Saturday, December 31, 2011

Austro-Hungary

The house is dark though the clock on the mantle shows it is barely five in the evening. The winter steals the sun from the sky earlier and earlier, and it will be two more weeks before the days begin to lengthen again. A girl, perhaps sixteen, is perched in an awkward position on the narrow ledge of the window, the warmth of her body steaming the glass, while outside the snow falls in thick piles on the branches of the trees. When the trees were first planted, they were twenty or thirty feet away from the house, but as the decades passed, they grew closer. Now they scratch against the stone walls and glass panes, creating a clatter in the wind of the storm, a seasonal symphony.

“Sitting in the dark again?”

A middle-aged woman with a branch of candles comes into the room, the hem of her skirt dragging along the floor behind her.

“I didn’t feel like moving,” says the girl, pulling the large, plaid scarf up higher on her shoulders, but otherwise not stirring.

“And where’s your brother?” asks the woman as she kneels in front of the fireplace and begins to place the logs and kindling.

“How should I know? Last I saw him, he was riding out, though you were shouting after that he shouldn’t in this weather.”

The woman sniffs, whether taking insult at the girl’s description of her ‘shouting’ or at the boy’s refusal to obey, it’s hard to say. She braces herself against the mantle to rise and takes one of the long matches from the box in her hands. She drags it slowly across the bricks to strike it and then slides it expertly between the logs where the kindling is, and repeats it with two other matches until the logs are creaking and crackling.

“He’s been back now, over an hour. Of course he hasn’t the manners to warm a room for his sister.” The criticism is tempered, born more from the annoyance of the moment.

“He’d never think to be so gallant.”

At last the girl moves, stretching her legs and crossing the room to a more comfortable seat closer to the fire. “Tea?” she asks, pushing the cups and saucers around a tray that has been there since noon.

“Be lucky if it’s lukewarm. Let me get a fresh pot from the kitchen,” says the woman, wiping her hands, dirtied by the ashes, on her apron.

“Don’t bother,” shrugs the girl, but the woman has already gone, a lifetime of servitude still evident in her brisk movements.

The girl pours the tea anyhow. It’s cold and over-seeped, but the girl hasn’t enjoyed the taste of anything in weeks, so it makes no difference to her.

“Ah, I see you started a fire,” observes a boy, two years older, as he comes into the room.

“Madge started it, not me. I’ve been sitting in the window. Listening to the wind.”

“And what does the wind have to say today, Sister?” He sits in the chair opposite her, stretching out languidly.

Unthinkingly, the girl hands him a cup of the cold tea, and he takes it. Though he knows it’s hours old before it even touches his lips, he finds it doesn’t matter to him that much and takes a few, quick sips out of habit.

“Cake?” she asks, holding out the platter of pastry. “They may be a bit stale from sitting out in the cold room.”

Her brother takes one, as does the girl, and they sit in silence, chewing and sipping.

“Where is Madge?” the boy asks after a while.

“The kitchen making up a fresh pot of tea.”

“Seems a waste at this point,” the boy remarks, finishing his cup and setting it on the tray.

“You know Madge.”

The pair sits in silence once again, plentiful warmth coming off the large fire -- enough, even, to put a bit of color back into the girl’s thin cheeks.

“Yes, although it would seem more like her to ration the tea, given the circumstances.”

“We can get more tea when the storm moves out and the roads clear.”

“Could be weeks,” warns the boy.

“Madge keeps everything in reserve in the pantry. We could probably keep on as we have for months.”

The boy tilts his head to one side, a gesture of agreement. The old servant has always been diligent and resourceful, her two charges never wanting for anything, least of all food or drink.

Bored with the idle conversation, the girl picks up a book from the table beside the sofa and begins to flip through it, settling on a page in the middle and reading from there.

“That’s no way to do it,” her brother chastises, but she doesn’t respond.

Several minutes later, Madge enters with a fresh tea tray, cleaning up the old one.

“Nice of you to finally join us, Nicholas,” she says with the same tone of tempered criticism she used earlier in reference to the boy.

The boy only smiles, patting the woman as he rises and walks to the fireplace where he rests one arm on the mantle.

“I thought I would come watch Liza play the scholar. You see how she reads? But don’t let her fool you -- she started in the middle, Madge. Shouldn’t you be scolding her instead of me?” He tisks and shakes his head, but his smile is mischievous.

“You both need more scolding,” the woman says, sitting in a chair in the corner and taking up some knitting in a basket there.

Nicholas rests his boot on one of the andirons, unsettling some of the logs and sending a small flurry of embers and smoke into the room. Most of the embers are extinguished mid-air, but some some land on the corner of one of the drapes where they smolder a moment longer before fading into a pile of ash.

“When do you think father will be home?” asks the girl, looking up from her book.

Madge and Nicholas share a furtive glance, but Madge answers calmly that it’s hard to say.

“Forced to trudge through this winter, could be he’ll be gone til Spring. Depends on when the ships are leaving port in London and how the seas are in between.”

“Seems he should have left London by now,” the girl insists. “When he left he said he would be home by Christmas.”

“He was being hopeful,” Nicholas says, nudging the andirons again to similar effect, this time turning his face away to avoid the sting of the smoke.

“I don’t see why he had to go anyway.” The girl sets the book back on the table and pours some of the fresh tea into her cup half full of the cold tea. She adds a spoonful of sugar and stirs it, but then places it down again without drinking any.

“One doesn’t volunteer to negotiate a peace treaty so much as one is commanded to go,” Nicholas remarks, no trace of bitterness in his voice, even if he feels it.

“It’s not as if we had anything to do with it,” complains the girl. “I don’t see why we should have to send anyone to London. Especially when last I heard the war isn’t even over.”

“Hush, child,” warns Madge. “They’re our neighbors and it matters for our Empire as much as theirs.”

“How I weary of politics,” the girl says with a sigh.

“As do we all, child.”

“As do we all,” the boy agrees.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fourth Grade Words Writing Challenge

The moment I saw her walk in, I knew I had to have her. More importantly, I had to make her know, deep down in her soul, that she had to have me, too.

I had noticed her the day before, watched her slowly trudge across the sidewalk. She looked tired as she glanced in the window. Today was a little different. It was the jingle of the bell above the door that really caught my attention, the awkward clatter of the contents of her purse spilling across the floor as she tripped her way inside that caught everyone else’s attention. All of us looked at her. There was something so devastatingly sad on her face, at least on the little bit of her face that we could see. She mostly kept her head down as she knelt and hurriedly gathered her things, shoving them back into the small bag.

Straightening up, she smoothed her hands over her hair, her dark, plentiful curls springing in every direction. It was then that I saw her eyes. Dark. Sad. Weary. I couldn’t help but wonder what a woman like her was doing in a place like this. Of course, I say that, but I didn’t know what I was doing in a place like this, either. A vintage store. For a long time, I thought vintage was just a fancy way of saying lukewarm-hand-me-downs. Over time, though, I came to see the store for what it was. Not hand-me-downs. Legends. Things from another time. Once I understood that, I came to value my time there, came to appreciate the variety of people who came and went—the elderly gentleman down the street looking for a hat for his wife to remind her of their early years together and the way he would, without fail, always knock her hat from her head when he would passionately kiss her; the scholar from the local college preening in front of the mirror in what would be a costume for a dance; the volunteer from the hospital who wanted to attend a fancy dinner and accept an award being bestowed upon her but couldn’t afford a new dress.

Lots of women came and went and I always watched them. They were all different shapes and sizes…blondes and brunettes…redheads…and sometimes pink and blue heads! All their eyes told different stories. So many varying shades of so many colors. Green. Blue. Brown. Hazel. Sometimes mixes of colors. Sometimes two different colors. Her eyes, though…her eyes…they were the simplest, purest, most expressive dark brown. Those eyes drew me in. And I just held my breath, hoping and praying that she would see me.

Normally, I would have reserved that kind of hope for the women who looked like they had a lot of money to spend. This woman, though, I don’t know. I could tell she was down and out. I knew it was a long shot. But I watched her walk by me. Once. Twice. A third time. Finally, she reached out and touched me. Oh, how I hoped she would pick me up, look at me more closely, maybe even take me the fitting room and try me on. I knew I was a hard sell. There was a reason I’d been left on this rack for so long. I convinced myself it was because I hadn’t found my perfect match yet. But this was it. It had to be!

Carefully, so gently, she lifted the hanger from the rack and held it up to herself. My fabric swished against her. I met her gaze in the mirror, desperate for her to see what I saw. We were perfect for each other. I could feel her heart pounding against me as she turned this way and that, critically appraising me. Critically appraising herself. Finally, she tilted her head to one side and smiled. She gingerly draped me over her arm and walked into the fitting room.

Part of what made me such a hard sell was my color. I was a true wine. Really. Not a muddy red or a dull burgundy or faded purplish mahogany with delusions of grandeur. I was, and still am, the color of the richest, most aromatic and beautiful red wine. I was made in the 1940s. I don’t remember what year. But what a perfectly shaped cocktail dress I was, complete with a slightly heart-shaped neckline, rounded sleeves and a gently draping knee-length skirt that would flare if anyone spun me around. And my fabric! This gorgeous color, a sensuous mix of crepe and velvet. I’m not bragging when I say that I was truly magnificent. But nobody ever wanted me. Not ever. Everyone always said that there was something off about my color.

But this woman…she saw me. I mean really saw me. She saw my potential. She saw herself in me. It was only a few seconds until she’d carefully slipped me over her head. Her body felt warm against me and I couldn’t help but feel excited. I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up. I was just so happy in that moment. To finally be tried on. To finally be considered for something other than just hanging on a rack! I knew if she didn’t pick me, I would have to ration the joy I felt in this moment so I could parcel it out later. I didn’t want to feel disappointment too quickly after this.

Her hands were cool against me as she smoothed my fabric. I clung invitingly to her body in the all right places. I was a bit snug in the waist, but not uncomfortably so. She ran her hands over her breasts and I felt them linger there. I pushed her up a little, adding a little more curve to what she already had. The fit over her hips was beyond perfect. I settled just below her waist then hung gently to just above her knees. I noticed she had a long scar on her right knee and worried that my length would be a deal breaker. The shiny red scar traveled from a few inches above to a few inches below her kneecap. It looked angry, the scars from the stitches or staples looking like bared teeth ready to snap. But she didn’t seem to notice or care. She was enamored. Turning her back to the mirror, she craned her neck over her shoulder and looked at my back. The fit was equally nice as the front, the swell of her bottom just barely noticeable under the fabric of the skirt. Her eyes widened and she giggled, a startled but happy sound. She spun around just once, taking in the full flare of the skirt, the tops of her thighs clearly visible. I found myself hoping she had appropriate undergarments to wear with me.

My price tag dangled from the sleeve. Frowning, she looked at it and I could see her mentally calculating. Could she afford me? She slid me off, careful not to let me hit the floor. I liked the way she chewed on her lower lip, gently gnawing on the left side. It was a good thinking look. I hoped she was thinking about buying me. We left the dressing room together and I could tell she was walking back toward the rack. Disappointment descended upon me, but it evaporated quickly when she passed it and went to the side wall to look at shoes. I knew there was no way she’d find perfectly matching shoes. Not with my color. Maybe, hopefully, she’d find something in black, something pretty that would catch her eye and convince her to keep me.

In the end, there was nothing to worry about. There was a darling pair of pumps, dancing shoes if I ever saw any. Black, covered in smooth satin with a rounded toe and thick heel, a narrow strap that neatly buckled around the ankle. The smile on her face blasted like a beacon. When she finally made her way to the counter to pay, I practically jumped into the garment bag. I was going home!

The first two weeks with her were strange, to say the least. I just hung in her closet. A few times a day, she’d peek in at me, touch my fabric, sigh and smile. She lived alone. Nobody ever came over to visit. No pets, either. She was as alone as anyone could be—more alone than I thought was possible. She talked a lot, too. It was funny, entertaining. And so terribly, terribly sad.

The first story she told me was about her wedding. Well, not quite. What she said was, “I knew when I tried you on that I had to have you. The last time I was so happy and excited to be trying on a dress, it was my wedding gown.” Her face clouded over then and she shut her closet door. There were lots of other clothes in there, but no wedding gown. A few days later, I heard her talking to herself about how good it was going to feel to wear a dress again. To feel like a real lady again. To maybe, just maybe feel pretty again.

I wanted to tell her that she was more than pretty. She was a lovely young lady with a sweet soul. Pretty doesn’t even begin to cover it. But I also knew she would never believe it. Something in her had been broken, shattered and it was only carefully placed back together, not healed or even carefully glued to give it some stability. Just a fragile pile of carefully placed pieces in danger of collapsing again.

Over the next few days, I listened to her reminisce about her ex-husband. A handsome doctor who had swept her off her feet. Literally. Apparently, he was a brilliant orthopedic surgeon and he’d performed the surgery on her right knee to correct a deformity that had left her with a limp for her whole life until she’d met him. After she’d recovered from the grueling procedure, she could walk normally for the first time ever in her twenty years and she was so happy, she didn’t even mind the horrible scar that had been left behind. The day she walked her first steps with a heavy brace on her leg, she threw her arms around him and wept with relief. She was surprised when he hugged her back and even more stunned when she saw tears brimming in his eyes, too. Three months after her surgery, he saw her a follow up visit in his office and they shared their first kiss. It was a movie screen kiss and her face pinked up as she reminisced about her reaction to his lips on hers. That same day, he dropped her as a patient and three months after that, they were married. She went into her marriage believing she’d found her Prince Charming, a gallant knight on a noble steed, whisking her away into a life she’d only dreamed about.

What she hadn’t dreamed about were the long hours he worked and the time they would have to spend apart. She’d left college when she’d had her surgery, but decided to go back to school to finish her art degree and took on a job illustrating children’s books. For nearly three years, she was a devoted wife, catering to his needs, keeping his home and cooking his meals. Restlessness took over though, as she longed for something more. When she approached him about having children, his reception was lukewarm at best. They’d never discussed it before, and frankly, he liked having her all to himself.

In the end, things fell apart rather quickly. She never nagged, only quietly asked him every so often to consider her request. I’m certain that if his answer had been a simple “No” she would have managed and just found other things to occupy her time and fill her need to be needed. But the fact that only a year later, he left her for his pregnant mistress was too much to bear. Though he was generous in the divorce, leaving her with a nicely furnished and fully paid for home, as well as significant financial security, she wasn’t the same.

She was empty.

Over the course of the next two years, she gradually withdrew from her friends and lived only for her work. She had no family to speak of and contented herself with her isolated existence. To this day, I have no idea what brought her into the dress shop or why she picked me.

I hung in her closet for seven months.

Then one night, she opened the closet door, a short cotton bathrobe tied loosely around her waist and her hair swathed in a towel. She looked at me, her lips set in a tight, thin line. When she reached in for me, I thought she was going to yank me off the hanger, but she was gentle. Careful. There was something in her eyes that evening. Not a rage, exactly. Not passion, either. The only way I can describe it is a smolder. Something burning just below the surface. She draped me across the footboard on her bed and I was able to see her getting ready. I watched as she smoothed her curls, rolling them up neatly at the nape of her neck and leaving a few strands to dangle enticingly around her face. At her dressing table, with a careful and steady hand, she applied her makeup, not that she really needed any. Small flicks of eyeliner on the outer corners of her eyes, a creamy rose blush and a subtle lip gloss. Using a dark, dark mascara, she swept her eyelashes up and out, opening up her whole face.

Twice, I noticed her lips curling into a smile.

An hour or so later, she carefully slipped me over her head and arranged my fabric over her body. I fit her perfectly.

“I’m going to have fun tonight,” she whispered. “I’m going to smile and talk to people. I’m going to dance.” She only gave one glance to the scar over her knee then shrugged and turned away from the mirror.

I have no idea where exactly we went that night, but wherever it was, it was beautiful and elegant and everything a dress like me could have dreamed and hoped for…it was perfect. Big band music, freely flowing champagne, dim lights, gilt framed mirrors and heavy brocade tapestries on the walls and—I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit this—smoke. You see, where I came from, smoking was glamorous and sexy. I know it’s not and believe me, I don’t enjoy reeking of cigarettes, but it was all about setting the scene.

She didn’t smoke at all, but she enjoyed several glasses of champagne and cheerfully asked several men to dance with her. I liked the feel of their hands on me around her waist, a soft touch on her shoulder, a firm grasp on the small of her back.

During one song with a quick beat and smooth tempo, she danced her way across the smooth ballroom floor to a gentleman standing off to the side, looking awkward and shy, nursing a watered down drink. With a smile that practically beamed off her face, she danced-sashayed up to him, took his drink right out of his hand, tossed it back, swallowing it in one gulp, then set the glass on the bar, grabbed the end of his tie, and fox trotted him right out to the dance floor.

Clearly, he was a terrible dancer, but following her lead, he managed to only minimally embarrass himself. She laughed and leaned in close to him, never missing a beat as the music picked up pace. He was several inches shorter than she was, though if she hadn’t been in those delicious heels, they probably would have been close to eye-to-eye with each other. And he had the kindest eyes. A pale green with a bit of a sparkle, dancing eyes that made up for his poorly dancing and clumsy two left feet. His palms were hot and sweaty. I could feel them through my fabric when he touched her.

At the end of the song, she winked at him and turned to walk away, but in a split second decision that I’ll never understand, she whirled back, throwing her head back in a girlish laugh, then grabbed his tie again, pulling him forward into a hot, wet kiss. For a moment, he just stood there, eyes wide open as she covered his mouth with her own. It only took a second for him to respond in kind, his left arm circling around her waist and his right hand cradling the back of her neck. I could feel sweat trickling down her back as she pressed up against him.

There was so much wild abandon in that kiss, I’m sure I would have blushed a shade deeper than my own color if that had been possible.

She never wore me again after that one night, but the memories are burned into my fabric.

And I should clarify that while she never wore me again, she visits me often, always with a smile on her face, and an even bigger smile now when she shares her story of true love while holding her sweet, baby girl with the same clear green eyes as her daddy.