One Dark Summer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

This is the first chapter of a "potential" novella; an early work of mine. Atmospheric account of an extraordinary summer in a rustic village...

Chapter 1 (v.1) - One Dark Summer

Submitted: December 26, 2011

Reads: 210

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Submitted: December 26, 2011

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The summer of 1910 was a late one. Spring ended and summer sashayed into our front lawn, fashionably tardy. A devastating heat sat down upon our neighbourhood, casting a fat, torpid, sloth-like spell. The skies bulged beneath the weight of the new brooding sun, splashed with extravagant blues and pinks that languid poets in dark rooms translated into lyrics. The world within our tiny untouched village came alive with the hushed, sibilant whispers of the willow trees, waving sleepily in a hot breeze. The dry flutter of women’s fans was on the air. Fans of exotic bamboo wood, with gaudy red and crimson fringes, like colourful afterthoughts, beautifully whittled. Sophia’s fan had murmuring geishas carved into its panels.

 

 It was a summer of fresh, succulent fruit, embellished with wet drops of perspiration. Recumbent women exhaled behind quivering red fans. Minuscule beads hung suspended in dark crooks: a sticky, tormenting excretion. They languished in the penumbral shadows of sighing trees that bore leaves with soft crinkles around the edges, like parched green fingers. And we dressed for the sun: an occasion that gave sanction to white, satin under dresses, rising sumptuously to the knee, and floating weakly in the gust’s more confident bursts. Men in starched collars and black suits possessed a vicarious glimmer in their eyes.

 

Perhaps it was the exceptional heat of that summer that spawned a barbarous and uncouth crudity in the villagers. Suddenly the women became restless and feral; we were no longer anxious over decorum or cosmetics. We did not fix our hair into fastidious ringlets or coil it into neat, firm buns. It hung loose, running down fiery hot backs in matted, scorched cascades. Our wrists were bare. Our feet were unshod and dusty. Who would paint their lips now? Who would torture themselves to conform to the disciplined sculpture of a corset? Our defiance ran rampant like a hot, boiling stream rushing through a scorched, dying landscape. We became furiously inarticulate: our irascibility communicated through glowering silence. We were volatile. The least provocation, the least disruption of this self-imposed martyrdom inspired the most intense fit of pique from a woman. She would be gradually corroded by this hot, passionate ennui, in seclusion. The azaleas shrivelled up and turned black. A black dog howled and ran madly through our street. And a woman sighed and turned over on her side. She flinched as her hot scarlet leg peeled slowly off the blazing surface of her sun chair.

 

One day I asked Mama, “Am I dying, Jessie?” She laughed feebly from her wooden rocking chair outside the front door: a soft tinkle. “No my dear,” she replied, in her easy, amiable way, “You are not dying, you’re just burnt.” She took my arm with her good hand, and pressed her fingers against my peeling pink skin. I wriggled. “Don’t exaggerate,” she hissed. I sat still, and she began peeling away the dead skin. I sighed and looked up. The sky was the bottom of a deep blue pool.

 

Grandfather Putin was an astronomer.

 

Grandfather Putin was a very solemn, ascetic sort of man. His full name was Edward Bartholomew Putin. My untutored childish tongue liked to shrink him into an edible scrap: “Pu”. He wore long, lumpy black cardigans that hung over his knees, and a plain blue cap. Sky blue. He never took off his cap, hence I could never tell what colour hair he had. Pu’s sky cap was an accessory which gradually merged into his spiritual being, held there by some form of miraculous adhesive, and became an insignia of his identity. Pu had inordinately large eyes, the size of giant green saucers. These splendid organs seemed to conform to an inimitable set of internal mechanics. When stimulated, the pupils swelled and became two black holes, devouring the coloured iris, like a darkening eclipse.

 

Grandfather Pu hated the rain. It turned everything into brown mushy slop, and he could not go out with his telescope. He also disliked Marxists, Communists, and “conservatives in tailored suits”. But his greatest bete noir was “vanity”. When I first asked Mama what vanity meant, she said that “vanity was a woman who did not cover her head in church, a woman who painted her lips and wore a corset even in summer.” On the subject of vanity, we could expect one of Grandpa’s epic theses on the “iniquities of society and its coxcombs”. Pu spoke about vanity as if it was a pestilence, and not a woman who painted her lips red and wore corsets even in the dog days of summer. This was grandpa’s streak. Everyone has streaks. Sophia’s streak was her profound shyness around men. Papa’s streak was his erratic, mercurial temper that could explode at any moment. Pu’s streak was his want to purge the world of something to which it had a natural propensity. To him, the vain were akin to the black shrivelled petals on mama’s azaleas. They carried a germ that was infectious! They polluted the uncorrupted blooms! The vain were grotesque flowers to be deadheaded! That was when a faint line appeared between mama’s eyebrows, and Grandpa Pu suddenly began to talk about the weather. 

 

Grandfather Pu called himself an atheist. He believed in Purgatory and Predestination, and possessed an old fat copy of the torah; its pages stained the colour of golden tea. Pu’s peculiar fondness for damnation was sated by a cherished article of literature: a dog-eared Grim’s book of fairy tales. Occasionally, Pu conveyed the book with him on his visits, bowered in a cratered brown bag.

 

There is an era in the most remote, nebulous crooks of my memory when a book, any book, was a wordless object. Once inside, I gawped at its muddy crisp clear pages, with perfectly straight rows of ink black silhouettes. And some characters slouched down off the straight line, like disobedient infants. I followed the black contours, with a clean finger that would not sully the milky page. And suddenly, I began to discern individual characters: some were more orderly than others, like the c, which always arrived in the same neat, compliant form. Never tempted to slouch off the invisible path. As for the p, how slovenly it behaved! Always determined to stick out its tail. Grandpa Pu stuffed my mind with these beautifully pared figures, cramming them into every corner and every orifice, until my mind was sated with ink dipped silhouettes.

 

I felt a sense of ruminative perplexity as he read. Scores of childhood hours had been spent savouring each voluptuous shape, and at last I heard their voices. Pu’s creased fat fingers peeked out from behind the red cover. I watched as his glistening nostrils inflated and fell in the more grotesque passages. And as I grew older, it became more apparent that the whole ceremony was more of an indulgence to the narrator than to the obedient listener. Grimms’ grisly tales were a ghastly exhibit of my lovely letters, which were plied into the shapes of bloodthirsty villains and ghouls. How could such a vile book be bound with such a congenial cover? But darkness was the essence of Grandfather Pu’s religion. In the twilight years of his life, the sallow pages that he had once so avidly digested were no longer adequate. Our last visits were a dour experience. Pu’s final agitated months were spent sketching: strewn in every corner and hanging on every wall were hundreds, thousands of skeletons. Melancholy skeletons. Grinning skeletons. Skeletons missing vital bones. Grandfather Pu is fulfilling his ardent desire: a slow transfiguration into one of his millions of fleshless companions.

 

There were five of us at Pu’s funeral. Mama, Father, my sister Sophia, and I, and the priest, Mr Redford. Pu was laid out in a shiny brown coffin, with mama’s gold pin fastened to his cardigan. His feet did not touch the end of the coffin. They missed it by a foot. His lips were blue. And a tiny droplet hung from his glistening nostrils. It pulsated in the heavy, grim silence. Mama dabbed at the corners of her red rimmed eyes with a white kerchief. Folded twice. She stood stiffly with the petite delicacy of a cat, her waiflike features hardened, pink lips taut, and her big hazel eyes furiously ablaze. Her big hat with the overhanging veil wobbled on her head. It cast a dark netted pattern onto her white face. Father’s arm was wrapped firmly around her waist, as one might collar an unpredictable dog that could flee at any moment. Sophia squeezed my hand. The tiny droplet continued to palpitate. Like a dying heartbeat.

 

Mr Redford’s house was behind ours: a large blue cottage, with curling tentacles of ivy crawling up its gable. Mr Redford lived with his wife, Amber, who arranged the blue roses in the flowerpots outside their door. They were the only family within the village that owned a fly.

 

Mr Redford was the most conceited man that ever lived. Ever since the rector’s alleged encounter with a resurrected spirit, which he likened to a prophetic vision, he fancied himself the enlightened possessor of a supplementary sense. He proffered drops of this enlightenment onto the neighbourhood in the form of spiritual counsel. But this counsel would have been better received if its dissemination was not quite so frequent, nor quite so arrogant. He presumed his own situation an unparalleled paradigm, from which lesser mortals could be taught. According to Mr Redford, Mrs Redford was a woman of good breeding, an acceptable wife, and “as women go, the best model that could be found.” Apparently, a priest chose a wife neither to promote his happiness nor hers, but to set a trend with his flock of parishioners. According to Mr Redford, “Women were like bitches, and early domestic training was essential.” Mrs Amber Redford, thirty five years his junior, was nineteen when Mr Redford took her home. As for their circumstances, he and Mrs Redford conducted a frugal economy, without any “excesses of immoderation”, for according to Mr Redford, he and his wife had no propensity towards frivolous commodities. And as for the most prevalent extravagance of the modern day: the profligate purchase of oil lamps, he and Mrs Redford had only three oil lamps on last count, with one additional in the case of emergency. For according to Mr Redford, a thrifty collection of oil lamps was the hallmark of elegant economy. Mrs Redford stepped out of the house each day at noon to water her blue roses. She wore the plainest dress I had every seen. Ordinary white muslin, with no frills.

 

Mr Redford spoke in a querulous, starchy whisper that made the fat vein in his temple swell. His head drooped slightly to his right side, either because it was simply too heavy to support, or that it made an appropriate canvas for his coy simper. Rather than walk, he sidled; rather than laugh, he leered; and all this was invariably accompanied by a feigned bashfulness, an abominable propensity to rub his hands together like an agitated cricket, with a feeble piety that was more self deprecating than religious. Whenever contradicted, the priest’s lips curled into an effeminate pout.

 

Moreover, as for matters of the female sex, Mr Redford’s only response to enquiries in this quarter was that “over the mysteries of female activity, a veil must be drawn.”

 

The church stood on the outskirts of the village, obscured from our garden by a long chain of poplars to the east. Every Sunday, we were summoned by the sad dong of the church bells, out into the street, to the drifting column of parishioners, into the church, and into the cold hard benches of faith. Inside, the men in snow white starched collars sat to the north, and the women in their sober black dresses sat to the south. The church faced east. I sat to the south, next to mama on her left, and Sophia on her right. Papa did not sit with us. He stood still as a picket, his arms obediently slanted, his fingers contemplatively intertwined. Sophia and I sat very still, nervously drinking in each stiff wooden pew, every dark soaring column, the pulpit with its impressive bronze eagle in front, the bible which rested complacently on its wings. The female heads that hovered above us were pendant in grim stillness, each head inclined towards the pulpit, each a well-bred model to which we were mere puny aspirants. But occasionally, I enjoyed a rare display of defiance: a woman’s fastidious curls would quiver suddenly, animated beneath her veil. And from this I learned to augur that some delicious piece of hearsay had just popped into her head. As she turned furtively to a companion, her black mantilla would shift slightly to reveal a sliver of porcelain skin and lips painted red. It was impossible for women to sit still through all of Mr Redford’s sermons; and the rewards of gossip were valuable when there were none others to be had. Red lips began to open and close with the keen voracity of a fish’s gills behind hymn sheets. Once the golden nugget was communicated, the ruffled transgressors could breathe and resume their ecclesiastical silence. And although this was the last of the hushed tete a tete, I always got a sense that the other woman was wallowing in some vital strand of wisdom that would not be disclosed until I became of age and attained their giddy stature.  

 

My father was born at a time when religion was a congenial fog that spread its wings over farmers, townsmen and wives, when artless obeisance was enough, and minds were immune to theological misgiving. It was a time when the just man lived by faith alone, and people’s hands had caught the habit of genuflection, while not quite knowing why. Ever since I was a child, my hands were stubborn, defiant; they would not submit. I said that I would not love a God that had given Grandpa Pu a stroke, and destroyed mama’s right arm. Papa called me a brat, and said that “speculation was the enemy of faith”. Mama demanded to know why I could not be more like Sophia, to which I said I could not be Sophia, a docile dog to be ordered about. That was when Mr Redford came in his fly. He was wearing a maroon jumper colonised by little woolly knobs, and his lips were curled into a womanish pout. He made me look up perverse in my big Websters’ dictionary. It said:

 

1a: Turned away from what is right or good: corrupt. b: INCORRECT, IMPROPER. 2a: obstinate in opposing what is right, reasonable, or accepted: WRONG-HEADED. b: arising from or indicative of stubbornness or obstinacy. 3: marked by peevishness or petulance: CRANKY  syn see CONTRARY.

 

The summer of 1910 was the summer that my “perverse streak” became less conspicuous, and female etiquette in our home town went to the dogs. The fish in our pond were turning a sickly shade of yellow. Sophia brought home mysterious melted chocolates, the kind with the hard toffee centre, and Maria’s eyes seemed to swell into two hungry green pits. I remember that sun as the sultriest that ever hung in the sky. It was a sun that seeped into our skin, and rushed through trembling bodies with the commotion of a hot monsoon. It was a heat that woke us at night in swamped beds, and possessed us with the avid obsession of lovers tangled beneath drenched sheets. 

 

That summer the composer came in a cab.

 

 

To be continued...


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