Image of Short Fiction & Poetry Contest - 2019
Image of Short Fiction

Summer’s reign ends, urged by the relentless march of the seasonal parade. Growing purple evenings wink safely off to sleep undisturbed by the cracks or pops of fireworks or whooping wild boys. With a now uncommon naturalness a pensive mood descends. Smelt on the wind and felt in the dew it mixes eagerly on field and home and barn. In drawn out sighs field hands recline on bales of hay, stacked carefully the day before against tomorrow’s winter. These same men, stretched as if to dry, lean against fences and bales like sentinel scarecrows. Their tired eyes jump to the far-off road and chase the sight and the sound of a nose-less school bus. Its dirty yellow color unravels the years like a rearward driving carousel; stopping on scenes of forgotten summer endings and school beginnings to when dreams were made of purpose and backs didn’t ache. And in the heart of each man he recites the prayer – to go back, go back, go back!

 Beyond the sight of pensive scarecrows the school bus stops at a rocky cleft which draws the township line. The fields are harvest-green under the light of the sun but the wind is pulling clouds and gathered underneath of them all is gray and brown. A brown-haired boy steps from the bus and draws mail from a rusted mailbox. He fights the wind for the mail and stomps, two-at-a-time, up the front stone steps slamming the metal frame door behind him.

This house is old, full of creaks made loud by the wind, but undeniably strong. Well-kept and painted its age is barely betrayed even at such short a distance as the road. Inside, every inch asserts its grandeur; rooms tucked away in halls and in the corners of other rooms create an endless maze of staircases and doors. Locked in the memories of every wall and ceiling cling the smells of years of cooked dinners, of warm shaggy dogs, of Christmas trees and garland and wood burning stoves. And, less pleasantly of course, the smells of dust, dirt tracked in from the yard and mice in the walls, and sweat. Together they meld that singular smell unique to any home, identifiable by all who visit and which is stamped and impressed on them when they leave. The boy loves every plank in the house, every scent that touches his nose; always smiling when crossing the door’s threshold for no other reason than that this is home.

Mother, as she always does, greets him down the hall from the kitchen. Against the billowing wind which frames the building, the house is comfortably warm. From the basement furnace pumps breath-hot air through weaving pipes, behind thin walls and beneath carpeted subfloors.

Dishes clatter in a drawer.

His mother, Mrs. Hollen, is short with brassy hair, finely combed and dark at the roots. Like the rest of the family she wears wide expressive eyes which are subject to holding and spilling several emotions at once. She holds the stately quality of old-world motherhood in her frame; the demeanor and kind whose recession began generations before. She kindled a love of singing and of books all her life and sought to instill the same in her children, but with only the latter gaining any root. In Jim’s school-day absence Mother had gathered from the attic all her collected trappings of fall; wicker cornucopias with plastic harvest fruits and garlands of cut cloth shaped into leaves. In her hands hung strings of Indian corn which she spun together in sets or in pairs, and on the window sill, neatly arranged, sat a smiling scarecrow propped and attended by little stacked pumpkins.         

Final string in hand, Mother places the set on the table.

“How was school today, Jim?” her voice coos the question as she wraps both arms around Jim in a hug, “And thank you for grabbing the mail, honey. “ Her eyes smiled as much as her lips. “Better not be bringing me any bills though!” and she laughs at that. Jim smiles, pressing to his mother.

“School was good,” then he pulls himself away, “Muffins?”

            “They sure are. Eleven minutes left on the timer.”

From behind his mother Jim cracks the oven door, steam and the smell of blueberries wafting through.

            “Close it!” Mother calls over her shoulder, “Or it’s just going to take longer.”

            “I kno-o-w.” He draws out the word in a ritual sigh born from past admonitions but laughs at the sight through window. Behind the scarecrow in the windowsill stands Katie on her hind legs, forepaws resting on the window pane. The shaggy black dog’s panting breaths coat the window, her ears perk expectantly. Instantly, Jim is gone and replaced by the sound of the banging backdoor. From the window and across the porch Katie jumps to meet him. Outside, the boy and his dog collide and laugh and growl. Having now been properly greeted both sit content on the porch’s wooden steps as the wind rifles through their hair and fur.

            In the Hollen’s yard a single oak tree gasps in the throes of September, each gust of air a wheezing breath torn from its branches. The leaves are all tinkling tints of green, purple, and red; at least that’s what Jim has been told. To him all the colors mush into a sad, drooping brown. But, seized by the need to look closer, he stands beneath the tree plucking the leaves he can reach from the lower branches. Each leaf crackles in his hands. Many are pock-marked with black-rimmed craters, all of them are traced with veins. Staring at this collection, just inches from his face, Jim thought he saw the color purple poking through the static brown but he couldn’t tell for sure.

            From the kitchen window Mrs. Hollen surveys the little scene of her curious and strange but wonderful boy. If only the backyard fence, made thick enough and tall, would keep out even time. Her eyes smile sadly, “Oh, to keep him small forever.”