Anna: AWinter’s Tale
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.
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 …”