There Must First Be Winter

She started finding pomegranate seeds at the doorstep, and knew it was time.

Her mother caught her studying them in the autumn evenings, watching the ruby light glint within the little seeds. “Already?” she asked with a frown. The rhythm of her arms kneading her bread did not break.

“So it seems.” She ate the seeds, six in all, and turned to leave.

“You should not go.” Her mother’s trembling voice stilled her. “You do not have to go.”

“I do. We have our parts to play, Mother.”

“What he did was – ”

“I do not need you to remind me what he did to me.”

“Then how can you go back to him?” The kneading stopped and Mother looked at her pleadingly. Her apron was clouded with flour.

“In order to have spring, there must first be winter.” And she left.

She went to the river, where the silent ferryman recognized her and took her across.  He seemed to row too slowly. Perhaps he, like Mother, regretted his role in their tale, and wanted to write a new part for himself.

She went next to the dog, who greeted her from the vast black gates as he always did: with a suspicious growl that ended in a sharp exhalation as he laid down to let her enter. She scratched one of his heads as she passed.

She walked on, into the formless black. She heard him before she saw him: he was sweeping, the dry wish wish of the broom echoing across the space. The sleeves of his black jumpsuit were rolled up and a blue cap covered his graying hair. He did not stop sweeping when he spotted her, though he continued to watch her from under the brim of his cap.

“Hello, little wife.” His voice was just as she remembered: a dry wind disturbing dead leaves. “You look well.”

“Hello, husband.” She studied the floor around him. The detritus of the dead had been swept into a pile: regrets, pains, coins, hopes, and all the other things the dead cannot carry with them. “You have been busy.”

“You know I like to get caught up on my work before you arrive.” He bared his teeth; Death cannot smile. He stopped sweeping and came towards her. “Come, then. Let us be reunited.”

She stepped back. “You will not touch me.”

She did not raise her voice; there was no need. She was queen of the underworld, not by choice, but ultimately by right. He had been so desperate to keep her that he gave her her strongest weapon against him. She only wished she had gathered the strength to use it sooner.

She also wished she could tell Mother she was safe, but as she’d said before she left, in order to have spring, there must first be winter. The story must still be told, but it would never be told the same way again – not if she had any say in it.

His voice took on a threatening edge. “There was an agreement.”

Her heart pounded but she stood straight and firm. “The agreement holds. The season will pass, as agreed.” She did not look away from him. “But you have touched me for the last time.”

It was he who dropped his gaze to the black floor. “Very well.”

She walked the clean-swept path deeper into the underworld, toward her throne.

Coffee Cake

It’s a little after eight in the morning when Mom squeezes through the front door in her puffy purple coat, hangs her keys on the wall, and with a sigh drops her purse in one of the kitchen chairs.

“Trouble kids?” I ask.

“Never as bad as you were.” She peels off the puffy coat. “Smells good in here.”

“Coffee cake for an office birthday party.” I’ve just pulled it out; it’s sitting in its glass dish on a wire rack.

“Whose birthday?” She pours herself coffee from the pot that she started before she left at six.

“Todd.” I start fanning the cake with a baking sheet.

“That asshole? You’re making him a cake?”

Mom.” I fan more vigorously.

I see her eyebrows raise over the rim of her coffee mug. Her words echo into it before she takes a sip. “From what you’ve told me, he doesn’t deserve a cake.” Then she drinks, cringing at its bitterness, and sets her mug down. “’Specially not one of yours.”

“Any twelve-year-old can make a coffee cake, Mom. It’s not that hard.”

“That’s not my point.”

I heave a sigh. “Because of course there’s a point…”

“My point,” she says, leaning over the counter, “isn’t how easy coffee cake is, it’s that you’re the one making it. You could be baking cakes for presidents, not Todd.”

“Not this again, Mom.” I hold my hand over the cake. It’s still too warm to cover. I have to be out the door for work in ten minutes. “You think I want to be baking a cake for Todd and his lackeys? But everybody knows I bake, so I get asked to do it.”

She settles herself on a barstool, one eyebrow still lifted in that quit-mouthing-off-and-listen-to-me expression that seems universal to mothers. “I think you should fish that culinary institute application out of the trash and mail it in.”

“It’s in the recycling, not the trash.”

“You know what I mean.”

I set the baking dish down with a slap. “Okay then, humor me. Why should I? They’ve rejected me twice, why should I keep trying?”

Mom wraps her hands around the coffee mug. “Because you’re young and you’ve got your life ahead of you. Because I’ve been driving a school bus for thirty years and I’ve seen what all those kids accomplished when they kept trying. Because between us, your father and I could fill a filing cabinet with job rejection letters.”

“You know they email that stuff now.”

Because,” she says again, glowering, “everybody gets rejected. What makes some people different from all those other everybodies is that they kept trying. And we didn’t raise you to be an everybody.”

I sigh and roll my head back. The cake does smell amazing; I wish I could plate up a slice for me and my mom. We could enjoy it warm and it would take the burn out of the old coffee.

“I took the recycling out already.”

Mom stands up. “Then I’ll dig it out.”

“Mom, I wish you would let this go.” I can feel tears stinging in the corners of my eyes. “I wanted this too, you know? And getting rejected once sucked, but twice? I don’t think I can…”

I can’t even finish the sentence. I squeeze my eyes shut. I feel my mom grip my hand.

“I’m not giving up on you. If I can find it, will you send it in?”

Mine is a tenacious dream, apparently. I hear the word leave my mouth and the promise in it gives me a tingle of hope: “Yes.”

I open my eyes. Mom is teary, too, something that makes both of us feel awkward, so I go back to fanning the cake and she drinks more coffee.

“That’s not the only one you baked, is it?” she hints.

I grin. “The other one needed a couple more minutes. It can come out when the timer goes off.”

“That’s my girl.”

hue12 photography

Still Walking

We are in transit, forever walking roads choked with lifeless cars and clinging weeds. The “there” we seek may not be better than “here,” but we’re still human: we still believe in safe ports just over the horizon, in green flourishing under ash. We keep walking.

Ellen’s Steps

Ellen strutted across her parents’ living room, counting silently, and executed four flawless high kicks before curtsying to her audience: Georgie, lounging against one of the wingback chairs in her tweed slacks, and Cathy, perched on the sofa with crossed ankles and a expression of delight.

Cathy burst into applause. “Ellen, you’re fantastic!”

“That’s the whole routine?” Georgie raised an eyebrow.

“That’s what I’m auditioning with,” Ellen said patiently. “They’ll teach us all the dances when practices start next month.”

“Oh, Ellen, I’m so proud of you.” Cathy patted the couch next to her and Ellen sat, rolling her ankles to stretch them. She was used to dancing in heels, but these were old, the soles about as comfortable as bare floor. With the war on, though, it had become a point of pride among her fellow dancers to see who could go the longest without replacing their shoes.

“Don’t be proud yet,” Ellen said. “I still have to get through the audition.”

“Well, you’re as good as in, in my books! You’ve been dancing for as long as I’ve known you.”

“I’m confused how this helps the war,” Georgie said, folding her arms.

“It raises funds for war bonds.”

“I understand the marching like soldiers – ”

Cathy rolled her eyes. “They aren’t pretending to be soldiers, Georgie.”

“Oh, so it has to do with troop movements, then.” Georgie step-ball-changed her way around the couch. “Do the dancers represent the Western front, or the Eastern?”

“Georgie!” Cathy pressed a hand to her mouth, but Ellen could tell she was giggling.

“What’s the significance of that hip movement?” Georgie wriggled in imitation of one of Ellen’s least-favorite moves. “Does that represent the rolling hills of France?”

Please, Georgie.” Cathy winked. “It’s to impress Steve next time he sees her.”

“Will you two knock it off?” Ellen jumped up. “It’s got nothing to do with Steve.”

Georgie grinned and leaned against the mantel. “Is it because you get a fabulous costume, then?”

“It’s for Emma.”

“Oh.” Georgie fell silent.

For a few moments, the only sounds were the curtains flapping in the spring breeze and the distant clatter of Mama’s sewing machine upstairs. Somewhere over the fields, the Albertsons’ Piper Cub was dusting their orchards. Every time Ellen heard the plane and knew it wasn’t Emma flying it, her heart ached like she’d been stabbed. Her sister had only been able to send two letters in the six months she’d been gone, and the house was quiet without her.

Cathy got up and closed the window. The sound of the plane faded.

“Do you know where she is?” Georgie asked softly.

Ellen snorted and sat back down. “They never tell us. Could be Detroit, could be Oahu.”

“She was very brave to go.”

“We both wanted to go.” Ellen clenched her hands, digging her fingers into the satin cushion. “But she’s the pilot, and the mechanic, and the only one of us who’s managed to knock down Tommy Buchanan, though we’ve both tried.”

Georgie snorted. “Haven’t we all.”

“Me, I’m just the pretty one.” Ellen gestured to her pink dance costume. “I’m not smart enough or well-connected enough for military secretarial work. Papa refuses to let me help with farm work or take a factory job. I can’t even keep Mama’s victory garden alive. The only thing I can do is dance.”

Cathy frowned. “You know that’s not true.”

“Maybe, but that’s what matters to Uncle Sam.” Ellen stood, smoothing her skirt. “And if dancing is all I can do, then I’m going to dance in a way that does some good.”

They fell silent again. Ellen poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the sideboard and drank, staring out over the fields. The Piper Cub hummed across the clear sky, its yellow wings glinting in the sun.

“When is the audition?” Cathy asked.

“Seven tonight.”

“We’ll come watch you.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“You’re doing this for Emma, and we’ll do this for you.” Georgie squeezed her shoulder. “It’s the very least we can do.”

“And we’ll help you do more, if you’d like.” Cathy came to her other side. “There’s plenty of ways we can help, if we put our heads together.”

Ellen watched the Piper as it flew over the roof and out of sight. “Thanks, girls.”

Her feet still hurt, but her heart was lighter. Maybe they wouldn’t let her serve, but she’d fight in her own way, with her own allies – for Emma.

Deification

They go tip-tapping along the sidewalk, formidable in their elegance, with tailored skirts hitting the backs of their knees exactly, silk blouses that stay neatly tucked, and heels that might be, strictly speaking, too tall for the office but no one would dare tell them so.

They are taller than all of the women and almost all of the men. They are clear-skinned and radiant – literally; they light up their surroundings in soft blues and greens. They are soft-spoken, except when they laugh, which is loud and clear as bells, or when they are angry, which is infrequent but destructively cacophonous.

They are impossible.

I should know better.

But there really isn’t that much difference between us – not after all the work I’ve done.

My hair matches their light-defying black, but it isn’t yet long enough. My heels are as tall as theirs, and I walk in them with almost as much ineffable grace as they do. I practice for an hour a day. I have two million followers on my makeup tutorial account; the most popular one of them only has 1.9 million. I am mistaken for one of them frequently; we take pictures together. They don’t photograph as well as I do – it’s the light they emit.

The man in the back of the nail salon has brought what he promised. The bottle glows like candlelight. I pay him in cash, as he requested, and he tells me to leave before I drink. He won’t be responsible for anything that happens after.

I go to the bar where I’m meeting my date. I’m early, but that was planned. He might not recognize me without the filters I apply to my profile; I may photograph better without their glow, but he expects it, so I use the filters. He’ll be all the more impressed when we’ve had a few more dates and he can adjust his expectations to me and I can stop drinking the solution and reveal my true self: nothing more or less than the most beautiful human woman in the country.

He’ll be pleased, when the time is right.

The bottle uncaps with a sound like windchimes. The fumes smell like a wedding day, like surprise flowers, like a perfect afternoon in a hammock under branch-filtered sunlight. The astringent bottom notes are irrelevant.

The first time I drank this, I experienced all of the side effects: blurred vision, vertigo, nausea. With long-term use, the effects will worsen into vomiting, loss of coordination, and blindness, but I won’t need to drink for that long. Only for a couple of months.

I drink it, all of it, as quickly as I can, so it hits my system all at once. It’s warm in my throat, in my stomach, and then it’s warm on my stomach, on my chest, on my arms. When it reaches my face, it feels like blushing, but I can see it now: my own glow. I am a covetable mint green.

I can’t quite see myself in the mirror. It’s my glow, surely, obscuring my beauty even from myself.

I tip-tap away, finally radiant.

Restoration

“I’ve got the grimoire.”

He’d been waiting so long for those words that he almost couldn’t believe he’d heard them. He watched, tail twitching, as she opened the crackling pages and began to read.

As fur fell away, he started to hope; as human limbs returned, he began to believe.

He spoke his long-planned words into her embrace: “I knew you could do it.”

Annie Spratt