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Today's Story by Maxine Chernoff

He knew he had seen her look away when she gave him the bottle, her sunlit blue eyes blank as water.


Pray Heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed.”  –Virginia Woolf

An aversion to Viennese music, the type she heard in her youth at the great amusement park by the dying green river, where all the swallows nested nearly on top of one another under a bridge and scared her with their dense blackness. Why it was the pipes of the organ that frightened her more she was unsure; perhaps the brash and hollow sound of the low notes felt oddly like wind in a desert though she had never been to a desert– or cold touching her skin at night as she changed positions in her child’s narrow bed.

He was terrified of bees in any form, forms of honey, the names would throw him into a panic; clover honey, Tupelo honey, pine, whipped or combed.  Who whipped or combed it, he wondered. And the bees’ regurgitation of the nectar, the stickiness of the product, as if one could get oneself entangled finger by finger in its goldenness. As to seeing the bee itself, he would wait until dark to take walks to a bench under the elders where he’d read  books on Vikings and space aliens, who had nothing to say about honey.

Her fear of cloth made it very hard for her to concentrate at the shirt factory.  The bright fibers gleamed, the stripes a sin in themselves of color and pattern and roads she had forgotten to take when she’d left him.  One would have brought her to a different city where she could have worked as a maid, perhaps, but then there’d be laundry and sheets; or maybe as a baker, but the flour would get sifted and poured and rolled into a perfect rectangle of significance, nearly substantial as cloth.  Anything but the hum of the sewing machine on her table and the one next to hers, where the girl with the extra finger sewed even more slowly than she and whistled as he did, a melodic low tone like the kettle beginning to boil the morning she had left him for good.

His first memory of his mother’s arms couldn’t have been at as early an age as he imagined. Most sources say one’s true memories don’t exist before kindergarten. But he knew he had seen her look away when she gave him the bottle, her sunlit blue eyes blank as water. She wanted to be elsewhere, he realized, and thought for her of places that would have easily outdone the holding of this small bag of bones—what a skinny, unattractive baby, people had said, thus the supplemental bottles of a mixture of  pure cream and goat’s milk.  He dreamed they sailed off together in a little white boat on a vast calm sheet of blue sky, he and his mother floating out of reach of the doctors and nurses and allusions of his failure to thrive that had made her so sad and unconfident.

Together they hated any type of berry.  Summer was worst when the stores filled with the patriotic colors of the fruit, their reds and blues, their small variation from Sweden, the lingonberries of Ingmar Bergmann, the gooseberries of Chekhov, orbs and dents and pure circularity. Neither was allergic–they concluded that the first time they met at a picnic where they sat like sad leftovers next to a plate of creamed corn.  On Thanksgiving they made the usual feast, but they were so in love they barely ate —the turkey they had roasted for so long sat on the table looking as it had been buffed to brightness. While in bed in a blissful tangle of ankles and thighs and arms, what they thought most about was their delight in having excluded cranberries from their plates. By spring it was over. The stirring they’d felt that summer in the berry aisle amid the lushness flown in from three countries on two continents was now a steely indifference,  an aversion to one another, as if even a  touch might elicit a cry of pain or a reverse of joy so sharp it would  cut them.  One night she almost ate a strawberry to declare independence from him but refrained at the last second.


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.


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