He looks down and sees that Odile is dead. His hands clench, and he has to shake the crumbled cigar out of one fist. He turns on his heel and strides away, ignoring the nurses’ calls for him to look at his newborn daughter. He curses Odile over and over again; he’d paid for beauty but had gotten only weakness, he’d needed a son and she’d spited him with a worthless daughter. He hears crying behind him and he pivots to see the sheet being drawn up over Odile’s face. The child is already feeding at the ample breast of the wet nurse. He slams the door on his way out.
The doctor clears his throat, explaining that he needs to know the baby’s name to fill out the birth certificate. In the silence that follows, the wet nurse steps forward, still suckling the baby, and offers, “Delia.” It’s a near-reversal of the poor dead mother’s name, she thinks, and mayhap it’ll reverse the terrible luck Odile suffered.
Had her father ever acknowledged her, Delia Reynolds would have been the princess of Shadow, ruling beside him over the vast ranch that employed every able-bodied man for hundreds of miles around. But she raised herself as if she were one of his laborers, and her chestnut-colored hair was tangled with sweat and her green eyes were slitted against the dust thousands of pounding hooves raised. He saw her once, whooping it up, standing in an admiring throng with the ignorant rabble he employed, watching one of the men atop a bucking bronco. When she mounted the animal after it had thrown the previous rider, her face alight with anticipation, he turned away, disgusted by the hoyden that bore his name.
But she did worse than that to his good name. He’d sent fortune-hunters off packing, claiming that the girl wasn’t his heir, that the ranch would pass to a cousin – a man – who lived on Dupat. The girl was clearly her mother’s child, possessed of a fine-boned face that never betrayed her wanton ways.
She’d never been in love, never cherished fantasies about one special man, until that summer, when suddenly there were two who owned her heart between them, two playmates who became the loves of her life overnight. And there is no choice to be made, for her or for them, best friends all. She loves them both, it’s as simple as that, until her father chooses to hear the whispers borne along a venomous breeze. Whore, they say, pretty little whore. For the first time in her life, her father has something to say to her; she stands unflinchingly before him. Her defiance – she dares to look him in the eye! – enrages him and brings her mother sharply back to his mind. His chest seizes, and he pitches forward on his last breath.
The gossip dries up with the old man’s death; no point in whispering what everyone already knows, what Delia and Luke and Charlie have never bothered to hide. And it turns out there is no cousin on Dupat, no will even, and it’s Delia’s steady hand that guides the ranch to prosperity. She tears down their shacks and builds proper houses for the workers. Soon families are coming to Shadow, looking for work and a decent place to live.
Her son is born one crisp autumn, and it’s soon evident that he’s inherited from all three of his parents a taste for the outdoor life and an appreciation for horseflesh. The men get used to seeing his round face set in determination as he works alongside them; Delia catches herself listening for his bubbling laugh as the men tell him tales of the marvelously ornery horses they’ve bred.
In the rainy season, he attends the school organized by a few of the workers’ wives. Delia assumes the silence he now wears like a garment is the natural result of learning, a sign of budding wisdom; Luke and Charlie view the change differently, seeing the bruises he keeps concealed under the mud that covers everyone for the season.
He faces the three of them like they’re a tribunal and he’s a criminal of war. He’s finding it hard to look at his mama. And Luke and Charlie – it seems tremendously important now that he know which of them is his father. “Malcolm.” He’s startled by his mother’s solemn voice, startled into meeting her sorrowful gaze.
There’s just that single word hanging in the air. They don’t prod, and Mal cannot keep from repeating his schoolmates’ taunts about his mother: “Bible says you’re a whore.” He shifts unhappily, waiting for one of them to offer a rebuttal, to give him a response that will be more effective than his fists have been so far. Instead there’s another long silence.
“Do you know what a whore is?” Delia finally asks.
“Yes’m. A woman who fornicates with men she ain’t married to.”
“No,” she says softly, remembering the joyous hymns her nurse used to sing. “It’s not about marriage. What’s the most important word in the Bible?”
“God,” he answers confidently. The tilt of her head means try again. “Jesus?” Her eyes are smiling at him. “Love,” he figures out, rewarded by her proud nod.
“A whore is someone who fornicates for money, someone who forgets the most important word in all the worlds.”
He smiles tremulously, letting her words sink in. With a bright laugh Luke scoops him up and throws him over his shoulder. Charlie reaches out to ruffle his hair. “C’mon, Scholar, let’s chop some firewood to keep your mama toasty.”
Continue: Part 19/21