Her old man was mean, mean as sin, meaner still when drinking and he drank often. In his youth he’dbeen
handsome and sly, flush with inherited land and money, hid his wickedness behind flashing eyes and a winsome smile.
She was delicate and pale, an only child accustomed to the warmth and safety of a protective family.
He entered her life in a whirlwind of presents and proclaimed adoration. Wanting her only for the possession she represented he swept her off her feet and, in a heady rush to the altar, married and carried her to his home by the river. On their honeymoon night they did not make love. Instead, he beat her until she passed blood.
In all their years together they never did make love. Not even once. Occasionally he covered her as a stallion covers a mare; quickly, ruthlessly, efficiently. Afterwards he would beat her, usually with his fists, but sometimes with a harness strap.
He beat her often, not just when he mounted her. Careful to avoid marking her face, and her arms below the elbows, and her legs below the knees, he beat her with savage frequency.
He took her to church on Sundays. Quietly held her hand in the rear pew. Sang Methodist hymns in an enviable baritone. During the sermon he would lean close and whisper the punishment he planned for her when they got home. He never once failed to keep his word.
Friday nights he went into town—played cards, drank whiskey. Arriving home late he’d call her out to the barn, finding and dragging her by the hair when she didn’t come as quick as he liked. Stripping her naked in a feed stall he would beat her until his arm grew weary. Over time she learned to fast on Fridays, purging her system so as not to befoul herself in the straw.
She did not suffer alone. He kicked a dog to death for sneaking into the house, poleaxed a mule for balking in the field, wrung a rooster’s neck for crowing him awake. She raised rabbits once, but he saw she cared for them and made her watch as he skinned them alive then had her fry them for his dinner. He stomped a calf to death for knocking over a milk pail, threw stray cats into the river.
She bore him three daughters and kept his secret from them. When he came home drunk she would run to meet him in the yard or the barn or the woodshed; suffered in silence so the girls would not be awakened. He drew pleasure from her pain. He laughed at her tears, grew erect and spilled his seed. Meanwhile he treated his daughters as princesses—lavished them with gifts, flowers, clothes, all the things that turn a young girl’s head. They worshipped him. She them.
In the twenty-third year of their marriage their youngest wed and moved away with her husband. Left she and he alone together.
He got evil drunk on Monday. Sitting in a porch rocker he described in detail what he would do to her come Friday. The more he drank the more he embellished his intent. Near midnight he passed out.
She fetched rope from the barn and, working quick as a cat, bound him fore and aft to the chair. Pretending the rocker was a stubborn pony she put the rope across her shoulder and dragged it to the river. Wrestling it into the skiff she rowed to the middle of the stream. Dropping the anchor weight over the side she softly hummed hymns while waiting.
Came daylight he awakened. Groggy. Like a petulant child, he chaffed at the unfamiliar bindings. Understanding slowly dawned. Angry, he seethed and fought the rope, threatened in turn. She paid him no mind, only waited patiently for him to calm. The serene look on her face sobered him and he tried to reason. Finally, sore afraid, he begged. Cocking her head to one side she smiled as he bullied the bonds.
“Don’t rock the boat,” she cautioned quietly. “There’ll be time for that later. We’ll be adrift soon,” she said. “There above the rapids,” she pointed. “Then you can thrash all you like. We’ll float slowly at first. Then faster and faster as we take on speed near the rocks.”
His eyes widened with disbelief then narrowed with cunning. “You wouldn’t,” he hissed, spittle flecking his chin. “You won’t. You don’t have…”
“I’ll cut you free from the chair after it’s done,” she said matter of factly. “I already know what I’ll tell them. I’ll say we were night fishing and drifted onto the rocks in the dark. I’ll tell them you were ever so brave. I’ll say you did everything you could to save us, but that in the end you sacrificed yourself to save me. The girls will be so proud of their papa, and the sheriff will be appeased.”
With that she brought in the anchor. Her quiet detachment crazed him. He twisted inside the confining loops, threw himself to and fro without effect, cursed her soul and told her he would kill her.
“Oh no you won’t,” she whispered softly. “We’re drifting now. Look how the rocks come out of the water like jagged teeth. Soon they will hole the boat and it will begin to fill. It will sink or capsize. The two of us will struggle in the rapids, our clothes growing heavy with water. Then we’ll see,” she added fiercely.
He pitched the rocking chair sideways, thumping the sides of the boat as he struggled to no good end. “See what, you bitch?!” he screamed. “See what?”
The bow of the boat entered the rapids, banged against the first of the rocks, spun sideways and began to tilt.
Her quiet reply chilled him to the bone . . . “We’ll see whether you can swim as well as I.”