Mari put down the handcart and wiped the sweat from her brow. The air felt like treacle. With the drought entering its second year, the barrels of water were barely enough to soften the ground let alone sustain the trees. Worse, even with the discount for hauling it from the cave herself, it would likely cost as much to buy water as the crop would be worth. If there even were a crop this year.
If Jerek was here then maybe they could dig a well in the back acre where the stream used to be. But there was too much needed doing just to keep the farm running alone. She had no time to dig hole after hole all day in case there was water down there. Picking up the handles again she remembered how different it was supposed to be after he joined the Defence Force.
* * *
“They came looking for soldiers and you said yes!”
“It’s good money, and if I volunteer the Sergeant said I only need to serve five years,” said Jerek, giving a half-smile.
“Five years? How am I supposed to run the farm on my own for five years? A stupid idea like that could get you killed!” screamed Mari raising her pan meaningfully.
“I know the Farm isn’t doing well. That’s why we need the money. They said you get bed and board so I could send most of my money home. It would be better than having to sell even if you can’t keep everything going.”
“Well you do what you want Jerek Austan. Don’t let the fact I’m your wife change anything. But don’t you go thinking I’ll be sitting her crying over you while you’re gone.” Running into the bedroom, she started to push clothes into a bag. “I’ll even help you pack so you can be off and earn that money you obviously care about so much.”
* * *
She remembered driving him out of the house that night. Emperor knows where he slept. He turned up next morning to tell he about the Recruits’ Parade but she was told him in no uncertain terms she was too busy tending the farm to watch him prancing around in a fancy coat.
* * *
Mari read the letter again: deductions for excessive wear; deduction towards a present for the Colonel’s birthday; deductions for mandatory recreation. Pushing the few coins around they still refused to make a living wage. It turned out that the food was free but you paid for everything else, even if you didn’t want it.
Cursing she threw the letter across the room. It wasn’t really Jerek’s fault. Maybe the letter might even make her feel better if it made sense, but something had happened just after he finished training and the letters came less often. When they did there were so many words censored that the man she married was disappearing like water on a hot stone.
* * *
Mari paused at the sound of hooves approaching. Straightening she noticed the Post-Chaise coming up the track. There was only one person who would send her post. Maybe he had even finally got leave. Carefully putting down the water bucket she ran to meet it.
Arriving at the track she was puzzled to see Postmaster Jarks himself at the reins instead of one of the hired hands. Grabbing the proffered envelope she torn it open and began to read.
++++ To: [Mari Austan]
From: [CENSORED], [CENSORED]
Dear [Mrs Austan]
It is with regret that I write to inform you that [Jerek Austan] has given [his] life in service to the Emperor.
[He] was killed whilst [CENSORED]. [His] body will [not] be returned for burial
[Jerek] was [well liked amongst his unit] and [spoke of you often].
The prayers and condolences of the [CENSORED] are with you in your time of loss.
Yours in His Service,
She realised she was sitting in the dust. Postmaster Jarks was saying something but the words would not make sense. After a while they stopped. Later she noticed she was alone. She picked the bucket up off the ground and headed back to the orchard. It was not until she arrived that she noticed the water had evaporated.
* * *
Mari put down the handcart and wiped the sweat from her brow. Without a wage coming in this was the last barrel of water Mari could afford. Jerek had received death benefits but the PDF had used most of them to discharge the debt he incurred by not completing his term and the rest had gone on a funeral she did not know about. Water trickled down her cheek. Pausing to wipe it away she cursed herself. Crying would not bring him back.
Little puffs of dust spattered the track. Looking up she felt first one then many drops falling on her face. The crash of thunder finally broke her trance and, abandoning the cart, she ran through the rain.
* * *
Next morning the rain had slackened, but the butts were full and there were more clouds on the horizon. Putting aside her plan to finish dragging the cart to the house, Mari ran past it to where the telegram had lain for months. Scooping up the sodden mass of mud and paper she headed for the orchard. Without a body, this would have to do. She would bury Jerek among the trees he had planted, where he could see the blossom had just started to open.