You collected me from the jetty in the small logging town. I’d been waiting in a striptease bar, the lumberjack customers more interested in their beers and televised ice-hockey than the girls. I’d seen your boat from a mile out, cutting a quick white swathe through the lake. During the ride back into the forest wilderness you told me about your husband. How he hadn’t got long on this Earth, how he’d been a professor of English in love with William Shakespeare, how he’d built your farm with his own two hands. I’d lied on the application form and said that I was experienced in farm work and told you I loved Shakespeare too. I watched your face as you steered the boat. Weathered, freckled, twice my age, beautiful.

Tobias Alt, Tobi 87 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every evening the two of us raised your husband from his downstairs bed and sat him at the dinner table, your young son looking on. The four of us held hands around the table whilst he said your Quaker prayers or croaked through “All Creatures of our God and King”. You and I sat next to each other, in our given places. I felt your fingers move in my hands, the slight compressions when he coughed, when he faltered. You held my hand a second longer after he said Amen. After dinner, we assisted him back to his bed where I’d read Shakespeare sonnets. I sensed you listening in whilst you cleared the table. Sometimes you’d sit next to me on the bed and dab a napkin to his eyes.

This photograph of the barn is the only thing I have left. The angry geese and the scurrying goats on the lush forest grass. You showed me how to milk the nannies. Slowly pinch and stroke their teats, squirting the pungent milk into the chipped enamel bowls, your teaching hands on mine.

When the kid goats started being taken at night, one by one, you said ‘cougar’ and asked if I’d ever shot a rifle. You wanted me to sleep and keep guard in the hayloft, said the geese would be my alarm. After supper you led me to the gun-safe in your bedroom, showed me how to load. Your eyes followed my gaze to the un-slept in side of the bed. You brought hot coffee and blankets to the barn. Sat next to me on the hay and rolled my cigarettes.

It was inevitable I should leave, leave you with a dying man and a boy. You drove me in the tractor to the boat. The heat that day was intense. You stripped off to your pants and dived in. I followed in naked. We held each other in the freezing water and you cried.

You wrote to me a few weeks after I’d returned to England. Told me the exact time of day your husband stopped breathing.

Steven John

Steven John’s writing has appeared in Riggwelter, Spelk, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a joint record six times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.