Thursday, February 17, 2000

My Special Place (In-class Writing Exercise)

My special place topped the third floor of the old red-brick house I lived in from the time I was six months to eight years.  It was the attic, but not in the sense of a storage place.  It had been divided into two enormous rooms -- one, the girls' bedroom (my cousin Anita's and mine) and one, the boys' bedroom, which Anita's brothers Larry and Joey shared.  It would be wonderful to be able to return to this place, to work in it, to dream, to think about lots of things.

I remember that at night I would wait for Anita to come up with me, for the narrow stairway that led to the attic was poorly lit, and if alone, I imagined it rampant with scary creatures of every kind.  Those few times when I had to climb the stairs at night alone, I carefully walked the entire way up sideways, with my back against the wall, so that no monster could sneak up on me from behind.  In the daytime, though, when Anita and Lawrence and Joe were in school, and Mamma and my Zia Maria were busy with their many chores, I would delight in going to my special place alone, to sit in the girls' bedroom on the hardwood floor, under the narrow little window, where I would play for hours with my paper dolls, or, better still, would act out exotic adventures I created in my head.  Then would the attic expand to all sorts of magical places outside my narrow little world!

In the late spring and summer months, the attic was almost unbearably hot, but that didn't stop me from seeking out its refuge.  Mamma would be upset to find me there.  

"You'll suffocate in this heat!" she warned.

But I loved it best then.  I liked feeling the drops of perspiration alongside my face.  I liked the martyrdom of bearing my suffering stoically, for throughout my childhood, I was unjustly labeled with the reputation of crying at the least bit of pain, and I resented it.

Were I somehow to go back now to my special place, I know long-buried memories would flow over me in great abundance, and I know I would be able to write without stop, thoughts and words spilling over each other, fighting for place on the page.

Thursday, February 3, 2000

Match Girl Revisited

The station master half-dozed behind the cage of his cubicle in the dimly-lit terminal.  The child (for, no older than fifteen, she was after all a child) was the only other being in the place.  Hearing the distant wail of a train, she rose and went out on the platform.  Who knew when another train would come?  She mustn't miss getting on this one.

Outdoors, the train's lament, shriller than before, cut the cold air.  Another whistle, that of a merciless wind, rattled the decrepit old platform.  She peered into the void, anticipating the train's approach, but its beacon was not yet to be seen.  Pulling on the hood of her parka, she shivered and thought of the Little Match Girl.

Her cousin Michael used to tell of the Little Match Girl.  Crippled from birth and confined to a wheelchair, he occupied his time with reading, and he filled his young cousin's days with stories from his books, or from his own wonderful imagination.  Despite the difference in their ages (he was twelve years her senior) they were almost inseparable.  When first he told her the tale of the Little Match Girl, she had shed great tears – so many, in fact, that each time she asked him to repeat the story thereafter, he would refuse.  “It makes you too sad,” he would say.  

Out of love, though, he always ended up retelling her about the little match girl, orphaned and shivering in the snow, with nothing but a stolen box of wooden matches with which she tried to warm her cold bare hands.  One by one, the little match girl would light a match and hold it as close to her hands as she dared, first one hand and then the other.  Before each match died, she saw in its dancing orange flame, a beautiful scene of family around a warm fire.  It was something she had once known, but no more.  The next morning, so Michael's tale went, she was found frozen to death in the snow.  That story, above all the others Michael told her, became so familiar to the child, that she could have recited it word-for-word, but it was his voice she wanted to hear.  And each time, she cried for the little match girl, and loved her as dearly as if she truly existed.

All this had taken place when things were still good, when Michael and his mother, the child's widowed Aunt Martha, lived with them.  Then one day Aunt Martha took Michael and his wheelchair and went to Tennessee to live with Michael's other grandmother.

“It will be easier there,” her aunt had told the child's mother.  “At least I can wheel him out into sunshine and get him away from this damn cold.”

Now the child and her mother were alone.  She missed Michael terribly, but with each passing day, the pain dulled, and with the start of First Grade, her life took on a path of its own without him.  Still, at times, just before dropping off to sleep, she would remember, and would ache with longing.

When her mother married Walter, she did not begrudge her that.  Her mother had often told the child how tired she was of bearing alone the burden of rearing her.  “It's not easy being a single parent, let me tell you,” her mother often said.  Sometimes she shouted these words at her.  The child should have tried to break away long ao.  She knew this now.  She should have left that very first time, when, late, late in the night, Walter had crept into her bedroom.

She heard now the clacking noise of the train even before she saw it lumber around a far bend.  Its light defined the track in front of it as it swallowed up the distance to the station.  Then gradually it 

slowed ... slower, slower, until with one final cough, it stopped.  The child watched as the door of the train opened, and in the meager light of the car, what she saw made her gasp with joy, for there, preparing to step from the train, stood Michael, tall and straight.  He smiled at her, but before she could run to him, his image shimmered and was gone.

It was a brief moment before the child realized that the anguished cry she heard piercing the night came from her own throat.  Already the train was grinding its great wheels in preparation for departure.  She gathered up her bundle and climbed aboard.