Act of Love
She was a fine figure of a woman, thought Miguel admiringly,
fingering his moustache. Her Latin face was smooth and brown
and her black hair was wound into a glossy bun at the back of
Miguel couldn't help watching her from the tiny room he used as his office, as she bustled about the kitchen. True, Maria was no longer the slender and lithe young girl he had married nearly forty years ago. She had borne him six children and her figure was matronly now, but her womanly shape still aroused him - the sight of her was still pleasing to him.
He allowed his mind to wander back and he visualised her as the girl he had first seen as a teenager. Then her hair was flowing loose and her dark eyes were animated as she flirted with the young men of the village. Miguel, a quiet man, short and stocky and lacking in sophistication, was attracted as much by her mercurial qualities as by her considerable beauty. He spent much time watching her and he knew from her coquettish behaviour that she was aware of it. She teased and embarrassed him; she led him on, rejected him, then coyly approached him once more. There was a courtship that lasted several months and followed the same pattern. It was a game in which she was the leading player.
He became aware that at the end of the game, he would win her. She would not have behaved in this forward manner unless she had wished to marry him. Yet he could not decide why she had selected him. Perhaps she could not bear the prospect of a more dominant man who would attempt to subjugate her. Perhaps she enjoyed the power that his obvious devotion gave to her. But Miguel accepted the prize gladly without dwelling on such small misgivings. And when they married she did not disappoint him. Their first child was conceived in passion, long before they were ready for this burden, and Maria said proudly, 'You will see; I will bear you many sons.
When her long labour produced a daughter, she wept and bit her lips till they bled. Only when black-haired Luisa was placed in her arms did her sobs cease.
Five more daughters were born to Miguel and Maria, and with each one, she became a little more bitter. She was a good mother to her little ones. She brought up her babies with love and with care, but her mocking became more barbed and sometimes her words were cruel.
The day came when the doctor said, 'She must not have any more children. It is bad for her.' Then the knowledge that she would not now bear the longed-for son destroyed something in her. Some area of good humour and warmth that had often softened her sharp words died with her hopes. All the passion of her disappointment was now directed at Miguel. She would wound him with her biting comments, and as time passed, she became a matriarchal figure, ruling the household, reducing them all to silence with a lashing of her tongue, and belittling Miguel, so that his daughters ceased to admire him.
The years had passed and one by one, the girls had disappeared to make their own marriages, bringing a score of children into the world, and Miguel and Maria had been left in an empty farmhouse, with only Maria's caustic words and Miguel's inadequate responses to fill the emptiness.
Sometimes, Miguel would cease to listen. A glazed expression would pass across his face, as he watched her, loving her still in his way, seeing her as his once responsive bride, warmed by the physical beauty that had first attracted him, ignoring the venom that poured from her lips. This way he was able to survive, and in time, it became a habit to look without listening, to see without hearing, until finally she became tired of his lack of response to her words, and the husband and wife ceased to communicate at all.
For ten years now, they had lived this way, together and yet apart, living separate lives, having separate rooms, but passing in the course of their movements through the house. She still cooked his meals, but she rarely ate with him. He worked on the farm. She ran the house and made visits to the children, and the once noisy farmhouse stood silent, empty of the warmth of love and bereft of the sounds of normal life.
Today, Miguel sat at a table in his room, laboriously working through paperwork, pen held tightly in his short tobacco stained fingers. Periodically, he glanced up, and through the open door, he could still see Maria, working, dusting, tidying. After a while, he became concerned at the extent of the activity. She had worked for longer than usual. She was putting things together in a methodical way more in the manner of the annual spring clean than of a normal day.
He felt apprehensive; something was afoot and he was not sure what it was. Maria had admirers around the village. Was it conceivable that she was planning to leave him for another man?
The thought made him seek his revolver on a shelf in the room. As always he was ready to protect his home, such as it was, or to safeguard his possessions. Maria was still his wife. No man would take her from him.
At that very moment, there was a knock at the door. Maria hastened to open it, and as he waited expectantly, Miguel saw a black-shawled figure come in. It was his daughter, Luisa, recently prematurely widowed by a farming accident. He frowned; there would be no greeting from her. She had always sided with her mother, and with her jet black hair and haughty good looks, she was remarkably like her in appearance and manner.
Since the death of her husband, Luisa had taken to calling in a great deal, and the two women would disappear into Maria's room and talk at length. This afternoon was no exception, and reassured that after all, things were normal, Miguel turned his attention reluctantly back to his primitive accounting system, reflectively stroking his moustache and drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette.
He looked up startled as the women emerged, carrying panniers and boxes, and his heart fluttered with fear as Maria approached his door.
'I am leaving you! I am going to live with Luisa.'
The words, the first words she had addressed to him for ten years were spoken unemotionally, and for a moment he was totally stunned. He had not expected his daughter to be the seducer.
Luisa came forward too, adding, 'She has no life with you. She will be happy with me and the children.'
Now the words sank in and he visualised with horror the empty days ahead. Maria was everything to him; he lived for the sight of her, plodded his way through the working day, rewarded only by the glimpses through the open door. Now this would be no more.
Seizing the gun, he aimed at Maria and fired three times, and as the sound of Luisa's screams echoed round and round the room, he turned the gun on himself and fired once again.
Sinking to his knees in the moment before death, he knew he had done the right thing. He simply couldn't have lived without her.
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Copyright © Jacquelynn Luben 1997 & 2000.