In the silence, she heard a low whistle and froze. It continued. Then she felt it, on her bare hand, the outside forcing its way through the bullet holes that dotted the house. They announced themselves to her, ten, twenty, countless large bullet holes, then dozens, maybe hundreds more from the pellets of a shotgun. The room contracted and she bent over and clasped her hands to her knees. When she recovered, she moved to the living area, a rectangular space that ran the length of the building, and discovered Jesse facedown in front of his parents' door, both arms extended above his head, as if he'd been shot diving into a stream. Elspeth had to step around him, her foot leaving a patch of snow in the crook between his arm and his body.
She opened the door, but shut her eyes before the lamp confirmed her fears. She inhaled. The bedroom smelled how she remembered it, of Jorah sleeping, his breath filling the air. She lifted her eyelids, their weight palpable. Upon seeing her husband, she moaned and pressed her fists to her temples like she could hold her thoughts together with pure force. Jorah lay in bed, his face frozen in a grimace of anger, his eyebrows knotted and teeth clenched. His bare torso bore his wounds. One soil-stained foot touched the floor and she allowed herself to think of his soft padding steps trying not to wake her in the morning. The wind insisted, drowning out her reverie, rasping a ghostly noise through their bedroom. The bed itself was stained black. She kicked dozens of shotgun shells and rifle casings that littered the floor and they chimed against one another. She could not bring herself to touch her husband's gray skin. Usually, when she'd returned from one of her trips, Jorah would be sleeping on the same sheets that had been on the bed when she'd left. She could place a fresh set on the dresser, and in her absence it would do nothing but gather dust. Weeks later, when she came back, the sheets Jorah had been content to lie upon would be stiff with dirt: from the barn, from the fields, and from his own sweat. The springs squeaked beneath her when she knelt on the bed to pull the linens from under his weight. Jorah's joints had locked; she hefted his legs onto the mattress and fought to straighten them, but still would not touch his skin. She stripped the thickened sheets as she'd learned with bedridden pregnant women, gently rolling him onto his side when she needed. Once she freed them, she pressed the bunched linen to her face, and breathed in the odor of her husband. The blood didn't bother her; it was, after all, his. There, on the dresser, sat the clean sheets she'd left for him. She snapped them open, the only sound in a house normally so filled with noise that Elspeth used to retreat into the fields to think or to pray or to worry over the growing thrum of temptation in her body. The new sheets glowed like snow, reflecting the lamplight. She drew them taut under Jorah, pulling as gently as possible, because every time his body moved with the motion of the sheets, it was just thata body. Not a man, not her husband. When she'd finished, she lifted Jorah's head, replaced the pillowcase, fluffed the down again, raised his head once more, feeling the back of his neck, formerly soft and warm, now cold and firm. She shook her hand as if the sensation would slide from her fingers like drops of water. He'd never looked so small, her protector. To her, he'd loomed over everyone and everything, blanketing them with all the safety and the comfort he could muster.
She extinguished the lamp and lay beside him as the wind erupted and swept through the house. Outside it pushed the clouds south, and the moon rose, casting silver light onto the floorboards, the boots Jorah set beside the bed each night, and the empty shotgun shells.
From The Kept by James Scott Copyright © 2014 by James Scott. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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