The Lantern

By Shera Hill

Natalie never thought she could love any person the way she loved Sarah.

The dark of the night—careful, careful, stealing through the woods on moccasin feet—going to her now. 

They both married men from the holler, mountain men, leather-belt hard, moonshine drinking. But Sarah was soft, and to lay against her breasts was to sink into gosling down. 

Natalie knows these woods, loves these woods, never wants to leave them, but Nathan claimed there was work in the city, said he was weary of holler living. Natalie knows shame was his real reason. Ten years married, and where most would have three or four children by now, they had none. 

“Barren bitch,” he’d yell at her, sometimes hit her when reeling from the drink, until she learned to read the signs, learned to hide in the woods until he slept it off. 

He was too proud to “put her by” as they say in chapel, so tomorrow they were to go down the mountain, their meager belongings strapped into the old suitcase—catch the train to the city.

Gold lantern moon in the black sky, a twig crackles under Natalie’s heel. Her heart speeds like an overwound clock. She holds as still as trembling allows. 

Sarah has her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, dark laden with the secrets of these woods, its medicines, its poisons, its ghosts. 

Eyes that scare most men.

Folks whisper her husband hit her just once. 

They found him at the base of the cliff, brains spilt on the rocks. Freak accident, strange for a man grown up in these hills.  

Sarah’s herb craft, potions, poultices keep her and her little girls from leaving the mountain, from needing to find another man. 

A hooting owl, the smell of pine smoke from old man Styles’ fire and Natalie resumes her journey.

In chapel that morning Sarah slipped her a tiny vial, and whispered, “Put this in his liquor tonight, then come to me after my girls sleep.”

Natalie still clutches the empty vial, remembers how Nathan staggered up from his chair, how his eyes widened before he fell and Natalie could almost regret it, could almost want to take it back, because for an instant he looked like the boy who’d courted her with fistfuls of daisies.

She sees the light through the trees, the lantern in Sarah’s window shining more golden than the moon, and all else disappears. She rushes toward it.

There is only tonight.

Shera Hill lives in central California and has short fiction and poetry published or forthcoming in the First Literary Review – East, The Potato Soup Journal, Everyday Fiction, The Drabble, and elsewhere. An avid reader and writer since childhood, she’s completed several novels she hopes to sell through the traditional publishing route and is currently working on a fantasy trilogy.

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