Friday, March 10, 2017

The Alchemist's Widow: Anniversaries

The Alchemist's Widow is a magical realism/fantasy novella I wrote as part of my art school thesis project. Now, after a few years and some polish, I feel like sharing it with a wider audience. Chapters will post weekly.


Catherine's husband is dead. It's Christmas, the whole family is in town and Catherine is depressed. With only her cat (Variel, also dead though still quite chatty) for company, Catherine lives alone in the house she shared with her husband. But on Christmas morning, Catherine wakes from a dream and finds a gift from her husband under the tree. A key. A key that will lead Catherine down a winding road that might just lead her to the truth about what happened to her husband.

(Possible TW: Suicidal thoughts)

Snow fell, guided to earth by fey strings no human eye can see.
To what purpose no man can understand and few women guess. It is with a child’s eyes and world weary innocence I watch the divinity of pale crystals turn macabre. They pile against the ground, lovers intent on themselves to join and ignorant of all else. Their counterparts are drips of bare water from the gables. Slowly coalescing to orgasm into solid form so defiantly male to bring a blush to the virgin snow hanging in the frozen air.
The puppet masters of these tiny wonders hover overhead, trapped inside condensation of the last day’s work. Blue fingers wound tight with those silver strands of connection between the earth bound snow and themselves.
This first brush with the power of wintry weather, the first rush of the self to do battle. And under the striking fall of snow, flecks of white catching in the eyelashes and hair. Brushing along coats and scarves, they connect together.
A kiss in the midst of the orgy around them.
Lips still warm and soft, electricity hanging in the air between them. Winter’s creation cannot disturb them. The wellspring of summer floods their hearts to ignore the lust of the falling snow.
Together, they could weather the coming storm.
“What are you so intent on?” Her voice cut through my thoughts, a dull razor blade through my meandering.
I’m so poetic today. “Nothing at all.” I stared still out the window at the falling snow. Stared at my grandparents kissing under the mistletoe hanging from the porch roof. Stared at the family coming out of their cars to tromp into the house and further disturb me. My age had brought me to understand that no one would listen to me. And it was such that the house cried out its displeasure when the door opened to the cold to allow entry.
And it let known its further irritation at the tromping of wet boots onto the wooden floors. A rush of people, chilled from the cold. All wanting to embrace and give well wishes while at the same time laughing at me behind their teeth. I wanted none of it.
Not even the spicy scent of the tree in the corner could assuage my slowly condensing irrationality of anger. 
“Catherine,” my mother gushed, “It is so good to see you. How’ve you been?”
The contracted syllables of her well-meant words grated. “Well enough without all of…this.” My words cut deeper than hers. Sharp and meant to hurt. “Next year, host Christmas somewhere else, please.” The please was an afterthought. I had no intention of catering to the whims of my family any longer than necessary.
“Catherine—” She sighed, obviously hurt but unwilling to say so. “You need the company dear.”
“I have company.”
“A taxidermy cat does not count as company,” My mother replied.
My cat, Variel, was a mouthy blue pointed Burmese. That hadn’t changed appreciatively when she died.
“Officer Dan stops by once a week.” He checked on me because my mother had asked him to. Variel and I had agreed to ignore these little visits out of hand. Officer Dan was too handsy and he smelled strongly of cologne no man under the age of fifty should ever wear. I had a feeling my mother was trying get us together, eww. “I should make the rounds.”
I left my mother to say hello to the rest of the family.
My grandparents were in the kitchen; grandmother was taking the cookies I’d been attempting to burn out of the oven. The smell of gingerbread cut deeper than any words. “Hello dear, your cookies were done.”
“I see that. Thank you.”
Grandma wore a perfume I actually liked. It was lavender. “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you.”
“Are you sure?” That was Grandpa. He wore a smoking jacket that clung to its smoky, cherry scent with the hint of vanilla for all it was worth. The smell of tobacco and coffee and stories. I hugged him, and meant it.
He squeezed back, sending warmth through my cold body. “I know you hate Christmas; I’ll try to keep the wolves at bay.”
“Thank you.” I felt my first, and last, smile of the evening tug at my lips. Here in my family the string of resemblance was clear even in his age marked face. The strong chin, the soft square jaw line and straight, slim nose. A strong face with strong eyes. Grandpa’s eyes were clear blue, just like mine. I had my grandmother’s full lips and originally dark hair.
“How is your cat?” Grandma asked.
“Well. I had her stuffed with catnip for Christmas.”
“That was nice of you, dear.”
I gave a quick nod, and backed out of the kitchen to finish the rounds. If I ignored even one person, my mother would ask me if I was all right again, and I was getting that question from everyone today, I didn’t need it twice. My brother Edward, his French Canadian husband Maurice, and their adopted Chinese daughters were the first group I ran into outside of the kitchen.
“Hello Edward, Maurice.” I nodded to each of them and pulled candy canes from my pocket to hand to each child. “Maylin, Lixue.”
The little girls smiled at me, Maylin had lost her front teeth to the tooth fairy and Lixue clutched a teddy bear larger than herself. Both girls wore sweaters my mother had knit with their names embroidered on the front with a smiling dragon.
“Thank you Aunt Catherine,” Maylin said.
Lixue squeaked something similar. Her name meant snow. Maurice picked it.
“How are you?” Edward asked for the family.
“Fine, thank you,” I replied. Edward looked like our father, a sharper jaw line and broader nose. His eyes were brown. Maurice was the only blonde in the room and towered over me by a good foot. Our youngest brother, William, called him the Lumberjack behind his back.
And speak of the devil; William entered our little circle, his ubiquitous girlfriend Lola at his side. “Hey everybody!” he hiccupped.
“I see someone has been hitting the eggnog a little early,” Maurice noted in his soft baritone.
“How are you doin’ sis?”
“Peachy. Don’t get into my liquor cabinet.” I dismissed Lola offhand, nodded to both my brothers and brother-in-law and moved off to greet my father.
“She seems…better,” Maurice said as I left the range of hearing.
“Maybe,” Edward replied.
William said nothing.
My father stood near the door, hanging up coats on the cast iron coat tree. “Dad.”
“Hey, Buttercup.” He smiled at me. He was always smiling it seemed. My dad, the eternal child. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks.”
He didn’t believe me.
“Your parents here?” I asked after a moment of awkward silence.
“No, they couldn’t make it. Your aunt and uncle are in the living room gaping at your tree.”
“By the sounds of chatter, I assume they brought the flock.”
“You would be correct.” Dad hugged me tight, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Try to smile, Buttercup.”
“I’ll try.”
He let me go, and I headed for the living room. My tree was exactly three feet tall. Variel had chosen it. There weren’t many ornaments, but I’d draped yarn in the boughs and hung some of my earrings to make up for it. To be precise, there were four ornaments. One for each year of my marriage.
The fourth was my favorite, a silver dove. It hung from the highest branch, just under the folded paper angel I’d made from a restaurant menu. The price list ran down the side of her wing like a demented decoration.
My aunt and uncle, my father’s brother and sister-in-law, were the proud parents of seven children. The children ranged in age from twenty-six to ten. The elder ones talked in the corner sipping eggnog I’d put out before they’d come in, the younger ones argued about some video game character.
“Catherine!” Aunt Georgia smiled, hugging me. She smelled of expensive perfume and tuna casserole, her specialty. Personally I found it sort of sad that someone specialized in tuna casserole, but who was I to judge? I purposely burned cookies and did my overall best to look incompetent in the kitchen to avoid being asked to make dinner on holidays.
“Hey there, Cathy.” Uncle Justin said. I hated being called Cathy, and he knew it. “Cute little tree you’ve got there.”
“It’s a bit small for the house dear,” Aunt Georgia chimed in. “Why didn’t you get something bigger?”
“I only have four ornaments,” I replied, running a hand along a branch, delighting in the soft/sharp feel of the needles against my skin. “And we wouldn’t want a naked tree.”
She blinked, and changed conversation course. “How are you dear?”
“Fine, thanks.”
That was everyone then, no one from David’s family came to visit anymore. No one else to be polite to. I sat back down at the window and ran a hand down Variel’s spine.
“Tired already?” she murmured.
“I was tired before, now I’m exhausted,” I replied under my breath.
It was still snowing. I glared at the white mistletoe berries hanging on my porch, willing them to be gone, but of course they refused. My house was filled with people I didn’t want there. I love my family, that doesn’t mean I want them around.
There were eyes on me, my concerned siblings and parents watched me. I sighed. This was going to be a long night.
The oldest cousin, Mary, came over to me with an extra glass of eggnog. “For you.” She held it out to me. For a moment I considered leaving her to hold it, but then my mother would ask again if I was all right, I took it.
“How are you doing?”
“Fine, thanks.”
Her smile was strained. “I noticed you put out David’s pictures again.” She nodded to the mantle. My wedding photo perched there in a silver frame. I was smiling, David was smiling.
I hadn’t put the picture out.
“I didn’t put that there.” I stood up, setting my glass down on the window seat and striding to the mantle. I snapped up the picture and stalked out of the living room and up the stairs to my room. The picture went back into the box I’d left it in. I tried to ignore the tears starting to fall.
“Sweetheart?” my mother called from the doorway.
“Go away, please,” I said. “I told you I didn’t want to host Christmas.”
“Catherine.” She stepped into my room, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “You need to move on. It’s been nearly a year.”
One year in ten days. “Get out of my room.” I shrugged free of her arm. “Just—go.”
“Go!” I shouted.
“Please calm down.”
I turned around. “I told you to get out of my room.”
“I’m not leaving, Catherine.” She stood firm.
I took a shaking breath. “Fine. I’ll go.” She tried, and failed to stop me as I shoved past her and rushed down the stairs. Everyone stared at me. I ignored them, heading for the door.
“Catherine, where are you going?” Dad asked.
“Out.” I jerked open the door, slamming it closed behind me. I took a quick breath of frozen air, and hurried out into the storm.
It was cold; my breath froze seconds from escaping my mouth. The tears froze to my cheeks, more soldiers for Winter’s wicked little army. My sweater couldn’t keep out all of the cold, I walked faster. I didn’t know where I was going.
My neighbor’s mailbox made a snide remark as I passed it, and I for my part sent a crude gesture in its direction. I assumed if it had eyes to see my pathetic state, it could see that. The clinging air crept through the small tear at the back of my sweater and spread across my flesh in tingling fingers of cold and pain. I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself and watching in half amazement as my fingertips blued.
My shoes absorbed the crystal lovers on the sidewalk, melting them back down only to have them freeze again to shackle my feet. I shivered harder, teeth starting to chatter the further I got from my house. The snow covered my shoulders, dusted my hair and caught in my eyebrows and lashes. The whispering bits of my enemy catching up to me. Where to go? My family was in my house. My friends…I had none. Nowhere to go. No one to see.
I walked. And it was not until my treacherous legs brought me to stop that I realized where I’d been heading all along. The sign smirked at me. The wrought iron gates questioned my purpose. I touched one, shoving it open into the drift of snow backed up behind it to keep me out. The sign was half covered, reading clearly only: Sa…Mic…’s…C…tery. Saint Michael’s Cemetery.
I stepped through the gate, ignoring its whine, and made the march up the hill to the leafless oak that made its home there. Under its grasping claws, a single grave. A dark stone that spoke to me in somber tones, telling me to turn around, go home. I would not. I climbed the last few feet, soaking my shoes the rest of the way. I brushed snow from the low marker, letting the words wash over me.
David Crowley, beloved son, husband.
He died last December, the fourteenth, at the age of twenty-seven. I shoved my hands into my sleeves, barely able to feel my shivering body for the cold.
“Mrs. Crowley?”
I turned around, the town’s sole patrol car was parked feet from me on the cemetery road, Officer Dan stood even closer. “Hello.”
“Why don’t I take you home?”
I was cold…I took another look at the grave, and let Officer Dan take me home.
My mother was waiting on the front porch when Dan led me up, his coat draped over my shoulders.
“Mrs. Bridges.” He tipped his hat to my mother. She rushed down the stairs and wrapped her arms around me.
“I’m so glad you found her,” she said. “Where was she?”
I was not an unruly child. “I went to see David.”
“Oh…Catherine.” My mother frowned at me. “Let’s get you inside. Your lips are blue.”
I handed Officer Dan his coat and let her lead me up the stairs and into the house. I was so cold. So cold. Everyone stared at me. I was so sick of being stared at. Ignoring my family, shrugging off my mother, I went upstairs to my room, and locked the door.
My bed was too big for me alone.
I turned away from it, catching sight of myself in my dressing mirror. What a sight. Snow in my hair, in my sweater and at the cuffs of my pants. I shook out my hair and stripped off the sweater. It looked on forlornly from the floor as I stripped off my pants, shoes and socks and headed into my bathroom.
I turned on the shower, the pipes complained before allowing hot water to steam out. Still wearing bra and underwear, I stepped under the stream. It was too hot, scalding my cold skin. Someone knocked at my door.
My mother again.
“Catherine what are you doing?”
I slid down to the floor of the tub, tucking my knees up to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. I was too tired to answer her.
“Catherine.” She tried the knob, but of course it wouldn’t budge. “Catherine, unlock the door!”
My fingers had resumed their normal coloration and were starting to redden. The simple gold of my wedding band flashed in the weary light from the fixture above the bathroom mirror. I warmed under the stream of water, tiny hugs coming to rest on my head and shoulders. Not like their cruel cousins, the water drops comforted me. They had nothing to gain but the feel of my soft skin as they slid down. My hair, still up in its elastic band, twined wetly around my neck and shoulders. Stuck to my forehead and cheeks.
My underwear was soaked, warm. It clung to me in ways that would have once stirred a fire in my passions, but not anymore. That fire was dead. Dead and buried with David. Dead and buried.
Something pounded against the door, hard. “Catherine! Open the door!” It was Edward.
“Please, open the door cheri.” And that was Maurice.
Sure, fetch the big strong gays to knock down my door and make sure I wasn’t killing myself.
Why wasn’t I killing myself?
“I don’t want to lose you,” Variel whispered in my ear. “Don’t go Catherine.”
I stared at the razor just bare inches from my hand. “I’m so tired, Variel. So tired.”
“Don’t go.”
I picked up the razor; it had rust along its edge and complained at me. I sighed. “All right, Variel.” I dropped it to the tile floor. My door burst in, Maurice had broken it down. I could just see him from my vantage point in the tub. He spotted me, moving quickly to my side, my mother and Edward not far behind.
Cheri, what are you doing?” He noted the fallen razor absently.
“I was cold,” I replied, struggling to rise. He helped me up and out of the tub, grabbing a towel from the rack nearby and wrapping me in it.
“Why don’t we get you to bed?” my mother said softly, taking charge. Maurice passed me off to her. I let her put me to bed.
“You broke my door.”
“I’ll fix it,” Maurice promised. “Get some sleep, Catherine.”
I curled under my blankets, scenting David’s soap in the sheets still. I didn’t reply. I didn’t need to. My mother sat on the bed and the boys left, shooing the rest of the family away from the door.
“Sweetheart, maybe you should see a therapist? To help you.”
I didn’t want a therapist; I didn’t want to be helped. I like wallowing in misery and pain. I like feeling cold and out of touch. I grunted a noncommittal reply.
“Baby, you can’t keep going like this. I know you loved David very much, but he would want you to move on.”
David—I could see his smiling face from the box of photos. His glasses reflected bits of camera flash, obscuring his gentle green eyes. He had an easy smile, confident. His hair was always getting in his face, just a little too long and a touch darker than my own.
Would David want me to move on? Not when I didn’t know the truth. Not until I had the answers. I couldn’t move on until I knew for certain why he died. Until I knew how he died. Coroner’s report or no, my husband did not kill himself. He would never do that. He would never leave me to wander the misty realms of the world alone.
“I can’t, Mom. I’m sorry.” I buried my face in my pillow. “I can’t.”
She rubbed my back, sending tingles of pleasant sensation across my shoulders. I knew she cared, I knew she wanted me to be happy but, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure I ever would be.
“Okay sweetie, just remember that we’re here for you.” There was a shift in the mattress as she stood and the floor creaked to let me know she had left the room. I closed my eyes, and without really meaning to, fell into my waiting dreams.
“Hello Catherine.”
He sat at the end of my bed, watching me. I sat up, hand immediately going to straighten his hair. He smiled. “You look beautiful.”
“I’m a mess.” I ran a hand through my tangled hair, and wondered for a moment why my dream had not changed my attire. The under wire of the bra dug into my ribs for a moment as I shifted into a better position.
“You still look beautiful.”
He hadn’t changed much. It seemed as though there were lines of care that had not been there before, but perhaps that was just my subconscious filling in for the year he was gone.
“You left me.”
“I know. And you will never know how sorry I am for that.” He ran his hand down my cheek. “I miss you.”
I hiccupped. “I miss you too.”
He kissed me, and my heart fluttered. “I have a gift for you.” From his pocket he drew out a simple silver key, strung through the top was a bright red ribbon. “This key will take you places you need to go, answer questions you need to ask and with luck, bring you some measure of peace.”
He pressed the key in my hand.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know. Look for me on Hanover Street.”
He pressed a finger against my lips. “We only have this night, Catherine.” He kissed me again, and I closed my eyes, allowing myself to melt into his embrace. 
The sunlight of Christmas morning broke through my sleep. I was dry. All traces of the shower last night were gone, but there was an ache. A comfortable ache that whispered of pleasure. I searched the covers for any trace of him, for the key, but as always, it was just a dream. I sighed, holding back my weary tears and climbed out of bed. Maurice had made some attempt at the repair of my door, but it still complained at the splinters around the knob. There was nothing I could do, I shrugged at it and went to my dresser which at least would not complain of large Canadians.
The drawers yielded a fresh set of undergarments, a cleanish pair of jeans and a sweater my mother had given me several months ago that I had not yet worn. I jerked the store tag off and changed swiftly, dumping my rumpled underclothes near the laundry basket. New socks, still in their packaging, sat on my night stand; I tore them open and grabbed the first pair. They were lavender, clashing with the orange of my sweater. But they kept my feet warm.
I left my room, scenting the air near the stairs. It was pancakes, pancakes and sausage, eggs and butter. Grandma was cooking. I padded down the stairs to feed my growling stomach, ignoring my family in favor of food. Grandma saw me walk into the kitchen and smiled, handing me a plate arranged as I like it.
Three chocolate chip pancakes, bacon and sausage, doused in butter, powdered sugar and cinnamon. “Thanks, Grandma.”
“You’re welcome, dear.”
I snatched a fork from the counter and wandered to the living room window seat to eat my breakfast. The children had already inhaled their food and were staring eagerly at the presents beneath the tree their parents had placed there. In general, the family switched houses each year, bringing presents and breakfast to one and spending the day there for Christmas. The bulk of us were very social animals, I alone enjoyed my solitude.
Once everyone had finished their breakfast and the dishes were soaking in the sink, Grandpa settled on a low stool next to the tree, and started passing out the gifts. It was easy to spot the ones I had wrapped, the newspaper gave them away.
I unwrapped my own. Maurice and Edward had given me a new outfit. Jeans, thermal hooded sweatshirt and a package of socks. The most practical gift by far. My parents gave me a book, A Guide to Grief; I tucked it under some cushions and ignored it. The cousins had pooled their wealth and gotten me a snow globe containing the Eiffel Tower.
William and Lola gave me some candles and my grandparents graced me with a scarf. I, in my infinite wisdom, purchased multiples of the same item and gave one to every member of the family. A framed photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day. Ten by ten centimeters, I’d had them ordered before David died.
Grandma smiled at me, but no one else commented, they didn’t need to.
All the presents had been opened, the children played with their new toys and the adults sat talking over hot cocoa. I sat in my window seat petting my cat.
Grandpa scooped up a bit of stray paper and tossed it into the trash. He frowned at the tree, plucking something from its branches. A silver wrapped gift with a bright red bow. “It’s for you, Catherine.” He tossed it to me, underhanded; it flew in a gentle arc into my hand.
“There’s nothing to say who it’s from,” I commented, untying the ribbon.
“Well, open it,” Edward said eagerly. “Maybe it’s from Santa.”
I rolled my eyes, peeling the paper off with care. Underneath was a black jewelry box. I set the paper aside and pulled off the box lid. Inside, strung on a long red ribbon, was a silver key. I drew it out. My eyes felt huge in my face as I stared at the key. Left in the box was a small slip of paper. I took it out next, unfolding it.
“Look for me on Hanover Street.” I read out loud.
“Look for me on Hanover Street.”
David. David wrapped this box. I could smell him on it. David wrote the note. I recognized the handwriting with a deep rooted burn of pain.
“Well, that’s odd.” My mother said, “No name?”
“No name.” I couldn’t tell them. They’d think the worst. “Strange.” On something of an impulse, I tied the ribbon strung key around my neck. “It’s pretty.”
It was pretty. And while it was a simple little key, I noted almost absently the initials wrought into the stem. D. H. C. David Henry Crowley.
“Are you going to go?” Aunt Georgia asked.
“To Hanover Street, to find this mystery person,” Mary said, excited at the mystery.
“I’ll think about it.” I ran a finger along the cool length of the key.
“This key will take you places you need to go, answer questions you need to ask and with luck, bring you some measure of peace.”
What was so important about Hanover Street?

Part Two>

No comments:

Post a Comment