Ma thrust her head over my shoulder and yelled, "And pick up some milk for god's sake," but her words sunk in the heavy air. Sighing the way she always did before heading off to the mill, she tilted her head. Gleaming in her eyes was something as timid as a baby deer. Every now and then the shy, tender part of her surfaced. "I know you want to go reading with Auntie," Ma said to me. "But don't forget your chores. Don't go having no fun first."
"Yes, Ma," I said, but as soon as the door closed behind her, I headed to the kitchen and brewed a pot of tea. When me and Auntie were alone together, before we settled down to reading, we always sipped a cup of tea and Auntie told me things she'd never told anyone else.
That morning me and Auntie sat on the sofa and sipped a peppermint tea that we'd picked and dried ourselves. "Listen now," Auntie said. "Remember our family picnics at Culver Lake? And the afternoons we all spent ice-skating on Adam's pond? Weren't they fun?" I nodded. Auntie knew I loved it when Ma and Brother and me hunted crayfish along the lakeshore or when Daddy and I skated backwards across the pond with Ma doing figure eights around us.
Auntie put a finger to her chin and looked off toward the window. From the way she opened and shut her mouth several times I could tell she was searching for the right words. "And then there were all the times when something good happened out of the blue. Like when your ma found fifty dollars just lying on the ground or when your poem was chosen best in class. You know what I mean? If you only think about what's bad, well then, life's bad. You see what I'm saying?"
I smiled and stirred my tea, tapping the spoon dry on the edge of the cup. I had no idea what Auntie was getting at, but I always wished to please her. I lifted the cup to my mouth. Auntie continued, "I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though both my boys were killed, one on Okinawa, the other in the mines, I don't believe in the family curse."
Shocked by her words, I gulped the tea, burning my tongue. The curse was as real and basic as sunlight or water. I couldn't imagine our lives without it. Scalded, my tongue felt puffy as I said, "How can you say that, Auntie?"
"There isn't a family curse," Auntie explained. "Or that's not exactly what I mean. There is one. But it's not out there," she said, pointing out the window. "It's in here." She aimed a thick, slightly crooked finger at me and prodded my chest.
"Inside me?" I said, pulling at the cable knit of my sweater as if the curse was hiding somewhere underneath my clothes.
Auntie sighed. "Not just you. Inside each one of us. You see we make" But Auntie was cut off by an explosion deep in the ground and she completed her thought by saying something in Ukrainian that I knew was a bad word because she'd said it before and would never tell me what it meant. The explosions were something we'd gotten used to because they happened sometimes in winter when the outlets the fire used for air froze over, but Auntie was clearly thinking about the damage the explosion might have caused. She stood and said she'd check on the shed that, with each explosion since Christmas, had started tilting farther toward the left, slowly sinking like an absurd shed-ship into the ground. I didn't see what the bother was. It was an ugly shed and we didn't even store anything worthwhile in it, but I'd learned not to stop Auntie from checking on it. That crumpling old shack meant something to her.
Not bothering with a coat, Auntie tramped through the kitchen and banged open the porch door. Through the little window over the sink I watched her walk the gravel path. Flakes of snow so small they resembled ash wafted down around her. I spread some of Auntie's elderberry jam on a heel of bread and stood at the counter working my jaw hard to chew it. When I next glanced out the window, the snow had so thickened the fog that I couldn't see a thing. Absently I began peeling the potatoes Auntie and I had planned to boil for supper. I'd been reading a book about Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was said to have had an extra finger. I wondered if she'd used that extra finger for a special purpose, like playing the harp or picking locks, and I tried to picture the various ways it might have grown out of her handdirectly out the side or stuck like a twin to her pinky. I reasoned that if I were a king an extra finger would interest me since I'd probably be bored by everything ordinary. It wasn't until I'd nearly finished peeling the potatoes that I realized Auntie hadn't returned.
Copyright © 2014 by Natalie S. Harnett
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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