I have to admit, writing short stories is not my favorite. To do so is more like an exercise, really. Not sure why, except that maybe it’s because the brevity doesn’t suit my style as well.
On the other hand, some ideas are best sharpened down and contained within a few pages: it makes the storyline stronger. I would say, in all honesty, I’m still learning this art form. ...See what you think.
The Years Between (excerpt)
by Marianne Puechl
Ema Brighton looked out from behind the calico web at her window, out over the bustle of the waking town below.
Horses, spirited for the Monday dew, swaggered and hoofed at the dampened soil. A small flock of gulls swooped in for the charge, utterly misguided or well curious indeed –so many miles from shore. Children made their way toward the central schoolhouse… Masters and merchants alike struck off in their likened directions. Several of the characters below smiled, guffawed, had a look of sadness or of stiffened aches. Yet high above from behind displaced browns and oranges, came only a halfhearted sigh. –A closing somehow… perhaps a shuddered breath closing off an old week. Yet somehow, as below time seemed to waken and begin… above, with Ema Brighton it seemed instead to slow and come into ends.
Ema squatted to tie a lace, she glanced at the glass and straightened the bow in her hair, and then without another hesitation she creaked down the narrow stairs and into familiar greetings.
“Yes hello Missus Dutchin. Good morning indeed, Missus Flynn. Fine thank you. Very warm, yes… Wonderful.”
And the women began rolling new tablecloths and settings, mixing new dough and cracking fresh nuts for the day’s lunch. Not half past seven and imposing already: Noon, and tomorrow’s noon after that.
“Ema my dear, catching cold?”
“Mm, no. Excuse me.” Another breath taken in confirmation; in attempt to let go… Ema pursed her lips against another and bent to knead out her hazelnut biscuits.
She had the pleasure of having seen him yesterday. “Might he be the one?” someone -a kind young friend- had giggled once… and Ema had nodded . Enthused, though discreet of course. But -and loudly, she recalled now, smiling- she too had giggled. But that had been months ago. Five long months.
Indeed, might he be the one.
Ema pulled hard at the dough, then slapped it with the meat of her palm.
“Salt pork today, turkey the ‘morrow…” –Drifting… Almost like another sigh.
He had worn the blue. The light blue and the greyed tie. His boots were wearing now, Ema had noticed. He had leaned from the sun to pop the glorious pocketwatch and smile at her the early afternoon time.
“Oh my,” she had said to one of his silly and pointed remarks. “Wonderful…”
He had pointed to the clouds. He had recounted moments in the week’s pastures. He had interpreted gazes from the cows and the steeds and shared them with her, all in a walk near the woodland and laying at the grass near the pond. He had tugged Ema close to his knee again and she had lounged there, smelling the musk of him… feeling the breath of his words perhaps more than hearing them… As every Sunday after church, it had been blissful. –Excepting for the thought of course of dusk.
He would walk her home, he would squeeze her hand, he would wish her goodnight. An hour before, perhaps two, he had stared deep into her eyes and told her how beautiful their time was… And yet how his duties at the farm, his duties to turn the investment and re-sow and see a great harvest were so heavy a commitment now. How he dreamt of sons and daughters to plant with, of a wife to smile upon with a bouquet of fresh garden flowers… And yet how there remained restlessness to him now -not so much in late nights at Brewster’s Pass, but in his yearning somehow to stretch free across the expanse of his own bed. Alone. How Time was a thing, but in ways not a weighted one. How Patience and Dexterity (dexterity from within, not as of hands) and of Simply Moments Passing added up somehow to Something.
About which he would gaze out and try in all earnest silence to convey back to Ema out over daffodils by the pond. As if she herself knew nothing of Time. Nothing of its passing… Nothing of its catching now and again as the currents of the stream feeding in from far banks.
And, as last night -as always- Ema’s lips would tingle and her body would tighten as he said a quiet goodnight and turned away. Until the following Sunday after church. And she would sleep alone.
Two years ago, Edward Brighton had died of tuberculosis. Ema had married at age seventeen. Now she was twenty-three and it had been two years. She lived alone in the narrow room above the restaurant, very infrequently taking companionship to venture out in the town after work hours. She spent two hours on Thursdays in the mercantile, perusing new books… She spent one evening a week at her friend’s, the schoolmistress's rooms. Giggling, though not quite so much of late. On Wednesdays there was choir. Other nights she and Missus Flynn often sewed together, or Ema alone would write out her new recipes into a pretty little book that she hoped one day to organize and offer for sale at the yearly town fair. And then always she would lay down alone. And attempt to coax sleep.
Edward’s touch had not seemed complete, but it had been touch. She sorely missed the hold of his arms. She had mourned him, and now when remembering his last days Ema thought of his thinning jaw at her hand… his weary head in her lap and the stroke of her fingers through his hair… How painful it was to remember. More painful still, to forget.
Ema longed to tell. On a particular Sunday afternoon to take this new Jeremy Gates by the shoulders and solidly kiss his mouth. –Silence his silly pointedness, still his contradictions of wanting and of patience… To invite him into her life and to hear him offer same.
Of course once they had kissed. Of course once later Ema had told Jeremy how she longed to do so again. And he had not thought her forward… Never, of course. Why he enjoyed and admired her spirit. Yet it had not changed things.
And now Ema kneaded her hazelnut dough. After awhile it would be lunchtime. And a while later supper. And dusk and then Ema would retire. Without him.
There were times she was sure it was real. That the dream was real. That it would come to her again that night and powder the weak emptiness… slip away again somehow without words and she would forget with that somber Monday dew and yet a part of her deep within where words couldn’t touch would remember.
And there equally came times when she was sure it was just that. Dreams. So hard to be twenty-three and so much a captive. So hard to feel so old and so young at once. So hard to be at that place of having known and yet not completely -for so much had been frail with Edward- and yet having now to wait. Wait in fog that seemed may as well never dissipate as easily as it may well break into clean sunlight.
But tonight Ema was sure. She had caught sight of a gleam, a bright ray of clear color in his eyes yesterday. And so tonight Ema knelt at her bedside and toward the heaviness of the old calico, she prayed for courage and patience, and that she might be still long enough to listen for the plateau of this narrow bedframe to perhaps relish the quiet and the hopefulness and the uncertainty. And the strength here that indeed was all her own, and something perhaps she might not ever have again.
Indeed, the chord within that struck a certain pitch at times like this -times at the outset… had never been anything but true. Perhaps this of Jeremy Gates would be too. And so, Ema inhaled deep of the musty calico and smiled to the lighted moon.
The following day was a bustle. Missus Dutchin and Missus Flynn had collected strips of fine paper, a jumble of lace and paper doilies, three baskets of lavender and clover, rose petals and ribbon…and now set all of their treasures out on a long table for the townswomen to come and take of in preparations. Indeed, Ema too was busy. In the kitchen she fried delicate batters, powdered tiny glazes… she mixed wonderful little sweet tarts and cakes and with snips of Missus Flynn’s red velvet, added just-so touches before the elder ladies stole them away for their table. It was a town event here in Crenshaw, formalized in fact not ten years before by Missus Flynn and Missus Dutchin, and all their pride gleamed today as on no other day of the year. February 13th.
At three o’clock, after closing the lunch hours, townswomen began giddily bustling through the restaurant. They took seats, they sweetened bitter gossip, they exchanged brief touches and swipes of fingers across wrists as they spoke of their hearts and roses and colors of the day. With scissors and dots of paste, they began creating their own little cards and bows, centerpieces and ribbon-woven baskets… And throughout the hostesses beamed and glowed and laughed of themselves, and called out to Ema Brighton for more tarts and more tea, more pastries and more sugared hearts to set just so here and there.
It was not that Ema was unhappy to oblige. The motion of it all was exciting. But the swipes and the titters and the slanders somehow were off center. Away from the festivities. And Ema’s expression was dim.
Past eight, when the ladies had gone, Ema offered to stay on alone and clean for the morning. Fondly, Missus Dutchin and Missus Flynn agreed, patting her now alone with a bit less glow. But still triumphant and giddy. Ema smiled for them, and turned to her dishes.
As she worked, she mixed another cake. She rolled another pie crust, sprinkled with her famous hazelnuts. She retrieved the tiny bowl of berries she’d soaked in sugar all day long and hidden away… and combined the task of cleaning with that of gathering scraps of ribbon and lace for her own quiet makings and just-so’s.
“Hello, Mister Gates. Come join me at the pond. I’ve laid down our blanket already and spread out our lunch.”
“Oh, I’d have carried, Ema.”
“I know.” She smiled. “But this was special.”
And they ventured off, even beyond the trees at once today. And sat down to lunch. Jeremy brightened at the cake and pie and the display of tarts and sugar creams.
“Mm, how wonderful. Wonderful!” he grinned, and in a swoop took hold of her hand and kissed it. He popped a sweet cookie into his mouth, let it melt there slowly and grinned again. “Ex-qui-site!” he said, and they started both to eating.
That night, a small bouquet of wild greens and daffodils in her hands, Ema pressed lips together to say goodnight as Jeremy Gates turned away into the dusk. Then she climbed up Missus Flynn’s narrow stairs in silence and closed her eyes tight against the calico.
“How could it be?” he asked, another day as the sun shone much brighter. “How could it be that so much has happened all at once to me?”
A trail of springtime colors paraded by as townspeople ambled and bent to the graves for their Memorial Day picnics. Ema sighed and let Jeremy rest further back into her lap, caressing his hair in the sunshine and never answering his questions. Besides, he’d asked it minutes before. And her answer then hadn’t seemed to matter. Now instead, she fell to gentle strokes through his hair.
“A fire unexplained… My barn, no one else’s. Soil too… so much land. All down to the river. Seedlings gone, the lot of them… What was God saying in that rainstorm?”
He looked up deeply to her for a moment. But just for a moment. And then his words came again. The lightning, the fire, the horse that had run from itself, flanks burning, finally shot by Jeremy’s own hands up by the well…
Ema felt for him indeed. And she wanted to let his descriptions swirl into her heart with a heavy tide, and make her heart pang with sorrow and empathy, but something… something of that old passage of time occurred to her and then Jeremy’s words drifted to a calm. -That he seemed to be the only unmarried young man in Crenshaw struck Ema suddenly… Well, besides Homer Wilkins who owned but one stretch of thin overalls and smelled it; and besides William Dobbs’ son who kept to living at home and up late nights with nothing but books for all his company and cares… And of course the merchants who floated in and out of town week by week, mostly spotted up at Brewster’s Pass and down at the river fishing and telling loud tales… Ema recalled one of the men though, clearly: rough beard, eyes aglow… A young man indeed, trained somewhere in particular, the mercantile owner had said. Young and brash but somehow different about it… Quieter… He’d looked Ema’s way one Thursday afternoon, she remembered now. And his stare had been dark and -Ema smiled as she recalled- indeed dark and Something.
But then she was broken from her thoughts as Jeremy straightened and sat up to face her. “Why?” he had put to her again, staring deeply into her eyes.
Ema shook her head. His eyes squinted, peering deeper. But she did not know. And he fell again to her lap and held tight to her hand.
She thought no more of the merchant. Jeremy’s tough farming hand was warm and weighted about her own. His hair was muddy brown but woven with golden streaks and soft there at her light touch. And she thought nothing of the merchant nor of Edward and instead breathed full of how beautiful it felt to be close to Jeremy Gates like this.
Before long, he again sat up. Without words this time, he gazed to Ema, eyes no longer searching but somehow pulling, and in a broad motion Jeremy leaned forward and kissed her.
The force of it took her breath away. “Nn.” She found herself saying suddenly.
Again he moved close. His breath was heavy and his lips dry. He darted his tongue and slipped moistness, for a moment held, too at her mouth. Ema closed her eyes, savored the touch of him, then flinched away.
He held tight to her hand, even to her wrist.
And they held gazes, and his eyes flashed, then dimmed.
“Kiss me out of gentleness, Jeremy. Not out of fear that your land is gone.”
Before another moment he had folded up the blanket, propped the last dishes in the basket, carried them with Ema to the wagon… And had gone.
There had been an apology, of course. There had been a new look to his greying eyes… But the following Sunday he spoke only of mending burnt fences and after church went on his way. Days later Ema spotted him hard at work at the lumber mill, rumors that old Mister Dougherty had offered a price for the scorched land and that now Jeremy was living closer to town. But Ema had not heard where.
She watched from a distance as he bent to the saw. Hunched, his shirt stretched and fingers wide, he pulled the wood this way and that… He looked tired she thought, and she was sorry too.
“There’s something to it,” she said, foggily in the mist of the dream. Eyes the color of fire -fired passion; rosed heights… beamed at her with strength and with question. “There’s something to him, I know.”
“You remember, of course,” came the voice, also something of pinkened smoothness to the tone. If flowed like the rush of clear water reflecting a calm sunset.
“Yes I remember. The touch of his hand.”
“The ripeness of his muscles there…”
“The farm was a source of strength for him. But now at its loss, his pride has little nourishment. So I fear.”
“Fear? Hmm. Pride is the thing indeed.” Pink, red, glowing white. Through the fog the sudden branches of color washed clean from lighted emphasis back to dull mystery. “Loss is a cornerstone, Ema Clare. It is where the building of the new begins.
“The choice is in the color: Brown of wood, grey of stone, green of thatch, red of fresh clay… Or something more-“ and his fire eyes twinkled, “-mysterious?”
Ema exhaled, finger raised to find texture in the clever hue of fog.
“How bold you are,” he commented, and she was surprised.
“So then of my pride of course,” she gave him, willing now at his revelation moments’ past. “But what of his. What of his, Cupid?”
In her dream, the rosy elf then giggled. Heartily, He offered her a single budding flower.
Ema grimaced, far now from restraint. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do! Please dear Cupid, don’t tease me as it seems you’ve done before. If there is no answer, then crush this right now and let me think no more of it.”
Cupid nodded, diligently plucked the bud from her grasp and squeezed it in his palm. With that, Ema’s heart sank. The fog went blunt grey. Again the little elf nodded to her and then disappeared.
Ema woke very tired. Not exhausted, but something of Hope had thinned during the night… She sighed. Bitterness in the exhale, tastelessness back in… Little difference, she thought, and raised herself somehow to the morning chores.