Bill had left for the war in the autumn but Betty’s nightmares had started while he was still at home. Before he’d left, when the dreams first began, he would wake her and soothe her, his body against her the only thing that brought her out of that terrifying fog. Her mind was haunted with ragged limbs and smoke, horrible screams and constant, distant gunfire. She was always running to him in those dreams, but every torn and bloody face she saw, every broken body she tripped over, was someone else’s son or brother, someone else’s husband. In the weeks before he shipped out, they made love more than they had on their honeymoon. Still, the dreams persisted. He would hold her softly at first, speaking lowly until she came to, but the unspoken fear and fervour would move through them both and in those weeks, those hot late summer nights, they did things in bed neither of them had ever thought of before, much less anything they would ever admit. It left Betty both sad, and insatiable, when he was gone. When the dreams woke her alone in the night, she would switch on the lamp on his side of their narrow double bed and roll her face into his pillow. She hadn’t washed the pillow slip and didn’t intend to. Every week she stripped the bed and would leave his pillow as he’d left it, her refuge when his absence became too great.
It took awhile for the ache of missing him and the constant worry to somewhat abate. It was as if her brain and body had agreed that for this stretch of time, the pain and the worry, the nightmares and the cold sweats, would remain connected to the desire Bill had soothed her with. She’d wake up drenched in sweat, panting, groping for the light, but her thighs would be slick with arousal and her nipples would be painful pink knots. She could only sleep again if she slid her hand under her nightgown and remembered his hands and mouth on her. She coped in those first months, starved for touch and comfort, stroking her own wet, needy flesh as his image in her mind grew more and more faint.
And so, life went on. Betty proudly kept up their small home, she went to church, knit socks for Bill and wrote him letters. It was a new decade, a new war, a new life, really. She kept busy and managed just as every other prairie wife did, by hurling herself into maintaining the dignity of the homefront, not knowing that it would be years until Germany was vanquished. It was one Tuesday morning in late January that Betty’s new rhythm of living was altered by a knock on the back door.
She dried her hands on her apron and looked through the foggy window onto the snow swept porch. A woman stood there, cold but smiling, as Betty unbolted the door she was met with the statuesque frame and warm smile of Grace.
“Good morning. It’s Betty, isn’t it? I’m Grace – my sister Abigail and her family live behind you here, I’m staying with Abby awhile. I saw that all your washing had blown off the line. I picked up what I could find in the snow, but I didn’t find the second pillow slip.”
“Thank you so much! Yes, it’s Betty. I didn’t know Abigail had siblings?”
“Well, just the one, I’m all she’s got. If our father’d had his way, we would have been Peter and James not Grace and Abby, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say!”
Grace laughed with the confidence of a woman who wasn’t afraid to be funny. Her honey coloured eyes flashed and Betty felt a warmth in her own cheeks as she clutched the stiff, cold laundry to her chest.
“I could look for it again? The pillow slip.” Grace’s face held the sound of her question, one thin, neatly curved brow lifted.
“Oh, no. You needn’t. It’s still on the bed. On Bill’s side.”
The two women exchanged a sympathetic silence and Betty stepped back into the kitchen.
“Grace, can I make you a cup of tea?”
“Only if you let me drink it!”
With that, Grace and Betty closed the door and spent the day at the kitchen table as if they’d been friends all their lives. Several pots of tea and a sandwich were shared, not to mention their life stories. There was a strange intimacy that hung in the air between them. Grace, with her strong, tall frame, who slapped her hand on the table when she laughed. She was a bit bawdy and loud, she slurped her tea, but Betty didn’t mind. There was a strength and resilience to Grace that Betty was immediately drawn to, as if she was giving the winter, the war, the whole world, a foxy little shrug and a casual laugh. She was so unafraid. Perhaps it was because she wasn’t married, she didn’t have a husband overseas. She wasn’t waking almost nightly to the imagined horrors of a faraway war. She wasn’t knitting any socks.
“It’s just as well that I never married,” Grace roared with laughter. “My knitting is about as good as my cooking, and my cooking could kill a grown man!”
They parted at the back door and Betty’s small frame was crushed against Grace in a tight hug and to her surprise, a quick kiss against her lips. They both paused before saying goodbye again, and Grace’s dark coat became a smaller and smaller spot against the snow as she crossed the backyard to her sister’s house. Betty leaned against the door and gathered herself. Her mind was spinning and her fingers shook as they touched her lips. She busied herself by making the bed up, but no sooner was the chenille coverlet smoothed, Betty dispensed of her apron and housedress, and sat at the edge of the bed, her hand shoved unceremoniously between her legs, Bill’s portrait face down on the bureau. She probed herself roughly with her fingers and feverishly plucked at the little nubbin Bill had showed her with his tongue, her teeth pressed into her lower lip until it was dented. She craved the feeling of being full, the tightness and stretch of her slick cunt was glorious as she used four fingers to satisfy the ache. She thought of Grace’s laugh, her long fingers and big hands, and her eyes, mischievous and the colour of beer. She climaxed, gasping and grasping at the fleeting memory of Grace’s mouth hovering over hers after they’d kissed. Betty fell asleep and slept through the evening and on through to the morning. No nightmares plagued her that night.
Mid morning, Betty stopped what she was doing and dashed through the house to answer a knock at the back door, her heart leapt with hope that it was Grace. Her stomach tightened and lurched as she opened the door to that same smile looming above her as it had the day before.
“I brought you some molasses bread. Don’t worry,” laughed Grace. “I didn’t bake it.”
With that she stepped into the kitchen and shrugged off her coat, and filled the kettle, uninvited. Betty could only smile as this beautiful creature made herself at home in her home.
“While that boils, let me just finish up what I was doing when you knocked.” Betty disappeared into the bedroom, heart thudding in her chest. She’d had twinges of longing as a school girl, she had always noticed how beautiful and soft other girls’ hair and skin was but she had never touched one, not in the way she wanted to touch Grace, and even more, the way she wanted Grace to touch her.
“Is that Bill?” Grace’s voice from the doorway startled Betty enough that she took a step back and sat down on the bed. Grace crossed the room and picked up the small pewter frame.
“Yes, that was taken at The Stampede last summer.” Betty felt her voice catch in her throat.
“He’s handsome.” Grace set down the picture frame and ran her finger along the edge of the bureau, sitting beside Betty on the neatly made bed.
“You miss him.” It wasn’t a question and Betty felt herself crumble in response. Grace’s arms encircled her and her whispered words of comfort pressed in softly on Betty’s hair. Betty found herself wrapping around Grace, clinging to her, drinking in the closeness and the touch, the smell of another person. Grace’s wide, soft mouth covered Betty’s and they kissed slowly, tentatively, until Betty began to pull away.
“Betty, honey, it’s Wartime. The whole world’s gone mad. You can’t deny yourself the simple pleasures. Not now.”
“Grace, I really shouldn’t …” but there were no words to finish the phrase as she leaned in again for another kiss. And another, and another until there were no layers of dresses or slips, no woolen stockings between them, just an undulating sea of flesh against the soft bedspread. Grace’s touch and movements were fluent and eager. Betty decided in the moments before Grace’s face pressed into her mound that this was not at all new to Grace and she was glad. She resigned herself to Grace’s deft knowledge and the sheer enjoyment of her, the sheer pleasure that she brought. Betty’s body began to remember the joys of touch and the need of it all. She was hungry for more, pressing back into Grace, inviting her deep within her body and mind, striving to keep pace. She watched with delight as Grace’s perfect lips tugged and suckled between her thighs, fingers spreading her, the delicate crescent moon of Grace’s pinky fingernail teasing at the tight rosebud below Betty’s slathering cunt. They took turns devouring each other, languishing in the warmth and wetness of one another, laughing and moaning into each other’s hot mouths, tumbling and thrusting until they had both called out for God and Jesus and More, many times.
Their affair continued through the winter, past the equinox, past the melting snow and it ended on a bright spring morning. Grace had brought two gifts for Betty that day. The first was a clutch of delicate, white, prairie crocus, a sure sign of change, clustered in an inch of water in a teacup, beside the picture of Bill on the bureau. The second was an envelope addressed to Betty, it’s top right hand corner a patchwork of stamps from far away. Grace knew when she had bumped into the postman and offered to take Betty’s mail to her, that the envelope could mean one of only two things: Bill was coming home, or Bill was never going to return. Grace kept the envelope tucked in the pocket of her dress, abandoned on the floor as they had luxuriously undressed one another. Grace knew that Bill’s fate, and her fate, were both concealed in that envelope and so she took Betty with a passion, rendering her soft, small body limp and flushed, the bed soiled with their sweat as she ground herself against Betty, sucked her and clawed at her, fighting the tears as she lapped at Betty’s delicious holes and poured out all the love and lust she felt. In the midday afterglow, Grace lit a cigarette, and exhaled a perfect blue plume above them, watching it swirl as she made herself comfortable, smug at the job she’d done undoing Betty. Grace reached to her dress on the floor and handed Betty the envelope. It took a moment for the gravity of it to show in Betty’s eyes. She trembled. Grace waited, picking a thread of tobacco off her tongue. Betty opened the envelope and read the short letter.
“He’s been wounded. But he’s alive and he will be home within the month.” Betty’s voice was barely a whisper.
Grace cleared her throat, emotions well controlled except for the warble in her voice.
“Abby’s husband John comes home next week. I’ll be going back to Winnipeg.” They both knew that was a lie but it was easier that way. Betty watched in silence as Grace stood and bent to sort through their clothes, quietly dressing. Grace smoothed the bed and plumped the pillow she’d been laying on, noting to herself that she had always ended up on Bill’s side of the bed.
“I’ll be leaving Thursday morning.”
“But you said next week! Grace?”
“I think this should be goodbye, Betty.” Grace’s hand covered Betty’s as she brought it to her lips, a lingering kiss stamped gently into Betty’s palm. Betty, her face tear streaked as she sat naked in her marriage bed with the tall, loud woman she’d fallen in love with, did the only thing she could think to do: she slid the cotton pillow slip off of her pillow and folded it neatly and handed it to Grace.
“In case you think of me and want to remember.”
“I’ll never want to forget.”
Alone again, Betty pressed her face into Bill’s pillow, now Grace’s, and breathed her in. She stripped the bed and put away the single pillow slip, unwashed, a secret memento that she would keep long after Bill returned, long after the war ended, long after their children were born and raised. That yellowed pillow slip would remain with Betty, and the memories of Grace and her strange beauty and big laugh, for the rest of her days.