Winter’s Thaw

This post is the fruit of our combined efforts, my friend Charles’ and mine. The only two things we’d decided were — a rough plot, and that I would begin the story, whereas he’d finish it. The rest came and evolved on its own. His writing is in blue, while mine is in black. You can find the story here on his blog Mostly Bright Ideas as well.

I hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. And that you will let us know, too.

—————————————————————

The list seemed determined to disappear beyond where Jade’s fingers could reach, or her eyes could see.Where had she put it now? The heat and fatigue had been taking their toll on her, and the weary fan above, dripping air like it was doing the room a favor, was no help. She needed that slip of paper because it identified the things that were finished. And those that were still pending.

Spent with frustration, Jade looked around the room, now filled with strips of late evening light. The week had gone in a flash. She hadn’t given herself a chance to see the house, to allow its being to enter her weary heart and pluck at its strings. She didn’t have time for all that. But this room called to her as she plopped on the beige sofa. She looked at the yellowed wallpaper with the white roses. Her lips curled at the memory of her six-year-old fingers trying to pick them out, but never quite managing to. The net door was keen to sway with the elusive breeze; the mosquitoes were raring to come hunting with the setting sun. Her eyes moved to the painting hung next to her father’s antique binoculars. It was older than she was, a rushed watercolor impression of a distant sea, with words calligraphed on the left side of the canvas:

End
The winter
Before the birds
Hasten to distant skies
Hurry

Her mother had painted it long before she was born. She had never come to know whose words they were, but they had always reassured her. They seemed to be keen to make amends, to quickly heal wounds, to avoid losing some treasure.

The last month hadn’t been easy. Jade’s career as a graphic designer in a ruthlessly competitive city was promising to reach giddy heights, when it became clear that she couldn’t avoid going to her parents to help them move. They were both fifty by the time she, a child conceived as an afterthought, was born. Nancy and Blake were eighty-two now, and much as Jade liked to deny it, they needed her help in leaving this house, battered by time.

Jade spotted the list on top of the bookcase. She must have placed it there while trying to open the window, hoping to inject some spirit into the lifeless draft. She grabbed a chair and slid it across the room. It was a timid piece of furniture, made when people required less support. Not sure it would carry her weight, Jade put one foot into the center of the seat and pressed down with a gradual effort, rising into the warmer air near the ceiling. Careful to avoid the fan’s rotating blades, she reached for the list resting in a dusty nest on the top shelf of the bookcase. It was only then that she noticed the slim volume lying on its side, so nearly covered with forgotten years that its title was all but invisible. With the list in her left hand, she reached for the neglected book and turned it over, blowing the dust away.

If Only A Second Chance.”

It was an odd moment, an unseen push from the side that almost knocked Jade off the chair. She had read the book’s title in her head, but the words had been spoken by her mother’s voice. Turning to the right, she saw Nancy standing in the doorway, her tiny figure looking even smaller from the height of the chair.

Jade lowered herself to the floor.

“How did you know the title? It looks as though it’s been up there for years.”

“More than thirty,” said Nancy. “Look at the author’s name.”

Jade lowered herself to the floor.

 

Jade turned the book around to read its spine, because much of the cover had surrendered to mildew. She inhaled deeply to make up for the skipped heartbeat. And then, she read it again. This time slowly and out loud, “Sandra Kitchener.”

She placed the book on the tall side table, her anger evident only when she swatted at the palm fronds caressing the table top.

“Will she never go away?”

Jade really did want this question answered. It was high time. Sandra Kitchener had taken a lot away from her parents, and from her.

Nancy turned from Jade and chose to look at the lint on the sofa, picking at it with her trembling fingers. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

“Well, I tried, didn’t I? Put the book up there, where we couldn’t see her name,” said Nancy, still unable to look at her daughter. “If only a second chance, indeed.”

“I suppose you did your best,” said Jade. “And he remembers nothing?”

“He didn’t. We don’t talk about it anymore. Haven’t. It’s been years.”

Jade sat on the old chair and stared at this collapsed core of a woman, this person who had given her life, and whose own life had once been so expansive. Almost all of her mother’s connections were severed, shriveled, lost, or forgotten. Her world had shrunk, so that it barely extended beyond the boundary of her tired body. She was like a stove, once pulsing with heat. These days, you had to put your hand almost right up to her skin in order to feel any warmth. She had told Jade the story, once, and answered a few questions on several occasions after that. But always, she cut the conversation short.

“He used to say that he never would have done it. That wasn’t him. Especially for a poet. He hated poetry. Always had.”

“Then where was he going that day?” asked Jade. “Where does he say he was going?”

“It was all erased. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there.”

“What about the car? How did he explain that?”

“He didn’t explain it. He thought I’d been driving, that I was the one who’d hit the tree.”

“But he was going to find her. That’s what you said.”

“He read that book. Every page. He’d put it back on the shelf each time, but I’d check, and the slip of paper was always in a different place.”

“This hater of poetry.”

Nancy looked hard out the window. Even now, thirty years later, she seemed bewildered by the entire incident. “Turning fifty did something to him. Scared him. He said he was afraid he was running out of time. That he’d wasted his life.”

“But that isn’t the father I know.”

“No. In a funny way, the accident changed him. Made him more aware of himself. More sensitive. By the time you came along, he was a different person.”

“But the damage had been done.”

“He was going to leave me, Jade. He was going to find this woman he’d never met. A woman he said touched his soul with her words.”

“After fifteen years of being together with you, he decided that a faceless woman had touched his soul with poetry? Poetry, Mom?”

“It does have a way of getting inside the hardest of hearts. With time. And your father had a soft heart to begin with. You know that.”

Jade hadn’t come here to rake up old earth. She wanted her mother to know that she understood, but without trying too hard. The dam had burst, let out the emotions it had stored, and was ready to get back to work.

“I’m eighty-one now,” Nancy said. “Nothing much stays inside when you’re that age.” She had put her frail fingers on Jade’s arm, hoping that her daughter didn’t feel like she was out in the cold.

“I know,” said Jade. “Yet, a lot does. And you’re eighty-two.”

Jade looked her mother in the eye, and smiled. Then she said, “Come on, we have an old man to feed.”

They made cottage cheese pâtés and cherry tomato salad. Blake would be shuffling in any time now. He’d gone to the general store just across the road to get batteries for his flashlight, and some orange juice.

As if on cue, Blake stepped into the kitchen. “Hey, love,” he said, surprised, when Jade gave him a spontaneous hug. Nancy looked at the two of them and pretended not to see. She was setting the table. The blue-and-white striped tablecloth smelled of a distant sun. Blake poured juice for everyone. It had always been his little girl’s favorite with dinner. The glasses clinked, the cutlery felt safe and familiar. Everything was all right.

Jade rose earlier than usual the next morning to make sure she had done most of the work before Nancy woke up. She decided to begin with the huge tool wall Blake had maintained for years.

On a shelf nearest to the stairway, she found an old carton held together with twine. Inside was an envelope bearing their home address, and a postmark dated September 21, 1980. The sender was a J. Gilbert from Summer Wings Publishers.

“Dear Ms. Kitchener,” the letter began.

Later, while Blake fiddled with something in another room, Jade confronted her mother.

“I don’t even know where to start,” she said, holding the letter at arm’s length. “What’s this about?”

“It’s about poetry,” said Nancy. “That’s all. Something I once did. Something I was proud of, but at the same time, had to hide behind.”

“You never told anyone?”

“No one.”

“How could you stand it? That nobody knew?”

“I knew,” said Nancy.

“But this woman. Sandra Kitchener. You allowed me to despise her. And it was you all along?”

“I’ve accomplished three worthy goals in my life, Jade. I published a book of poetry. I raised a magnificent daughter. And I salvaged something that seemed intent on destroying itself. As far as I’m concerned, everything else is just details.”

Jade moved to put her arms around her mother, when Blake appeared in the doorway. He was holding the watercolor painting of the sea.

“Would you like to keep this, Jade?” he said. “It has that poem scrawled on it, which I’ve never quite understood. But the picture is nice. We picked it up many years ago, at a flea market, I think.”

Blake set the painting on the floor. Then he looked around for a vase in which to place the white roses he had just picked for his wife.

——————————————–

The poem in this story is called an Elfchen. It is a pedagogic trick to make learners of German practise using the words to make interesting poetry. The words in it are always eleven — hence the name (The Little Eleven), and are always written in this layout — 1-2-3-4-1. The first line is supposed to be the prompt from which the poetry will originate. The last word will sum the conclusion of the poetry.

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36 thoughts on “Winter’s Thaw”

  1. I am pleased with the ending. I loved finding out Nancy was the writer – the poet. Lovely.

    This is an excellent story, Priya. I read it while at work. My intent was just to read it in bits and pieces, as I had work to tackle. Yet the story grabbed me and would not let go of me. Wonderful.

    Here’s to the next collaborated story. You and Charles create wonderful pieces!

    1. Ah the naughtiness of reading at work. Thank you for taking our story to a different, sublime level, Lenore. You’ve given us the best compliment there could be!

      It satisfied me to learn, as we moved on ahead in the story, that Nancy was the poet. It somehow makes everything else in the story shine.

  2. Reading this – and I’ve read it a couple of times – I find myself humbled by the skill of the writing. Your story moves so seamlessly from you back to Charles back to you that if not for the colour changes, I wouldn’t have been aware of it. The story is so gripping that I also couldn’t stop reading. Amazing to think that it was written by two people living half way round the world from each other…

    I also love your photos Priya.

    Bravissimo!!!

    1. Seamless is the word I used when I first saw Charles’ first bit! I wonder how we managed to do it, but we did, Rosie. And it makes me very, very happy. Besides being very, very greedy for more.

      Humbling experiences meet us all. I feel humbled every time I visit you. You, with your insight, and your modest, gentle handling of people, topics, and facts, never cease to amaze me.

      1. Hey! I’d used “diffident” instead of “modest” earlier, and something made me check the thesaurus. English-speakers apparently feel a diffident person is the one with under-confident modesty. That’s not what I meant!

        Writing this just so you know.

  3. This might seem a strange comment but I’ve noticed that as your writing evolves, so too has your gravatar exposure. It started out as a flower, then you behind the camera, and now, maybe because you have more conviction of your writing, your face is completely exposed. I think it says volumes about your level of self-confidence!!

    I’ve told Charles this and I’ll say the same to you – it’s most unusual that two writers can share one platform, especially two writers who have not met. Congratulations, less on the actual content of the story, and more on the ability to make two halves one whole.

    1. When I’d started a year back, EOS, my gravatar was my smiling face. With time, it changed to a face hiding behind the camera, or a back turned towards the viewer, or a flower or a fish. I suppose this is so because I started out with great plans and hopes, and lack of appreciation burst my bubble, and then, I reformed it with the regular interest of good people like you. And I am back to the smiling face. No, your comment isn’t strange. It is very astute, and pertinent.

      I am very interested in the phrase “less on the actual content of the story.” You have a discerning taste, so tell me about this story from a critical eye. Please?

      1. EOS said exactly what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t express as well. I also noticed the changes in your gravatar picture. I love this one. It shows you exactly as you are – a relaxed smiling Priya with wind blown hair looking straight at the camera.

  4. As for the content, while you have achieved making one story with two voices, it IS two voices and I knew that going in so I was mentally poised for hearing different styles. And even had it drawn for me by telling me who wrote what by alternating color texts. It broke the fluidity for me. Not to say the story wasn’t good, it’s just that I found myself stopping to think, who wrote this, then go on.

    Maybe you and Charles could try another venture but don’t TELL us who wrote what and don’t divide it thus. You’d keep us guessing.

    1. Oh. Hmm. We’ll remember that the next time, EOS. You can be certain there’s going to be a next time, you know. 🙂

      Thanks for the encouragement. Have a beautiful day.

  5. Well, Priya and Charles, you’ve done it again. While cricket was entertaining, Winter’s Thaw was deeply satisfying. It’s as if you two had discovered a scientific principle and were shaing the good news among colleagues.

    “Seamless” is another way of saying you each stepped naturally into the silent pauses of the other. Well done!

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    1. Good to know you liked it, Mitch. We did try to “step naturally into the silent pauses of the other,” but we didn’t know how exactly to put this feeling into words. You’ve done that for us. So, thank you! It is lovely to see you here again.

      Have a wonderful time today.

  6. I commented on Charles’ post – this is so very well done. You two amaze me. The story drew me in and as I read where one of you stopped, I’d give some time to consider what I would do with the story. You both topped me in spades!

    1. Amy, you are a sweetheart. Thank you — for this and the Therapeutic Touch. They’ve both worked wonders. My eyes feel better, my mind feels better.

  7. A very interesting story 🙂 I’ll admit though, I didn’t understand the poem… The note on Elfchen cleared it a bit, but I’m still at sea…

    Best wishes for future endeavours 🙂

    1. This has been on my mind since yesterday, Kasturika. The teacher in me is not at rest at the thought of someone being at sea about something, and yet, how do I explain it? I will try, though. Bear with me, won’t you?

      Here it comes:

      Winter: symbolic of coldness, isolation, loneliness, negativity.
      Birds: symbolic of vitality
      Birds flying: birds usually migrate to escape winter.

      The poem pleads a switchover from “winter” into a season with more warmth, colour, positivity so that it is possible to, in time, stop vitality from leaving.

      I hope you have a boat, now. And that you’ll ride it often this way!

      Happy to see you here. And can’t wait to go and fully read this inviting piece of yours kasturika.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/the-good-people-of-kotla/

      1. Yes, that does clear everything up now 🙂 In fact now I’m wondering why I didn’t understand it in the first place (feeling silly to be precise)… Now I can appreciate it much more 🙂

        Thank you for your interest in the blog 🙂 It’s encouraging 🙂

        1. There’s no need to feel silly! I feel honoured that you found enough interest in this to want to know. It’s simply not possible to know how everyone else’s mind is working.

  8. I read this story on Mostly Bright Ideas and thought it was pure magic the way the two of you had managed to put it together so ‘ seamlessly ‘!
    What a great story…loved the ending!
    Look forward to more…

    1. It feels very nice to know that you appreciate it, Shama. You are a person with noticeably formidable depth of feeling. Thank you for taking time out!

    1. It is amazing how it progressed without us knowing where it was going. It was a great feeling, yes, to’ve created something like this. Happy to know you like it, too!

  9. I like this alot! As prev commentors said, the writing was seamless! The style and the unrevealed mysteries had me confused, so I had to literally quiet my anxious brain aloud (oxymoron right there!) and force myself to keep reading as opposed to scrolling to the bottom to understand what the heck was going on!
    Found you through mostly bright ideas blog btw!

    1. Is confusion good in a story? I wonder. If it is, then thank you. If it isn’t, I’ll have to think harder about what better way to keep your interest alive!
      Good to see you here, UnravelMyThoughts. I see you have an interesting blog yourself, and can’t wait to read more.

  10. The ending caught me off-guard. I am not hard to please; so a surprising ending is an altogether good one.

    But I do wonder about Blake’s personality. Perhaps a good idea to extend this story? 🙂

  11. Absolutely loved it. The story has the rare quality of being simple and smart at the same time, unpretentious prose that keeps the reader hooked nonetheless. Good work you two.

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