He sighed and placed that tentative hand on her skin where her nightgown rode up when she threw herself down on their familiar bed with the well-used mattress and faded sheets. She’d flung herself there, face turned away from him. He caught up to her, ready to explain himself, perching on the edge of the bed.
Her back was smoother than he expected, and he wondered how long it had been since he’d touched it. She didn’t even care to reach around and pull the clothing or the sheets around herself. Instead, she clenched her red and roughened hands into fists then cushioned her head, wrapping her arms around her face, ignoring him and the rest of her body as she’d done for many years.
He knew better than to show the uncertainty he felt; the animals had taught him that. Still he hesitated and let his own gnarled hand simply rest on her body, at the indentation before her hips belled out with the curve of her buttocks and down to her legs. The seamlessness of her flesh surprised him, and he thought perhaps it was just the contrast between her skin and his weather-beaten old hand. They were both worn down by the years.
And yet it was like running his fingers through melted butter or warm honey or ruffling his hand across the feathery tips of the grain, their seed heads tickling his palms the way the wind stroked them. Or maybe like the harvested grain falling from the augur at a gentle speed, the precious results of their harvest coursing over his fingertips into the bin. Or maybe it was as tender and velvety as the twilight sky settling down upon their long day ushering them to exhausted sleep.
He let his hand just rest there, remembering other moments, seeing time regress as he imagined the unscarred hand of the boy he’d been, before they’d struggled, before they’d taken up the tools to work on this gamble that had been almost lost, before they’d learned all the lessons life sent them. Weary. Working. Collapsing into bed—this bed—falling right to sleep, unable even to wrap their arms around each other.
He studied his hand, resting it on her spine, reliving his inadequacy at this. Oh, he could fix an engine or haywire a tractor. He could usually find the problem just by the laying on of his hands, sentient flesh on inanimate metal when the tricky parts acted up. None of their secrets eluded him, but the flesh of this woman was another matter.
To his surprise, she was soft and uncreased, her back lovely in contrast to her hands, chapped and snagging on everything she touched. Her hands had even caught on him with their roughness. He hadn’t expected her back to be satiny and pliant, like the seventeen-year-old girl she’d been at the beginning, like nothing else he could compare it to, certainly not the animals, not the machinery, not his own calloused, leathery hands.
Her shoulders still shook and he wondered if she even felt his touch. The reverie possessed him from the fingertips up into his brain, and for awhile he sat on the edge of the bed while she cried, not so loudly any longer, but muffled by the cradle of her arms and hair, while her legs were exposed to the chilly air. He wondered if she felt his hand, one small island of heat amid the cold.
She seemed always to be shivering, and he knew he’d failed at that, too: not only the farm as a whole, but just the bare necessity of keeping her warm. Of course, she hadn’t helped with all that harping at him. Who wanted to cuddle up to that, a far cry from the loving girl she’d been.
Well, he’d tried. The thought made its way down to his fingertips, rising again in a gesture of helplessness, then dropping, resigned, onto her smooth body, warm where he’d been resting it. Slowly he moved it a little, exploring the skin around his invisible imprint. She didn’t have goose bumps yet, but he knew she soon would, so he slowly expanded his circuit, hoping to keep the chills at bay, spreading his attention in larger circles, warming and moving slowly side to side on her exposed back.
She still wept, but he couldn’t do anything about that. At least she had subsided before reaching the stage of hysteria. And she didn’t push him away and shove him off the edge of the bed. She’d done that, too.
He avoided looking at the hidden crevasse that divided out from her waist at the base of her spine. He knew better than to dare that. Instead, he imagined her legs, planted and sturdy in the garden, as she bent over, pulling weeds, bringing order. He imagined, too, the curve of her lower back from one side to the other, full and round in his imagination and memory of years ago.
Stroking her, he longed to warm her just once, and realized that even her trembling sobs had quietened. He didn’t want to remember why she had been crying.
Her breathing now seemed to speak directly to his hand, as if she was telling him something he couldn’t discern except through his palm, with the rising and falling of her body, given up to her crying. Or was it merely breathing? He couldn’t tell the difference, but at least she wasn’t screaming her hurt feelings at him.
He expanded the circle of his touch, upwards along her spine. He could feel every vertebra. She’d worked like a fury beside him—driving the combine, hauling grain, feeding animals; then as the years went by, parallel but distant from him, and now it seemed, against him in these later years. Her body showed it. It wasn’t so much wrinkled as it was wiry, like his, worn down to shards and splinters by the sun and the wind, or the wind and the freezing snow, but always the wind.
Her skin was resilient and even, urging his hands to go further and explore territory he’d given up a long time ago while they both fought to keep the farm. It was as if it wasn’t her and her body there on the bed, turned away from him, at all, but some memory he’d conjured up with his stupidity and tactlessness.
What had he said? “Why don’t you celebrate by getting a manicure, like your friends?” It was something as insignificant and trivial as that. He shook his head, feeling her body rising through his fingertips, up into his brain. He wished he could turn her face to his without a wild commotion.
She was still facing away from him, and he played with the idea that it wasn’t her at all. With that thought, he expanded the boundaries as well as the pressure of his hands, just a little.
She always turned her face away from his now when they slept in the same bed they’d shared since the beginning. For decades. At least he hadn’t forgotten the date or the year, even if he’d been ham-handed about the suggestion.
For a moment he forgot what she looked like now. The wrinkles, creases of worry like the furrows in the dried-out fields, parched under the sun, waiting first for seeding, then for rain, and then for harvest. Her hands were just as parched, always cracked, and dissatisfied, he thought. He longed for the laughing comic girl she’d been at the beginning, facing all the hardship with a joke.
His hand moved up her back, the smooth strong back that she made into a barrier against him. She caught her breath, as if his fingers had become entangled in her hair, spread out around her. But he hadn’t been anywhere near it, so she couldn’t blame him. In the dimness of the room, her hair seemed long and dark once more, not silver.
He kept feeling his way through this puzzle, like when his fingertips got an inspiration to jury-rig broken-down equipment in the middle of harvest, because ordering new parts would take time or money they didn’t have.
He brought his hands, now soft and gentle and warm, like her flesh, transformed in such a surprising manner, up from those ankles that were still as delicate as when they’d met, his large hands spanning the entire breadth of her. Up her ribcage to her shoulder blades.
Her breath rose and fell in long-neglected tryst with his, deep and regular. Her skin seemed to illuminate their dim room. He eased away the traces of the years, and because there were no wrinkles, his hands felt magic again. Her rigid spine relented, but still her shoulders were stiff, her arms cradled her head and she remained turned away, hiding her hands.
He longed to see her face, now, to be sure it was really her, after years of crying, so many tears, some silent, some convulsive, but always weeping. Weeping like rain melting the salt lick or the stream eroding the strong banks of the creek bed, collapsing the boundaries until he never knew where he was anymore. Flash floods or sudden downpours, the crash and flow of the spring breakup, melt and runoff. And then came the drought, with the dry and burnt land where nothing would grow.
His hand abided on her shoulder. She’d always carried herself well, with pride, no slumping or slouching. Maybe that was a problem, making him instead the one who apologized, slumped and hunkered, driven down. He shrugged to himself. He didn’t care anymore, and even if she started crying again, he still wouldn’t care. He was almost done.
Perhaps he could try one last time. His hands rose. He had to see. Like a compliant child she let him uncover her shoulders, her neck. She even bent toward him, though still didn’t turn her head so he could see. Her hair wafted and moved apart for his fingers, not trapping them. At last, he cupped her shoulder through the tangled nightgown and pulled her body over toward him, on her side. She didn’t resist but let him do what he would with her, as if she was seventeen again and wanted to look at him but wanted him to insist.
He turned her face to his. Her cheek bones, skin taut, her brow magically unwrinkled, eyes closed, with her lips together; he touched her mouth and her eyes opened. In their reflection he saw the two of them starting out all over again. He felt it in his hands, his fingertips, and knew what to do.
He searched and found them, grabbed the tortured, dry fingertips, unfastening them from their tight defensive fists. He remembered the hands of that young girl, untested and unhurt by all the work, eager and ready, not knowing what would become of them through years of struggle. She had given them to him on trust. He held them, not one spot, but ten. He warmed them, then kissed them, one cracked and rough fingertip, one twisted joint by the next, acknowledging each of them in turn. No manicure could do that. Then he held them in his own hands, folded to his heart.