*Muses Note – This week we’re featuring a guest writer, J.M. Whitty. She’s a British-Canadian living in Switzerland, who writes post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction. You can learn more about her on our ‘About the Writers’ page*
- In the garden.
It was a cold early morning in the first few days of autumn. Too cold for the time of year, and the sudden chill to the bone surprised the early risers as they headed into the garden. They pulled their scarves tightly around their necks and scrunched their wooly hats snugly over their ears. Without pause, they divided themselves among the rows of nearly naked plants and stopped to silently calculate the best and most efficient method for collecting the last remaining harvest from the withering rose bushes.
The frost was a slight blessing, because it meant that the crop of rose hips that they were tasked to collect would create a sweeter and more complex jam. This was the most popular item that the community produced, and was easily the most delicate and laborious. The plump red fruit of the roses produced a smooth ruby-coloured nectar that had the consistency of honey and a flavour that danced on the tongue. Each member of the group was responsible for a bed of roses, nurturing them from withered stubs to breathtaking blossoms. Many of their mouths watered as they thought of what their hard work would become. If they were lucky, part of this batch would be reserved to make a sweet and special wine.
The unexpected cold gave them a sense of urgency. Once the sun came up, the rose hips would thaw and be too damaged to be of good use. So, the group worked quickly. Their heads remained bowed and they moved with a focused intensity. The snip of their shears and the metallic plunk of the haws dropping into chilled buckets broke the stillness of the morning with a symphony that made the group seem like a unified machine. While they worked, the sun crept its way above the horizon and reached over the garden wall to shine on the yellow sandstone of the neighbouring cloisters. One of the figures stopped to admire the radiating sunlight. He placed his bucket gently on the ground and stood upright, his fingers reaching up to the sky in a great stretch. It was a moment of unadulterated bliss. His fingertips were kissed by the sun and he smiled as he felt its warmth. The rhythmic synchronicity of the group was broken in this short moment, and several faces turned to see what he was doing. He felt their eyes as they bored into him and he blushed as he became aware of his misdoing. He turned his attention back to the plants and rejoined the chorus. They were all cold and tired and wanting breakfast.
When they were finally finished, the sun had begun to melt the tiny tendrils of frost on the rose bushes closest to the sandstone wall. In a sombre procession, they took their harvest to the large underground cellar that lay in the heart of the complex. The rising sun illuminated them from behind as they descended the stair, transforming their windswept hair into wispy glowing halos. The rose hips would keep cool underground and later, through some sort of magic on the part of the community’s cooks, the small red bulbs would be made in to a conserve without an earthly rival.
- In the dining hall.
Breakfast was served in a great hall with large windows that looked into the garden. It was big enough to hold at least three hundred people, with long wooden tables arranged in parallel rows. Several of the group responsible for picking the rose hips were scattered about the room, eagerly filling their bellies with hot porridge. Their cheeks were pink and they grasped their bowls to warm their chilled fingers.
Luke, whose fingers still felt the kiss of the sun, sat down at one of the tables. He didn’t put much thought into his choice of seat, preferring to stay out of the social politics that governed an enclosed environment, and usually sat somewhere where someone else could join him if they wished. He took off his hat, placed it on his lap and began to tuck in. He was halfway through his porridge when a rose hip dropped into the centre of his bowl. Against the blandness of the oats, its redness seemed unnatural. Without looking up, he stared at its perfect smoothness, and for a moment, appreciated its beauty. An image of an old girlfriend applying the same colour to her lips flashed through his mind. It wasn’t important which girl, just her lips and the way they parted as she applied the colour.
“Penny for your thoughts?” asked Anne as she placed her tray roughly on the table and sat down across from Luke. She was also flushed with cold from their lengthy morning work.
“It wouldn’t be worth what I was thinking” he replied as he stirred the red intruder into his porridge. The image of the woman stayed in his mind.
Anne smiled and placed her hands around her bowl to remove the lingering cold.
“Mine hurt too. I didn’t expect it to be so cold.” Luke mumbled as he ate a spoonful of porridge, avoiding the rose hip by gently pushing it around his bowl.
As one of the last to be served, Anne’s breakfast had an acrid smell of scalded milk. She ate it quickly to avoid alerting her tastebuds, so she and Luke ate mostly in silence, as did the rest of the room.
“Where are you posted today?” She asked quietly, careful not to break the hush of the hall.
“In the shop.” Luke kept his head down and twirled his spoon in his porridge.
“Ah, so you’re one of the lucky ones who’s allowed to talk to outsiders,” she said in a near whisper, her wide sparkling eyes revealing a playful sarcasm.
Luke held back a laugh, but a small snort of amusement escaped from his nose. He attempted to pass off the snort as a sneeze, but he had already broken the veil of murmuring silence. A few sets of eyes glared at him. His ears turned red, and he kept his head down. Anne smiled.
“Two years down, you know,” she said after a short time, “as of last week.”
Luke looked up and he paused to consider what Anne had just said. He hadn’t thought for quite a while about how long he’d been here. He and Anne had arrived in the same group of novices. They’d been in similar situations when they’d joined, which gave them a sense of camaraderie that they hadn’t felt with the others from their year. Most of those people were those who joined out of a sense of duty. Luke and Anne had joined out of desperation. Both had amassed massive debts and traded time and freedom to clear them. The moment they’d walked through the front doors and down the broad stairway marked the beginning of seven years in clausura. These seven years would erase every last negative penny from their financial histories.
Luke and Anne smiled at each other, happy for some semblance of friendship in this strange situation and place. The bells started to ring, indicating that everyone must start their workday, so they cleared their trays and parted ways. Luke walked out of the dining hall with his hand in his pocket, gently rolling the rose hip between his fingers. He’d saved it for the simple reason that he liked it and because he could. He headed up the stairs and across the garden to the side of the building that faced the outside world. As he played with the tiny fruit, he stopped to consider what it meant to be here. He entered the building thinking of how much he missed freely choosing what to do, but instead focused on why he enrolled. Money would not be a problem in five years. Only five.
- In the space between.
Luke prepared himself for his day by checking the vast stockrooms. He walked down the rows of neatly labelled jars and paper-wrapped items, admiring the orderly efficiency of their placement. There were handmade sweets, honeys, specialty cookies, fresh bread, sugars, vinegars, oils, and of course, jams. He made a mental note that the fruit vinegars were limited in number and that there was a seasonal shift towards baked goods flavoured with cinnamon and filled with dried berries. He hoped he’d pack up lots of these today, as he couldn’t resist lingering in their lofty scent.
Items like these were only available from small communities like this one, so he knew that it would be a long morning. On average, at least five hundred people came to make purchases and there were always a few that viewed the communities as novelty. They asked too many questions and attempted to hide their prying curiosity behind the purchase of one of the less expensive items. Luke had done that once, and as it came to mind he felt a twinge of shame.
A warning bell sounded and he and twenty others stepped into their compartments, in the space between their community and the outside world. The decorative screen in Luke’s compartment had a delicate pattern of tracery that reminded him of fine lace. He wasn’t sure if it formed flowers or if it was geometric trickery. Regardless, it served its function. It obscured the inside from the outside and vice versa. Luke was not permitted to speak through this screen, only to listen. For each customer, he would take his or her order and fulfil it by passing it through the turnstile to his left.
Luke sat down and smoothed the wrinkles in his trousers. As he awaited his first customer, he placed the rose hip on the small counter in front of him. It was looking a bit worse for wear after some time in his pocket, but he still found it beautiful. He hoped that the rose hips he and the others had picked earlier had already started their journey to become jam. They ate this once a week on Sundays, and his tongue awaited this treat with insuppressible anticipation.
His first customer entered as the clock’s hand clicked into the position of nine o’clock. She brought a soft gust of cold wind with her and Luke was silently happy that he’d kept on his scarf. He listened to the crinkle of paper as she unfolded her handwritten list. As she clearly stated her requests, Luke thought he was imagining that the sound of her voice was familiar. It was soft and reminded him of something that his mind could not trace. He grasped for memories that slid like wisps of smoke between this thoughts. It occurred to him that it was the way that she phrased the pleasantries in her speech that sparked a memory from deep within. As he listened, Luke focused on the rose hip in front of him, as it was the only thing other than him in the small space.
Luke’s mind was suddenly assaulted by a string of images. They brought to mind the same woman that he’d thought of at breakfast. He focused on small snippets of her, such as the way she ran in front of him when they nearly missed the train, smiling as she looked back at the last second to ensure he was indeed still there. He thought of the way that she leaned her head on his shoulder in the theatre when they watched melancholic films. He recalled her hands as she nervously rolled a cigarette into a neat tube and said for the thousandth time that it would be her last. The way that this cigarette nestled between her lips lingered in Luke’s mind. He looked down at the rose hip.
Before he realised it, her name had escaped his lips in a soft exasperation. To Luke, this break in composure floated slowly towards the barrier as if it were typewritten in the air. It was too late to stop it and he held his breath for what seemed like an eternity. The words failed to cross the boundary between him and the woman, and Luke was relieved when the letters slid down the screen ending in an imaginary puddle before him. She hadn’t heard him.
He collected her order, neatly packing the breads in newspaper and wrapping the delicate jars so they wouldn’t knock together in the box. He paused as he was leaving the storeroom and turned back. He placed the box down on one of the wooden tables and grasped an extra jar of rose hip jam and placed it among her order. Maybe it would be missed during the end-of-day count, but he would probably have to admit that he’d made a mistake somewhere. Honestly, he didn’t care.
He couldn’t grasp exactly why he had done what he did, but later, Anne explained to him that perhaps in this moment, just like the sun touching his fingers in the morning, this woman reminded Luke of what it was like to live.
About J.M. Whitty
Jenny is a British-Canadian currently making Switzerland her home. She’s written many stories for herself, but didn’t really consider making them public until she was invited to contribute to Muse in Pocket, Pen in Hand. She’s a big-picture thinker (who hopes that comes across in her work), and she looks forward to refining her style. The authors that top her favourites list are Margaret Atwood and Joe Simpson. In her daily life, she is always searching for the best cup of coffee and can often be found lingering in cafés, knitting or scribbling in pocket-sized notebooks. You can also find her on Twitter @ladywhitty