Where Else Can You Find Pies Like That?
by Marina J. Neary
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Isabelle never received an official invitation to stay, but Katherine never asked her to leave either. Every morning the table was set for three, so Isabelle knew she was still welcome in the house. More than once she offered Katherine help, and each time the stern woman told her to go and have a piece of pie instead.
One time when Katherine returned from the market she noticed that her old linen curtains were replaced by new ones of white French lace. It did not take a genius to determine whose initiative it was. With her hands clasped to her chest, Isabelle fluttered into the room.
“Well, Aunt Kitty, do you like it?”
“It really wasn’t necessary, my dove,” Katherine hissed through her teeth.
“But I wanted to! It’s a present, just to show how much I appreciate your hospitality. You must admit, those old curtains looked a bit... provincial.”
“Provincial, you say?”
“And the problem with provincial is...?”
In two seconds Isabelle’s face became red and wet. “You’re still angry with me, aren’t you? You think I murdered your son, don’t you? You said you forgave me, but you still hold a grudge, don’t you? For once, tell me the truth. You want me to leave! Is that it?”
Joseph heard the noise and stormed into the room. His first instinctive movement was to put his arm around the sobbing girl.
“What’s the matter? Why is she crying, Aunt Kitty? What have you done to upset her?”
“She thinks I murdered her son,” Isabelle replied between sobs.
Joseph’s eyes blazed up with indignation. “Aunt Kitty! Did you really say such a thing?”
“She didn’t have to,” Isabelle continued. “It’s written all over her face! The hatred, the bitterness... How stupid I am! What am I doing in this house? I should’ve left the same day I came. No, I shouldn’t have ever come here in the first place! Whatever I say or do will only make her hate me more!”
While lamenting, the girl did not forget to hide her face on Joseph’s chest. He caressed her bleached hair and palpitated, for the first time beginning to understand the warnings of Father Athanasius — not that the old priest mattered any longer.
“Go outside, please,” Joseph whispered to Isabelle. “You need some fresh air. I’ll have a word with Aunt Kitty.”
The girl stopped sobbing and obediently went outside. As soon as the door behind her closed, Joseph attacked Katherine.
“How can you treat the poor girl with such cruelty? Hasn’t she suffered enough already?”
“Haven’t we all?”
“She mustered enough courage to bring you the truth! At last, you now know how your son died.”
“I didn’t need the bloody truth! This selfish bleached weasel sniffed her way into my house, just to ease her heart, to throw her burden on me. And you’ve lost your mind over that chunk of cotton-candy from Warsaw.”
“Don’t call her that!”
“Well, go outside and make sure she’s stopped sniffling. I’ve got cows to milk.”
Isabelle was no longer crying. She scooped some icy-cold water from the bucket and washed her face. Once again her eyes were bright and her cheeks rosy. In that condition Joseph found her.
“Thanks for not condemning me,” she said.
“Condemning you for what? Listen, you have to stop paying attention to Aunt Kitty. But why don’t you and I go to town for the rest of the day? I hear there’s that German band playing. I’m embarrassed to say, but I’ve never been to a rock concert before. Father Athanasius never allowed us to listen to that sort of music.”
Isabelle wrapped her arms around his neck. He thought he would faint, so he fiercely grasped at her hips for support.
At this moment Katherine was walking through the gate with a bucket full of fresh milk. When she saw Joseph and Isabelle, she dropped the bucket and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Aunt Kitty!” Isabelle exclaimed, still clutching Joseph. “Are you all right? Did you get dizzy all of a sudden?”
“I’m fine,” Katherine muttered, picking up the empty bucket. “You two go to town, do whatever you please....”
Isabelle expressed no further concern for Katherine and turned back to Joseph. “The old woman doesn’t like it when people fuss over her,” he said.
Meanwhile, the “old woman” was leaning against the wall in the kitchen, shuddering without tears. She could see her own reflection in the opaque mirror above the washbasin. She usually ignored the mirror, but now she could not take her eyes off it.
She stared at the thin graying hair tied in a bun, at the thick, sunburnt neck, the deeply set eyes without eyelashes and surrounded by wrinkles, the square chin. Suddenly she understood why exactly Stephan never had a father.
All these years she kept telling herself that it was the lot of all women to rear children on their own, that all men came and vanished, sometimes leaving souvenirs. Having only her own experience to draw conclusions from, she firmly believed that men’s kisses and caresses were but natural consequences of having too much alcohol, nothing more. After all, no sober man tried to kiss or even embrace her.
One time, when she was seventeen, a truck driver who brought beer for the annual village fair dragged her into the hay barn. Having done what he wanted with her, he suddenly jumped up on his feet, cursing quietly, and ran outside. Katherine never saw him again and found comfort in thinking that devotion was simply not a manly virtue, that her deprivations weren’t any worse than any other woman’s.
After all, by the age of thirty most women she knew looked the same. They had the same yellow, wrinkled hands, black fingernails and gray hair. Just like her, they did not expect a sober man, be that a husband or a total stranger, to take interest in what was underneath their coarse woolen clothes.
Having seen Isabelle hanging on Joseph’s neck, Katherine suddenly acknowledged the existence of another female species that had an unquestionable advantage over her own. Those creatures with fragile white fingers, lukewarm tears and empty, tinkling laughter could turn men into even greater fools than they already were.
Katherine knew that she could chop wood for three hours in front of a dozen men, and none of them would stop to help her. She also knew that it would take a woman like Isabelle nothing more than a pout and a sweet sigh to gather those very same men around her with their tongues rolled out. Even Joseph, who could not sleep without the image of Mary above his head, had fallen into the same pit.
Suddenly Katherine turned her shoulders out and looked through the window. The two young people were still in the yard, smiling to each other.
“Have a good time in the town, children!” she shouted. “Issy, here’s my woolen sweater, in case it gets cold.”
“No, thanks, Aunt Kitty,” the girl replied. “Joseph already got my silk shawl. It goes better with my dress, don’t you think?”
“You always look like a doll to me, Issy. Don’t be too late, children. And don’t waste much money on food. I’ll be sure to leave you some dinner on the table.”
Joseph was not listening anymore. He opened the gate before Isabelle, with surprising gallantry for a seminarian, and then offered his arm to her.
“It’s so nice to be around a girl,” he confessed. “Why does Father Athanasius condemn such things? I’m glad to be away from him. When Katherine took me in, I thought my life was good, but now I can’t believe I spent seven years in the seminary.”
Isabelle put her finger to his lips. “Can we please not talk about seminary, at least for tonight? We were going to town to have fun. Remember?”
Joseph apologized and promised not to mention God ever again, since he was about to dive into a series of ungodly activities. That night he had his first shot of vodka in the bar, and the instant onslaught of merriment that shook him made all the local alcoholics jealous. They started remembering their first drinking sessions, interrupting each other and almost weeping. They also gave Joseph tips on how to treat hangover, because every worthy man needs to know how to cure a headache before a twelve-hour shift.
Then some playful truck driver pinched Isabelle’s breast, and Joseph naturally rushed to defend her honor. A few times he swung his fist at the offender, and every time he missed. A kind-hearted punch in the jaw flipped Joseph on his back. Isabelle squealed and rushed out of the bar.
“You’re so brave,” she told Joseph afterwards, blotting his bloody lip with an edge of her silk shawl. “Even the stuffy seminary couldn’t smother the true man inside you. Oh, I just feel so safe with you!”
And again, she hung herself on his neck. Joseph, a quick learner, rubbed her sides. “Now I can tell Father Athanasius to go to hell!” he exclaimed, savoring the curse word he had uttered for the very first time. “We’ll have some good times together, cause I’m a reformed man now. Don’t worry, Issy.”
Suddenly he released Isabelle and covered his mouth. A seven point earthquake ran through his body. His face, red and glowing a second ago, turned green. Blinking, he ran into hazelnut bushes and stayed there for the next fifteen minutes. Isabelle waited for him on the side of the road, wincing every now and then from the sounds he was making. When the sounds abated, she went to check on the boy.
“Don’t look at me,” he implored, on the verge of tears. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at myself. All those things I said... I can only imagine what Aunt Kitty will say when she sees me.”
Slowly, Joseph pulled himself up to his feet, hoping that Isabelle would help him keep balance, but she recoiled, unwilling to risk staining her dress with vomit.
* * *
They got home around three in the morning. All lights in the house were off, except for the small lamp in the kitchen. On the table there was a basket of fresh rolls with raisins, a pot of butter, a jar of pickles and a bottle of cherry wine.
“Look, Aunt Kitty left dinner for us,” Isabelle sighed sweetly. “She must feel guilty about the things she said to me earlier.”
“I can’t look at food,” Joseph muttered.
“Then have a pickle. Let’s share one. You take one half, and I’ll take another.”
She opened the jar and took a sip of pickle juice.
“Oh, it’s perfect. Lots of dill and not too much garlic. Here, try some.”
“I’ve had that stuff before. I know what it tastes like... I just don’t want any now, really.”
“Come on, it’ll make your stomach better.”
Joseph shrugged, took a few sips and dropped his head on his hands. A minute passed in silence.
Suddenly Isabelle gasped and grabbed her chest. “Joe...” Her voice broke. “Joe, what’s wrong with me? My heart’s pounding... My neck’s all sweaty... Joe? Can you hear me?”
Panting, she reached across the table to touch him. Her hands suddenly turned to lead. “Joe... I can’t stand up... My God, Joe...”
His head remained on the table. His hand contracted into a fist a few times and became limp. Then his entire body slouched to one side and crushed onto the floor. Through the burning fog in her eyes Isabelle saw the white froth on his lips and chin.
She also saw a dark square figure standing silently in the doorway. The door creaked, and the silhouette slowly floated towards the table and stopped just a few feet away from Isabelle.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” the shadow said, almost without malice. “But you wanted to be together, didn’t you?”
Isabelle, with her head slightly tilted to one side, dumbly stared into the blurry black square in front of her. Her eyes remained open even after her chest stopped rising and falling.
Katherine leaned back against the cold plaster wall and sat there motionless for a few hours, shifting her gaze from one corpse to another. A cock crowed on the opposite side of the village. Those sounds drove Katherine out of her forgetfulness. She stood up weakly, took one of the rolls from the basket and stuffed half of it behind her cheek. Then she picked up the pickle jar and drank the rest of the juice.
Before the poison had paralyzed her, she stretched on the floor next to Joseph, embraced him and rested her graying head on his chest. Despite the growing pain and nausea she smiled: she could almost hear his heartbeat.
One last time she glanced at Isabelle. With her face half-concealed by loose hair, the girl seemed asleep and perfectly harmless. Katherine let out a sigh of satisfaction and clutched Joseph’s corpse tighter. In this manner the three of them greeted the morning.
Copyright © 2010 by Marina J. Neary