Friday, April 8, 2011

Short Story.

Today's post is something slightly different. It is not inspired by an actual person but by someone I have never met and whose name I do not know.  It owes its existence to the person who came up with the sentence"It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town." and invited subscribers of Writer's Digest to  finish the story in 750 words or less. 

I had never felt any previous desire to write about a traveling circus but writing outside an area of comfort or interest is even more challenging than writing about what you care about or know. So, I decided to give it a go anyway.  I didn't win or it would have been published in Writer's Digest, not here. But it seems a waste to work on a project that never sees the light of day. So I hope it is something that you will enjoy. 

It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Eliza stood in the shadows and watched the wagons rattle past. The moon was already high, casting its silvery light and draining all color from the scene. The horses hauling the loaded carts looked ashen. The men who held their reins were pale as ghosts. Eliza realized that she would not know him if she saw him and felt a rush of relief.

It was late September and Eliza had not expected to still be here. The harvest was over. The fields were dotted with mounds of fragrant hay and the silos were brimming with corn. Casual labor was no longer required. There was no reason to stay.

But three days ago, as Eliza was retying her bundle, a peddler had arrived in the small town square.

“I saw them myself,” he told the women who bent to examine his wares. “The tents and cages and that. I could hear the animals roaring and smell their stink from the road. Packing up they were. They’ll be here any day.”

Eliza stood close, fingering the spools of ribbon and lace, turning buttons and hairpins in her work-worn hands. She would wait now, and see her mission through. The bundle on her back was heavy and with winter coming, it was time.

Eliza remembered the day, almost a year ago, when she’d watched the circus setting up in her hometown. Men, muscular and stripped down to the waist, heaved on oily ropes as the blue and yellow big top rose and took on shape.

Women walked between the men, sloshing beer into large tin mugs and playfully shoving anyone who grabbed at their swaying behinds.

One woman in particular caught Eliza’s eye. She was older, matronly, laughing as she coerced and hugged and chastised. Everyone called her Ma and Eliza loved the way she smiled.

Eliza’s brothers had accompanied her to the show. She’d clutched at their arms as fearsome tigers swiped the air with heavy paws, and had laughed until her sides ached, at the antics of the clowns.

But the acrobats had left her wide-eyed and speechless with awe. Four men, dressed in tight, sequined leotards, sprang effortlessly from hands to feet across the ring. They were sleek as fishes darting through a stream. Then audience looked up, heads tilted, mouths open, as two men climbed to the top of the tent and swung on a trapeze. As they sailed effortlessly above the crowds, passing in midflight. As Eliza watched enraptured she was barely able to breathe.

When the acrobats took their final bow, everyone rose to their feet. The applause was tremendous, the shouting loud and full of joy. Eliza stood too. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were pink. She laughed and clapped and cheered. One of the men paused mid bow. He caught her eye and stared at her with a gaze so penetrating that she saw it in her sleep.

The next day her feet led her back to the field. She spotted him immediately, standing on the steps of a brightly painted caravan, talking with the woman they called Ma. Ma prodded his arm and wagged her finger. They laughed and Eliza saw that their eyes and smiles were the same, mother and son, so it seemed.

The acrobat spotted Eliza. He performed a low, sweeping bow and offered her his arm. With barely a second thought, Eliza placed a hand in the crook of his elbow, and the pair began to walk.

Later, much later, Eliza stumbled home. Her face was streaked with tears and her skirts were torn. She ran a comb through her tangled hair and changed her dress. Her father and brothers must never, ever know.

But by the time the frosts turned the grass rigid, the results of that fateful day were impossible to hide. Eliza’s father lamented her motherless state. Her brothers set their faces hard and old her that she could not stay.

Eliza took what she could carry and set out across the fields.

And now here she was, alone and far from home, waiting for the circus folk to pitch camp and retire. When the campsite was silent and dark, Eliza found the caravan she remembered and lay the baby down. Choking back tears, she crept away.

The boy was quiet. His tiny fists jabbed at the air.

On his shawl she’d pinned a note.

“I cannot manage. He is yours.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The old hag at the castle gate.

If I had seen her anywhere other than at the door leading into a 16th Century castle, would she have looked quite as strange? Was it the back drop of crenellated battlements that gave her a ghost like quality or would she have unnerved me anyway?

Her hair was long and limp, hanging about her face like a nicotine stained net-curtain. It was so greasy I believed I could smell it, although I was several meters away.

Her hands were gnarled and corrugated with veins. They shook as she lit her cigarette. Her nails were  curled and grey like the fossils known as Devils Toenail.  They had not been cut or filed in many years. She was a female Fu Manchu.

She was sitting on the step, this old woman, her head bowed low to concentrate on setting fag to flame. The day was bright and clear and the spring sun warmed my back and yet she still looked icy cold.

I could not slip by and reach the gate unnoticed and so I said "Hello."

She raised her head and her eyes met mine. They were deep set, and dark as a the corner of a grave. She stared at me, not speaking, and I felt that she could read my mind.

Her back was bowed by age, her skeleton ruined by the sucking in of smoke. Her shoulders were hunched high and round and her head seemed to waver on the end of her neck, like a hungry vulcher seeking carrion.

But it was a face that gave me coldest chills. I could not believe that skin of any age could bear so many lines. Every inch in was marked, like inky letters of an unknown language scratched onto ancient parchment. This was no development of character but a sign of advanced and severe decay.

I toured the tower, seeing her out of the corner of my eye at every turn in stairs and behind each heavy  door.

When I emerged into the light of a dazzling afternoon, the old woman had gone.

(Inspired by a woman I saw at Bolsover Castle, Bolsover Derbyshire, England March 24th 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Today I heard an interesting story and it was from an unexpected source.

As my facebook friends are probably aware, I am reaching the end of a long remodel. My house has been full of workmen for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Usually a tap on the door of the room in which I hole myself up during the day is a huge source of irritation. I dread hearing, "Have you got a minute?" or "Just a couple of really quick questions for you..."

Today there was the usual knock on the door. The painter apologized first and then was off with the inevitable "Sorry to disturb you but.."

 I was answering his inevitable quick question,  when he stopped me in my tracks and said "I have to say, I just love your accent."

Now this in itself is not unusual. As an English woman in America, it happens to me all the time. But the painter (let's call him Nick) is Russian and generally people who speak English as a second language don't hear the difference between accents in the way that other English speakers do.

To further pique my curiosity he added, "You sound just like my, Uncle."
"Your Uncle is English?" I asked.
"No" he shook his head. "Actually it's an interesting story. Have you got a minute?"

I said I had and so he told me this....

During the second world war his Grandfather was gunned down by a German soldier. His grandmother was left to raise seven children, alone in Belarus. In desperation she had to find ways to house, feed and clothe them. It was a huge dilemma and caused her enormous pain. Some of the children spent time in foster homes. She selected families who lived close by so that she could see the children regularly and take them back when times were not as harsh.

She did the best she could but some were sent away. One of Nick's Uncles was sent to military school in Moscow. He was just five years old at the time.

Being away from his family was tough but he received and excellent education and learned to speak English perfectly, with no hint of an accent. He literally sounded like a native.

As he entered adulthood he was singled out by the KGB.  They wanted to send him to London where he would operate as a spy. He would move in elevated circles, live well and at the USSR's expense. A life of glamour and opportunity beckoned.

However, his mother, (Nick's grandmother), had never recovered from the traumas and losses she suffered as a result of the second world war. She was adamant that he should not become involved in espionage because she believed that it could only stir up trouble between countries and lead to more death and despair. She told her son that if accepted the position,  he would be dead to her.

Nick's uncle chose his mother over his country and refused the position offered by the KGB.

As a result his life would never be his own. Rather than having a profession, he labored in a factory. Whenever he traveled he was interrogated about the reasons for his journey. He was even followed and spied upon at times. The KGB could not believe he had turned down the appointment because his mother had begged him to. They assumed he was working for another government and would not leave him alone.

As Nick talked I was captivated. I no longer felt irritation at having been taken away from my own work. I listened as he told the story in his rich, rolling accent. I waited patiently as he searched for the right words. The ones that would accurately convey his uncles triumphs, frustrations and pain.

 "So" he said, shrugging his shoulders and pursing his lips when he had finished. "That is that."
I was stunned. "Wow" I said, for want of a better word. "You really should write all that down."
He laughed "Everybody say that." he replied.

His uncle is living in Portland now. He moved here to join Nick and his family when they were all given refuge status by the USA after facing persecution in the former USSR - But that's a whole different story.

I never ceased to be amazed at the stories of other peoples lives.

 I will keep in contact with Nick long after the painting is done. I would love to meet his Uncle, the one who sounds just like me, and maybe, just maybe, we could get together and write this stranger than fiction story down.