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Kinderszenen, Scenes from Childhood - a Short Story.



Hot. Hot, as I sprawl on the bamboo mat that is smouldering in this scorching summer afternoon. There is nowhere to go. Every fibre, every rim burns when I shift and turn in search of the last raw, untouched spot. I can feel the linen shirt, drenched in perspiration, clasping onto my irritated skin. The fiery steam forms folds of mists in the still air, my vision distorted and bleared, to only feel this ferocious heat exerting its unfathomable gravity over me.


Slumbering soundly beside is my mother, her thick rhythmic breaths fling to my nape, driving waves of odorous heat upon my hair. I bend closer to the wall, hoping that by miracles, a draft might come from one of those invisible fissures. Outside, the crickets groan in exhausted, lamenting cries, as if they are also grieving this permanent afternoon. The windows are left unlatched, and there is no wind - just the humid waves sizzling in and out, bringing to the room a stifling smell of rotten, decomposed matters. Sometimes a curious skinny stem emerges from the mat pricking into my skin, and the lancinating twinge obliterates all my vulnerable somnolence obtained from the long, anxious wait for sleep to attain.


Water. That is what I need - a fresh, luscious bead of water upon my lips to rinse away this insurmountable heat. Cautiously I get off the bed, with my elbows pressing against the mattress to help my legs reach the floor. A loosened wood plank cries a hoarse screech, adding to the vicinity a noise so painfully artificial. Immediately I turn to check on my mother, who makes an ignorant snore, then shifts her body indolently and resumes her cadent breaths.




The dining hall is empty and quiet - all my adolescent sisters are asleep in their bedrooms. It’s one of those perpetual afternoons in the summer when the house rests uneasily under the sun, and its soporific people hide under the roof like turtles in their stubborn shells. Glaring sunlight penetrates the glass, meeting the pale quartzes floor it bounces to permeate the whole hall. Pausing my steps, I extend my hands before my eyes to adjust to this abrupt, startling brightness. The white sunshine bleaches the furniture, erasing their primary hues then, riming them with layers of delicate frost. My mother’s beloved chandelier resembles a quiet curdled moon, a moon in the day retreating from sunlight, full of retiring melancholy grace. And the frail curtains freeze in midair like ripples on a frosted lake, cleaving the space into a myriad of small segments. A modern clock with halted hands suspends motionlessly on the wall, absent of rhythmic tickings. Even the crickets’ endless recitatives cease.


In this quietude, one can easily find time an indefinite and arcane element, except the floating indiscernible dust in their nonchalant manner under the unearthly light, being the only indications to the passage of time. Suddenly, cold air spirals like tentacles burrowing into my nostrils, saturating my lungs and sending waves of ache down my spine. As if I am inside the chamber of Bluebeard, the coldness gnaws me like the blood permanently stains the key.


Shaking off this quaint feeling with great difficulty, I resume my steps. The tea room is on the east wing, two turns from the dining hall, across the corridor that looks out into the extensive lawn which stretches to meet the sea. Usually, it takes half a minute to arrive. But this time, the journey feels strangely interminable. I walk through a hundred stretched, endless hallways, and with every turn (the numbers I have lost count of), I always find in wonder and confusion that I am still in the one corridor glimpsing the sea. Withdrawn splashes of waves, the retreating sound of breaking froths on the shore coupled with my muffled footsteps. All this time, only my elongated shadow, who leads rather than follows me, keeps me from utter solitude.


Aeons pass before I eventually reach the carved ebony door of the tea room. Perhaps because of my odyssey, there seems to be something unfathomably sacred about this door, or rather, the space behind it. As if the dark wood possesses a life of its own, with each breath it exhales, blood oozes out the rifts. Then, just like I have done a hundred times before, reaching out with my trembling hands to grasp the doorknob, twist it, and the gate ricochets with a wounded shriek.





Loud, merry chatterings erupt from the room. Everyone is here - my sisters, idling on the chaise lounge with pale peonies in hands, absent-mindedly plucking off the petals, exchanging words and giggling. They turn around, every pair of eyes gaze upon where I stand. Suddenly the air falls quiet. My mother, in a diaphanous blue gown, emerges from the interior region of the room. She smiles softly and hands me a cup of richly composed earl grey. Its temperature feels just right as if it has been long prepared, carefully calculated for my arrival.


With sudden unalterable horror, I let the cup slip from my hands. That harsh, terminating sound of breaking is like a forlorn cry within me, shattering the air into pieces. The smile on my mother’s face disappears. Or I think it does. But she puts it back on, and that frightens me more than anything. It’s a smile without emotions attached, a mechanical expression cautiously designed. My mother bends down and picks up the broken pieces without haste or anger. Then she presses the back of her left hand on my forehand, staring into my startled eyes as if she’s scrutinising and satisfied by what fear and despair they have revealed.


“You have a fever, honey,” putting away the fragments she speaks, her voice disembodied, still examining me coldly. “Let me take you to bed.”


No, I don’t have a fever. I’m sure of that. Once more, that haunting coldness catches up with me, and suddenly I wish I had never gone off the bed, never opened this door. I want to run away, away from this woman who has the face of my mother and this godforsaken room, this foreign house. But I’m under a witch’s spell - my feet clamp to the earth, a string pulls, and I nod. My mother squeezes my hand tightly, so tightly that it hurts. We begin walking, or rather, her hauling me like a gladiator dragging his prize across the battlefield. I look back at the figures now leaning against the door frame - motionless, apathetic, watching my departure with hollow eyes.


Neither of us speaks on the way back. My mother walks in nonchalant grace, just like the dust lingering in the dining hall. Her heels make not a sound on the cobbled floor, and her gossamer gown almost deliquesces into the air, dropping traces of thin blue. All along, I watch the shadows on the ground. Was it only this afternoon the wan daylight pervaded this place? I can’t quite remember. All I know is a sense of strange relief embracing me when I feel the warmth that has been so recently intolerable, and I am conquered by a dreamy lethargy the moment my cheeks touch the linen pillow. In between dream and reality, I see my mother’s ghostlike figure leaving the bedroom. Then the languor overwhelms me, and soon I am no longer alert of my vicinity.




The next morning I wake up with the sound of wind rustling through trees and birds chirruping exuberantly under this youthful dawnlight. In the dining hall, my mother is spreading folds of strawberry jam onto a slice of bread. She smiles and makes a gesture in the midair, giving a metaphoric sign for me to come. That smile is different from the one yesterday afternoon - kind, loving, maternal, the smile that has always been a consolation to me. I think of apologising for my misbehaviour, but my mother nods in an understanding way as if she knows and forgives.


Perhaps I did have a fever.


“Go back to bed,” she whispers, leaving a kiss on my forehead. “You need rest.”


I nod and wait a minute before heading to the bedroom. Noticing something is lost, I stop and glance at the clock on the wall - its hands still halted. Then I turn around and gasp, seeing my mother standing quietly before me - when has she moved?


“Go back to bed,” she speaks again, this time more commanding, absent of the gentleness that was there a moment ago.


“I’ll check up on you later,” she says, “to see how you feel.”


And there it was again, the waves disintegrating on sand, the air curdling on my skin and forevermore, the coldness preying on me.




- Jacqueline.



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