For personal use and select distribution only © by Esther Gross 1997

Circle of Life
By Esther Gross

(taking place not long after Katie's birth)

A late-summer breeze wafted over Colorado Springs early one Sunday afternoon. Worshipers from the service earlier were gathered in clusters around the church and surrounding meadow. Children's voices drifted on the breeze, punctuated here and there by sounds of a frolicking dog or a restless horse awaiting his owner’s next wishes. Summer fragrances, some more pleasant than others, mingled in the breeze.

The Sully-Cooper clan, on an old quilt near the bridge, had just finished eating. Michaela and Colleen were gathering up the remains of the meal and returning them to a large basket. Bryan was working out a new melody on his flute. Sully was playing with baby Katie, nuzzling her ear for the sheer pleasure of making her grin and laugh out loud.

"Sully, would you hand me your plate?" Michaela asked, folding a towel and laying it in the basket.

No response.


At that point, Michaela realized she was no longer hearing Katie's giggling. Puzzled, she turned in Sully's direction--and froze. He was gazing into space beyond the church, staring toward the cemetery. Vividly Michaela remembered the years he had visited the cemetery every Sunday without fail to honor the memory of his wife and baby who had died in childbirth. Since their marriage, she had never known him to so much as glance in that direction.

Aroused by the silence, Colleen and Brian had stopped their activities and were glancing in concern from Sully to Michaela and back again. Now the silence caught Sully’s attention, too. He started guiltily--and the others quickly resumed their activities with great concentration.

All the way home in the wagon, Brian and Colleen chattered in a effort to cover the awkward silence in the front of the wagon. Katie had fallen asleep in her mother's arms, and Michaela hugged her to her bosom and stared unseeing at the passing scenery. She and Sully had found so much happiness together in their marriage that she now only occasionally thought about Abagail and the two headstones in the cemetery. She had had no reason to think Sully thought about them much either--until today. And though nothing had been said, she knew he had caught her eyes on him before she had turned back to her chores.

When they reached the homestead, they dismounted in silence. Sully came around and helped Michaela down with Katie as he always did--but he didn't quite meet her eyes. She hurried away into the house, leaving him to tend to the horse and wagon and his thoughts.

She didn't see him the rest of the afternoon.

Just at dusk, she caught sight of him coming out of the woods in the opposite direction from town, Wolf trotting along beside him. The dear, familiar sight brought a lump to her throat. She loved him so much! And she knew it was unworthy of the love they shared to let her mind stir up any shadows between them. She would *not* dwell on that brief, unguarded moment of the afternoon.

But the following Sunday it happened again.

This time it did not catch Michaela by surprise. Despite her determination, she couldn't help keeping a surreptitious eye on Sully throughout the meal and afterwards. The thing she noticed, this time, was that he did not glance toward the cemetery until he had begun to play with Katie again.

So perhaps it wasn't Abagail he was thinking about? This time when he caught her looking at him, she did not glance away. For a long moment husband and wife gazed into each other's eyes, while love and understanding and questions all vied for top billing.

This time when he helped her down from the wagon, he steadied her a moment longer than necessary, his touch more possessive than necessary, his lips lingering briefly at her ear. With experience born of lives that have become irrevocably interwoven over time, she knew it wouldn't be long before he might be ready to talk to her about whatever he was feeling.

She wasn’t surprised when that time came as they settled into bed that night. A breeze rustled the tree outside their bedroom, and moonlight cast shadows across Sully's bare chest as he lay beside her. It roused in her a precious memory of the night, so shortly before Katie's birth, when he had comforted her in her fears over the impending delivery. She wanted nothing more than to return that loving concern to him tonight. She reached over, slipped her hand into his, and waited.

"Michaela?" His voice wasn’t quite steady.

"Yes, Sully?"

"I know ya seen me looking at the cemetery." He hesitated. Her hand stirred in his with gentle encouragement. "I can't quite say what it is been gitten' to me, but when I was playin' with Katie last Sunday, I suddenly couldn’t help rememberin'—she’s not my only child." His voice threatened to break, and he stopped.

"Oh!" Michaela said softly. "I understand." When he remained silent, she asked softly, "Would you like to visit the cemetery again, Sully? I mean, I would understand. I mean, there is no reason you shouldn't."

It was a long time before he spoke, and she knew she simply had to give him whatever time he needed. Finally he said, "Ya wouldn't mind?"

"No. Of course I wouldn't mind. She was your child. You have a right to visit her grave."

Neither spoke of the fact that visiting the baby would be tantamount to visiting Abagail. But as Michaela looked into her heart, she found it was at rest. She could not doubt Sully' love, and she was more concerned over the pain his was experiencing for the loss of his child than about any residual feelings he might have from his marriage to Abigail.

When he spoke again, his voice was so soft she had to strain to hear him. "If I go, I would like to take Katie with me."

The request took her completely by surprise. For a long moment she couldn’t gather her wits to answer. Then she said, "Sure, Sully, if that's what you'd like to do."

She assumed the subject was settled, and she began to drift into sleep. Then his voice came again over the night sounds from outside the open window.


"Hmmm?"she murmured sleepily.

Now his voice was stronger, as if a resolve were setting in. "Michaela, that isn't all I want."

Sleep fled and her senses were alert again. She stirred to let him know she was listening. He turned toward her and turned her face toward his.

"Michaela," he whispered, "I want you to come with us."

Michaela lay awake a long time after Sully had drifted off to sleep. She shifted quietly and propped herself on one elbow so she could watch him as he lay sleeping beside her in the moonlight, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest a harmonious accompaniment to the beating of her own heart.

The depths of her feelings for this man ran so far deeper than anything she could ever have imagined during those long years of determined independence and--she now realized--aloneness. As any other young girl, she had dreamed of marriage--but she never imagined it could bring the oneness of love and devotion she and Sully had found together.

But why did he want her to go to the cemetery with him? She had agreed to--how could she not?--but a gentle turmoil tugged at her heart. Would she not be an intruder?

She reached out and touched his hair. It was one of the things that first attracted her to him. And the long, thin lock he had worn woven in a narrow braid--how she had wondered about it! She had not thought of it for a long time now. When and why had it disappeared? She had not noticed its absence until they were in Denver on their honeymoon. She had wanted to ask him about it but had not found the courage. Eventually she had nearly forgotten it.

The next morning they discussed when they might make the visit. Did they want to wait until the following Sunday? Did they want to do it after dark so as not to draw attention to themselves? They decided to go the following evening, just before dusk. Most of the townspeople would be gone to their homes, but it would not yet be dark.

Michaela asked Colleen to fix the supper. She and Bryan had not said a word about what they had witnessed the Sunday before, but because she knew they had seen it, Michaela felt they deserved to know about the pending visit. They listened wide-eyed, their only responses an understanding nod.

The ride to town was silent, except for Katie's cheerful cooing. She loved riding in the wagon! Sully drew up a short distance from the cluster of headstones and helped Michaela down. She hesitated, feeling all the more like an intruder, but she felt Sully’s arm tight around her, drawing her firmly along with him.

They stood in silence for a time, gazing down at the two headstones, close together in the deepening twilight under the great tree. Even Katie had become subdued in her mother's arms. Michaela felt Sully tremble ever so slightly beside her. Then he reached over and gently took Katie into his own arms. Michaela waited, almost afraid to breathe. When he finally spoke, there was a unaccustomed roughness to his voice.

"Katie girl," he said, "someday yer gonna be big enough to understand that this is your sister here." He drew a ragged breath before continuing. "Your sister, Katie. Her name. . . her name was . . . Hanna." And then he was clasping the startled Katie close to his chest, shaking with silent sobs.

The next moment, he reached out and swept Michaela also into the circle of his arms, clinging to these two who were now his very life, while he grieved for the tiny child lying cold beneath the sod. He had given her life, too--his life, just as he had given Katie--yet he had never had a chance to hold her, to know her, to experience her in his life.

"I done some figuring,” he whispered raggedly into Michaela's ear. "She woulda been old enough now to go to school." He paused. "When . . . they . . . died, I nearly died myself grievin' fer Abagail. But I didn’t know what I was missin' with . . . the baby. But now that I have Katie, I'm startin' to realize . . . how much . . . I lost."

"I think it's important, Sully, that you allow yourself to grieve for Hanna, too--as a separate person--your very first child! I never heard you say her name before. Maybe saying it here today will help you lay her to rest, too." She heard him draw a deep, shuddering sigh, his arms still tight around her and Katie.

Katie had begun to squirm, so he released Michaela and kissed his daughter on the cheek. She responded by smiling and grabbing his hair in her tiny fist. He grimaced, and he and Michaela broke out laughing as he tried to pry it from her tight little fingers. It was not the first time!

Suddenly Sully seemed to have a new thought. Drawing Michaela with him, he moved to stand by Abagail's grave. He handed Katie to her, stooped down, and lifted first one and then another of the smooth stones on the grave. Under the second were a few strands of hair, some still visible in a loosely braided pattern. He fingered them a moment, then said, "I let this grow after Abagail died, tryin' to keep her with me." Michaela held her breath, realizing he was opening a new corner of his heart to her.

He replaced the stone, stood, and looked into his wife’s eyes. "I cut it off the day I married you."

She caressed his face with her fingers. "Thank you, Sully, for telling me."

Then it was if she too had a new thought, and she moved to rest her hand on the cross that bore Abagail's name. Struggling to give words to what was in her heart, she finally whispered in the gathering dusk, "I want to thank you, Abagail, for making Sully so happy. If he hadn't known such happiness in marriage with you, then I don't think he would have been willing to take a chance on happiness again. I'm grateful to you for that."

As they turned to leave, his hand on her arm stopped her. "Thank you for comin' with me," he said.

"Thank you for wanting me to." The fact that he had wanted her, that he had understood the importance of their being together for this closing of the circle between their past and their future, filled her with an overwhelming gratitude. What could she do to continue this oneness of spirit, to show him that she too wanted to focus on wholeness and freedom in their love for each other?

As they mounted the wagon, Michaela said, "Tell me more about Abagail, Sully." It was the first time she had ever asked, and somehow they both understood the very voicing of that question would become a milestone in the deepening of their relationship.

"Are you sure?" he asked, still doubtful.

"Yes. The longer I live with you, Sully, the more I love you, and the more I love you, the more I want to know about you. Abagail and Hanna are part of that, so I . . . I . . . want to know more about that part of your life—if you could feel free to talk to me about it from time to time."

Sully took his time before speaking. "Loren once said, 'Abagail had a heart as big as the whole world, and she really did. And yes, we loved each other a whole lot." As Michaela heard the words, she realized the pang such a statement would once have generated in her was only faint now. She understood Sully was speaking of the past and that those feelings--real as they once had been--were also part of that past. For today, she knew he loved her with all his being in the "now" of their life together.

But Sully was continuing. "We didn’t really have no other life 'cept what we had together. Abagail was estranged from her family 'cuz o’ her pa’s attitude, and I didn't have no family. The townspeople--well, most o' them sorta sided with Loren, and we just didn’t mix much with nobody." He paused. "Guess that's why, when I lost her an' the baby--Hanna--I felt like I'd lost my whole life and there weren't no reason to stick around, or even much to go on livin'."

He paused and she waited, sensing the most important might be yet to come. "But in our life together--yours and mine--things are different. Our life is touchin' the lives of other folks. We're raisin' Charlotte's children, and you help plenty o' folks with your medicine."

He paused again, and Michaela picked up his train of thought. "You help plenty of people, too, Sully. You talked Mr. McCall into keeping his baby, you got the Cheyenne to release Jake, you helped Ezra Leonard get his son back, and you got Preston back here alive--so many things."

"But I couldn't stop what happened to the Cheyenne!" he said somberly. "I know, and we will always be sad about that. It surely wasn’t because you didn't try! But even though you couldn't stop what happened, you helped them a whole lot along the way!"

"I s'pose you’re right. Anyway, I'm glad that in our life together we're doin' some things to make a difference fer folks." They were silent the rest of the way home, each lost in a myriad of thoughts and emotions, yet completely comfortable together in their silence.

The next evening when Michaela came downstairs from settling Katie for the night, she could tell Sully had been talking to Colleen and Brian about the visit to the cemetery. ". . . I really appreciate yer ma sayin’ it was okay to go and her going with me."

"We have to remember," Michaela said, putting a hand on Brian's shoulder, "Abagail and Hanna are as much a part of who Sully is as your real ma will always be a part of who you are."

Colleen spoke quietly, "It's been a long time since I visited Ma's grave--what about you, Brian?" He nodded.

"Then you should go again--soon," Michaela said. "Paying respects to those who have passed on is a way of honoring what they meant to us in our lives."

Sully said, "Next Sunday might be a good time."

Colleen smiled, then hesitated before saying, "Ma's grave is right next to Abagail's and Hanna's. Would it be all right--I mean--I'd like to stop at their graves, too."

Touched, it took Sully a moment to respond. "What would ya think if we all did it together as a family?"

Bryan spoke up hesitantly, "Mr. Bray asked me t'day what you an' Ma was doin' at the cemetery together."

Michaela looked quickly at Sully, who said, "What did ya tell him?" "Nuthin' much--'cept Ma said you was goin' to pay your respects to . . . . yer other baby." When he spoke again, it was with even greater hesitation. "How about, if we all go--you may not like this, but how about invitin' Mr. Bray to go with us? He was sorta your family, too, wasn't he, connected to Abagail?" He glanced nervously from one to another, realizing how brash his suggestion was. Michaela met Sully’s eyes with a glance that told him the call was his to make.

It took only a moment before he clapped Brian affectionately on the shoulder and said, "You’re a wise young man, Brian. I think invitin' Mr. Bray would be a good thing to do. But I think it might be better if I asked him if he'd like to go with jist Katie and me sometime."

As Sully and Michaela prepared for bed that evening, he watched her, his thoughts still stirring. When she let her hair down, he took the brush and began slowing stroking her long tresses. Their eyes met in the mirror, and each could tell the other was remembering special times when he had done this before. When she rose and turned toward the bed, he drew her instead into his arms.

"Ya know," he began quietly, gazing over her shoulder toward Katie's cradle, "every time I think about ya choosin' me instead o' David, when ya for sure coulda had him,"--he met her eyes then--"it fills me with so much happiness I can hardly hold it all."

She swallowed hard, firelight reflecting in her eyes. "And I've never been sorry for a moment," she assured him. He framed her face in his hands and brushed his lips lingeringly over hers. Then his arms enfolded her completely, their hearts and their bodies dissolving into one. Their kiss, full of promise, was the seal of a sacred covenant--of their love for each other, the life they were forging together, the future they were crafting out of the past.

The End