This is the story I wrote for round 2 of the YeahWrite Superchallenge. It had to open with the sentence “Everything I had known was wrong” and incorporate this image:
Everything I had known was wrong. The thought plagued every step as I returned from hunting, empty-handed again, to the hut I shared with Joséphine.
I thought I’d find her painting by the cabin’s tiny south window, but she was outside, tending the garden we’d started in the sunniest part of our clearing. A few blonde curls had escaped her sun-bleached scarf. Her welcoming smile faded when she saw that the game sled I dragged was empty.
“What happened, Isabelle?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I sank into the dirt by her side. She slid my hat from my head and ran her fingers through my hair, loosening my braid. Her touch sent soothing shivers to unknot my shoulders.
“I think it’s the wrong wood,” I continued. “It’s too fragile – the deer just break the traps. It’s too dry, or too thin, or…I don’t know.”
I crumpled my hat between my hands. Joséphine extricated it before I could ruin it.
“You’ll figure it out – you always have so far.”
“I was a stationer’s daughter,” I snorted. “How did we ever believe that we could survive on what I read in books?”
Her hand on my hair froze. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Sarlat.”
I caught her other hand and kissed it. Under the dirt were her omnipresent paint stains: scarlet and mossy green settled into the fine lines of her skin. “Never,” I said.
“Then we just have to keep trying,” she said. “Don’t discount all you’ve learned because of a few mistakes.”
“This isn’t painting, Josie, it’s survival. Mistakes out here will kill us.”
“We knew this would be hard, but what choice did we have?”
We could have chosen lies; I could have chosen Paul-Edouard. Joséphine could have hoped for a patronage, but most likely she would have ended up some merchant’s miserable wife, or in a nunnery, or worse. We’d chosen each other instead, and in this tiny cabin in the Aquitaine wilderness, we were piecing together a life of our own.
I smiled, tracing the outline of her stained palm. “The best choice.”
Later that week, I bartered the first of our pumpkins for lessons with a woodsman who traded at the tiny local market. He was reluctant to share his secrets, especially with a woman, but I must have convinced him that I was no threat to his business. As the summer passed, I cut lengths of the wood he recommended and treated the sinews the way he’d shown me. Finally, I spent an exhausting August day replacing every single one of my traps and setting new ones.
When I returned home at sundown, weary and nursing several blisters, Joséphine was painting.
It was beautiful – a walnut orchard, its soft dawn colors amplified by the golden evening – but she was supposed to have made our strawberries into preserves to sell, and the jars stood empty on the kitchen table.
“You’re back!” She set her brush down and kissed my cheek. “Look! It’ll be ready to sell next week.”
“What about the preserves?” I asked tightly.
“Oh – I didn’t get to them today. But the painting will sell for so much more than jam, Belle.”
I rubbed my temples. “Josie, we needed the money from the preserves to buy flour. We have less than a week’s worth left!”
“This will be my final painting, anyway.” Her jaw clenched in a way that I knew meant she was holding back tears. “This is my last canvas.”
I stared at her. “What?”
She nodded. “And tomorrow I’m going to find work in the village.”
“Josie, no – you don’t need to give up your painting! We’ll work something out – I’ve almost figured out these traps, and then I can buy you more canvas!”
“No, you were right.” She took my hands. A smudge of ochre transferred to my thumb.
“This is about survival.”
“Just give me more time,” I pleaded. “If it’s a bad winter, you can look for work in the spring.”
Joséphine withdrew her hands. “If you think that’s best.”
She closed the door to our room behind her. I stood in the fading light, watching the smear of ochre dry.
Joséphine was already gone when I woke the next morning. I assumed she was out foraging for mushrooms, or perhaps gone early to the market. I wanted to talk to her about the previous night, but there wasn’t time to wait – I had traps to check. I avoided looking at her unfinished painting as I left.
When I returned from the forest at sunset, Joséphine was waiting for me at the edge of our clearing.
“You were gone so long – I was worried.” Her eyes widened when she saw what I was dragging on my sled. “A deer! It worked!”
“All those hours with that grouchy hunter finally paid off.” I kissed her, feeling her lips smiling beneath mine. “I’ve found a second game trail, too. Soon we’ll have enough to be comfortable this winter, and to buy you more canvas!”
Her smile faltered. “Isabelle, I went to the market today. I sold my paints.”
The sled’s rope fell from my hands. “Oh, Josie.”
“I knew we’d need money long before winter, and it seemed…for the best.”
“But Joséphine, you love painting!”
She stretched out her hand. I could see green and ochre, the colors of the walnut orchard, on her fingers. My heart broke to think she would never finish that painting, that instead of paint on her hands, she’d only have dirt. Her upturned palm encompassed the canvas upon which we’d made our home: the clearing, the wooded hills, the setting sun tingeing the low clouds with gold.
“Yes,” she said, “and perhaps we can afford paint again someday – but I love this life with you more.”
Her lips touched mine and for the first time in weeks, I felt certainty: that about love, at least, I could never be mistaken.