
“She's awake now. Its a good time to go in. She's not in any pain, but she wanders in her mind. Don't be-- don't be hurt if she doesn't know you.”
And then there was no putting it off. He had the strangest feeling, walking across and opening the door. He could feel the prickle of sweat under his arms, fear. He forced himself forward. He was a man grown. This was only his mother.
He had never seen death up close. Men had died on the Splendid, but he had not known them well, not looked them in the face. They had been sewn in canvas, and given to the sea. He wondered what they would do with mother. Sally must have it planned. She would know what to do. Will wondered if they would do it before he had to leave.
He did not know what ugliness he had expected. But there was none here, really. She was small against the pillows, her eyes were open but dull. They moved to him with a slow reptilian flick, moved away again. The little room was close.
“Hello, Mother.” He said. “Its Will. I've come home to see you.”
“H'lo.” She said uncertainly. He reached for her hand, her skin was silky and thin, the bones palpable. So cold. Her hand was cold, her wrist, her lower arm. He wondered how high the cold went.
He sat in the small chair at the bedside. The cane seat creaked under him. Her eyes wandered his way again.
“Johnnie, that you?” her voice was cracked as the china plate. She moistened her lips. Her tongue was white.
“No, mamma. Its me, Will.” But his voice was uncertain. His uncle John had died before he was born.
“Will.” She repeated it, but he thought the sound meant nothing to her.
“I'll read to you mother.” he said. There was a Bible on the bedside table. It fell open somewhere in the middle. The page was marked with a flattened daisy. That would be Patsy. She was always leaving flowers in books. He began reading there, letting the words slide over him, not soak in. His mother's hands opened somewhat. They looked like yellow chicken claws. Her eyes shut. She slept.
He stole from the room, leaving the book and the flower where he had found it. He had to duck his head now, for the door-frame.
Little Patsy was not quiet. She came at him like a small goat, butting into his embrace, dancing from foot to foot.
“Will! You came home! I waited up last night, but they made me go to bed.” She turned accusing eyes at her sisters. “I've been waiting all day. I have so much to ask you. I want to hear all about Splendid. Is she very beautiful? Do you go very fast? I want to know everything. Your letters are not long enough. I sent you one. Did you get it?”
He caught her hands. They were dirty. Her little face was peeling with sunburn., and her culprit bonnet hanging down her back. Its strings had gotten involved with her braids. He disentangled them, smiling down at her. Love was this, it was his sisters laughing.
She was still speaking a flood-tide of little girl words.
“Explain to me about knots again, and throwing the log. I told Mary Cooper how you did it, and she didn't believe me, and I think I got some of it wrong. And I had my birthday. Did you remember?”
She took a breath, and he jumped in.
“Of course, I remembered your birthday, minx. What are you now? 35?”
“William!” She laughed up at him in delight. “I'm 10!”
“I know you are.” He said. “I could never forget it. I have something for you in my bag. Something I made for your dolly house.”
Of course, once he said that, she had to see it right away. And he had to drag out all his dunnage, to find it, and Ellen was horrified by his dirty clothes.
“I'll wash tomorrow.” She said, bearing his clothes away.
“Here Pats.” William said. “I made this for you. Its whalebone.” He had worked it, the best he could, in the dim light of the berthing space. He had imagined putting it into her hands, just this way. “Its a dolly table.”
Her eyes shone. She lifted it to her cheek. “From a real whale?” She squeaked.
“Yes, I traded a with a Yankee whaleship for the bone. And I told him all about my little sister, in England who was going to be 10.”
He went off to see the doll-house. The dolls were all different sizes, some of rags some of wood, two beloved tiny ones had china heads. There were more dried flowers scattered here, and petticoats, and ribbons. He realized, crouching beside her, that she was wearing a dress that had been Ellen's when he left home. The cuffs had been refaced, and Will could see the faint line where the hem had been let down. The dress would do for Patsy, when she outgrew it, it would become a dust rag. It would end life as a blood rag, in the slop bucket that Will was not supposed to know about.
Patsy placed the table with care. They agreed that it looked fine.
“Mamma is dying Will.”
She pulled her knees up, hugged them to her chest. Soon enough she would be unable to sit that way, Will thought. He could see all underneath. Not today, though. Today she was a little girl.
“Do you think it hurts her?” Patsy's eyes were troubled.
“No. It doesn't seem to.”
“That's what I think too.”
They sat in silence for some time. He could hear the rain on the roof.
After some time, they went down for supper. He ate hungrily, all over again. The plates were cleared, and . the little room grew dim. Ellen lit two precious candles. They gave him the chair close by the fire. He stretched his legs out, and told them stories of the Splendid. There was much, of course, that he did not tell. He did not tell them of his troubles with navigation. He did not tell of the hard horse third lieutenant. He did not let them guess at the stripes on his backside, which burned as they healed, and which he could still feel as he moved in the chair. His sisters looked at him with trust, and wonder. This was what love was.
They retired early. They'd be up early too, he knew, not to waste the light. Ellen slept in mother's room now, the other two shared a room. He slept alone in lonely splendor, in the narrow bed that had always been his own. Tucked under the eaves, the sound of the rain was loud. He rolled in his bed, listening to it. If mother died in the night, they would fetch him. Someone would know what to do.
He pictured his messmates. Carroll and Morris, had boasted of the fun they would have, the money they would spend, the women... Will Bush had no money to spare. He would probably die a virgin, he thought, as he, unlike his friends, had no money to relieve the condition.
He rolled over again, drew the blanket close. Tomorrow he and Ellen would go over accounts. In time, he slept.