It was after sundown when she heard his footfall on the porch, much later than it should have been. She’d been outside earlier while her lemon pie cooled, staring at the harvest moon’s golden rise. The cool air of late October retained the sweetness of summer but hinted at the harshness of approaching winter, a shift in weather that would come with the first blue norther, howling down from Canada, from the icy reaches of the Arctic. It could come without warning, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. But for the moment, things were serene. The wind breathed comfortably across her cheek, the grass was soft with green plush, the trees still leaved with late season shade. It was her favorite time of year, or it always had been. That moment before things changed.
She stood still, her hands bunched in her apron, astonished as she always was by the preternatural size of the moon’s perfect orange orb as it cleared the horizon, illogically worried that if she moved it would vanish. It seemed enormous in the northeastern sky. She was almost afraid of it. In an hour’s time, she knew, it would recover its normal shape, normal size, normal silvery color. It would dominate the night, wash out the stars, banish the invisible to its sharp dark curtains, virtual shrouds cast from the angles of buildings and objects solid enough to block its light. It seemed peculiar to her that such a prodigious light could come without heat, without cold, with nothing more than the silence of its purity, and that in a few minutes, it would burnish every unshadowed it touched with luminous, intangible rime.
When she returned inside, she was vaguely unsettled. The aroma of a lemon pie filled the kitchen. Lemons were a treat, something rare in her life out here, so far from such delicacies, so far from anything worthwhile. She paid too much for them, she knew. She could afford it, and she recalled with some satisfaction the resentment in the eyes of other women when she quickly snapped up the small crate containing a dozen of the precious yellow orbs, opened her pocketbook and fished out the greenback bills to fling at the obsequious Mexican whose wagon brought them there along with other uncommon vegetables and fruits. But she always saw resentment in their eyes, resentment and judgement and condemnation and, sometimes, she knew, pity. It bruised her soul.
Although she had been expecting it, his knock startled her. It was firm but not demanding. She took a sharp breath and called, “Come,” as if he was a servant. And he was, in a way, a servant. At least he was in her service, or he had been. It was now time for reckoning.
When he entered, he filled the room. He was not particularly a big man, but it was not a large space, this kitchen that that had been added onto the house as an afterthought. Interior kitchens were something new out here, something unique and modern. Hers was one of the few in any home in the county. She was proud of it, of the smooth, planked floors, the zinc-and-porcelain stove, the maplewood pie safe and sideboard with its white crocks of flour and sugar, salt and grains, the large oak table and matching chairs she placed at the center for casual meals, for making biscuits or pie crusts, for sitting and sipping coffee and contemplating the ruin of her life. She wondered if it was right to receive him there, even so, rather than in the parlor with its upholstered furniture, its crystal vases, cut-glass lamps, delicate lace antimacassars and braided rug, décor brought out at great expense, furnishings no one ever saw because no one ever called. The kitchen seemed more proper, all things considered, and that mattered more than anything else. She so wanted to be proper.
He closed the door softly and stood without moving, weight on both legs, shifted forward, on the balls of his feet, as if presenting himself. That, too, was proper. He was dirty, dusty. He reeked of the road. Horse sweat stench and stale body odor, tobacco and maybe stagnant whiskey odors wafted off of him. His face was sylvan with a week’s whiskers, and when he removed his hat, a gesture as automatic as blinking, his hair matted where the band had flattened it, had creased the dirt-smears on his forehead, accentuated his advancing baldness, made him look older than she suspected he was. His clothes were rough, stained, the collarless shirt gray with grime, the serge frockcoat ragged at the hem and lapels, torn on one elbow. His hands, thick, hard, had stubby fingers and broken nails. The leather linings of his trousers were creased and oily, and his boots were stirrup-scarred, but he’d removed his spurs. There was that, at least. He wore a large knife, sheathed on his belt. Under his coat, she knew, there was surely a revolver. Maybe more than one.
She groped her memory for his name, since she seldom thought of him by name. Then she recalled the way he signed the wire. The same name she had seen in an obscure ad in the newspaper, the name she used a month before to find him and summon him all the way from St. Louis to her service: Sanchez. A Mexican name, but there was nothing about him that was Mexican, or Spanish or Latin. She recalled no accent. It was probably an alias, she considered. Un nom de commodité. A memory flashed across her mind as quick as heat lightening: a distant Boston classroom, a pinched-faced nun drilling uniformed and thickly braided girls in French idioms. It was gone in an instant. She couldn’t recall if he gave her his Christian name. It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be real, either. And, she was certain, he was no Christian.
After a moment, she sensed the awkwardness of their silence, and she realized it was for her to start. “You’re later than your wire said. I expected you at noon.”
He shrugged. “It’s never easy to tell. Horse pulled a bad leg. Had to get another. That took time.” His eyes darted quickly around the room, scanned the sampler on the wall, the faded landscape oil, darkened by cooking grease and lamp smoke, the miniature of a wild flower, the photographic portrait of her parents, the painting, Jesus Meeting the Woman at the Well, the framed dried flowers of her wedding bouquet, then returned and settled on her. There was nothing behind them. She remembered them as hazel, with a yellow cast in the left one, a mark that was hard not to stare at, but in the low, golden lamp light, they seemed dark, almost black.
She felt herself draw up. She felt an eyebrow arch. “Am I to pay for that?” She hated herself for acting that way. Imperious. Proud. It wasn’t what she intended. It was an affection she’d adopted too recently to feel comfortable with.
“No, mum.” He shook his head. “My cost.”
“I kept supper,” she said, softening. “It’s still hot.” He didn’t move, but his eyes scanned the stovetop. “There’s pie,” she added. “If you like lemon pie.”
“I like pie. No need, though.”
“I’d say yes to a drink.”
“I don’t keep spirits,” she returned, sharper than she meant to. He looked crestfallen for a moment, then recovered instantly and reformed his neutral mask.
For a moment, they stood again in silence, like columns facing each other across the opening of a bank or a museum, marble and cold, but soiled, somehow. Weathered by time. Touched by many unwashed hands. To break the moment, she moved to the window and looked out. Moonlight now slanted across the dooryard, the garden, bleaching everything white, creating eerie shadows, finely etched and sharp jet shapes. “So, it’s done.”
She could see his shadow cast by golden lamplight against the wall, but she saw him nod. He shifted his weight. He seemed easy on his feet, heavy boots or no. Lithe. He was lithe. Like a cat. Deceptively strong. She felt an alarming tingle in her abdomen spread rapidly along the insides of her limbs. Perspiration formed beneath her arms, on her brow. Her breasts suddenly itched. Why not? The thought flitted across her mind like a moth in search of flame. What difference would it make? The second question followed the first out into the moonlight, settled in the shadows like an animal, waiting, watching her.
The unwelcome sensations disconcerted her. She shook her head as if to disperse them, to focus on the matter at hand. “Did he suffer?” She forced her voice to a steady, low tone, keeping her gaze on the silvery dooryard beyond the window. He started to answer, but she didn’t allow it. “I wanted him to suffer. Did he suffer?”
“Not much,” he said. “You didn’t say that before.” He sighed. “You didn’t say you wanted that.”
She turned and stepped toward him, holding the alto tone. “I should have thought it would be obvious.” He didn’t back away from her, didn’t flinch, didn’t avert his eyes. She took another step, gathered one hand inside the other, a covered fist. “He didn’t suffer.”
“One clean shot,” he said. His face held hers. “He was coming from church.”
“Funeral. He’d been to a funeral. Alone. Saw the chance and took it. It was clean.”
“But he didn’t suffer?” He shook his head. “And you’re sure of it.”
“I opened his throat. To be sure.” He watched her eyes move to the knife, followed them with his own, but he didn’t touch it. “He was already gone.”
“He didn’t know I sent you?”
“He didn’t know a thing.”
“But you’re sure? You’re sure it was he.”
He reached into his weskit pocket and pulled out a small, gold medal, a souvenir from the war. She knew it. It had anchored his watch fob. “Could have brought you his head,” he said, a corner of his mouth almost turning up, but not quite. Now he put a hand on the knife’s hilt. “Or an ear.” He was enjoying the irony, she thought, too much. He made a show of once more visually surveying the neat kitchen. “Figured not.”
She abruptly went to a large blue ceramic jar decorated with hand-painted peonies and periwinkles on a polished shelf above the sideboard, removed the lid and took out a heavy leather pouch. She gave it to him. He hefted it, then dropped it to his side. “Do you want to count it?”
He shook his head, and for the first time, dropped his eyes, unable to meet her stare, but he didn’t move. “You’ve no reason to sharp me. We both own it, now.”
“Go wash,” she said. The discomfiting sensations returned for a second or two, so she added, “You’ll sleep in the barn, tonight.” He nodded. “Wash. Then come back. I’ll set the table.” He nodded again, replaced his hat, turned and left without a word.
When he was gone, she put coffee on to boil, placed the china, her mother’s, brought over the ocean from England, the silver, also her mother’s, but she didn’t know from where it came. The pieces reminded her of winter feasts, the warmth of a laden table surrounded by laughing friends seated before frosted windows revealing a common covered with icy confection. Times long past. Far away. It never snowed like that out here. Out here winter came in like a juggernaut, merciless, inexorable, unforgiving. Out here the weather was harsher, harder, deadlier. Even the snow, when it came, cut with a ragged sharpness. She filled stoneware mugs with spring water, thought fleetingly of childhood summers, of gentle heat, not searing sun and blistering wind, of green grass, not hard-packed, rocky soil, of soft spring rains, not torrential downpours and cyclone clouds. She ladled out the potatoes, the peas, found the biscuits in the warmer and wrapped them in a tea-towel and put them in a basket, and then pulled the chicken from the oven and put it in the center of the table along with a knife to carve it. Then she went to the mirror and studied her face. Bright eyes, golden hair, clear skin, no pockmarks, no moles, no wens. Well-formed, she knew. A beauty, still. And smart. Schooled. Read. Still young. Still . . . her thoughts were scattered by a pang of modesty. She knew what lay behind the visage, and it shamed her to a blush.
Suddenly anxious, she stepped again out onto the porch, then out into the dooryard, where the cool of the autumn evening had settled the dust. The breeze had died and the air was breathless, still, as if waiting for change. She looked up, past the treetops, to the moon. Now silver, almost blue, if anything, it seemed brighter than before. It was so clean, so pure. But she wondered about the other side, about what was behind the moon.
When she was a girl, long before she was brought out here, when she came upon an apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. The fruit was too high for her to reach, but a few had fallen into the grass. One seemed so red, so shiny and inviting as it lay there in the green blades that it seemed to beckon to her. Her mouth watered for a taste of it, for the crisp sweet juice that would spring forth when she bit into it. There was a sign forbidding trespass, but she found a stick and reached through the fence between the path and the grass beneath the tree and raked it toward her, then plucked it up. She remembered how firm and solid it felt beneath her fingertips. But when she brought it up to her face, about to bite into it, she glimpsed the other side. It was cratered with rot. Tiny black insects swarmed out of the withered skin and dark brown creases ran through the gaping side where some bird or animal had ravaged it. A string of sticky goo ran down her fingers, tainted the perfect peel of the good side. The stink of it struck her nostrils, and her throat closed in the horror of what she held, her stomach churned in terror of what she was about to put into it, her mouth clamped shut against what she was about to bite into. She flung it away, ran home in tears and panic, and, reaching the porch where the servants worked, plunged her hands and face into the hot, sudsy laundry tub, tried to scour the monstrosity from her mind. The servants panicked. Her mother was mystified, and she could never explain.
Now, she looked again at the moon and wondered about what was behind its perfect, silver face, if it, on the other side, was pocked and putrid, teeming with vermin and stinking with death and mortification. She longed to see if that was so, but the moon’s face remained impassive, cool and silent, holding its secrets behind its brilliant silence. She wanted to love the moon, to share its loneliness and embrace it, but she didn’t dare. Her choices had too often failed to see what was behind the image, to consider that beauty often concealed monstrousness and corruption. She felt a sudden chill and returned to the kitchen, where she once more wondered also about him—about Sanchez—who he was, really, what he had done, truly and, again, about her face in the mirror.
He returned to the door in only a few more minutes, knocking again, again obeying her command to enter. He had washed, put on a clean shirt and collar and a burgundy cravat with a blue pin. He still wore the knife. His hands were abraded from scrubbing and his hair was slicked back, still glistening from a hurried rinse. He hadn’t shaved, but the dust was brushed from his coat and trousers, and he no longer smelled of the road.
She gestured and he sat, and she poured his coffee into a china cup and took the chair opposite. “You’re not joining me?” he asked, his eyes fixing her once more, but only for a second or two, then glanced off.
“I’ve eaten,” she said. “You were late. Remember?”
He nodded once, then tucked his napkin in the V of his weskit and ate quietly and without talking, without looking at her or, really, at anything. His face was a cypher. He took small bites, chewed with his mouth closed. She thought she heard him humming while he ate, but she couldn’t be sure. She watched him handle the utensils, considered how delicately his thick fingers manipulated the knife and fork. She wondered if he handled the blade on his belt with the same finesse when he cut a man’s throat, when he cut his throat.
“You know why I wanted it done,” she said at last. It wasn’t a question. He looked at her, and this time, with the angle of the lamp hitting him just so, she saw the yellow cast. He only shrugged. “He ruined me,” she continued. He sipped the coffee, then took another piece of chicken, this time in his fingers, and gnawed at it quietly, politely, his eyes still vacant, unfocused, without expression. “And he shamed me.” Unable to bear it, she stood. “I had to do it.” She turned her back to him. “I had to have you do it.”
“It’s done,” he said, chewing. “That’s all there is to say.”
“He was no good.” She heard her voice rising, her face flushing, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Everyone knew it. Everyone told me so. I refused to hear it.” She shook her head, felt a strand of hair loosen from a pin. “He used me. Made a fool of me.” She looked around the room, as if anticipating objection. Her eyes passed quickly over the picture of her parents, their dour stares into the lens. “I cannot abide being the object of pity.” She caught herself in the mirror, was gratified momentarily to see that her deeper feelings didn’t show on her face.
He continued to eat, wiping his fingers on the napkin, the corners of his mouth, sipping the water. He looked at her flatly, without commitment. Then, finally, crossing his fork and knife over the empty plate, removing his napkin, he drank off his coffee and said, “You have all of this.” She spun on him, suddenly furious, feeling herself go flush, but he didn’t move. “You have land. Money.” He waved his hand around the room. “All of this.”
“You cannot understand,” she said, catching herself and calming herself. “I can never—” She stopped. “He wanted another life,” she said after a beat. “He had another life. All along. He lied to me. He—” She broke off, about to say “seduced me,” but that wouldn’t have been true. She was as culpable as he in that bad bargain, although she hadn’t seen the rotten truth that he hid behind the silky smoothness of his lies. She took a cleansing breath. “I have money. Yes. And land. Yes. And the house, and . . . but what he took from me . . . what he left me with . . . ” The emerging shrillness in her tone caused here to catch herself and stop to find the bottom of her range once more. “I am just here,” she nearly whispered. She looked at the picture of her parents. “Forever. You cannot understand.”
“I don’t have to.”
She suddenly wanted to cry, but she willed away the emotion, went again to the window and looked out at the moonlit dooryard. For a moment, neither of them spoke. She could hear him breathing, could feel her heart returning to a normal pulse. Suddenly and without thinking about it, she went to the sideboard and cut a piece of pie. It was perfect. The creamy meringue delicately browned at the peaks. She put it on a plate, took a clean napkin and covered it. “Take this to the barn.” She thrust it toward him. “I don’t want to see you anymore. I don’t want you here in the morning.”
He folded his napkin and placed it on the table, every move deliberate, then stood, gave her a momentary study, and accepted the proffered plate. She met his eyes once more, but now, they were again in shadow. “Thank you for the supper. I’ll be gone before moonset,” he said, then, after a sigh, he added, “Nothing’s changed. You know that, don’t you?” He held her eyes for a beat, then turned to go.
She watched him leave, the door shut, and felt silence descend on the room like so many motes recovering from a sudden disturbance. After a moment, she cut another slice of the pie, put it on a plate and set it on the table. She sat down, forked a bite into her mouth and tasted the tart sweetness of it, the crispness of the crust, the burst of summer that lemons always seemed to capture. From her chair, she could see out the window, view now the brilliance of the moon, now high above the barn, shining steadily and bathing unsheltered thing in silent, lonely crystalline light. “Nothing’s changed,” she said. Tears flooded her eyes, flowed like quicksilver down her face that remained perfectly stolid and unyielding. “Nothing’s changed.”
Clay Reynolds’ “Autumn Moon" won the TIL’s Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story.