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The Past That Wouldn’t Go Away
‘How often is an apparent act of kindness
in truth the act of a guilty conscience?’
Rani and Zuic were no more able to conceal their excitement over the move into the newly completed house, than were Theuli and Malina able to conceal their relief. Life in the tents had been bearable, but inconvenient, cramped, and, in a word, provoking.
The move went quickly, as there was little in the way of furniture as yet. But rooms and some few belongings they all had, and all gratefully took over their new quarters, anticipating the improvements that were shortly to come.
When Malina was done inspecting the room that was now her own and Ralph’s, she left to see the rest of the house. Not that she wasn’t intimately familiar with their dwelling, having seen all points of its construction; instead, it was because she found herself compelled to respond to some mood or instinct which told her that she needed to impress upon herself that this new home and household belonged to her, just as she to it.
Unlike Pran and Theuli’s former home, this house was divided into rooms, affording its inhabitants a sense of much-needed privacy. Her explorations soon took her to the living-room and kitchen, which, though very much like those of the home they had left, bespoke of several noticeable improvements. The kitchen was larger and more conveniently laid out, as was the living-room, which had four entrances; one to the hall on the left side, one to the kitchen at the rear, one at the front which led indirectly outside by means of a wide cloakroom, and the last at the right, which led to a large utility shed built on to the side of the house. This last was full of firewood, foodstuffs, implements, woodworking equipment, a raised washtub complete with hand pump and washing-board, indoor clotheslines, and a weapons locker.
The kitchen (at Theuli’s express decree) now had a door which led to a pantry which was attached to the rear of the house, a double sink in the kitchen, another in the pantry, an enormous stove which Ralph, Pran, and several additional pairs of strong hands had moved and installed with much difficulty (and, the truth be known, not a little barely-suppressed cursing), and an enormous glazed ceramic water tank mounted on a cast-iron stand, which stood in one corner like a gaily coloured hot-air balloon. This odd-looking leviathan was filled by means of a hand pump fitted with a pipe which drained into the top of the tank. Its sole purpose was to supply large volumes of water more quickly at need, through means of a tap set into the bottom, which, when opened, poured the tank’s contents into a large iron cauldron, itself being conveniently placed upon a rack which was built into the supporting stand, beneath.
The difficulties in moving the stove were quickly amended by such an exceptional meal (created by Theuli and her women friends and neighbours) for the workers and their families, that such strenuous efforts were not only soon forgiven, but orders were placed with Ralph for no less than a dozen of the cast-iron behemoths.
That same evening, as Rani made herself ready for bed, Malina, passing by the open door of the Elf childrens’ room chanced to see Rani open a small wooden box, and in so doing, caught a glimpse of its contents.
For a giddy instant, the earth beneath her feet suddenly seemed to tilt off balance as Malina, steadying herself against the door-frame, was immobilized with shock by the sight of a familiar object. Entering, Malina said, trying to control the tremulous quaver in her voice, ‘May I see that?’
With an obliging smile, Rani opened the box for her once more. Nestled amongst its contents was a minute object, an unmistakably familiar tiny doll, that had been fashioned from a wooden clothespin. White as a little ghost, carefully and disbelievingly picking it up with hands that shook, Malina said brokenly, ‘Where did you get this?’
At last realizing something was very wrong with Malina, uncertain as to how she should respond, Rani said, ‘I’m not sure. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember . . . I think mother must have made it for me when I was little.’
Malina found Theuli and Pran in the kitchen, discussing something that registered on her senses not at all. Unable to speak for a moment, she showed them the doll.
Theuli smiled at the sight of it. Pran, however, could only stare in dreadful recognition. Theuli’s smile faltered when she noticed her husband’s reaction; it was erased altogether when she noticed the way that Malina’s and Pran’s eyes were locked on to each other.
‘Have you something to tell me?’ Malina demanded, her voice suffused with emotion.
Pran opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t, or couldn’t reply at first.
Staring at her husband with an unreadable expression, Theuli said, ‘Pran? What is this about?’
Instead of answering, Pran got to his feet, his face ashen. ‘Not now. There is something . . . there is something that Malina and I need to discuss. Alone.’ To Malina, he said, ‘I suggest we go for a walk. I am afraid that we will both need . . . some privacy . . . for what I must tell you.’
Walking slowly in the dark, they made their way down to the low glade through which the stream flowed, coming at last to a place where there was a fire-pit and crude wooden benches made from logs. Above them the sky was clear, and full of stars. Pran knelt down and built a small fire, then backed away to stand before one of the benches, but remained silent, apparently reluctant to speak.
At last, Malina broke the silence for him. ‘That doll . . . you know, then, that I had one just like it. I found it just days after my mother disappeared.’ She paused to attempt to gain some control over her emotions, but found herself unable to keep an accusing note out of her voice. ‘Does this mean also that you know something of the fate of my mother? For it seems to me no small coincidence that you would react so, when confronted with a mere child’s toy.’
Pran struggled vainly with his rising grief, but was soon unable to contain his emotion any longer. To Malina’s amazement, he sat down unsteadily, put his head in his hands, and wept.
‘Oh, Malina . . . there is so much that I must tell you!’
Brokenly, he told her of that fateful time, years ago . . . of his leaving home . . . of the hunting party . . . of the unspeakable act that had so horribly scarred both her life and his own. When he came to the end of his tale, describing her mother’s tragic end, Malina cried out in disbelief and fell to her knees, keening with incoherent grief and outrage, wracked with broken sobs that did nothing to assuage her emotional pain.
After a time, she quietened somewhat, but stared at him in appalled disbelief, shaking her head as though trying to dispel his words.
‘I found you,’ he continued at last, ‘almost a week after the promise I made to your mother. You were so small . . .’
For a time he couldn’t speak, overcome with grief.
‘. . . you were so small . . . when I found you, you hadn’t eaten for days . . . you were so hungry . . . and crying for your mother. But there was so little that I could do! I wanted so badly to console you . . . to hold you . . . to take you home with me . . .
‘It was I who left the little doll for you to find. I asked Theuli to make it, telling her it was for the child of a friend. It was I that left food for you, and small things for you to find. The Thane himself was that young officer whom I told of the deed. It was he that enlisted Finli’s help, asking him to go out of his way to check on your welfare whenever possible. But nothing any of us could do was ever enough.’
At last, when he was finished, Malina stopped crying. She drew herself to her feet, squared her small shoulders, and faced him, her tearstained features clear, resolved. When at last she spoke, her voice was steady.
‘I . . . I am sorry for having doubted you. This deed occurred long ago, and belongs to a past that neither of us can change. The time for such secrets between us is over, and I thank you for sharing the truth with me.’ She turned to go, but hesitated for a moment. Speaking over her shoulder without looking at him, she said, ‘I can well understand that this must have been a terrible burden for you to bear for all these years. I can see now, too, that throughout my life, your hand was ever present, and not the least when my life was in danger.
‘My mother . . . I am not sure, but I think that she would have approved of you, regardless what happened.’ With that, she left.
It was long before Pran followed. In the meantime, poking idly at the fire, watching it with unseeing eyes, he relived old and bitter memories, while feeling the after-effects of profound grief and guilt. Yet his thoughts turned often to Malina, and when they did, he found himself shaking his head with admiration for what that young woman had become. And in the same breath, discovered that, though the burden of guilt of what his own people had become still remained squarely on his shoulders, its weight seemed much less than it had done for a very long time.