MUSED
BellaOnline Literary Review
Red Shouldered Hawk by Al Rollins

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Fiction


Home

Katie Stephens

Matilda picked up the largest of her makeup brushes from the vanity table and dabbed at the jeweled box of loose powder. She squinted into the mirror, but without her glasses she could only see a vague outline of her face.

“It’s Wednesday, Sally. Isn’t it? Today is Wednesday.”

“Yes, it is.” Sally gave up smoothing the crimson bedspread and took the brush. “Here, let me do that for you, Miss Matilda. Close your eyes.” She knelt next to the older woman.

Matilda eagerly snapped her lids shut and turned her head. “Not too much now, Sally. I don’t want to look like a whore. My gentleman caller won’t like that.”

“How about just a bit of blue eye shadow?” Sally asked as she lightly swept powder over Matilda’s face. “And which lipstick? The coral or the pink?”

“Coral,” Matilda decided. “Just a hint of a blush, too, dear.” She opened her eyes when Sally finished and plucked her glasses off the table, examining her makeup in the mirror. “Perfect,” she murmured. “Perfect for my gentleman caller. Perhaps he’ll bring me roses today, to match the lipstick. What do you think?”

Sally brushed off the loose powder that had drifted onto her pristine white uniform, over her very pregnant belly, and then maneuvered Matilda’s wheelchair away from the vanity. “I think he just may do that, Miss Matilda. Do you want your shawl? There’s a bit of a chill in the air.”

“Yes, yes, get it. And hurry. We mustn’t make him wait. Hurry. He might not wait.” Matilda took a deep breath and stilled the frantic tone in her voice. “I know. Don’t get excited. You’ve told me that a hundred times.”

Sally smiled. “I’m glad you remembered, Miss Matilda.” She pushed her charge through the open door and down the hallway. “The south lawn again?”

“Yes.” Matilda shifted in the chair and occasionally waved at her neighbors as they passed open doors. “When did you say I could go home, Sally? It’s depressing to be here, recovering from surgery, when everyone else is so old. I just want to go home.” The last sentence ended on a slight whine.

“Soon, Miss Matilda. When your hip heals and you can walk again.”

Matilda nodded. “Of course, dear. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my gentleman caller.”

***

The afternoon sun shone with just enough warmth to take the bite out of the breeze. Leaves of red and yellow danced and glided to the ground. People strolled by. Some chattered in groups, some shuffled alone. From her vantage point, the lake sparkled with a thousand diamonds. Diamonds. Matilda turned her left hand, admiring the diamond he had put there. She had so many freckles popping out; perhaps she should wear gloves.

“Hello, Matilda.”

Her lips curved. She looked up from the book she pretended to read.

“Hello.” She waved toward the wooden bench next to her wheelchair. “Would you like to sit?”

He did, at the same time placing a single coral rose on Matilda’s lap. “For you.”

She gasped at its beauty. “It’s lovely.” Matilda lifted the petals to her nose and took a deep breath. The intoxicating smell reminded her of… something. A vision of a dozen rose bushes flickered through her mind and disappeared. “Perfect. Thank you.”

“How are you today?” Her gentleman caller loosened his tie and leaned back, perfectly at ease. The silver hair at his temples glistened in the sun, and laugh lines danced around his blue eyes. “Still driving your nurse crazy?”

Matilda didn’t want to talk about pregnant Sally. She wanted to talk about him. “Tell me about your week. Tell me whom you saw. Tell me about your home. Do you have children?”

“Ah, yes, a boy and a girl. Wait.” He fumbled for his wallet. “I have a picture here of them.” He pulled out a photograph and handed it to her.

Matilda smiled. “Oh, they’re lovely. The boy is so handsome and the girl—-beautiful. And they’re teenagers.” She glanced at him coyly. “How could a man your age possibly have such old children?”

He laughed, a full-bodied sound that warmed her heart. Oh, what she would do to keep this man by her side for the rest of her life.

She frowned. Why on earth did that thought cross her mind? She stole another look at him. So handsome… and young. He shifted and the silver hair she had just admired became coal black in the light. She handed the picture back to him and looked toward the lake, confused. Who was he, this man who came every Wednesday to sit and flirt with her?

“What’s your name?” she asked.

Leaning forward, forearms on his thighs, he too stared at the lake. “Henry. My name is Henry.”

“Yes. Henry,” she said softly. “I remember.”

They sat in silence, enjoying the peaceful scene and each other’s company.

***

Dim light barely penetrated through the sunroom and every lamp glowed. Matilda glanced outside at another dark and gloomy day as Mother Nature prepared for the long winter. In the window’s reflection, she could see every available table filled as people participated in some sort of game. After all, it was Friday.

Friday?

“Sally!” She didn’t mean for her voice to sound so shrill, but she couldn’t help it.

“Yes, Miss Matilda?” Sally bent down next to the wheelchair, her head tilted in question.

Matilda lowered her voice. “What day is today?” Her hands shook as she held six cards, fanned out in an array of darkness. Not a blasted heart or diamond in the bunch.

“It’s Friday, ma’am. You always play Pitch on Friday.” A moment’s hesitation. “Is there a problem?”

Matilda listened for a hint of reproach in Sally’s voice, but found none. She slanted her eyes to the left, where he sat across the large room, flirting with another woman. She watched him lay a single red rose across the woman’s lap before cutting her eyes back to stare blindly at her cards.

“No, no,” she whispered. “No problem at all. Thank you, Sally.” The nurse nodded and perched on the nearby window seat.

What was Henry doing here, on a Friday? Didn’t he visit her on Wednesdays? And who was that woman? Matilda had never seen her before.

“Matilda? Are you going to bid or pass, dear?”

She glared at the cards in her hand, a sea of black swimming before her eyes. “Two,” she mumbled, not even sure if she could cover her bid. Her breathing became more and more labored; her hands shook harder. Sweat burst out on her forehead, and she reached up with her free hand to wipe it away.

Sally appeared at her side and gently took the cards from her. “Why don’t we go back to your room?”

Matilda nodded, willing herself to calm down. There was an explanation. She just had to take a deep breath and think. As Sally guided her wheelchair through the room, Matilda forced herself to take one more look. She wilted in the chair when the man turned his head and smiled at her. It wasn’t Henry. This man looked like him, but it wasn’t her Henry. Thank God. She had worried over nothing. Just as she started to tell Sally she was all right and to take her back to the card table, the man opened his mouth.

“Hello, Matilda.”

***

Matilda gazed out the window at the snow blanketing the ground and pulled the wool shawl tighter around her trembling shoulders. Where was that blasted woman? Her eye caught sight of a small piece of yellow paper attached to the window. She leaned closer to read the writing on it. ‘Sally is the nurse,’ it said.

Of course Sally is the nurse. She needed… she needed… Matilda lifted her glasses and rubbed her eyes. What did she need? The thought was right there, on the tip of her tongue…

“Blast!” she said. She grasped the walker and pulled herself to her feet. She stood there for a moment and watched the snowfall, so beautiful as it draped the impurities of a sleeping world in pristine white. She always loved winter. She shuffled to the side and turned.

Dozens of colored bits of paper covered the walls. Post-its, she recalled. Curious, she pushed the walker ahead so she could read the nearest yellow ones.

‘Use calendar to see what day it is.’ Matilda snorted. She knew that. She peered at another. ‘Always look up.’ It had an arrow pointing to the ceiling. She looked up. Just a ceiling.

Charmed, she moved on to another. This one was pink. ‘Joan loves me.’ Who is Joan? Another note hung just below that one, in yellow. ‘Joan is my daughter.’ I have a… daughter?

No longer amused, Matilda stepped to the vanity table and sat on the cushioned seat. In the middle of the mirror, hiding her face, a larger paper hung attached by two pieces of tape. ‘Yellow for things to remember, blue for things to do, pink for love.’ Odd.

She tried to peek around the paper at her image and almost fell off the stool. As she grasped the edges of the vanity to steady herself, the little table shook and makeup bottles scattered. Matilda stared at a tube of lipstick rolling towards the edge for a moment before she picked it up. She peered at the bottom label. Fire Engine Red.

Matilda took the cap off the tube and scrunched down on the stool until she could see her mouth in the mirror. She steadied her hand and applied it, smacking her lips together. She liked the color. She always had pretty lipstick on when…

Henry. What day of the week is it? Panic fluttered in her stomach. She searched the walls, and at the same time wondered what she was looking for.

“The day, the day,” she muttered. “Find out the day.” She spotted the calendar next to the door and hobbled to the opposite side of the room. Halfway there, she stopped and looked down.

“I can walk without help. I don’t need the walker, or a cane, or anything.” She raised her head and gazed at the calendar again. “There’s something important about that.”

Matilda could see the calendar clearly now. A big red X marked off each day. She inched closer. Today was… Wednesday. Henry always visited on Wednesdays. Holding her shawl tightly around her, she reached for the doorknob.

Without warning, the door flung open. “Miss Matilda?” she heard, just as the door smacked her hand.

“Ow. Ow, ow, ow! Imbecile! Why don’t you open doors slowly?” Her fingers throbbed as she probed the tender area, but it didn’t feel broken. “Who are you?”

The woman sighed. “I’m Sally. Your nurse.”

Matilda stiffened. Maybe she couldn’t remember much, but she wouldn’t put up with uppity people. “Of course you are,” she sniffed. “I was just testing you. Why are you late?”

Sally smiled and turned away.

“Are you laughing at me, girl?” Matilda stepped next to the woman and reached out to grab her arm.

“No, ma’am.” Sally caught Matilda’s hand, her face solemn. “I’m sorry I’m a bit late. I had to take my son to football practice. You know how it is with an only child; my husband and I try to involve him in everything. Come now. You need to sit down. You’re exhausting yourself.”

Matilda pulled away. “I am not. Today is Wednesday. Or did you forget? Henry always visits on Wednesday.”

Crossing her arms, Sally announced, “He was here.”

“What?” A wave of confusion swam in Matilda’s head. “You’re lying. I would remember.”

Sally looked to her left. Matilda followed her eyes until she saw a vase of red roses sitting on the coffee table. She slowly lifted her hands to her lips. Red. Fire Engine Red. He always knows what lipstick I’ll be wearing.

“Do you remember, Miss Matilda?”

No. “Of course I remember. How can I ever forget my gentleman caller?” With as much dignity as she could muster, she walked across the room and sank into the chair facing the window. “Go away, Sally.”

She listened as the nurse shuffled her feet a few times, sighed twice, and walked out the door, shutting it softly behind her. Matilda stared at the snow for a long time.

***

Matilda sat, fully dressed, in the armchair. She had managed to push it around so she could see everything. Turn her head to the left, the door. Turn her head to the right, the window and the snow-covered landscape. The lake was frozen and white and the evergreen trees sparkled with snowy tips. Clustered around the green, black leafless limbs reached for the sky. If she could paint, this was the scene she would have chosen. In the dark gray sky, the clouds collided with each other, a sure sign of more snow. Even as the thought crossed her mind, flurries began to fall.

The door opened and a woman swept into the room. Black boots and something long and puffy—what do they call those things that make a woman look so fat?—covered her. Matilda didn’t know her, but kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want the pitying look and recriminations this morning. She had a mission; something important, but her mind couldn’t fully form the design.

“Morning, Miss Matilda. It’s me, Anna. Cold as a witch’s… well, you know what I mean. It’s freezing outside and they’re calling for at least six or more inches of snow today. I barely made it here, the roads are so icy.” The blond chattered as she took off her puffy thing and hung it on the rack next to the door. She reached into her large bag and took out a pair of white shoes that matched her uniform. “I want to thank you again for allowing me to leave my coat and boots here. They just don’t fit in my locker. Sally won’t be here today; her teenager had an accident driving to school on the ice, so I’ll be taking care of you. Why are you dressed? I hope you’re not planning on taking a stroll outside.” The nurse giggled.

Matilda looked away. She didn’t want conversation; she didn’t want company. She just wanted the woman to leave. Ignoring her was the best option.

“I signed in before I came down to see you, so I’ll just go make your bed. Have you had your breakfast yet?” She flung pillows and shook out the blankets in the middle of the room.

Matilda flinched. The other woman understood her need for no dust flying around, but not this one. “What day is it?” she interrupted.

“Today? Well, let’s see.” The nurse made a big production out of walking over to the door and checking the wall calendar. “Here, Miss Matilda. You can see here it’s Thursday. We always mark the day off when you go to bed at night.” After she pointed to the day’s date on the calendar, she continued with making the bed. “Can’t believe it’s already mid-December. Christmas will be coming soon, and then we’ll have caroling and presents, and…”

Matilda shut out the chatter. Thursday. That meant her gentleman caller had been here yesterday. She glanced at the book on the table next to her. It was a small book. Someone had brought it to her. Was it the gentleman? Yes. He said something about the seasons and going home. What did he mean by that? It seemed significant.

She reached out and picked it up, smoothing her fingers over the scarred red leather. So soft. On the edge of the cover, a loop held a gold pen. It must be a diary or journal of some kind. Was she supposed to write in it? She opened to the first page.

Matilda Louise Clark Goerlitz
August 11, 1923


Her name. The flowing script looked familiar, but it wasn’t her handwriting. She had seen the date somewhere. Before she could get herself too involved with trying to figure out where, she turned the page. Block letters filled it.

My darling Matilda,

We met in the spring, when everything was new and blooming. You were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and I had to have you for my own. The day you consented to be my wife was the first of many, many happy days together. We loved well, my darling…


“Miss Matilda? I’m going now. I hear there will be a few new residents today, so I’ll be quite busy. Can you make it down to the dining room for lunch when the bell rings?”

She faced the window and nodded. When she was sure the nurse had left, she wiped her tears away and turned her attention back to the book. She read about summer and fall and life with a stranger.

So now, I come to the winter of my life, my darling. The doctors say the cancer has progressed too far and I must leave you. I regret nothing, not the sad times or the pain we both had to endure. My happiness with you eclipses everything, and it’s you I shall think of as I breathe my last. You brought joy to the seasons of my life, Matilda. It was for you I lived. You are my home.

Always in love,
H.


Matilda turned the pages to find more writing in the book from different people. Dearest Mother… Hi, Grandmama… Thinking of you today, Mom… Names she had forgotten, names she remembered but didn’t know why. A few photographs tucked between the pages fell out onto her lap and she stared at them.

Then, in an instant of clarity, she saw it all: her life, her children, and her husband Henry. The desire and passion she felt for him.

She remembered her son, the spitting image of his father and his namesake, who talked about his job and his grown children and brought her roses every week. She glanced at the coffee table and the vase containing a dozen pure white roses.

She nodded absently. Opening the book to the last blank pages, she took the gold pen in hand, and began to write. Matilda left the pen wedged between the pages and replaced the journal on the table as the lunch bell rang.

Comprehending what had eluded her earlier, she crossed the room and slipped her feet into the boots by the door. Outside in the hallway, footsteps and laughter resounded as the residents made their way to the dining room. Matilda waited until all was silent, then plucked the puffy coat off the rack and opened the door, peeking left and right. Not one soul was to be seen. She put the coat on and zipped it up, feeling for the knit hat and gloves she saw Anna stuff in the pockets. Matilda put them on and stepped into the hallway.

She turned left, to the exit that led outside.

“Hey, Anna. Taking your break now? Time to have that smoke outside, eh?”

The voice came from the other end of the hall, so Matilda raised her hand in acknowledgement and straightened her back. Not much farther and she would be free. After a few more moments, she pushed open the glass door.

The cold air and biting snow slapped at her, but she didn’t care. She offered her face to the elements, enjoying every second as she made her way down the path. Someone had shoveled snow earlier, so there were only a few inches on the sidewalk. Not enough to hinder her at all. Brilliant. In a few more moments, the hill would hide her progress from anyone watching out the windows.

Once Matilda came to that point, the place where she was utterly alone, she stripped off the gloves, dropping them one at a time as she continued on the path. The hat came next. By the time she reached the bench, she had unzipped the coat and dropped it at her feet. Not bothering to brush the snow away, she sat, her hands folded together on her lap. Snowflakes drifted, encircling the splendor of the lake and the evergreen trees. She shivered as the ice crystals blanketed her in total silence.

He came from the opposite end of the path she had taken, smiling at her as he sat.

“Hello, Matilda.”

“Hello, my love.” They sat in silence, staring straight ahead like they always did. After a few minutes, Matilda turned to look at him.

Henry, too, wore no coat. He had on jeans and a blue shirt with an open collar, where she could glimpse just a bit of his strong chest. His pure white hair blended into the snowy background and those beautiful laugh lines crinkled as his smile deepened. He took her breath away, more so now when those piercing blue eyes met hers.

“I wrote you a letter, in the book you brought,” she said.

“I know. I saw it.”

Oh, how she had missed his voice, the gentleness he had always shown her. How could she have ever forgotten?

“Winter has come, my darling Matilda. Do you feel it? I’ve waited a long time for you.”

She nodded as he placed his hand on her folded ones. His leg brushed against hers and stayed. His warmth blossomed into her.

Matilda smiled and closed her eyes. She was home.




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