Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
“Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
100 Miles Outside of Laramie
There wasn’t time to properly sit at her husband’s grave.
And there was no way to go but forward.
Stones would have to suffice. Rolled heavy in a pile that would assure bandits would not rend his final resting place to shreds. The guide warned her of this. Though he would only take the shirt on his back to his next life; thieves on the trail would be looking for just that if they did not cover the grave properly.
It was a hasty funeral, on the wagon train’s schedule.
They even carried him five miles after he fell from his horse, dead on impact, to a spot up ahead to make better time so the women and children could take their supper by the river while their husbands and fathers dealt with the corpse.
At his recent widow’s insistence.
Rey watched with her hands on her hips, stern-faced, as the men in the party piled stones over his lifeless body. With all of them working, it did not take much time. If she was tired enough, she could have rested her eyes and lifted her lids to see the deed done, men wiping dust from their palms. But she kept them open.
She did not weep. Her sleeves were rolled as if to help, but Finn had placed his hands on her shoulders and shook his head. He was so bold as to take the shovel out of her hands. Had he not made her laugh a few times, she would have taken offense to the gesture.
“The least we can do for you is bury him.”
She had nodded stiffly, her sleeves still up around her elbows like she was going to roll out a pie crust on her kitchen table at home. She forgot to roll them down until later that night, sleeping alone on a bedroll under the wagon. They were inappropriately casual that way, for her husband’s funeral. She should have felt shame; rolling them down, undressing to her bedclothes and wondering if those men getting up to piss were looking at her body which would now sleep unguarded each night.
But her husband was buried in unconsecrated soil, perhaps dying of one of the seven ugliest sins, and God forgives.
She had only one request: they give her his boots.
The boots sat, empty but upright, like the man had merely gone invisible in them, at her side while she watched them work.
“I think it best we say a few words for those who remember Niima fondly,” the guide Poe lowered his hat from his head, bowing in a respectful way to the man’s widow, who seemed unmoved by the gesture.
This called for the young preacher, who was panting heavily from building the pile of stones, startled into action. He blew his flopping red hair out of his eyes, straightening with a tired whistle.
“A good man,” Hux nodded to them all, absently forming a circle and removing their hats when they realized this was it. The man’s funeral. “Good husband. Good friend.”
Such passionate words of grief.
Rey nodded along, not moving her face to a single descriptor of the lost man. She had given one frustrated wail on this day; not when he was pronounced dead, but when he was thrown from the stallion’s back and landed heavy and hard on one shoulder, the secondary impact straight to his neck.
She mourned earlier than most women would think to.
The party was too tired to decipher the difference of wailing then and not when the man was truly gone from this world.
A lame husband was as much use as a dead one on this trail, it was something like relief when she found out his neck had snapped clean and she would not be driving herself and him across this trail.
“And we ask our Lord for strength, and to bless this man’s poor widow, may he grant her the grace to complete this journey. Amen.”
There were a few mutters of repeated Amen.
Rey kept silent, her lips thin.
While she kept her face serene, she was already, desperately, trying to plan.
The womenfolk had not taken as kindly to her; Niima’s quiet, odd wife. So she would not likely be invited to share a wagon if hers was to be abandoned.
Women were supposed to find nice things to talk about. The weather, a pretty sky, a scrap of ribbon.
Rey was never gifted at that art, and was more resigned to live alongside them in their place in life.
One by one, the men who constructed the hasty grave paid respects and tilted their hats to her. No one had more to say than Hux, and were equally empty in their shallow pool of sentiment.
She did not know many of their names, seeing as the men typically led the train, or formed a border around it. Her own husband had become as rare a sight to her as their faces were, especially on her level, not on horseback above. With the dust that coated him, anyone could have rolled under their wagon to sleep beside her, demanding a kiss for his genius plan to head West, and she would have cared just as little.
Finn, boldly, as was their friendship on the trail, tugged the end of one of her braids affectionately, and she cast him a nod. He would go back to his wagon, and his young wife, and she already knew they were kind enough, but not stocked enough to carry her as their burden.
She shook her head slightly as he walked away, as though erasing that option from a blackboard inside her head. She was unprepared to greet the next mourner.
A tall man tilted his black hat to her, the first to put it back on his head when the trailside funeral was done, so she never got a good look at the face underneath.
He was the last to leave, though she felt Hux edging at the far reaches of the path back to camp, waiting to speak with her. His presence made her fists clench.
She’d throw a punch at a sermon right now.
The tall man didn’t say much in the form of comfort, but he pointed at the dirt by her feet, turning purple in the fading light.
“Best not forget those,” he warned.
It was fair; she had the men dig them off her husband’s stiff, death-swollen feet. She had nearly forgotten them, in her planning. He was the first to notice the extent of her distraction, and not just demure by tragedy.
She nodded up at him, not meeting his eyes.
Not taking her word for it, or assuming her reaction was not one of hopelessness but of mourning, he bent carefully and lifted the shoes by the laces. They were once new boots for a perilous journey. They were in perfectly good form now, though a lot less shiny. It was better to bring them than to leave them rotting in the earth.
He dangled them in front of her carefully, brim of his hat tilted down, and she accepted the laces into her hands. Their fingers brushed, he flinched, and too soon pulled his hands away.
One boot dropped heavy into the dry earth.
“Apologies,” he muttered, whether her husband or the boot she did not know, and left her to fumble to pick the boot up on her own.
She bowed her knees to do just that, and clapped eyes on the grave like eyes watched her from it.
She stared at the tower of stone in front of her. This would be the moment to say goodbye to her husband for eternity.
Better or worse, she did not find they would go to the same place in the end.
At this, Rey almost began to cry. It was the closest to tears she could muster; only the breathing of it, her body quaking as her throat closed up. Because no matter the man: she was alone now.
Fool bought a stallion he couldn’t ride. Sold their home and dragged her out here. Got thrown off that horse he bought, idiot, at the first sign of it getting spooked because he never learned to control the damned beast before he relied completely on it.
And now she must finish his journey for him.
She spat into the dirt near his grave, her cheeks flaming with anger, her hands clenched in tight fists.
She had to suppress her bile when she was promised by many fellow travelers today that she could always go back. There was a mother in a wagon that lagged behind hers that had been told the same thing about a toddler that was bit by a snake the first week.
You can go back, build a proper grave…
She had snorted like the stallion that had thrown her husband each time, arms crossed, and hastily excused her manners being lost to grief with a completely stone expression until the person expressing those condolences went grim and wandered away with a cheap excuse.
When she twisted away from the grave, Hux was still waiting.
“My sincerest condolences, Mrs. Niima.”
She placed her bonnet back on her head, despite the growing dark, to shield her face from the warring thoughts inside her.
“I thank you for expressing them,” Rey gave him a nod, arranging her steps around the arena he had cleared for whatever he had to say to her, as though she had not noticed he had spoken at all. He took a few quick steps to keep up with her walk back to camp.
“It might be indelicate to breach the subject of marriage at this trying time...”
An adequate statement. The man had only been dead for three hours.
But one must always be practical.
“I am not so softened by sentiment in the matter as you would typically find a widow, Mr. Hux.”
He, in the inappropriate timing that he had initiated, seemed taken aback by her calm tone.
“To speak so ill of your own recently lost spouse-”
“I speak no ill of him, or of him at all. I speak only of my prime concern, that being the journey ahead. You may conduct your business.”
He stared at her, so surprised she was keeping up that he had become utterly lost.
“A woman on the trail should be protected.”
The fading light of dusk at least hid the way her lips twisted at that.
“Obviously, my proposal is modest. I aim to set up a small parish when we reach Oregon City, and I would like for a wife to help me settle into my claim, to open up the parish community. I would be willing to shoulder you as my burden, my bride, for the journey if you consent to the match.”
“I am not prepared to answer that question immediately.”
“But prepare you must, your future is in a delicate position, Mrs. Niima. Grief is a natural state in the face of this tragedy; but it may strand you here without options, burdening another wagon for help they should be giving themselves. Heaven helps those who can help themselves.”
He barely got spared her punch.
She twisted her lips up in a false smile as she re-tied her bonnet strings. “And I have packed no mourner’s clothes for this journey. I will think deeply on your generous offer.”
There was no where, and no way, to go but onward.