If ever there’s a woman of wilder spirit, Jack wishes not to cross her path. For whereas the wives and daughters of any southern plantation had been kept, silent, and elegant, Ms. Junia fits not a piece of this criteria. His wise uncle Seth had warned him to be kind yet to stay far from her, in her unprovoked attempts to engage with those at work in the fields. In her frightening endeavors at conversation; always answered briefly by those she confronts but never successful in gaining her friendship. During his first hours about the Livingston property, he doubts any speculation others tell; all stories of how she has staved off an overseer, and all falsehood surrounding her aims to teach literacy. Yet despite his disbelief, it is her unlikely nature, it is her strange borderless ways that unnerve him the most. He had learned early on that unpredictability in this world is a frequent cause of death.
Nonetheless, Seth never fails to defend that the Woodbury name is a lucky one. He might attribute this to their consistent union, for while forced to move often, they have yet to be separated. The gift of literacy was bestowed upon Jack by his once existent parents, his early intelligence and his polished elocution a blessing in every exchange. Burdened with atrocious vision, both the senior and the younger had been careful to obscure their shared impairment, and have passed through a cursed society without any punishment for it. Seth still seeks not to mourn tribulation but to count blessings, most certainly not a man of religion but decisively one of hope. His nephew is justifiably more pessimistic.
This morose quality that defines Jack so adamantly can be seen in his dread at a new way of life on the Livingston premises. Childhood had done well to protect him from the afflictions of physical labor but as the past months have strengthened him, his obligations are changed. He is quickly assigned with the task of warming a gravestone palace; a residence far too wide to be heated by any one man. His mornings are no longer complete with household chores but with arduous treks through the neighboring woodlands of the Western Countryside. His hands blister and splinter profusely, untended by bandages or generous fabrics as he only assumes are awarded to those within the household. But in his empty responsibilities, his prepping lumber and searching for trees, the gravest pain he experiences is dehydration at the mercy of the Virginian summer.
It is this agony that aggravates him the most at the edge of one day. And upon taking an axe to the lumber fetched earlier that morning, Jack can’t prevent sweat from beading at the edges of his untamed hair. His heart weakens enough that he lets down his weapon, soon slouching beside the stump upon which he fixed his timber. Here, he had chosen to exert himself, for he had acknowledged the absence of any overseer. Here, far enough from the authority of the Livingston family, he can watch the Southern sun bleed into a golden harvest, and afford himself the privilege of free thought.
“So it seems you prefer isolation, Mr. Woodbury.” He has misjudged his safety, once resting against the severed remains of a locust tree but now, standing alert as the daughter of such a residence approaches him. Smiling brightly, he beholds the manner by which her golden curls fall about her figure, her pale complexion glowing with color as she’s walked quite a distance to meet him. There is an unsettling excitement about her chartreuse green eyes and he fears what power they behold.
“How do you do, Miss Junia?” Bewildered at both her presence and observation, he neglects to respond to it, instead considering how formally the heiress addresses him.
“I’m as well as the weather on a day like this.” Laughter embedded in her voice, Jack deliberates the measure of her intelligence. Surely there is no joy in the humidity that plagues them, the frequent rains that ravage her crops and the incessant light never ceasing to flood a land of broken hope. “But I can’t say the same for your health. If you spent more time amongst others, I might have aided you sooner.” Alluding to his loneliness, he curses her secretly. Heaven forbid he is able to escape the horror of reality for only a moment of the day. Yet his silent execrations are soon met with anxiety as he conjectures whether he might be punished for his chosen seclusion.
“I apologize, Miss, but I assumed I might be more productive on my own. I wouldn’t dare to abandon my responsibilities.” She acknowledges the fear in his expression, so familiar and so difficult to quell in those she speaks to.
“Don’t you fret about that, Mr. Woodbury. You are impressively diligent.” Unable to ease him, she asks for his hands and though she takes them quite carefully, he instinctively flinches. He expresses regret and she accepts it easily, further surprising him as she elicits medicine and fresh bandages from a basket just beside her.
“So, is it a fear of others that allows you to work so well on your own?” Her query is peculiar indeed as she heals his lacerations, removing wood fixed so sharply in the cracks of his skin. He broods over whether she discerns the fastening of his heart, the panic which betakes him as they continue to converse.
“I rather prefer not to be distracted from the duties expected of me.” He revisits each word so attentively, determined not to appear irreverent or opinionated by any means. Remediated, he watches as she swathes his injuries so precisely, the notion that her gaze won’t meet his own a frightening one indeed.
“And you’re sure that these potential distractions don’t have to do with learning to place trust in those who may so easily betray you?” There is a slight air of condescension about her, as if the heiress can discern every thought that enters his mind. It unsettles him to his core.
So captivated by the haunting candor of her suggestion, he’s unable to afford her any response. Thus, she blushes and laughs in faint amusement. “Please, don’t trouble yourself with my blunt propositions. I only know those living here quite well. Life could be much easier in their company.” Releasing his hands, he observes as a veil of sadness conquers her wild eyes, their surfaces lit fiercely aflame by the dying scarlet sun. He wonders as to why one with so much wealth could be upsetted by a simple prospect; the concept that those under her family’s subjugation could want nothing to do with her in the slightest. He wonders this further as she offers him a glass of water, one too hidden behind her and taken like gold into his injured grasp. Desperation consumes him in his first sip and despite her presence, he drinks rightly till the glass is but empty.
“Oh, goodness, Mr. Woodbury. If ever you are so parched again, please don’t hesitate to pause your work and I’ll fetch you a drink.” She is humored frequently but never unnaturally, swearing to see him again when so suddenly, she is summoned back to the house. He wishes she won’t fulfill her promises but the certainty about her implies it; she most definitely will.
So while waiting for their paths to recross, Jack ventures to invest in her instruction, challenging his own consternations and conversing with others in his midst. He is fortunate to learn that Ms. Junia is less obliged to engage with those so adamantly unwilling to interact with her. The very key to escaping her consultations is simply in detachment.
Consequently, when she approaches him alone one preceding night, he does little to initially address her. He kindles a hearth in a chamber unknown, and he feeds in his timber, so squarely trimmed, only to be swallowed by strange orange light. “Good evening. What a lovely fire you have burning. Might I help you with it?” Her elation at seeing him is almost horrifying.
“Thank you, Miss, but I’m quite alright.” Shadows from a starless Southern night filter in through the space, till linoleum floors beneath him are brightened only by a dancing blaze. Abandoning the entrance, she soon departs to settle beside him. She looks to him yet his concentration is fixed upon nurturing flames.
“Does my status intimidate you, Mr. Woodbury?” Again, her blatant inquiries and his formal title impress him.
“In a world such as this one, I find other concepts much more frightening.” Since practicing indifference, he worries if she’ll take too much offense at his behavior. Nonetheless, despite any counseling he sought before, it appears that Junia is not discouraged in her efforts to engage with him. She rather seems intrigued at his reply.
“And you don’t suppose your perfected grammar is daunting towards those who you work with? I notice you took up my recommendation.” She glances downwards with a smile, practically flattered by her own observation. Yet, her acute awareness of how he lives, of whom he speaks with, is so eerily unnerving he wishes to run in terror.
“Most seem unbothered by it.” He refocuses on appearing aloof in hopes that it might suppress his anxiety. Her resulting expression is tainted with disappointment, blessing him slightly with relief.
“So if the borders of societal standing are so insignificant, why are we expected to only engage with certain members of society?” By this moment, her disappointment has turned to misery as it did in their last encounter. The fire paints flames through her golden hair. Notions that one of privilege might feel so desperate to transcend social boundaries brings him a strange sense of aggravation.
“The borders of societal standing are of importance, Ms. Junia. They affect us in less directly discernible ways.” He’s cold once again yet she ponders his words. The heiress is silent until she offers him water, and he’s learned to let her leave before drinking it.
However so, Jack continues to wonder whether his behavior is enough to keep Ms. Junia from seeking him. Others apprise him of her further and he comes to know the room in which he tended a hearth as one of greater value. It was the observatory of her dear late father, a supposedly kind man who passed principles on to his only daughter. He is told of her charity, of her amiability but of her ignorant innocence and her irritant ways. Furthermore, as Jack learns of Ms. Junia, he comes to despise her worst qualities so ardently. Hence, he is preposterously mad when departing from her entitled path one morning, she ventures to accompany him towards the forest.
The Virginian sky so grey with impending rain, he trudges through bristle, endeavoring to see her surrender her pursuit of his attention. Empty wagon in hand, he is quite disappointed indeed by her perseverance.
“Good day, Mr. Woodbury. You must let me help you in your current chores. We are expecting storms from the South and as you do warm the house, your job is of utmost importance.” She prattles on in twinkling joy, jubilation refreshed no doubt by her new pressed rose tea gown. Trekking through thorns, he forces her choice between preserving fabrics and remaining by his side. To his dismay, she lifts her skirt’s edges with ease, continuing on her way till they stop at a proud standing oak. All so industriously, he elicits an axe from his cart, grimacing slightly as she stands just beside his tree of choosing. There, she looks unto him without a glimpse of exhaustion.
“Do tell me, Mr. Woodbury. What do you know about love?” It’s a strange inquisition, and she blushes as she asks it. Her attire is divergent against the woodland greenery and a clap of thunder sounds in the distance.
“Not much, Ms. Junia.” He startles her slightly upon severing a neighboring branch. His curtness now fails to perturb him.
“Well have you ever been in love before?” In striving to lift tree branches, he watches her grapple immensely. He is soon forced to help her, sneering at the thought she might hinder his progress.
“I most certainly have never.” Jack continues in his way, encountering a cherry plant and attacking it as a means of expending his anger. How one could expect another to reveal such sensitive detail infuriates him. He prays for the notion she might lose interest in the subject, especially as she harps particularly close to a secret of his own.
“It isn’t my intention to pry, Mr. Woodbury, but I do hope you feel comfortable enough not to hide your past into the future. Any matters you disclose to me won’t reach another soul.” And he wonders if in all her bliss, her merriment, Junia has even a soul to tell. Her joy may be very well an illusion as it had been in the life of a girl he once knew. For long, long ago, his consciousness had been compromised as he sought to ingratiate himself with a woman, one who might be deemed the very opposite of his blithe escort in every way. Several years of his adolescent time had passed with only thought of espousing another, whose rejection made him question the purpose of life. All despite his righteous pessimism, Jack does still ponder his reasons for enduring an existence of consistent strife as he does now. This newfound uncertainty only charges his hatred towards the young Ms. Livingston, the viable culprit in unburying the burdens of his past.
“You may claim you don’t wish to peer into my personal affairs, Ms. Junia. Yet if this is the truth, you might have quit the topic long ago. You might have even remained at your studies, the very place you ought to be with a forecast such as today’s.” Frustrations unmasked, Jack compiles what little material he has collected amidst her distractions into his dray. He covers his collection with fabrics he packed in clever anticipation of the rain. Then, careful not to waste a second of time, he moves deeper into the forest at an alarming pace. Ms. Junia rushes adjacent to him always.
“Good gracious, I suppose if I expect any honesty from you, I must tell you of my truth. For I am quite interested in your personal affairs as you’ve told me so little of yourself. Still, you must have someone who loves you so dearly. Whatever of your mother, your father?” He wonders for a moment if some divine force is instinctively tormenting him through Junia’s curiosity. What kind, what generous, what correct moral god could deprive him of parents such as those he had known to himself. Never a moment went by that they didn’t act in his interest, for his destiny of freedom and liberty so swiftly slashed to death before his own eyes. As he rarely recalls the details of their gruesome murder, grim thoughts loosen his hold on the axe he once wielded. Ms. Junia uplifts it unsteadily as she does everything. Without thought, he thus seizes it from her.
“They aren’t with me anymore.” Water begins to leak through the canopy and Jack marches towards a last pine. If only he acts quickly, he’ll have just enough wood to bring warmth to the dining hall.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Mr. Woodbury. If there is anything I can do to help the matter, do let me know.” He wonders as to what this could mean but is distracted as rain seeps through pine needles and soaks him through. Junia laughs gently and he’s maddened much more.
“You claim you’re here to help me in my chores, Ms. Junia. But since your arrival, I’ve barely completed my day’s work.” Coldly, he frowns. They have stopped in their place and she glances down in what just at first appears like abashment. Perhaps she ponders her words in response to his rudeness, what punishment she ought to issue. But in resilient delight, she smiles towards the folds of her fine pressed pink dress.
“In all our encounters, I’ve tried to learn anything of you. Yet I fear you’re so vague there is little I know. Whether it is contempt you hold for lost love, lost family, or a lost sense of identity, I know you’ll come to trust me one day, Mr. Woodbury. I can’t imagine that your past is an easy one, but the moment you let it go, I know you’ll venture to find yourself and we’ll grow into dear friends.” Ever the more haunting, her sparkling expression spooks him now as every word Junia speaks of his life is quite true. If her wisdom was not tarnished by the false prospect of their friendship, he might reconsider her intelligence.
However, as her words sit with him, Jack does wonder, what could provoke her to assume he’s lost identity? Is it so obvious in his pained glance, his perseverance in empty tasks about the plantation? And as he reviews his past tragedies, could it be that his own dull nature, so beaten with grief, has ensured his unforeseen solitude? Underneath Southern trees, now trickling with wettend sap, he questions whether all the agony he’s known through life is nothing but his own doing. He imagines a future so bland in the loneliness she describes and blames his actions for it. He hates himself and hates again, his expression turning so fiercely dark that Junia’s own glee disappears.
“I have no need to trust you. I have no need to be with you. I only wish that you’d leave me alone.” In his rage, he reveals truth. Sadness extinguishes the spark in her eyes yet she fails to abide by his wishes. She approaches him as if to apologize, taking his arm when instinctively, he pushes it from him. He watches her fall towards the forest floor, her gown at last drenched by it’s freshly soaked soils. Then standing above her, he waits for retaliation, tears now threatening to cross her cheeks. In all her embarrassment, she refuses to meet his stare, still so transfixed in hatred he possesses unconsciously.
Yet all so suddenly, the reality of what transpired turns Jack’s anger to terror. His response to her ways surpass detachment, his recklessness brought him to hurt her. His priorities change quickly from discouraging her to consoling her, even regaining her favor. But as he comes close to lift her, Junia rises, retreating towards the house so quickly he can hardly expect to chase her. Observing her leave, he speculates how much time he’ll have left on this property. He soon fears the worst for a dry future ruined.
Still, despite Jack’s worries, days pass with no penalty for his many mistakes. The storms progress shortly by the Livingston land and he carries out work without disruption. Ms. Junia’s disappearance is rather relieving, yet he does crave the water she brought to him in each of their exchanges. Now, he recalls how she even placed a glass towards the base of a wagon, one dragged to the woods on a rainy day. He begins to question her unnatural absence as all others do, wondering if more than his discouragement has kept her in doors. Nonetheless, when he finally does decide to ask of her whereabouts, it is guilt that drives him in his decision.
It is mild outside when he concludes his labor early and walks along a porch to converse with the housekeeper. A portly woman of old age, she is terribly unfriendly upon first impression.
“Excuse me ma'am but I haven’t seen Ms. Junia about the premises for quite some time. Do you happen to know how she is?” His sophisticated voice does impress her initially, yet the woman looks rather unamused.
“Ms. Junia’s come down with a cold, that dull-witted child. She claims she fell while walking about in the storms when I told her not to leave so often. The outdoors is no place for a lady, afterall.” Ignoring the housekeeper’s hostility, Jack understands that the heiress has refused to reveal his outburst in the forest. She has suffered through illness inflicted by his own wild anger, has resolved not to discipline him but to let him off. His reluctance to speak with her is more than justified, yet somehow he regrets what measures he’d taken to keep her away. Thus, in spite of the old woman’s presence, he escapes towards the house’s entrance. While she voices her complaints, he fetches a glass from the kitchen and fills it full with water before bounding up the stairs of a southern castle. He paces through corridors, so suddenly aware he knows not a thing about the layout of the house. Much to his luck, he then witnesses a physician leave across the hall.
Walking with caution, he comes upon a door decorated with acrylic blue daisies, with branching magnolias and soft emerald junipers. Pushing forth the closed entrance, he finds Junia’s window ajar, her eyes transfixed on the outdoors and her expression one of such boredom he begins to feel it too. Reaching her bedside, he observes the uneasiness of her respirations, the crimson seeping through her freckled cheeks as her fever swells to its limits.
“Good day, Ms. Junia.” Anxiously, he calls her to attention. Shocked to a seated position, the heiress wraps sheets about a translucent lavender nightgown. He can only imagine that the motion brings her nausea and he’s sorry for his presence.
“Good day, Mr. Woodbury.” Adjusting her curls, she faces him against the heat brought on by her illness, swiftly catching a glimpse of the water he holds at his side. After suffering so long through a physician’s inspection, the very prospect of it entrances her. Jack soon sees her desire.
“I overheard you weren’t feeling at your best, Ms. Junia. I figured you might be in need of a drink.” All so careful not to disturb her, Jack sets the glass at her night table, settling in a chair positioned by her so uncomfortably he finds it humorous himself. Without hesitation, he’s humored further as she snatches up the glass and downs it in familiar desperation. She then dabs at her lips with timidity.
“Thank you.” It is all she can muster before collapsing towards her mattress with a faint smile. Having known disease himself, Jack is wise to the torture that plagues her, the constant desire for sleep never satisfied with prevalent discomfort. Unable to prevent rest from alluding her, he thus moves to distract her with words. He surrenders the remorse he’s held tight to for days till his conscience is clear.
“I want you to know I am truly grateful for your discretion after my eruption in the woods. You easily could have had me punished but you refused it.” His gratitude is sincere yet her expression hardly changes.
“After I pestered you so fiercely, your reaction was warranted. I should never have interfered with your work.” Stretching briefly, he watches as nausea washes over the Livingston heiress, her arms stretching out in malaise. Then, the humility in her response registers with him. And he wonders whether the lady knew it; her behavior around him was far from ordinary.
“You may have pestered me a fair amount of times, Ms. Junia. But my anger towards you was unacceptable. During the storms, you forced me to face memories I sought to forget. I can’t begin to express how sorry I am for subjecting you to my rage but if there is any way I can make amends for it, please let me know.” Like fallen angels restored to the heavens, his apology seems to set all back in place. He is blessed with joy, the expression in her face one of pure forgiveness yet with just a bit more to it.
“You could tell me your story.” A simple request, it is all she has wanted since the day he arrived. And without another battle, Jack begins telling it in generous detail. He tells of his childhood ravaged by loss, of his parents, rejection, his kindly old uncle so optimistic in embracing the challenges of a life under subjugation. He tells of his fortunate education, of the books he had found and the ways in which he learned to prefer literature over conversation. He speaks on and on, perhaps even enjoying the prospect that someone might be interested in what he really has to say. He speaks until the sun threatens to vanish once more, the scent of supper brewing in the cookhouse brought to them in the summer breeze. Stars glow beyond her windowsill and he’s sorry to utter his last words.
“All my life, I’ve been content with keeping to myself, Ms. Junia. But while it surprises me, I’m thankful you interrupted my solitude. I didn’t think I could ever enjoy another’s company so much.” Lifting her empty glass, he stands to depart. And despite her weary weak state, she sits up to see him off.
“At the end of the day, it is irrelevant whether fear, social boundaries, or past tragedy keep us barred in isolation. All prefer to live beside each other. No one truly deserves to be alone.” He considers her words as he walks towards the door, her impressive wisdom so unbelievable in the midst of her youth. For then, Jack wonders if he’s ever wanted seclusion at all. To his surprise, he knows this answer right away.
“Good night, Ms. Junia.” Smiling himself for the first time in ages, he meets her chartreuse eyes once more.
“Good night, Mr. Woodbury.” She whispers with glee. He departs for now, but they both know it; he is destined to return again.