Sup, as she called it, or what I knew it better as––Supper, consisted of a thick stew. Though I was sure I wasn’t on Earth any longer, the vegetables in front of me were no different from the ones I remembered. Potatoes, Carrots, Celery, Corn, and Tomatoes… Thalica had all of them handy, and I was tasked with the washing and peeling of them. As there was no common vegetable peeler around to use, there was instead an extremely fine knife used to do the task. I’ve been cooking for myself for years, so it me took little time and effort to get used to using it. I also noticed an absence of meat, dried or raw.
“Is it a vegetable stew?” I inquired of this beautiful woman.
“Were you expecting something else?”
“I was just wondering if it was strictly vegetables, or if you would also be adding meat.”
“If you’d like to quickly go and hunt a rabbit, Gardakan, I’d be most appreciative to enjoy meat in today’s stew as well.”
“Ah… I’m afraid my hunting ability is non-existent.”
“Then, your ability translates to the availability of meat.”
“Non-existent, you mean?”
I did like her witty sarcastic replies. Somehow they felt far more playful to me, than condescending.
“Do you eat meat at all, or is your family strictly vegetarian?”
“Who wouldn’t eat meat every day if they could?” She espoused as if it was gospel. “Alas, buying it from the butcher is prohibitively expensive. Only twice a week are we able to partake in such a luxury, and even then it is simply fowl, as it is the cheapest.”
Having gotten a bit more clarification in regards to her financial situation, I found I had little else to do around the place.
“You may go rest for now. If someone comes in, then attend to them. Sup will be ready within the hour.”
Though she said that, there wasn’t really anywhere for me to go even in the first floor of the store. So, I simply returned to the cool corner of the store where I had slept and slumped down, leaning against the wall and letting my eyes close for a short while.
Both of her children were outside playing, but either not nearby or not noisily enough for me to notice.
When I next opened my eyes, there were beautiful blue eyes staring into my own. They seemed to be searching for something, but I always lost in those games where two people stare into each other’s eyes unblinking, so I had to avert my gaze and suffer a defeat here.
“Sup’s ready. Come, join us.”
“Right. Thank you, again.”
I stood up. Using the wall behind me as a balance, I could feel the muscles below my radial tendon in my forearm had become strained and sore. Aside from that I was still in good enough condition, and found the workspace where we made the dough earlier was also being used as the dining table.
There were four bowls, ash grey in color and wooden, rather than clay. Each of them were filled with a thick helping of stew. Trevorkane and Nefetina were already eating before I arrived at the table and sat down. A large wooden spoon having an end reminiscent of a spork, was my eating utensil. The last time I used anything wooden to eat something, was when I bought a certain flavored ice confection named after a boot-shaped country from the kindly old man who would drive his truck through my neighborhood as a child.
I didn’t hesitate to sample her cuisine, and aside from a lack of spice, such as pepper, it was salty and palatable. I ate quite a few bites in a row, suddenly feeling my body’s desire to eat overtaking my reservation to do so slowly. Before I noticed, all three of the family members, were staring at me.
“Does it suit your taste, Gardavan?” She asked me with a kind smile.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s delicious.”
Even though I had started later, I finished before everyone else. There was yet another loaf of bread, and so I broke it and used it to clean the bowl entirely, but at a slower pace. While the children ate somewhat messily as I did, Thalica was more refined in how she ate.
When dinner was done, the children left to go play some more outside, and Thalica was left with the cleanup. I made it a point of offering to help her with that. There was a basin with questionably clean water, no soap, and a dirty rag. That was a bit concerning to me, however there was nothing I could do about it.
“Would you like to go for a walk with me, Gardvan?” She asked me after we finishing tidying up.
“It would be my pleasure to accompany you, ma’am.” I politely agreed.
“I wouldn’t think it disrespectful if you called me by my name.”
“Mrs. Thalica.” I answered her, sure to use a polite prefix.
She thumbed her chin and shook her head. “It’ll have to do, I suppose.”
Did she not want me to be respectful towards her? My memories fail to provide any non-work related relationships with women I may have had in the past, on Earth. Sadly I am far more skilled handling dough than I am a married woman with children. I’m pretty sure I was close with my mother and my sister, yet Thalica gives off none of the same vibes that either of them did.
We left her place of both business and residence, walking beside each other down filthy littered streets with many offensive scents assaulting my nose disparagingly with each passing step. We passed a few food stalls and vendors selling their produce, with the only the less enticing looking wares remaining.
The building we ultimately arrived at after a fair walk, was a public bathhouse, about three blocks away from her residence.
“Though I’ve held my tongue and nose, I do believe you can understand the nature of accompanying me on this walk, yes?”
I had gone many days without a bath, it wasn’t hard to figure out that I probably reeked of sweat and body odor. I am a man, after all.
“This is my investment in you. I do believe you will perform better tomorrow, and I’d much prefer the scent of freshly baked bread not be overpowered by the scent of the ones selling it.”
“I have some clothes you may change into when we return.”
“Obviously. Unless you are questioning my virtue?”
“I wouldn’t dare such a thing of such an upright woman as yourself.”
We entered the bathhouse and she paid the all the coin necessary for us both to use it. The baths were separated by gender, young boys not yet in puberty were allowed to bathe with the women, but all women whether young or old were barred entry to the men’s side entirely. I guess no matter the world, the virtues of a women are respected the same.
I can’t say I’ve ever used a bathhouse before, as I had excellent plumbing back at my home on Earth, and an expensive water heater that did the job most reliably for about half an hour.
There were a few people in here already, and there was no towel system. I can’t say I was exactly comfortable baring it all, but there was little choice in the matter. The water looked clean, and there wasn’t a significant trace of murkiness or scum as I had expected to find within.
After disrobing, I entered the wide bath and submerged all but my face under the water. There was no soap to be found, but the water did have a scent coming from it. Perhaps that was the equivalent of a deodorant?
Cleaning up as best I could for a good short while, I exited the bath and redressed, heading outside to discover that I would be waiting a short while longer before Thalica was finished herself. She was already a beautiful woman, but there is something alluring about a woman freshly out of a bath with her hair still wet.
This was not the only destination on this trip. There was a secondary stop she had planned as well. The next destination took us past the alley where she had found me, ready to give up the ghost only the day before. Where we arrived was a building of fair size. Upon entering it, there were wooden pews and a crafted icon.
“Is this a religious institution?” I asked her.
“It is. Do you believe in the Gods, Gardavan?”
I stared at the icon, it reminded me of a famous statue, the Winged Victory. I remember it well because it was always in my grandparent’s mahogany wooden display cabinet. Also, when they passed away, it was the only item I wanted willed to me. I still possessed it up until the moment I woke up here.
“I know nothing of them.” I admitted. “In my homeland most tended to believe in the existence of a single god. There existed separate factions with differing ways to interpret the scriptures and provide worship, the main tenets did not differ all that much.”
“Did you keep faith in the god of your homeland?”
“I wasn’t as devout as I could have been. I prayed loosely, and only when I thought it might serve my interests to do so. I take it you are perhaps a devoted follower of the gods of these lands?”
“Yes. I didn’t take you for a heathen, Gardavan.”
“I wouldn’t say I am. Even if I didn’t pray, I did my best to adhere to the tenets of the faith.”
“And what were those tenets, if I may ask?”
“The basics. Keep god in my heart, do not blaspheme the name of god casually or at all for that matter. Do not lie, deceive, cheat, steal, or murder others. Respect my parents, and heed the wisdom of the elders.”
“Is that all?”
“There’s also a part about refraining from being covetous of what is not mine and instead which belongs to my neighbors, inclusive of all property, living or otherwise.”
“And you believe in those tenets, truly?”
“I do my best to. I feel even if it’s not for the sake of worship, it’s still worth doing so for the sake of society.”
“Is the equality towards women you spoke of when we first met also a part of those tenets?”
“It may be rooted more in the scriptures of my homelands, but I just happened to have been raised with that being a cultural norm. My personal beliefs on the matter are that women are irreplaceable in their roles as women. While I’m certain there are things a woman can do as good as a man, there are also many things they are naturally suited to do far better, and it’s somewhat foolish to stray from one’s strength, especially where partnerships are concerned.”
“That is a curious belief, Gardavan.”
“Again, I hope I am not offending you, and if I do perchance do something offensive, I trust you will let me know at once so I do not continue to offend.”
“I will keep that in mind. Wait here for a moment, my prayers won’t take long.”
“Am I free to sit, or should I stand?”
“By all means, have a seat.” She offered. Once I sat down on one of the pews nearby to the entrance, she moved ahead towards the icon and knelt down, to pray.
I was raised in a religious household on Earth, and did believe in my particular faith until about eighteen. Then I simply drifted away from attending regularly, and though neither agnostic or atheist, I was more than anything just not devout. I would go with my family on days of obligation and celebrate holidays, though that was about it.
I looked around, and aside from one or two old men who looked to be of the clergy, there were only a handful of other citizens here to pray at this time as well. Her prayers indeed didn’t take long as she said, and she had soon returned to my side.
“Shall we return?”
I nodded and stood up at her words. Our walk was direct from the small church she visited back to her residence. When we arrived, her children had not yet returned from playing. She invited me upstairs, and I wasn’t sure that I should accept.
“I’d rather you not change downstairs. I’ll give you privacy to do so upstairs, I’d just like to make sure what I clothes I have to offer you, will firstly, fit.”
Since I had no reason to refuse now with that clarification, I accompanied her upstairs. There were two rooms, one which belonged to both of her children, and another which belonged to her and likely her husband…
There was a spacious trunk at the foot of her bed. As she opened it up and sifted through it, I took notice that the bed was of a size intended for more than one body. I couldn’t imagine my sister raising both of her children alone, and I certainly didn’t think I was capable of doing much of a good job with my own if I was ever fortunate to have any. It occurred to me now that I had no idea of the difficulties and hardships Thalica has underwent over the last five years since her husband was gone.
She had settled on some clothes, and after pressing them against my body, decided they would do.
“Change into these if you will. Leave your old ones on top of the chest when you are done. I will attend to their washing later.”
“As you wish.”
She walked out of the room, and with the door closed, I changed quickly, even removing my underwear, though I didn’t have a replacement pair among the clothes she had given me. I would kill for a fresh pair of anything, as I just feel like I’m going to find myself chafing later going commando underneath.
The clothes fit well enough, though the pants were a bit loose. There was a rope belt, and with a quick tie and knot, I was good to go. I did my best to change quickly to keep any suspicion at bay, and exited the room quickly with my old clothes atop the wooden chest.
She was waiting outside the door, and once seeing me, she drew a long breath, as if stunned.
“They fit nicely. Thank you for your generosity.”
“Hm? Is something wrong with them?”
“Mm? No. You just so happen to look rather sharp in my husband’s old clothes, I believe I was caught off-guard for a moment.”
“My apologies then if I inadvertently dredged up an undesired memory.”
She dismissed my apology, and we returned downstairs. The rest of the evening was highly uneventful. I think being dressed in her husband’s clothes was deterring her from even wanting to converse with me. But there was no shortage of glances being thrown my way.
The children returned along with a fair amount of dirt attached to their clothes. The second meal, pre-bedtime for the children was the same stew as earlier, and it was just as delicious the second time. Afterwards, the children had gone upstairs, and Thalica had brought some bedding down to me again.
We bid each other goodnight, and I returned to the cool corner of the room, grateful that for a second night, I would be able to pass the night safely. I thought sleep would come to me easy, but my mind replayed the face she made when she first saw me changed into these clothes I’m now wearing.
A stranger in her husband’s clothes.
I worried that her charity towards me is causing her some unneeded distress. Perhaps tomorrow, I might find out if that is the case, or if it’s something else…