The elders find low winter a gloomy time, though Jean could not imagine why. The sky is clear most days and when it is not, the high ice crystals which pass for clouds make beautiful patterns. Of course, there is no vegetation but there is never vegetation except during the melt or where there is liquid water – along the river, surrounding the lake, and, of course, in the irrigated fields. When high winter arrives and the snow comes, the elders seem better contented, saying that the snow covers the barrenness of soil and rock. Jean simply could not imagine what it might be like to live where vegetation was a year–round thing. He loved the melt as well as the next person, but he also treasured a return to the lean cleanness and the simplicity of rock and soil.
The streets were compacted earth again, now that the mud had gone. Jean leaned on his cane and started out again after resting against the side of a building. He was still very weak and his leg never stopped hurting. For a week he had been exercising near his father’s house and this was the first journey of any length he had tried. Across the settlement to the house that Anton and Chloe were occupying.
He knocked on the door and waited, his breath freezing in a circle against the rough wood. That was the curse of low winter; every breath sucked a man dry and he must drink water by the gallon. Chloe opened the door and stepped back in horror.
“Good day, Chloe,” he said.
From within the house all sounds ceased as Anton, unseen, froze at whatever he was doing. After a moment Jean heard his footsteps approaching and greeted him as he entered the room.
Anton’s reply was half-hearted at best. Jean tried to interpret the look in his eyes. Hatred? Fear? Mere uneasiness? It was more than Jean could manage.
“It is good to see you up and around,” Anton said.
Jean ignored him and turned to Chloe. “You didn’t come to see me during my convalescence.”
She opened her mouth; closed it. Then she turned angrily and went to sit by the fire. Anton replied for her, “She has been busy. It’s not easy to start a household.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Now Anton was really angry, but holding it back.
Jean had him at a disadvantage for he made no accusations. He did not ask Anton what had happened – why he had not fired. Anton wanted Jean to ask so that he could defend himself against the unspoken accusation; or, better still, for Jean to deny Anton’s story so that Anton could attack. Jean said nothing except, “You have something of mine.”
“I have nothing that is yours,” Anton replied.
“Yes, you have something that is mine by right of pain and I have come to take it.”
Chloe stared her amazement. Jean was crippled, but he carried his blade. He smiled and said sotto voce, “Not you, ma petite. You I can live without.” more tomorrow