I hope it's okay to post this here. It's a story based on the song posted here. The rewrite is later in that thread and not the very first one. http://metaltabs.com/forum/showthread.php?t=44017
I'm going to submit it to an anthology so I thought I'd show it to you. Thank you for reading it and for constructive comments. It's also loosely based on a woman who lived in the early 1800's who worked for one of my relatives. The events of her life before her death are true. Someone wrote a song about her, too. Her name was Susannah Cox.
My hands had the skill of years of repetition stripping herbs, creating tinctures from plants dried and hung from the rafters stored in bottles on a shelf so shallow a mouse couldn't crawl through them. They were secure so my business was safe, not that it paid me more than a bare living and a bit of reprieve with my brush. It was a neccessity that every individual would eventually need. Her need came too soon.
Laid on my table, she was draped with an embalming sheet, stained from use for many before her. I rolled back the end to uncover her face and neck to the shoulder. Reverence leapt in my heart and I removed my hat slowly. I couldn't tell if she had been in pain by the look on her face. What I could tell was had she a breath in her, mine would have somehow been close to hers. Had I only known her she'd have been my wife.
Her rounded face was perfectly shaped. Her hair the most beautiful bronze not typical of the young women I'd seen in town whose bonnets barely gave a clue to its color. She appearred cared for, but why had she been brought to me by strangers? I was startled when I uncovered the rope burn around her neck. What secret did she have? I paused in contemplation to look out the window realizing that soon she'd be my memory among the willows and pressed hands carved in stone in a pauper's grave. None of her own. A solo figure was now on the hillside with a shovel doing his job.
Somehow I just couldn't live with myself had I just treated her as another lifeless, unwanted body. I had to do a little more whether it was for her or for my own selfish reasons. Families did it for their loved ones to remember them. I had no family. It seemed she didn't either. I'd be her family. I'd forgive her sin whatever it was.
The scent of turpentine from a chipped, glazed crock fused with the air. I pulled a tall stool near the table and stood my canvas on it. It was stretched and tacked across a discarded frame. My nose burned briefly. The mixtures of stench and scent trying to compete made my eyes water. My board caked with a collection of chaotic colors blended or punctuated from designs of faces that I'd done as favors to families or on commission from those who could afford it displayed in rustic homes, toted across the country, or hung on a hallowed, pristine wall inside places I'd never see. Brush in hand I began an outline, designing her head and neck, boldly surrounding her collarbone with flowers and tiny doves.
My eyes wandered back and forth for hours. Hands cramped from the painting and brisk intensity in an attempt to capture her living qualities. Usually I could do justice, bring a bit of joy to the grief-stricken with my art, but this time I had myself to satisfy and that wasn't happening. I was too close yet too distant to the subject at hand. I could capture almost everything, every nuance but her gaze and that's where life showed. There was no life there. I tried. I scraped and I scrapped. I walked outside to breathe and tried over and over til I was sure I'd thin and destroy what I was trying to preserve. I stopped when I could go no further. I stood the canvas in the corner of the room out of the way. It was all I'd have and I'd have to be content with it even though I'd never be.
Dusk had come. My brush and palette left on the stool, I rolled the sheet back over her face hesitantly. Hat in hand, I walked to my small house for the night, but slept little, mostly staring into the hearth. I wondered so many things, but tomorrow I knew I'd not see her again.
Seeing the plow horse harnessed to the cart seemed overkill for such a fragile woman, but one uses what's available for the purpose. The grave digger had driven over and met me at the door. A brief exchange of pleasant yet solemn words and together we lifted the wooden box from the cart. We put it inside next to the table on the floor. I glanced to the back of the room where the painting stood. My breath caught briefly. Why couldn't I make her breathe again on the canvas? She's the only one whose eyes wouldn't shine.
I laid the shroud in the coffin, placing some dried lavender that would pillow her head, and uncovered the old sheet from her as the grave digger tended the horse. Staring at her face, I slid my arms under her knees and around her shoulders lowering her body slowly. I dropped to my knees they felt so heavy, but I touched her forehead in silent blessing before covering her face forever. The grave digger came in as I was getting up. We carried the box outside. He put the lid on like he'd done to so many others. With each nail he pounded my heart leaped to my throat. We put the coffin on the cart and climbed in the seat as he gathered the reins. Staring ahead, we drove up the hill to the graveyard. Pained thoughts ran through my head.
He stopped the huge Norman horse. There was no preacher, no mourners to cry. Just the two of us on the hill. The noise deafened me as we slid the box to the ground. Getting firm grips we carried it to her resting place dug the day before. By our hands she sank slowly into the ground. He picked up the shovel and threw some dirt in the hole as I stood by silent and unsure. He looked over at me and said, "You didn't know her, did you? Her name was Susannah. She was a servant on the big farm. Not educated or with moral training until it was too late. Sad when they found the baby in her blanket in the shed. They hanged her for it even though they felt it wasn't just sentence in this case." A grip held my heart, then confusion and sadness. He finished his task and he drove me back.
I walked into the room with the death scents. I went to the corner and looked at the canvas in the dimming light. Her lovely, perfect face was there. The dark gold hair, the cheeks, the mouth, even the garland at her neck was beautiful and full of life. Now I knew why she had no life in her eyes as hard as I tried to put it there, but I still loved her.
I walked out the door closing it behind me and went home.