Some stories are simply a joy to write. This is one made me smile.
One arm hung limply next to the mattress; the other clutched a pillow scrunched next to her chest. Her torso was partially covered with a faded bedsheet; unruly hair blowing in sticky air coming through an open window. Had it not been for the the faint rise and fall of her back, she would have appeared lifeless. Face pale and wrinkled cheeks sagging; eyes closed and unseeing.
At the jangle of a rusted alarm clock inches from her face, the motionless form leaped to silence the intrusion, then collapsed again with a nearly inaudible sigh.
To others her life appeared to be a mere sigh. Not a statement. Certainly not a song. Growing up she had always been surrounded by achievement, and now her siblings exuded financial stability, selective social connection, contributing their own excellence to vast bodies of literary and artistic expression, admired and reviewed by renowned critics. While they soared, she seemed to stumble.
She pulled herself upright before the abhorred device would release another deafening interruption, reminding her of the passage of time. With legs swung over bed’s edge, her hands slowly rubbed her eyes. Her neck stretched long as she methodically tilted her head first to one side, then the other. She inhaled deeply, then allowed her breath out in a steady stream.
With one swift foot movement she pulled a long, purple mat from under her bed. For the next ten minutes she sat in stillness, ramrod straight, inhaling and exhaling with eyes closed. This was her routine each morning before placing an ungainly water kettle onto the hot plate in the corner of her sparse cooking and eating space. Before long she held a cup of steaming coffee in her right hand while grasping a thin cracker spread with cassava paste in the left.
She strode into the garden, settling into the shade of the ancient mahogany trees. She thought through the day ahead, as she did every day. Deliberately she allowed each face she would see, every question she might be asked, every scene that could be depicted and described, to pass over the screen of her productive mind. She allowed her thoughts to rest briefly on the luxuriously spread table under canopies of leaves and color, where she would meet health workers and international delegates for her evening meal.
Her face emitted radiance and peace as she picked up her high powered camera and shouldered her tattered canvas bag containing the only writing materials she possessed: two pencils, one yellow legal pad and a well worn iPad. Quickly she slid a tall bottle of tepid water into a mesh pocket along the side of the bag. She stooped momentarily as she passed through the front door, then closed it carefully behind her.
Within moments her tall, slender frame covered with a flowing orange cotton skirt and a white gauze blouse was surrounded by a growing entourage of chattering children–running, dancing or hobbling, many carrying infant brothers or sisters on their backs. Her face broke into a sparkling smile as she conversed easily with these smallest treasures of humanity. As they clung to her, she patted heads, stroked cheeks and offered fist bumps in return for similar morning greetings.
Without a doubt, this was the best part of her life! The children. Not yet caught up in the agonizing tedium of responsibility or the enticing grasp for power. They allowed life to pour from their innocence, easily absorbing into her receptive soul. She savored these moments–willing them to last longer, be felt more intensely, providing the driving force for her very being and for her being here.
Just before entering the market square, she sat down on the stump of an old tree to prolong this exchange. The spirited group attracted more and more vibrant miniatures, all seeking to grasp a portion of her skirt, blouse or arm. Some ran their fingers through her long curls or touched an ear. At times one child would cry and she would gather this one into her lap to simply rock and sing for a minute or two. Then she would carry on, knowing this scene would be repeated that evening–provided the demands of her day would not keep her too long–and certainly the following morning.
The one day she had unfettered time was Sunday. On this day each week she would worship with the townspeople, then choose one place near the center of the square to simply sit! The townsfolk knew her well and came to chat! One or two people, or large groups at a time. Someone would invariably provide her with delectable morsels from noon or mid afternoon food preparations.
And the children! They came and stayed. She learned new games, saw creations made out of twigs, moss and locust legs, listened to tales spun out of subsistence existence and witnessed stories read from prized books. The laughter was infectious; the joie de vivre intoxicating.
At dusk each Sunday she would rise, tall and serene, bend to bid goodnight to every small child still remaining, embrace each adult who had shared the final daylight hour with her, then wind her way back over the dusty path to her dwelling.
She sat next to the single flame from the oil lamp on her kitchen table and wove the delight, glory, pain and struggle that engulfed her into one passionately human story after another. Each evening, one week after another this had been her rich routine for the past three decades. Her body of work included stories on parchment, encased in glass bottles on the graves of many hundreds of her dearest friends; justice encouraged–and witnessed–in countless meetings, determining the future of her chosen home; articles, stories and photographs appearing in local journals; and a series of books describing and depicting life as she lived it. Life, as it could be!
Her life was not a sigh, nor a statement. It wasn’t a song. It was a symphony.
(c) Julia Penner-Zook 2015