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A Winter Story for Thursday Doors
“The little man shook hands. Left, then right. He introduced himself and bowed in turn, first towards the girl, then towards the boy.
The girl felt a wave of heat spreading over her cheeks and thanked the stars for the hat covering her ears. She stomped her feet and exhaled with force hoping that the steam will remind all that it’s the middle of winter, enough to explain her red face. She’d been so shallow to call the old man ‘a jacket cladding a dwarf’, while all he did was dragging his body along the street, each step a wrestle with the fresh snow.
Yet she hadn’t been that wrong, had she? She lowered her gaze, her eyes sweeping over the woolly coat standing in front of her. It covered everything from above the man’s ears to the ground. Its hem was trimmed with white from having being pushed and pulled along the snow-laden streets, while its collar was lifted and secured in place by a scarf so wide that it covered both nose and mouth. But a pair of smiling eyes met hers – had he seen her studying him? – proof that a human being did live inside that coat. The eyes and the shopping bag on wheels left half a meter behind, in front of an arched red entrance mirroring the one they had tried to gain access to, were her proof of life.
Once again that morning they found themselves in front of a metal gate with an arched top and a small door carved into it. Above it rose a centuries old stone building that offered little protection against the weather to anyone trying to get in.
The small man retrieved a set of keys and began searching for the right one, a slow job given his thick gloves that hid arthritic fingers. Behind him, the boy scanned the names on the building’s door buzzer. Three all together. He did a quick math: two windows per apartment. They must be tiny.
‘Do you know when your neighbors open for business?’ the boy was back and had bent his knees to stoop low near the short man, his voice echoing far in the narrow street. He’d spoken loud on purpose. Aren’t all old men kind of deaf? The girl pushed her hands hard into her pockets and looked at her feet, wishing she could hide in the snow, with her toes.
The little man held up a key, shaking it like a prize. ‘Found it!’ his eyes smiled left, then right.
Ignoring the snowdrift, the boy strode around the old man, aiming for his other ear. ‘Your neighbors,’ he called pointing across the road, and more steam poured from his mouth.
The old man kept smiling and nodding, waving his gloved hand left and right, the tip of the key sticking out like a present.
The boy pressed his hands against his hat and slowly pulled it over his face. The girl turned, her eyes lingering across the road. Her eyes, big like a child’s on Christmas morning when he finds no presents underneath the tree.
The old man made four small steps towards the red gate, then stopped. ‘Come, come,’ he called and his voice, although not loud, carried well. Yet the steam remained behind the scarf, trapped. ‘We’ll have tea, warm up and talk.’ Then he added, in a softer tone, ‘we’ll talk about my neighbors too,’ while his eyes narrowed on the girl, the way a grandfather would to sooth an upset child. And he smiled again, lifting his hand that still squeezed the shiny key, like a prize, while his other hand closed slowly on the handle of his bag on wheels. Yet the bag didn’t yield. The old man shook its handle in distress, as if now he was the child. The wheels held, frozen in the ice masked by fresh snow.
The boy jumped to the rescue and freed the shopping bag pulling it towards the red metal gate, his head tilted, astonished by its unexpected weight. And the girl followed.
The first thing that changed was the snow underfoot. It remained outside the red door as they crossed its threshold. On the other side ancient cobble stones paved the ground and their pattern opened in a half a circle, shaped like the vestibule that welcomed them. Rather large, so large.
As soon as the little door closed behind silence enveloped them, only the muffled echo of their footsteps resonating against the ancient walls. The space, wider than either of the visitors expected, was equally shared by the three families living in the building, as was the small Christmas tree placed in the middle and decorated with hand made paper snowflakes and tin stars.
The ozone rich air, too dry in the icy winter to carry any scents, fell in a strong embrace with the homely scents of Christmas. It smell of pine, and of wood, but above all of vanilla and cinnamon, the warm scents of freshly baked goodies, cozonac, sweet bread, summer’s sunshine trapped in winter.
The small man parked his trolley in what seemed to be his side of the hallway and busied with his bunch of keys again. So many, thought the boy, and only one to open the door to his apartment. The girl remained behind, frozen by the Christmas tree, her attention on one decoration in particular. A hedgehog fashioned out of slender paper cones trimmed with silver foil. A thin string was threaded through each cone pulling them together to shape a hedgehog. Googly eyes and a bead for a nose completed the face. He was white and silver, as if covered by snow.
‘I had one just like this when I was small,’ she said and her words lifted in surprise.
There was the noise of a key turning in the lock again and of a door swinging open. And they all went inside the old man’s home.’
© Patricia Furstenberg, WIP, ‘Snakes at Midnight’ (dual timeline, medieval and contemporary) – for which I am seeking representation. 2001, All Rights Reserved.
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