Anna_

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story which recounts the life and experiences of a physically disabled girl named Anna, who discovers happiness and a means of expression through art.

Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Anna

 

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Slowly, gingerly, the black cat extricated its freshly sharpened claws from the scratching post, stretched out its front paws and inspected the fruits of its labour. Satisfied that its blades were sharp enough to secure a handsome banquet in its usual round of nightly depredation, the cat sheathed its impressive weaponry. Licking its lips, the feline bowed its head slightly, sneezed and stepped circumspectly towards the kitchen, assuming the cautious gait of a soldier carrying out a reconnaissance of the enemy’s territory.

Surprisingly few people have an inborn ability to observe the little details. Most people wouldn’t have detected the cat’s sneeze, a subtle clicking sound which was almost inaudible above the shrill whirring of the blender. The all too familiar motorized cacophony emanated from the open doorway to the left of Anna’s wheelchair. The vast majority would not pause to dress the cat in human sentiments, reaching the conclusion that the subtle glint in his eye was a manifestation of his complacent satisfaction. The mass multitudes simply do not have the time or energy to engage in a child’s game of anthropomorphising.

The blender stopped. A tall dark woman emerged from behind the open door with a stout glass of an eerily green concoction bearing a distinctly grey, fluffy head. She was pursing her lips in that stern, unsympathetic way, which usually meant she was in a hurry. She marched into the centre of the room, the drink sloshing around in the glass haphazardly. She plonked herself rather unceremoniously in front of Anna’s wheelchair, her legs falling naturally into the lotus position. The woman starred at Anna through protuberant, beady eyes, and without further ceremony or warning, she shoved the glass into Anna’s face and began tipping its contents into her open mouth. Anna, not unaccustomed to these alarmingly brusque gestures, forced herself to swallow the pulverised celery. The cold, bland mixture was down her throat in less than a minute, after which the tall Latin woman stormed out of the room with the empty glass, wiping her fingers on her apron with an exaggerated, almost thespian-like display of disgust.

Anna’s eyes fixed on the open door, still swinging slightly on its hinges after the shock of the maid’s violent departure. A pair of dark, inquisitive pupils flashed in the gap between the door frame and the handle. They remained there for a brief time, narrowing and widening like those of a cat. After several moments’ vacillation, the owner of those ogling organs stepped into the room in what appeared to be a dauntless show of self-complacent bravura. Anna recognised the child’s unblemished, sallow complexion, her round cherubim-like cheeks and the pink fleshy orb which hung like a pendulous dewdrop in the centre of her top lip. The intruder stared at Anna behind long, curly wet lashes, fiddling absently with the black locks which cascaded mischievously to her hips. She had a certain shifty, evasive gaze, which seemed to point either to an innate propensity towards prevarication, or the artful stylisations of a young coquette; Anna could not quite discern which. She pranced towards the centre of the room, stopped abruptly in front of the wheelchair and stuck her forefinger into Anna’s lower arm; the gaunt blue-white limb was barely exposed beneath her long-sleeved blue nightgown.

“Por que no hablas?” she demanded in her thick Spanish accent. Anna furrowed her eyebrows and her bottom lip jutted out slightly as a wave of convulsion passed across her taut, distorted features. Willing her tongue to form an articulate construction was a futile exercise; it, like every other limb in her body was an irksome, rebellious digit, which exulted in defying her mind’s orders like a recalcitrant toddler. Anna could feel threads of saliva dripping down her chin. She grunted loudly and her face scrunched up. The child stuck out her tongue and contorted her features mockingly.

The Latin woman, the stern administrator of the celery brew, clambered into the room carrying a precariously balanced tray topped with a teapot and dishes. Surveying her daughter with obvious annoyance, she shouted: “Fuera de aquí!” The child, suddenly assuming a sanctimonious, defensive air, stood with her arms akimbo, her feet rooted to the spot. The girl’s iron wall of resistance was met by her mother’s matchless capacity to shout and wave her pugilistic fist in the air, leaving her daughter with no choice but to concede defeat and quit the room.

Before following the insubordinate out of the room, the maid paused, gazing at Anna with an uncharacteristic look of sympathy. She hesitated, and said in her broken English: “Your mother - home soon, niña.” Then, reassuming her tough, impenetrable facade, she walked out.  Anna watched her depart, her tray balanced expertly, and her elephantine hips swinging to and fro.

The day was giving up its last touches of light when the front door was heard slamming shut amidst the commotion of a dog’s agitated yelps, the clunk of tins hitting the floor and a baby’s insistent, hungry cries. Anna opened her eyes; she had nodded off in the little room with the faintly twinkling Christmas tree. The temperature of the room had dropped considerably since the maid and her little pugnacious child had left it. Anna heard the door behind her open to admit a cool draught and the sounds of the world outside her window; she waited expectantly for the source of the din to come to her.

“Charlie, get the door, will you? My hands are full.” A flushed, plump lady tottered into the room, struggling to support the chubby, ruddy-faced baby beneath her left arm, while her right rummaged vainly in her handbag. Suddenly abandoning her search, she looked up and shouted after the boy: “And the meat, Charlie, the turkey! I’m afraid the dog will eat it. Ask Rosa to help you transfer all the perishables into the fridge, won’t you?”  Puffing and exhausted, she heaved her weight into the nearest armchair, placed her handbag on the carpet and propped the child up on her lap, running her beefy fingers up and down its back.

“Anna, I hope you were good today, hmmm?” she said looking up at her daughter with rosy cheeks. Another wave of contortion seized Anna’s features, as her mind re-embarked on its unending battle with her tongue and limbs; Anna struggled to see her mother’s face in the periphery. “What did you do today then, honey? I’m sure Rosa and you got up to all sorts, eh missus?” She was looking at her baby, smiling down into his bright open face, while absent-mindedly directing her platitudinous remarks at the still wheelchair, each one meant as a stale rhetorical question, each one penetrating the air around Anna like lumbering, directionless paper aeroplanes. Their maker had crafted them and propelled them on an oblique route without a target, superfluous aircrafts without a purpose, without a mission.

Anna stared vacantly at the inanimate objects which occupied her limited field of vision. She endeavoured to divert herself from the venomous tirade, threatening to manifest itself as a fierce ebullition of saliva. She was seized by a sudden urge to throttle the maid’s impudent daughter, that brat whose recreation consisted of poking and tormenting her in vacant rooms without witnesses. She wanted to shout at her mother for asking questions. Questions provoked and enraged her because her noncompliant tongue would not deign to answer them. Why did her mother always sit so far away; another hazy occupant of those obscure margins enclosing her on both sides, the region she liked to call no-man’s land. Did her mother fear that her incapacitation was somehow contagious? She wondered why they ever bothered to open their mouths when every strained interaction reaffirmed her ineptitude, her powerlessness, her incapacity to form a single coherent syllable. Her mother’s half-hearted remarks, her constant rhetorical questions were no source of solace.  Anna could not comprehend her mother’s one-sided monologues. Perhaps they perpetuated the fierce cycle of denial which enveloped their lives; the denial which fostered the pretence that her questions were not met by a barricade of stiff silence, a painfully contorted face, a chin streaming with involuntary saliva.

“It’s awfully cold in here, isn’t it darling?” Mother eased herself out of the armchair, her corpulent frame, an impressive juggernaut, left behind its distinctive stamp in the cushion. “I’ll ask Rosa to put some more coal on the fire, while I put your brother in his cot,” she said, grasping the handle of the wheelchair. Child on hip, she pushed the chair closer to the fireplace, where the tower of coals had collapsed, diminished to a feeble knoll of dying embers.

That Christmas was bitterly cold. The ground cracked beneath the few pairs of blistered feet which dared to expose themselves to a painful excoriation. Houses’ foundations were threatened by ruthless squalls and an intractable ice.  Anna felt the cold more acutely than most as she was slight and underdeveloped; her diminutive frame was ensconced in layer upon layer of coarse, synthetic clothing which raised welts and caused her eyes to water relentlessly. It was the insufferable weather, as well as her mother’s penchant for travel, which prompted Anna’s parents and her two siblings to depart for a capricious, two week sojourn in the tropics. Her mother spent the week before Christmas dashing wildly in and out of rooms throwing as many unnecessary, frivolous items as she could find into empty suitcases; her irrational terror of forgetting something essential was assuaged by compulsively talking inventories and packing away everything within sight except the heavy household appliances and Anna, who was to remain at home.

Anna’s temporary care was entrusted to the man next-door. His name was Arnold Grisworth. He was a tall, lumbering sort of man with carefully cultivated whiskers, whose corrugated face exposed the ravages of a turbulent existence. Arnold’s remarkable assiduity and his sole dedication to his work outweighed other, questionably less crucial values, namely as proper self-care and hygiene. Anna’s mother could not have selected Mr. Grisworth for his dependability or any marked show of benevolence, as he rarely ventured beyond the confines of his unkempt, shamefully overrun garden. He was attributed the sobriquet “old bachelor”, as he spent the greater part of his life indoors, much too preoccupied with the stringent demands of an artist’s calling to leave his squat rustic cottage. It seemed he was too occupied to secure himself a wife, a social circle and a church, not to mention acquiring what his neighbours might deem a socially acceptable trade.

Several days before their hasty departure, Anna’s mother approached the eccentric misanthrope and deemed him to be a very suitable candidate; firstly, based upon his close proximity to their residence, and secondly, because upon appeal, he had acquiesced to the whole arrangement. The old bachelor consented to watch over Anna while her family languished beneath the heat of an ardent, tropical sun.

Mr Grisworth was one of those rare, exceptional sorts of men who shared Anna’s gift of perceptiveness.  Men of his were blessed with patience and discernment, discovering charm in the most ostensibly mundane of things, if even a black cat sharpening its claws. It was this gift of perspicacity which allowed Mr Grisworth to see right through Anna’s mother, who had accredited her absence on Christmas to the death of a remote relation who had emigrated to the tropics. According to the woman, the intense heat was a sort of catalyst for ageing. It was inevitable that the inhospitable climate would, by some inexplicable means (which would undoubtedly have confounded those of the medical profession), accelerated the ageing process, thus causing him to die at a tragically premature age. Arnold Grisworth, while it may be said that he was not the most sociable of beings, had an inbuilt lie detector.

“I cannot express how much I appreciate you giving up your precious time,” Anna’s mother announced, as she scooped up her youngest child and fished in her pocket for her keys. Flicking the shock of auburn frizz out her eyes, she surveyed the old bachelor’s gargantuan white dungarees, embellished with flecks of purple and red paint. Her eyes rolled disdainfully over the commotion of colour, garish symbols of the artist’s solitary trade. “I have left a note on the kitchen table with instructions as to Anna’s care, feeding times etc. I also got a second key cut for you.” She placed the silver key on the adjacent cabinet and pushed past him, exiting through the front door. “You will find she is resting in the sitting room, Mr. Grisworth. Thanks again.” He nodded stiffly and watched as her uncertain feet crunched across a garden of compressed ice. Wavering suddenly at the front gate, she turned around and shouted back, “She likes celery shakes.”

The sitting room was cold and poorly lit; the rich, bucolic scent of pine sat in the air. Anna was hunched near the source of that all-pervasive odour, absently caressing the flaccid limbs of a fatigued Christmas tree. She was facing away from him as he entered, but he saw her neck tense upon hearing the sound of his giant footsteps; her gnarled fingers released the branches and a shower of tiny, desiccated pine needles hit the carpet.

“Good afternoon, Anna. My name is Arnold. I’ll be here to watch over you for a week at least,” the paint bejewelled artist proclaimed in a booming voice which resounded like an imperial trumpet, as if to signify the arrival of his entourage. The bachelor strode to where his charge sat motionless and silent; he pushed the chair gently into the centre of the room near the fireplace, and positioned himself courteously in full view.

He looked into an ashen face with sharp, chiselled features and a pair of lovely, azure eyes. Her lips, two full cracked crescents, were parted and he could hear her breath as it left her body in short, sharp bursts. Her light auburn hair was clipped short with the exception of two unruly locks which ran across her forehead and gathered at the edge of her right eye; stray deviants in a head of tightly ordered curls. He smiled into her open, honest face, picked up one of her frail hands and pecked it politely. “Now then, I hear they call me the old bachelor in the neighbourhood but...” he leaned in closer and whispered playfully, “...I prefer Arnold.” He paused. “The Mad Artist might even be preferable as I have never quite considered myself entirely compos mentis and I am, as you probably may have guessed from my shamefully stained garments, an artist of sorts.”

Anna’s eyes fixed upon the lurid splashes of paint which dappled his once immaculate white dungarees. He saw the edges of her lips curl upwards almost imperceptibly. Satisfied with this favourable reception, he continued in the only dry, mildly sardonic way in which he knew how: “But that is not the worst of the neighbourhood legend, I hear I have just recently been attributed the supernatural power of divination, ever since I passed by Mrs. Reeds last Friday...” he hesitated, smiling complacently, “And yes, I do realise that my leaving the house is a rare occurrence that just may have stimulated some very overactive imaginations.” Sitting down by the hearth animatedly, he looked at his attentive listener and resumed, “But anyway, I digress. As I passed Mrs. Reed’s house, I happened to say out loud to myself (quite proof of my madness, you see!) that it looked very much like it would rain tomorrow evening at two o’ clock. And well, as if by some trick of fate, what should happen the next day at precisely two?” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together in wonderment.

Anna’s eyes lit up as she marvelled at Mr Grisworth’s droll display of prattling insanity, a welcome diversion from the emphasis customarily placed upon her own deficiency of mental faculties. In fact, to Anna’s delight, the benevolent artist prattled on for most of the evening, sitting cross-legged by the fire, his perky chin propped up beneath a paint mottled hand. He directed his full attention to the silent articulations of her lively eyes, which his practised eye picked up as effortlessly as one detects emotions in the distinct modulations of a voice.

On Christmas Eve, Arnold braved the harsh winter weather to purchase Anna’s Christmas present: a set of pristine, firm bristled paintbrushes, watercolours and an artist’s sketchpad. The obvious limitations of Anna’s immobility did not occur to the overly zealous artist and he presented her the gift without a trace of scepticism or even faint cognizance of the tactless incongruity of the circumstances.

Anna frowned and the shadow of a pout passed over her face as her knotted fingers grappled with one of the brushes. Sighing deeply, she released her strained grip, renouncing the abortive exercise; the brush clacked as it hit the floor. “Well no one ever got anywhere giving up so easily, did they?” the painter remarked. He picked up the brush, placed the sketchpad on her lap and kneeled down beside the chair. “Now, if one of our limbs just won’t cooperate, who ever said we can’t call on one that’s more reliable.” He took the brush between his teeth and bowing his head, he moved the bristles up and down the page. Wiping it courteously on his sweater, he held it out for her. “Open wide and give it a try.” 

 Anna had never believed in anything divine, much less the existence of an omniscient, heavenly influence; her infirmity and the tormenting nature of her circumscribed life jeopardised any morsel of faith that she may have ever harboured. But even she could not account for the miraculous reprieve which painting bestowed upon her troubled soul; there was something undeniably hallowing about the act of controlling that brush. It was her saving grace, her stimulant and source of inspiration. The colours seemed to beguile her, as, clasping the submissive brush between her teeth, she created a landscape of lurid reds, subtle pinks and mauves, peacock greens and stark blacks. For Anna, creating art was more than just a recreation; it was a shining affirmation of her capacity in a life where lack overshadowed wealth, incapacity outweighed aptitude, and immobility hindered the slightest progress. It was her singular means of expression. It quashed the notion that her silence meant that she had nothing to say. But what was truly miraculous was that she no longer felt unnecessary; she was no longer the sole piece of odd furniture in the set; she was no longer superfluous.

When Anna’s family returned from their extravagant holiday in the sun, they brought back a suitcase filled with silly, inconsequential knick knacks and faintly bronzed complexions. The overpriced, finicky souvenirs broke easily and the tan faded within several weeks. But Anna’s new-found vocation would last her a lifetime. That blessing was Arnold Grisworth’s Christmas present.  

 


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