Worth Living For
The first time Ruby ran away, she nearly made it across the river. Her brothers found her at the crossing, tucked among the donkeys and people and overstuffed bags, and carried her home, Ruby kicking and screaming all the way. She was three months shy of thirteen years old, and had no desire to grow up to be a wife.
Despite her protests, the wedding happened that summer.
The next time Ruby ran away, they didn’t find her. She had waited. Plotted. Four years passed. Her childish angles had softened into a woman’s curves, allowing her anonymity among the crowds pressing onto the ferries and barges. Her hair pinned up, her skirts let down. Her husband had slept in the hot summer sun, flies buzzing around his tattooed legs as they moved back and forth with the creak of the porch swing. The two tiny graves beneath the sprawling oak tree in the church yard were the only signs of her existence she left behind.
To love in the time of cholera was to tempt the cold hand of death. A starburst of happiness could turn to ashes against your lips overnight. From her forced marriage Ruby had cultivated two brief, fiery stars, each one taking half her heart with their last breaths. Her husband tried to make her happy, but Ruby kept her eyes on the river, and the land across. When she stepped on the wood planks of the ferry that would bear her across the water and to a new life, she didn’t look back. There was nothing there for her any more.
She never saw the man on the horse, desperate to catch her.
Forty-three years later, a hearse trundled its way across the bridge where ferries once floated between the riverbanks. The tiny graves were waiting beneath the sprawling oak tree in the church yard, stones weathered from time but still standing. As the first shovelfuls of dirt fell next to the coffin, a low hole widening for its final resting place, a man slowly approached. His legs needed support from the tightly-clutched cane in his hand, the tattoos wrapping the wrinkled flesh of his legs providing nothing but an inky smear to time long past. The gravediggers tipped their hats and stepped back; they had been at their job long enough to know when a mourner wanted to say goodbye in private.
From a pocket the man pulled a stack of letters, tied with a strip of frayed ribbon. He brought them to his lips, then placed them on top of the simple pine box. The stories told were full of heartache, of triumph, and – above all – of life. The envelopes were missing, but each tale was signed with an elegant scrawl.
The gravediggers waited quietly until the man finished paying his respects, tipping their hats again as he left. When it was time, they finished digging down into the cool earth beneath the oak tree, carefully setting the coffin inside. A breeze kicked up, fluttering the pages across the pine lid as it lowered into the ground. One of the gravediggers caught one before it could scatter away, turning it in his calloused hands and reading the words aloud.
My very bones ache now, Joe. I’m not long for the world. I still feel bad, for how things were left between us. But that was never my life, you know it as well as I. And the one I made for myself? The rightness eclipsed every mistake made along the way.