01/07/2013

Your house requires you to adopt the habit of preserving

by Katy Gunn

The road is soft with snow. What comes before does not matter at a beginning. The house is white and quiet. Very cold and new. The house is not unclean, but it is best to begin with cleaning. Open the windows and bring the bright winter to air out what came before. Sweep the corners of hair and colorful fuzz collected there. Sweep out the stove and knock out the broom.

The colorful and black specks dot the snow, then are covered neatly. I neaten myself similarly. Close the windows, make the fire, remove my clothes, clean my body so it might be the best it can be.

A good plain cake takes three eggs with water and a teacupful of sugar, a teacupful and a half of flour, two spoons of baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Cut in two and put nice jam between. A good woman put up preserves in the kitchen so there can be good apple cake with tea even in winter.

Even when there are no apples on the trees. This is why you put up preserves. It is best to plan ahead by making the most of what is offered. But if you leave a place, you make it clean and leave your preserves behind. It is a kind gesture to the person who takes your position, for whom it makes a good beginning.

I take my slice to the sitting room and look out the window. There is a dash of blue outside. A girl is playing, maybe tag. I settle into a chair. Very quiet here, very nice.

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Men are not simply good or bad. Women neither, though I strive. The house exists to divert a man from his anxieties. My work here will comfort him, whether or not his loneliness is valid. Loneliness need not be reasonable to have validity, which is only a feeling you get.

For example, being able to pay someone for his diversion makes a man feel more valid.

I straighten the bed so it will look comparatively mussed once the man has come for comfort so he might look back on it and feel he has received excellent attention. He will have driven or walked a great distance of slipping and cold, and will feel he deserves this. No matter how close or far he lives. Winter makes every distance great and slipping. When you step out in it for a while you might walk minutes or miles, but it is all similar. It is best not to concern yourself with where you came from, but to keep moving with or against the wind until you reach comfort.

Even better that good woman left so much food, so many ingredients for three whole meals a day. I will not risk missing his visits by leaving the house to buy food. It is best not to disappoint a man until you have developed a fellowship. If the man comes at breakfast, we will eat eggs and potato cakes. Lunch, bread and onions. Dinner, onions and dried meat.

I will wipe his mouth carefully and listen to what makes him sad.

We will finish with good apple cake and tea. Then I will comb his hair with my fingers, tuck him into bed, and take all his feeling into my body. It will not harm me. There are not simply good or bad women. Some are capable of creating happiness from what they are given and some are not.

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The blue girl plays outside the house again. She stands still with her elbows in her hands. Her shoes are buried or covered in snow. Either she has sunk into it or it has been piling a long time.

No one tosses her a colored ball or runs up waving any treasure map.

Without proper exercise, the girl will become very cold. If she has been standing there a long time, she is chilled already. Her knees will stiffen and refuse to bend and her arms will get locked crossed that way.

This is why you must always be prepared to make tea. Not only for the man, but for anyone who needs. You will always find people who need, even if you leave them miles behind and start at a beginning.

You let the cold girl in. I open the door and call her in.

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Trudging across the yard at a winter speed I eventually reach the girl and find her stiff. Her cheeks are pink and chapped until I reach up to pat feeling into them. I send small streams of warmth from my fingers straight through to the back of her head. I steer her inside.

She is not a girl, exactly, but a woman. She frowns and shivers like a girl.

Inside, I make her tea and give her slices of cake until she is full. She holds big bites inside her mouth and pours tea over them, so each chunk soaks in a hot pool until she swallows it down like it hurts her. She eats four slices this way and does not seem to find happiness in any of them.

Her sadness is so heavy it weighs down her head. There are no nightgowns in the house but there is a soft red dress with fur around the neck. I drape it over her crossed arms and lead her to the bedroom. I speak warm exhortations to her through the door. It is best to become comfortable and sleep when you have been cold and tired. Please sleep, little girl.

She does not answer when I ask if she has finished changing, so I knock and enter.

She stands wrapped in the afghan from the bed, but she will not lie down. The red dress hangs under the afghan crookedly. She will not let go of the afghan, but I manage to lift it high enough to tie the red ribbon around her waist. I find a stack of extra afghans in a drawer and put another on the bed. The girl looks at it itchily.

I steer her to the stove and sit her down. If you will not lie down, you must at least dry your hair before wandering around. I leave to find a comb she will hold in her lap without using.

But her hands are not idle, no. They work at the afghan, dismantling the looping stitches of three full rows. When I set the comb on the pile of loose yarn, she picks at a section beneath it without seeming to recognize what she has done.

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The lonely man comes to our house in the evening. He opens the front door without knocking and I meet him alone. The girl has seen him through the window and run into the kitchen, trailing the long yarn behind her, before I heard his boots outside.

I welcome him. I offer him tea and good apple cake and he thanks me, saying how he loves anything sweet and hot in winter. ‘Or whenever,’ he says, ‘depending on the cook.’ He eats it standing up.

‘So you like to keep the kitchen hot. You like hot things in the kitchen.’ He puts a hand on my skirt. He runs it over the front of his pants.

He wants to turn me over the supportive wood of the kitchen table and murmur what hurts him into my hair. I think of the girl, afraid in the kitchen, and all the things it is best to hide from a girl until she learns to make happiness from what she gets.

I tell him I like to cook good food in the kitchen so we stay soft as feather pillows, and when we lie down on them it is impossible to tell where we end. I steer him into the bedroom and lay him down, climb on top of him and hold him in my arms while he shakes and gives me all the pain he cannot bear alone.

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The girl is hiding in the kitchen corner. The lowest shelf pushes her head down so her face is pressed into the afghan over her knees. She sits on her hands.

‘You do not have to be afraid,’ I tell her. ‘No bad men will come into this house. That man is just sad, like you.’

She presses her eyes into her knees and will not scoot out of the corner until I have decided it is best to leave her alone, and begun to make dinner. She only stands up to sit at the kitchen table. Her knobby hands twitch at the money the man has left there.

‘See, there is really no reason to be afraid,’ I say, stirring salt into water.

‘No. No Clive. Not enough stitches to stop the sister boat.’ Her voice is husky, not the whine of a little girl I have imagined. She stares at nothing on the wall and the water starts to boil.

I busy myself with the dried meat. ‘You have just been knocked in your ribs by some pain which came before and which must no longer matter. Look how clean this house is. It is best to leave behind old things when you are at a beginning.’

‘Our house,’ she says.

‘Yes.’ I give her dry herbs to chop with the side of a spoon.

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We wash our faces and hands and sleep in our dresses. We will put on fresh ones in the morning. It will make us bright and happy, and there will be enough laundry for the good work of washing clothes.

I pull back the afghans. The girl lists backwards toward the door.

It is hard to give her a stern look because her eyes will not receive it. She is glancing around everywhere but the bed. She finds the doorframe behind her and taps a quick light rhythm on it before backing out.

‘All right,’ I say. Even though the bed is soft as baby birds and she is missing it. I take two then all of the afghans from the drawer, remembering how she shivered with her shoes covered in slow so recently.

At least in her sleep she cannot pull them to pieces.

In the morning I change dresses, fold the old one for washing, and wash my face. The windowsills are tall with snow and need me to dust them off, a beneficial exercise. Cold air freshens and prepares us for the day ahead.

To reach the sitting room windowsills I must step over the girl, sleeping late in a tangled nest of loose yarn with her fingers twitching in her sleep.

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The best way to cheer a girl in winter is snow cream. Wait for a snowfall that goes a long time without stopping, and use snow that falls late in that day. The earlier snow will take the dirt from the air, making your snow cleanest and freshest. Do not let the sad girl see the can of sweet milk or the bowl when you go outside. When you come back she will be gleeful.

See how the woman who lived before here was good and put up sweets like milk and preserves? Maybe we can top your snow cream with preserves. This treat stains the girl’s mouth a happy pink. I will not wash it off right away.

‘Gitta needs snow cream,’ her pink mouth says. ‘Then cold sister, needing afghans and house, happily snow cream sister would stay.’

‘Yes, snow cream is a happy treat, but you must eat your bread and meat too. You must healthfully subsist, because I love you,’ I say.

We work together all evening, me slicing onions and the girl tying each slice into a bow. The onions in the cupboard are growing soft and I cut too many for the joy of our collaboration. The potatoes are almost gone too, and greening.

The woman who put up food assisted our beginning, but she knew that learning to keep your house requires you to adopt the habit of preserving goods yourself and putting up for others. We must make a day trip to purchase what we need. At the table we recite and memorize our shopping list through mouthfuls of onion bows fried in the last fat.

‘Flour onions potatoes eggs,’ I say.

‘Candy for Gitta, marbles for Gitta,’ she recites creatively.

The girl takes a long time to swallow each bite and when she opens her mouth to talk I see she is untying the bows with her tongue. It is not mannerly or nice for company, but sometimes, at home on comfortable evenings with family, speaking with your mouth full and other small lapses may be permitted. For the shucking off of what weighs you down.

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The lonely man comes at an opportune time. The girl and I have put on nice dark going-out dresses and warm coats over them. I wear leather gloves and she wears a rabbit fur muff that she twists from the inside until it tightens around her hands. The man knocks snow off his shoes against the outside of the house, and the girl dashes.

The man is red with cold and other emotions and wastes no time in leading me to the bedroom where we may exchange pains privately. He unbuttons my coat and the top of my dress to do what a man does when he needs the uninhibited comfort only a mother can give. I smooth his hair while he sucks.

It is too cold in this house for the total removal of clothes since we let the fire burn out for our departure. Especially for this man who pulls at his coat in spasmodic distraction, whose cheeks feel so frigid. I pull his hand away from his buttons softly but firmly.

‘All right,’ he says. He pulls off my coat and the rest of my clothes.

I wait for him to hold me, pressing his warmth into my skin like the money it will comfort him to give. ‘How are you?’ I say.

He grabs the back of my neck and presses my face against the front of his pants. He unbuttons them and puts his pain into my mouth. We struggle together for a while. Eventually he pulls me up again but holds his hand over my mouth while he dirties the afghan.

He still looks defeated when he leaves. I dress, wipe the afghan as well as I can, and remove the girl from her hiding place under the shelves. She sweats heavily in her coat and muff and I wipe her face with my cold hands.

There is no slim envelope full of money. The man has set back our plans and offered no assistance. ‘It will be all right as long as we are frugal. You can make happiness from what you are given even if it is very little,’ I say to comfort the girl.

‘Nothing,’ says the girl.

‘Now, you don’t have nothing when you have family.’

‘Nothing,’ she says.

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We replenish a few of the items put up by the good woman before us, though we cannot afford the canned milk, spices, or preserves. We cannot make preserves because it is winter and there are few fresh fruits, mostly expensive apples wrapped in paper. I worry the girl will say ‘snow cream’ or ‘apple cake’ and the impossibility of it will disappoint her.

Usually it is best to instill realistic expectations in a girl, but one of such sad disposition must be taught slowly and with tact.

The girl is jumpy and grabbing at coats all the time. She calls people ‘Gitta’ and runs after them. They have to shake her off, and she drops our potatoes and bruises them.

It is best to have patience. I hold her arm while we walk. Her arm is light and worrisome. When she sees a basket of oranges inordinately priced and too fresh to be bought trustworthily she says ‘gift for Gitta’ and strokes one with love. A girl should have one treat. This is the end of our money.

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I teach the girl to create happiness from what we have been given. Add a bit of vinegar to cheap meat while it boils to soften it. When cream is turning, put a pinch of soda in. Do not throw away your orange peel after you have eaten the orange. You may chop it very finely and put it on a good plain cake, making a good orange cake and lengthening your consumption of the fruit.

The lonely man who is supposed to support us does not come for two weeks. ‘Perhaps he is feeling much better,’ I tell the girl. ‘He may have remembered his love of his wife or his patriotism, or been cured of an ailment and adopted a puppy or daughter.’

The girl pulls a loop of yarn around her finger until the skin at the tip puffs and turns purple. I pull it off and replace the loop around the wooden crochet hook she has played with for days. She settles back into her stitching.

It is best to check all pockets of clothing thoroughly before washing, because you might find any number of interesting and useful implements that have been thought to be lost.

‘Perhaps he only thought himself to be cured of his ailment and lived a happier life for one short day, his wife and daughter holding his hands on either side of his deathbed.’ I begin to boil water for dinner, but all the foods we have left are salt and sugar. I must think of what is best to do. ‘He might have remembered to repay our kindness had he not died,’ I say.

‘No Clive,’ agrees the girl.

‘Yes, you’re probably right.’

The girl ties off a row of stitches with a merry pull. Her chin still wrinkles with the weight of her mouth and she keeps her head down most of the time, but this is just her way. She feels much happier. She has already turned half the yarn from the destroyed afghans into new afghans, and the work is healthful and improving for her.

Give the girl a lump of sugar and she will put it in her mouth. Fill all the bags in the house with everything that will fit, dresses, afghans, lamps, silverware, dishes, sugar, and jewelry. Lay out warm coats and dresses and put the girl to bed early. It is best to be thoroughly rested on the morning of a new beginning.

It is nice to put up goods for the next person whose beginning will start at the place you are leaving, but it is more important to support your own, whatever it takes, especially if your family is made of such good women as ours.

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Katy Gunn is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama with writing forthcoming from Mojo, wigleaf, Crazyhorse, and more.

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