Last night I was looking for something, and opened a couple boxes that have been closed-up for years. It was like finding treasure chests filled with pictures, production programs, newspaper articles (from past shows), old letters folded into squares (that have yellowed a little)… etc…. In the mix I also found a few old papers and projects from my OSU days. The following is a short story that I wrote for a fiction writing class (I was able to retrieve it off of an old disc as well).
Matilda once convinced me that she was a genuine creature of magic. I had no reason to not believe her—she was the girl who could invent games with nothing more than paper clips, and rusted bottle caps. She looked at life with unique perspectives, and had a talent for always making the most out of circumstances. It wasn’t until I was in my teenage years that I understood why adults would look at her with drawn expressions…. or why other kids alienated her, and cringed when forced to choose her for their dodge-ball games. To me, that ten-year-old neighbor with the scabbed knees and self-cut, jagged hair was the friend who could ensnare me into the spell-wrought web of her imagination.
Matilda could transform our shared back yard into an enchanted forest. The tangled, withered blackberry bushes could cause death at a touch, and the creaky, old swing–set (which was prone to tipping over) served as the “Quartz Castle”. I never questioned her when she told me that the huge, plastic bat was an ensorcelled sword. She would guide me on dangerous quests where that wondrous weapon enabled me to battle mystical beasts, and assist in removing the curse set upon her—typically a magical concealment of her true identity (some kind of lost fairy queen, gifted sorceress, or she-warrior). The theme often had a similar structure—a girl who secretly was special and full of strength, but for some reason was hidden and unseen by everyone ( save me).
Rainy afternoons were my favorite. Sheltered under her stairs, we would consume hours attempting to out-scare each other with wild stories. Matilda invariably won, but she always listened to my stammers with earnest, wide eyes, and provided enthusiastic comments and suggestions for plot turns.
Matilda’s house was inflicted with a chronic case of chaos and acute clutter, but the piles of laundry and old newspapers did nothing to dampen our endeavors at having fun. Her father was a withdrawn man who worked a lot (and spent too many late nights out at a bar, according to my mother’s complaints). He pretty much let Matilda do whatever she wanted. There were not any restraints within those walls—no one to yell when you did not pick up after yourself, or when you made too much noise re-enacting a scene from “Knight Rider”. Yet, there never was a parental voice to interrupt your play with offers of Kool-aid and balogne sandwiches either.
We were on fifth-grade winter vacation the morning that I trudged through the slush over to Matilda’s house—anticipating the completion of our construction of a snow-fort. As I knocked on her splintered door, I inspected the donated Christmas tree that was still bound in wire, and propped against the porch where it had been left several days before. I played with the frothy puffs of air that appeared out of my mouth, and became increasingly curious when I did not hear Matilda’s customary eager steps pounding through the house. The sharp cold attacking my nose prompted me to turn-back towards my own warm home, but just as I began to descend the front steps, her door opened. She blinked at me with sleepy eyes, her chestnut hair even more disorderly than normal. I was startled to see that she was still wearing her Spiderman pajamas, but before I could tease her on it, she turned back into the house without saying a word, leaving the door open in an invitation to follow.
I scrambled in behind her, and deposited my layers of winter clothing (that my mother insisted that I could not survive without) on the already tumultuous floor. When Matilda led me into the under-stairs alcove that was lit only with a small lamp, I expected her to launch into a new story. Instead, she plopped herself onto a cushion stolen from her living room sofa, and wrapped a faded flannel blanket about herself protectively. Her eyes trailed to an open album spread before her.
I seated myself across from her, and then fidgeted with the long-strands of yarn attached to the shag carpet. As I combed, and meticulously lined-up the bright-yellow threads, I worried that Matilda’s out-of-character sullenness was something like what my mother said caused my older sister’s moods. It scared me to realize that Matilda really was a girl. I had never considered the matter before—she was nothing like the doll-huggers from school. She could spit farther then me, and out-run any of the other boys in our neighborhood. Barefoot.
Un-nerved by the silence, I leaned over to look at the album. They were pictures I had never seen before…of a pretty blonde toddler dressed in a red velvet dress; her cheeks flushed like fat apples. Each picture depicted the girl opening a different gift, and a kind-faced woman who had glossy, dark hair was constantly by her side—assisting to remove the layers of shiny paper. I followed Matilda’s eyes to the bottom of the right-hand page, and the last visible photo. The child was pictured again, her hands and impish face squeezed tight in glee. Various gift bows were stuck to the down of her baby-fine hair, and she was seated on the woman’s lap, caught in a tight loving hug. Slowly, I realized that the child was Matilda, and I felt pretty bad for taking so long to recognize her. Her hair had darkened, and well….the disheveled girl before me had little resemblance to the plump, immaculate toddler in the pictures.
“Is that your mother?” I asked her quietly. She nodded, and a hand escaped the blanket to slowly trace the shape of the woman’s face. I shifted, taking a tight grip on the thick carpet…. unsure how to handle the awkwardness of the situation. Matilda had never spoken about her mother before—save for wild fantasies involving magical queens and super heroes. I really had never put much thought into the matter. All I knew, was what my mother had told me a long time ago—that Matilda’s mother had died, and that it was not polite to talk about it. Curiosity erased my mother’s sharp face, and careful cautions from my mind.
Matilda’s hazel eyes raised, easing my discomfort by finally revealing an ember of interest. “ Really?” She asked, looking back down at the frozen images with admiration.
“Sure,” I answered. “ She looks like she was a lot of fun. Was the weeble-wobble play-ground a present from her?” I absently pointed, and drew her attention to a photo shot under the massive, white-flocked tree that was smothered in clumps of crumpled tinsel. The lights on the tree (the huge kind with painted bulbs that get really hot), had interfered with the flash of the camera, resulting in streaks of light surrounding Matilda’s mother’s bent head. Coupled with the tender expression on her face, to my young mind, the lights made her look like one of the angels painted on the walls of my Sunday school classroom.
A soft smile crept across Matilda’s smudged face—wrinkling yesterday’s attempt of a star tattoo that had been drawn near her left eye with a purple magic-marker. I recognized the distant look in her eyes that initiated every story she told.
“ Yeah, she was fun,” she explained. “ She use to sing a lot…like while cooking. There was this silly song about a sleepy rabbit she would sing when she tucked me in for bed.”
Matilda’s voice paused, and her face tightened in thought. “I wish I could remember how that song went.” She thought some more, then hummed a couple lines, but gave up…. dissatisfied with the results.
“I use to love it when she vacuumed, ‘cause she would let me stand on the machine, and then push me about while making car sounds. And sometimes,” she continued, “ We would eat lunch off of my toy china, and she would pretend to feed graham crackers to my Raggedy Anne doll.”
I watched Matilda closely as she fell into another round of memory-searching silence. After a while, it was broken with an unexpected detonation of laughter. I looked at her curiously as she rocked on her cushion, hiccuping between her giggles from lack of air. She gave me a sheepish expression, as if just realizing that she had not shared the cause of humor with me. Gaining control of herself, she let the blanket fall to the carpet, and leaned forward so that her elbows rested on her thighs, and her face pressed towards mine.
“One time,” Matilda began, “ She made this play-dough for me out of flour, salt, and water. We used cutters to shape the dough like ginger-man cookies, and then we decorated, and baked them so that they looked real. After dinner, she sent me out to Dad with a whole plate of them—and he really ate one! You should have seen his face! He tried to eat it, thinking that the cookies were real, and was afraid he would hurt our feelings if he told us that the cookies were bad. Mama laughed so hard that she cried.”
The image of her happy mother was easy to visualize as Matilda resumed her laughter and rocking, threatening to loose her position on the cushion. Imagining her quiet father in that predicament caused me to combine my own laughter with hers.
Wiping at her eyes, and then pushing back at her tangled-hair, Matilda’s smile did not falter as she proceeded to share another memory. “She smiled all the time too, no matter what. Even when her hair started to fall out on her pillow, she smiled.”
I stopped laughing, startled at the picture she had just presented, and at first I wondered if I had heard her wrong. I thought of asking her to explain, but her soft voice rambled on, and soon had me thinking of other matters.
“When they had to take off one of her legs, they brought her home from the hospital in a wheel chair. I was only four, so at first it really scared me, and I cried because it hurt to see her like that—you know?” Matilda looked up at me, but continued before I could answer.
“She wiped my tears off, and told me that there was no reason to feel sad. She said that she had traded her leg in so that she could have the special chair—because wheels were much more fun to move around on than plain old walking. I remember that she pulled me onto her lap, and gave me rides around the kitchen to prove to me how much fun she was having. When I asked if I could give one of my legs to have a chair with wheels too, she laughed and gave me a hug. She told me that I wouldn’t have to because she would share hers.”
Matilda’s face darkened, and she whispered in a tight, diminutive voice, “I miss her.”
She bit her lower lip as her eyes glazed with hot tears. “Mama told me that she was going to have to go away, and that when she did, she didn’t want me to cry… or to be sad. I didn’t understand what she meant by going away. I thought it was like one of those trips to the hospital, and so I promised her that I wouldn’t.” Struggling with her words, Matilda attempted to wipe away the failure of her promise with the back of her hands.
“ When Grandma dressed me in a new, dark dress, and lectured me on how little girls are ‘pose to behave, I thought I was being taken to the hospital to visit Mama again, and I couldn’t wait to show her all the presents everyone had been giving me—even though it wasn’t my birthday. But she wasn’t in the hospital. She was in a cold, black box—shiny like my Mary-Jane shoes. When I tried to lean out of Dad’s arms to ask her why she was sleeping in such a strange place, he pulled me back, and covered my mouth. He told me that Mommy had gone away, and that she wouldn’t ever be able to wake-up. After that, all I remember is not believing him, and calling out for her to tell him that he was wrong—and then I was taken away, and I never saw her again.”
Matilda’s head drooped, and she hid her face and shaking shoulders from me with her uneven hair.
I didn’t know what to say to her. It was Matilda who was always brave and strong—not me. Looking at her, and thinking of what she had just shared with me, I realized where it was that Matilda had received her spunk—that creative nature that lured me to her. I told her what I thought, and the comparison to her mother caused a slow smile to claim her tear-streaked face. She gazed at the photos for a while longer, still wearing that dreamy smile…. leaving me to sit in silence in that alcove where in future years she would give me my first lessons in kissing.
After a time, she looked-up, and treated me to one of her crazy, illusory tales—as if nothing out of normal had passed.
She never really spoke about her mother again, but occasionally over the years, I would spy that photo album open on the bed. The picture of her sitting on her mother’s lap eventually appeared tucked within her wallet. For Matilda, that woman who had so briefly been in her life was the light that inspired her—just as Matilda will always be mine.