Excerpt: Shake Down Your Ashes
This week we hear from our heroine, Irene Bell. In case you missed last week’s excerpt, you can find it here.
Friday, 25 May 1900
These are real trees. They grow in the ground and sway in the air. They don’t grow out of cobblestone and sway in the smog. They chose to grow here. They were not placed here.
My window overlooks them at the back of the house, and I stand and watch them talking to one another. One will dip to whisper in the ear of another while another moves away, repulsed by what he’s heard. I wonder what they’re talking about.
“Supper is at five o’clock. I’m making meatloaf and potato salad, Miss Bell.”
The crooked woman might have smiled at me, but she looks too old and too worn to smile at anyone.
“Thank you, Mrs. Utz.”
She nods and closes the door behind her.
The trees are still talking when I turn back to them, but their conversation has lost its appeal. The lace of the curtains makes patterns of sunlight on the floor. I walk over to my carpetbag, destroying the neat rows of spotted light. One of my bags has not made it up and neither has my pelisse. They must still be in the foyer, but I don’t want to go down and get them. The bed looks smooth and soft. The quilt rests gently across the bed, and I don’t want to wrinkle it. I sit in the chair by the window.
Down in the yard I see two men, one long and thin, the other more thick and slightly shorter. They are working on a motorcar. What kind I cannot say. The shadow of the carriage house blots out the rear end and most of the body. It’s a pleasant green though, and the brass headlamps glint in the sun. The windowpane stops their conversation from reaching me. I’m too tired to unlock the glass and lift the panel. I pretend I know what they are saying.
I have started the chair rocking, and my eyes are no longer open. I remember how he did not touch me after I told him.
He sits there as I tell him.
The kitchen is warm and smells like soap. My hands smell of sulfur from the well water. I have just washed our plates. I do not know how to cook.
He thanks me for the soufflé and rolls.
I say he is welcomed.
I tell him again.
He thanks me for the nice fire.
I don’t know how to make a fire.
He tells me of the chores that need to be done. The fence in the outer pasture is down again. Coyotes maybe.
I nod in understanding.
He is wearing the charcoal pinstripe suit he wore to the station.
What is a coyote?
Will I milk the cows?
Of course, I shall.
Good. He stands up.
I tell him again, and he nods that he’s heard me.
How do you milk a cow?
I help him with his coat and hat.
He leaves the kitchen as I add wood to my fire.
I wake up, and my hand settles across my stomach. Something was wrong in the dream. He had been wearing a blue suit when I had first told him.
I feel better now, strong enough to go downstairs and bring up my pelisse and bag. I get up and lift the window to hear the men in the yard. It doesn’t help for the man is speaking German, and I don’t know what he’s saying. He’s angry at the motorcar.
The long man straightens and rubs the top of his head where his thinning hair tickles his scalp in the wind. He turns around as if he knows that I’m standing here. He sees me. He nods but does not call out. He’s of society then. The other man is not. He is still angry at the motorcar and mostly himself.
There’s water in the ewer on the dry sink, and I pour it in the bowl. The leaves etched into the porcelain fracture with the water lying over them. I splash my face and neck, dabbing it with a towel. The leaves are still broken when I hang the towel on the rod above the basin.
I look in the mirror. I don’t know why. I know what I’m going to see. Why do I still think someone else will look back at me? Because sometimes someone else does. I don’t like her. I don’t like the fear I see in her. I lock her in the closet and swallow the key.
The breeze from the window moves the hair against my neck. I get goose bumps and look around. I feel him watching me, but I know he’s not here.
I go back to my carpetbag on the floor by the bed. I remember my other bag has not made it up. I feel like I could get it now. I take my hairbrush from the bag and go back to the mirror. I look at myself as I smooth the strands into the knot.
You cannot tell just by looking at me.
My eyes are the same brown and my lips the same pink. My nose is still straight and small. My cheeks are still smooth and round. My jaw is still sharp, and my chin is still pointed. My neck is still long and too white.
You cannot tell. Why do I still squirm when someone looks at me too long?
The brush slips from my fingers and hits the wood of the floor. I bend to retrieve it but stop. I am afraid to look under the bed. There may be a monster lurking there.
Ok, you have me hooked on this one. Love the way the trees are talking–so true.
This is one that I wrote a long time ago, and when I picked it up again, I just new I had to publish it. So many things I don’t know why I wrote, but so intriguing!