every life is a work of art



Iris Curteis

She swung her legs out of the bed and let her body follow the pull of gravity. Keeping herself rigid she tricked the almighty force—so keen to bow her back and burden her limbs—and let it draw her upright. She poked her big left toe in to the slipper and slid it closer. A little stiff this morning, aren’t we, she said and smiled, adding, nothing weeding the veggies won’t cure. She made her way to the outhouse, feeling the stiffness loosen slightly with movement, though not without pain. Her knees cracked resentfully as she crouched over the bowl and relieved her bladder in a strong jet of piss. She washed in steaming water and brushed her short-cropped silver hair.

She wondered if he’d come round today; his visits had become more frequent and his courting more insistent. Let him wait, she thought as she wiped last night’s crumbs from the table. She smiled when she thought of the tricks she’d played, like the time he’d turned up and said he’d not be leaving without her this day. And Connie had chosen that very morning to go into labour. Her boy had come running, not even seeing the sombre visitor standing by the fireplace. The child was all a-gasp and a-rush with excitement. My Ma is circling, he yelled, the bairns are falling out of heaven and the storks coming too. She said to fetch you and you was to come as you were.

She followed the boy, laughing at her guest’s squeamishness; he avoided going anywhere near birthing women or their new-borns if he could avoid it. Mother’s were fiercely protective of their babes and loved ones showed open animosity if he ventured close to the birthing women. She recalled looking over her shoulder and seeing him shake his fist at her. She laughed out loud and called to him to come along if you wish, knowing full well he couldn’t abide close proximity to so much new life—it burned him like fire.

She spread flour over the table and started on the dough. She was kneading the soggy sticky lump, when she heard the soft knock. He’d never snuck in or crept up on her. He was polite, she had to give him that. Back again so soon, she said, when she heard the whisper of his steps behind her.

I have a long memory; and I recall that today I was to come for you. I must ask you to accompany me.

You’re a courteous, if grave guest, my friend, she said, looking over her shoulder.

He bowed low and spoke. Old woman, I’m no one’s guest. But it would be better for all if you could see me as your friend. Indeed, I bear you no hostility. It is you who—he paused as if weighing his words—who plays me for a fool. His grim and pale face showed the faintest traces of admiration for the kneading woman. He seemed taken in by the rhythmic rock and pull of her hands thrust deeply into the gradually yielding dough. He watched, fascinated, as the rough conglomerate of gluey patches, dry crumbling flakes, gummy, slippery and dry flour parts transformed into to a silken round.

She barely glanced at him when she answered; I’m much too busy today. I must finish kneading. Then I must wait for the dough to rise. Then I must knead it again and form it into loaves and wait for them to rise again. And then I have to bake them. And cool them. And take them round to my neighbours. She heaved a sigh; some have only what I bake for them. Times are hard. As you well know. I’m sorry, but you will have to come back tomorrow. If it were possible for his marble-features to soften enough to fold into the fine creases of a smile, she would have believed that he was close to doing just that.

Very well, he said, I shall return. But just so we are both clear, this will be the last time I grant you a reprieve.

She watched him leave and thought she’d bested him again. But he stopped—and with the long yellow nail of his bony finger he etched the word, Tomorrow into the lintel over her door. He turned to look at her with something like longing glimmering in his fathomless eyes. In the blinking of an eyelid it was gone. Tomorrow, he said, and left.

She wasn’t heartless, but she chortled after he’d gone, tomorrow, eh? Well, you said it not I. Throughout the day she’d catch herself grinning, her soft downy cheeks dimpling till the creases around her eyes tumbled one over the other. She baked twelves loaves that day and many said they were the best to have ever come from her ovens. There were so light and rose so high and their aroma was alone was enough to still hunger and rouse an appetite all in one. She simply said laughter works better than yeast.

True to his word, her caller returned the next day. She wasn’t anywhere in the cottage. He looked through the window and found her tending her roses. Her rarely stepped into her garden. The thriving life, the budding and blossoming overwhelmed him; at certain times it made him light-headed. But he had a duty to carry out and he never faltered or welched. I’ve come, he said without preamble, and stood waiting.

O dear, she said. This is not like you at all; she shook her head and tut-tutted. There must be a mistake, and its you who’s made it. She crouched on her ample haunches and kept pruning

He was accustomed to being right; well, most all the time. There were rare errors of judgment, and worse, the ‘changes of plan’. But those were not of his making, and he resented such occasions as much as long journeys taken in vain and the return; empty-handed. He was certain about being here to collect her and felt put out. But still, he courteously asked her what she meant.

Well, said she, not yet bothering to get up or brush the earth from her fingers, see for yourself. It was you wrote it on the door. She straightened then; timing had always been her strong point and she was determined to do this in her own time. She led him back to the cottage, stopping to wipe her hands on her apron and her feet on the mat. There, she said, without rancour or snide, and pointed up to the lintel, you wrote that yourself. It says, Tomorrow. To day is today.

This confused him; deeply. The old woman was like a small sand grain in a stupendous and gargantuan clockwork of mighty cogs, wheels and springs; she brought it to a stand still and for a terrifying moment the universe seemed to shudder before it regained its momentum. Again and again she threw out his schedule and left him feeling incompetent. Someone of his lofty position should be above getting things wrong. Very well, he said, I shall come for you on the morrow. He left quickly; relieved to turn his back on the blue-blaze of sheer mirth lighting from her eyes. And suddenly, he knew she’d got the better of him. Only, he couldn’t work out how.

The next day he returned, you will come with me now, he said, looking stern and feeling determined. She was sitting at her kitchen table. Her lips pinched to keep hold of the pins. She was pulling a piece of brightly coloured fabric into place over another laid out beneath it. The colours hurt his eyes. He turned away.

But I’m sewing my dress, the festival is only days way, I must get it done. Besides, you’re mistaken again, she said taking the pins out from between her lips. Look at the door. It says,Tomorrow;but its today isn’t it? Its not tomorrow, is it. If it were tomorrow I’d be in a real state because I’d never finish this dress on time. I’ll just make it if I work on it today—as long as I don’t spend too much of it taking to you. And speaking of time, I can’t be expected to be ready if you keep mixing up our appointments.

He looked at the door. His face glum, he’d never understood all this todaying – tomorrowing—or the-day-after-tomorrowing, let alone the yesterdays and the-day-before-yesterdays. Once in a while he thought he’d grasped the meaning—like catching the very end of a silk scarf—then suddenly it all changed—and the silk slipped from his grip and what was today became yesterday. They never stayed the same. Given his confusion, he had to admit she was probably right. He muttered his apologies for disturbing unnecessarily and said he’d be back the very next day.

She played with him; shamelessly, she admitted quietly to her self. Everyday he came for her, and every day she told him she was far to busy to leave off and go with him—and besides, the word on the door said, Tomorrow, and he had craved it into the wood himself. Each time he looked more despondent; it made her uncomfortable because it made him so human. But she was too busy and too immersed in the thick of life to dwell on him for long. She had a house to keep, neighbours to help, bread to knead, vegetables that wanted weeding, flower-seeds and bulbs that awaited planting, her goats needed a new shed, her cow milking, and the milk had to be made into cheese. And then there were the babes who kept coming and the young mothers who called for her. Nothing was more beautiful that to hold a new life in her wrinkled hands. Every day he came calling for her and every day she showed him the writing on the lintel.

Then came a day where, bewildered, weary and annoyed, he shook his bony fist at the old woman. You have been cheating me, he said, his voice still quiet and polite, but cold enough to chill the water in the pitcher to ice. You have made a fool of me, he said. I do not pretend to know how, but I know you have deceived me. Tomorrow I will come for you one last time. And with his sleave he erased the word on the cottage door.

She was frightened; he meant it in earnest. But she wasn’t one to give up. All night she pondered, how she could outwit him. All night she thought and thought, but could think of nothing that would save her. The only trick she’d had was to baffle him with time itself, and that had played its last. As dawn slowly shed its light into the cottage and crept along the wall with its grey fingers, all she could think of was to hide. In the far corner of the kitchen stood a honey-barrel. Its lage belly was filled with new honey. He would come at any moment now; she climbed inside, and crouched down low until only her nose stuck out so she could breath. But like a child at hide and seek, she grew restless; doubting her choice and was suddenly sure he would find her. There’s no dignity in being haled from a honey barrel, she climbed out. Across the room stood her chest; she’d filled it with the finest goose feathers ready to make a new eiderdown quilt for the coming winter. That would make a good hiding place. Quickly she scampered across the kitchen, her honey-feet leaving traces on the floor. She climbed inside, covered herself with down and closed the lid behind her, trying to slow the heart pounding in her breast. She lay still. But couldn’t calm the doubt-nagging words, if you saw the chest as a hiding place, so will he. She whimpered. Her fingers twitched, he’s wise, he’s cunning, he’s sure to find me here. And out she climbed whimpering and muttering to herself …

Just as she did, he walked through the cottage door. He looked around; he couldn’t see the old woman. Only the most wondrous creature stood near the chest by the far wall. It was huge, as tall as he; it was covered in feathers and it let thick golden gobs drip onto the floor. Strange sounds came from its mouth. He’d seem many wonders on his long journeys—far beyond the ken of mortals—but never on all his travels had he seen anything like it. Startled, he cried out, and the creature raised its head and screamed at him. Death took such fright, he ran from the cottage and never returned. When the old woman was saturated with life and ready to die, she had to go looking for him and people say she walked through many a good shoe before she found him.