My story, which you can find after the jump, turned out inexplicably sad. It’s a sort of loose retelling of a myth, painted over with grim economic reality.
Here’s Tom Waits with Come On Up To the House, because I borrowed a line from it for my story.
Penny did her nails and then she got into bed and waited. Her nails were perfect and so was her waiting. Hard, shiny, flawless. She’d been waiting for so long, hour-to-hour, year-to-year. She built it layer by layer. As one layer thinned or chipped she applied another, and made it smooth and impervious.
He left a week after they married, and she cried at the station, hot tears melting into his wool uniform, cooling in the damp scratchy wool. She wasn’t going to cry, but she did. She didn’t want him to remember her this way, with red eyes, but the loss was so gaping and he left her so alone. She had nobody. She went home from the station feeling sick and sad and so cold. She lay in their bed with the book and the picture he had left for her, trying to fight off a chill she could not lose. The book smelled like dust and damp paper and cheap ink, but she loved the smell, because it reminded her of the day they’d gone to a small shop in the rain, bells ringing, like in a movie. Laughing and kissing like in a movie, and he’d bought her this book so that she could always find him.
When he wrote to her to say where he was posted, she’d find him in the book. She’d read about the natives, and the local customs, and the interesting geological features, and it was like she was there with him. The waiting was hard at first, when she was new to it. She hadn’t learned not to hope, so she was wistful and wanting. She cast her memory back; she sent her thoughts to the future. Foolish and restless. She thought of traveling to the places in the book, to surprise him. She thought of her suitcase, and the smell of a station, and she thought of drinking a glass of beer at a small table in a new city—watching strange pigeons and children that spoke no English. Thinking of these things made her more restless.
When he stopped writing to say where he was, she still read the book, because the smell of it was all she had of him. She’d forgotten his real smell, and this had become more real for her. She knew he’d come back, and she was desperate with the aching wanting.
When she learned about their child she laughed and cried at the same time. She was expecting. And what is expecting but waiting? Expecting taught her how to wait. It taught her about time passing at its own impossible unchangeable rate. It taught her about lying in their bed, listening for any sign that she wasn’t alone, listening to time passing.
And when the baby was born she wept and laughed. She had a love and a friend, but she was more alone then ever. She made decisions, decisions about life and death, and she made them by herself and she felt desolate.
But she had someone to lie with, in a bright shaft of sunlight from the one window in her new rented room. Someone to lie with and wait. Somebody to be next to while she waited for her husband who never changed but only faded. While their boy changed, slowly, sweetly, every second of every day.
She lay waiting and felt quite strange at times. She started to see faces in the curtains and in the windowpanes. On the headboard of their bed was a pattern with two flowers, and she saw these as eyes—the eyes of an owl, a kind, wise owl watching over her and her son.
Some time after he stopped writing to say where he was, the money stopped coming. She got a job in a shop. She was gone all day in a shop but her thoughts were with the boy wailing for her at home, and the boy abroad, who would come back to her, she was sure. It hurt to think about them, but it was worse when the shop got so busy that whole hours would pass and she hadn’t given them a thought. That was hard.
It was all hard. You can’t pay the rent on your small room and feed your son and pay the lady next door to watch your son. Not on a shop girl’s wages. Any small unexpected expense will drag you down, and pull you under, gasping.
Penny was still very beautiful, and now she had a sadness and a far-away look that deepened her beauty and seemed irresistible to some men. Part of her was never there, and could never be reached, which meant they didn’t even need to try. “A penny for your thoughts,” they’d joke, but they couldn’t have them for any price. She had many suitors, but of course she remained faithful, because she was sure her husband would come home.
The first time was a big man with white hair. His face was red, and his breath smelled of plastic and cigarettes. Penny worked in a shop that sold perfume and jewelry. She helped happy laughing kissing couples to buy presents for one another. He came alone and sat very close to her. She smelled his talcum and his sweat. He put his hand on hers. He put his fingers on her wedding ring and spun it around and around and around. He didn’t talk much, but he bought her a bracelet. It was beautiful, and she sold it to pay the doctor when her son fell ill.
One day the man followed her home. She was awkward, but he liked that. It was over quickly—nasty, brutish and short. The benign owl watched over her, and the man left her more money than she’d make in a week in the shop. She bought medicine and a toy for her son.
There were others. It was fast and they touched no part of her. It was always the same—flushed and excited at first, small and ashamed after, and over quickly. They never stopped to talk. She quit her job at the shop. She worked fewer hours and could pay the neighbor better for watching her boy.
Now she lay in bed and waited for them to come to her. She looked at the photo of her husband—smiling and squinting in the blurring rain. She knew it would be him coming through the door some day, happy that she’d been faithful all these years, that she’d never thought of anyone else, not even for a moment. She read her book that smelled of damp pages and cheap ink. She loved that smell. And in her mind she was miles away, in the pages of the book, sitting on crumbling steps in some ancient city drinking a thick dark coffee. She was listening to the soft cooing of strange pigeons and watching her son play with children who spoke no English. She called him to her, and they wandered slowly home. They took their time, weaving slowly through narrow streets. They stopped to buy a bright pretty cake for the boy; they stopped to buy the strange cigarettes her husband loved. They made their way slowly to their home, where he was waiting for them.
1 cup cooked pearled couscous
2 medium-sized potatoes, scrubbed
2 cups cleaned chopped kale
2 T olive oil
1 t sage
1 t rosemary
1 t dried basil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t red pepper flakes
1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 t balsamic or lemon juice
1/2 cup mozarella cheese cut into tiny dice
salt & freshly ground pepper
Boil a large pot of salted water. Drop in the potatoes and cook for about ten minutes. Then drop in the kale, and continue to cook until the potatoes are soft-firm and the kale is bright but tender. If one type of veg is done first, lift it out with a slotted spoon into a strainer. Drain each veg, peel the potatoes, and then chop everything quite fine.
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the herbs, pepper flakes and garlic, and stir and fry until the garlic starts to brown. Add the potatoes and kale. Stir and cook until the potatoes start to become a little crispy and start to fall apart. If they stick to the bottom, scrape them up and stir that crispy part into the rest of the mix. Add the tomatoes and cook until they’re just softened.
Tip the potatoes and kale into a big bowl. Stir in the couscous and cheese, and then mix in the egg and balsamic. Combine everything thoroughly. You can mash it up a bit with a potato masher as you go.
Preheat the oven to 425. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Form handfuls of the couscous mixture into large flat patties, and place them on the oiled sheet. (I made seven, but you can make them larger or smaller if you like.) Cook for about ten minutes on each side. They’re quite crumbly, so they might fall apart a bit the first time you turn them, but you can use your spatula to squish them back together and pat them down into shape. They’ll firm up as they cook.
Serve with a simple tomato sauce, if you like, or with pesto or just a big salad.