Thursday, March 30, 2006
A Cold Day
Outside the dawn was still gray, the dry cold snow pushing against the house as though it were trying to crush the wooden frame, blown there by the strong winds that still shook the oak tree and sent the creaking noise into the house, through the many cracks in the worn window frames. The curtains rustled. Occasionally bits of snow blew against the window panes and she clutched the coat closer.
The fire was catching. It glowed in the center of the fire box, surrounded by white ashes. She closed the lids and moved the coffee pot over the hot coals. She then called Stiney after looking at the clock above the kitchen sink and seeing that she had wasted time and he might be late for school. He answered and soon came down the stairs. He was dressed in a T-shirt and trousers. He seemed older than his fifteen years. He was now the man of the house since Mr. Brenski had gone. He tried to warm himself at the stove, but there was still no heat from the fire.
"Why isn't the stove burning?" he asked.
"Was almost out when I come down."
"Go in the parlor and dress. It's warm there from the furnace. "
The parlor, was located just above the coal furnace. He dressed standing over the register, the warm heat from the furnace dry and comforting. He shivered, feeling the cold leave him.
The stove was still not hot enough to warm the pot of coffee left from the night before. She added a half shovel of coal on the fire and sat down. She did not seek the warmth of the parlor, but stayed in the kitchen, watching Stiney make himself toast, dress in a heavy coat and leave for school. She watched him as he walked down the path that led to the school bus stop, checking that the door was shut tight when he pulled it closed behind him. She could hear his shoes grinding in the cold dry snow as he walked, the sound odd like the crunching of ice. Soon Helen and Joe came down and they left after they had a meager breakfast of toast. She did not offer to make them breakfast, and they went about the task themselves. They were younger than Stiney and went to the local grammar school, as had her other seven children, who were now married and gone.
It was only after they had all gone to school, after she had scolded them for not buttoning their coats, explaining that they would catch cold and then complain to her for not watching after them, that she noticed the coal buckets were empty. She hurried to the window, but all of them were out of sight and she uttered a curse for not asking them to fill the buckets and cried to God to deliver her from this hard life.
But it was short lived, this plea to God. She checked the stove again. It was now burning brightly, the small heap of coals, surrounded by pale white ash, glowed, hungry for more fuel.
She took just one of the buckets and went down to the basement, holding the bucket in one hand and trying to keep the coat closed with the other hand. It was colder in the basement. She came down the steps one at a time, moving sideways for the steps were steep. She added coal to the furnace and was satisfied that it was burning just right. She filled the bucket slowly, pausing to let the dust settle after each shovel full, watching the small clouds rise and then descend over the coal. It was not hard work, but each time she bent over, her face reddened from the rush of blood that came to her face.
The bucket was heavy for her and she carried it with two hands, letting the heavy coat open a little. She carried the bucket in front of her, lifting it from one step to the next, her breath coming in short gasps.
Halfway up the steps, she felt the warm sensation in her nostril and upper lip, like the running of mucous, and she wiped it with the back of her hand. At the stove she again felt the warm trickle of fluid in her nostril and lip and this time when she wiped it, she saw the blood, smeared over the back of her hand. She hurried to the sink and bent her head over and let the blood drip into the sink. It came slowly, drop by drop. She felt frightened at first, then decided to let it run until it stopped, murmuring to herself that her blood was no good, having been worn out by the bearing of so many children. The blood continued, the sink turning a bright red and her standing there crying. "Oh God, take me away from this hard life...I wish I be dead."
The wind still sent gusts against the house and the mournful sound it made as it passed over the chimney echoed in the kitchen. The stove was burning, but still did not give off enough heat to warm the kitchen. She shivered each time the wind moaned at the chimney or when bits of driven snow banged against the windows. The morning was clear now. The sun peeking through the hanging clouds, like ominous symbols. She turned the cold water on and letting it run, washing the blood away. The bleeding was still slow, the splatter of each drop, turning pale pink in the running water. She decided to wait until it would stop of its one accord.
She was alone. There was no pain, just the drop, drop of blood. She did not move from her position, occasionally a tear mixed with the blood which she did not wipe away. There was a knock on the door. She remained silent until the knock came again. "Come in, " she said loudly, not turning her head. Mrs. Winovski came in carrying an empty cup. The heavy man's working coat was buttoned tightly at the neck and the felt boots were sprinkled with snow. She stopped inside the door and wiped the snow from the boots on the door mat.
"Kathy, I be like to borrow... ," she began and seeing that something was wrong, hurried to the sink. "Kathy, what's the matter?"
"Only God know. Maybe now I die and be rid of this bad life," she said not even looking at Mrs. Winovski.
Mrs. Winovski was frightened at the sight. "No talk like that Kathie. It's a big sin to talk like that."
"Blood coming, that's all. My blood no good anymore. I hope it all come out and I die. This house so cold."
Mrs. Winovski raked the stove, added some more coal and opened the draft to speed up the fire. "Every place is cold Kathie. My house cold too."
"No tell me that. I was in your house and I know it not as cold as here." The bleeding had almost stopped and she had taken an old dish rag to her nose. She still cried, the sobs choked in her throat and she sniffled, bringing back blood and mucous.
"Well you have to keep the fire going."
"It was almost out when I got up this morning. Too much wind. " She said wiping her eyes with the dish rag as she sat at the table.
"I fix the stove for you now," Mrs. Winovski said. "It should burn good now." She sat
opposite Mrs. Brenski.
"You wanted something? "Mr. Brenski asked.
"I no have coffee. You could lend me some?"
"Taken how much you want. It's there in the cupboard."
Mrs. Winovski filled the cup she had brought from the canister. The coffee was
beginning to simmer and she moved it off to the side. Mrs. Brenski still sat, hardly noticing her as she went about the small chores.
"How this happen, Katie?"
"When I coming up from the cellar with the coal."
"Why you no ask Stiney to get the coal?"
"See how my head is gone. I no can remember anything no more. Everything is worn out from this life. I forget to ask the children to get it."
"Did you lose lots of blood?"
"I no know. It come out like a river."
The plaintive wail of the wind sounded, sending little spirals of snow past the window.
The oak tree groaned, its branches creaking in the strong gusts of wind. In a previous winter one of its branches had broken during a heavy wet snow.
She rinsed the rag at the sink. The bleeding still continued. She wiped her face pressing the rag firmly to her nose. Mrs. Winovski took some cold water and patted her on the back of her neck. "That help," she asked softly.
"Nothing going to help. My blood no good."
"Oh, no talk like that, " Mrs. Winovski scolded.
"You go and lay down. Be best for you." She continued.
Now, having helped her get up and walk to the parlor, Mrs. Winovski felt a touch of pity for her. "You lay down, I call the doctor."
She buttoned her coat and on the front porch she shouted for Mrs. O'Brien. Presently, a young woman appeared from a house across the road.
"What do you want?"
"You call doctor for Kathy."
"What's the matter?"
Mrs. Winovski explained the bleeding.
"Which doctor does she want?"
"Call Ryan," she said.
She waited outside until Mrs. O'Brien went in. The snow still pilled into drifts along the wooden fence, along the house and the old oak tree. The countryside looked barren and bleak, the bare trees looked black against the clean white snow.
Mrs. Brenski looked up at them as they came in the parlor. Her eyes red from the crying and her face streaked with bits of blood.
The two women got her to lie down on the sofa.
"I'll call the school, for Helen and Joe," Mrs. O'Brien said. Stiney was in high schol which was too far away and he would have to wait for the bus. When she came back, Mrs. Brenski had quieted and they sat with her until the doctor arrived.
He was small and wiry and moved in a nervous manner. The smell of medicine surrounded him. "How are you doing, Katie?" he asked.
"I think I going to die, doctor."
"Now, now, don't talk like that. You'll be 'dobrie'," he said using the bit of Polish he had picked up from the long association with the coal miners. "You'll be better in a few days."
"No fool me, doctor. I think I going to die." She began crying.
"Now, how can I fix you if you cry, " he said trying to be stern.
"I no care anymore what happens to me. I be better if I be dead. Then I have a good rest from this life."
Mrs. Winovski stayed after the doctor and Mrs. O'Brien had gone. He had packed her nose with gauze to stop the bleeding and gave instructions for what to do until he would come back tomorrow. She waited until Helen and Joe returned and explained what had happened and what to do to look after their mother.
"I come back later."
When Stiney returned he knew something was wrong as soon as he entered the house. He could see the bloody dish rag in the sink and smell the alcohol and medicine and knew the doctor had been there.
"Oh, Stashu, I going to die," she said to him, her voice was full of fear.
"What's the matter?" he asked anxiously. He could see the bandage and her pale face and was scared.
"I going to die," she repeated.
"No you're not."
Helen and Joe repeated what Mrs. Winovski had told them.
"Was blood coming out like a river. The sink was full and still it come out."
"The doctor said not to worry. It'll be okay, " he tried to act calm.
"Look, he pushed and pushed stuff in my nose. Maybe a pound."
"You'll be okay."
"Sometimes I no care. I thinken I dead long time ago." She did not look directly at Stiney as she spoke, but there was a dreamy look in her eyes, as though she were remembering some happy past.
Stiney paused as he left the parlor and looked back at her. She did not notice him leave. He fried some eggs for supper which he and the children were eating when Mrs. Winovski returned. She still wore the man's coat and gray felt boots.
"How's mom? " she asked.
"Good," Stiney replied.
"Well, you must help her now. Help her to the bathroom and food." She sounded like the doctor.
"Give her some soup. You have soup?"
"Well, I bring some over later."
"What did the doctor say?" Stiney asked her.
"She's going to be okay. She needs some rest that's all. He will come back tomorrow."
After he and the children finished their supper, Stiney continued sitting at the table. He did not notice his mother stir and get up. She struggled getting to her feet, the loss of blood having weakened her, and using the wall for support, she slowly managed to make her way to the kitchen. She hesitated at the doorway that separated the rooms, her hands pressed firmly against the wall. Stiney jumped up when he saw her. "Don't do that. Let me help," he almost shouted at her.
She did not answer him, but smiled like a child caught doing something it should not do.
There had not been a great emotional attachment between her and the children. Maybe it was that there were too many, or maybe she was just tired. She looked after them as best she could in material things, but mostly they were on their own. They cooked their breakfasts and even sometimes washed the clothes. She did not kiss them and they had grown up without great physical contact with her. The older ones, married and gone, came home just for short visits, but very rarely.
Stiney followed after her as she walked slowly to the bathroom, and then she returned to the sofa.
"I think I going to lay here for a long time, " she said.
"Would you like something to eat?"
"I could be eat some soup. But there is none."
"Mrs. Winovski is bringing some."
"Still snowing outside?"
"When we was little kiddies, we used to have wooden sleds. My father used to make for us. Was nice then to go on the big hills and ride." She had that dreamy look.
"I hear Mrs. Winovski coming," Stiney interrupted her. He had heard the stories before.
It was beginning to darken, the gray sky cast shadows on the clean white snow and he could hear the crunching sound as Mrs. Winovski returned with a pot of soup.
He poured some into a large bowl and sat down next to the sofa, holding the bowl in his lap. She had fallen asleep, her breathing easy and rhythmic, a smile on her face. "What, what," she awoke suddenly.
"I have the soup."
"Why you wake me?"
"I have the soup."
"I was dreaming so nice. I was in this place and everything was so nice and green and warm. Was angels there and they showing me how nice this place was and they was going to leave me there, but I did not want to stay. Was on this big high mountain, and they carried me up and everything was getting nicer and I was so happy. I think I was crying, I was so happy. " She hesitated, a tear rolling down her cheek. "But I no can tell you how nice it was. I no can remember everything now, but it was so nice. Then we almost there when you waken me. " She looked straight at the ceiling, a pleasant smile on her face, as though she did not know Stiney was there.
"Don't you want the soup?" Stiney held the bowl out to her.
But she had fallen asleep again, the smile still on her face.
He could not bear to waken her again. He sat there until the soup got cold, but he could not bear to waken her, and outside the old oak tree groaned as though it were crying for the limb it lost years ago.
Copyright 2006 by John Fedako
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