Anna: AWin­ter’s Tale

Pasatiempo - - Stories - by El­iz­a­beth Rose

Anna pushed her feet into her bed­room slip­pers, wrapped her dress­ing gown tight, and reached for her bed­side clock. “Fall back. Spring for­ward.” She turned the tiny hands to five. No larger than a pocket watch, the sil­ver clock had stood on her mother’s dress­ing ta­ble all of Anna’s child­hood. Now it was hers. She glanced at the photo on the night­stand, re­mind­ing her­self of her mother’s face, and sighed. Win­ter al­ready?

Anna lifted the porce­lain kitchen clock down onto the ta­ble from the blue wooden shelf. It read ten past six. Del­i­cately painted with corn­flow­ers, it matched the old-fash­ioned china plates she dis­played be­side it.

“Hands go clock­wise!” Fa­ther spoke clearly in her head. Wind­ing the clocks had be­come a weekly rit­ual they en­joyed to­gether while Mother put on her Sun­day best and fussed over which hat to wear to church. “Does this look good, Car­l­ito? Or this one?” If he chose the blue, she chose the brown. While they were both alive, it was the same game ev­ery Sun­day, un­til Mother in­di­cated her fi­nal choice by push­ing her hat­pin firmly into place.

Anna pulled out the stop and twisted it be­tween her fore­fin­ger and thumb till it stiff­ened. “Don’t over­wind!” Re­mem­ber­ing Fa­ther’s words, Anna paused, hold­ing the clock to her ear, lis­ten­ing to its barely au­di­ble tick. Twenty past five. No point go­ing back to bed. The warm patch un­der her ei­der­down would be long cold. She filled the ket­tle, placed it on the burner, and shuf­fled to her bed­room to dress.

When the ket­tle’s whis­tle sum­moned her to the kitchen, she poured a splash of boil­ing wa­ter into the brown Denby teapot Mother brought from Eng­land when she was 18.

“First, warm the pot.” Now it was Mother’s voice that spoke from the grave. “One per per­son, one for the pot.” While the tea brewed, she pushed open the par­lor door and shiv­ered. The room re­mained chilly un­til late af­ter­noon.

Anna wrin­kled her nose at the heavy oak domed clock stand­ing on its fake brass feet. God only knows why Fa­ther loved it so. Mother had sniffed her dis­ap­proval when he brought it home and placed it proudly on her man­tel.

“Happy birth­day, Mag­gie dear! I hope you like it.” And so the ugly thing sat loudly tick­ing in the empty room for al­most 50 years.

Keep­ing it level, Anna slid it care­fully around and pried off the metal back. In­sert­ing the key, she wound the move­ment first, then the chime, be­fore fac­ing the clock back to the room. She kept ex­actly to that or­der. “You’ll put its tim­ing out. Clocks are very sen­si­tive, Anna.” Yes, yes, Fa­ther— ev­ery week you tell me, she mocked im­pa­tiently to her­self.

Anna opened the glass face. Point­ing her right fore­fin­ger, she for­warded the hour hand to seven, count­ing seven chimes un­der her breath, then round again to eight, to nine, to ten, till at last the clock struck five. “That’s a good job done.” She glanced out­side at the turkey vul­tures cir­cling the bosque. The cot­ton­woods blazed yel­low.

“Late this year, they are. Win­ter will be hard— see if I’m not right.” To cel­e­brate the chang­ing sea­son, Anna fol­lowed her mother’s tra­di­tion by cook­ing a pot of beans. “A warm­ing dish to wel­come win­ter.” Anna chose black beans, re­mem­ber­ing to soak them in a saucepan overnight with a pinch of bi­car­bon­ate, as Mother had showed her. “Don’t want gas,” she’d nod, wink­ing. As Anna drained the swollen beans un­der run­ning wa­ter, one bean caught her at­ten­tion. It had grown a long ten­dril root and a tiny folded green-be­gin­nings of a leaf.

“Cu­ri­ous!”

Anna fished it out, laid it on a pa­per towel, cut one scoop from an egg box in her fridge, and filled it with soil skimmed from one of her gera­ni­ums.

“Per­fect!” she said, and placed it on the ta­ble by the win­dow. “Now I’ll see what you are made of!”

She hur­riedly ate a slice of thickly but­tered toast and mar­malade with her tea be­fore tackling the beans. Her mother’s hand­writ­ten recipe was stained and faded. Al­though she knew it by heart, un­fold­ing the pale blue linen pa­per and check­ing off each in­gre­di­ent cheered her. Ty­ing on her apron, she set her­self to such a frenzy of chop­ping, slic­ing, and adding pinches of this and that, she got quite out of breath. “I’d bet­ter hurry,” she ad­dressed the plant. Like Mother, she fussed in front of the looking glass, al­ter­nat­ing hats as she read­ied for church. The day was glo­ri­ous, and she chose her “yel­low-felt” to match the leaves in the bosque. “Morn­ing, Miss Anna.” Her neigh­bor Sam looked up from fork­ing his front flower bed by the gate. Five years ago it was his fam­ily moved in. Young and noisy, they were friendly enough but not peo­ple to drop by unan­nounced, like the old days. As her friends died or moved away, new folk had nudged out the old, house by house.

When she re­turned from church, she took off her Sun­day best and was star­tled to see the plant had sprouted a good half inch. Anna ate a bowl of beans, eye­ing it war­ily.

“A larger pot for you!” Oc­to­ber left in a mighty wind­storm, tak­ing all the color from the leaves and the turkey vul­tures with it. By Thanks­giv­ing, the plant stood one foot proud. Anna had al­ready re­pot­ted it twice. The first time, she used the tin from the plum cake her nephew sent from Aus­tralia. Each year his par­cel ar­rived early. She never waited for Christ­mas Day to cut into it.

Only two weeks later, her pine tree— for it was clear now what the plant was— needed some­thing larger. This time, Anna placed a small piece of ba­con fat and a cop­per penny at the bot­tom of the pot be­fore cov­er­ing both with good earth.

Mrs. Jenk­ins from Meals on Wheels, clearly thun­der­struck, joked ev­ery time she vis­ited on her de­liv­er­ies. “My! You feed­ing it my din­ners, Anna?” Anna didn’t men­tion the cop­per penny or the ba­con fat or how she crooned and spoke to it dur­ing meal­times at their shared ta­ble: “Well, my beauty, any plans to­day?” or “A lit­tle drop of wa­ter, per­haps?”

Al­though she never got a real an­swer, she swore the pine tree nod­ded. Christ­mas Eve was cold. Anna drew the cur­tains and locked the front door early. Set­ting her jew­elry box on the ta­ble, Anna an­nounced to the pine, “You are my pre­cious Christ­mas tree.”

Sav­ing a sil­ver star for the top, she clipped her pret­ti­est ear­rings onto the branches, spi­raled a sil­ver chain and her bro­ken string of pearls up and around, and then set it off nicely with fluffed cot­ton wool. “Must have left the kitchen lights on.”

Anna stum­bled out of bed and gasped as she opened the door. The tree glowed, ev­ery piece of jew­elry a twin­kling light, and sprin­kled around its base were what looked like piñon shells but turned out to be her fa­vorite chocolate al­monds.

Anna low­ered her­self into her chair, lost in won­der, and fell asleep by the last of the fire, lis­ten­ing to a sweet voice singing, “It came upon a mid­night clear …”

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