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The Only Way Is Through

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One day, a month shy from her first birthday, Lil’ Sadie had woken up sick. And the next few days she got worse.

John had brought the doctor from Blackwater. Pneumonia, he had said. During his entire visit, Abigail’s chest had raised slowly yet frantically. Every breath she took shaking her like a leaf, as if she was the one ill. They asked the necessary questions: what to do in each scenario, which medicines they needed to buy, what to do in case if she presented a symptom the doctor hadn’t mentioned; and if she was going to be alright.

The doctor had said that more people get healthy than those who don’t.

-

They’ve already decided, John says in the letter, that if the baby is a boy his name will be Arthur Charles. If she’s a girl instead, Abigail and he have chosen Sadie Tilly. 

And if Sadie’s companions see the toughest woman they have ever met a bit wet around her eyes, they don’t mention it. Later, they would chalk it up to an illusion, built from the heat of the tropical rainforest.

There are still at least three months to go, but it would mean a lot —writes John— if they had the opportunity, of course, to plan ahead for a visit. For neither Abigail or him, would take anybody else for godparents, and what kind of baptism is that where none of those are present, anyways?

After all, the little child owes it to them. It was through their hard work that the life the baby will enjoy, is going to possible. Thanks to them the kid has two parents alive and well, a comfortable home, a safe place to grow.

And if the men around Charles see him, their taciturn pillar of strength, grin big and wide like they have never seen him before; or if that smile lasts for many days after reading that letter, they have the wisdom to not say anything about it.

-

The following week the family makes sure Lil’ Sadie takes all her medication, it must be quite a bitter one, because she always tries, without fail, to spit it back up.

They take care of her, they play with her, she smiles tiredly from the little cradle Jack and John had spent so much time figuring out how to build for her. Two days, three days, four days, until one day, she goes to sleep but she wakes up no more.

-

She laughs so much. He has never in his entire life seen a baby laugh so much. John just has to hold her up for her to laugh, laugh, laugh. It's just so easy, and John has never felt so light in his chest than when he carries his daughter in his tanned arms.

Had Jack laughed so much when he was a baby? John wonders, and he feels a pang of guilt in his heart that he isn't sure. He doesn’t know. He wasn’t there. Stupid, stupid John Marston. Throwing away precious time, as if he had an infinite amount of it to spend with them. As if life wasn’t anything but what you managed to steal away from it.

Lil’ Sadie clasps John’s thumb with that strong grip that babies have in their tiny hands and John promises that he’ll never, ever let go.

-

Uncle accompanies John to buy the infant’s coffin. At first, John had thought about building it himself, more personal that way; but Uncle had convinced him to buy one from the mortuary instead. If he tried to fashion one on his own, he would have to consider the size and length of the casket. Morbid, unhelpful thoughts.

They ride to Blackwater and into the establishment in complete silence, John can’t really make sense of whether it felt immensely long or exceedingly short. Just that they had arrived.

It’s John who talks to the clerk (is that the term for the man who sells you a box for your dead daughter?). He goes through the exchange mechanically. We’re here for a coffin. Thank you. For a baby, my daughter. Yes, I’m sorry too. Yes.

It’s the talk of models the one that really throws him off guard. Turning the semblance of restraint that John wears into a mumbling sort of aphasia, incapable of articulating or caring about the precise differences between one coffin and the other. Are they even seeing them? They are both so small, barely any larger than a drawer from a dresser or a nightstand.

Uncle takes the reins of the conversation here, and though Marston doesn’t say it, he’s very grateful for the old man being there, with him. Uncle had stayed, every step of the way, guiding him through the process of it. Making sure he doesn’t make any mistakes, falling through the little grief traps that John had absentmindedly set for himself at the same time he tried to avoid them. From where Uncle has gotten that know-how of the grieving arts John doesn’t know and dares not to pry.

Uncle narrows their options to just two of them, then he turns to John and asks for his opinion. That clever old man, lazy old leech with a golden heart. Making him choose so John gets to feel like he is accomplishing something, that he’s the man in the situation instead of the sad, pathetic sod riding shotgun to his daughter’s own funeral.

The brown, wooden one is a more classical look. Though Uncle is partial to the little coffin painted white. It looks like a crib, you see. Uncle tells him. It’ll be less shocking for Abigail and the boy, more familiar. John agrees. The “clerk” offers them the wake, the interment, even the hearse all for a reasonable fee. John feels like punching the man, though he isn’t sure why. Isn’t he doing his job? Didn’t John, himself, made his living from people’s dead bodies, once?

They pay for the white casket only and leave the funeral home. They need not any help with bringing it to the farm, unlike an adult’s coffin, this one weighs scarcely none.

-

“Darling,” enunciates John, very carefully, “I think the baby might have shit herself.”

Abigail mock-elbows him, though John flinches dramatically anyways. “Don’t say it like that! She’s gonna end up repeating all your obscenities.”

John brings Sadie closer to her nose, “Ugh, I retract the might. This baby smells.”

“Well, and what do you want me to do about it.”

“Uhm, help me make it go away?”

“I changed enough diapers by myself the first time around,” and Abigail gives him a slow, grave pat on the shoulder to accompany the terrifying grin on her face, “this one’s all yours.”

“You are an evil, evil lady. You know that, Abigail?”

“The worst,” declares his wife loudly, as she makes her way to the corridor.

John lays Sadie flat on the counter. He tries to master his expression of chagrin, as he opens the deceptively white diaper. But the acid smell assaults him not even one second after he has opened the terrible package.

“Oh, damn,” John says, pulling back. “Abigail, what are you feeding to this baby?”

“Oh, shut up, John Marston!”

-

As they cross the hills, they can make the outline of the ranch in the distance.

“Thank you,” says John, stopping for a moment. “For what you did today.”

“It’s nothing,” says Uncle. He drives his horse closer to John, and briefly squeezes his shoulder. Then, they carry on.

-

It takes a little while but once Lil’ Sadie starts crawling it takes no time for her to try to stand on her two feet. Any available support —be it a table, a wall, the dog, or Uncle— that Sadie has at hand she will use to try and walk. 

And Lord, does that baby tries. She falls, she stands up, she falls again, and she goes back to standing up, undaunted. They are lucky the house doesn’t have stairs, or Abigail’s sure that they would go crazy chasing that little girl around.

“She's persistent,” John points out. “Just like us.”

“Hard-headed, most probably,” snarks Abigail with feigned exasperation. “And that’s all you, John Marston.”

John chuckles, “Brave, tough, tenacious and beautiful. Phew, Abigail, we created a menace, alright! Should have called her Lil’ Ass Kicker instead,” and John proceeds to raise his voice to say, “Don’t you agree, Lil’ Ass Kicker?”

The baby yells, delighted to hear her father’s voice.

“John!” Abigail snorts. “Don’t start calling her that. What if she actually starts answering to that instead of her name!”

“That’d be pretty funny, actually,” says Jack as he makes Lil’ Ass Kicker giggle by spinning her around the room.

-

The burial had been a simple thing. Possessed by a strange energy, John had dug the grave in one go on the top of a small hill overlooking the ranch. Blackwater’s preacher came to the funeral and delivered an eulogy, though John didn’t listen to one word.

Instead, he remembered Arthur, a long time ago, every few months riding into town for a week or so. Coming back relieved, happy. More alive. John also remembered, that one day like any other, Arthur leaved camp early, a smile on his face. How he, John, had mentally complained, all pettiness, for the row of additional chores that he would have to deal with the next few days. He remembers Arthur coming back, less than a day after, wordless. How he had gone back to his tent without talking with anybody. How all the gang had understood what was going on.

John is shaken off his reverie by Abigail, leaving their mutual embrace as her body flinches forwards in pain. John kneels right beside her; he presses their hands together and it's the first time John becomes aware of the strength behind his wife's thin hands. She holds tight enough for him to feel the creak of his bones, but John doesn't let go. He holds on to his wife with the strong hands, his wife that blares her teeth in frustration, in superhuman effort. Like there's a wolf inside of her and she's struggling to keep it in her body. Like it would break through her skin and ran away, savage, furious and in pain and it would never come back. That it would leave her behind.

Uncle had helped, Lumbago and all, with the inhumation. And just like that, it was done. One after the other, the family went back inside the house, and John stood over his daughter’s grave alone.

-

He remembers Dutch and Hosea talking with the young man, John watching distantly them throughout the corner of the eye. And he remembers the muffled, hidden sobs of one of the toughest men he had ever met on the tent next to him at night.

“I’m sorry,” had said John, one gray morning, just like this one. 

“Thank you,” had replied Arthur. They had hugged each other tightly, for how long John doesn’t know.

-

He’s done it right this time, John’s sure. They’ve done right this time around. So he can’t make sense why would God punish them like this. Maybe they are cursed. Or maybe everybody is. Maybe that’s all life is, just an unending series of losses.

Or maybe God took her away and placed her somewhere else. Somewhere nicer with a nicer family, one that can give her nicer things. John would like that. Maybe there she could inherit something more than a life on the edge, always on the lookout for whichever of Daddy’s stupid mistakes comes back to haunt them. To hunt them.

John could understand that.

-

John is pretty ambivalent when it comes to God. Abigail, in turn, is very partial to take no risks when it comes to their children future, so she makes sure to baptize them. Life’s too hard already to make enemies from the get-go, she tells John and he laughs.

Her daughter will always have a place, she tells him. She’ll be protected that way.

When Jack was born, Abigail had him almost immediately baptized by Reverend Swanson. The moment the man was sober enough to hold a baby anyways. Abigail had chosen Jack’s godparents alone back then: Mary-Beth, who had assisted her with even the ugly parts of the pregnancy —and she had believed in Jesus none! Sweet Mary-Beth, who had agreed just to give Jack all the love and help he could get! And of course, dear old Arthur —and her chest pangs at the thought. Always checking up on her, always providing for her, back when John had not.

Maybe it’s from there that Jack gets his passion for books.

This time around, though, she’s more relaxed about the whole thing. She and John had planned for it, the church, the clothes, the small party afterwards… Together, they had decided the godparents. Though that last thing had been a very unanimous and fast agreement.

This instance, they can take their time, they have to, actually. Whenever they can get Charles and Sadie together in the same place and at the same time, they’ll get their daughter her healthy dose of holy water.

-

Jack deals with his grief the same way he deals with all of his feelings. He turns inwards, unto himself, and waits for them to sort themselves out. He asks for no help and expects none of it. But Abigail knows her boy.

It’s a cold but sunny morning, when Abigail walks out the door, her stride sure, towards her son, who is carrying a heavy bucket of water through the long, yellow Indiangrass.

“Jack,” she calls.

“Momma?” Jack answers, his voice quiet. He turns to see her, small grey bags under his young eyes. Abigail takes the bucket from his hands and leaves it on the ground, fast enough that a bit spills on the arid ground.

“What’s wrong, Momma?” he asks, but before he can finish the question Abigail’s arms are all over Jack, bringing him close, squeezing him tight. Her head perched in the nook of his neck. Oh, she realizes, he’s getting so tall.

“I love you,” she says. And Jack’s so surprised —though why is he surprised?— that it takes him a moment to respond to the hug in kind.

“I love you,” she says again.

“I love you too,” answers Jack. And he hates himself a little when his voice trembles while he says it.

“I love you,” says Abigail, for the third time. And it’s this third one that causes Jack eyes to water and his throat to clench and for him to sob noisily into his mother’s shoulder.

-

“Sadie say Jack! Yah-ack” her brother instructs her.

“Can you say Dad, Sadie? Duh-ad.”

“Ank—” yells Lil’ Sadie. With all the capacity her little lungs can muster.

“Yes, Sadie, ‘Jack’! Try again, Sadie. YAH-ack.”

“Oh, she ain’t saying anything, fools!” Snorts Uncle. “Stop embarrassing yourselves already.”

“Uncle shut up! My daughter’s speaking her first words!”

“Uncle!” yells the little girl.

The house goes dead quiet.

“No,” says John, voice absolutely flat.

Another moment passes.

“I’ve read,” speaks Jack, very carefully breaking the astonished silence of the house, “that babies tend to repeat the words that they hear the most. It must be the case, too, for words that are…” —and he can’t help himself from snickering— “constantly yelled really loud.”

“Well, I’ll be…” says Uncle, mouth agape. But he can’t get to finish whatever profanity he was going to say because Abigail starts laughing and laughing like she had been told the world’s best joke. She laughs so much she hunches over, unable to breathe, tears in her eyes. And, oh, John smiles, resigned. Contenting, at least, with hearing the pure, perfect joy that emits his wife.

-

It’s the dead of the night when John wakes up. The house is dark in deep blue blackness. Carefully, he moves out of bed, trying to not stir his wife awake. It doesn’t quite work. For Abigail and John had lived dangerous lives. And when you are a survivor you sleep light, always ready for the next sudden thing that’s coming to get you.

“Mmm,” she murmurs, less than half awake, her eyes shut, her arms extending over the empty space where her husband was, searching for him. “Where’ you going?”

Her fingers wrap unto the lukewarm fabric of the sheets.

John doesn’t know. He is tired, but he woke up filled with energy, energy that won’t let him rest. Though he doesn’t say it for he is not sure that makes any sense.

“Thirsty,” he lies. “I’ll get me some water.”

John walks down the hallway, past the kitchen, then outside, to the porch. The cool air settles his nerves. He has the feeling he was having some sort of nightmare, but if he did, he can’t remember any of it.

John leans on the wooden railing, and from there he looks at the world at night. The full moon eclipses the starry sky, though its cold light is not enough to vanish the shadows that surround the ranch. The shape of the trees, the buildings and the fences look malevolent in the dark, as if they could advance, encroaching the Marstons and their house. An unknown animal howls in the distance, a calling that Rufus answers back.

John keeps wandering the night. He patrols his usual route around the farm, guarding it from what, though, he doesn’t know. Not even a jackal crosses his way as he passes through. Somehow that makes him feel just little bit empty.

Finishing his round, John decides to end his vigil after taking one last look inside the barn. Opening the door, just enough to let a sliver of moon shine its way in, John enters the shelter. The dim glow is enough for him to make out the silhouettes of the structure, most tools, and the inhabitants of the barn. Even the two horses sleep soundly, unbothered. Their familiar snores rumbling softly across the ample space.

John extends his arm, finding support in the softwood pillars. His eyes tremble under the sting of night’s cold air, and John starts weeping in the stables. Grief, he finds out, is like water. It will take advantage of every cranny one has, to spill itself, all of it. He cries for his daughter, he cries for Arthur, he cries for Hosea, he cries for himself, for Abigail, for Jack, he cries for the blurred shadows of people he knew, long ago. Years of late grief finding his way out that night, threatening to flood the barn, the farm, the plains, the land.

When he exits, John promises to himself that when death comes back, he’ll be ready. He won’t lose anything ever again.

-

John drives the wagon fast. Maybe too fast. Every bump on the dirt road from Blackwater to Beecher’s Hope make the whole vehicle jump, and the matron along with it.

“Well, you seem positively high-strung, my good man! If you don’t mind me saying it,” says the stout, older woman after they have hit the third pothole in a row.

“I’m sorry for the rough ride, madam!” says John, and he means it. Despite his embarrassed, little smile.

“First time?”

"No, not really,” replies John. And he thinks his following words carefully, “Just that, for the first one we had… a lot more people to help us."

“Hmm,” hums the matron, “moved away from the family to start your new life?”

“You could say that,” answers John as nonchalantly as he manages.

"Yet despite your nerves,” the woman interjects with a pleased smile, “you can't seem to contain your excitement."

With a subtle nod with the head, she points towards the thrilled grin John has had plastered in his face during the whole ride.

"Yeah," John says, eyes on the road. "I’m very happy."

-

It’s after the third time that Abigail wakes up with her husband missing from his bed, long gone to who knows where, that she decides to confront him about it.

They close the door of their bedroom to try to keep the fight out of earshot. What are they fighting against neither of them knows. They don’t say mean to things to each other, just hurtful things, which is different. The first ones you do them with the intention of seeing blood sprout from the wounds; the other ones come naturally, by discussing the many ways one is absent. The little gaps that show themselves where there was once something and now there’s nothing.

“Well, you won’t talk about it! Like she never existed in the first place. Makes me feel I’m going mad, like I’m the only one who remembers her.” And it’s not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth either. Because while Abigail is weighted down by a grief that only John could possibly understand, and she wants, needs somebody to hold it with her; she’s just as worried about the vacant look with which his husband moves around the house. About the nocturnal strolls John aimlessly walks during the deep of the night, where he goes alone, and none could help him if anything happened.

“You want me to talk about it?” asks John, through gritted teeth.

“It would help me if you did,” says Abigail. Because at this point of their lives, she knows her husband well. And she knows how, for prideful men to help themselves, you must make it look like they’re doing you a favor.

John turns in place, hands in the air. He tries to get that broken note in Abigail’s voice out of his head. Failing, he slides —exasperated, exhausted— his fingers through his dark hair and nape. He takes a deep breath.

“Fine,” John says, as he drops himself on the edge of the bed, where his wife is sitting. “I went to her grave. Early morning, earlier morning,” he corrects himself. “I was there when the sun was coming up.”

A pause.

“There were… flowers, growing around the mound.”

Silence, again.

“I— I wanted,” John turns his head around, struggling to find the words. “What I wanted was— t’was to rip them. Rip them right off the ground.”

Abigail lifts her head up, just a little bit, enough to look at her husband’s face. John’s face. His gaze fixed intense to a wall. Jaw rigid with something strong, a barely contained earthquake under the surface of his cheeks.

“I couldn’t stand them. Couldn’t stand those white little flowers growing up. While she couldn’t.”

He goes real quiet after that. Abigail says nothing, just looks at his face, trying to assimilate the fragility of her husband’s voice as he says that.

“I miss her,” concludes John. His brow set into a scowl, as something angry and damp gathers in his brown eyes.

Abigail closes the distance between them, laying her head on her husband’s shoulder. John’s neck and temple lower themselves softly over the top of his wife’s soft black hair. One hot tear falls from his chin to Abigail’s hand, the one resting on top of John’s knee.

“I miss her too.”

-

“She has your exact nose, honey. And your cute brow.”

The baby is quiet, her eyelids closed, delicate like flower buds, her small nostrils open and close so softly in her stubby little nose. John is amazed to see, just how Sadie fits so very perfectly in Abigail’s arms.

“And is that a good thing, Mr. Marston?”

John looks at his wife’s tired smile, and the glow that shines within her. Through her. She looks like a mess; she has never looked so beautiful.

“There’s not a single thing you have that I don’t love.”

“Can you really see that in a baby’s face?” asks Jack, genuinely intrigued, through a whisper, so to not risk disturbing her first night in the world.

“Nah,” says Uncle, much less sensitively. “That’s just hogwash sappy fools tell themselves to feel special.”

“Old man, disturb my daughter’s birth or her mother again and I’ll give you a beating you’ll be crying about on your next life.”

“Geez!” cries Uncle. “I pity that little girl if she’s gonna have to deal with a temper like that for the rest of her life!”

Jack escorts Uncle outside the room, John hopes that the lecherous old fart keeps shamelessly flirting with the unfazed matron over a cup of tea and annoys them no more. Abigail just chuckles.

“I do mean it, though” says John, his voice almost a murmur.

Abigail turn her head to her husband, leaning on his chest. Her tense muscles starting to relax, “What do you mean?”

“There’s not a single thing that I don’t love about you, or Jack, for that matter. And there’s not a single thing that I won’t love about her,” he says, very gently pressing the baby’s nose with his finger.

Abigail closes her eyes, rejoicing in the refreshing temperature of John’s body, “I know.”

-

“Do you have children, Mr. Marston?” asks Luisa on the next turn of the road. The creaking wagon slides swiftly under the practiced riding of the farmer’s hands. The white cotton clouds make way for the brilliant sun of Nuevo Paraíso, the dust and sand glimmering between the movement of the air. And there, right in the middle of the thousand flowering green cacti that spreads to their sides, a beautiful deer, long antlers and golden skin stares at them curiously. The man gives it a long look before the animal turns its back to them, leaping forward to a destination unknown.

John could swear he saw a cerulean glint on its eyes.

“I have a son at home… and a daughter in heaven.”

John tilts his hat up, it’s a clear blue sky above.