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Jonathan Apples (continued)

I  married Cecily at the end of winter, fat and goodly right through the frost from the proceeds of a blessed harvest. The wedding purse was also generous, especially in the terms of Butler County. I wonder now, and may have wondered even then, whether those relatives who gave so freely had not meant to remind Cecily of what she would give up to be a farmer’s wife.  Hers was an eccentric clan, in the way only people of means or wild beasts of the field are free to be. Nonetheless, a respectable band of relatives from each side gathered to make merry over us, and parted in harmony. At the dinner, Cecily's three sisters made a gracious recital of their curious music, which all enjoyed save a maiden aunt of mine who found it disturbing and excused herself to take fresh air. Dorcas, Eurydice and Hecuba came in turn to lay more hands and incantations on Cecily before departing for home. They offered me only the barest pleasantries, and I was well content to have it so.

Despite the dark murmurings of my breast, our marriage began in joy, and I did right by my sweet Cecily. She had plenty to eat and plenty to cook, dry firewood when it was wanted, and the freedom to keep what society she wished when no task bound us together in the various offices of man and wife. In the spirit of goodwill and magnanimity, refusing to take their generosity amiss, I spent at least a tithe of her family's bounty on presents for my new bride. From a chance piece of business with a butcher in Oxly, I acquired a gentle bay nag with enough vitality to carry Cecily about the farm. In mid-spring I planted her a little orchard of Jonathan apples. The four spindly trees took to my soil with fierce hardiness, yielding fruit of surpassing sweetness through many hard seasons that would follow.

Cecily did not adopt the role of farmer's wife with the usual romantic condescension of the privileged. She took to modest living with the same pleasure that a poor cousin of mine might show toward sudden showers of wealth. She had a few friends, mostly neighbors’ wives, but generally preferred either my company or the cow’s. Both it and I were docile in her presence, demanding nothing but the most basic and predictable daily attentions.

As to the value of children, she and I were in basic agreement if not heartfelt accord. Cecily, I believe, nurtured the wish for a smiling tumbling brood at her bosom in the very name of love. I was interested in healthy offspring as the fulfillment of an ideal, from a sense of duty to my heritage. With the same end in mind, our differing attitudes did not seem so dire in a marriage newly begun.

I confess that a question of money, not of blood, began the true poisoning of my soul. My farm, perhaps engorged by joyful anticipation of its new mistress, had overtaxed itself with the generous yield of the previous harvest. An exceedingly lean year followed our marriage, beginning with a drought that spanned the most crucial planting weeks. My corn and sorghum came in as sparse as I had ever seen, and my hogs declined accordingly.

Cecily bore our diminished livelihood with grace, never making me feel that my success as a provider depended on uninterrupted good fortune. She pointed out that the remainder of last year’s prosperity would be plenty to sustain us, despite my doubts. She did everything to cheer me, and when I would not be cheered she vowed to subsist in poverty as long as the downturn required.

Her love and faith ought to have restored me, but our differences in attitude formed a barrier between our hearts which only I perceived. I had not known sore want many times in my life, but there had been years of hail and flood on the farm. During the lowest times I had seen my father walk the brink of despair. Poverty and strife in moderation may strengthen, but in extremes they embitter. The hateful curse which my family had escaped for generations, the blight of ambition, had formed in me. I had no wish to abandon my land for wealth and idleness, but as I surveyed my domain my mind began to covet a thousand little comforts and refurbishments. I resolved not merely to endure as my ancestors had done, but to thrive as none of them had possessed boldness or wit enough to dream.

Then came the east wind to mock my prideful ambition. I saw the fragility of my fate creeping back into view, and it was intolerable to me. Suffering the old pangs of want would be hardship enough, but to face ruin before the eyes of my new wife I simply could not bear. Perversely, her constant encouragements only vexed me. It was true that she had left a close, airless life of seclusion, but she had also given up a life generously provided for. It was a choice I was never destined to have. Tortured by the shame and fear of what had not yet come to pass, I convinced myself that she must view the prospect of poverty as a novel turn of the plot, a romantic adventure for her new life story. The craven state of my heart would not permit me the assurance that she truly loved me more than any transitory state of comfort or plenty.

The unhappy threads of fate drew tighter one parching summer afternoon. I had fulfilled my morning chores with haphazard attention. The crops were so listless, the swine so petulant and ungrateful of my care, that I avoided undue exertion in my labors. I had traded with a neighbor for several jars of a vile home-brewed spirit. This I sipped with increasing frequency, secreting the vessels around the property so that I always had a drop near to hand. Even Cecily, the very soul of cheerful endurance, eyed me askance now and then, perceiving when I had indulged more than usual. On such evenings she left me in peace, not trying to engage me with bits of gossip or news.

I knew that my wife corresponded every few days with her sisters. Early in our marriage, there had been suggestions that they come to visit. On each occasion I remained silent. I did not pronounce them unwelcome, but Cecily accepted my reluctance to extend invitations before we had established ourselves on better footing. She did not begrudge me my pride, nor did she take exception to my obvious discomfort at the thought of playing host. When frustration and drink began to tax my spirit, she ceased all mention of her sisters, whose odd letters I had previously consented to hear with game good humor, read by Cecily in gently mocking tones. On this day, though, she greeted me with much excitement. I had already dulled myself with liquor, but I took instant notice of her animation. She clutched a letter which I recognized by the paper’s antique smell and vivid watermark as one of Hecuba’s.

“My darling,” breathed Cecily in unmistakable joy, “I feel our fortune is turning once again.”

I took the paper to study, and with her helpful additions I soon understood the state of things. I knew that prior to our marriage, Cecily had flatly declined the offer of a small allowance from her sisters. It was a well-meant gesture which I had done my best not to take as a slight, yet Cecily’s refusal, demonstrating her faith in me as a provider, had filled my heart with the warmest pride. It was yet another of her virtuous gestures which, by that time irrevocable, had rotted to resentment in my breast. I would sooner have hanged than ask my relations in law for money by then, yet I felt its lack sharply. I had presumed the matter closed and forgotten. What Cecily never mentioned was that her sisters had instead placed a sum in trust for her later use, should she change her mind. I fancied it was no princely stipend, but knowing their maternal affection for her it would be generous enough.

I might have been angry with my wife for her failure to mention a reserve of funds in a period of such meager living, but in momentary joy I quite forgot myself. I embraced her, laughing heartily for the first time in weeks. “How wonderful,” I said, “with so much to do before next season.” I had plans for expansion, investment, and superior systems of irrigation. “I don’t imagine we’ll have enough to start everything at once, but―”

The slackening of her face arrested me. The brightness left her cheek and her entire frame deflated. We had not understood each other.

“Oh, dearest,” said she. “I was hoping to keep it aside for awhile. My sisters give it for our children, to provide for them and school them. I knew you’d approve. I remember.”

I do not doubt that, in the warmth of courtship, I had promised the best care and schooling for my children. Naturally I would want better, more secure lives for them than I had enjoyed. Now more than ever, I saw the terrifying challenge of guaranteeing one’s family any future at all. Yet had I not been strengthened by the hardships of my youth? Was it to be all softness and ease for my daughters and sons? Surely, whispered the unctuous voice I took for my conscience, children are better for knowing want in early life. This was the satanic cunning by which I had begun to reason with myself. I phrased sound moral principles in just the right way to suit my crude avaricious ends. I had never known my capacity to rationalize and wheedle until I met a person as trusting as my poor Cecily.

I foresaw the permanent deadlock of our situation. I could not borrow with impunity or moderation against the future of Cecily’s children. I had grand hopes for improving the farm, which might take ten years of honest toil or three with the help of ready cash. Once I had begun, the entire balance would be as good as spent. Cecily, in her meek and sympathetic way, would no doubt give me what I asked, but would surrender each dollar with a tug of reluctance and a forlorn thought for our unborn offspring. A man of better wits than mine might have convinced her of the long-term good in putting the money to work at once. Any argument I made would sound only petty and selfish. There would be too much truth in my version.

“After all,” she continued with tentative softness, “times have not turned so harsh for the two of us yet, have they?”

She could not have missed my chastened expression. I was ashamed to stand before her, still half-drunk, weighing these matters with the coldest reason. I tried lamely to laugh my ardor away as a joke. Drawing her to me with arms that fought not to tremble, I assured her that of course, to store our windfall away for the love of our children was the only thing to do.

I had grown well accustomed to refitting my self-loathing into scorn for my wife's integrity. By that time I did so unconsciously. I strolled out to take fresh air as Cecily prepared supper. Having hoped to purge my melancholy, I felt a sudden rage invade me instead. I marched furiously out of the yard to the gate where I had tied my sturdy black mare. Without warning or any of my accustomed gentleness, I flung myself astride her and applied both heels. She set off at an alarmed trot toward the large pasture. The pigs made obsequious appeals as I passed near the sty, but what had I to spare for them? Soon, I was sure, my wife and I would live on husks and trash like the prodigal of Scripture, yet without the same assurance of redemption. I rode my mare hard as the devil, heedless of the ground or the obstacles. My one end was to banish the vile humors churning in my brain. I wanted to open my head and let corruption seep away. My mare screamed horribly as I drove her without mercy into the falling dark.

At last I recognized my destination, coming quickly into view. It was the little apple orchard, which my wife treasured above all else I had given her. The trees seemed to glow with special redness even in the poor light. I could make out the shape of every fruit on every limb. I had the hateful realization that those prolific trees endured while all else on the farm withered. I had not asked to be born a damned and corrupted thing. Had the example of my wife never encroached on this earth, I might have lived and died without ever knowing it.

As my mind swam with images of hacking and burning the wholesomeness right out of those apple trees, I felt my body lift with a jolt. I heard the clamor of hooves vanish away. I felt sure that the demon who dogged me had finally laid claim and would fly me away to feed its hideous brood on me. It did not occur to me that my horse had thrown me in desperation for her own life. I met the earth with my left elbow and proceeded to tumble several full turns like the wheel of a wagon. When my head whipped hammerlike into a fence rail, I had an uncanny impression of softness. My skull splintered the wood in two, but what I felt was my eyes and mind passing through smooth butter. I seemed to hear the single, enormous toll of a church bell before hearing and sight left me.

I had no sensation of passing into sleep or insensibility. In silence and blindness I still perceived the grass beneath me. I lay wooden and dumb, lacking the ability to move or react but fully aware of my condition. Recalling it, the only sense I cannot trust is the passage of time. It seemed that I lay this way for hours, possibly even a day, though the sequel of events indicates that only a few minutes passed. Indistinct bits of sound crept back to my ears. The night was quiet, yet soon the full range of its noises took shape.

My sight made the same tentative return. All my limbs prickled, as when one lies too long upon an arm during sleep. At first I was amazed not to feel pain, but no sooner had I pulled myself to standing against the broken fence than the fist of an angry god clenched about my wounded head. Such was my agony that I could not produce an audible scream, though I nearly ruptured my throat in the spasm of trying. Instead of a cry, I vomited a burning gout of alcohol and bile. This I repeated three times before the effect faded such that I could walk. Shambling in loops and arcs like a drugged captive, I forced myself to keep the distant light of the farmhouse in view. Again my sense of time fails me, though it must have taken me some time to regain the safety of the yard. I nearly fell prostrate again, and if Cecily had found me there she would have sent for proper care from the doctor. Instead I met her just emerging from the house, worried by my absence. At the sight of me she gave a cry and rushed to my side. I must have looked better than I was, for I convinced her that the bruises were from a minor fall despite my manifest impairment. I assured her, with as much mastery as I could, that I was unwell from drink and excitement, and begged her leave to take myself to bed without supper. She consented with much warmth and relief, her earlier disappointment in me forgotten.

I awoke well before dawn, sore and very empty but not as debilitated as one might expect. Helping myself to cold meat and bread as Cecily slept, I marveled at the blow which ought to have killed me. Any likely reasons for my miraculous deliverance were lost on me. It was yet another missed escape from my present descent. Soon enough my pain returned, surprising me with blinding fits at any change or shift in the weather. Out of stubbornness and shame, I did not reveal to Cecily that I believed myself to have suffered some permanent fissure or lesion of the skull. It had fused well enough for me to live, but it was a marred shield for my poor brain. It is as good an explanation as any for my hasty deterioration. Every jolt, every small hiss of my hurt head rekindled and deepened my bitterness. By the harsh clear light of my pain I fully glimpsed the creature I had become. I had not sufficient courage to show my naked greed to Cecily, brutally demanding her money for myself, yet I surely possessed the will to cheat it from her.

As I nursed my shameful self-knowledge, the sight of my wife’s unsuspecting smile became a continual rebuke to me. Desperate to ease my conscience, I reasoned furiously and falsely with myself. I began to reinvent Cecily as the author of my misery, deliberately depriving us of prosperity for some wicked sense of control. At times I recognized this as delusion, but not often enough. Like a mad dog, I imagined my pain as the sum of myriad causes both internal and external, most of all my blameless wife. I ought to have seen a doctor. The stagnant blood in my head must have soured my thoughts and feelings, for I felt my nature changing in earnest. In my most delirious fantasy I should never have seen that money as a permanent solution to my worries. I loathed myself for desiring it above the future happiness of my family. In the malformed logic of my sickness, I concluded that acquiring the money by whatever means I could devise was the only sure way to cease coveting it.

I gave up drinking and showed Cecily every kindness, shielding my dark aim from her. Before long, our accustomed intimacy renewed itself. I embraced her with tenderness again, as affectionate in falsehood as I once had been in earnest. If she could have known how the sight of her aggravated the throb of my head, the way her gaze loomed before me as I slept, the beauty of her eyes turned hideous in nightmare, her heart would have wept tears of blood.

I resumed my daily labors with diligence and efficiency. Despite my apparent improvement I was no longer a loving and humble tiller of sod. I was merely a steely and well-tuned piece of farming machinery. All of it I did to distract from the furious working of my mind. A plan had taken seed in me, and the physical routines of nurturing my poor harvest helped its growing.