I Heart You

The cool mud squishes between my toes and underneath my feet as I walk slowly farther into the pond. The water is colder against my bared skin than the mud but is still refreshing. Not too far away if I look up and turn around, I see my parents' stables. But I am looking down at my feet, still clutching my blue skirts to keep them from getting wet. Mother dislikes wet hems, and comes after me if she catches me in the water. But this time, she does not catch me since she does not know. I like that, I am still hurting too much to handle yet another fight in twenty-four hours. I walk into the water a little more, so that the cool liquid is up below my knees. Here I stop. I cannot swim, and I cannot cry for help if I were to start drowning because I would not know how to form the sounds and force them from my throat; since I have been deaf since birth, I have not learned how to speak, to laugh, or to cry.

My heart constricts as my mind wanders farther into forbidden territory. Without permission, my mind slips back to yesterday morning…

The wood felt rough underneath my feet as I entered the storage area that was located near my father's stable. I looked around at the usual messy place, taking in the familiarity of the scene. Father, while a good horseman, was a terrible cleaner, and often paid Devin extra to clean up the tack that was left hanging carelessly on various pieces of ancient furniture exiled from the main house years and years ago. Dust still lingered in the air, and I managed to stifle a sneeze. Turning my head slightly, I smiled when I saw Devin's back. He was wearing the light-brown vest, white shirt, and tan pants and boots that he'd been wearing when we met almost a year ago. I smiled, happy that, though Father nearly completely lost him to the coalmine bosses, Devin was still here with his usual steady presence permeating the room. His first duty was to his employment to Father, as it has been for almost two years since 1892, and his second was to the mine bosses. Mother called the mine bosses 'iron men' with scorn while putting as much innocence in her words as possible, as she didn't know that I already knew what they really were because of Father.

Devin meanwhile was carefully arranging numerous objects on a shelf according to their respective sizes. I didn't know the pattern that Father set for him.

I turned to see Mother's old crystal oil lamp, the one that used to hang over the foyer until she found a 'nicer' one. Leaning forward, I saw that it was still full of oil, and I frowned. Didn't that present a fire hazard? I glanced at Devin, who was still engrossed in cleaning the shelf in front of him. Carefully I gripped the oil lamp with both hands, wondering if there was perhaps an empty bucket in the stable I could use to empty the lamp. As I picked it up, some of the oil sloshed out of the lamp, spilling slightly over the edge. Gritting my teeth, I concentrated on not spilling more oil out of the lamp.

I only succeeded in dropping it. The residue had slipped between my fingers, making it harder to hold onto.

The moment it shattered on the floor, I stumbled backwards away from it, Devin's hands grabbing my shoulders moments later. He spun me around and spoke so fast I couldn't follow his words.

*I only wanted to help* I signed to him, still unsure of what he said.

He said something again, looking even angrier. Slowly, so I couldn't misinterpret his words, he signed back, *I told you to not touch anything*

*I can't understand you* I reminded him, my forehead creasing as I did so. Had he spoken to me when his back was turned? *I need to see your lips for lip-reading, remember?*

He stepped back in frustration and anger. He pointed and said, "If that doesn't get cleaned up now, then this could all go up in smoke. You just added to my work…"

*I'm sorry, I really am* I signed back, my fingers increasing in speed slightly as I tried to amend my error, but he ignored me.

"If you just listened to me and STAYED OUT, we wouldn't be discussing this now, and nothing would be in danger!" he yelled, palming his forehead when he realized he was speaking too fast for me to follow. He repeated his message in sign again, but we both knew he couldn't express his anger as easily.

*It's just a little oil… I can clean it up…* I began to sign with shaking hands, but he cut me off.

"No. You'll just mess it up and then it'll all blow up in our faces… literally. I think we can both agree that you are defective and helpless enough without you having to become blind as well," he said, his features twisted in anger. He spoke slowly enough so that he didn't have to sign.

My head bows as I picture his angered face, his words sharp and cutting even the day after. Despite the natural buoyancy of the water surrounding my bare legs, my heart still feels heavy and I feel cold inside. I step forward again, slowly and hesitantly. I stop on the miniature rocky overhang under the water's surface, and stare ahead. Am I brave enough to continue?

Silver fish dart between my legs, and I wonder if their lives are hard. I wonder if they can love, or if it's just a part of their subconscious to survive, an instinct. Curious, I close my eyes and imagine myself a fish, with a slim streamlined body and silver scales that catch the sun. I imagine seeing through alien eyes the foggy green of the rocks in the deeper parts of the pond, as well as the large feet of a foreign creature near the edge, I imagine feeling the water slicked against my body, I imagine tasting the salty tang of the nearest small thing floating near me, and I imagine the smell of the murky waters.

I imagine hearing faint sounds. Faint, but existing.

I let my long skirt drop out of my hands, and then turn around slowly. Keeping my eyes closed, I spread my arms out and kneel slightly, so that I can gently push away from the safety of the rock and float away on my back. I try not to react as the cold water embraces my back and head.

Floating. It is so easy. It is so effortless. I wonder why no one has let me try it before. I open my eyes briefly, and am greeted by the sight of long weeping willow branches gracing the edge of my vision. I close my eyes again, enjoying the cool feel of the water below me.

I jerk in surprise as cold droplets land on my face… and lose my equilibrium. I pull myself forward into an upright position and am startled to find that there is no bottom for my bare feet to touch. My dress, once light, is heavy and I can feel it dragging me down. But in the midst of my panic I see Devin swimming toward me, the coal dust still clinging to his face, making black streaks across it while his light hair remains plastered to his face. In no time I feel his strong arm around my waist, but I make no effort to help him take me back. Once my feet find the ground, I try to pry his arm off, but he easily wins our little battle. He has to be strong for his work. They would never have picked him if he weren't.

We continue this struggle to the bank, which isn't easy for me because I'm still in a wet heavy dress. He pulls my shoulder and makes me look at him. He still has rings of coal dust on his cheeks and his clothes are stained a darker color as more coal dust cling stubbornly to the fabric. His feet are bared too. "Emily," he says, his blue eyes pleading. "Emily, what were you thinking?" he asks.

I shrug. I silently wish for him to go, because my heart still needs to mend but only if there is enough time in the world for an injured heart to heal. He sees veiled hurt and feigned politeness in my dark eyes because he runs a hand through his hair. "Emily, no, an apology isn't going to cut it," he says to me. Instead, he slips his hand into mine, warm skin against cold. He gently tugs on my arm, and I reluctantly follow him to the stables. He stops at the threshold, and after eyeing my shivering form, he says slowly, "Wait here and don't move." Before I can ask what he is doing, he jogs away to the house, his head turning to check on me every few minutes. He is fast, disappearing into just inside the front door, where I know the coatroom is, and reappearing moments later with my long gray coat draped over his arm. I wonder if he still is wary about me standing alone after what had just nearly happened. When he gets back to me, he carefully drapes the coat around me. Then he leads me into the stable itself, where I smell a slight trace of oil and I try not to remember yesterday. Trying to not to let Devin see my hesitation, I wrinkle my nose at the other foreign smells, and the scattered straw scratches my bare feet. Devin doesn't seem as affected as I am, but I know he is used to worse.

I jump in slight surprise as I feel a sharp vibration through the wood. Devin just smiles, and then takes my hand again. I reluctantly let him pull my hand, and watch carefully as he opens a stall door. My parents have never let me near the horses.

I stop, but Devin seems to have been expecting this. He smiles gently, and opens the stall door to one of my father's stallions. Devin slowly presses my palm against the chest of the nearest animal, startling it. But I can feel its heartbeat. Before I can ask or stop him, he wraps his hands around my middle and hoists me up into the air and carefully places me on the horse's back. He waits until I am clutching the animal's halter in fear before letting go. Then he clips a rope to the halter and pushes the stall door open, ignoring my fearful but puzzled expression.

"I fear your parents, so we'll keep this between us, okay?" Devin says while I read his lips. He leads the horse into another part of the barn. I try not to react; he is not the only one afraid of my parents. I privately hope that Mother is still embroidering in her private salon; the windows overlook her private gardens and that she would not see us unless she decided to look for us in the distance. I do not know where Father is at the moment. Meanwhile, I turn to watch as Devin ties the rope to a nearby ring before walking over to where Father keeps the harnesses. When he turns, he sees my fearful expression and stops. "I forgot, you haven't ridden a horse before," he finally says slowly as though in thought. Then he suddenly grins.

I swallow when I see that he is excited. He says nothing as he reaches up and places the leather bridle on the animal's head. It smells strongly of the oil that clings to Father's clothes at the end of the day when he comes indoors. I remember that the scent always wafts up the stairs in his wake as he walks past the living room where Mother and I would be embroidering. Mother hates the smell, and does not hesitate to tell Father so when she thinks I am not looking. She knows that since I had never heard a voice in my life, I had become adept at lip-reading. She usually took care not to look at me when speaking crossly at my father, but sometimes she slips, and then I learn a little more about the world beyond my house's walls.

I look around the stable as Devin continues strapping the harness onto the animal. It is devoid of human life except for us two, but I still remember my father saying that there used to be other workers in the stable. Father was feeling ill and speaking his mind at the time, and his illness slowed his speech down enough so that I could lip-read his words. He said he used to have twenty men, but ten were lost because the iron men had taken not only his land, but his workers as well. Then there was another reduction in the load of work to the point where only Devin stayed on the weekends.

Mother saw me watching Father, and I saw her watching me out of the corner of my eye. She said something too fast for me to follow, because Father promptly fell silent without warning.

Devin finishes buckling the harness together and then unclips the rope from the halter. Then he comes around and places both hands on the animal's back before hoisting himself up. His arm feels warm through the coat as it snakes around to get a grip on the harness… the reins, I remind myself. The pressure from his arm presses wet cloth against my skin, and I shiver slightly from the unexpected contact. I wish I could ask him what he is doing, but I can't because the fear has frozen my hands to the saddle.

"Hold here," he says, his fingers on his free hand gracefully forming the letters of his two words while the other hand indicates the spot on the reins in front of me. I clutch the leather tightly, as though it is my only lifeline. Devin carefully guides the horse out of the stable, keeping his hand close to my side. I close my eyes, partially out of fear and also out of wonder. Was it only just yesterday that I tried to help him and he ended up speaking to me harshly, or did time blur and it was longer than I remembered?

He turns the horse toward the large fields that surround my parents' property. I have never ventured beyond them before. I am unprepared when he gives the animal a forceful nudge and it abruptly takes off toward the fields. His arm unconsciously tightens around my waist, and I tense in my seat even more. I close my eyes and almost will for him to stop and turn around.

He doesn't.

I smell sharp scents in the air, and I open my eyes to look around. He has slowed the horse down, and we are deep in the fields, where the grasses are up to our feet. There is an earthy scent, with an underlying sharpness to it. The scent of hay intertwines with the green-yellow grasses, and a slight cool breeze carries it all, brushing across my face and tickling my eyes. The clouds appear brighter than they have in days, as though the sun itself is trying to pierce through and listen to the world below.

Carefully, Devin moves his hand from my waist and gently pushes me forward. I begin to panic until he takes my hand and slowly moves it with his toward the front of the horse, letting it rest on the animal's chest. I begin to worry again until he presses my palm against the chest, and then I feel it. The steadily beating heart is soothing to my fingertips. I know I am alive, that the horse is alive, that everything surrounding me is alive. I slowly relax as I briefly wonder where we are because none of this terrain is familiar to me. It is as though I stepped into a whole other world.

Suddenly, the horse balks, and I straighten up in fear. The warmth behind me disappears as Devin straightens up moments before I do. I look around to try and see what could have startled both of them, but see nothing. The horse's ears are pricked forward, and it stares intently at something in the distance. I turn briefly to see that Devin is looking in the same direction. Finally, he encourages the horse to slip back into a walk while keeping his arm around my waist again, and we slowly approach the crest of the hill before he pulls back on the reins to stop the animal so that I can see what has both him and the mount disturbed.

I have no words for the sight below.

It is as though the plague had descended on the grassy fields, stripping the land bare of green and replacing it with dull gray rock. A great structure of wood and silver sits in the center of the cleared land, puffing black smoke from punctures in the earth's crust. When I squint, I see faint figures on the structures as they hammer and haul metal carts filled to the brim with black rock. The workers themselves are coated in black dust, and appear similar to imps out of a childhood storybook. I see the overseer, his mouth moving and a few of the workers cowering beneath his glare.

The iron men.

I feel a tap on my arm, and I turn around to face Devin. He is not looking at me, but I watch his lips as he says, "I work there." I say nothing in response. I just turn around to stare down at the dead fields below before Devin taps my arm again. I turn to face him and read his lips while he says, "This used to be as green as the fields around us until the coal bosses came and bought it from your father. He used to own a lot of land in order to breed horses until they came." His eyes grow distant as he stares across the land at the mine. He looks down at me and says, "Your father loved the vitality and life of young creatures, and everyone who worked under him caught his enthusiasm, including me."

I turn and look back down at the gray and black scar on the earth's skin before Devin turns the horse in order to begin the slow walk back to my family's farm. He remains silent, and the clouds seem a bit darker as the horse's ears fold back against its skull, still sensing the harshness of the destroyed earth. After a few moments, still keeping one hand on the reins, Devin taps the back of my hand again. "There was an accident during work earlier this morning. A cave in," he says slowly, letting go of the reins to explain, his hands shakily forming the words where I could see them. "The boy died in moments. I was one of two who pulled him out to his mother." He takes my silence as permission to continue, but again he is slow, as though the memory is too painful. "For the first time ever, I was scared. It could have been me. Your last memory would have been of our fight. Everything good we had would have disappeared in moments, and I would have never had a chance to ask for forgiveness." His hands still shake even after he picks up the reins again.

I don't say anything, but turn in my seat to face him. He still looks a bit frightened as I lip-read his words while he says, "I don't want to know what you were doing in the pond, but what if I did not stop you? What would you have done?" At this, I turn to face forward, but I know he saw my answer in my eyes. "Em," he says, taking the reins back with one hand before releasing the reins to sign with both hands again, "I am sorry for my words earlier, and I know I cannot take them back. But I would happily ask for your forgiveness every day for the rest of our lives as long as it meant that I could see your beautiful smile every hour of every day. You are beautiful inside and out, just the way you are." He is silent, and then he signs, "I love you."

My head bows as I picture his repentant face, his words soft and soothing. I feel him touch his forehead to the back of my head, and I can feel his heartbeat through my back as he keeps me close. I no longer feel cold.

I straighten in my seat, and he draws back, slightly surprised. I turn in my seat so that I am sitting with my side facing him. I could slide off the horse, too, in this position if I want, but I don't. Instead I turn slightly so that I can face him without twisting my body too much. Then I speak to him in the only way I know how.

I form a fist, but leave my smallest finger up. Then I press the fist against my chest

I.

I cross both arms in front of my chest, leaving my palms open. Finally, I lower my hands, and then decide to alter the signs for love a bit. Instead of pointing at him, as I had learned it, I press my palm against his heart, beating strong and steady underneath my fingertips.

Heart.

He understands that I cannot verbally express words, since human infants learn to speak through hearing their parents' voices, but the meaning is clear even when he reaches to place his own hand against my chest.

You.