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A Grandmother in Three Tales
(049. The Six Swans)
I took in mending while you were gone.
At first, it was a selfish endeavor: I stitched up both our clothes, repairing holes and frayed hems, so that when you came back we’d look smart enough to deserve our happiness. Then the neighbors took notice, and I began mending shirts and dresses, slacks and jackets that arrived at my door from all over town.
When there’s a war on, you begin to imagine that everything you do ensures some kind of guarantee. If my stitches are straight, if my sleeve lengths match perfectly, then he will return unharmed. If I do not finish before dusk on the final day, he will not return at all.
The woman I wanted to become said child, this is no hard task. This is what your fingers know to do. And it was true, somewhat. I had sewn my whole life, from hand-stitching with needles to the whir of an industrial machine. But never before had such a task been given me. With each button, I saved your life. Somewhere across the ocean, a hand was shot through. Somewhere, a man lost his face. I kept sewing. I did not speak with anyone, and I had no desire to laugh.
On the last day of the last battle, I sat in my sewing corner all afternoon and took stock. My blue dress, your shirts, the patch on Mrs. Johnson’s slacks—all done. I watched the sun set behind the Y two streets over. I waited the next day, and many days after that, watching the sky every night, but you never came home.
(040. The Robber Bridegroom)
When I met Mr. S some years later, I had given myself a new name. Who could call me the same woman? Mr. S liked my new name fine. Short and simple and practical, my new name was. Underneath his thin smile, I had the distinct impression that he thought of me the same way: a short, simple woman. A practical wife.
But he was nothing like you, in any way. Not prone to jokes, he was smart and reserved. My brother, who didn’t care what I liked to call myself, invited him to dinner. We sat in the winged armchairs that never got any use besides, and we watched the brand new television.
He laughed at the girls on Lawrence Welk as they crooned in harmony. What’s so funny, I asked him. Merengues, he said. They look like a rack of pies. It was then that I thought I saw you, looking out through his eyes, keeping me tacked onto the world.
We rented out the Elks Lodge for our wedding dinner. During dessert, a too-moist lemon cake, I looked down at my lap. My wedding ring glinted on my finger: it seemed to belong to a different hand.
(043. Frau Trude)
My granddaughter sits across the room, eating Chinese takeout and complaining to her mother and me about her cousins. They don’t like the same films she does, and this, she says, is a disappointment.
Maybe you’re finally learning that things aren’t always the way you want, I say.
Her face becomes a crumpled cabbage. Mom, her mother says, and puts her hand on my arm. Then I remember something I had forgotten: the girl’s heart, broken in its cage of bone and veins, broken by some boy off at school. Cried for days straight, her mother told me. The first heartbreak, I suppose, and so it will likely be the worst. I look at my granddaughter, who is eating chicken and broccoli. She managed, it appears, to get dressed this morning, even to put on a red silk scarf. She still calls herself by the same name as she did before.
Maybe you already know that, I say, for her mother’s sake.
It’s half-hearted, and we both know it. She knows nothing. She gives off too much of a light.
Cate Fricke’s work has appeared in Slate, Fairy Tale Review, The Sycamore Review, and others. She lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, and blogs at www.grimmproject.wordpress.com
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