The Sun Returns
I could always tell how she was doing by the number of tea mugs by the sink. Did they leave rinds of spilled dregs next to the faded plastic basin? Did she use her favorite mug or grab one at random? These emotions I spotted were more than just happy (tea mug appropriately rinsed before being placed in the sink) or sad (three stacked, one in another, and all only half drunk, colder than the gloom in her heart). There was also angry (tossed at the sink, in another unclean bowl sloshing with water, already marred with old fits of fury resulting in scratches and missing chunks) or stressed (unfinished, rejected in a lukewarm, half-drunk state while almost too neatly resting next to the counter).
And since I went to her house almost every week, I could easily spot her emotions and inquire about them, rather than allowing their bitter sediments to pile at the bottom of her mind and overflow at any given time. I rinsed them out, I put them back in their place, through the number of tea mugs.
I found her herb garden ravaged again. The amateur onlooker may think that this meant she was living wildly, unable to control herself, violent, even, but I knew this was not the case. It meant she was making healthy, diverse food for herself and utilizing her outdoor resources rather than buying a pack of this and a bag of this in the village. I was pleased.
I knocked sharply on the door, knowing the echo inside the wooden home would surely summon her.
Noise inside followed; she went through many obsessions, such as building birdhouses a while back, which was not unfitting for the small village we shared, but her kitchen counter became a hot glue mess, and I had to pluck wooden splinters from her fingers while she sat by a window trying to see if any birds were responding to her explosion of bird seeds tossed around the house.
She opened the door, and her eyes sprang open. “Come to deliver the milk, good sir?”
“No, actually. I’ve a message from your husband.”
“Oh, that man! Lovely boy. Sweet boy. Mum likes him very much. Do come inside.”
She ushered me in. The house reeked of herbs, meaning her welcoming demeanor was only a facade and she had been either sad or angry prior to my arrival. I felt suddenly dismayed.
“What’s the matter, love? I ought to open these windows more, but then the birds get in. I bloody hate birds.”
“Bloody nuisances. Would you like some tea?”
“No thanks, ma’am.”
“Have I seen you before?” She inquired, staring closer at me. Though I always knew the answer was yes, I saw where her eyes scanned, and they were not the right places anymore. Not the place she always put her hand on my cheek, not the freckle on my widow’s peak that she always tapped when she woke me up from bed.
“Well, we’re all from the same village, right? Same school and whatnot.”
“Oh, what a tizzy those were! I was one of those jukebox junkies, if you know what I mean,” she giggled. “Honestly, I ought to have worn a pair of trainers on those days! Dancing so hard. Getting my toes stepped on. Oh, that’s something to say!”
She ushered me to her small round dining table. The tortoise-shell sunglasses I bought her to visit that small beach in France many decades ago rested in the center of the table, the star of the show. There was only a pepper shaker, for some reason, and five burnt cookies.
“Please feel free to take one. I used Mum’s recipe.” I fell into my usual plight where she forgets what she just said. It feels worse than the long-term memory forgetting because only seconds of her life have passed and another chunk of her memories will vanish.
“Anyways, what I was saying was that there was this one boy with very large feet who stepped on my toes. Very often. Very hard. And every time he stepped on my toes, he promised me one extra dance. Promised that very extra dance would be the perfect one, without stepping on my toes. It simply never happened. His feet were simply too big. Such as your feet!”
She pointed to my feet. Ouch. They were still quite large, but I liked to think they were proportionate to my stature.
“Oh, I apologize. How terribly rude of me.”
“And forget calling me ma’am, mister! We’re the same age, the age of so old we can’t touch our toes or be jukebox junkies. Treat me as an equal, mister.”
She mischievously smiled, and it brought a smile to my face. She absentmindedly nibbled on her burnt cookies. I was so used to her sweet offer of bitter cookies that soon I joined in as well.
Our simultaneous cacophony of chewing was so uncomfortably audible I had to stand up and walk toward the window that faced the side of the house. Then I could clandestinely dispose of the rancid cookie in a handkerchief I pretended to sneeze in. Then I threw the thing away altogether.
“I remember that boy, yes. Remind me, how long have you been in the village?”
“Since I was a lad, such as yourself.”
“Right. That’s something to say. I thought he was peculiar until he brought me flowers.”
“But you’re allergic to pollen.” I grew weary of reading from the same script, but it was necessary to revive the dying embers of memory in her mind.
“But I’m allergic to pollen! And d’you know what this lovely boy does?”
“What?” I felt a tickling in the back of my throat that urged for a cigarette, but I was trying to drop them so as not to set any of the many flammable things in her house on fire. I was trying to stop smoking for her, or, at least, the girl in the checkered dress, who used her mother’s hair curler every morning, and fed her chickens, and tended to the cows before hopping on the bus to school. The girl who taught me to watch sunrises closely, and if not, it would be okay, because the sun would always return.
“He made flowers out of paper! Paper! And parchment doesn’t reach little villages like these in great heaps, you know. I know he was bluffing, but his mum told me it took him a month to buy and fold all that paper.”
She relayed this memory to me many times before. It drew me back to another one of the stupid things I said to her before making yet another stupid decision:
“The sun doesn’t always return, though. It changes positions. And it doesn’t always return to places like Antarctica.”
“That’s the point. So maybe I should thank you for not understanding me. It returns eventually. Even if you think it has gone forever, and Antarctica will be infinitely cast in darkness. But no. It always comes back. It never leaves the Arctic behind forever. And sometimes—in fact, all times—it comes back looking different. Changed by its journey. But the sun always comes back.”
And yet I left her behind. That was the problem with these villages, these breeding grounds of endogamous lifestyles caging you into the same thirty-mile radius for your whole life. You leave and you can never return, it seems, and you’re an outsider ever since.
And the pull to home feels weaker as you grow older. It shifts from being part of the first mind to the second mind, the background noise of life. And then it silences, eventually, and the difference between that ignorable background noise and the silence is that the silence leaves you feeling empty.
I returned here when I felt empty, and then she couldn’t remember how the world worked anymore. And her parents died when she was young, and she accidentally let all her farm animals go and ransacked her home simply by living there, because that entailed forgetting to turn off the oven or stop the running water. Her house was in ruin, and to supplement for it all, she spewed plants everywhere and baked burnt cookies to feel like a girl again. And she brewed tea whenever she wanted, and brewing that tea seems to be the only thing she remembers how to do anymore.
“You’ve gone terribly silent, dear. Why is that?”
“I think I would like some tea, please. Just a splash, though. I should be leaving soon.”
I felt upset with my decision either way, and this choice slightly lightened my burden. I sat at her table, running my fingers over the whorls of the oak surface while tea bubbled and spilled into a mug.
“Are you staying in the village for long? I can recommend some attractions, if you like.”
“Sure.” I sighed.
“Well, there’s a pub in town. I bet you’ve already been, a big strong man like you.” She reached out and gave my forearm an admiring squeeze.
Despite myself, I burst out laughing. “Yes! Yes, I did pay the pub a visit.”
“And once you’re absolutely hungover you can walk by the lake. Or watch the horses being led around their stables by the horse owner. Or buy some sweets. But d’you know where that lovely boy—Big Foot, we’ll call him—took me?”
“Where?” I wondered if I already knew the answer; nothing came to mind.
“Sweet and kind Big Foot took me to this very high hill where we could watch the sunset. I remember the first time he vowed to take me there, I had to—”
“Tap on his window until he woke up because he accidentally slept in.” The words spilled out of me before I could stop them.
Her face changed. “How did you know that?”
“He told me,” I croaked.
She seemed satisfied enough with the answer. “Big Foot did not like waking up early in the morning, but he always did for me.” She beamed.
I had no appetite for the tea; maybe this was yet another wrong choice I had made. I had no appetite at all, and despite its effects boasting digestion assistance and tranquility before going to bed, I felt that if I drank that tea I would vomit. I couldn’t bring myself to.
“I think I should go.”
She smirked. “Yes?” I stood up abruptly and felt around the place for my scarf, which was too itchy to even wear. I didn’t even know why I owned it.
“You say you’ll go and then you come back. I always think to myself, ‘that nice, sweet boy is going to come back.’ And he does! Lovely boy. I’ll see you again soon, won’t I? Take care.”
She patted my shoulder as she ushered me outside and closed the door. And I was finally grateful, in that whole morning, my eyes welling with tears so big and heavy that it didn’t take blinking to send them streaming down my face. As my vision blurred this way, I used the glowing sunlight to guide my way away from the cottage.