A short chapter from a book i'm working on. Would love to get some feedback. Sorry about the format; it's a work in progress
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Though many-a-night had come and gone on the island, you may be surprised to learn that it had been barely an hour since the festival. The moon was full that night, but you wouldn’t have known from the looks of it. The olive-green hills suffered a torrential downpour from the fierce storm that was still in its prime. A dark haze governed the world, and the wind howled violently like a haunt of evil spirits, rattling the window of a small house in the middle of town. Maria stared out at the rainswept courtyard where the festival had taken place. Her leg bounced restlessly, fueled by intense worries.
Maria felt as if she had slumbered into a nightmare. First, her mother had fallen gravely ill, and now her little sister had mysteriously vanished in the midst of an unearthly storm. The grace Maria emanated that night had been thoroughly washed away by the rain. Her hair hung in wet, stringy tangles, and her face was pale and defeated. Maria wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm and sat on a wooden stool next to the fireplace of Mrs. Moretti’s home.
There was a grandfather clock in the corner of the room. Its ticking filled the silence between occasional crackle of lightning, each one causing the old dog in the room to lift its ears worryingly. Mrs. Moretti dawdled about somewhere in the kitchen. Maria could hear her walking over the stove as the kettle began to whistle and pouring herself a cup of tea. “All things considered, this year’s festival turned out to be a thrilling affair, wouldn’t you say?” Mrs. Moretti came and sat on her favorite couch. It was a loveseat covered with pink flowers and matched with absolutely nothing in the room. As far as Maria could tell, the couch was, at the very least, as old as herself.
“Oh, yes,” Maria replied, courteously. “Quite thrilling.”
An awkward silence fell as Maria’s fidgeted uncomfortably in her chair. Mrs. Moretti, looking far more comfortable than Maria, took a sip of her tea and sighed satisfyingly.
“How’s the tea, dear?”
“Delightful, thank you.” Maria fidgeted again. “Terribly sorry to inconvenience you like this.”
“You? Inconvenience an old goat like me?” Mrs. Moretti laughed. “Young lady, had I a gold coin every time someone said that to me, I’d have exactly one gold coin, because that’s a first! Truth is, I’m glad to have some decent company around here for a change. This silly ol’ dog of mine isn’t much for conversation.”
“I’m afraid I’ll prove little better in this regard.”
“Still worried about your sister?” Maria nodded, her eyes never leaving her cup. “I’m telling you, there’s no need to worry; she’s got to be with one of the neighbor’s in town. When I brought you inside, I took a good look outside before closing the door and there was not a single soul left in the courtyard.” Mrs. Moretti suddenly hopped up out of her chair. “Oh, I almost forgot about the bread! Age must be getting to me.”
Mrs. Moretti was a thin, oval-faced woman who lived in a small house in the middle of town. She was a widow whose only companion was a shaggy Maremma Sheepdog named Biscuit. Mrs. Moretti’s late husband had been a collector, and so her home was filled with a variety of exotic items. She had an elephant’s tusk in her kitchen which she used to hold shut the stove door after the latch had broken. The coffee table had a crystal skull sitting on top a stack of worn, leather books that looked as if they belonged in a museum, but Maria’s eyes were fixated on the Espada Ancha (Spanish Colonial sword) on the mantlepiece above the fireplace.
Thunder growled as Mrs. Moretti removed the tusk to pull a tray of fresh baked bread out of the oven. She set it out and took a deep whiff as a warm smile grew on her face. “That should sit just fine,” she said. Mrs. Moretti glanced at her old dog who laid next to the oven for warmth. “What do you think, Biscuit?”
Maria could smell the pleasant aroma. She’d have wanted a slice had her stomach were up to it. The storm was unsettling to say the least. It was fierce and seemingly strengthening as time went on. It had been so strong that all the setup from the festival remained outside as none were brave enough to collect it. Maria took a sip of her tea and watched as a fierce gale whipped a wooden crate clear across the square.
“This storm is something else, I tell you. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Mrs. Moretti came and sat back in her favorite chair. The old dog waddled over and collapsed on the dog bed next to Maria. Maria smiled softly at Biscuit, but her mind was elsewhere.
“Yes, it’s quite strange,” she replied.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone manage to smile and seem so sad while doing it.” Maria’s smile lessened somewhat. “You’re talking to a widow, young lady. We are married to sadness, which is to say, we know it when we see it. In fact, when I brought you in out of the storm, I sensed there was something weighing heavy on you, besides your wet clothes. So, what’s wrong, dear?”
Mrs. Moretti had keen eyes; much keener than Maria gave her credit for.
“I haven’t been very kind to my sister tonight,” Maria admitted. “Or any other night,” she added. “I’ve been an absolutely horrid big sister, and I don’t blame her for hating me. But, if anything ever happened to her, I’d –” A tear streamed off of Maria’s face and slid into her mug. She promptly wiped her face before Mrs. Moretti had even the chance to offer her a tissue. Maria straightened her back, trying to look as dignified as possible. “It’ll be alright,” she assured herself. “Everything will be fine. Forgive me, I don’t know what came over me.”
Mrs. Moretti gave a hollow laugh and shook her head. “My, dear, you do quite a marvelous impression of an adult.”
Maria was taken aback, but before she could respond she heard the loud sound of broken glass. A fierce, wet gale swept its way through the living room, extinguishing every candle in an instant. Biscuit, the old dog, seemed ten years younger as he sprang out of his bed with a whimper. The women shot out of their seats as well. The room was black, but Maria looked to the fireplace and in the light of its waning flame, saw broken shards of glass along with thick pieces of wood.
“Steer clear of the window,” Mrs. Moretti shouted, sprinting into the kitchen.
Maria couldn’t see what she was doing through the darkness, but she could tell this wasn’t the first time Mrs. Moretti dealt with a broken window. Moments later, Mrs. Moretti emerged from the kitchen, tugging a large blue tarp behind her. “Quickly! Help me put it up!”
“Yes, of course!” Maria replied. A loud, roaring gust of wind blew in through the open window, spraying even more glass and debris. Maria let out an eek as she dropped to the floor. Biscuit’s panicky barks could barely be heard over the roaring wind as he scuffled to Maria’s side. “I’m okay,” Maria shouted, as Mrs. Moretti came rushing to her side as well.
Maria clambered to her feet, defiantly so. She snatched the other end of the tarp, and together, the two women fastened the window shut. Another strong gust of wind gave proof to the tarp’s durability; it also gave the women permission to exhale. Maria lit an oil lamp that had fallen to the floor while Mrs. Moretti found her way to her favorite chair and collapsed into it, utterly exhausted. The sound of the storm had been greatly muffled, and things grew somewhat quiet.
“There we go,” Maria said, as the oil lamp illuminated her grateful smile.
Mrs. Moretti erupted with laughter and Maria stared at her as if she’d gone mad. Mrs. Moretti calmed herself and took a much-needed breath. “I’m sorry,” she exhaled, still laughing a bit. “It’s just – your face!”
Maria saw her reflection in the broken shards of glass scattered across the floor. She then realized there had been a wet leaf stuck to the side of her face for god knows how long. Then, for the very first time in a long while, Maria laughed. It was such a delightful laugh – like music to the old widow’s ears. However, in a very seamless fashion, Maria’s teary-eyed laugh became a tearful lamentation, full of sorrow and regret. Biscuit’s ears hung down low as he and Mrs. Moretti watched sympathetically. Feeling she had nothing left to hide, Maria confessed everything that had transpired that night. Mrs. Moretti never said a word; she merely held Maria until the storm inside her had passed.
“I had a dream last night,” Maria said in a voice just above a whisper.
Several minutes had passed now, and Mrs. Moretti had swept the living room floor spotless. She relit every candle in the house, placed the crystal skull and worn leather books back on the coffee table, and fixed another pot of tea. She turned to Maria, who sat again by the fire, with the broom still in her hand.
“A dream?” she questioned.
Maria looked as if she were about to continue, but then shook her head. “Never mind,” she replied, depressingly.
Mrs. Moretti gave a soft sigh. “I always thought this broom makes me look too much like a witch,” she joked, placing the broom aside as she took a seat. She inched forward with an earnest interest. “Please… do go on.”
“It’s an old dream, actually. I guess I forgot about it. Anyway, there was a boy –” Mrs. Moretti’s face twisted into a smirk. “It wasn’t that kind of a dream,” Maria clarified, “Not exactly.”
“He was a boy who made a wish to never grow up, and so he didn’t.”
Mrs. Moretti’s reply confused Maria, but she continued. “Yes, well, he could also fly.”
“How lovely!” said Mrs. Moretti. “Was this a childhood friend?”
“I’m not sure, honestly,” Maria said. “Though I can see him in my mind as clear as I see you now. Perhaps we met in grade school? Anyway, he and I played together on an island with flying monkeys and woolly mammoths and all sorts of ridiculous things. I know it was just a dream, but the adventures we shared – I just—” Maria choked up. “I never felt so alive.” Mrs. Moretti gave a soft smile. “When I was a child, I used to believe in all these silly things; mainly because of my mother. I used to dream of being all these wonderful things like an explorer or treasure hunter or –” Maria couldn’t help but giggle, “a Pirate Princess.”
“Oh, my word!” Mrs. Moretti giggled, “A pirate princess, eh? That’s quite a thing to be!”
“Yes, I was quite foolish.”
Time passed and nothing was said. Suddenly Mrs. Moretti got up. “Would you like to bake some bread with me?”
Maria was shocked. “This late at night? In fact, it's closer to morning.”
“Sure, why not? The last batch I made fell to the floor when I fumbled my way around searching for the tarp. Besides, it’s never too late to have tea, bread, or honey.” Mrs. Moretti smiled mischievously. “Let’s have all three!”
Somehow Maria ended up in the kitchen with her sleeves pulled up, and hands deep in a bowl of dough. There were streaks of flour smeared upon her face like warpaint, but there was also a genuine smile. This smile remained fixed upon her face as she and Mrs. Moretti talked the night away. Maria enjoyed listening to Mrs. Moretti’s stories about her life before she met her husband.
“You met at Marmore Falls?” Maria swooned. “How romantic!”
Maria told her many things as well – things she never imagined sharing with another person – not even Aunt May. Maria told her about her favorite hills and dreams, she told her about the day Sarah was born, and even read a line from a letter from you-know-who.
Maria and Mrs. Moretti were back in the living room enjoying bread and tea. It was silent again but this time it wasn’t awkward. Mrs. Moretti was looking at Maria over her cup as she took another sip. It was as if a different girl was sitting before her, calmer and more relaxed; at peace. But for how long, she wondered. Would this Maria vanish with the storm, or endure?
“You pretend to loathe childish things,” said Mrs. Moretti, “but in truth, you’re afraid of growing up; afraid of getting older.”
Maria paused, mid-sip of her tea. Mrs. Moretti had her pegged – perhaps since the very beginning; not that Maria had any need for pretense anymore. She felt that she could be herself with Mrs. Moretti. Maria calmly placed down her cup.
“Is that so weird?” Maria asked, “You grow up, you grow old, and then you die. Just look at what’s happened to my—” She stopped herself before saying the word, mother. It pained her just to think about Mrs. Lovely right now, in the middle of his storm.
Mrs. Moretti smiled softly. “You’re such a flower,” she said. Maria was visibly confused. Mrs. Moretti’s comment didn’t sound like an insult, but it didn’t feel like a compliment either.
“What does that mean?” Maria retorted.
“You’re so afraid to wilt, and so you’d rather remain closed up, like a little, green bud,” Mrs. Moretti replied. “But what good is a flower that never blooms?”
Maria paused again, thinking about it. “Not good at all,” she conceded. “Might as well be dead.”
“And that’s just the truth of it. See, little flower, we don’t simply grow up and die; before all that, we live! And to live, well, to live would be a great adventure, don’t you think?” Maria smiled. “Why, imagine if your mother felt that way about growing up. You and I wouldn’t even be having this conversation, now would we?”
Maria was speechless. Mrs. Moretti had a way with words that rivaled her mother. The widow struggled to pull herself off her chair. Maria’s face went from confused to concerned as Mrs. Moretti stepped up on the stool and reached for the ancient sword on the mantelpiece above the fireplace.
“What are you doing?” Maria said, worryingly.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
Mrs. Moretti stepped down, shuffled over and placed the sword in Maria’s hands. Maria’s face shifted back from concerned to confused all over again. It was a dull and blunted blade – barely fit to cut butter, still, Maria had never held a real sword before, and it was much heavier than she thought. “Before I retire for the night, I’ll share just one more truth with you, Miss Lovely. I want you to listen closely, because it is by far the most important thing I have to say.” Maria waited while Mrs. Moretti paused as if she’d just lost her thought. She quickly recovered it. “Ah yes, here it is… Just because we have to grow up, it doesn’t mean we have to stop being a kid!”
Mrs. Moretti smiled at Maria, who stood there, dumbfounded. She then called Biscuit up from his nap. “Come on, old man; time for bed.” The old dog rose slowly, wagged its tail weakly, and then followed Mrs. Moretti up the stairs and into her room. The door closed behind them and Maria was left alone.
“What was that supposed to mean?”
Unbeknownst to Maria, Mrs. Moretti’s bedroom door had crept ajar. She stood in the living room a great while, holding the sword and unsure of what to do with it.
“You’re a bit rickety, aren’t you?” she joked.
Just as Mrs. Moretti sat on her bed, she heard Maria in the living room utter the words “En Garde!” Mrs. Moretti smiled terribly, shook her head, and blew out the candle.