I’d grown up on soft touches from my father. Never a whip nor a boot nor an open palm had come up against my skin. He’d ruled with a gentleness that I knew other boys didn’t receive and I could never figure out if it was because he was a kind man or because he feared I was missing out on having a mother’s guidance. Regardless of the reasons why, I’ve never known an unkind hand.
But others knew. They knew it for their skin bore the marks and their eyes told their stories. None more so have I found than Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, the red-headed orphan who’d appeared one day in Avonlea with a vibrancy so blinding I almost missed the way her smile slipped in those faltering moments.
She was bright, strong and forceful, her spirit so loud and encompassing that when she hit me across the jaw with her slate I nearly thanked her for bestowing her attention on me. But I was foolish to touch her, to pull at her like I owned her. I saw it immediately in the way her mask slipped and her shoulders slumped, Mr Phillips compounding the embarrassment by calling her up to the board.
I tried to intervene when I saw the flicker of anguish plain on her face. I tried to take it back. To shelter her from the onslaught of mockery and chastising I’d invited. But it was too late. I’d swung that heavy hand and branded her as a fire out of control, her temper as hot as the colour of her hair.
It took years for Anne to let me in after that. Weeks and months of gentle prodding, a century of unspoken favours that slowly worked their way into her good graces. When finally, finally , she shone her smile on my poor soul I was too far gone to realize that I was lost.
We grew together like vines then. She shared her stories, her secrets, and I tried to remain stoic as she revealed every scar and every wound that had ever been laid upon her. I fought her demons in the light and tried as hard as I could to help her move forward.
“Remember when you asked if there were any dragons I needed slaying?” She said one day, the summer breeze sweeping stray pieces of her fiery hair around her brow. I remember looking up from my notebook, squinting as she plucked aimlessly at the grass around us. I wasn’t able to answer her then though the memory was fresh in my mind’s eye. She’d been blinding at that moment, her small smile hidden at the corner of her lips. “I feel as though maybe my dragons were too big for you then. But maybe you’ve gotten taller since…And... “
She never finished her sentence. Her fingers brushed the hair away from her face as she sighed and got to her feet. I made the mistake of watching her go; I was a boy too young to realize that sometimes people want you to follow them.
The proposal left my lips in an orchard, the smell of spring fresh in the air around us. I held my breath as I waited for her acceptance, her palm in mine and my heart hammering in my chest. I watched as her emotions rippled and crowded her expression, moving like a swift river and changing just as quickly.
"Oh, Gilbert -- you -- you've spoiled everything."
Her words were like a bucket of cold water, dousing me and making me shiver inadvertently. In retrospect I can see where I’d misstepped, where I’d rushed forward when I should have held back. She’d made such progress that for a second I’d convinced myself that she would let me in but I’d ruined it all.
There was no going back after that. My tongue had been burned and the taste for her that I’d once had was bittered and sore. I worked in those months, years, to put distance between us all in my vain need to reclaim my broken heart.
When finally I settled in Glen St Mary, a Doctor and a bachelor, I believed maybe there was hope for me to now move on. But fate, I’ve found, has a funny way of not listening.