Sarah walked steadily into the village square, two baskets of apples suspended from a long pole across her shoulders. In a sling around her neck was suspended a more precious weight — her new daughter, Taffy, just two months old. She smiled down at the tiny bundle, swaying gently with her mother’s every step. She was a sweet baby, mild-mannered and quiet — not like the last two. It made trips such as this possible.
She crossed the well-trodden grass to a tumble-down hut on the far side. As she walked she surveyed the small town. The war had left its toll here — several huts were little more than rubble, and few still had roofs. The raiding party that had struck had been in a hurry, though, and had not had time to do a more thorough job of destruction, for which all were grateful.
“Good morning, Sarah,” called a thin voice from the hut ahead. From inside a gaping window hole a wrinkled, old woman, in her late sixties, leaned out. “Come to visit today?”
“Not today, Hanna,” replied Sarah, setting both buckets on the dry ground, then carefully selecting a few apples from one. “I’ve been gathering, and decided to bring you some of what I got.”
The old woman took the gift with unsteady hands. From the inner gloom another head appeared, this of a woman in her thirties.
“Hello, Sarah.” The new woman peered through the hole where the window had been. “What have we here?”
“Apples, Jenna,” Sarah replied. “Want one? We have plenty.”
“As would others,” came a growl from inside, followed by a man’s sneering face, “except they went when their lord called!” He leaned out, the tops of crutches showing under his armpits.
The younger woman inside turned on the apparition. “Hush, Josha! Perhaps some have better sense than others!” She gave him a light push, and the man staggered back into the dark. “Perhaps we wouldn’t be missing so much if others had as much sense as Levy Barel.” The look on Jenna’s face was sober, almost angry.
“I, I’d best be going,” Sarah said softly, turning back for her apples.
“Pay him no mind, Sarah,” Jenna replied as Sarah was packing up. “He and his like will cool off.” Sarah nodded silently, then headed onto the remainder of her rounds.
The warm sun seemed cooler as she returned to her house outside town, her apple baskets empty. As she approached the house and the accompanying buildings, Levy appeared from his workshop, a small smithy he had made.
“How is the town faring?” he called as she approached, but she merely glanced at him, then ducked her chin and continued on.
He caught up with her in the house.
“What have they said this time?” he asked softly.
“Oh, nothing,” she began, but continued. “Josha made a comment about us not losing as much as they did, and Tremen didn’t say anything, but just looked hard at me.”
Levy held her a moment. “I can understand their anger. I would miss a leg, if I had lost one like Josha, or an eye, like Tremen.” He looked long into Sarah’s face. “But that doesn’t mean I feel any different about that war.”
“I know.” Sarah again held him close. “I … I still have dreams that you … you had been taken away to fight, and didn’t … all … come back.” She held on a moment longer, then the baby started to fuss.
“Mattan will be coming with a wagon,” Levy remarked as they pulled apart. “I’ve promised a third of a sack of barley and a basket of potatoes to the commons.”
“We give them so much and still they hate us,” Sarah remarked bitterly, rewrapping Taffy.
“Let us not hate them back,” Levy replied. Sarah sighed and nodded as he left to return to work.
That evening Levy and Sarah, along with their children, were back in the village. Levy’s father, Eli, was in his seat as the village Elder. The gold and copper of the family seal, a grant from the Duke of a century before, gleamed in the light of a dying fire. All around were silent, listening to him. Their faces were content, the remains of the commons meal lying about on plates and bowls.
“… three bags to the relief of Stamma, two miles north,” Eli was saying, reading from a list. “I am also sending Stamma a basket of Levy’s apples, for their children and them.”
“Apples?” grunted a voice from the dim outer circle. Sarah thought it might be Josha’s but she wasn’t sure. “Isn’t barley and potatoes enough? We can’t send all our food away! We must save enough for ourselves!”
“We have more than anyone else,” Eli replied. “We have been blessed with an abundant harvest this year. It would incur the wrath of both heaven and earth not to share it.” He looked out around the circle. “Here we sit, having fed on the commons. How can we eat the food others freely bring us, and yet deny that same food to others?”
“Father is right,” replied Mattan, reclining before the seat with his wife and child. His voice was a large as his frame, and all listened. “We receive so that we can give, especially in these hard times.”
“Besides,” replied Young Eli, the Elder’s oldest son and heir, “it is better to give your food up freely, than to have the Duke’s men come and force you to give it up. At least then you have the choice of how much to give.”
There were mutters round the fire. Not all who had fought had gone willingly.
“What is ours is ours, to give or not to give,” continued Mattan. “We choose, because of God and our own desires, to give it to others. That is both our right, and our duty.”
“Then it’s settled,” Eli concluded. “Eli and Mattan will be about for the donation,” he emphasized the word slightly, “tomorrow at dawn. Please come down to my warehouse and help them load it up.”
There were a few scattered mutters, then all rose with Eli’s gesture of dismissal. As the others left, Levy, Mattan, and Eli joined their father at the council seat, while Sarah moved to where her sister-in-law, Greta, stood.
“I heard you’ve been having a hard time in the village lately.” Greta matter-of-factly stated as Sarah approached.
“Yes.” Sarah doubted Greta had. Greta seldom had trouble with anyone — anyone with any sense enough to leave her be, that is. “They are envious, because Levy stayed behind, while the other men went to fight.”
“Perhaps we should remind them whose grain they’re eating,” Greta remarked. “While the others were off fighting that fool war, you and Levy were feeding their families.”
“Still, many of them had no choice.”
“Nonsense,” Greta replied. “There’s always a choice. You may like one road more than the other, but you still have to choose it.”
The next day Sarah and Levy stood in front of the Barel family barn, watching as Mattan and Eli pulled the grain cart away up the road, toward Stamma. There were oxen to pull the cart, but it was decided that, as many people in Stamma had lost all their cattle, it would appear better to draw the cart by hand. She looked at Levy, watching his brothers on wend on their way.
“Levy, is it wrong for us to have more?”
Levy looked at her, startled. “What?”
“Is it wrong for us to have more than the others?”
He considered the question as they turned and headed back to their house and fields. “If we work harder, we will have more. If heaven or luck smiles on us, we will have more. It’s inevitable.”
“But is it right?”
He thought about it as he walked. “The old proverb says that the cook ought to taste the stew. We have the right to enjoy the taste of our hard work, so long as others are not going hungry.”
“I feel guilty because I have enough food to feed my children. I feel guilty because I have a roof over my head.” She took his arm. “I feel guilty because I have a husband who is not hurt, who walks straight and tall, and who can still look another man in the eyes. Yet how could that have been otherwise?”
“How could it have been otherwise?” he agreed. “What I did was the right thing.”
“And it was not the easy thing,” she replied quietly.
“You are carrying a large part of that burden now,” he added.
She lifted her shoulders and squared them off. “Then I too have the right to taste of the stew.”
Sarah and Levy sat on the step of their house in the evening dusk, the day’s work done. Inside the children slept, and the couple was enjoying a well-deserved peace. While Levy surveyed the sweeping fields and hills that were his domain, Sarah ran her arm across her man’s shoulder. She was lost in thought, thought about him. She had been thinking a lot lately, especially today, after what she and Levy had discussed that morning.
For so long she had waited as a maiden, alone in the world. Now that she had her man, her Levy, she wanted to hold onto him forever. She was not going to let anything take him away from her. Nor did she need anyone to tell her that was wrong. This was one possession she would never share. Spontaneously, she wrapped her arms tight around him. He was somewhat startled, but returned the warm embrace. She put her lips to his ear.
“Let’s go down to my special garden,” she whispered. “I want to taste the fruit of my hard work.”
He kissed her earlobe and together they arose. Leaving the quiet house, they moved off into the evening light as the sun lowered itself toward the horizon. They left the house behind, with their sleeping children, and passed the barn, which Levy had lent to a family from the town, whose house had been burnt. They waded through the tall grass and over the crest of the next small crest, out of view of the homestead.
Finally they were alone, clothed in the soft, warm, moist, evening air. Sarah watched Levy’s eyes as he took in what spread before him, the sight of its gentle hills and valleys captivating. She knew what he was feeling, for she was feeling it as well. This was something that they possessed together, or perhaps that possessed them together. With Sarah’s hand atop Levy’s, the two moved like the young lovers they still were. Moving together up gentle slopes, they headed for but never reached the summits, turning to race across the smooth valleys, then, whimsically, up the other side. Down the smooth, flowing slope Levy led, Sarah’s eyes locked onto him in the fading light. The natural line of the plain led the two of them gently down to where her secret garden lay.
They slowed now, savoring the moment. Sarah travelled with her husband, one hand softly caressing his broad, strong shoulder. She lay her head on it, breathing deeply the fragrance of his hair. Thoughts of the day’s work, the trouble in the village, the war and its horror, all were behind her. The time had come for them, and they deserved it, regardless of what others thought or said. Together, carefully, they passed through the bush, up over the mound before the garden, then down into the secret darkness. Together they paused, and kissed some more. Sarah closed her eyes, and listened to the sounds around her, smelled the fragrance of their fruit, felt the soft breeze stirring her hair. She felt alive and whole. When she was finally ready, Sarah turned her attention to the tree in the garden, the one with the stones at the base.
“Help me. I’m going up,” she said to her mate. Levy placed his hands firmly on her hips. Without a hint of weakness he lifted her high, holding her firmly and comfortingly, until she could grasp the tree. She took it tightly between her legs, as if to crush it. She tossed her hair, exhilarated by the feeling that came every time she made this climb. Her arms held her aloft while her thighs clamped down, propelling her toward her goal. The rough texture beneath her skin always felt foreign, but after days and weeks of the commonplace, something different was welcome. Climbing in the orchard never felt like this did. Levy was following, with her on every movement, his powerful touch guiding and helping her. She revelled in this exertion, one more effort in a lifetime of work. It was a long, slow climb, her breath growing ragged, but she drove on, harder and harder. Levy followed slowly, pacing her. Soon she was feeling Levy’s heated breathing close to her skin, and could feel him tremble with the effort. Still they continued, working off each other, pushing each one on. Finally, her muscles trembling, Sarah was in reach of her goal. She placed her fingers among the soft foliage to feel the hard, smooth roundness of what she desired. She made that last final push, and then finally she was tasting it, sweet and satisfying, her skin wet with juice.
Having gotten what she came for, Sarah let Levy ease her back down to the grass, where she fell laughing to lie flat, breathing heavily. She pulled her husband to her, kissing him hard and long. Together they lay there, their fingers entwined with the grass in the garden.
“If only we could never leave the garden,” she whispered to him.
“I would be the happiest man in Dargon,” he replied.
They giggled softly in the dark.
“Do you feel guilty now?” he asked.
“No, not any more. You were right. We have the right to what we have worked hard for. And there are some things that you never, ever give up.”
The next morning was again clear and sunny. Sarah stepped outside. Levy was again up to the village, this time to help someone with planting the fall grain. She looked over to the potato patch, where the two oldest children were working. Her eye fell on a sack, lying near the workshop. Levy must have forgotten to take it when he left that morning. She walked over and opened it. A familiar smell emerged.
“Apples,” she said to herself. She took one. Remembering, she smiled, and took a big bite before continuing on with her day’s work.