The next day, David did just as Michael had instructed, waiting until close to supper time to close his book and slip into his room, where he grabbed his favorite jacket (now a bit impractical in the warm weather), and his boots before heading quietly down the stairs. He could hear his sister Elise playing piano in the parlor, pecking out notes that she clearly had neglected to practice. He slid through the hall and into the back of the kitchen, which was deserted. A quick peek out the window revealed Mayem plucking a chicken. He smiled and slipped into the low-ceilinged dry pantry, closing the door behind him.
He moved about a few sacks of flour, then sat down. Just below his eye level, a small knot had fallen from a board, giving him a peephole that revealed the kitchen from the back door to the porcelain washbasin near the door to the rest of the house. He waited for what seemed like a long time, running through his head the things he would say to Ezra. Just as Michael predicted, his mother walked through the kitchens, not glancing at the closed pantry door, and went outside. He waited again, and shortly afterward Mayem came in. She threw the plucked chicken down on the butcher block and went to a low basin to wash the blood off her arms and hands. David’s mother came back in.
“You will set the table before cutting up that chicken, won’t you?” she said to Mayem as she passed.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mayem replied, glancing up from her washing. “As soon as I get the stove fire lit.”
“Good.” David’s mother disappeared from sight. David heard her shoes clack down the hallway.
Mayem watched David’s mother walk away, then said quietly, “Lazy old bitch.” She shook her head and opened the fire basin of the stove.
David watched her begin the modest fire, then close the lowest stove door and walk toward the dining room. He slipped out of the pantry and out the back door, past the outhouse, and into the thicket of oaks near the stable. He plopped himself down behind a bush and opened a copy of The Pathfinder he had secured through the postman, and set about trying to calm his nerves.
He perked his head up again when heard a set of metallic clangs – the call for supper. He peered through the leaves to watch his father tread across the grassy expanse from the fields to the house, trailing a few of the white task men behind him. Two other men walked a draft horse into the stable. After they all disappeared from sight, David walked casually to the stable, saddled up the horse he come to favor, and lead it round the thicket toward the plantation’s eastern trail, still hesitant enough with Michael’s plan to fear broadcasting his departure with galloping hooves.
On the other side of the creek, he saddled up his horse, laughing to himself in surprise that things had turned out just as Michael had said.
“Now I won’t be able to get out of fetching that coffin water, eh?” he said to the horse.
The sun was beginning to dip below the leafy trees as David approached the edges of the Piney Woods, and everywhere the ground was bathed in a bright warm light without shadows. He found the old trail as it shot off from the main road, and had to dismount to fit under the low-hanging branches. He lead the horse briskly along the trail, which disappeared here and there in flattened yellow grass, only to reappear a few yards ahead as beaten rocky dirt. He cut across a meadow still bathed in sunlight with insects floating like live motes of dust, and his mood lightened. Trouble was ahead or behind, but he was moving, and in that moment, things felt right. The shadows grew as he crossed, and the gold quickly faded to a silver-grey as the sun disappeared amongst the trees.
David almost missed the grove where the old rock was. The dead trees had found a semblance of life in some places, with fresh shoots twisting under greyed bark and a smattering of new leaves on the old willows. David hitched his horse’s reigns to a fallen log and removed the horse’s bit, content that she wouldn’t wander. He ducked under a cracked bough and stepped over a rotten log (careful to observe the beginnings of a few mushrooms), and saw Ezra.
She wore a simple dress of grey, and was seated on a rock beside the monolith, a book open on her lap. She closed it and smiled as he approached. The paused a few paces from one another.
“Punctual,” Ezra said. She looked down at the book in her hands, then hastily put it down on a nearby stone. “It’s a virtue, of course.”
David, compelled by his own momentum, stepped forward and took her hands. She hesitated a moment, then took one step closer, wrapping her arms around him. They kissed then, and as all first kisses are, it failed to live up to expectations, but was a tremendous release of anxiety in a final recognition of feelings that had, until that point, been obscured, and would, in hindsight, be thought momentous for signaling a commencement rather than being a thing of pleasure in itself.
Ezra blushed horribly and turned her head away from David. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting that.”
“I meant no disrespect.”
“It’s fine.” Ezra turned back and grasped one of his hands.