For Donna on her birthday, November 12, 1996.
Everything was just the same. The two of us by the campfire. The night, the stars, the firelight. But nothing was the same. I hadn’t had time for my own grief, and already she was back, grieving the loss of her husband. I knew what she expected of me. She expected me to comfort her. Who would comfort me?
I had believed she loved me. I was willing to give her time, all the time she needed. If I had pushed her, as he did, she would have been mine long ago, and he would have been too late. I couldn’t do it. I was afraid that some day she would accuse me of taking advantage of her innocence. Would she some day have accused him of taking her away from me?
On their wedding night, I was busy. I was at Callisto’s camp trying to protect them both. They were in each other’s arms. In any case, I would not have slept that night. I would have thought of nothing but what I had lost and what he had won so easily.
I had thought I would be glad to have her back. I was wrong. It hurt too much. She grieved openly. I could not. As far as she knew, I had no cause for grief. But I grieved in secret the loss of the love I had hoped for.
And I had watched a woman die that day. Did she think me so cold-hearted that I wouldn’t feel it? I had watched a woman die who would have killed everything I loved while I watched. We looked into each other’s eyes. She saw the truth in mine. She died the victor. She knew that I had lost everything I loved already.
I thought that I might take her home to Poteidaia, that it might be the best thing for both of us. She needed to heal. I needed to reclaim my heart.
We went to bed early that night. I hadn’t slept the night before and she was worn out with grief. But I woke before midnight and couldn’t sleep again. My dreams pursued me. The woman who was dead and the woman who lay next to me confused themselves in my dreams until I didn’t know which one to hate, which one to love. I rose and left her.
I went into the town to get a drink, to chase away the demons, to kill my memory. A woman caught my eye. It had been a long time since I had seen that look. I hadn’t been looking for it. While I had the one I wanted with me, I had no eyes for anyone else. But it was different now. She had released me from a promise she had never asked me for. I had been faithful to her because I wanted to be. Even though she was not yet my lover, I was hers. No more.
This woman was not young and I was glad of it. That night I wanted experienced hands. I wanted a woman who wanted me, a woman who understood what women can give and take from one another. She went with me willingly. I hadn’t felt a woman’s touch since my warlord days. She was good to me. She was a gift.
Afterwards I slept. I didn’t wake till late and when I got back to our campsite, Gabrielle was furious with me. It was a silent fury, but I felt it in the air. Her eyes accused me. Of what? What had I done wrong? I had left her. I had done nothing that she had not done herself. She left me first.
I’m going to take you home, I said. She was silent. We can be there in a few days, I said. She didn’t want to go. I asked her what she wanted. She didn’t know. There are things I need to do, I said. What things? Just things, I said. And you need time for yourself now too.
I hardened my heart. Her pain was always more than I could bear. This time I couldn’t add her pain to mine. It would have been too much. Before today, I would have done anything to stop her pain. Who would stop my pain?
She asked for one more day before we started. I gave in. We could get an early start next morning. And we had preparations to make. I gave her things to do that didn’t matter, just to keep her busy. She did what I asked of her.
I went back into town to buy food for our journey. For our supper I bought a chicken. She never complained of game, but I thought good food might comfort her. I should have known she wouldn’t eat it. Nothing I could do for her was good enough. I ate most of it myself. I didn’t like to waste it. But I put some aside for her for later, if she wanted it.
She had always talked with me in the evenings. After supper, we would watch the stars come out and rest and talk beside our fire until it was time to sleep. That night she was silent. She wouldn’t even share her grief with me. She wouldn’t turn to me for comfort. She was angry.
I know how grief can turn to anger. She should have turned her anger on the fool she married. He thought that he could put away his sword and live. If not for me, that night he would have been a widower.
She turned her anger on me instead. That was a mistake. I only touched her shoulder, to let her know I was there, to let her know I cared. She shrugged my hand away. Not good enough. Never good enough for her. I got up. I’m going into town, I said. Get some sleep.
You’re going to town to find your whore, she said. She turned angry eyes on me. I could smell her on you all day, she said.
I met her anger with anger of my own. I met her eyes. I saw her fear begin. Silence fell between us. She had never feared me. But she was right to fear me then. She was not the one I loved. She had thrown that girl away.
At least I didn’t call it love, I said. She understood me. What a look she gave me. If I had loved her then, it would have broken me. But she was not my love. I turned to go.
I thought you were my friend, she said. I thought you were mine. You can hardly wait to get rid of me, she said. It was true. You were glad to be rid of me, she said. You were glad he took me off your hands.
Had she been blind and deaf? I turned to face her. That’s unfair, I said. It was your choice. Her eyes challenged me. At least he gave me what I wanted. And then I saw it. I saw them both together as if I had been there. I saw him embrace her. I saw him take her. I saw her face in love. I heard her say his name. I heard her cries. I saw her body arch against him when pleasure overtook her. What I would have waited years for he took in just one day.
Tell me what you wanted, I said. She didn’t answer. I approached her. She didn’t move. Tell me what you wanted. I stood before her. She wouldn’t look at me but she didn’t back away. She should have run. Tell me what you wanted. I took her face in my hand. I made her look at me. Is this what you wanted? I kissed her mouth. I surprised her. She tried to pull back but I already had my arm around her body and I held her fast. She struggled but she couldn’t break away.
So she stood still. I kissed her hard. I took her lip between my teeth and tasted blood. She cried out. It’s strange how pain can sound like love. I made myself believe it, just for a moment. But when my grip on her loosened she broke free. I caught her wrist before she got away from me. She tried to break my hold. Like an animal in a snare her eyes were wild. Her fear made her easy prey. She was mine now. Whatever I wanted I could do.
I pinned her arm behind her back. She couldn’t move. You’re hurting me, she said. I didn’t care. She had been hurting me all day. With my free hand I removed her clothes. Is this what you wanted? I took her breast in my hand. Please don’t, she said. I brushed my thumb over the nipple until it stood erect. She closed her eyes and turned her face away from me. With one sweep of my leg I took her legs out from under her. She fell hard. She knew better than to move this time.
It was dark now, but I could see her body clearly in the moonlight. I held her with my eyes. I took my clothes off. Is this what you wanted? I knelt beside her. Why are you doing this, she said. I didn’t know. I knew that for a long time I had been powerless with her. My love for her was powerless. I couldn’t make her love me. I couldn’t make her want to give herself to me. The love that was so strong in me had no power to move her at all. Whoever said that love is the most powerful force in the world was wrong. I had loved her so much for so long and for nothing.
Love is not power. Strength is power, and strength I had. Strength of body and strength of mind and will. I was not beset by doubts. I was neither right nor wrong. I was power and I would find the power to take back my heart from her.
With the weight of my body I pushed her to the ground. I held her wrists. I felt my breasts fall against hers. I felt the softness of her skin on mine. The soft curls between her legs brushed against my thigh. She didn’t resist me. How could she? She was no match for me. She could deny me her love. But her body she could not deny me.
I bent to kiss her. She turned her face away. I took the lobe of her ear between my teeth. She waited for the pain. I let her go. I played with her. I kissed her throat. I teased her with my tongue and with my teeth. Whatever she expected I did the opposite. I kissed her breasts. I took her nipples in my mouth. I know how to please a woman. I know how to kiss a woman’s breast. I felt her respond to me. I felt her move under me, and I knew what I had made her feel.
If she thought one night had taught her about love, she would soon discover her mistake. Is this what she wanted? Had she mistaken this for love? Anyone could give her this. Even I could give her this. What did he make her feel? Did he take his time with her? Did he hurt her? Did he satisfy her? Did he care?
She tried to make her body lie to me. She tried to struggle to disguise the way I made her body move. But she gave herself away. Her heartbeat hammered in her throat. Her breath was quick and shallow. It was not fear. Her body moved against her will. Her hips lifted as she pressed herself against my thigh. I stopped. I felt her wait.
Tell me what you want, I said. She couldn’t. She knew that she should want me to leave her alone. But that wasn’t what she wanted now. Now she wanted me. At last she wanted me. She would want me until her desire was satisfied. Until then, she was mine.
This time when I kissed her she didn’t turn away. She kissed me back. I caught myself just in time. My heart was almost in her hands. She’d almost won the game with just one kiss. I took the love I wanted from her mouth. I tasted her. I memorized the feel of her, the warmth, the softness of her lips, her tongue. I felt the way she moved, the way she reached for me. But my heart I kept away from her.
I let her hands go. She put her arms around me. I settled next to her. Her head I pillowed on my arm. I pulled her close against me. I kissed her mouth, her throat, her breasts. My hand caressed her. What I had dreamed of in the evenings by our campfire, now I could do. Just this once. It would only be this once. After this, she would be gone.
The moonlight showed me the beauty of her body. I had seen her naked body before but not like this. Every touch she answered. Her body spoke to me. Touch me here. Kiss me. More. Until then I had not felt desire.
I slid my hand down over the swell of her hip, then brought my fingertips up the inside of her thigh. She opened herself to me. When I touched her I could tell that she was sore. I touched her slowly, gently, until desire overwhelmed the pain. She was warm and smooth as silk. She welcomed me. She moved with me. Until then I had not felt love. To feel her body open to me opened both my body and my heart to her. I didn’t care. I loved her. I was lost in love.
Her body rose against me. I felt her tremble. With one soft cry she gave herself to me. I couldn’t make myself remember that last night she had done the same with him. I let her body tell me what to do, what kind of touch she needed, how long to stay with her, when to stop. I gathered her into my arms. I rocked her in my arms as if she were a child. I told her that I loved her. That was what I wanted, she said.
© Copyright 1996 Catherine M. Wilson