DISCLAIMER: All recognizable characters belong to Charles Frazier and Miramax Films. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Acknowledgments: Many thanks to my incomparable Editor law_nerd, who sees the little things that 'writer's blindness' keeps hidden from me. Per usual... Con-crit is welcome, and thanks in advance.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To needledinkrsa[at]gmail.com
She'd seen that: Ada playing invisible piano keys on that sack of oats, and Ruby could almost hear the silent notes, too.
It was hard to find herself caring more than she ought, more than she should.
Finding out just how much she could care was something that nearly always tended to be a process involving pain. Ruby had cared a lot (too damn much) for several people. So far the only two that hadn't proverbially kicked her in the teeth were Esco and Sally Swanger, and even around those two, Ruby was tad wary. She'd learned to hold her tongue, but it seemed that around Ada all her old lessons just saddled up and lit a shuck to some far off place.
Ruby said her sorries to Ada regarding the piano, even though selling it had been Ada's idea. Ada even said so, but Ruby had felt the need to say sorry, felt it like a hot poker in a tender spot. So she'd said it. Didn't help: that spot remained tender. Something about the tune Ada had played last nightthe very last onesomething about it just wouldn't leave Ruby. She hoped they'd have a piano again, one day... They? Ruby scowled at her thoughts, much like those of last night, when she'd sat half hidden away on the stairs, in the shadows, away from the light of the lamp, and that other kind of light, that was Ada.
~ Nearly Four Years Later ~
It was cool on Sally's porch, but beyond it the sun baked down. Ada made up her mind to dawdle here another hour. Ruby wouldn't mind in the least. Ada leaned sideways and read what Sally had scratched out in chalk on her slate:
"Ruby said the new piano is coming tomorrow."
"Yes," Ada said, pleased. But added: "We had an argument about it, though."
While wiping the slate clean, Sally gave Ada a quizzical look.
"Well, it's a fearful sum of money," Ada said and sipped from a glass of Sally's near-famous ginger beer. "And Ruby just... bought it. She said it wasn't a whim, that she had been thinking about it for quite some time."
Sally nodded, smiling. She scribbled for a while, then held the slate out for Ada to read:
"Ever since you two got on your feet there."
"She thought about it that long?" Ada mumbled. Technically, they'd been 'on their feet' since the summer of 1863.
Sally wiped and scribbled again:
"She loves you, maybe more than Inman did."
"I know she loves me but I don't know about that."
Sally didn't bother to wipe the slate. She scribbled in a gap, in underlined capitals:
Ada rested back on the bench. Out the corner of her eye she saw Sally wipe the slate and fold her hands over it, and she knew what that meant: Sally was adamant in her assertions and wouldn't be moved from them, meaning in turn that Ada needed to think carefully about what she'd said.
It wasn't difficult to arrive at the truth for herself. All Ada needed for evidence was to consider Ruby's surprisingly gentle rejection of the Georgia boy's advances. Ada had overheard her telling him to find someone who'd do right by him, and Ruby had added, "Because I can't." Ada had called that statement a puzzle, until now.
"Oh..." said Ada.
Sally immediately started scribbling again. She said:
"It's there in you, too, for her. Think. Don't say anything to me. Say it to Ruby."
While walking home Ada could think of nothing else: how much she cared, and how deeply. And this was not an astounding awakening. How could it be, after nearly four years of sharing everything with Ruby. All Ada had kept from her were a few hours given solely to Inman. After his death, Ada had seen no-one but Ruby. She had even refused, for some time, to see Sally. Ruby had been the only person from whom Ada had accepted comfort.
And then there was the baby. While she walked Ada smoothed her hands over the rise of her belly, and smiled. When she'd first told Ruby that she was possibly pregnant, Ruby's expression had become instantly fierce. "That town better not say nothin' to me 'bout that," she'd stated, and it hadn't taken much of Ada's imagination to come up with images of Ruby holding a shotgun on the whole damn town. Ruby Thewes would go to war for Ada, and her child.
Inman was gone, and Ada knew that no man would ever step into that gap. Ruby wasn't a man, and never would think of taking Inman's place. Ada loved her already, and couldn't think but that that feeling would grow.
Ada's fingers faltered at first, then found the notes, the chords, and her feet worked the pedals to dampen or sustain. And the notes found Ruby, again, as they had the first time she'd heard this piece. They bore into her, until she was hearing them with her soul and not her ears. But tonight she wasn't hiding on the stairs. She stepped over to the piano, expecting to see Inman's picture next to the sheet music. That's where it had been those years ago, but not tonight.
Ruby dared rest a hand on Ada's shoulder. It wasn't shrugged off. Ada smiled and kept on playing that bittersweet tune. Ruby expected something else to follow it straight away, but when the last note had been sustained to the softest whisper, Ada took her hands away from the keyboard, and reached up to tug on Ruby's hand. She kissed the back of it.
"Your daddy, Georgia, and I are going to drive you crazy. We'll be playing music every chance we get... and we might steal those chances away from other things."
"Oh really? Such as?" Ruby drawled.
"About everything except milking the cows and mending fences," Ada chuckled.
"Well, you'll need somethin' to do when you can't do none of that anyhow," Ruby said, peeking over Ada's shoulder at a five-months-along belly. Ada was so damn skinny that she'd started showing already at three months. Ruby forced away a smile. Bump on a beanstalk, she'd said once, and had been glared at for it. Tonight she had something else to say: "Wish he was here."
"You really do, don't you?" Ada let go of Ruby's hand and closed the lid over the keyboard. She stood and looked Ruby in the eye. "If what Sally told me is true..."
"I don't get your meanin'," Ruby mumbled, blushing and wondering what the hell Old Lady Swanger had scribbled on that slate of hers. "An' a-course I wish Inman was here. I got a heart, an' it knows yours is half-busted. It's only that baby keepin' you half-mended."
"No, Ruby. No."
Ada smiled and had to be quick to land a peck on Ruby's cheek. She laughed quietly at the resulting huff accompanied by a screwed up nose and a scowl.
"Darlin', when you've worked it out, tell me."
"Ya might as well be talkin' Latin," Ruby grunted and rolled her eyes.
~ Add a Couple of Years, and More ~
"I declare: she is your child."
"Ada, that is bi'logically impossible," Ruby stated with a grin.
Barely eighteen months old, little Grace giggled and offered Ruby a mud pie. She'd been left untended for just a couple minutes directly after a trip into town, and now here she sat square in the middle of a mud patch in what used to be her best clothes.
"That is not even half my blood!" Ada complained, and promptly cracked up laughing.
"What's she done now?" Ruby walked into the kitchen and followed Ada's pointing finger. Grace was covered in flour, and a trail of the white stuff led from the pantry door to her current spot on the kitchen floor. "Oh, Lord... I forgot to shut it this mornin', but it's a foot taller'n she is, so how in hell'd she get in that damn bin?"
"My guess is that she climbed on the stool in the pantry, climbed on the nearest shelf, and crawled. I doubt she aimed to get in the flour bin. She probably fell in."
"Oh, Lord..." Ruby repeated, this time a groan: she was imagining the mess.
Ruby peeked into the pantry and screwed her eyes shut. Dropping even the measure scoop into that large bin chased up a flour cloud that eventually resulted in white dust on most everything in the pantry. A toddler falling in the bin was almost equivalent to a quarter stick of dynamite going off.
"My guess is that she displaced at least a tenth of the flour in that bin. Your child," Ada said, giggling.
"Now, Ada no!" Ruby protested. "I never did do nothin' like that."
"Only because your daddy didn't have a flour bin," Ada shot back. "This is just like that time you climbed"
"Hush!" Ruby said in a hurry. "Don't put it past your brat to understand every damn word an' go try it."
"That," Ada said, straightening her face, "Is a truly sobering thought."
"Tell me!" Ruby said and laughed hard.
"Your child," Ruby said quietly, close to Ada's ear.
"In this one little area," Ada whispered, unconvinced, but she had to smile.
Grace was kneeling on the piano stool, carefully plinking out a simple tune. She was a week older than two. Ada had been told that she'd shown a keen interest in music at around the same age.
"Too soon for proper lessons, as yet."
"She'll start askin'," Ruby guessed.
"Like I did. However, not that I recall. I was told," Ada said.
"We'll be tellin' her, one day."
"Yes, we will," Ada said, and the idea was pleasing to her.
Ruby had found the half-grown pup slinking around just outside of town. Others had seen it over the course of three days but hadn't been able to get near it. Ruby hadn't understood that: she'd walked right up to it, had petted it, and the mutt ended up coming home with her.
Ada named it Ben and Ben promptly glued himself to Grace, which proved a blessing. Now four, Grace was at that age when she had loads of energy and wanted to play all the time. Both Ada and Ruby were often too busy to play, and after a while, helping her mamma and Ruby with their various chores got a bit boring for Grace, but Ben was happy to play whenever she wanted to. Ruby made a rag ball for them and gave it to Grace one summer evening. No matter how far or how wildly Grace managed to toss the ball, Ben tore off after it and brought it back.
Ruby stood and grinned at the scene before her. She started a little when a hand first rubbed at her shoulder, then slipped down her back and around her waist. Ada's other arm wrapped there, too, her body snugged against Ruby's back, and her chin came to rest on Ruby's shoulder.
"You all right?" Ruby asked.
"Just fine," Ada said, smiling.
Ruby relaxed and looked down at the forearms around her waist. She ended up hugging them, and liking that, also liking the way Ada cinched an even tighter grip around her waist. Ada kissed Ruby's cheek and rested their temples together.
"I told you once, now years ago, to tell me when you'd worked it out. And you knew then what I meant. I think you know it all the better now. Have you worked it out yet, Ruby?"
Ruby said nothing. She was far from stupid, and she knew how she felt. What she hadn't known until this very minute was that it was a mutual thing. She could've asked, and in a way she felt silly for not having asked, but then she fixed her eyes on the child a short distance from the porch.
"There was a lotta bad talk about Daddy when I was her age an' older. There's enough talk about how you got that lil girl, outa wedlock an' all that bullshit. Kids are gonna say mean things to her one day, about how you got her. You thought on that?"
"That can't be changed," Ada said quietly.
"No, no it cain't. But you an' me... That'd be more sensational than"
"One day, Ruby Thewes, she will ask. Perhaps not soon. Perhaps when she's a young woman and thinking of courting. She will ask then, about us, and if you give her that excuse it will break her heart."
"You sound real sure of that," Ruby muttered. "But I dunno how you can be."
"What did you say last week? She's definitely my child when it comes to feelings. Isn't that what you said? She reacts like I do. And that excuse will break my heart, eventually. It'll break hers, too."
Ruby swallowed a lump in her throat. She willed herself not to cry but the tears pricked anyway, and leaked out from tight-shut eyes.
"Like as not, I just have to stay here another eight years an' those idjits in town will speculate on what we were gettin' up to before lil Grace got borned."
"My wager is that they're speculating already, darlin'," Ada drawled and laughed. On impulse she nuzzled at Ruby's neck. Ruby's breath hitched, caught, and the rhythm changed. Ada hugged her waist even tighter. "Say yes?"
"It's about the only word I'm sure of right now. Yes," Ruby whispered.
No sheet music. Ada's fingers faltered here and there, but eventually Ruby began to hear a melody. Ada's left hand joined that with chords. Ruby had never heard her compose before, and she expected to see some work with pen and ink next, but instead Ada played it again, and added to it; played that again and rounded it out with grace notes here and there. Memorizing and perfecting came with careful, deliberate playing at a slower tempo, which picked up eventually. Bittersweet, with a rolling rhythm that reminded Ruby, at first, of the little ripple waves on Lake Waccamaw.
But later she said:
"You were playin' this, on the pianna. You were playin' us."
"Yes," Ada said, and kissed Ruby's throat. "I ran out of words, earlier, and the music stepped in and helped me along."
Ruby smiled, and before Ada caused her to lose all ability to think, she remembered the whole process: the way Ada had begun was the way they had begun; the way Ada had progressed was the way they had progressed.
And each day to come, and each year, would be no different.
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