Patricia Soper, of Athol, won the adult section of the Dan Davin short story competition.
A cautionary bedtime story for grown-ups (to be read out loud on a wet winter's night).
One summer evening, when the sun refused to go to bed, a woman was walking in an empty street that lay like a snake sunning itself. At the very end of its coil, in an apron pocket of shade, sat a house with an open door. The door was green and the cream walls were capped with a red pixie cone of rumpled iron. It wore a frill of lavender like a tutu. Her skirt brushed the purple film beside the door, stirring its mix of sweet and bitter, but she didn't notice its subtle warning, she only smelt summer.
Inside were many shadows. Some hung from the curtains, others lay on the floor in neat squares, but most clustered in corners muttering to the shifting dust motes. As her eyes became used to the gloom she saw strange wooden carvings strewn around as if tossed by a spiteful wind.
Tables with bird's-claw legs, chairs with arms like woven mermaids' hair and goblets with open beaks.
In the window, hanging by a golden chain, was a birdcage made from bamboo. A noisy captive tended a nest of pale eggs with gentle cooings and flutterings and playful pecking.
When he came to her she thought for a moment he was just another shadow. His step was like a length of silk unfolding. They spoke of many things far into the gathering night, of how he tried to bend and shave the twisty-twirly wood to his will but how his tables and chairs had a mind of their own.
"They never do as they are told. It's a pity. I would love to have straight chair legs and roundy goblets," he said.
"Pardon me for asking," she said, "but I can't help noticing that you have built a cage around your heart. Isn't it uncomfortable?"
He thought for a long time.
In the silence the little bird fluttered nervously and the shadows crowded together for comfort in dark clumps.
"Yes," he admitted slowly, "it was uncomfortable to begin with but now I hardly notice it."
"But why? Why do such a strange thing?"
"To keep love out. Can't you see how close the bars are and how well they fit about my heart?"
"I see," she said, as her short nail traced the ripe plum of his mouth. But she didn't see.
Behind the pink bedroom blind with the fluttering eyelashes she held him with cautious passion and felt the pulse of his heart beneath the cage, which, she had to concede, she hardly noticed at all.
In time he became accustomed to her comings and goings. She filtered in and out of his house like sun through the curtains and without urging she tended his small vegetable plot that lay in stubborn shade, even in summer. Sometimes she cut the wilted flowers from the rim of fading lavender until one day it looked like a patchy balding pate. The last tomatoes, the ones that had never ripened, she carefully placed on the windowsill. They offered their tender green skins to the shortening days with a desperation she found distressing.
One rainy afternoon as she watched him struggle to tame the twisty-twirly wood she gathered the ringlets that fell from his plane and pinned them in her hair. As they lay behind the pink blind he said she smelled of pine and earth and all the grasses of the forest.
"How lovely," she cried, but then saw his eyes close and his face turn away.
"You must promise never to touch my heart. Never, ever."
"I promise," she said. And although she was often tempted she never did. After all, a promise was a promise.
As summer gradually slid over the hills and early autumn came riding in on the back of mountain shadows she grew restless in the house with the pointy roof. The garden no longer grew and every morning frost lingered between the cabbages and spindly carrots, even when the sun was bright. The clipped lavender looked old and gnarled and she wondered if it would ever be beautiful again.
One day, when the sun had left the short blue sky and the ticks of the clock were sweeping the minutes aside like crumbs, she asked about the woman in the silver frame that sat above the smoky fire.
"Who is this woman? I have often wondered why she sits on your mantelpiece and watches me. Look. Her eyes follow me, even when I turn the tomatoes and sweep up the shavings."
He looked at the picture then turned back to hammer the sea serpent table that had suddenly grown a snout and clumpy toes.
The woman in the frame wore a dress the colour of churning water and the tips of her white hands were pained bright red. They looked like tiny trembling drops of blood.
"I loved her but she left me. She couldn't bear the twisty twirly wood and the ugly tables and chairs."
His words were like a rubber band flying off a jam jar.
"I could love you," she said, hopefully.
"No. You are too old. Besides, you don't have beautiful hands."
Through her tears she said goodbye to the tomatoes that had never ripened and the eggs that would never hatch and gently closed the green door on the sleeping shadows. The street felt cold and the cry of a faraway night-bird was no comfort.
The next summer on a warm evening she stopped outside the house with the pointy roof and frilled lavender. The green door was open so she went in.
"You're back," he said, in a voice that betrayed nothing and everything.
"Yes," she said, "and my nails have grown."
She held up her hands and watched as his eyes widened in admiration.
"And I have built a cage around my heart. It's so light I hardly know it's there," she said.
Behind the blushing blind, where tendrils of passion sprouted and grew like sweet peas, their caged hearts joined carefully.
Afterwards, when the street outside no longer sounded like scraping leather and the wind ceased to twirl the willow leaves by the river, he turned and looked at her caged heart and fingered its delicate wooden ribs.
"Now you know it's much better when you keep the love out,"
Her long red nails slowly tapped the corner of his mouth until the seconds grew quite long and thin.
"But," she said, "I have a cage to keep the love in."
She pushed her feet into sandals waiting patiently by the door and saluted the pink blind with the long eyelashes. She said goodbye to the lonely shadows and sorrowing birds then left the house of wooden nightmares. She stepped out into the serpentine street where the night-birds chorused and the moon smiled and waved a pointed finger; and all around was ripeness and harmony caught in a snare of promise.
(Goodnight. Sleep well)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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