by Leah Wyett
Hazel sighed. “You must have been mistaken, Laura. I wasn’t upset today at all. Now get into bed and I’ll tell Ma and Pa you’re ready for your good night kiss.”
Hazel helped her little sister into bed and Laura surprised her by grabbing her around her neck. “No one thinks that I hear what is going on around here because I’m so young.” she said. “But I know that you’re thinking of going away. I know that it makes Ma and Pa sad. I was too little to remember much about Billy, but I remember how sad Ma was when he went away. Please don’t make her sad like that again, Hazel. Please don’t leave us and not come back.” Hazel hugged her little sister tight and said,
“I won’t make her sad like that, Laura. Ma was so sad when Billy went away because he went to Heaven to be with God and she won’t see him again until she’s called home. It would be different if I went away to be married. Ma and Pa and you could all come and visit me, and I you. We would still be a family, only a larger one with my husband and God willing, some children of my own. Someday, when you’re older, you will do the same.”
“If you marry Bobby O’Donnell, you can live next door.” Laura told her. “Then I could see you every day.”
“Yes, but if I marry Bobby O’Donnell, my heart won’t be happy. You want my heart to be happy, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Laura said. “I can’t imagine Bobby making anyone’s heart happy. I don’t want you to have to marry him. But I will miss you if you marry someone else and go away.”
“I’m not going anywhere just yet.” Hazel told her. “Let’s not worry about it until it happens, okay?”
“I’ll try.” the little girl said, hugging her sister again.
“Oh, and not a word to Pa about the man at the pie booth. You know how he worries.”
“Okay.” Laura said with a yawn, no longer interested in the conversation.
After Ma and Pa had said their good nights and Laura was finally asleep, Hazel lit the oil lamp next to her bed and took out the letter that the man named John had given her. She could feel how her heart pounded inside of her chest in anticipation of what the letter would say as she unfolded it. She took a deep breath and began to read:
My sweet Hazel,
I have done much soul searching and agonizing over this letter, both before I wrote it and after. I have told you much about my life as it is, but little about how it was. I hope that sending John didn’t frighten you, but I wanted him on hand in case you had immediate questions. I can only hope and pray that this won’t be the last letter between us. I am so very sorry for deceiving you with the photograph of John and I hope you will, if not forgive me, at least understand after you read why.
When I was a little boy, I loved to read, as I still do now. I would take my books out to the stables to hide from the servants and my tutors and read my adventure stories. Sometimes, it was the only peace I could get in a busy household. I learned to read at a very young age, and my mother fed my passion with every new book she could find. She had bought me a book about pirates when I was six years old. I didn’t want to stop reading it to do anything, and it was the subject of a few intense discussions between my mother and my father. My father had nothing against reading but he got where he was through action and hard work so he insisted I do at least a bit of that as well. At last, not wanting to cause dissension between my parents, I put the book away and tended to my chores and lessons one entire day. That night, however, I lay in my bed unable to think of anything else. I felt as if I was missing the action on the high seas and I craved the adventure of it. I often wonder what might have happened if I’d read the book that night in my room, but then perhaps the tragedy would have been greater.
I didn’t want my father to see the light under my door so I took a candle to the stables and I found an empty stall filled with hay to read in, undisturbed. So intense was the book that I devoured what was left of it in less than an hour. I didn’t want it to be over and I couldn’t go to the library so late for another book without waking my parents. So instead of just returning to bed, I started it all again. The second time reading through, Hazel, I fell asleep. Little boys don’t know when they’re tired, they get so used to fighting it.
When I woke up, I was surrounded by smoke. The barn was on fire and the hay was fueling it. I was trapped in the stall in the midst of an inferno. My clothes were already on fire and my hair and everything around me. I could hear the men outside trying to put the fire out, realizing that no one knew I was here. I ran through the fire to get out, I think screaming…One of the hands saw me and he knocked me down in the dirt. He rolled with me, burning himself in places to put out the fire. That man saved my life. It was my friend, John’s, father, Sam Hartwell.
My life was saved, Hazel, but my skin was burned off in the places where it was exposed. My face was unrecognizable, and for many months afterward, my parents were told that I wouldn’t even live. They were told that if I did live, my life would be a lonely and empty place for I would be so deformed, I could never go out into society.
My ma and pa refused to give up on me. My pa brought the best doctors from everywhere to treat me until finally my burns were healed and began to scar over. I was healthy, but an awful sight to look upon. When I was eight, my pa heard of a doctor in Europe that was doing surgery to replace skin on people with deformities. We went on a long boat trip and once there, I underwent three surgeries. The doctor said there was too much damage and that I didn’t have enough unburnt skin for him to move from other places to make me look “normal” again. The end result, Hazel, was a boy who people feared to even look at, lest they be afflicted by the same crooked face and mottled skin as was he. I live inside the prison of my own scarred flesh. I’m still a man like any man, my thoughts and feelings are the same, but females avert their eyes or faint at the sight of me, and men fear me for no reason other than I look like I have passed through the bowels of Hell to get to Texas. I sent you the photo of John because I feared, and I still do, that you, like the others, will fear and scorn me.
My father was a very important man in this community. My mother was a grand lady. Because of that, the community here has accepted me. That’s not to say that they don’t still talk behind my back or refuse to go places where I’ll be because they dread to look at me. But for the most part, if I need to go out in town, I can do so without causing too much fuss. When I go on trail rides, I can cover my face with a bandana and look just like the other cowboys. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so. It’s the most normal I ever feel. In Mexico, they call me Diablo, but they do business with me for two reasons: Greed, and fear. In Africa, they hardly give me a second glance, only hoping I will give them my gold pieces in exchange for their services when I go on safari. My life has not been sad nor lonely, in many ways, thanks to my parents and thanks to my social status, but I’m a man, Hazel, and as such, I physically ache for the touch of a woman.
I have reached to the point in the past to consider the services of a paid escort. I went so far as to have one come to the house for dinner, but then I realized that the touch of someone who was paid to do it was not the same as the touch of someone who does it for love. I crave that simple touch, one that is given out of want and desire. John and I both placed our ads at the same time. He has yet to find a woman he wishes to correspond with. I have found the woman I wish to love forever, Hazel, and she is you.
If, after reading this letter, you decide that you don’t want to be with me, I will still love you. You are young and beautiful, and if you want to spend your life with a young and equally handsome man, I will understand and still love you. I wouldn’t want you to be unhappy, ever. If you choose, however, to look deeper under my skin and let yourself fall in love and spend your life with me, I will make sure that your life is a happy one, and that you never, ever want for a thing.
The choice is yours ultimately and I will await your response. John will be available for a day if you have any questions that are bothering you and need an immediate re
sponse. He knows me better than anyone, ask him anything, my love.
Lastly, I want to apologize once more for how my lie must have hurt you. I do have brown eyes and black hair, but beyond that, I am not handsome in the least. I lied to you and sent you John’s photograph out of fear and desperation and for that, I ask you and our good Lord’s forgiveness.
Hazel felt like something was sitting on her chest. She couldn’t breathe lying down in her bed, she couldn’t breathe sitting up. She had to get out of bed. She paced for a while across the bedroom floor, but that wasn’t working either. She needed air, her lungs were screaming for it. She quietly slipped on her clothes, trying not to wake Laura. She couldn’t answer a million questions right now, she needed to be alone…But first, she needed to breathe.
She snuck quietly through the house and out onto the porch. The night air was crisp and she had forgotten her wrap. She hardly noticed, however, as the crisp clean night air hit her lungs. She sat down in the porch swing and once she was able to breathe again she allowed herself to think about what Heath’s letter had said.
He was deformed. Her heart ached for that poor child he was, trapped in an inferno. How frightening would that have been? How painful? She thought about him going through two years of treatments only to be left horribly scarred for life. She thought about how his heart must have ached each time someone looked at him with fear or disgust written across their face. Hazel hadn’t realized that as she had these thoughts, the tears had begun to flow freely down her cheeks. She felt an anxiety welling inside her once more and she had to get up and walk. She began walking down the dirt path that wound around her father’s wheat field. She knew if Ma or Pa woke up and she was missing, they would be angry, but she couldn’t go back in now, she would never be able to sleep.
She walked until she was a mile or two from the house. She turned her face up to the moon then and as it shined its silver light down on her, she wondered if Heath was looking at it too, and thinking of her. She thought of him as he was in his letters: Kind-hearted, compassionate, and generous. Then she forced herself to think of the reality. Could she look at him and not cringe as others have done? She made herself search her own soul and try to determine if she would be able to do it, could she love a man who was horribly deformed?
It seemed so shallow to her to even consider it, but had she not spent her life dreaming of the perfect husband as all girls do? In her dreams, wasn’t he always strong and handsome like her pa, and didn’t she always get that tickle in her belly when she imagined him? Could she feel that way about someone who was scarred and as Heath himself had put it, “hideous” to look upon? The truth was, she didn’t know.
ERIE COUNTY, OHIO
Hazel had stayed out walking most of the night. She never left the property; she only circled it about a hundred times. Before her ma and pa got up, she had tucked herself back in her bed so as not to worry them. She got up as she always did, in time to help her ma with breakfast.
After her pa had gone out to work in the field and they were cleaning up the kitchen, she said, “Ma, after I get my chores finished, would it be okay if I went into town?”
Harriet studied her daughter’s eyes and said, “You don’t look like you slept well, Hazel. Is everything okay?”
Hazel hadn’t gotten even an hour’s sleep and she was exhausted. She didn’t tell her mother that, however. Instead, she said, “I’m fine, Ma. I would like it if you could trust me to take the wagon into town. I can pick up anything you may need while I’m there.”
Her ma said, “Okay, Hazel. If your Pa asked, I sent you to deliver pies to Mrs. Sickle at the boarding house, alright? I do have some leftover pies I was going to send her, that way we’re not telling a lie.”
Hazel smiled at her mother. This was perfect because the boarding house was exactly where she needed to go.
Giving her Ma a hug, she said, “Thank you, Ma. I will be safe and I won’t be long.”
Harriet smiled back at her daughter. Touching the side of her face softly, she said, “You’re sure that things are okay?”
Hazel thought about that for a second and said, “I think they will be, Ma. Trust me, okay?”
Harriet nodded, “I do, Hazel.” she said.
When Hazel got to the boarding house, she found Mrs. Sickle sitting on the porch having tea with none other than John. John stood up when he saw Hazel and he went over and helped her down off the buckboard. Hazel gave him a look that she hoped he understood, telling him to “play along”.
“Thank you, sir.” she said to him out loud. “Good morning, Mrs. Sickle.”
“Good morning Hazel, dear. What brings you to town today?”
“I’m delivering pies for my ma.” Hazel said. “She had leftovers from the carnival and she thought you may have use for them.”
“Mm,” the stout little woman said. “I’m sure my guests will enjoy them, however, I know that I will.” She rubbed her round tummy and said, “Thank you, Hazel and please thank your mother for me.”
“I will.” Hazel said with a smile. Then she looked at John and back at Mrs. Sickle
“Oh, forgive my bad manners. Hazel, this is Mr. John Hartwell. He’s in town for business.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure.” Hazel said, extending her hand. John looked into her eyes as he took it. She was beautiful. Her green eyes had a way of drawing you in and holding you there.
“It’s my pleasure.” John said. He was waiting for her lead.
“Hazel, would you like to join us for a cup of tea?” Mrs. Sickle asked her. Hazel could see the gleam in the older woman’s eyes and suspected that she was thinking about playing matchmaker between her and John.
“I wish I had the time, Mrs. Sickle.” Hazel said. “I have to get to the post office and the general store for my mama and then go down to the docks to pick something up for Pa.” When she said “docks” she looked John directly in the eyes. It was a very brief look, but he understood it to mean “Meet me there”.
“That’s too bad, Hazel. It’s always a pleasure to see you. You be sure to tell your ma thank you for me.” Hazel smiled.
“I will.” she said. Then she looked at John and said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, sir. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“Perhaps we will.” he said. As she rode away in her wagon, John had to remind himself that he was here as an advocate for his best friend. He had not been privy to every word of her letters, but what Heath had shared with him, combined with the beauty of her ringlets, green eyes, and bright smile, made him completely understand his friend’s infatuation and fear of losing any chance with her at all. In a different life, John could see himself falling in love with her.
Hazel watched the flurry of activity along the docks as the boats were coming in and going out, being loaded and unloaded. She hoped that John had understood her intentions to meet here. She had been waiting about fifteen minutes when she saw him walking toward her. Her imagination took hold of her and she gave herself a few seconds to imagine that he was Heath and he was here to take her away to Texas. She shook that image off when he got close, feeling disloyal to Heath for only having the thought.
“Hello, Hazel.” John said.
“John, thank you for coming.” she said.
“Of course. It’s what I’m here for.” he told her. She was really beautiful, he thought again.
“Let’s go sit.” she said. He followed her to the bench she always sat on and read when she waited for her pa. She had him here now and after she had thought about it all night, she suddenly didn’t know what to say. “How is he?” she started with.
John smiled. It was a nice smile. “He is well, but anxious. He’s afraid that you won’t want to correspond with him any longer. Your letters have made his life much brighter lately.”
Hazel smiled. “I’m
glad he’s enjoyed my letters. I’ve enjoyed his very much, although I have to say that the last one surprised me.”
“I’m sure it did. That’s why he sent me. He was worried about you.”
“How did you find me?” she asked him.
“I asked the postmaster.” John said. “He told me you would be at the carnival. He asked if I was your cousin and I said yes. I hope you don’t mind.”
Hazel smiled. The postmaster knew too much. “I don’t mind.” she said. “Is he as wonderful as he seems, John? Is what he writes in his letters truly real and not just words to woo me?” She didn’t know if his friend would be truthful if he wasn’t, but sometimes. It’s harder to lie when you’re looking someone in the eye.
“Miss Hazel, Heath Key is the most honest, sincere, compassionate person I have ever had the chance to know personally. It’s been my honor to be his friend and his generosity has put me in a place financially and in the community that it would have been doubtful I would have reached on my own. He’s my best friend and I love him like a brother.”
“Your father saved his life.” she said, remembering what Heath had said in the letter. “Was he hurt badly, your father?”
“His hands were burned mostly. He had trouble working after that. It was hard for him to hold onto a pair of reins or a rope. He was unfettered by it though, once he knew that Heath would live. Heath’s parents treated him like a hero too, and my family never wanted for anything. They were all very generous people, Hazel. The family is revered in Texas, and in spite of his scars, I don’t know a single person who has met Heath who didn’t like him.”
She wanted to ask a question, but it sounded so crass and rude in her head. She was trying to think of a way to reword it, when John, as if reading her mind, said, “Do you want to know about his looks?”
Hazel felt a swell of guilt in her chest as she said, “It’s not that looks are important…It’s just…He said….I just can’t imagine what he looks like.”
“He’s not as hard to look at as he imagines he is, Hazel. I don’t have a recollection of him another way, so that may be part of it but everyone who knows him well says the same thing. After a while, you see deeper and you almost forget about the covering. He has scars on every visible part of his body. The fire ate him up.”