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England, In Absentia

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I.

Cantuckee, Ken-tah-teh. Cora has some faint memory of hearing it spoken of in her presence, perhaps by her father, as the land south of the Ohio river. Nathaniel describes it only in terms of west, but when he does she watches his eyes as he squints into the afternoon sun, his gaze always drawn slightly to the left.

He keeps a quick pace that burns her legs and leaves her calves shaking when they stop at night for rest. She thinks little of it, more concerned for Alice. As they walk, her sister’s lips stay tightly pressed together where she might have cried in England for much less, until she rubs blisters the size of a shilling on both her heels, and breaks down into tears trying to force her swollen feet back into their shoes.

There’s still some ruddy autumn light when they make camp for the evening. Cora uses the last of it to help Alice wrap her feet with the same silk weave she’d used to dress wounds at Fort William Henry. On the other side of the fire, Uncas waxes the lock of his rifle and Chingachgook cleans the bore of his with flax tow.

To their left, Nathaniel kneels near the fire as he cuts open a brace of rabbits. Alice keeps her eyes averted, but Cora watches him work. She wonders if in future the task will fall to her.

“We’ll be needing to get the both of you better shoes,” Nathaniel comments, grey eyes catching the light from the fire when he glances up at her and the motion parts his curtain of dark hair. He tugs at the skin of one rabbit and then the other: up over the head, like rolling up a sleeve.

Cora’s eyes dip away from his hand’s bloody work to his feet and what he considers footwear. It’s difficult not to make a negative comparison to the sturdy-soled boots she and Alice both wear; they’d come highly commended by tailors in London as the appropriate option for a lady of society in Colonial wilderness.

“They’re sturdy enough. Better stockings, perhaps. Hers have quite worn through.”

Nathaniel catches her looking at his deerskin moccasins. His mouth quirks. He stands and brushes past where Cora’s kneeling without bothering to reply, and quietly finds a pair of sticks to skewer the rabbits and prop them over the fire.

Nathaniel’s silences have a language of their own. She thinks she knows what this one says: England may be far away, but an impractical part of her is still in it.

 

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II.

In mid-morning they rest on a rocky outcropping overlooking a valley, a sea of green that puckers in places where the trees dip lower along the banks of a stream, and Uncas stands next to Chingachgook and follows his father’s pointing finger to some distant marker Cora can’t discern.

Nathaniel sits beside her on the rocks. His head tilts toward his brother and father; he listens quietly while his fingers guide sinew through a splitting seam on a small leather pouch.

“What are they saying?”

As soon as she asks she wonders if it’s an overstep. Most of the time when they’re speaking in their own language she supposes it’s for a reason, and one reason might be that their words aren’t meant for her. On some occasions Nathaniel has been known to translate for her unprompted but other times the three men converse amongst themselves without including herself or Alice.

Nathaniel continues his work without looking up. “Talking about our route. We’re passing through Unami land. They speak Delaware and might have news about the territories south of here.”

“Is that what you speak?”

Nathaniel smiles up at her briefly, apparently amused by her question in a way she can’t quite grasp.

“We understand each other well enough.”

The only people she understands these days are the ones who choose to include her and even then it seems as if she’s missing half of the conversation. There’s a chasm between her and this land that’s greater than language, and there are moments the world closes over her head like pursestrings drawing tight.

Cora brings her knees in toward her chest and wraps her arms around them. “Will you teach me?”

Nathaniel’s silent for a moment, and she realizes she’s surprised him.

She wonders what he’d thought; perhaps that she might go her whole life speaking only to him and a handful of others, waiting on the colonies’ expansion to pave her way toward understanding: through assimilation, through making this new world and all the people in it into England.

That’s not the life she wants, not anymore.

Menutes,” he says, and drops the pouch unceremoniously into her lap.

She repeats the word in a prompt, automatic way, as though she were a child being tutored in Latin again; but instead of an impatient governess with a stick tapping at the edge of her desk, there’s only Nathaniel, and the tight ache in her chest starts to ease.

Her world will only ever grow larger because of him.

 

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III.

When they reach Staunton, Cora feels her cheeks burn: she has no coin to buy cloth for stockings or anything else, but Uncas only smiles, motioning with his head toward the roll of pelts Chingachgook and Nathaniel are tying for trade.

“What do you think those are for?” he asks, his low voice gently teasing.

This is her livelihood, the fortunes of these men, and her father’s modest wealth in England is forfeit. It bothers her much less than she ever might have thought. It bothers her more to think these men of simple means must now pay for her own trifles in addition to the things they need, but when she tries to express that to Uncas, his lips briefly press together in a whitened line.

“I’d recommend against you repeating that in my brother’s earshot,” Uncas says, and lays a reassuring hand on her shoulder as he steps by her with a bundle of furs. She feels the warning beneath his quiet reproach and holds her tongue.

When the trading’s done, Nathaniel hands her a match-coat blanket rolled and tied with heavy twine: it smells like lanolin, but the weave is thick and warm. He also gives her a pack with a leather belt, wooden comb, thread and needle, a hard block of lye soap, and a sheathed knife.

While Uncas stows their fresh powder and flints, Chingachgook emerges from the trading post and sits on the steps. “Alice,” he calls, beckoning her over. He sets a pair of moccasins on the steps beside him.

Alice comes over quietly, sparing a quick look at Cora before she sits down. She runs her hand along the simple beadwork on the shoes and fingers the laces before slipping them on. She takes a few experimental steps, and then graces Chingachgook with a sweet girlish expression of pleasure that’s much more like the younger sister Cora once knew.

Cora watches the small exchange with a rueful smile. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Nathaniel standing with his hands on his hips.

“Is this your doing?”

Nathaniel grins, shaking his head.

“My father’s. He says if we’re taking the two of you ‘cross the mountains to Cantuckee you’ll have to get rid of your stiff Yangeese shoes. I hold to the same view. But seeing as there ain’t sores on your feet like the ones on your sister’s, it’s still your choice.”

Cora looks as far as she can down the main street of Staunton. Further on there’s an alehouse where English soldiers hang about the doorway in conversation. Somewhere nearby, the high clank of metalworking filters through neat rows of small shops and houses. Children pause their stick-games on the dirt road to let carriages or men on horseback through. It’s a dusty place, roughened around the edges, and not at all like London or even a small provincial town in England.

She can scarcely imagine leaving behind even this level of civilization for as much as three months, as determined as she is to do it, and if Nathaniel and his father say she’s ill-equipped then she’s a fool to say otherwise. Slowly she begins, “I suppose if you think it best -”

Cora laughs aloud when Nathaniel reaches into his pack and pulls out a pair of tawny moccasins, slightly smaller than Alice’s, and drops them at her feet.

 

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IV.

“That’ll dry faster if you hang it by the fire,” Nathaniel says to her one evening as she’s carding her fingers through her damp hair. Dropping to a crouch beside her, he looks pointedly at the wet rolled-up bundle she’d brought back to their camp from the river.

He's making a simple observation and nothing more, but his words still feel like a slap. This isn’t England, she reminds herself, breathing past the heat of shame in her face.

“I’ll lay it out flat,” she says, and resists the urge to yank her fingers through her hair when they find a snag.

“You could’ve spoken to me about it.”

Cora pushes her hair back and sighs, eyes flicking to his face and away. “I didn’t want to slow us down.”

“You didn’t ask. I would’ve told you it wasn’t any trouble,” Nathaniel says, a touch exasperatedly. He settles cross-legged on the sparse grass in front of her. “If it’s all the same to you I’d rather not be kept guessing why you’re pale as a bled pig and about doubled over.”

“It’s women’s business -”

“Not out here it’s not.”

Cora plucks at a blade of grass beside her. She imagines having this conversation with poor Duncan instead. The thought of her friend warms her in spite of the sadness: to the very end he’d possessed the quintessential heart of an Englishman and as such would’ve quickly veered into either misplaced pity or acute embarrassment.

The silence stretches out and Cora wonders if Nathaniel plans to break it. She counts her breath two dozen times before she understands he most certainly won’t.

Cora clears her throat. “I admit that in these circumstances, perhaps I should’ve said something. It’s only that in England… it would cause a great deal of mortification for both parties, were a lady forced to speak frankly about such matters with a gentleman.”

Nathaniel's lips quirk.

“Or a man of any station,” Cora adds, and if anything her small correction makes his smile grow wider.

Nathaniel dangles his arms over his knees and leans forward. “Is England so backward a place a woman can’t discuss a private matter with her husband without shame?”

Her husband -

“I wouldn’t know, sir, having never been in possession of a husband,” she retorts, grinning in spite of herself when Nathaniel starts to chuckle, a husky sound that hardly leaves his throat.

On impulse Cora reaches out to run her thumb where laughlines fan from the corners of his grey eyes. Her hand shakes; she hesitates, and then goes on: “I suppose were I to find someone suitable, who understood my heart, I might have the courage to speak to him about anything.”

The way her words transform his expression nearly brings her to tears.

Turning his face into her touch, Nathaniel kisses her palm. “Will you have me, Miss Munro?”

“You know I will,” she says, voice steady, because there’s never been a doubt in her heart that she loves this man, loves him beyond hope.

When Cora wakes in the morning her stained under-shift is folded beside her, dry and smelling of woodsmoke.

 

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V.

Cora often sees Alice by Uncas’s side with an assortment of twigs and berries spread out across her full skirt. They’re moving swiftly out of familiar territory, but to the best of his ability the younger Mahican has been teaching Alice how to tell what plants are edible. More than once he’s drawn her arm away from a particular bush, laughing no, not that one; each time, he breaks off a twig and shows her the lay of the leaves.

“I think I love him,” Alice blurts out, fingers sticky from huckleberries. She and Cora are picking into the hammocks of their skirts; it will stain, but their dresses are tattered already. Cora had long since used Nathaniel’s knife to cut off Alice’s trailing sleeves to a more practical fit above her elbows.

Cora pauses, berries in her hand. A smile tugs at her lips.

She’s known for a lot longer than Alice herself, it seems.

“Cora? Did you hear me?”

“Yes,” Cora says, laughing, “and I’d swing you around like when we were children, if it didn’t mean undoing all our hard work.” Her cheeks hurt, and when Alice giggles another piece of the tightness in her chest unravels.

England is more than just Country or Empire, Cora knows. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the entire world was England to her. Social calls, serviettes, tea time, a servant lacing up her stays: it’s all fading from her heart like the sunbleached damask from Alice’s dress.

Alice might still have been able to take a ship back to the arms of their worried and heartbroken cousins. Perhaps she’d marry an officer, a good man like Duncan, who might keep her safe from memories of bloodied throats and the stench of dying men at Fort William Henry. She could bury the memory of her father, and the memory of her older sister, too, who’d made the mistake of gazing at the stars and loving the uncivilized man who’d given her cause to look up.

When they return to the others and spread their berries over river rocks hot from the sun, Cora kisses her sister on the top of her head and wraps her in her arms. For the first time in weeks Alice’s eyes are shining and full of hope, and Cora will remember this, in later years, as the moment that Alice lost England.

At the river’s edge Uncas stands beside Nathaniel while he sorts a net of flopping fish. Cora knows Uncas is staring, and that he has been since they’d made their way back laughing and nearly tripping over their folded skirts. She suspects he’s aware of what Alice had intended to tell her.

When Uncas meets her eyes over Alice’s head, he gives her a full smile every bit as handsome as his brother’s, and then bends, grinning, to help Nathaniel with the net.

Cora kisses Alice’s hair again and squeezes her tightly.

“Alright,” she jests, when Alice starts to protest at her mistreatment. “Go on then, and ask how we might help with supper.”

She watches Alice turn and run with her skirts lifted up to her knees, sure-footed in her soft-soled shoes. Chingachgook hands her sister several gutted fish and smiles when she takes them, unflinchingly, by their tails over to the evening’s fire.

The past settles behind them like a lamb bedding down at night, quiet and still.

There’s a place for Alice here, amongst these men, and a place for Cora too.