DESPITE BEING LATE NOVEMBER, a widow cuts an unopened bud from each of the rose bushes in the garden. Long before the intense summer sun had taken hold, she had hard-pruned all five. Sober and patient they waited, not waking until the last cicada’s song had been sung.
A tiny drop of crimson appears on her gloveless thumb. Instinctively she wipes it across her thigh. The grey cotton dress sucks up the blood, exaggerating the tiny wound. She presses her thumb into the dress until the bleeding stops and the stain darkens. Then she snips white marguerites of equal length to add to the posy. She is happy now.
She walks back to the house; the arid and cracked earth evoking memories of bittersweet brownies made with her mother, back when she was a child, back when she lived in the city. Even to this day, if she closes her eyes, she can see herself in the tiny kitchen, scuttling about her mother’s feet, waiting impatiently for the oven door to be opened and quickly grabbing one when it finally is. She’s breaking it open. It’s still warm and oozing chocolate. And when she can resist no longer, she takes her first bite of heaven.
The cat comes to greet her as she approaches the house. He lets her know how much she’s been missed by rubbing his torso against her legs, “I was only away for half an hour,” she says, and bends down to pick him up, holding him close until she feels a tiny thudding heartbeat slow a little. “All better now?” she asks. The cat purrs.
Buried deep within rubber bands, paper clips, and tangled lengths of string, she retrieves some satin ribbon from the back of the drawer; white ribbon, saved from some forgotten gift of long ago. She ties a fat bow around the flowers: yellow, white, and plum, the same colours as on her wedding day, a day she associates with another life, a past life, back in the city.
The rusty coastal train steams and whistles its way along the narrow gauge track, the dense smoke choking overhanging trees. Retired seamen, bedecked in well-worn jackets and crisp white shirts gather in cafes to drink thick dark coffee. They smoke acrid cigarettes one after the other while their wives remain at home, beating out dust from elaborately patterned carpets, sweeping away autumn’s leaves, and gathering up the fallen oranges strewn across balconies and paths alike. From somewhere an accordion sounds, men begin to cheer and clap. A singer joins in. Seasoned red and white fishing boats line the small harbour, dark wooden crates replete with last night’s catch are set down across their sterns. Eager crowds gather round and the day’s trading begins.
She smiles at how wonderful life is. Behind her, the majestic mountain rises and the crystal blue sea stretches beyond, and as she ambles her way along the promenade with two oven-warm loaves, she nibbles away at a ring of sweet sesame bread, thinking only of her husband.
There is no warning, there is no time to make safe. From its guts, the ground begins to rumble, groan and to shake with unforgiving anger. The road rises and falls as Earth’s surfaces squeeze together. Her body is frozen to the spot, yet every single cell is quaking with fear. The entire city falls silent; the fishermen, the accordion, the clapping, even the sparrows have gone. All there is is the thunder from below, and the low-pitched throb that’s pounding inside her ears. She squats down low and cradles her head in her hands. She shuts her eyes, making herself as small as she can. And she waits. Maybe twenty seconds pass, twenty seconds that feel like a lifetime, then as sudden as it started, the roaring ceases.
She looks up. The sky is still there. The sea is still there, but so much angrier now. The buildings are still standing, frightened and unsure. Then one by one begin to topple. The weakest are the first to crumble and crash into the ground, others will follow. Everything becomes blanketed with a thick grey dust. Then the sky rains ash as the city begins to burn like hell.
Anna had been married for six months to the day. Married in the candle-lit chapel of Saint John. Blessed by the very priest who had baptised her nineteen years before.
On both occasions Father Gregory had witnessed tears, but on her wedding day, the tears were of joy. Never would she recall such ecstasy as the moment she and her husband emerged hand-in-hand from Saint John’s inner sanctum, to be thrust into a radiance of bright sunshine and heartfelt salutations. They celebrated until the next sun awoke. And through the night they danced together, and they laughed together, and they sang together.
Anna’s father was a seaman, a ship’s engineer who traversed the globe, so she already knew of absence, and of waiting. He always departed with a big hug, a disguised tear, and a promised date for his return. And on that day Anna would be sitting at the kitchen table, legs swinging to and fro in anticipation, until the moment she heard the sound of work weary boots trudging up the path, and the click-clack-clacking of worry beads being worked through fingers. She would rush into his welcoming arms even before he’d had time to cross the threshold, bury her head deep in his oil-patterned overalls, and breathe in her father’s smell.
“Careful Yanoula,” he would say, “you’ll get grease all over your face and I’ll have your mother to answer to.” But Anna didn’t mind about that, and neither really, did he. He would squeeze her in his arms, cupping her in big proud hands marked indelibly with the insignia of industry. He’d hug her until she was satiated. Only then was he allowed to release his grip.
Whenever he returned, her father always gifted her a new trinket, a little something he’d picked up from a distant land. He would tell her stories from Japan, Brazil or America, all about the people, the weather, the strange food and the even stranger animals. It was the animal stories she loved best of all.
Her husband, like her father, was a seaman. But her husband had not yet undertaken such a voyage. In the six months until that day, his absences were only for the briefest of journeys, a few times to Italy, and once to The Black Sea. Now, even a second night without him would make her bed feel nothing but empty, as though half of her was absent.
Anna knows love. She knows what it feels like to both love and to be loved. She never doubted from the moment their lips first met that she loved him. They had spent long joyful nights together, familiarising their bodies with each other, exploring their own, and each others desires, learning a little more of each other. But they never got to know enough. They were not given enough time.
Her husband, like her father, was at home the day the earth shook. Alerted by the earth’s grumbling, the two men rushed out to the open street, time was frozen in silence as they looked on. The stone house rattled and wavered, but it remained firm. Other homes not so solid began to splinter and fall. Her husband, like her father, was selfless in answering anguished cries, of those trapped under the weight of fallen timbers and blocks of stone. There were many they pulled from the devastation. Oil ignited and timber blazed, and even then, still they pressed on. Her husband, like her father, succumbed to the black smoke from the fires that engulfed the city that morning. They may have become heroes to many, but not to her. Father Gregory again witnessed her tears at Saint John’s.
Anna could not stay in the city. For that was where God had stolen from her, taken all that she loved. But she knew that her mother would never leave. It had been her home for fifty years, it was the home she was born and had given birth in. It was the home she wished to die in. Anna understood her mother’s need for staying, but she also knew that nothing in this world could keep her there. Anna packed her belongings; slowly she wrapped everything in brown paper tied up with string. She folded clothes, stacked books and locked memories away in boxes. Boxes, that one day she hoped she could once again open.
The small island was not so far from the city, but far enough to distance the past. They said goodbyes, her mother cutting a forlorn figure as the boat slipped away from the quay. Anna promised her that she would be home for Easter, and her mother promised to spend summer months on the island. But they were shallow promises, made only to lessen the pain of separation.
Much to her surprise, Anna settled in to island life. It was her fortune to have been offered a position at the village school, and with it came the use of a small house nearby. The house was long empty, tired and musty, so from dawn to dusk she busied herself, throwing open windows, scrubbing away at ghosts, wiping away tears. And on the day school began, she looked upon faces of girls and boys so full of hope and thirsty for life, that she felt in her heart the beginnings of a smile. She loved teaching the children. She loved learning from the children. And as she healed, she became thankful for even the precious moment of time she had shared with her husband.
On certain days, if they were lucky, Anna would beckon the children to huddle around her desk. They would clap and cheer as from one of the boxes she revealed her father’s trinkets. Wide-eyed little ones would then fall silent and wait with baited breath. They knew what was coming, and Anna would recount word for word its story, the very same tale he had told her many years ago.
Her favourite, and so it became the children’s, was the precious snow globe from America. She would tease away the tissue wrapping leaf by leaf, unveiling the clear glass bauble. Agog with curiosity, the children stared at the tiny figures housed within. There is the raggedy-thin urchin boy who clambers up chimneys for a penny a time. He wears a tall black hat and a cheeky grin and holds a spiky blackened broom. Perched upon the roof of the red-bricked house is a tiny red-breasted robin that has flown all the way down from the North Pole. Set in front of the house is the greenest and tallest of winter’s pine trees, bedecked in gold baubles and purple tinsel. Anna would cup the globe, carefully shake it up and down, and then gently place it back down on her desk. The children would gasp with delight. The snow, ‘real snow, collected from the Arctic,’ her father had said, flurried about, filling the space inside with tiny flakes of white, and a little metallic tune continued to play until the snow had finally settled.
Aided by time, the greatest of all healers, Anna’s sorrow softened. The days when she felt angry, she was a little less angry at being angry, and the days when she was sad, she was a little less sad at being sad. And as once she promised many years ago, she visited her mother at Easter. And the summer after her mother came to visit the island. And she returned there every summer, until one day it was deemed unnecessary for her to go back to the city, and she lived out her remaining years in her daughter’s house.
And so today, Anna stands for a while and lets the warm water rinse away dust from her body. She puts on a fresh dress and now a sweater, collects the posy from the sink and breathes in the bouquet. She reties the bow until perfect, whispers a goodbye to the now sleeping cat, quietly closes the door, and makes her way up the hill. The winter sun sleeps early, but she still has an hour before the sky will redden and the sea will darken. She meets no one on the way; this is a quiet place, a place that for many years has been her home. When she reaches the top of the hill, the iron gate squeaks as she eases it open. She goes to her mother’s stone, kneels, and lays down her posy.
Lee is a short fiction writer. He has had stories published on-line in STORGY, The Red Line, The Londonist, and was shortlisted for the BBC's 2015 Opening Lines competition. Originally from London, he now lives in Greece.
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