Title: The Kindness of Strangers
Word Count 1700
The Kindness Of Strangers
The squared sections of sunlight poured from the window, thick and real as honey.
They had reached Horatio's bare toes now, and he flexed his feet slowly, in mute enjoyment. There were tiny dust motes, rising from the bedding, swirling in the golden heat. The forward end of the bed was still in shadow. The light had not yet troubled Archie's face. Archie's arm lay against the sheets, underside up, it was pale as cream, lined with blue, lax with sleep. Horatio was close enough to see the estuarine channels of the wrist, secret beneath the skin. If he put his tongue out he could taste just where the skin thickened, and they spread-- the delta of that beloved hand.
He had moved his lips across here last night, over and over and over. He had charted all of Archie, in salt and throbs of breath. Dawn had been wan against the window by the time they had slept
Tonight they would return to the ship. These days, like others, would be folded safe. They would be tucked away into memory. Memory would be a thing to hold on the days and nights ahead when he and Archie stood silent and wool wrapped, and each alone.
But not today. Today, right now, Archie was stretching, waking. His eyes opened and sought Horatio. They always did. Archie smiled.
“Hullo. What are you doing?”
“Hmm-- sounds thrilling.” Archie wrinkled his small straight nose. It did not move very far. Really it was a foolish little nose. Horatio leaned over to kiss it. Archie reached up to hold him close. Horatio progressed to the spot between the eyebrows, and forward of the ear, where Archie smelled like sleep and the memory of sleep.
Archie's hand entangled in his hair, and it was seeming like--
“I admire your stamina, Horatio, but I think we should have some breakfast.”
And now that Archie had said it, Horatio could feel it too. He was gurgling with emptiness.
“Coffee.” Archie's voice was inexorable.
“Aye, well, I suppose we could-- “
Archie had vaulted out of bed, and was pulling on his trousers.
“Oh, all right.”
“Wzzzmt pie shop?” Archie spoke around his toothbrush. He spat vigorously into the chamber pot.
“They might not have any.”
“Horatio, I know you think it is your duty to be a sour-face before noon, but I know they do.” Archie gave a gleam toothed smile. “I asked yesterday.”
Horatio sat down to pull on his stockings.
“Son of a ---”
“Look-- I put my toes right through it.”
“Do you think that your feet are still growing?” They peered at the feet together.
“I don't know—” Horatio said. “Shouldn't they have stopped?”
He held up the offending stocking, and gave it a frown as well.
“Here, I brought extra.” Archie said. “Oh, give me that. I'll darn it when I do mine next time.”
Then the sound of the shaving foam, and the silver razor. Horatio could have brought his own, but Archie's held an edge better and longer. And sometimes Archie would--
And this time, Archie did. The soft scrape, scrape, floop, came to a stop. Archie was pink. He was glowing, he would be slightly damp, and smell of shaving powder, if Horatio kissed him now. If Horatio put his own mouth to the angle just there, and inhaled slowly and---
“Shall I get you too?” Archie waved the glittering razor.
Horatio bared his throat.
He let his eyes shut. Scrape, scrape, floop. Archie's hand, turning him silently by the chin. Alone in space those two touches. He might be just a head, his body seemed far away... He could sense Archie's body, nearby, the solid heat of it, the way it smelled in the morning, of sleep..But he himself might be planet Horatio, just a head revolving in space...
“Hey.” Hand on his shoulder. “Did you fall asleep there, Honeybee?”
“Oh, ha'hm... asleep, maybe?”
Horatio struggled not to yawn. “It was very-- soothing.”
“Well, I'm done.” Archie smiled. “Coffee,” he said.
So out then, through the front room, and into the gleaming morning street. It had rained in the night, Horatio realized. And there must have been wind too, the street was covered in leaves. But last night he had not needed to think of wind and rain. He had heard nothing of it.
The pie shop was hot and close, it smelled of food. The coffee burned darkly all the way down, he could feel his insides shiver.
“Bettter?” Archie set his cup down.
The lamb pies were hissing hot, even bundled in paper they burned.
Horatio could hear the water, at the end of the street. It kissed the land there, lapping, suckling, unhurried in wordless worship. He felt his cheeks flame. Archie, wincing, eating pie, did not notice.
They walked slowly, toward the water, eating. They came at length to an abandoned dock. It was grey with age. It was furred with barnacles, and streaked with the shit of gulls. It sagged. They settled carefully. Horatio felt the wood warming his bottom. The breeze off the water was kindly on his face. Down below their dangling feet Horatio could see the movement of innocent sprats.
The sounds of the city were muted here. It was equal in distance from the land and the street, and the clean symmetry of the Indy.
He was licking the grease from his hands now.. He was thinking of going back to the inn. They had thought maybe a bookshop, but Archie was cleaning his own hands, and his pink tongue was flashing, Maybe a bookshop next time.
The sound came quickly. Small feet, running-- a child. He was perhaps three. His frock had been pink, but he had wet the front. His feet were bare and not clean. His face was glazed with dried tears and snot. He ran toward the dock looking down, down at the water. He slid to a stop at the sight of two strangers. His mouth turned down into a shaking bow, one of his grubby hands came up to twist his hair. He wailed in horror.
Archie was up first. He moved slowly, and crouched as soon as he was near.
“You don't want to go there-- No you do not, that water is nasty. “ Archie's voice was very soft and kind. He was between the child and the water now.
“Ou est Maman?” The small voice was indistinct. He had a thumb in there now.
Archie switched to French. His voice was light and kind and slow. And Horatio felt his mouth go dry. The hair on his neck stood up.
Archie had learned French as a child, Horatio knew. He had learned it in the schoolrooms of the great homes of his childhood. He had recited it, beside his brothers and sisters. He had worked on his accent. It had been polite, perfect, drained of life, on a slate, on a page.
But this was not that French. It never could be again. Because Archie had learned the language twice, of course. The second time it had stuck and clung. It had been bloody, brutal, obscene. Archie had lost everything then, lost his English, lost himself. He had lost all speech for a time. And he never spoke French in daylight. Still it surfaced, in splinters, from the abscess of the years. He spoke French in his dreams. He did not know. Horatio had never said.
“We will get you to your Maman.”
Yes, Archie's French was perfect.
“You are too little to be all on your own. Its all right... Look, a bag of pie. Do you like pie? Here you are-- a whole pie...”
And now, in the distance Horatio could see the woman. She was searching the water's edge. Her head was down, she plodded toward them.. She had lost her bonnet. Her head was uncovered. Her face was drawn, she was still looking, but without hope.
Archie stood up.
“Madam!” He waved. “Ici!”
She tried to run, but now they could see the projecting belly that slowed her. The rest of her was gaunt. They stood and waited for her. They watched her crouch and enfold the child. Her breath was short and harsh.
She said nothing, merely drew the boy as close as close could be. Her head against his neck, she breathed him. Her body was heaving. Her eyes were shut. There would be time later for her reprimands and questions.
“Come Horatio.” Archie said, very quietly. They crept away. She did not look up. Horatio left the remaining pie where she would find it.
They were in the room again before Archie spoke.
“I thought-- I thought I didn't want the taste of it in my mouth.”
“Some people-- but I-- I don't hate them all, you know?” Archie's voice sounded thin and young.
“I know. I know you don't. Come here.” And Archie did.
And they were as close as close could be-- close as skin, close as breath. They were as close as any love would allow. And it was some time later when Archie asked “I wonder if they found the pies?”
When my daughter was two she nearly succeeded in throwing herself into the ice clogged Schuylkill river. I did not have the excuse of pregnancy. I was not wearing a dress. She just got away from me, and ran with that scary speed that little kids have when they are running into terrible danger.
Her life was saved by two men in suit jackets. They restrained her until I got there. By the time I looked up they were gone. I never had a chance to thank them. They were, and will always be, strangers.
We do, all of us-- depend on the kindness of strangers.