The Hour I First Believed
The quill is growing ratty. The feathers are twisted, clumped, sticky with ink. Frank can’t remember buying it. He runs his fingers through the feathers, gently squeezing, and they catch. He dips it into the inkwell a number of times and scrapes the nub against the side to wipe off the excess. He takes his hat off his head and puts it in a drawer. Reminds himself to breathe. It’s over now, he thinks. Relax. He tries out a smile, and starts writing.
He looks up. The huddled shape in the corner of the cell remains where he’d dropped her. She’s neither moved, or spoken. He leans up, chair squeaking. Making sure she’s still breathing. In the silence, with the quill not scraping, he can hear her raspy breath.
As he returns to his work her voice emanates from the shape. She says, ‘What you writing?’
He doesn’t look up.
“I’m filling out my report.”
“What you saying?”
“I’m saying what happened. What I saw.”
“What did you see?”
He doesn’t answer. He writes on the first line, the nub unpleasantly sharp, her first and last name. His handwriting is barely legible. Out of practice in a small town. No trouble to report.
“When’s your birthday?”
Without looking he knows she’s moved. He can hear her shuffle to the bars, the floorboards beneath her creaking. While he writes an imagined date for her birth and what crimes she has committed, he imagines her weathered face. Upturned lip. A picture of sorrow. Thin, grey hair. Two wrinkled hands, clasping iron bars.
“I’d do anything to take back tonight,” comes her voice.
“Would you take back what you did?” he says, finishing the final sentence. …stealing National Bank cheque, value £5, the property of J. Douglass, from pocket of J. Douglass. He pushes his report to the corner of his desk, carefully places the quill down beside the inkpot, and looks at her. She is as he imagined. He sits back in his chair, his hands in his lap.
“Yes,” she says.
“I think you’d take back being caught. You wouldn’t be here if Mrs Douglass hadn’t found him and shouted for us.”
Looking in her eyes now, he notices the doubt. She’s made an existence of preying on people’s sympathy. He’s determined.
“I was so hungry.”
“You ever been hungry?”
“Of course,” he says, then smiles. “Probably not like you.”
“I wouldn’a done it if I weren’t so hungry.”
“I haven’t had a thing to eat in months.”
His eyes haven’t moved from hers. She’s looking at the bottom corner of his desk.
He says, “You’re lying.”
Her lips close. She sits back from the bars in her cell and brushes her thin, grey hair, behind her ears. It’s a delicate gesture, and feminine. Unlike her.
“It’s not a lie.”
“I know for a fact Thom Watson put you up in his house for a few weeks. And that was just a week ago. I spoke with him. He said he’d fed, clothed you. And you just left.”
“He didn’t feed me.”
“He said he did.”
Her eyes dart. Considering her next move. He’s unsure why pity, or mercy, don’t move his heart toward her. Perhaps because he’s seen it before. Perhaps because, if not for her, his quiet town would be quieter still. Perhaps he has become callous.
“Even so sergeant, I haven’t eaten in days.”
“You have to believe me.”
“I do. You think it excuses what you did?”
“I know it don’t.”
He leans forward on his desk again. He wants to stop their discussion. Find something to do. Something to distract him. His desk is clean, besides the quill next to the inkpot, and the report. The gun in his holster, he decides, looks like it needs a polish. He finds the brush and oil in the top drawer and sets to stripping his pistol.
In between the clanking of the gun on his desk, the old woman’s breath. Raspy, full of hurt. She coughs.
“I was real hungry.”
“How’d you lose your home?”
He’s not looking up again. He doesn’t care what she does.
“My husband passed.”
“How’s that mean you end up without a home?”
“We were living with his folks when he died. And they don’t much like me.”
“Did they kick you out?”
“They didn’t kick me out,” she says, “but they made it clear sergeant. I wasn’t welcome. I left before they could.”
“You don’t have other folks?”
“They”re all passed?”
“Surely your husband’s family aren’t that bad?”
“They don’t like me much.”
“They’d be better than being homeless though, surely?”
He shakes the five bullets from the cartridge of his pistol onto the desk. One, looking to roll off, he catches in his hand.
“Only five bullets?” the old woman asks.
He looks at her and can see her desperation. She needs to change the subject. Get off the topic of the why. Her eyes, possessed with a false interest. He relents, doing his best to soften.
“A trick I learned last year. Leave the one on the hammer empty. If it were loaded, and something knocked that hammer down,” he levers the hammer back for her benefit, “I’d be shot in the knee.”
“Learnt that lesson when a man died from it a township over.”
His brush, slick with oil, darts in and out of each cartridge chamber. The brushing sound of oil on metal, and the smell, settle his heart. Reminds him of his father.
“How long have you been without a home?”
“Couple of months.”
He’s not sure he believes her. He wonders who her husband was, and where she lived. He grins as he fits the cartridge back. He looks at her.
“Can’t you just let me go?”
He knew she’d ask. Knew it the moment he caught her. What she’s been aiming to get at since he clamped his hand around her arm.
“I”m not any trouble.”
“You can’t hit me with the tails.”
“You’ll be alright.”
“I’ll break in half sergeant. I’m old,” she says. Her mouth becomes a snotty mess.
“You’ll be fine.”
There’s a pause, and he’s suddenly aware of voices outside. Before he can move to his window to look, the door opens. Joe rushes in, and stands without breath on the other side of his desk. He’s young, grim-faced. Rose cheeked.
Frank opens his eyes at him in question. Spreads his hands.
“There’s people outside,” he says.
“I can hear that.”
The old lady chimes in with, “Who?”
Joe leans in, covers his mouth with his hand, and whispers, “They want her set free.”
The old lady, whether through divination or guess work, has heard what was said. She raises herself up off the cell floor, holding onto the iron bars, swaying. She’s all smiles.
“I knew you’d be kind, sir. I knew you would.”
Frank doesn’t look at her. He says to Joe, “What are they saying, exactly?”
“It’s Jack. He don’t want to press charges.”
Frank stands and moves to the window. There’s a small crowd. Two carry lanterns, for light. Jack, indeed, is at the front. A face of sour forgiveness. There’s a bandage wrapping his left hand. A small patch of blood, black in the low light.
“Alright,” Frank says. He retrieves the pistol from his desk and finishes refitting it. All five bullets are chambered. He’s careful to spin the empty one to the top. Holsters it. Grabs his hat and secures it, despite the hour.
“You want me to come outside with you?” Joe says.
“Bloody right I do.”
“You’re not letting me go?”
The old woman’s face has fallen again. It’s pressed between the iron. Her hair is matted in front of her eyes.
“No,” Frank says, attempting tenderness, “I’m not. And I won’t. If I let you go you won’t learn anything.”
“I’m real sorry love,” he looks back out the window, at the gathering herd. “You need to learn a different way.”
“I promise I’ll do better.”
“It’s not enough.”