by Richard Jacobs

Sunlit path in the woods

They were approaching the bend in the creek that afforded the prettiest view. He would stop her there, draw her away from the sunlit path—it was the first day without rain in a week—and they would have their talk, long delayed. His heart jangled at the prospect of touching her elbow, and when they reached the bend his nerve threatened to bolt. But he did it—three fingers, a gentle tug—and led her without protest down to the towering poplar tree. He discerned no other amblers. “Do or die,” he silently commanded himself, feeling that McNamar might gallop back into the county at any moment. He could damn near feel on his nape the hot breath of his rival’s steed.

A fair spot for such a consequential parley. The poplar—he thought it a most venerable tree—stood in full leaf bestowing its shade upon them. Virgin’s-bower climbed the shallow fissures of its trunk. Meadow rue skirted along the raised creek bank. Chuckling, the water, still brown in its braidings and rivenings, refused to mirror the sky’s reborn blue.

The light seemed golden to Abe. He welcomed its warmth on his forehead. So far, they had talked about the doings at her father’s farm and Abe’s stint in the legislature, from which he had returned two months before. Until today, their meetings had taken place among her folks. Now, emboldened, he dropped his fingers from her arm and dared their first real words: “The whole time I was at Vandalia I thought about you.”

Ann smiled but cast her eyes to the creek. Abe coveted her gaze.

She said, “After all you’ve told me about the bills you helped to craft, I wonder you had such time to devote to my memory.”

He saw that her hair, unbonneted, kept changing colors in the checkered sunlight tossed down through the leaves—sorrel hair sewn with stitches of auburn, chestnut, copper. It gleamed for him like the pelt of a racing fox. “Oh I can put my mind to two things at once when one of those things is so . . . beguiling.” Lord, he’d said it.

“One of those ‘things’?”

Abe flushed. “I didn’t mean—” He raked his fingers through his own tuft, a peculiar habit of his when he found himself agitated.

Ann laughed—such music!—and swung round to him. His face took her stare the way a patch of sunflowers takes the morning sun. Her blue eyes, arrayed with numerous tints like flowers in a garden, climbed the crags and pits of him to his summit. Her cheeks glowed with merriment.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, knowing something must be askew in his appearance, something beyond his everyday uncomeliness. “Did a yellowhammer land on my head?”

“No,” she purled, “but your hair—why, it looks like a hedgerow whipped about by a gale.”

He ruffled his thatch even more and blared his eyes at her, gargoyle-like, to hear her laughter repeated. Unhitched from his memorized beseechment by this foolery, he was at a loss at how to proceed.

Ann wasn’t. “I had a dream about you while you were away, Mr. Lincoln.”

“A nightmare, most likely.”

“No, silly. You were tilling the ground. I could see the sweat on your brow.” She paused. “Somehow I knew it was our ground you were tilling.”

The blinks of her eyes produced bloomings in his soul. “Sure I wasn’t your neighbor in this dream? Yours and John’s?” There.

“Mr. McNamar has yet to find his way into my nighttime reveries.”

If she knew of his own nighttime reveries, Abe wondered, would she flee from him? He said, “In the public eye he remains your intended.”

She cupped her hand over a clump of Virgin’s-bower and looked out past the rushing water to the farther bank. “There is much speculation about his absence. I’ve heard it.”

“Whisperers whisper,” Abe said dismissively.

“He has not written in months.”

“Have you to him, Ann? Recently?”

“A week past Christmas.” She turned toward him. “I will write to him again if he is much longer delayed. I will ask for a release from my promise.”

Abe’s skin tingled. He didn’t venture to meet her words head-on.

“He was taken ill on his trip,” she hastened to add in her former lover’s defense, “as you must have heard. In New York he found his father in poor health and poorer means.”

“He returned to his native land with his fortune to assist his family. I have admired him for it.”

“And for his staying so long away?”

“For that I am deeply indebted to John. Of course, I am indebted to many.”

“I will marry you, Abraham.”

He took her hands in his. “Oh, Ann.”

“School first, dear one, while I still bear Father’s name. I want to make you proud on our wedding day.”

“Do not fear about that. For my part, I pledge to finish with my friend Stuart’s Blackstone before you take your diploma. I shall read day and night. Your groom will be a lawyer.”

“I have heard reports of you perched on fence posts and woodpiles reading your books aloud. Are your studies arduous?”

“They are for me. I possess no Latin.”

“You will overcome that, with all you do possess.”

He felt the truth of Ann’s words in his marrow, in the sinews of his being. He had felt it before today but had dared not proclaim it even to himself. He would rise from the ashes of his blighted past—his mother and sister taken young, his father a brute, his store shuttered. Ann believed in him. Like-minded, they would believe in the days to come. They would rise together. What children might they have!

Slowly, by wondrous-seeming inches, he drew her to him. Their lips met for the first time. How he trembled. Her hair smelled like a freshly mown meadow. He breathed in all her scents and found he needed to master himself. They unyoked but for their eyes. He reeled or supposed he did.

“Do you feel satisfied, Mr. Lincoln?” Ann asked.

“More so than ever before,” he panted. For now, though, he could confess the frankest truth, the fullest answer to her question, only to himself: Not yet!

Category: Featured, Fiction