I wanted to post another story; this is my favorite. I hope you enjoy it.
The Empty Tomb March 17, 2009
This story is about an encounter I had with a woman my first year in Hungary. It was a brief conversation, but I was so broken by her anger that it stuck with me and lead to a story beyond my true knowledge of her. It’s one of my longer ones, so grab a cup of coffee before you sit down. As always, please provide any feedback you think would be helpful. thanks
The Empty Tomb
Morning began, but not before she had risen before the sun to start her day. The water boiled on the stove and the rolling bubbles and the shuffling of feet were all that was heard. Rozsa Nemeth lifted the kettle and poured the water over the tea bag. Her name had once made perfect sense. She had been a rose, pink and elegant, demure and ravishing. It had been years since she had looked so. She was perhaps still a flower, but one that has been resting in a vase too long, overlooked and only there because the once delighted recipient had forgotten to discard it. The water had since grown green and slick with algae. Her nickname had been “Rozsi,” but now it seemed silly to have called her so. Rozsa was wilted and alone in an empty vase; her other floral companions had died long ago.
She sat and surveyed her quarters of yellowing wallpaper and faded upholstery. Her eyes rested where her heart always dwelled – upon two pictures on an end table. The men looked like brothers whose pictures had been taken in the prime of life. Yet, with a generation between them and life behind them, they occupied the altar of Rozsa’s heart. There was room for little else or if truth be told, nothing else. Her eyes rested on theirs and a deep sigh welled up and the morning tears began to flow. She missed her husband and son, both taken from her so young, so suddenly and very begrudgingly. She never questioned the years of tears; it seemed natural to cry and habitual. Had someone been there to ask what she missed most, Rozsa would have been hard pressed to pinpoint a memory or characteristic. These two men were no longer living memories; they were a reason to weep. This habit of tears was a deep rut she’d worn from constant travel; she no longer mourned her men, she mourned sorrow. She did not realize this, nor would she have been able to see this clearly with her eyes so callused by the determined flow.
Wiping her eyes, she reminded herself of what remained. She had her habits and God and the two overlapped twice daily. Looking at the clock on the wall, she stood up, pulled on her coat, faded and worn and walked out her door. Everything would be the same when she returned; only the steam would no longer rise from her nearly full cup of tea. The delicate china had a few chips, yet Rozsa continued to use the same cup disregarding the perfectly intact ones in the cupboard and took only a few sips each morning. This too was an empty habit that was no longer performed for enjoyment, but was a well-worn tread.
As she turned onto the sidewalk from the front door of her building, it occurred to her that it had snowed the night before. The street lamps were still lit as if to tell her that she was awake long before she was expected. The walk to the center of town was not far and the steady crunching of fallen snow counted her steps. Hers were the first footprints along this side of the street and it was unnatural for her to step where others had not. The wind blew slightly and her coat, although old, still managed to keep her frailty warm. The flakes from rooftops whirled and landed on her kerchief that covered her grey hair and then melted instantly. She reached the church steps just as the bells tolled five times. In as many steps she reached the top and slipped in with the other kerchiefed veterans.
The church was cold and did little to welcome those who had ventured out so early to pray. Rozsa found her seat and stood and sat and stood and knelt and stood and prayed in harmony with the others. She could have done as much at home as her heart nor mind had joined her for the service. They rested on her two men she had left at home. The men guarded her tea as she came to ask for mercy that they might know heaven some day. She never thought about heaven for herself. It was not that she didn’t deserve to go, she simply was so preoccupied with the destiny of the other two that she never thought about her inevitable journey to eternity. The priest continued to speak thus providing a constant drone to pave the way before her thoughts. She thought about nothing but her husband and son or perhaps the absence of them. They were no longer with her, thus they had nothing better to do than consume her thoughts more much so than when they had been living. She welcomed the dead into her mind and lived with them in closer proximity than when they had shared a home.
Unconsciously her attention drifted back to the mass just as stealthily as it had escaped. Rozsa gazed at the other women in the service. Her eyes drifted from person to person with a half-interested gaze as she wondered for whom they prayed. Did they have children at home? Were their husbands alive? Did they love God? Were they here for pretension only? There were no answers for her and if there had been, she would have wandered away before an answer had been given. She had enough sorrow of her own. There was no more room for another person’s tragedy.
As the mass ended, she made her way to the front, dropped a few pennies in the box as the widow in the parable, and lighted a candle. She said her words, moved the beads between her wrinkled fingers and left. With a sigh Rozsa pushed open the heavy wooden doors of the church and entered the land of the living. There was a bustle around her unlike when she had entered an hour before. The stores were open and the kids were on their way to school. So much living to do. Having already exited this life, she headed home, ready to exist.
She stopped in at the deli to buy bread and luncheon meat. The bread was fresh and soft to the touch and its fragrance rose when she lifted the loaf. This too was unable to lift her spirits. Years ago, the smell of bread had given her a smile as she thought of how her two men at home would be pleased with her morning purchase. This had been a delight with jam and tea or fresh peppers and coffee for her husband. Now it was bread; something to eat with cold tea when she arrived home. The shopkeeper smiled and greeted her as he did every morning and received his daily nod in return. He had gone to school with Rozsa in childhood. He remembered her pink cheeks and auburn hair and felt as if a part of his life had wilted along with her petals. She climbed the steps to the second floor and opened her door. All was the same and her cold tea sat waiting its consumption with a slice of bread.
The day droned on as it had thousands of times previously. The wash was done and supper prepared. A few times she stole a glance out the window. She never stayed long beside it this time the year. Despite the double-panes and the cushion she placed between them for insulation, there was always a draft. As a young girl she could have sat for hours looking at the world outside. During the summer months, she would open the windows wide and watch as people passed. Her mother always scolded her for giving the neighbors something to talk about.
“Rozsi! How many times do I have to tell you? Come away from that window. Good girls don’t stand there presenting themselves for those who walk by. Nobody likes a forward girl.”
In the winter months the rebuke was similar, but had one addition.
“Rozsi! It’s cold. The draft will kill you. I swear that habit will be the death of you. Mrs. Kovacs told me she saw you sitting there yesterday when I went to the store. Why do you provoke me so?”
While she had never been quite cured of the habit, her mother’s admonitions were always present in her ears. She sat there for just a minute or two, but only to look, she never seemed to acknowledge the life outside nor the part she had once played in it.
As five o’clock neared, she put on her coat again and headed outside. As she neared the square two people approached her. She stopped, confused and almost shocked that something unplanned had taken place.
“Good evening ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you,” they continued talking but her mind was preoccupied with the task at hand; the service would be starting soon. They continued, Rozsa was paralyzed and although not frightened, she dared not move. She said nothing until she heard the word “God.”
“God! Do you want talk to me about God?”
“Are you religious?”
“Religious? Twice a day I go to mass and pray at that church right over there,” pointing to the edifice across the street that waited her arrival. For seventy-five years she had attended that church and in the thirty years since the death of her men, she had ascended those steps twice daily. She began to share this with the two strangers in a manner determined to educate them more on the subject of devotion, than to casually mention her habits.
“Twice daily for thirty years! You are very devoted. You must truly love God.”
At these words, her entire countenance was altered and the rose began to redden.
“Love God? God?” she stammered as if this preposterous question had never occurred to her.
There was silence around her, but the crashing clamor of false ideas inside was deafening. At this question she lifted her hands to cover her face and the wept. “Love God?” she continued. “Love Him! I, I hate Him. He stole my life from me. Love God? How could I love someone so cruel? He is a thief! Love God! No one can lose so much and then kiss the hand that took it.”
Rozsa had carried a grudge like a millstone bound around her neck for years without speaking a word about it, least of all to God. As if recounting for a moment the words of Job, she visualized herself in a courtroom and pointed her finger at her divine enemy, “Oh if I had one to hear me!” God would answer for His evil works against her. She stood before these two strangers and wept and wept. For these thirty years she had mourned the death of her husband and son and had failed to mourn a much more significant loss. Preoccupied with her mortal bereavement, she had neglected to mourn the death of God. These thirty years, He had lain buried in a coffin of mistrust and hopelessness; six feet of human unwillingness and malevolence remained between Himself and Rozsa. At this confession, the bitterness was washed away making room for truth. That evening the tomb was opened.
Lifting her eyes, the strangers saw something no one had witnessed in thirty years. Rozsa smiled and clasped their hands. As she crossed the square, she hurried as the bell tolled. She reached the church steps just as the bells tolled five times. In as many steps she reached the top and slipped in with the other kerchiefed veterans. She must hurry, God was waiting.
A Full-Night’s Rest February 10, 2009
I’ve decided to post one of my longer stories. Many of the short stories I write are inspired by my husband’s family. I don’t really know why I find it easier to find inspiration from his history than mine, but for now, I guess I’m not ready to search my roots. Please feel free to leave feedback. Thank you
A Full Night’s Rest
Seventy-six years is a long time to live, especially when you’ve spent every one of them serving others. But things were peaceful now. She had always had a peace about her; there was just never peace around her. But now she lay silently and her gentle nature seemed to finally be in its element. Her cheekbones still sat high and were noticeable even after age and wrinkles had set in. As if she needed more disdain, her facial features had always alerted others to the Indian blood that ran through her veins. Her hair had been black and straight and set it braids as a young girl and she had no hair on her arms and legs. Now, her silver hair reminded one of a halo, ready to be turned to gold at any hour. Ramona Mendez didn’t need another hour to make her peace with God; the two had enjoyed such for decades. Someone else had their own peace to make.
Rosa and Myrna, two of Ramona’s ten children sat in silence looking at their mother with minds so full of memories that they seeped out as tears and sadness. Rosa had always been the strongest, but now she was unable to put her weaknesses behind her. She looked at her sister, weeping, “Do you have regrets?” she asked.
“No. Mom knew we loved her. Mom was different, Rosa. She knew she was loved when we’d let her set a plate of hot food before us and eat her fresh tortillas. She needed nothing more than the chance to serve us.”
“All she ever did was serve. Dad was always so hard on her. She suffered her whole life and now, God won’t let her part in peace. I don’t understand.”
“Do you have regrets?” questioned Myrna, asking Rosa to answer her own question.
“No, it’s not my time. Ask me then,” she laughed revealing the reckless sister within.
“Oh Rosa, will you ever change?”
“Why would I? What’s to change? This is who I am. How could I be anything else?” Suddenly sitting in pensive silence Rosa continued, “Mom never had regrets, because she never had expectations. Life was different then. Life in Mexico was hard, but to have a hard life in America was more than she ever hoped for. She was always content because God was in every day.”
“She was amazing. I could not do what she did: ten children, a hard husband, miscarriages, losing a son, cooking, cleaning, living in tents and migrating to pick strawberries and oranges and whatever else. You don’t remember those things; you’ve only heard the stories. I was her first born and we worked so hard, Mom worked so hard. She never rested for a minute. God had to bring her death in order to rest.”
Sitting with faint smiles on their lips they comforted themselves with stories. They were true tales they’d heard a thousand times, those full of terror, sadness and humor. They would soon be all they had when God whisked Ramona home. It seemed strange to tell the stories while their mother lay in bed still with them, but since they couldn’t sit around the table while Ramona served them tirelessly, this seemed the closest thing to comfort food.
“When we were all still at home, Mom used to make three batches of tortillas every day. She could barely get them off the griddle before one of the boys would grab it and kiss her on her head. I don’t know how she fed all of us. The food seemed to multiply like the loaves and fish.”
“It did,” interjected Myrna, “God always multiplied it. She cooked it in faith and stirred it with love and God honored her. Every meal was a miracle.”
“I don’t know if she ever had a hot meal, Myrna. Long before she got sick, it was always the same. We all ate first with Dad as kids and then she’d sit in the kitchen alone and eat her meal when we were finished. Then later, the grandkids ate first, then the adults and then hours later you’d find her eating alone in the kitchen. I wouldn’t stand for that,” said Rosa shaking her head.
“We did. We stopped fighting her years ago. When we’d ask her why she’d always say, ‘Because Jesus told us to serve as He did.’ She remembered everything she learned in church.”
“That was the only time she got out of the house. It was the only time he let her out,” replied Rosa.
“There was nowhere else she’d rather go. She was at mass every morning and sometimes I’d see her at home on her kneeler with her hands raised, praying for her children. God was her sanctuary,” said Myrna.
They both paused, almost having forgotten that this heroine was still in their midst breathing softly and steadily. Ramona had been an orphan who was taken in by family to live as no family ever should. At night, to avoid abuse, she’d sleep in the trunk of the car and pray not to be found. Tonight was her first night of peace in seventy-six years.
“Is it true that Dad kidnapped her at gun point in order to marry her?” asked Rosa in amusement.
“That’s what Dad always said. I don’t know. Mom would always sit there with an embarrassed smile when Dad told the story. He said it was the only was to get her away from her family.”
“That would be like Dad. He was mean, he still is,” said Rosa.
“He isn’t mean, Myrna, he just doesn’t know any different. His life has not been easy either. He’s worked in the fields since he was four years old. He had to work with his mother to buy food. They said he used to carry a feed sack full of seeds up and down the furrows and the other workers used to wait for him at the end of every row. He loves Mom in his own way. He had never seen love, Rosa. He has provided, that is love. There were always sacks of beans, rice and flour for her to cook for us. Even when he was deported twice, he came back. He paid to have letters written and sent to her in California promising he’d come back to her and the family. That is love. He isn’t kind, but he has always been faithful.”
“He was mean to me.”
“Rosa. And you deserved every beating you got,” said Myrna laughing, “I wish he could still beat you! You need a good whipping. None of the beatings could tame your tongue, he should have silenced it.”
“He tried to. I remember him dragging me out back and throwing that noose over the tree branch. I thought he was going to kill me. He put it over my head and… I don’t even remember what happened. They said I fainted,” Rosa laughed in disbelief and momentary terror as she remembered that day.
“That didn’t even stop your mouth. I think it made it worse.”
They tried to smother their laughter in order not wake Ramona. Dad sat outside the room asleep on his chair with his two dogs next to him. His little Chihuahua lay hidden in the sleeve of his flannel against the warm, tired skin of this man who loved in his own way. He was dreaming of walking out in the wash with his dogs and goats. He always had that little herd that he’d lead to greener pastures. He spent most of his time in the wash since he was forced to retire later than any other worker dreamed of working. He had always loved his job among the orange groves, especially when they bloomed in spring and their fragrance was sweeter than a 50/50 bar on a hot afternoon. They were the perfume of life. His life had been hard, but it was scented with splendor along the way. His life was especially hard now. He stirred and woke for a minute and heard the muffled voices of his two aged daughters in Ramona’s room. He sat and cried. He had no regrets; he just knew she would be missed. She had been the wife of his youth and beneath his hard shell he hoped they’d have more years together. She had never showered him with kisses nor often said she loved him, but she had served him tirelessly and raised his ten children. Even when he had been deported twice, she continued to raise the kids and didn’t look for another man to replace him. She didn’t know if she would ever see him again, but she provided. He thought to himself, she had never been affectionate, but she had always been faithful.
He could hear a stirring in the room and slowly turned his head toward the door.
“Dad, mom wants you,” whispered Myrna.
He rose and lifted his dog out of his sleeve and stepped to her bedside. The girls left the room and came to keep the dogs company. They could hear muffled voices and wished Mom had been talking with them instead.
“Why would she ask for him?” questioned Rosa.
“He is her husband, Rosa. Just because you don’t like him, doesn’t mean there isn’t love between them. A marriage is sacred; they have years together. Can’t you understand their love?”
“No. It isn’t the kind of love I would want.”
“What kind of love would you want? There isn’t a marriage that would make you happy, because you have no joy in God,” said Myrna, almost tired of the conversation.
“God, what does God have to do with it? Don’t talk to me about your Catholic superstitions. I grew up with it, and walked away as soon as I could.”
“It has everything to do with God. Your heart was never turned against Dad alone; your hate for him was planted and took root in your heart. It chokes out a love for everything and especially God. You think your hate protects you, but it has stifled your life.”
“I don’t hate God, I just never needed Him,” said Rosa in defense of herself. “Who needs a God who allows suffering? Are you blind, don’t you see Mom’s pain? What kind of God allows that?”
“The kind of God who gives the grace to endure it. Life is hard. It is a merciful God who carries us through it.”
Above the sound of their tension rose the sound of Dad’s crying. She was gone.
Myrna looked at the door and continued, “Rosa, the kind of God who gives an old woman a full night’s rest.”