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Muriel's Strength

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The summer sun filters through the trees around the hut as Muriel and I sit with the chickens. Muriel had discarded his cloak in the humid heat, and I feel a little encouraged by the fact that he was comfortable enough around me to do so. He often compulsively covers himself like he wants to disappear.
Inanna is sprawled out on the grass in the shade, tongue lolling. That thick fur must be a nuisance on a hot day like this. I go down to the stream and get a little water for her, leaving it in a bowl in front of her large snout. She perks up a little, lapping up the water gratefully.
I return to find Muriel holding a tiny yellow chick in his hands. He hasn't noticed me come back yet, I don't think. His smile is wider, not quite so reserved, and I can hear him speaking quietly to the tiny ball of fluff and down, dwarfed in his large hands.
"You did such a good job, little one," he murmurs to the chick. "I know, it must have been hard. Your mom was starting to get worried, but you did so good." He pets the chick on the head with one finger, almost like he's scared to touch it at all. Then, he lowers his hands to the ground, where a few more peeping chicks are waiting. "Go on, get back to your brothers and sisters."
My heart does a few somersaults watching this scene play out. I sit next to him, placing a hand on his arm and watch the chicks hop about, making sure they don't go too far.
When Muriel speaks again, he doesn't quite have the same lightness in his voice that he had before, but I notice a pleasant difference from his usual mumbles. He sounds almost proud. "I almost thought she wouldn't make it. She was the last one to hatch."
Looking at his face and posture, he actually seems more relaxed than normal. He's so gentle, so warm and kind and…
I realize that the hand I have resting on his arm had placed my fingers along one of his scars, and my heart aches.
"Muriel, you're so strong," I say, quietly.
His muscles tense, his shoulders hunch, and his hands clench into fists, pulling them a bit closer almost defensively.
"I… I know…" he mumbles. "I know and I hate it."
My brow furrows a bit. "Muri, why would you hate that?"
"'cause that's why… the count… and the fighting… the killing…" his voice strains, and he turns his head away.
A tightness grows in my chest as I realize he didn't understand my compliment. "No, no, I'm sorry, I'm, I'm sorry Muri that's, that's not what I meant." Hesitantly, I touch my fingers to his jaw to turn his face back to me.
There isn't any resistance and he even seems a bit curious as to what I had to say, so I take that as permission to keep explaining.
Those deep green eyes though, holding all that hurt… I find myself looking down at his hands as I take them in mine.
"When I say you're strong, I don't mean like that. I don't mean…" I try to find the least distressing word "...I don't mean fighting." Muriel's fingers squeeze around mine, but not near enough to hurt. He's always holding back to keep from hurting anyone.
"When people have struggled with even less than you have, so many have tried to find ways to hurt other people." I keep searching for the right words. I want to tell him how much I see in him and make him believe it for once. "People make themselves hard and cruel so they don't feel the pain as much. It's the easy thing to do, I guess."
I rub at the calluses on his hands. "A lot of people think strength and hardness are the same thing. That power and cruelty are the same. But they're not. You, Muriel, are strong, but you're soft and gentle, like with the chickens. You've been through so much, and you didn't deserve it -"
"Didn't I?" He cuts me off.
"No, Muriel, you didn't. You never did. Despite that, you choose to be kind. It's beautiful, the way you choose to live your life, a quiet one of peace, instead of seeking some sort of revenge or retribution." I brush my fingers against his cheek, and he slightly leans his head into my hand.
The tears that start to prick at my eyes almost surprise me, but I've always felt very strongly about Muriel, wishing I could erase all the hurt from his past. "I'm sorry I brought up all that. I didn't mean to make this afternoon so dark, and I hope I didn't hurt you, I just, I love you so much and..."
"It's okay." Those two words soothe my worries a bit, and I look up to see a small smile on his face, almost as if he's not sure if he should be smiling. "Do you… do you really mean all that?"
I smile too. "Every word, and I'll tell you all over again if you ever doubt it. You're very strong, Muriel, and gentle, and wonderful, and good."
His face flushes red, and I can almost hear a hint of the same pride he felt for the chick that survived. "Um, I, uh, thanks. You… you too. I mean, you're good too."
And as if he can't really find any better words in his flustered state, he just presses a ghost of a kiss to my forehead, and we continue with our peaceful summer afternoon.