Cora has learned something new about herself: she hates change.
She absolutely despises it. Uncertainty, unfamiliarity, the unknown. What she has no control over, she has no desire to consider. She had unconsciously believed that, by this time, she’d have learned everything worth knowing about herself, but she finds now that she has no idea who she is. Today changed her. She was introduced to new people, scenery, feelings, ideas, frustrations, and realizations. She discovered that Alexia isn’t the prude she always thought she was. Working women who wear trousers is considered strange by some people. A boy she’s known all her life told her he loves her and wants to marry her—a boy she’s never once considered more than a brother.
Cora doesn’t run home. She runs to the road and doesn’t stop, not even when she hears shouted questions behind her. The noise of the town fades behind her and even still she doesn’t stop running. She pushes herself harder, skidding around corners, careening down the hill like a tumbling rock, panting heavily.
Cora stumbles to a stop when she’s reached the cliff where piles of wood are stacked. She edges around them so her view is unobstructed. She sees the plains stretched out before her, bathed in the fierce glow of the approaching sunset. After plopping onto the ground at the cliff’s edge and sinking down on one elbow, still breathing hard, her rapid breaths soon deteriorate into sobs. She covers her mouth with her hand. She hasn’t sobbed since she was fourteen. The day she knew she had lost Mother’s ring.
The sounds coming from her own throat frighten her and she begins to tremble. What is wrong with me? Cora tries hard to compose herself, but realizes there is no one to impress here. She gives up and just lets herself cry. Laying her head on the cold stone and snivelling pathetically, watching the sun slowly dip down the western horizon, she gives in and lets the tears soak her face and the stone beneath it.
It’s not long before Cora hears approaching footsteps. She wipes her face quickly, but is soon wrapped in her father’s arms. He sits next to her and she leans against him. She doesn’t need to be strong for him. She cries into his shirt and he gently strokes her hair.
“You don’t have to marry him,” he says gently, after much of her sobbing has ebbed.
She buries herself closer to him. “Why is everything changing?” she mutters.
“Not all change is bad, Cora-Mae.”
“How not? I have no idea what will happen next. Don’t you think that’s scary?”
“Of course it is, but it can also be freeing. The future is open to you.”
She can hear the hint of pain in his voice when he says it. “You know it’s not. I can’t leave you, Papa. I can’t leave Atherton.”
“As much as I’d like you to stay with me all your life, I can’t demand that of you. You need to find what will bring you total satisfaction and peace in Herus, regardless of me or anyone else. Regardless of this town or your work. I’m afraid I’ve pushed you too hard into your routine. I haven’t let you grow up.”
Cora leans in closer so she can hear his soft heartbeat. The rhythm of it reassures her, and yet, it slices her heart to consider leaving him. If she were to marry Lucas, she’d have to leave Sawmill Cabin and live with him. Live with someone other than her father.
“Oh Papa,” she whispers, squeezing her eyes shut at the very thought, “I don’t want to grow up.”
He kisses the top of her head and Cora hears the smile in his voice when he says, “I didn’t either. Until I met your mother.”
Cora opens her watery eyes. Beyond the pale folds of Papa’s shirtsleeve, the sunset blinds her. A cool breeze washes over them and she shivers. Papa draws her closer.
After a while, Cora asks, “Are you saying that I’ll want to grow up when I meet the man I’m supposed to marry?”
“I’m saying that you won’t mind getting older if it’s with someone you love,” he says.
“Could I love Lucas like that? The very thought is repulsive.”
Papa chuckles lightly. “It might be like that now, but perhaps only because you’ve never thought of him in that way.” He presses her head to his cheek and she relaxes against him. He is the haven of peace and comfort to her. “Give it time.”
As he continues gently stroking her hair, they watch the sun set behind the faraway tent-like mountains. His proposition doesn’t sound so horrible. The way he speaks, he makes it sound as if she’s not going to hate being married to Lucas Kayde, if that is what she decides to do. It’s going to be strange, though. Only once when she was a child did she ever like a boy that way. Since then she’s never really considered it. Men are just men. She’s practically one of them.
But now, all of that is changing. A man asked her to marry him, and she’s going to consider it! Maybe soon the idea won’t be so repulsive, and she’ll learn to appreciate a man like a woman ought to. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? A man and a woman will marry if they have a deep love and respect for one another? Papa told her once that, if she was ever to marry, she was to submit to her husband. She doesn’t like that idea. She’s only ever accepted Papa telling her what to do, not some other man. Then again, Papa is different. Cora serves him out of love, not only because he tells her to.
When the top edge of the sun dips just below the horizon, Papa tugs her up. “It’s going to get cold,” he says. “Let’s go home.”
Together they stroll home. Cora clutches her father’s arm, drinking in his assuring presence, forever thankful for it. There’s no one outside the sawmill when they arrive and no one in the lane. She must have scared them into their cabins by her frantic escape and ignoring of their shouted questions.
They enter the cabin and Papa goes to stoke the fireplace in the main room. Cora peels off her cloak and throws it over a chair, rubbing her sore shoulders. The wool gets heavy when worn for such a long day as today, but she’d have caught a chill in just her thin shirt. She scoops a cup of water from the basin and drinks it down, then does so again.
“You haven’t eaten,” Papa says, then goes to the counter and uncovers the bowl of potatoes.
“I’m not terribly hungry,” Cora tells him.
“You have to eat something,” he persists, setting the bowl down in front of her. “Just have one.”
She sighs and takes one. It’s cold, but she knows it will be filling and even tasty when sprinkled with salt. Papa hands her the bowl of salt at her request and she sprinkles some on before taking a bite. He takes a seat on a nearby chair and pulls off his boots. She swallows.
“Does everyone know?” she asks quietly.
“About Lucas...about his feelings for me...about his proposal...?”
Papa leans one elbow on the table. “A few of the men know, yes. It doesn’t seem as absurd to them as it does to you.” He chuckles again.
Cora takes another bite, and immediately realizes she’d neglected to salt that area. She sprinkles some onto her next bite. “It doesn’t seem so absurd. Well, maybe it does...It’s just that I’ve never—”
“I know,” he says.
“I just don’t want to—”
“I like things the way they—”
He raises his hand, a patient smile on his face. “I know, darling. Don’t lose too much sleep over this. It is still logging season.”
She nods. He’s right. She shouldn’t worry so terribly about the future. She should let it feel freeing. She cram a fingernail into the yellow flesh of the potato. It doesn’t feel freeing at all. Cora feels suffocated rather than freed. And it’s a horrible feeling.
Papa comes over and kisses her temple. The wiry hairs of his moustache tickle her skin.“It’ll all work out, Cora-Mae. Be patient with Lucas.” He straightens and smiles gently. “Let him love you, and you might learn to love him.” He grins at her grimace. Then he shrugs. “If you do end up not liking him, you don’t have to marry him. It’s entirely up to you.”
Cora lets out her breath in exasperation. “You know I’m not so good at making decisions.”
“No, but you’re smart, and I trust you.”
She bites her lip. “I wish I had as much faith in myself as you do.”
He smiles again, and touches her face. “Goodnight,” he says.
She watches him go into their room. “Goodnight,” she returns.
Cora finishes her potato in silence and replaces the cloth over the bowl. Their cabin has only one bedroom that she and Papa share, and their beds are separated by a curtain for privacy. She enters her section of the room and sits on her bed, staring into the fibres of the curtain she sees every night. Moonlight slinks into the room from the window behind her, just above her bed, and she pulls open the curtain, letting it saturate her skin. Outside, the waterwheel dips and splashes next to the window, and the sound alone soothes her and draws her toward sleep. She runs her fingers through her already-loosened hair and lays it over her shoulder. She hears Papa shifting around on the other side of the curtain. Quickly, she slips out of her shirt, boots, and trousers into the thin woollen gown she wears for sleeping.
Cora climbs beneath her blanket and wraps it around herself, situating herself cross-legged at the window. She stares out into the moonlit waters of the river and watch the planks of the waterwheel turn round and round until she gets so dizzy she has to shut her eyes. When she does, she feels herself losing balance, and she hits her straw pillow with enough force to stab a piece of straw into her cheek. She yelps in surprise and pain.
“Are you all right?” Papa asks worriedly from behind the curtain.
Cora moans in embarrassment and stroke the sore spot, thankful it didn’t pierce her skin. “I’m fine,” she mutters, and turns onto her back to face the ceiling. She arranges her blanket over her and begins to breathe evenly, but can’t seem to turn off her mind. Her eyes are wide-open, planted on the wooden rafters above her. After awhile, she can’t help but whisper: “Papa, what’s the thrill in always remaining comfortable?”
There’s a long moment of silence, and Cora begins to think he already fell asleep, except that he isn’t snoring. Finally, he says, “There is none, but life isn’t so plain. It isn’t either comfortable or thrilling. It can be both comfortable and also have its thrills.”
Cora lies in silence. Incredible, she thinks, how my father can be so wise and I so awkward and foolish. After a long, long moment, she opens her mouth to speak again, but, as soon as she does, his snores fill the air. She slowly smiles, and the sounds of the waterwheel and her wise father’s snores coax her mind to relaxation. Gradually, she drift into sleep, and the last face she sees is not her father’s or Lucas’, but the tanned face of a man with a game bag and woodsy, bottomless eyes...