If I was doing NaNoWriMo, I’d be right on track for word count, lol. Not that that’s the goal, but I always enjoy to measure my pace. I’m a bit taken aback by where this is going, I haven’t had a character like Francis in ages. Thank you everybody for reading and again, to those who comment. J
I have to quickly add that I meant no harm in using Antonio’s name. It’s only in name; I make no assumptions on his person. It happened by accident that, in this chapter, his name played a bigger role because the character stepped up and said. “Hey, what about me?!” If I had known he would do that, I wouldn’t have used the name.
This is and remains a work of fiction.
Which, I didn’t check for errors before posting it (suffering fromm a late night’s work and too tired to focus properly).
Bitten Part 4.
She was listening to a conversation.
“I appreciate the trouble you’re going through Antonio, I realize that it’s at a great inconvenience.”
There was a low, familiar chuckle and she could almost see her boss run his fingers through his thinning, dark hair.
“Not so much an inconvenience as a mystery Francis,” he said warmly. “I’m sorry about all of this. You say Siobhan is ill?”
“She’s got a fever,” Francis replied quickly. “I didn’t feel comfortable to let her drive. I’ll keep her here until she’s better and then give you a call. She sleeps through most of the day.”
Antonio made a considering sound. “She’s a hard worker that one, I’m glad you two get on. I don’t like seeing people alone,” he paused. “Even if they say they want to be.”
She heard Francis snort, and wondered how she could’ve detected the sound. It was so far away…
“It might be a good idea,” Antonio continued, “just to get Mary to have a look at her. I don’t want people to think…” He hesitated, his voice turning embarrassed. “Well, you know what people say about you. I’d hate for more rumours to start, and I’d hate for Siobhan to be involved in more of them.”
When Francis replied, her tone held its usual calm but Vaughn could sense her anger. “People will say what they want to say Antonio,” she said, sounding tired. “Mary won’t stop any of the whispered words. It doesn’t bother me.”
Antonio’s reply was quick. “But, it bothers Siobhan,” he pointed out. “You chose this Francis, you’ve lived with it for years. The rumours, the isolation. Siobhan comes from a large city and as far as I can gather, she wanted to make a fresh start of things. She’s managed well till now, I don’t want to see her hurt.”
This time, Francis’s anger was clearer. “Are you saying I’ll hurt her?” she snapped. “God Antonio, she’s my… friend. She’s the first friend that I’ve had since… Well. You. The only friend. She chose to come to me. She chose to follow…” She hesitated, faltering. “I’ll take care of her, and when she’s better, then I’ll return her to you. Then she can make her own choices from there.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Well right,” Antonio said finally. “Just so we’re clear on things.” He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry Francis, I didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did. I know that you didn’t choose a lot of things in your life.”
There was a pause and then; “I know Antonio,” Francis’s voice was sad and quiet. “I’m sorry if I snapped. It’s just… a stressful time.”
“If you want,” her boss said. “I’ll take her down with me, then you don’t have to worry about her at all.”
Francis laughed softly. “I’ll worry anyway, this is partly my fault. Siobhan has nobody in town, rather let her stay here – with a friend. I’ll take good care of her, I promise.”
There was a pause that could possibly have been filled with either a hug or a brief, friendly kiss.
“I trust you,” Antonio said. “I’ll see you in two weeks. Tell Siobhan she can have a holiday till then, if she wants to come down earlier, just say – I’ll send a truck. Or come myself. Just take care of her Francis.”
Francis chuckled and again there was a brief pause. “I’ll do,” she said. “And thank you for everything Antonio, you’ve been a good friend even though I haven’t given you any reason to be.”
Her boss laughed. “Knowing you is reason enough,” he said. “I worry about you Francis, you’ve kept yourself apart from us for too long. You haven’t even come down for dinner in… Months. Denise asks about you often.”
“Tell her I’m well,” Francis replied quickly, with a smile, “and say that my absence has got nothing to do with her cooking. Now, don’t you need to start going? Your lackey will be wondering where you were.”
Antonio snorted, and there was a sound of a car door opening. “Alan’s boy?” he queried. “He couldn’t get out of here quick enough, could he? And your wolf’s not even around. It pains me to say, he’s his father’s child.” The car door shut as the engine to the Toyota started up. Francis was quiet for a long time.
“Yes he is,” she said finally. “Thanks again Antonio, I appreciate the trouble you’re going through.”
Vaughn missed the last reply if there had been one, and pretty soon the truck drove off, leaving the place quiet and peaceful. There was a soft sigh from the yard, and a low whine that told her Romulus had just joined Francis’s side. There was a pause, and then a soft. “I know, but it can’t be helped can it?” From Francis. The woman has always spoken to the animal as if he could understand every word that she said.
In her semi-delusional state, Vaughn couldn’t help but believe it. She allowed her mind to drift as she heard the soft commotion in the yard outside that old her Francis was taking care of her other animals, piecing together bit of her life that she had forgotten, remembering more conversations from her life here and the one she had left behind. She didn’t feel fear anymore, or worry. But, she felt the need to understand. The need to understand herself, and this woman that she was living with. This woman with her kind words and her gentle hands.
This woman with her wolves, and her mysterious past.
So, she waited for her and, when she finally came into the room, smelling of the world outside, of horses and goats and soap, Vaughn opened her eyes and pushed herself up beside the pain, to look at Francis and meet her green gaze. The woman seemed surprised by her action and hesitated before she reached the bed.
“Are you alright?” she asked. “What’s wrong Vaughn?”
She swallowed and had to lie back, her strength failing her. “What happened to your child Francis?” she asked softly – not bothering to answer the questions posed to her. “Tell me, please.”
She could see that her question shocked the woman as pain filtered across her pale features. She made to turn around, then paused and sighed before approaching the bed. She sat down on the edge, her hand finding Vaughn’s foot under the covers.
“Do you remember the legend,” she queried softly. “Of St. Francis and the wolf?”
What has come before…
She wanted to forget what she had heard in the post office, but the people’s words and their jeering tones stayed with her all through the day. She delayed going up to Francis to the very last minute and even then, drove the long rode up the mountain with dread. It felt as if she was seeing shadows everywhere and she was covered in sweat by the time that she reached Francis’s cabin. Normally she had to go inside the place or around the yard to find the woman but today, she was waiting for her on the porch, her face tight with apprehension. When the truck pulled up, Francis’ face lost some of it’s tension as she wrapped her blanket around her tighter and came down the cabin steps, greeting Vaughn before she even opened the door.
“I was getting worried,” she said by way of greeting. “You are never this late. Is something the matter?” Her all seeing eyes touched Vaughn’s face and for the firs time, she found that she couldn’t stand it. Dropping her gaze, she opened the door without warning Francis and stepped round the truck before the woman could greet her properly.
“I’ve had a busy day,” she said shortly. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
Francis hesitated before she stepped closer and helped Vaughn take off the tarp. “No worries,” she said carefully. “Are you alright Vaughn? You seem tense. I realize that road’s pretty bad after this weekend’s snow.”
She couldn’t bring herself to look at the woman. “It was fine,” she said again. “As I said, I’ve just had a busy day. Where do you want these?”
She knew of course, she’s done this quite a couple of times and knew Francis’s kitchen probably as good as the woman knew it herself. Francis frowned at her, unconsciously pulling the blanket around her closer.
“The kitchen,” she said. “If… you’re in a hurry Siobhan you can just leave it on the porch. I’ll take it inside.”
Vaughn nodded her thanks, relieved that she was offered a quick way to get her job done and leave. Francis wordlessly helped her carry the boxes to the porch, stacking them up next to the door. Vaughn couldn’t help but notice that Francis limped more than usual, her leg obviously sore from waiting outside in the cold, but she numbly ignored her friend’s plight. She couldn’t wait to hand her the form to sign for the delivery and was about to get back into the truck when Francis took her arm, pulling her back. The older woman looked down at her in the fading light, her eyes darker than usual, her face sad and serene.
“What did they say about me?”
Immediately something inside Vaughn shifted and the tears that she had been holding back all day came forth, painfully and slowly as they ran across her cheeks.
“That you killed your child,” she said. “They spoke of wolves, not just one. Why would they say something like that Francis? What do they have against you? Is it the truth? Or a version of it? Why are you here?”
If Francis was taken aback by the questions, she didn’t show it. Instead, she blinked and grimaced sadly, her hand tightening on Vaughn’s arm.
“Come inside Vaughn,” she said softly. “It’s cold out here and… I don’t want to have this conversation here.”
She looked at her for a moment, then swallowed and closed her eyes, wiping away her tears as she did so. At least she was willing to talk, she thought, but she had not denied it. She didn’t know what would be the easiest option. To get in her car and leave, or to go into the house and find out the truth. When Francis pulled on her elbow ever so slightly, she conceded and numbly followed her into the warm cabin, leaving the boxes outside. As had become their custom, Francis first limped to the kitchen and poured them some filter coffee she had already made in anticipation of Vaughn’s arrival. The other woman watched her as she worked, her thoughts cold and numb. She had always envied Francis’s solitary life, caught up by the romance of it, of living on a mountain with not a soul to see for miles and to be content with it. Now, she was frightened of it or rather, the reasons the woman had for choosing to live her life so. It had never occurred to her that her isolation might not be voluntary.
Francis finished their coffee and took it to the living room without giving Vaughn her cup. Instead, she put it on the table next to the only two-seater couch that she had, a clear indication that she wanted her to sit there. Vaughn found herself rebelling against the idea, knowing that Francis wanted to sit next to her, but she felt that she had to in a sign of good will if she wanted to find out the truth. So, she sat down gingerly, and was surprised when Francis didn’t take a seat next to her, but rather on the chair closest to the unlit fire. The woman didn’t look at her immediately, but fussed with her blanket as she tucked her legs in underneath her. When she brought up her gaze, her eyes seemed ageless, her face kind as she smiled at her.
“Tell me Siobhan,” she said softly, “have you ever heard the story about St. Francis and the wolf?”
Caught by surprise, Vaughn shook her head, feeling a flash of anger. “I’m not here for a fairy tale,” she said heatedly. “I want the truth.”
Seemingly unaware of her anger, Francis shook her head and smiled as she took a sip of coffee. “Bare with me,” she said gently. “Please Vaughn, it will help you understand.”
Uncomfortable, and still upset, Vaughn nodded slowly and sat back, trying to remember how much she had loved it when Francis told her stories on their previous conversations. This was going to be different though, this was supposed to be a story of real life.
“St. Francis is the Christian saint of animals,” she began quietly, her gaze fixed, not on Vaughn, but on the world outside her window. “A Christian mystic of sorts who loved and respected the environment. There is a story that tells of, when he lived in Gubbio, how he had saved the town from a vicious wolf who had been terrorizing it for months, killing man and beast alike. Spurred by the people’s plight, St. Francis walked out of town one day to meet the wolf. The animal tried to attack him, but St. Francis, making the sign of the cross, spoke to the beast and called him ‘Brother’ besieging him to stop terrorizing the people.” Slowly, Francis’s gaze met Vaughn’s. “The wolf understood him and became meek as a lamb, lying at St. Francis’s feet before following him down to the village. St. Francis formed a truce of sorts between Man and Beast. The wolf stopped killing their livestock and kin, and in return, the people fed the wolf, caring for him as St. Francis requested.” She paused and seemed to wait.
Vaughn, unsure, took a sip of her coffee and frowned at Francis. “I don’t know what this has to do with all the terrible things people say about you,” she pointed out to which Francis smiled gently.
“Everything and nothing Siobhan,” she said. “You see, I believe that men are afraid of wolves because deep down, we are much alike. We are both running, always. The difference between us and them is that we run away from our problems, where as they run to face them.”
Vaughn swallowed, thinking about her own life. “And, what are you running from?” she queried softly, knowing that she had asked the right question when Francis broke her gaze.
She smiled, bitterly and made a sweeping motion with her hand.
“An… unwanted pregnancy,” she said, once again looking out of the window. There was a sudden scrape of nails on wood when Romulus appeared in the living room, his eyes glowing in the semi light. He glanced at Vaughn, and quietly went to lay down by Francis’s feet. Thinking of the story, Vaughn shivered as Francis continued. “In the weeks after I discovered that I’m with child, I had to sit down and re-evaluate my life. I had choices to make about the baby, choices about my own life and choices about this place, which had belonged to my grandfather and had been left to me after my own parent’s death. So, I chose to come up here at first just to see what the property still looked like and then later, after I quit my job, to stay here – thinking that it would be easier to raise a kid in a small town. Here I had hoped that I could leave things behind me and make a fresh start, allowing the child to start a life without prejudice or the stigma of his father’s actions.” She sighed softly, her gaze focused on the past and didn’t resume speaking, lost in what she saw.
Vaughn shifted uncomfortable and quietly horrified at what Francis was saying through the lines. She resisted the urge to hug herself and rather took a sip of coffee that tasted bitter in her mouth despite the sugar in it.
“If…” She hesitated as Francis’s vast green eyes fixed on her. “If you… didn’t plan the child. Why didn’t you just… you know…” She couldn’t say it, because even as she said it she knew that the woman’s answer would be. Sure enough, Francis smiled an ageless smile as she shook her head.
“All life is precious Siobhan,” she said quietly. “Every soul has a purpose.”
They stared at each other in silence. Unable to handle the distance between them suddenly, Vaughn shifted to the one side of the couch and carefully, hesitantly, motioned to the other side. Francis smiled, but didn’t stand up immediately, nor did she say anything. Knowing that it was up to her, Vaughn took a deep breath and braved the question that started it all.
“What happened?” she whispered softly. “What happened to your child?”
Francis looked at her, and with a shiver Vaughn realized that Romulus was looking at her as well. There was something in their gazes, something unified and unique. For a moment they appeared to be one soul looking at her from two bodies.
“I went into premature labour,” Francis said quietly. “If I had lived in town, they might still have been able to do something, or reach me in time. As it was, it was probably already too late by the time that I managed to contact the doctor. I couldn’t drive down in my state.”
When Vaughn blinked, she realized suddenly that she was crying, even though she had somehow expected Francis’s answer. Realizing her weakness, she quickly dropped her head and rubbed at her face. Romulus’s soft whine was the only indication that she had that Francis had moved right before she felt the couch dip as the woman sat down beside her.
“Shh,” Francis said softly as she carefully wrapped her hands around Vaughn, drawing her closer to her. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s…” Vaughn didn’t know what to say as she allowed herself to rest against the older woman. “It’s okay. I’m sorry Francis. I never doubted you I just… The rumours were so terrible.”
She felt Francis’s sigh and her slight shrug. “They always have been,” she said quietly, continuing her story. “The problem with moving here was that I was stepping into the shadow of my grandfather’s legacy of rumours. He had a reputation of his own, and it wasn’t necessarily a good one or an unfounded one. They called him Old Man Moss and he lived up here, like myself, with practically no human contact safe for the odd Samaritan that brings supplies.” Vaughn felt Francis’s body stiffen ever so slightly before she relaxed again. “The problem is that some things really do skip a generation and I… am my grandfather’s child. My sudden appearance here and my miscarriage proved to be dry kindle for the fire of human gossip. The terrible rumours started right after I returned from hospital. I seriously considered leaving then, not being in the right frame of mind to handle such talk. But, I had nowhere to go, and no real will to try and find another place.” She shrugged against Vaughn’s body and said no more.
Vaughn felt herself relaxing and carefully, gently, slipped her arms around the woman’s chest, hugging her close, taking in her familiar, comforting embrace and smell as the shadows slipped around them. Francis gently ran her hand through her hair, her touch soothing as it stirred feelings in the younger woman she had not expected to find in this night. When Francis’s hand left her hair and travelled down her back, she held her breath and pushed herself up slightly to look at the woman, surprised that – for a second, her own emotions were reflected in the woman’s gaze before her habitual serenity took their place, her eyes almost black in the dark room. Vaughn’s body shivered in anticipation as she started to lean forward, her lips already feeling the ghostly impression of the woman’s touch. To her elation, Francis didn’t pull away, her hand resting on Vaughn’s lower back as she closed her eyes, pulling her closer against her body. They were a spark away from touching, their warm breath mixing when, suddenly there was a whine and Romulus pushed Vaughn away, licking her face and whining.
She let out a startled yelp and pushed herself back, aware of Francis’s curse as she pushed her wolf away.
“Romulus,” her tone wasn’t angry, but desperate, surprised. “Please.”
The wolf whined his objection, but slinked away into the shadows, away from them.
Vaughn swallowed as she rubbed at her face, trying not to think of the tongue that she had felt in her mouth. Oh, lord what just happened? She glanced at Francis who seemed equally surprised. Or almost happened…
“Francis I’m…” She suddenly felt like slime, feeling as if she had taken advantage of the woman’s comfort and plight in order to pursue her own needs. “I’m so sorry.”
The whites of Francis’s eyes showed in the dark room as she looked in the direction that Romulus had gone. “It’s… okay,” she said, breathless. “I didn’t mean. I meant… He doesn’t understand. I’m sorry. It shouldn’t have… I mean.” It was almost more disconcerting to see the unflappable woman fazed. “There’s no need to apologize Vaughn.” She laughed suddenly, clearly. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Grateful for the darkness, Vaughn found herself chuckling as her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. And, here I thought I came here to run away from this. She thought.
Now in the furthest points on the couch, they didn’t look at each other, but sat in the silent darkness, the tension around them vibrating with a feeling close to hysteria. Deciding that it was easier to try and change the subject, Vaughn sat back and tried to regain her composure.
“I ah…” Words turned to knots in her mouth. “Ah, what I wanted to ask was… The rumours about the wolves? Where do they come from?” She swallowed, feeling her heart rate slow down. “Where did they start?”
Francis too seemed to have regained some of her composure as she grew more sombre. “That’s a question for another night,” she said slowly and stood up. “The one I would rather like to address now is, should you drive home in the dark?”
To Be Continued…