by Ann Elwood
A trilogy of novellas about those rare relationships that fall outside the category of ordinary romance: See What You Have Done, a coming-of-age story about a young girl and her uncle, who lives in the attic with his pet parrot; The Nun, the Priest, and the Tortoise, in which a young nun in a 17th-century convent and her spiritual adviser discuss the nature of the world; Joan & Bella, which tells the story of two sisters, one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease.
(Wordcount 63,000; ebook $2.99 USD)Kindle
See What You Have Done (Extra-ordinary Loves)
Shaded by the apple tree, Jim and I looked down into the split rail pen, as the piglets with their intelligent eyes and alert, winglike ears stuck their snouts out between the fence rails and looked up at us. I was eleven then, and my brother, Jim, was twelve. Pop, who somewhat resembled Henry Fonda, said, “They are Chester Whites.”
“What?” I asked.
“Chester Whites is their breed.” Always a laconic man, he didn’t explain further, as a modern-day father might, going on about breeds and dogs and genetics and so on.
“We decided that you can name them,” Mom said.
“Are they boys or girls?” I asked.
“Males, Anna,” said Pop.
“I know,” Jim said, “One can be Chester.”
I didn’t say anything. I had already known that one would be Chester. I was cogitating about what to name the second one – Aloysius? Caesar? Should he be named after a fat man, like Lou Costello, whom we’d seen in movies at the theater the next town over? Did “Lou” go with Chester? Would it hurt the pig’s feelings to be named after a fat man?
Jim, always decisive, beat me to it and said, “The other one can be George. Like Uncle George.”
At that point, I knew one of my parents should say, “That would hurt George’s feelings.” I also knew they wouldn’t. Pop put one foot on a split rail, a hand on another, higher one, and stared at the horizon. Mom folded her arms and looked at the pigs.
Uncle George was not piglike, I thought, but then I realized that there was something in the hopefulness of the piglets’ eyes as they looked up at us that reminded me of him. Had Jim noticed that? I didn’t think so. Now I wonder. Uncle George was Pop’s older brother and lived up in our attic, where he read and sometimes played his jazz and blues records on the phonograph until Mom shouted up at him to turn the music down, even though it was not loud at all. Mom hated free-loaders, and she treated Uncle George with disdain. Pop said little. I imagine it was because he knew he had stretched his wife’s generosity to the breaking point by having his brother live with us. We children knew how Mom felt about Uncle George. We knew it by her actions – slamming his plate of food down on the bottom step of the ladder leading to the attic, avoiding his eyes when he spoke, complaining loudly about money in his presence. Mom was never subtle about Uncle George as she could be about other things.
“There he is,” said Jim, as Uncle George came over the little hill. He was dressed, as always, in khaki pants and a tucked-in shirt that he washed and ironed himself, something men didn’t do much those days, when women were available to do it. His polished shoes were old and broken down. He had a bald spot on the back of his head that he couldn’t see. I was almost certain Mom had let him know it existed. I sometimes wondered if, when he began to lose the rest of his hair, he would try to hide it with a comb-over, like Ike Washington who ran the general store in town. I didn’t think he would.
“I wanted to see the pigs,” he said. I went over and leaned against him, as I often did. In spite of his slenderness, there was something solid about him. He reached around and patted my shoulder. I could feel it like an warm imprint.
“The kids named them Chester and George,” said Mom.
Uncle George smiled, a smile that seemed to break his face. “After me? I’m honored.” He reached his hand out towards the pigs. “Which one is me?”
Jim, taken aback, said, “You decide, Uncle George.”
“The smaller one seems more my style,” Uncle George replied.
Pop took his pipe out of his shirt pocket, tapped it on the fence rail, and reamed it out. Then he opened a packet of tobacco that smelled of fruit and spice, pinched up enough tobacco to fill the pipe, tamped the tobacco down with his thumb, and lit a match. After touching the flame to the tobacco, he puffed until it was lit, then, looking a bit askance, said, “Are you sure, George?” Mom glared at him, but he continued, “Maybe the kids should choose another name.”
“As I said, Billy, I am honored,” replied Uncle George.
From The Nun, the Priest, and the Tortoise
One: The First Session (Convent of Saint Celeste, Besançon, Franche-Comté, 1680)
Father Bernard’s cassock swings freely as he walks with his long, loose stride into the convent parlor. Sister Veronica likes the flow of it. He comes to stand facing her, close enough that she can see the color of his eyes – they are a fine, warm gray that reminds her of dove feathers, a gray unlike the cold color of clouds. She can see the smallpox scars on his long-chinned face. His breath smells faintly of an apple he has eaten before he came into the parlor. She knows what he was doing before he came. Eating an apple! How far did he bite into the core? She thinks of how she ate the seeds when she was a child. Someone told her they were poison, but she ate them anyway. She likes apple skin, the way it sticks in her teeth. The way her teeth slice through the apple flesh. The juice. She thinks of how he had been outside on the sunny street eating an apple before he came into the convent. She knows the street, remembers its cobblestones and the way it curves, the buildings casting shadows that change shape during the day. How, here in Besançon in the winter, the sun rises late over the hills and it grows dark very early. As it will do soon. But she will never see the street outside again. Not ever again.
“What are you thinking about, Sister Veronica?” he asks. She likes the sound of his low voice with a slight crack in it, like that of a boy who has gone from being tenor to bass and can no longer sing in the boys’ choir.
“Eating apples,” she replies. The convent must seem dark to him. The candlelit parlor, where nuns can meet with visitors from the outside, and only certain ones, has no windows at all. It’s like being in an eternal dusk.
“A very earthly thought.” His tone is kind. “I am here as your spiritual adviser. Try to lift your mind toward God and away from the world.” He hesitates, and she knows he isn’t finished. “But we can begin by talking about what concerns you.”
She says, “I should be thinking of God, as you say, but God makes apples, doesn’t He? So, am I not thinking of God?”
Her last spiritual adviser would have rebuked her for saying that. It would have seemed impertinent to him. Father Bernard merely smiles. He has thin lips, upturned at the edges, ready to smile, but twistedly, as if he is half-crying. It makes him seem tentative.“Why apples?” he asks.
“You were eating one before you came in, I smelled it on your breath,” she answers. His smile broadens. “I was wondering what you did with the core.”
“I gave it to a stray dog,” he says.
“Did the dog follow you then?” she asks.
“Yes, they always do.” How has it come to this? Already she is questioning him, when it should be the other way around. But he is curious so he asks, “Why did you ask me about the apple core?”
“It has seeds. Some people think they are poison.” His face clouds over. She can look directly into his eyes. He is the same height as she is. “Don’t worry. Our dogs ate our apple cores and didn’t die. Even though some people said they would.”
“Why did you bring the question up then?”
“To see what you would say.” She is teasing and she knows she should not. Father Bernard is young, hardly older than she, and she is his first. His first nun to advise. Spiritually. She is sorry she brought up the subject of apples at all.