Arthur woke on a relatively chilly California winter morning. He rolled over, swung his legs out of the bed and stretched, feeling his joints pop and muscles protesting. Mornings like this he felt each and every one of his 47 years.
He wasn’t as strong as he used to be. His muscles had sagged somewhat over the past decade and so, truth be told, had his face. His hair and beard had started to go gray in some places, too. Of course, that hardly kept his - still sleeping - husband from calling him handsome every other day, even if Arthur still didn’t agree and never had.
He turned to look at the object of his affections, fast asleep and snoring, legs akimbo as he lay on his stomach. He, too, had started going gray. The crow’s feet he used to get when he laughed around his eyes had set in permanently and so had the smile lines around his mouth. His freckles had become a more or less permanent feature of his face as well.
Elijah still was a master forger, though he was less productive than he used to be. At 40 years old, his already poor eyesight had started to deteriorate to the point that he couldn’t do the work in low light anymore. He tried to pretend he still could and Arthur indulged him by bringing him progressively more candles and lanterns to work by. Electricity still hadn’t made its way to the ranch and they were in no hurry to get it, either.
Arthur supposed they still weren’t as used to change as they maybe should be.
He got up and made his way to the kitchen, where two tabby cats wound their way around his legs, begging for food. Arthur grumbled at the affectionately, scratching each underneath their chin while he reached for a can of tuna. The sun had barely risen outside and the world was still cast in early morning pallor. He set a kettle to boiling and went about feeding the cats. While he waited for the water to boil, Arthur stood by the window, blearily staring outside at one of their apple trees.
They had buried Uncle by that tree last year. One’s liver clearly did not agree with living the good life for an extended period of time - nor the bad life, for that matter. Arthur supposed he had at least died in the presence of his family, though he wondered when he had come to consider Uncle like… An uncle, and less like a parasite.
Probably around the same time he realised that the old coot was good fun and that it didn’t matter whether or not he contributed in other ways.
Hosea had remarked that Uncle was five years younger than him, still. Arthur didn’t like to think about it much. Hosea, for all intents and purposes, was his father. None of them were in a hurry to see him go.
The kettle whistled and wined, announcing its task finished. Arthur poured two cups of coffee and, as he had done almost every morning for the past ten years, took them into the bedroom.
Elijah wasn’t asleep anymore, though he pretended to be. Arthur knew as much. They were indulging each other in their little morning ritual and neither of them had any intention of pretending otherwise. It was fine the way it was.
Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed, the mattress dipping. Elijah’s eyes opened slowly, clear blue instantly focused on Arthur.
“Good morning.” He whispered, voice still rusty with disuse from the night.
They drank their coffee mostly in silence, occasionally commenting on the state of the ranch. They’d had a good harvest the year prior; it was a cold winter this year; how was the cherry tree doing?
There was a certain beauty in routine. Arthur had spent most of his life in chaos and had, at first, had a hard time adjusting to a peaceful, honest life. He had been bored out of his mind. It took Elijah verbally kicking his ass for trying to stir trouble in town and sabotaging their one good chance at a decent life for him to realise that it was, in fact, fine to live this way. He didn’t need a constant rush of adrenaline; he didn’t need to chase or be chased for weeks simply to live a life. Once that reality finally set in, he could at long last relax and simply… Be.
They got married in the spring of 1901. They didn’t bother making it official or legal in any capacity. Their marriage was theirs and theirs alone.
There was something distinctly magical about seeing the ranch, its trees and bushes in full bloom in the spring. Bees buzzed happily about their flowers, the cows were ecstatic about being out of the barn and the dogs sprinted across the fields like they hadn’t been outside since December. Arthur sat down on their porch bench and sighed contentedly.
Twenty years on this farm and twenty years of marriage had made him a happy man, indeed. It wasn’t just him, either.
Jack had grown up to be a brilliant young man. Lenny, an attorney in his own right, had taken him under his wing and offered to teach him the same way that Pierre had done for him two decades prior. Jack had taken him up on the offer and was now studying in Saint Sebastian. Lenny and Tilly, in the meanwhile, had both married and had children of their own. Neither of them still lived at the farm, something Miss Grimshaw often lamented in spite of herself, and had moved out to the city years ago.
John and Abigail, too, had had more children after Jack. Although Abigail suffered an awful series of miscarriages after the birth of their second child, a little girl affectionately named Abby, they eventually gave birth to their third and final child. Ten year old Felix was a remarkably happy boy, always trailing after his teenage sister.
Charles and Sadie had proven to be exactly as restless as Arthur had always known them to be, and after their business as bounty hunters dried up, they too had moved away from the farm. They still visited from time to time, unruly children in tow, but they had eventually settled in South America. Arthur missed them dearly, though there was more than enough to do at the farm to keep him from missing them too too much.
Dear old Hosea, however, was sorely missed among all of them. His health had deteriorated further and further over the years until he, at last, passed away four years prior. They had buried him underneath his favourite pear tree, hoping to fulfil his wish of being buried side by side with a friend. His favourite companion, an old and massive Saint Bernard dog, still lay by the grave every day, like his master had never left.
Sometimes, when memories of the past wouldn’t leave him alone at night, Arthur would sit by the grave and talk to him for hours about what once had been and never would be again. Oftentimes, Elijah would find him half asleep by the tree and gently coax him back to bed.
The man in question was currently in a fight to the death with their immensely overgrown, extremely thorny rose bushes. His eyesight had gotten so poorly that he could no longer forge at all anymore: he could barely even read, most days. Small lettering had proved to have become an insurmountable challenge, but rose bushes were of a size that he could yet conquer.
“Maybe we oughta just dig ‘em up by the roots. Start fresh.” Arthur suggested when Elijah was sucking on one of his many bleeding fingers for the umpteenth time that hour.
“Not a chance in hell.” Elijah muttered back. “These are prized god damn roses. I’ll be cold and dead in the ground before I dig ‘em up. Matter of fact, I expect to be buried among the roots of these… God damn things- Ow!”
Arthur laughed. “Rate your goin’ that’ll be next year.”
Elijah gave him a dirty look but smiled in spite of himself. “Bastard.”
They were sat side by side on their porch swing, gently rocking back and forth. Arthur was resting his head on top of Elijah’s, who was dozing on his shoulder.
They were old men in their sixties. Arthur had never on his life imagined they would make it this far. Nor had he ever imagined they would live a successful life with succesful offspring to show for it. Not theirs, of course, but they loved their nieces and nephews like they were their own.
Arthur fondly remembered the day that Elijah’s brother and sister-in-law came to visit. He had spent hours fussing in front of the mirror to make himself look somehow less like a criminal. Elijah had laughed and told him that his brother had known for years and that there was no need to feel so nervous.
Of course, that had done absolutely nothing to deter his nerves, no matter how unwarranted they were in the end.
They had stayed for three months and had never found another opportunity to visit. Elijah had never once made an attempt to return to the Netherlands, either. There had always been something that kept him from even trying and Arthur hadn’t pried: there was a pain there too terrible to name. The picture they had taken with the four of them sat proudly on their mantelpiece, among a myriad of pictures of the rest of their family.
When Elijah began snoring in his ear, Arthur laughed and got up.
“Alright, old man… C’mon. To bed.”
Elijah startled awake, eyes unfocused but staring roughly in Arthur’s direction. “I ain’t old. I was just… Restin’ my eyes.”
“Sure you were.” Arthur said, gently taking his hands and guiding him through the house. No matter how many times Elijah protested that he ‘damn well knew the way in the house he had built with his own two hands’, he had stubbed his toe and stumbled over the cats one too many times for Arthur to still indulge him. As far as Arthur could tell, he could only barely tell light from dark anymore and was functionally blind. It didn’t matter. Arthur would read him his favourite poetry a hundred times over if he asked.
They never dwelled on debts of gratitude, but Arthur would keep repaying it until the day he died regardless.
The fall had always been my favourite season, though it had been a melancholic affair ever since I lost my sight. This year, however, also happens to be the first year without Arthur here to describe the colours of the falling leaves to me.
I suppose that given the life he led it shouldn’t have surprised me that he went first, but it did. I find that I cannot wake up as easily in the morning without him sitting on the bed, pretending to let me wake up. His presence is everywhere in the house: from the empty half of our bed to the ancient pack of cigarettes he stopped smoking more than fifteen years ago. It’s like he could come home at any moment, except he won’t. Not anymore.
One can hardly resent someone for dying first, but there it is. Of course, I try not to think about it. He saved my life in Colter and he seemed to think I saved his life by virtue of existing. I don’t think I will ever quite understand what that means, but I have learned not to question it. I’m sure there’s plenty of things that I have felt that Arthur didn’t understand but didn’t question.
Dear God above, I miss him.
We saw it coming, his death. It surprised me all the same but it shouldn’t have. I asked him what he wanted, in the end. He said he wanted to be buried facing the sunrise and preferably, when the time came, next to me.
We buried him in front of our porch, beneath the rose bushes. We spent so many nights on that porch together that sometimes, when I sit out there at night, it’s like he never left. Every morning I sit on the steps, feeling the warmth of the rising sun. He's not here anymore, but I can still hear him laughing at the cats playing in the grass or grumbling about something or other Dutch did a long time ago.
Dutch, fortunately, was a less popular topic of conversation. All ghosts fade with time, I suppose.
I can only hope Arthur’s won’t fade before it’s my time to go. I can’t see but I can feel him here, in this house. Jack thinks I’m insane and I don’t expect him to understand. After all, he was spared the worst of the life his parents, uncles and aunties had. Most of us weren’t so lucky. We cling to each other, even in death. I truly believe that the only reason I haven’t done myself an injury since Arthur’s death is because he is very much still here to guide me. Even the cats won't touch his side of the bed, as though it never stopped being occupied.
One day, death will kindly stop for me, too. I do not fear it. My life, my incredibly turbulent, restless, beautiful life, will finally come to an end. I will become one with the soil and the roses' roots will entangle me until I am part of them as much as Arthur is.
Perhaps, one day, others will have roses the way we were able to.