Today feels like a day for sharing. I wrote this story years ago and in fact, my style has changed considerably over the years. It’s certainly not my best work.
But this little story won my first ever first place award in 2001. It beat eighty other short, short stories and the look of shock is forever caught on film because a friend of mine, (Kathy!), knew about the win ahead of time and planted her daughter.
I thought you might enjoy seeing the transition of style. For an idea of the change, read a bit of rough from my current WIP here.
The rising sun cast a yellow and orange haze over the morning as Nadia made her way to the little stone bench. The air, dry and cold, nipped at the exposed skin of her face and hands and she wished she could turn back for the new wool gloves she’d forgotten. She was running late today and if she didn’t hurry, that silly man Frederik would get there first.
She’d been first fourteen days in a row. It was a new record. Of course, yesterday Frederik had not come at all.
Hurrying for her was walking a little fast for most. With every day it grew closer to winter, the chill crept deeper into her bones. Some days they felt hollow, like the flaky pastry shells her papa had once made in his bakery only without the rich, creme filling to keep them sturdy. It seemed to her they might crumble with one hard fall.
She salty sea air blew strong through the narrow streets, lifting the slightly frayed ends of her coat. She could get a new one, but this one had shared many winters with her and it suited her fine. She loved the way it fit to her body, snug and comfortably familiar. So many things about her life, her town, were no longer familiar.
Nadia carefully kept her face averted as she passed the gift shop that had once been her family’s bakery. Her father had opened it three years before her birth and it had stayed open for sixty-seven years. Her youngest brother, Misha , had finally closed its doors twelve years before. It still pained her to walk by and not see a member of the Ivanov family smiling behind the counter. She herself had worked that counter for most of her eighty-two years. All the important moments in her life had occurred in that store. Friends made, birthdays celebrated, a wedding reception here and there.
It was the place where she’d met the two loves of her life.
Turning the corner, she saw that Frederik had beaten her.
The bench was not very wide. There was not anything special about it, other than it offered a view of the boats coming into the harbor and was one of the last places in town with a stretch of original cobblestone street. It was a familiar place, having been there for as long as she could remember. She supposed that’s why she liked it.
Too bad Frederik liked it, too.
Silly, old man, she thought with a scowl. Dressed as always with his wool vest, badly knotted tie and ridiculous hat–a beret, he called it. He annoyed her like no one. He stole her bench, picked at her and generally make her life as miserable as possible. He liked nothing better than to ruin a perfectly good day for her.
If she were in an honest sort of mood, she’d have to admit, she loved to do nothing better than ruin the day for him as well.
Placing her hands on now ample hips, she announced, “Today you have to share.”
“Why should I?” he answered. “There’s a perfectly good bench over there. No one has taken it yet.”
“You know good and well, Frederik Larsen, that you’re resting your bony butt on my bench.”
He lifted one snowy white eyebrow before lifting one buttock to glance beneath it. “Don’t see Nadia’s Bench written on it anywhere.”
Fuming, she plopped her hips down and deliberately crunched him to one end of the bench. She outweighed him and those hips, though they’d once caused her great anguish, had a useful purpose now. Leaving him barely enough space to balance on the end, she proceeded to ignore him. She opened the brown paper bag she’d brought and lifted out the kartoshka she’d baked the day before. She noticed his sidelong glance at her pastry and swallowed the urge to offer him the other one in her bag. The man, so thin and frail, looked like one strong wind could pick him up and carry him away.
An image of him as a young man flashed into her head. Though always short, he’d once been sturdy and tough. She could easily remember his days as the neighborhood bully, making up for his lack of height with solid punches and ominous threats.
She’d known then he was a…she searched her mind for the right word and thought of one her great-granddaughter had taught her. Butthead. Yes, it was a good word. Butthead.
Paper crackled as Frederik opened his own bag. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the name on the package and forgot all about her decision to ignore him.
“Hmph. I always knew you were stupid, but eating pastry from Finster’s proves it.”
“I’ve been eating their pastries for over fifty years. Hasn’t hurt me yet.”
“They poison slowly, everyone with brains know this.”
He shrugged. “So I die happy. There are worse things.”
Disgusted, she bit into her kartoshka, smug in the knowledge her pastry was surely better. Her father and Hobart Finster had once been partners in the business until a falling out around the time she’d been starting school. She remembered the loud arguments and the day Finster had moved three doors down and opened his own bakery. Her father and his once best friend had never spoken again. No one who ate at the Ivanov’s ever set foot in Finster’s, it was an unspoken rule. Frederik had once eaten at Ivanov’s every day before going to his job unloading freighters in the harbor.
Frowning, she looked away from him and swallowed the heavy bite of pastry stuck in her throat. When she felt composed once again, she faced forward and slowly finished her breakfast.
Neither spoke for the next couple of hours. Nadia shifted on the hard bench a couple of times as the frigid October wind seemed to freeze the stone from underneath, making the cold sneak up to silently battle the warmth from her body.
She wondered how many years she and Frederik had fought over this bench. Ten? Fifteen? It hadn’t been that long since she’d know to the day, but while the older memories remained strong, the newer ones sometimes blurred and tangled together like knotted yarn. Shaking her head, she felt a flurry of fear trickle into her throat and she quickly sought a way to divert it.
“So, Frederik, I suppose yesterday, you were tired and had to stay in bed.”
Instead of his usual instant retort, he was silent for several seconds. She turned to look at him and found him gazing out over the harbor. “I was tired, but I didn’t stay home. I was at the hospital.”
Deep inside, something clenched. She ignored it and held her breath, waiting for him to go on.
“Alexandra called me to the hospital to say goodbye to Eduard. He passed in the afternoon.”
Though the clenching eased, another ache entered her chest. Eduard had been the last of Finster’s sons. Since her last brother has died two years before, that left just her and Frederik. They were the last of their generation left.
She knew Frederik ‘s thought matched hers. It was a sobering realization. To be the only two left.
Nadia eyed Frederik’s thin body and sighed. She handed him the paper bag with her last pastry. “You’re too skinny,” she said by way of explanation.
Frederik didn’t reply but took the bag with a smile. It was the first he’d directed her way since the day of his return from World War II in 1944. Disconcerted, she glared at him and turned back to the harbor.
Inside, though, inside something funny happened. A small spot, so long hollow and cold, broke from her heart and dissolved. Taking a deep breath, she marveled over the realization that the spot had still been there at all. She had not known it, thought it long swallowed by the many other moments in her life. The sad day of her marriage to Motka, the day she’d understood that Motka was indeed a gift from God, as his name should have told her, that he loved her and she loved him in a deep and spiritual way she’d never expected, the births of her three children, Tanya, Oleg and little Misha. The births of her many grandchildren. So many moments in time captured in spots on her heart she hadn’t realized the Frederik spot still remained.
A particularly strong autumn wind whistled past and Frederik startled her when he suddenly stood. She thought he was leaving and had to swallow an unexpected urge to ask him to stay. But he did not leave. Instead, he laughed and began to dance in a pile of dried leaves by the bench. It was barely a dance, more of a shuffle.
“What are you doing? You are a silly, silly man, Frederik Larsen. Sit down before you have a heart attack.”
Chuckling, he stopped and bent over to grab handfuls of crumpled dried leaves. He rolled them in his hands before lifting them to the sky. He let the wind pick them up and both he and Nadia watched as they swirled into the wind, pieces soaring out over the water.
“We are like these pieces of leaves, Nadia. So many experiences, so many memories. Some from so long ago, they’ve grown like these leaves, thin and papery. Some are strong and do well to warm our hearts when the world grows cold.” He smiled. “When it is our time, our spirits will break free and soar over the water like this.”
She watched him stand there, a silly, little man with his beret and badly knotted tie. She knew how difficult knotting that tie had to be with his fingers, long curled from arthritis. She knew those fingers were cold like hers and there he stood as tall as was possible for him, proud and smiling and uttering nonsense.
All of the sudden, she didn’t feel so cold.
Laughing, she moved over a bit to give him more room and patted the bench. “Sit Frederik and tell me a joke.”
The next morning Frederik once again beat her to the bench. She brought him fresh baked karavay bread. He gifted her with another smile.
She knew then that he had forgiven her.
For weeks they met at the beach and talked. Everyday she brought him something she’d baked the day before. Some mornings he arrived with a flower for her.
One morning Frederik was not at the bench. She waited, watching the ships moving in and out of the harbor. Sometime that morning, she knew in her heart he wouldn’t be coming. She sat still on the hard, little bench and thought back to the day he’d returned from the war, tired and hurt, yet so happy to see her. She remembered the stark pain on his face when she told him she’d given in to her father’s demands that she marry Motka, the prosperous Russian boy he preferred over her choice of a poor Danish harbor worker. He’d been gone to war so long. She’d not heard from him in over a year and had not even known if he was still alive. She hurled one excuse after another but the truth had been she’d been weak under her family’s constant demands. She’d been lonely and had wanted to get started on her family and hadn’t known if Frederik would come back for her. As she’d stood on the street in front of her father’s bakery and watched a young man’s heart break, a piece of her heart had shriveled. Unable to look him in the eye, she’d turned from him, knowing he would always be her love.
A soft winter breeze blew across her face, touching the tears she hadn’t realized were falling. Taking out a handkerchief, she wiped her face and slowly stood. She walked until she found a pile of dried leaves and stopped to dance. Lifting a handful of crushed leaves, she let the wind carry them out over the water and she smiled.