Monday, 16 April 2012

Story - Tin Whistle

Tin Whistle was my very first published story, coming out in the April edition of England's on-line Global Short Story Competition in 2008. It didn't finish in the money, however, but that was of little consequence to me then. Published was published, and as I had only joined the Manitoba Writers' Guild (MWG) two months previously, I was very proud to have one of my stories selected so soon. I would soon discover that that would not be the norm.

So, without further ado:

                                     Tin Whistle


Friends told me that ten years was too long - that it was time to move on.  
Perhaps such words weren’t easy to say, but no matter how kindly intended, they always arrived at my ear sounding flat and inconsequential, as though read from the pages of an instruction booklet.
Two years’, the booklet would state, ‘possibly three, or maybe even five are acceptable to grieve for the loss of a loved one. But’, it would always end in grave tones of dire warning, ‘ten is far too long.’     
An instruction booklet didn’t deal much in abstracts. Regardless of the depth of my hurt, what it was telling me – what everyone was telling me - was that I had to let go.
But neither booklet, nor friend had ever known Emily the way I had.
They’d never felt the soft glow of her smile, the tingle of her laughter, or the love in her heart - channeled through her eyes into mine - and so, into my own heart.
They’d never felt these things.
They’d never seen the world transformed in an instant, nor felt the warmth of her the way I had. They had never made love to her in the moonlight, or caressed her body and been filled with wonder as I had. They’d never seen themselves mirrored, in a thousand ways, with love, as she had done with me. They’d never left the ground, buoyed by the purity of their joy.
Not in the way I had.
When that’s suddenly been taken away, in the form of a somber faced Mountie telling you that there’s been an accident - in carefully couched, officially distant words - how can you put a timeframe on your acceptance that somehow the world is still turning without her?
We were in a room together – a world of our making – and now she was gone. Ten years? Twenty? A lifetime? What difference, when that place that held all things of meaning was now lost?
Only its ghost lingered on in my mind.
Probably those same friends were relieved when informed of my decision to leave Winnipeg for a place in the country.
I needed the solitude for my writing, I told them.
The change would do me good, they would invariably reply.
All the while the specter of my dead wife hovered between us, carefully unremarked. They had grown reluctant to speak of her – it depressed me to see their discomfort whenever her name was invoked. They were afraid of inadvertently re-opening that old wound, preferring, instead, to think my decision to leave was a sign that, at long last, it was healing.
Perhaps it was, in some small way. Leaving our home, our friends, all the familiar places we used to know together, was like stepping aboard a ship with an uncharted horizon for a destination, and a cautioning ‘There be Dragons’ etched in my mind.
It hadn’t been easy closing the door of our home that last time. It hadn’t been easy leaving all those places that triggered memories. It was only the knowledge that my mind didn’t require their prodding that had made it bearable.
 Leaving her in the past had never been my goal, but I thought it best to let them think that such was the case. It was useless for them to worry. The real reason was that they needed leaving – them and their sad, concerned, reluctant-to-speak-of-Emily faces.
That’s what needed to be escaped.
                        *                                    *                                    *
My realtor had found an old stone farmhouse on the homestead of a wealthy English immigrant from the late nineteenth century. A reasonable price was asked, most likely because that family’s last scion had died some years earlier and, as it was miles from anywhere, the municipality was desperate to be rid of it.
It was late autumn when I drove out to inspect the property. It wasn’t too much trouble to find – as mentioned, there was no other place around, so a solitary windbreak in the distance beckoned like the point of a compass.
The long graveled lane was in surprisingly good repair, but the fallen leaves of the maples were lost in the wild dejection of the yard. Out back, a small orchard of apple trees – the last of their fruit rotting on withered limbs – stood useless and forlorn within the protective enclosure of the windbreak. Both maples and orchard - stark and naked – branches climbing the sky like black, tortured lightning.
The house itself – a fine old two-storied structure, but with paint faded and peeling – seemed to crouch nervously before me like a giant orphan before a prospective parent. Here, in the physical, were rooms, once vibrant with memories, now cobwebbed by time. Like a close relation, I wondered what had it cost to leave them?
Turning to go, something flitted across the perimeter of my vision - little more than a strobe of interrupted light. There, but a short distance before me, ghostly and huge, the shadowy form of a Grey Owl slid silently away through the trees. No doubt, my invasion of his domain had startled him from his slumbers, and he was retreating to regain his seclusion, leaving me rooted in awe.
Intermittently, these past years there had been dreams of an owl gliding like a spirit through a copse just like this one. I could not turn my mind from the notion that this was a sign.
Lore and old wives’ tales claimed that an owl was a harbinger of Death.
                        *                                    *                                    *
I stood in the living room the evening of the day of possession. The movers had gone, leaving me alone with the parcels and packages of my life, looking pitifully small and uncertain in their new surroundings, like a child’s first day at school.
I rolled up my sleeves, and with a utility knife, cut the packaging tape on the first box. Unwrapping the newspaper from the photograph of our wedding – both of us happily eager to embrace the future - I carefully took it out, and set it upon the mantle.
Then I began to feel better.
                        *                                    *                                    *
Winter came early that year.
Settling into my new surroundings came surprisingly easy. Although it was too late in the year to do much about the yard, the house itself could be made my own. Painting would keep me busy – that and my writing.
I had forgone the comfort of having my bed in the master bedroom, but had chosen, instead, a smaller room in the back. The master – spacious and comfortable, with check-rail windows overlooking the yard – became my study.
I fell into the habit of writing when tired of painting, and whenever words became elusive, returned to roller and tray. But for occasional trips to Minnedosa for necessities, such was my life.
I chose dark colours for my walls…and wrote stories of heartbreak and loss.
                        *                                    *                                *           
It was the last day in October that it began to snow.
There had been frost in the morning for the past week, but the sun’s thin rays could usually provide sufficient warmth for a walk in the afternoon. Yet today a biting, knife-edged wind began to pick up from the north-east, and as the day progressed, the temperature continued to drop. When the wind started to howl, the first few flakes began to descend like advance guards.
By the time I had prepared my evening meal the windows were rattling – grains of snow stinging their panes. By the time that I had gone upstairs to finish a story about a mad hermit, the temperature had dropped to -10 Celsius, and the storm had become a blizzard.
Yet, regardless of my intentions, as the tempest raged outside, the monitor remained blank. All that filled my mind was a desire to rest.
 Surrender lured me to the sofa next to my desk.
                        *                                    *                                    *
I was still sleeping when there came a knock at the door. I knew this because, although the windows continued to shiver from the blows of the storm, all else felt like a dream.
The loud, stentorian boom, echoing through the halls to my study, was not of the world of the waking. Neither was my lack of surprise when rising – without any wonder at who would be about on such a night – to go down the stairs in answer to its summons. My hand reached for the door as a diver might reach for a conch. The bite of the wind tore through me but failed to touch my consciousness.
My visitor stood before me, tall and elegant, clad in old tweed and gaiters, as might have a country squire from a by-gone age. A soft, felt wideawake covered his head, its brim casting his face into deeper shadow than the stygian night surrounding him.
In his hands he held a tin whistle.
But he bowed me a friendly bow, and I found myself bowing in return before standing aside to allow him entrance.
He strode past me with long, languid…confident steps.  He spoke not a word, but took a familiar station by the fireplace. Then, with practiced ease, he brought the whistle to his lips, and began to play.
Curiously, without incongruence, although his mien was darkened shadow, the tune he played was merry and light. Of its own accord, my toe began to tap. Surrendering to the music, my body began to sway.
Then I was leaping and laughing – twirling around the room with unfamiliar abandon. My feet flew hither and thither of their own volition, carrying me to heights of exuberant delirium.
I was lost in a merriment that held no meaning, shorn of woe, shorn of all that I was.
Uncaring, I danced on.
When finally it was over, my spirit came lightly to my body the way that a balloon might come to the earth.
When I opened my eyes …she was there.
She stood before me, real and immutable. She smiled that same, cherished smile that had been alive only in my heart for ten years past.
I smiled a dream-smile in return.
Then, with our eyes locked in a love that spanned the chasms of time, once more, the dark man began to play.
Emily’s laughter was sweet as a memory as she held out her arms. Laughing in turn, I swept her up, and twirled with her ‘round and ‘round the floor.
This was my Emily.
 I was holding her - against all probability….I was holding her!
We were in our room again, our eternal room, alone and unfettered. My hands caressed her - felt the surety of her. I fell once more into her beauty, and while the dark man played, clung to her with violent passion, praying that this moment might never end.
Yet, even as the room spun and blurred beyond the softness of her eyes, I could feel that surety slipping away, like melancholy music fading into mist.
                        *                                    *                                    *
I awoke in the morning to a chickadee tapping curiously at the window of my study.
Tired and disheveled, as the memory of my dream re-visited, I felt anew all of the dark depths of my loss.
A senseless panic enveloped me. I launched myself from the sofa and raced down the stairs.
 But, of course, the house was empty.
Unwilling yet to accept, I ran out the door, barefoot amongst virgin drifts.
The wild wind had gone, and with its passing had come a new dawn. The morning sun sparkled the snow so fiercely it hurt my eyes.
Then, perhaps because it held a different glimmer, something caught my peripheral attention.
A tin whistle lay nestled on the snow-covered rail of the veranda.
I stared, incapable of belief.
I picked it up - felt its weight in my hands.
Somewhere in the distance, the Grey Owl mourned its call over the frozen land, speaking of things that required no meaning.
Her name was a sigh.

                                              The End

                                                                        CW Lovatt – 06/10/07

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