a small miracle
He was crushed in a factory at the age of fifteen, and walked with a hobble that shewn in his face; the grime of the age stained his clothes and his soul. His shoes burst at the seam last fall, but he chose (and understandably so) his mother’s medicine over a trip to the cobbler’s. He hadn’t had a dessert for eight years– the last time he’d been fool enough to bring a woman home to meet his mum.
There was something in the change to winter soothed him, even as the chill raised the ache in his bones. He wished his hair would thin, or the skin of his face droop and wrinkle, or the firmness of a worker’s body fade, so he could have an excuse for his loneliness.
His hands were filthy; they always were, especially the bitten nails that trapped oil from the machines. His fingers creaked, shifting like jammed logs, scraping together and making fire in his joints. In his elbow it became a dull moan that echoed up his arm, reverberating through his shoulders and his spine.
He should have had one of the younger men do it, or at least gotten one of the older ones to help, but the wheel gives out before his body, clanks as the valve closes, and in his minds he remembers congratulations from his youth– smiles and happy faces and perhaps a set or two of hands clapping. After all, he’s performed a small miracle. But the room is empty; no one witnesses his triumph, and more certainly no one would care.
Thick tar and soot bubbled up from his mother's lungs. She slept on her side to keep from choking like one of the Chinese immigrant vipers.
Doc Thokel visited every Wednesday, even though they hadn't been able to pay him in years (and his mother was no longer well enough to cook for him). In another life Thokel and his mother might have married, but the man she chose instead was big and handsome and strong, and Thokel so thin and bookish, tall but so far from exciting. Now he was married to a woman half her age, with a face perhaps a little like a horse's but still pretty. He visited her out of some disfigured loyalty.
Thokel smiled at her, and spoke gently, crushing a pill into her tea; moments later she snored loudly as Thokel spoke to him of time and inevitability.
He asked if the physician would return the next week. He didn't known, and couldn't see what good he might do. He told the doctor that these visits meant the world to his mother. He was the only one who reminded her she was still a woman.
His mum wanted grandchildren. Naturally he protested; he was too old. She told him that wasn't how it worked with men. He said he couldn't find anyone he liked. She told him he was too picky, and began to cough, and didn't stop until she'd choked the white out of his handkerchief with blood and tar.
The next night he brought home Sally Tipton from the bar down the corner. Sally was a robust woman, the only daughter of eight children. Her face had been kicked in by God before it was kicked in by a mule when she was thirteen.
His mother jittered excitedly at the approach of feminine smells, and demanded a proper introduction and her lenses. When she had the latter she cried aloud, then folded her focals while shaking her head. "This will never do. I want grandchildren- not gargoyles. You aren't trying."
Sally's life had numbed her to such rudeness, and she understood that his mother wasn't well. He crushed another of the pills from Thokel into her tea and she slept, fitfully muttering loudly about the offspring of gargoyles and golems, devils and daemons. His mother's muttering offered a profane symphony as he cooked a meal. Afterwards Sally drank too much beer, and had to be carried home. He even kissed her goodnight, thoroughly certain she wouldn't remember him by morning.
His mother sent a letter to his aunt in the country, and her reply mentioned his cousin who had come from a county upstate. She was, according to the note, "a lovely young thing, gentle-natured, and an absolute match for your darling Timothy."
He met her at the market; the wind blew from the north, bringing hard, fat pellets of rain, like owl droppings without the mouse bones. He offered her his coat, but she refused it; she had her own, and in this rain he would need his.
At the edge of the curb, he told her to mind the horse ring, and put his coat over a puddle. "It's only mud, no reason to ruin a perfectly fine co-" she stepped around him, her foot slippery away from her. He caught her as she fell, handling her like a cake pulled too early from the oven.
She saw his eyes, and didn't feel the roughness of his hands, and thanked him softly.
He righted her and folded his coat over his arm. His mother's sister had come in from the country to help make dinner. She was preparing a modest meal, but she had learned to cook in an abbey, where expense was always thought after more than taste.
Dark clouds crashed and rolled like the tide hitting the shore at night. Rain came down like shelled egg whites. Silent fingers tore the carriage door away from him, and he tried to shield her with his coat.
He ate slowly, and with care, struggling to recall the proper way to hold a spoon with his broken fingers.
She told him of her work in the library at the university, and the things she heard the men whisper of her, some members of the faculty. She related her history in 3 anecdotes: one from childhood, another from her days at school, and one the previous week about the death of her cat. She had a shard of gray hair in a field of faded red.
Shallow creases at the corners of pale green eyes when she smiled, which was never often but becoming more frequent as the candle shriveled.
When the evening was over she wished to leave. He protested; her apartments in the city were too far to reach through the storm, and it was too late for a carriage. He offered her his bed, and she told him the couch would suffice. He told her he couldn't sleep in a bed while a lady occupied his couch, and lay on the floor beside her. Before she fell asleep she laid her hand in his palm and it disappeared.
His mother was doing better. Just knowing that her son was seeing a woman had given her body its second wind. She was healthy enough that he decided to introduce the two of them.
She was wearing the same dress she met him in.
His mother wore a faded pink blouse with a ring of purple flowers around the collar. Her hair was thin enough you could see the wrinkled liver-spots on her scalp. When they arrived she was humming a hymnal breathlessly, absently scraping a brush over her head.
She had even colored her lips, making them wider and shapelier. They twisted into a smile as her son came in, filling the door for a moment. Her smile deformed like melting wax, the twinkling of her eyes tightening to coal.
"Mom; I'd like you to meet–"
Gwendolyn smiled, curtsied. "Hello."
"She's a librarian, at univ–"
"Oh; well that's nice. Does she attend services regularly?"
"Mother; we don't–"
Her eyes roll back, towards the ceiling, pointing at the moon. Hanging over her sickbed, pushed into the dining room, is a chandelier too large and low for the room.
"She's a very good cook."
Its outside edge is a snowflake whose points are glass teardrops, connected by strings of geometric pearls.
"And she's very sweet to me."
Faux candles burn electrically at corners, their light strong enough to touch the aura of the next, without feeling its warmth.
"And she's very smart."
At the center, beyond the illumination, three bars support its weight from the ceiling, connected to chains dividing the ceiling three ways.
"And mother, I think I…"
The three columns are crystal, held in place by a ring of brass, polished by hand, welded to the same point in existence forever.
Not long after that night, one of the candles burst, starting a small fire that blackened one of the columns with soot. He changed out the light, and meant to polish away the coal; he never finished.
His mother's health turned, and she died at night, choking in the dark because she refused to let him waste the light.
Thokel offered to ride with him, but he chose to walk to her funeral.
Rain falls a drop at a time, shattering a sheet of glass covering the road, echoing for an instant before disappearing, leaving the mirror intact. Trees stand above the grass, masters in their solitude, lords each of a plot, given distance to grow.
There is a rosebush on the left side of a yard. It lies in a circle of earth bigger than it needs, small as it is for its youth and shriveled by frost.
Opposite is an old boxer tied to a willow. The dog's hair is short, its skin struggling to keep sharp bones from breaking through. He shudders uncontrollably in a wind that leaves the willow untouched.
The tendril branches of the tree are bleached, the leaves turned black and shriveled. It isn't old like the dog, or out of season like the rose bush; it's poisoned and dying.
The dog pulls at the rope, not for freedom, but to be out of the rain. He lets him loose, and he pauses out of decency to let him pat his head before he cowers under the eave. He considers giving the dog his jacket; cold, droopy gray eyes flash at him and he thinks he sees the rain in them, and he realizes he's late now and he's crying already.
He starts away, and the old dog watches; he wants the hound to follow; he could use the company; but the dog is too old and too loyal to start over.
He's alone at the funeral.
His mother is gone, even though she's there, close enough to touch; the rain on her blouse seems to make her chest rise and fall like the crest of waves.
Gwendolyn is there, and her hand slides into his palm, disappears.
The warmth of her.
The liquid rain.
He feels nothing.