James comes back this time on a Thursday.
Miranda marks the days in a small book, its cover marbled in blue and green. She is halfway through this one, jumping over the sewn middle seam between Tuesday and Wednesday; James had brought it for her three trips back, without her having to ask. She has a drawerful of them by now, hidden away in her dressing table: she had bought the first of them herself, in the early days of their time here, when it was James who hid himself away in this house and it was she who ventured into the world, at least the world as far as Nassau. She had bought it, a tiny leather-covered thing, for ten pence from a pedlar who had stashed it next to a chipped porcelain plate and a child's hornbook. There had been something about it that appealed to her, a part of herself the had felt dead and wasted since London and another part of her that had grown bright and green around it, furious and helpless and defiant. She had not written anything in it but tally marks, for a while. Later, she begun to write long, briary sentences of pain and loneliness and loss, the first few months James had left her behind.
Now, she writes only lists. Something to distinguish the days, she had thought early on, but as it is most of her days are numbingly similar, made all the more starkly so by the words lined up beside each other on the page. 12th. Made bread--Weeded--Milked cows--Gathered eggs. 13th. Took in celery & lettuce--Weeds--Milk--Eggs. Her life now nothing but a line of tasks marched across the page, none of her thoughts or feelings: they had been so laborious to put down, exhausting to plumb her mind for words to describe the wordless things inside her. This is easier, if draining in its own way, the hollowness of it. 14th. Milk--Made bread--Weeds. 15th. Eggs--More lettuce--James.
He comes in late, as he usually does. She is up at the table, straining her eyes through the weak light of her candle to read some Milton before she consigns herself again to bed, to staring up at the tester clawing for a rest that eludes her. Milton is painful, perhaps the most painful, the heart of what she and Thomas had made for themselves beating through his words, but there is something comfortable in that pain at times like this, the world hollow and dark around her. At times like this, she is so alone she can pretend he is here with her, that he is somewhere out in the dark and if she only turns around, he will be there beside her.
She has her thumb pressed to the page, keeping her line, her eyes prone to wander in the dusk of the candlelight. Her other thumb presses against the ring she still wears, without really thinking about it, pressing the gold band against the skin hard enough to hurt. She is so hunched into the small world she has gathered around herself that it is not until she hears the heavy pace of James's boots on the porch that she looks up, that she realizes he has returned.
She is looking up, blinking into the dark as he opens the door. He looks to her first: his eyes are tired, and listless, but he looks to her first.
"Welcome back," she says, voice pitched low under the stillness.
He nods, small exhausted movements, and turns to close the door behind him. She makes the effort, pulling up the corners of her mouth in a tiny smile.
"Would you like something to eat?" she asks.
He pauses, seems to think about it for a moment, as if it had not occurred to him in a while to gauge his own need for food. Then he nods again, more certain.
She stands, and closes over the book, like she is trying to hide what is between the pages. She takes the candle to the kitchen, and takes a sturdy blue-and-white plate down from its shelf, filling it with the end of yesterday's loaf and carving off a wedge of cheese from the small wheel she had traded one of the planters' wives for. She has still not learned how to make it herself, and she thinks perhaps she won't: the planter's wife, Mary, is a dull-eyed, mouseish woman, but her chickens keep getting picked off by wild dogs and she had appreciated the eggs Miranda had brought to trade her. They had talked for an hour about their gardens over weak, musty tea, and still, at the end of it, Miranda had found herself disappointed to leave.
She sets the cheese on the plate next to the bread, and James walks into the room trailing a hand over the half-wall, guiding himself in the near-dark. He shrugs off his coat and hangs in on a peg by the back door as she sets a few early carrots on the plate, too-small but sweet.
James walks over to the sideboard, and stands beside her. She picks up the plate, and holds it out to him: he takes it. He stays still a moment, though, as if he has forgotten how to coordinate his own movements: then he leans toward her, and presses his lips to her temple, brief and clumsy with exhaustion, but tender enough that she bites her lip against an unexpected pull in her throat.
He makes his way back to the table, and she follows him, after a moment. He sits across from where the book is still lying on the tabletop, hunched over his plate, one forearm resting on either side of it. The way the Navy had taught him to eat, she knows, and so different then the careful straight-backed manners she'd become accustomed to from him in London. He still tries here, usually, but this soon off the ship he is mostly exhaustion and instinct, eating with stiff, repetitive movements, hand to mouth.
She sets the candle between them and then sits down across from him, as if they are actually having a meal together, her fingertips, only half-consciously, resting on the red leather cover of the Milton.
James works his way methodically through the food and then stands. He takes the plate back to the kitchen, his boots falling heavy on the stone floor, out of the room and then back. She can sense him standing behind her, then, hesitating a moment behind her before he touches her shoulder, light, fingers trailing. She turns her head, gives him the best smile she can summon. "Goodnight," she says.
He clears his throat. "Goodnight," he says, voice rasping. It is the first word he has said to her since he came in the door.
She listens to him walk down the hall, hesitate between the doors before turning into hers. She hears the creak of the bed, and then silence.
She looks down at the book, and pulls her hand back. She picks it up, puts it carefully back in its place in the row atop the sideboard, then walks to the small, finely carved desk in the corner of the room. Most of the furniture in the house they'd found inside it when they'd found the house, standing empty but in good repair, but this James had found in a Portuguese captain's cabin, years ago now, and brought it back specifically for her. She has left her small book upon it, next to the elegant plate inkstand.
She takes the book and inkstand back to the table, the candle still upon it, and sits, unscrewing the lid of the ink bottle. She dips in the pen, and writes at the end of the day's listing of things: James returned.
She sets the pen back in its place, and takes the silver shaker to sprinkle the shining words with pounce. Then she puts it all back away, places it back on the desk. She sets a hand on its lacquered top a moment, and leans against it.
She straightens again, shakes her head a bit. She follows James down the hall and into her room; that has remained hers, somehow, and never theirs. James is lying on the side of the bed nearest the door, flat on his back, arms tucked over his chest and sound asleep. He had managed to take his shoes off but had not even climbed under the counterpane, as if he had not intended to stay long.
Miranda sits down at the dressing table, setting the candle in front of her. She doesn't bother looking in the mirror, finding the pins in her hair by touch and drawing them out one by one. She combs it out, and braids it off her neck in the thick night heat. Then she stands, and undresses down to her shift, folding everything neatly into the clothes press.
She lies down next to James, and closes her eyes, and tries to sleep.
Friday dawns bright. Miranda blinks awake when the light is still thin and fresh, and remembers after a moment what is different.
It had been long this time, two months. Three weeks in, a boy, grimy and terrified-looking, had shown up at her door, handed her a carefully folded and sealed letter. On the front had been written only Mrs. Barlow, New Providence, in James's writing. Haltingly, stuttering over the words as if he had been made to memorize them, the boy had told her that Captain Flint had sent it by way of a friendly pirate ship: as if she needed verification of its origin, as if her heart had not done something foolish and relieved at the very sight of James's hand.
She had given the boy twopence and hoped that it would buy her enough goodwill that he wouldn't lie about what he had seen here: poppets for the chickens pecking in the yard, human hair for the rows of vegetables.
After the boy had fled with his coins she had closed the door behind her, stood on the porch as she slid her fingernail under the seal, recognizing the imprint of one of James's rings. She had unfolded it, and nearly dropped what was inside: what appeared to be a coin, but with a square hole cut into the center of it, and Chinese letters on its face. She had run her thumb over the raised writing, momentarily distracted by its elegance, its unusual beauty.
The letter itself was a single page:
The Sea 5h May 1713
My dear Miranda:
Forgive me, for I will be to sea a month more at the least--I believe I have a trail to follow that may lead us towards what we wish, and must follow it through to its end. I do not have long to write and so forgive me the unfortunate length of this note; I will be back again as soon as I can, and hopefully with auspicious news.
Yours as ever
The coin from China the men found on board a recent prize: I am afraid of misplacing it & thought you might like it
She had read it twice and then looked out over the island, letting her hand fall to her side, the paper rustling against her petticoats. She had felt so very alone, in that moment, a sort of peaceful empty aloneness: she had borne it, thinking that when James did come back it would collapse down again, into the mangable knot of loneliness she carried with her now like the ring on her finger, like the Milton on the bookshelf, things that are not themselves but merely the absence of something else.
Now she stares up at the tester, James still asleep beside her, and does not feel any less alone. That must be her own failing, she thinks: that she can be lying mere inches from someone, mere inches from James, and not feel it like a relief. As if she is so used to being alone that she no longer knows how to be among people anymore, yearning for their company when she is without it and then feeling nothing at all when she has it again.
She blinks against the betraying burning in her eyes, and pushes herself up, off the bed, in short determined movements. She dresses, changing her shift and tying on her stockings and getting herself into her stays: she has devised a system for lacing them, mostly by touch and memory, but it is long, and laborious, and requires odd contortions of her arms. She should give it up, she knows: it is a foolish thing to hold onto, requiring as it does too much inconvenience to justify. But she has become strange about surrendering things of her old life, the smallest details, for the smallest details are all she has: her stays and teacups and books, the fine tea leaves James brings her and the cakes she had worked for months to bake correctly. Reminders of a woman she once was, as though if she retains the trappings of her she can lure her back; her lost self.
Through with the stays, she ties on her pockets and one of the petticoats, slips on her shoes, and goes out to the well dug in front of the house. She brings back a bucketful of water to the kitchen, and kneels by the hearth, coaxing last night's coals, gray and cold, into a fire again. She pours most of the water into a pot to boil, and the rest to her bedchamber, pours it into the porcelain washbasin. She washes her face and hands, and coils her hair into a plain knot at the back of her head, pins it in place. She pins on her stomacher and gown, and glances at James again: she has not moved, chest moving shallowly, as if breathing itself is exhausting to him.
She makes herself tea and porridge and eats it slowly, slowed by something between its unappealing flavor and her own reluctance to begin her day properly. She stands at the kitchen window for long minutes, her cup of tea growing cool between her fingertips, staring out at the garden. She can already see the day's entry in her head: Baked bread. Weeded garden. Milked cow. James, still. It still seems pointless to her in its very routine: that she can imagine it is already exhausting, to actually do it the height of uselessness.
But she finishes her tea; she stokes the fire to get the coals hot enough for baking. She begins her bread dough and leaves it to rise; she goes outside, feeds the chickens and lets them out from their coop, gathering their eggs. She brings a bucket to the west pasture and finds the cows waiting patiently for her, as always: she steps over the fallen fence rail she needs to mend, and leads them into the barn to milk. She weeds the cabbages; by then the coals are hot enough to shovel into the oven; which means she must begin kneading the dough. It is endless, and numbing, and despite that the idea of doing anything else terrifies her, the notion in some dark back corner of her mind that she might just stop altogether, wind herself down like one of the automatons their friends had been so fascinated by back in London.
It is late in the afternoon before she goes back out to the broken fence, a length of rope and one of the knives James leaves for her in her hands. Crouching down in front of it, pulling her petticoats out of the way, she studies it a moment: the rail had simply been knocked from its keyhole in the post, likely the work of one of the planters' children who sneak across her property simply to prove they can. She had found a section of her garden trampled a few days back; she thinks, with a dull resignation, that it must have happened then.
She sets to wedging it back in place, and then lashes it secure with the rope, winding it around the rail and post. She is nearly finished when she hears the rustle of footsteps in the pasture, someone approaching.
She looks around, and James is standing there, still looking partly asleep, squinting against the late afternoon sun. They look at each other a long moment.
James clears his throat. "I can do that," he says finally, his voice still rough.
She turns back to the fence, tightening her last knot with a firm movement and cutting off the excess rope. She looks up at him. "So can I," she says simply.
He looks at her a moment, and then looks down at his hands, his fingers worrying a loose thread from his sleeve. "I should be back for a while, this time," he says finally. "A few weeks, perhaps a month."
Her first instinct is to say something biting: how lovely, or, and then how long will it be again? But she is glad to have him back, she reminds herself; besides, she is too tired for an argument. So she says, "All right." She wraps the extra rope into a coil, palm to elbow, and then, when James says nothing else, she asks lightly, "Are you hungry?"
When she looks up he is watching her in the way he has, a cavernous depth in his eyes, as if he is trying to tell her a great deal while saying nothing at all. That look had been intoxicating in London, hinting at the core of all his carefully constructed layers, showing a part of himself neither of them quite understood. Now, she is only tired: now she wishes he would just talk to her, just say what he means, not leave her to guessing.
But he does not. He does not even answer her, but he waits for her as she straightens up, and walks by her side back to the house.
She takes salt pork from the cellar and fries it over the fire she stokes back to life, slices pieces off one of the loaves of bread she'd left to cool on the windowsill. James stands helplessly for a few minutes, watching her go about this, but she does not have the energy to direct him how to help. After a while, he goes out the back door, still in his bare feet, and comes back with two mugs of ale from the barrel in the cellar, sets them on the table.
She deems the meat done and wets her fingers, pulls the strips from the pan, sizzling with fat, onto a plate. She divides a portion of it onto another plate, and adds the bread, and carries both plates to the table. They sit across from each other, and begin to eat in silence.
"I have to go into town tomorrow," James says, after long minutes, when Miranda is only picking at the last remains of the meal on her plate. James has eaten his own plate clean, an instinct she hasn't yet managed to instill in herself and one he had never lost, even in London.
Miranda makes a humming sound, acknowledging without having to come up with something to say.
"I didn't find it," he says after another moment, quieter. Looking down at his plate, not at her. "It was a bad lead, or--" He pauses, shakes his head a little. "Anyhow. I need to see if there is any news, anything new to follow."
"All right," she says, instead of what she wants to. Stay, she wants to tell him; wants to tell him not to go into town, to remain here with her. She will be better, she thinks of promising; she will snuff out the odd sickly flame of resentment, and learn again how to be around people.
But she doesn't, keeps her mouth shut and avoids his eye as he avoids hers. In a moment she will summon the strength to stand, clear the plates and heat the water to wash them, to go about her life with James only stepping in and out of it, and extra plate, a near-silent form at her table. She will stand up, and she will go on, but for now she allows herself to just sit, in the silence between them.
When she awakes the next morning she hears sounds from the porch, muffled scrapes and thumps. She knows it must only be James, absent from the bed beside her, but she still pulls herself up, the little hitch of anxiety enough to propel her to investigate.
The front door is standing open, and when she steps to its threshold she sees that there is a small collection of firkins and half-barrels stacked up on the porch. James rounds the corner of the house, a small crate under one arm and a saddlebag in the other. He smiles at her a little when he sees her, a small, crooked thing that nonetheless reaches his eyes. She can't help smiling back: he'd been so exhausted yesterday, distracted and hollow-eyed, and she'd had the worry that that is how he'd be until he left again.
He climbs the porch steps. "Morning," he says, setting his armload among the rest of the stack.
"Good morning," she says. "This is quite the collection."
"I thought I'd unpack the wagon," he says. He points to a barrel near the bottom of the stack, then a firkin next to it, then to a half-barrel beside that. "Flour, salt, cornmeal."
She nods. "Thank you."
"Just wait," he says, and smiles at her again: he is in a good mood, as if the night's sleep has minted him new. It pulls at something in her chest to see him like this: he is so light, compared to his usual heavy exhaustion and grief. Like a tiny hook back to the man he had once been, so many years ago.
He takes a short, stout knife from where it is tucked in his belt, and uses its dull edge to pry open the top of the crate. Packed among sawdust, he pulls out a cone of sugar, wrapped in its blue paper: he hands it to her, and she smooths her thumb over its seal. She looks back up at him, but he is already turned back to the crate, pulling out a tiny jar of something, then a stack of books, then a small wooden box.
"Tea," he says, holding up the box, and nods to the jar, "and cinnamon." He runs his fingers lightly over the spines of the books. "I know you already have Donne, but I couldn't leave it behind. Then there is Dryden, and Ptolemy's Geography, and," and he glances over at her, "Margaret Cavendish."
"Really," she breathes, surprised. He extracts it from the stack, hands it to her, and she opens it, running her fingertips over the words. I language want to dress my fancies in, the hair's uncurled, the garment's loose and thin. "Wherever did you find it?"
"It was wedged behind a shelf," he tells her, "as though it had been lost."
She imagines him, kneeling in some captain's cabin, feeling behind a bookshelf for anything missed, any last scrap of words and beauty and civilization he can find: the image is at once amusing and very much not, a desperation layered over it that is perhaps only her own.
"It's lovely," she says. "It's all lovely. James--" and she looks up, intending to thank him but the words powdery on her tongue, insufficient, and ill-directed. She wants to thank him not only for the things, but for coming back, for the way he is looking at her, bright and nearly happy, for the smile at the corners of his mouth. For trying so desperately hard, for the fact that after all these years he still brings her books and fine spices and tea, like he holds faith that with them she can build them a home again.
"Thank you," she manages finally, better than saying nothing at all. He smiles at her, almost tentative, and she smiles back, and for a moment they are perfectly suspended, in a kind of happiness.
Miranda clings to these moments, collects them like delicate glass beads on a string. Moments when they are aligned in at least an imitation of the way they used to be, moments of quiet in the exhaustion of their own combined grief. They seem to be best when they are exchanging concrete things, when she is preparing him supper or he is giving her the fine things he has found, and she doesn't like to think about what that says about them now. They used to talk of literature and science, mathematics and politics, with Thomas and without him, but now every one of their old topics seems heavy and painful, fraught with the kind of memories they both cling to and draw away from at once. Now, James will bring her books on every subject but he is nearly always gone when she is reading them; now he tries to keep her from the politicking of Nassau and his ship, something she resents and is grateful for in equal measure. Now they talk of nothing but simple, straightforward things, flinching from anything that might summon Thomas's ghost, carried heavy between them.
She doesn't know how to change it and doesn't know if it's worth the risk, the potential to lose these small good moments. She wonders if perhaps she has become a coward, that they both have; Thomas's death acting on them the opposite of how he had affected them in life.
After a moment she picks up the books and the cinnamon, all she can carry with the certainty she will not drop anything, and brings them inside the house. James begins packing the barrels away into the cellar; she brings in the tea and the sugar, holding them carefully in her hands. On the table she sets the saddlebag James had left on the porch, buckled closed over what feels like more books inside, and lays her books beside it, new and set apart; putting everything else carefully in their places, bright spots among her things.
James comes back in, wiping the back of his wrist over his forehead, doing little to set to rights the pieces of hair that have escaped what is barely even a queue. He must've cut it on the ship, she thinks: it's shorter than it had been two months ago, when she had cut it straight before he left, taming its ragged edges.
She boils water over the fire she builds up under the pot; she hears the small sounds of James behind her at the table, his boots scuffing against the floor, the sound of papers shuffling. She makes tea from the new chest James had brought, spooning the leaves into the plump silver teapot that had been one of the first things James had ever brought her, so many years ago now, and she wonders at the ways they have changed since then, wonders at the ways they have not. There is a comfort to them now that she hardly even notices, takes for granted but for when she remembers that first painful year when they'd barely known how to be in the same room with each other, had barely known how to be in the same room with themselves. Yet James still looks at her the same, that small hesitant look he gives her when he's unsure of how she'll react to something, unsure of what she's thinking, and she wonders if they have truly learned anything about each other in the intervening years: if they have done anything but learn to sit beside each other in the dark.
She brings the two cups on their saucers to the table. James is sitting, the saddlebag open and two large leatherbound books on the table in front of him. She sets one of the cups by his elbow, and then sits across the corner from him, setting her own cup before her.
She picks up the cup between her fingertips, balancing it carefully as she brings it to her lips. James is tapping his fingers idly against the table as he scans through the pages of one of the books, chewing at his bottom lip.
"What are these, then?" Miranda asks after a few minutes, when James has barely looked up even to drink his tea.
James looks up at her, surprised. He looks down at the papers, and then back up at her, and clears his throat. "Cargo lists," he says. "And the ship's log. I'm to bring them to Eleanor, to match against the goods we unloaded."
"I see," she says. She traces her thumb over the rim of her teacup. "And do you hope that they will match, or that they will not?"
"It depends," James says. He is watching her, uncertain but willing to explain, and she wonders if she has given him too little credit, that he has only withheld things from her that he believed she wished not to know. "At the moment we hope the great deal of Spanish silver we found in the hold is unrecorded."
"Which means it was smuggled," she says.
"Yes," James says. "This ship hadn't been outside the West Indies for over three years." He taps a finger against the leather cover of the ship's log. "If they were smuggling it, it means they know of a lucrative source of treasure somewhere within these islands."
"And you hope to find this source of that treasure."
"Yes," James tells her. He is looking at her with that particular fire in his eye, the most alive she sees him look now. "With it we could build everything we dreamed of here, Miranda. Everything--" He stops, but she understands: with this he could see through Thomas's plans for this place.
She smiles, slight. "Well then, you'd best show it to Miss Guthrie," she says, as light as she can.
James smiles back at her a little, crooked. "I'll be back soon," he says. "Perhaps not tonight, but soon, and then I'll--be here. Truly."
She keeps the smile, grows it slightly. "I know," she tells him.
He nods a little, and packs the books back into the saddlebag. He stands, and she stands as well, and before he goes he leans into her, a hand on her arm, and kisses the corner of her mouth.
"I'll be back soon," he says again, assuring her; she nods, and smiles, and watches him go.
Sunday dawns bright, the heat not yet oppressive; Miranda dresses and prepares herself breakfast, and then sets her spoon back beside her bowl, without taking a bite. She has the sudden strange desire to go into town, to find James wherever he is right now and to make herself useful somehow; or to simply sit someplace, surrounded by the people there.
But she knows there is not a place for her there, that there is nowhere for her to simply sit and experience and perhaps speak to someone. She does not fit within Nassau, has not learned how to even begin to adapt to a place there.
Instead, she eats her breakfast in determined bites, goes back to the bedchamber. She tucks a kerchief into the neckline of her dress, puts on a cap and puts her flat straw hat atop it, tying its ribbons at the nape of her neck. She writes a note to James on a scrap of paper she finds in the desk, and then begins the walk to the church.
It is several miles down a road that is mostly dust: she hardly ever goes, but there is something unexpectedly appealing about it in this morning, the idea of a place she understands, a place where there are people who must at least tolerate her, and place she understands, if resents her place within.
When she walks into the churchyard the few people in it, hitching their horses to the fencepost or standing on the steps, fall silent and turn to look at her, their eyes suspicious. It continues as she walks up the steps, her chin up but a churning in her stomach; as she steps through the door, the few dozen people inside all watching her silent and hard-eyed.
She thinks of sitting in their old library, at the table with Thomas and later James, and discussing these very people, the Puritans of the interior: would they accept the reformed pirates into their community if the pirates so chose, would they resist the pirates' inland movement once their lives became less tied to the sea. Miranda had argued, and James had joined her, that they would resist mightily, that their desire to convert others and live peacefully were no match for their fear of even a former pirate. Thomas had disagreed, of course he had disagreed: he'd argued vehemently that a people who had shuffled themselves from island to island for over fifty years in search of acceptance and a quiet place to live their lives would understand what it was to be cast from society, to try and build a life for oneself on the outskirts. It had been a good argument between the three of them, true points on all sides and weaknesses in each of their positions, and it had more than once carried them through to dawn, all of them raising their voices and pacing the room and pulling books from the shelves to prove their points until the table between them was covered and their voices were hoarse.
See, she now thinks bitterly, walking down the line of pews in the room that has gone absolutely still and silent, her head held stiff and her eyes straight ahead; see. They do not like anyone who is not one of their own. They would never have accepted the reformed pirates.
She clenches her jaw. She tries hard not to do this, to talk to him as if he is still there, if he is still anywhere. She knows it is a good way to drive herself insane, locked away in an empty house, speaking to a dead man. Trying to win an argument, eight years and an ocean and six feet of earth between them, would seem to be the height of this kind of insanity, but she knows he would've appreciated it, would never appreciate prayers or apologies or beseechment as much as he would appreciate that here and now, in the middle of this godforsaken church watched by people who hate her and fear her in equal measure, she is still trying to prove a point.
She sits in the pew exactly halfway between the front and back, not forward enough to cause a problem that could be voiced, but not so far back that she appears cowed. The church, cramped as it is, is still too large for the scraggled population of those who still attend it, and so she knows she will be taking no one's place, that they cannot move or eject her as long as she does not do anything outwardly offensive, beyond her very presence among them.
She spreads her petticoats around her and unties her hat, setting it on her lap. It still takes a few moments for the people to roust themselves as if from a trance, to begin again the low murmured conversations between them. It is a kind of power, she recognizes, even if it is a step removed: if she were living with any other man she would be a whore, not worth even the uneasy place she sits in now, but in their minds she lives with Captain Flint, is Flint's whore, and that affords her the fear and therefore the power that would never otherwise be hers. In the abstract at least it is more power than she had ever had in London, as Lady Hamilton, protected by Thomas's name but never feared for it, but here she can do almost nothing with the power James's created name gives to her. It is a shield when she wants a sword, only more isolating in the fortification it provides her.
The parishioners settle in their pews, forming an empty crescent of seats around her own. She thinks how, just an hour ago, she had thought it would be a relief, to be around so many people.
The pastor's sermon is long-winded, self-righteous; not entirely block-headed but misguided. She entertains herself for part of it creating counter-arguments and silently pointing out fallacies, before she realizes she is thinking too of how Thomas might react, what he might say to both the sermon and her own commentary on it, and so she stops, closes her eyes just a fraction of a moment too long, summons herself again to look clear-eyes and pious and not give them an more cause to dislike her. She bears the rest of the sermon with her mind cleared of anything but the sounds of the words, syllable by syllable.
After it ends she stands, makes her way from the building with determination. No one will speak to her, she knows, but the pastor, and she cannot, suddenly, cannot bear to speak to anyone after she had so longed for their presence. They let her go, all but clear the way for her, and she walks back out into the bright sun and thick heat.
She walks back, tying her hat back on again to protect her from the sun, her pace slowing from near a march to something much wearier. As she nears the house she sees a figure sitting hunched over on the porch steps, head bent down.
As she comes closer James stands, a fast, jerky movement, and watches her as she approaches. When she is through the gate and near enough so that he can speak without bellowing, James steps down from the porch, drawing nearer but not quite reaching her. Then he snaps, "Where the fuck were you?"
Miranda pauses for a moment, just a hitch in her step, and sighs. She gives him an unimpressed look, and says, "Church."
James simply stares at her a moment. "Church?" he barks back at her, skeptical.
"Yes," she says coolly, and passes by him to climb the porch steps.
It only takes a moment for James to catch up, following her onto the porch and then into the house, to the table. "When did you begin going to church?" he says once they are inside, sharp and disdainful.
She reaches up, carefully untying the ribbon of her hat. "I go occasionally," she says, keeping her voice light. "The pastor visits me sometimes, and he has encouraged me to attend."
"All the pastor wants is to get under your skirts," James says sharply.
"Yes, James, thank you for that," she says, voice going cold and snappish. She is exhausted from the morning and dusty from the road and still so hideously lonely, and it all feels terribly pointless, all of a sudden. She yanks the the hat off her head and throws it down on the table.
James looks slightly cowed but still angry, always angry. "You never liked going to church," he says, as if that is relevant, as if who she was then has any bearing on the woman she has become.
"Yes, well," she says. She takes off her cap, untucks the kerchief from the neckline of her gown. "At least there are people there," she says, and means to say more, but the ugly bare truth of it chokes her, suddenly.
"I'm here," James says, sounding almost bewildered under his anger.
"You were in town."
"And I came back," he snaps, "to find you gone--"
"I left a note--"
James scoffs. "Gone to church. Miranda," he quotes without glancing at it. "As if I was to believe that."
"It was the truth," she says shortly.
He seems not to hear her. "Meanwhile I am here planning what I am to do, which of my men I can summon from their drunken fucking stupors to help me find you--"
"You knew where I was," she nearly shouts, tired of this conversation, gesturing sharply to the note
"No, I didn't," he shouts back at her.
It is only then that she sees it: the panic that is set deep in his eyes, behind the anger and the scathing words. He is frightened, she realizes, frightened at her seeming sudden disappearance: he has come to so expect her here that he cannot conceive of the idea that she might be somewhere else, with people he does not know.
She pauses, pulls herself back. Gathers herself, like a fist closing in her chest.
"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I'm sorry, James."
He just stares at her for a moment, like he cannot comprehend the abrupt end to their argument. Then he nods once, sharp, and turns away for a moment, like he too is trying to find himself again.
"I'm here," he says again, after long moment, turning back to her.
"I know," she says, though it is not, precisely, what she wants to say.
He looks at her, lost, like he is trying to understand the distance between them and cannot. A line of longitude, incalculable, mysterious and imprecise. She wants to guide him, but she knows she understands just as little: both of them wandering in the dark, the world unfamiliar around them.
After several long moments, he reaches out to her, his expression still lost and yet his hand so carefully purposeful. This, she thinks harshly, this is the greatest advantage he has over her: his willingness to reach out blind, while she remains in the darkness, cringing from it. The thought catches a sob in her throat, as his fingers come to rest on her waist. He steps closer, enough to press his face to her hairline, his beard rough against her forehead, nose buried in her hair. She lets her eyes fall closed, feels her body cant towards his. She tries to think of the last time anyone had touched her and comes up with his few brief touches since he returned and then nothing, stretching back to the last time he had come back.
She reaches up, touches her palm to his jaw, tangles her fingers in his hair. When they kiss there is a hard edge to it: not unkind, but un-tender. James's hand curls in her petticoats, over her hip; she pulls him against her, until the table edge hits up against the backs of her legs.
James pushes her up onto it, a hand at her hip and the other under her thigh, and ducks his head down, rests his forehead against the jut of her collarbone. She runs her hand up through his hair, dislodging the tie of his short queue, holding him closer to her.
She helps him gather up her petticoats, rucking them over her knees; one-handed he undoes the buttons of his breeches and then his underclothes. He runs a hand up her leg, his callused thumb rough over the inside of her thigh, until he reaches her cunt, pressing his fingers to her. He works his fingers over her until he can slip one inside her, and then two; then James drags his fist over his cock a few rough times and Miranda shifts herself forward, wrapping her hand over his and guiding him inside her.
James holds her waist and she curls the fingers of the hand that's still in his hair, wrapping her other arm around his shoulders and using it as leverage to ease him farther inside her. After a few moments she nods, and he begins rolling his hips, dragging out to push deeper inside her.
She lets out a breath, almost a sigh, and buries her face in his shoulder. She tries to give herself over to it, the feeling of James inside her and the desire spooling tight between her legs: chasing how she used to feel during sex, the simplicity of it, her mind whited out with pleasure and every part of her body alive. Sex had always been simple for her, even if everything surrounding it had not; the uncovering of pleasure, a search for this angle or that position that would please the most.
But she and James have not fucked for the pleasure of it in years: now they fuck to argue or apologize or make a point, or to do what they are doing now, some desperate affirmation that they are both still here, together, despite it all. The pleasure is there, but only in its purest, harshest form, burning through her: it is nothing like what she used to have, what they had both once had.
She squeezes her eyes shut against the burning tears she can feel threatening, tightening her fingers in James's hair until he makes a sound, not displeased. Hooking one leg around his hips, she pulls herself closer to him, and presses her face harder against the rough canvas of his coat.
She can feel the edge coming and grasps for it, pulling herself forward. James's hands at her waist are warm even through her clothes, but so removed still, through the layers of bone and fabric. touch me, she wants to tell him, an absurd thought with him inside her, his mouth pressed to the crook of her neck. She still has the wild desire to pull them even closer, to claw at James's back and arms until some dam in her breaks, until she feels as though they are not touching each other through some ungraspable barrier.
She rolls her hips sharply against James's thrusts, dragging herself towards it: when she does come it is with a sob, muffled against James's coat. James thrusts into her a few last times, making a low sound as he comes.
They both stay still, after, breathing harshly in the sudden quiet. Miranda feels drained, empty. She holds onto James, and turns her face away.
They sleep that night with a careful few inches of space between them, intentional or not. When Miranda wakes James is up already, the room around her still. She stares at the wall for several long minutes, trying to will herself out of bed.
She dresses and makes her way to the kitchen. There is a pot of water by the hearth, still warm to the touch. She swings it on its iron arm back over the fire, and wanders to the window, looking out over the corner of the garden she can see, the fields. After a moment she hears the steady, muffled crack of the axe: James must be behind the house, chopping firewood. There is something steadying in that, knowing for certain where he is.
The water boils, and she makes herself breakfast, and sets to work on the day's chores. She and James hardly see each other, passing as ghosts between the house and the garden and the yard: James seems to find an endless parade of things to do and make and fix, moving furtively from task to task, as if he is trying to apologize for something. She wishes again that he would simply talk to her, to apologize to her for whatever he wishes to apologize for or even argue with her again, to even meet her eyes.
The day feels long, but after she has eaten supper and finished her chores for the day, when she sits down at the small desk and opens her book and tries to think of what to write, she can only come up with a few words, inadequate. Scrubbed kitchen--Weeded--James mended fixed &c. She pauses, her pen dripping a small blot onto the page.
She wants suddenly to write something of what had truly happened that day, to write of the way James had looked at her so tentative and the way she wished him to speak, their fight yesterday and the way they've forgotten how to touch each other. How she disdains the Puritans and wants so badly to be accepted by them, accepted by anyone. How she has James, always, but how he is gone so much and how she misses him and how she wishes she could understand better the resentment she still feels for him, sharp behind her breastbone.
But her pen only hovers above the page, immobile. She wonders if she has simply lost this ability, to articulate her feelings into words: she and Thomas used to write letters when they were away from each other and he would tell her how keenly he felt the very emotions she described, how well he understood what she spoke of. She wonders now if that had been true, or if they had simply understood each other too well, that he would've known exactly what she felt even if her words had been leaden and cursory. She wonders, if she sent letters to James on his voyages, if he would understand the things she wrote of.
She sits still long enough that the ink on the page dries, fading deep brown in the warm evening air. She shakes herself after she doesn't know how long, puts the pen away and screws the lid back in the ink bottle. She closes over the book, trapping her few inadequate words between the pages, and slips it away on its shelf.
James is still outdoors, doing Miranda does not know what: dusk is falling, even as late as it does in the summer here. Miranda sits almost idly on the bench before her spinet, runs her fingertips over the polished wood: there is a certain sadness in playing it but it is a sadness that can be bearable, even exquisite in the very sharpness of it, and she wonders if that it was she needs right now.
She opens the cover and props it open, stands to fetch her music from the desk drawer and lights a candle with a bit of kindling from the hearth. She opens the keyboard cover on its hinges, sets the music down and the candle next to it, and sets her fingers to the keys.
She pauses, a breath, two. Then she begins playing, softly in the growing night.
She has played the piece through once and begun again when she hears the front door open behind her, slow, quiet. She hears James's boots on the floor, a few slow steps, and then the door closing again. She continues to play, through the familiar notes. He takes a few more steps into the room and she can sense him, behind her, as she turns over another page.
It is another page before he moves again, drawing closer. He hesitates behind her shoulder, before slowly, carefully, sitting on the bench beside her. He faces out to the room, their shoulders nearly touching.
Leaning forward, he rests his elbows on his knees, head bent over his hands, listening. She knows he has heard this piece countless times: she doesn't often play when he's here but when she does she only has the music to so many pieces, only remembers so many well enough to recreate them. She had been trying to learn this one that last summer in London, picking at it on the spinet in her dressing chamber, playing it untold times on the harpsichord in the main chamber. Darling, Thomas had told her one long hot day in July, I love you very much, and I know how you feel about the harpsichord, but I'm afraid I may have to do horrible things to it if you do not stop playing. She had laughed, and countered with the terrible set of weeks she'd had to listen him attempt to learn Purcell's Prelude on violin. You're a horrible woman, he'd informed her fondly, we agreed not to speak of that--
Her finger slips from the key she knows so well, a jarring note in the midst of the piece, hitting her like a small, precise blow to the chest. She pauses for only a moment, somehow unable to bear letting the wrong note hang in the air: she begins again at the start of the measure, and plays it through, determined not to let her memory betray her again.
When she finishes the piece, for a few long moments there is only silence, the last note dying out and then nothing, James quiet beside her.
After minutes of still silence, James stirs slightly, clears his throat. He looks down at his hands, adjusting the rings on his fingers. "I have to leave sooner than I thought," he says quietly.
She looks down at her hands, fingers still arched on the keys. The disappointment wars against something worse, a hollow expectation or, worst of all, simply a lack, the absence of any feeling at all. "I see," she says.
"I'll be a few more days," James goes on. "But Eleanor learned of a lead--it is too promising not to chase."
"Of course," she says.
He is quiet for a moment. "I am--" he says, and then stops. "I'm sorry," he says, as if it's the only thing he can think of to say.
"It's perfectly all right," she says briskly, and makes to stand.
Before she can, he catches her hand from the keys, and she stops, rests back on the bench. He holds on, his fingers curved softly around her own, for a long, still moment.
"One day," he says, voice roughened, "this will be over." He pauses, before going on. "We will succeed, and Nassau will be free. It will be a true city, and we will live in a house of the center of it, and everything, everything will be better. I promise."
She swallows back the thick sob that wells up in her throat, and instead she smiles, small and sad. "I am not your crew, you know," she tells him. "You do not have to tell me stories."
"No," he says. "I don't." She can feel his gaze on her, steady and serious. "I am telling you because I believe it, because I am promising it to you." He swallows. "You deserve this story."
Her smile cracks into something real, though pained, though it feels as though it is being wrung from her very center. She wants to believe him so very badly: his faith, so sturdy and set in him, is incredible to her, as a beautiful piece of art of incredible, its beauty intricate and finely wrought and without any bearing on its resemblance to the world around her.
She looks up, smiling at him in a way that she cannot help is still small, still sad. In truth, she knows, it will never change. It is something she knows in her bones, looking out at the span of days ahead of her and seeing only their repeating pattern, their essential sameness. It will never become better, and it will never become worse, and perhaps that is a comfort but it feels like the same damnation, cursed to living a life she will never be surprised by again.
A tear slips down her cheek as she searches for something to say, and James's face does something brief and pained. He reaches up, brushes his thumb over the spot. "I did not intend for that to make you cry," he says, slightly wry.
She gives a little laugh, a small gasp of a thing. "It is a lovely story," she tells him, and she means it.
He seems to understand exactly what it is she means, and his face does something pained again. "Miranda--" he says, and then stops. His fingers tighten around hers. "I promise," he tells her again, like a talisman, like by repeating it enough he could bring it to bear in the world.
She squeezes back, and does not try to say anything to that. They sit still together in the darkness, and do not say anything more.