Greater Love Has No Man: A Short Story

I do not write about marriage and couples and falling in love. It's something I know next-to nothing about, so I steer clear. But this story idea has been wandering about in the back of my mind for several years now and I thought, 'hey, it's Valentine's Day. Why not give it a try?'  So anyway...

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   "We're through. Done." His shoulders sagged beneath the admission of defeat. "Nothing left to do but sell out and leave.
   "Oh." She said. It was a flat, stale word, doing no justice to the feelings that surged inside her. She was torn between joy over her own gratification and a sudden sorrow for his dead dream. Standing before the dishpan, she slowly washed and washed a cracked china plate with her gaze directed straight in front.
   "One good thing. I know you'll be happy to get out of this place." He was looking at her, waiting for her response. She turned to face him.
   "Yes." She said, very slowly.
   It would do no good to lie. She'd made no secret of her dislike for this shabby old house, for the land that made slaves of them. But now she wished...well, she didn't know what she wished. Anyway, now it was too late for wishing. They were leaving and that was all that mattered to either of them.
  "I'll see James tomorrow. If his offer still holds, we can leave as soon as you want."
  "Alright." She carefully smoothed her apron, not liking to look at him. Instead, she studied her own hands. They were rough and cracked, nails jagged. The wedding band wobbled loosely on her ring finger. She'd grown so thin and she knew her complexion had suffered.
   In a sudden excess of vanity, she asked, "Could we move to...I don't know...some other town? You could find a good job and..." She trailed off. He was looking at her again, seeing right through her words.
   "I know." He said, gently. "It'll be hard to face them, especially after all my big talking. But we're not running away. We're going back there, and we'll be honest and accept the fact that I failed."
   I failed. She caught that 'I'. It was his way of accepting that it was his dream, and his alone, that had shriveled and dried in the hot, rainless winds.
   Well, it would be humiliating, all right, to return looking like a...windblown skeleton, but she'd do it and she'd decide not to care. It would be so wonderful to return to a place where there were people, activity, and sounds other than this dreadful wind. The returning would be even harder for him. She felt sorry about that. He'd talked so grandly, so beautifully, in that year before they'd left. He had been so certain of great things. Why, even she had half-adopted his ideals!
   For her, the rude awakening had come when he'd brought her out to see the place; a run-down old house, unkempt, tiny in comparison to the enormous oak trees that overshadowed it. He'd enthused about the trees, the sound of the wind in the branches on stormy nights. She had mentioned the fact that some of those branches would probably crash right down on the roof, and what would they do then? Neither of them knew the first thing about carpentry.
   "Guess we can ask the neighbors."
   "What neighbors?"
   He'd laughed, then, and said something about that being the beauty of the country, and how aloneness did wonders for the human soul. Then he had insisted on taking her for a tour of that miserable ground. He'd quoted snatches of poetry in between giving her needlessly detailed sketches of his future plans. She'd gotten sore feet and torn her almost-new blouse on the thorn bushes.
   Here they were, a year later, defeated and old. At least, she felt old and he certainly looked it, with his forehead continually puckered in concern. He rarely smiled, almost never laughed; in fact, he barely spoke at all. She tried to remember the last time they'd had a one of those good conversations, like they used to have in the old days. For so long his talk had been all about the farm, the farm, the farm, until she'd stopped even pretending to be interested. She regretted this, now. He had a way of retreating into himself, of living a private, inner life when those around him did not share in his enthusiasm. She used to draw him out and engage him. Used to. Well, maybe they'd be able to start over when they moved back into town. However, looking at him, she was suddenly worried that he might be gone forever; so deeply entrenched in his own private regrets that there would be no way to reach him.
   These thoughts came to fruition in a few simple words. "I could read a little." She offered.
   He always liked to hear her reading, but she had not volunteered to read in a long time and he had not asked. She fetched a volume of Robert Frost and placed it on the table before him.
   He recognized this gesture as a peace offering. Frost was his favorite poet. She did not like Frost at all.
   "He writes too much about farming." She'd once complained, "I feel like he's just aiding and abetting you."
   But he was not in the mood for poetry tonight. "No, thanks." He said. "Think I'll just take a walk."
   She peered out the window into the gathering dusk. "You want a light?"
   "Nope." He pushed back from the table and went to the door. "I know every inch of my land, even in the dark." He paused for a moment, his hand on the latch. She thought that he was about to ask her to come walking with him, as he always used to do, but he went out and shut the door firmly. She stood, undecided whether to follow him, anyway, or stay behind. Well, there was nothing to do inside.
   They walked, a distance apart, through the semidarkness. There was silence between them. She wondered what he was thinking, but did not like to ask, so she proceeded quietly and thought her own thoughts.
   She noticed with surprise that the land could be almost pretty in the twilight. It was gentle, a little mysterious and...there was another word...serene. Yes, that was it, serene. For the first time, she found herself listening to the silence without being frightened by it. She discovered that it was not really silent, at all, but a collection of small, harmonious sounds that formed a sort of unobtrusive hush. She liked it. Yes, yes, she did truly like it. Strange that she'd never noticed it 'til now.
   Odd, disconnected began stirring to the surface of her mind and drifted with the pace of her walking. She found herself remembering the bedroom she had slept in as a child, the embroidered sampler that hung at the foot of her bed. The stitching on the sampler formed slightly uneven words that read: 'Greater love hath no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.' Later, her mother had given her that sampler. She had said 'thanks' and put it away somewhere because the words made her vaguely uneasy, and anyway, it was old-fashioned and hardly matched her nice, modern apartment. She'd forgotten about the thing. Why remember it now? And why should that memory be followed so closely by a recollection of her wedding day? She remembered it all so clearly: her mother's firm, warm handclasp and softly drawling voice as she said, "A happy life ain't what happens to you, honey, it's what you make for yourself. Discontent, now, that's a disease. Once it catches a-hold of you, it's mighty hard to shake loose."
   If she'd remembered those words more often...
   Well, but she hadn't. That was that. Nothing left but to move on from there.
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   The house was echoing and bare in the morning light. She took a sip of coffee - strong, as he liked it - and looked around one final time. Their belongings had been packed up the night before. The two rooms, devoid of everything except their faded wallpapers, looked even smaller than usual. Small and lonely. She felt that now-familiar stab of regret, and hoped that the next person to live here would love the house better than she had.
   There was one window in the kitchen, looking east past the trunk of one of the oak trees. She stood before it and let her gaze travel across the plowed land. The crops were a crispy, yellow-brown. The color of defeat. Grasses bent along the edges of the fields like so much straw. Something inside of her ached at the sight. It was almost like...a funeral.
   As she watched, he came walking into the near field. He stopped, bent to pick up a handful of the powder-dry earth, then stood for a long time, sifting the little clods out between his fingers. She wondered what he was seeing as he stood there. Was it the true image of stunted cornstalks and parched earth, or the visionary's picture of rich, brown soil and the living green of plants stretching away in gently curving lines? The brown and the green would, she thought, have made a very pleasant color combination. She'd have liked to look at it...liked it very much. Or would she? She wondered if a person ever realized what they could've had until they'd lost the chance to attain it.
   A bird began to warble. It sang every morning from some hidden branch high in the oak, but she had never caught a glimpse of it. It was, she knew, a country bird. She had never heard that song anywhere else.
   She saw him leave the field and head toward the house. She quickly finished her coffee, rinsed the cup. It was time to leave. He came to the door and looked in.
   "Ready?" He asked.
   "No...well, yes."
   She was the one who lingered, looking around, while he sat in the driver's seat and waited for her. When they drove away, she watched the house grow smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. Then they turned a corner and it was gone. He had not glanced back at all. She knew that he'd already said his goodbyes and must now look to the future...whatever that might be.
   Well.
   She scooted closer and put a hand on his arm. "I was thinking, that house would've looked nice with some curtains."
   He stared at her, obviously surprised.
   "Yep!" She continued. "Some nice, light yellow curtains. So cheery. And for heaven's sake, keep your eyes on the road!"
   There was silence, then he said, "Well, there'll be another house, I guess, at some point. We'll have to live somewhere cheap at first, but I'll get a job and we'll save and..."
   "And I heard James say he'd give you first option if you ever wanted to buy the place back."
   "But, I thought..."
   "I'm a fickle woman. Didn't anyone ever tell you?"
   "Well, now..." He smiled, reached out and took her hand. "We'll see." He said, "we'll see."
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