Short Story: A Beautiful Handkerchief

The dusty yellow sky draped itself over everything lazily; the air, thick and pungent, carried draughts of sweet honeysuckle tinged with sulphur. Velvety grass sprang up from mossy roots, inviting you to walk and then kneel and then roll on it. Elianna turned away from the grass and, feeling her way by sliding her feet along the pavement, she stared at the building as she walked; its walls seemed crumbly, as though they were made of sand. She dragged her hand over the wall but it held solid; not a single grain or particle came away. Windows, bigger than the ones she’d seen at Buckingham Palace, reflected sky and trees, elongating their shapes in places. Why would anyone want such big rooms? She arrived at a corner of the building and peeped around it; sighing deeply, she turned the corner and continued treading the great slabs of stone that looked as if they’d been there forever; huge lichen stained rectangles worn uneven, moss and weeds grew out of the cracks between them. Elianna carefully stepped inside each stone, tiptoeing in her patent leather shoes on the ones that had split into triangular islands; creases had formed on her shoes at the lines where her toes met her feet and little ruches of patent leather hinted at future cracks or peeling.
A breeze stirred the leaves of the nearby oak trees into soft whispers as she tapped her way across the paving slabs. A recess in the brickwork announced itself – there was a door: it was big and painted black with a large brass knocker, too high for her to reach. No letterbox. She raised her fist to knock and, out of the corner of her eye, spied a hole in the wall with a small piece of paper beneath it. One word, printed in red ink, stated “BELL”. She pushed her finger into the hole and gasped. Pulling her finger free, and blinking rapidly, she gave a tiny moan; the top of her finger was missing. Blood, claret red and glinting in the sunlight, throbbed out and cascaded down her palm to her wrist where it dripped onto the paving stone, making tiny “splats” as it landed. A bell clanged inside the house. The door opened. “Raise it in the air, my dear,” a man in a grey suit that fitted him perfectly stood in the doorway, a charmingly repulsive smile spread across his face. His hair, neatly combed, was short and grey. His green eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief and something else that Elianna was too inexperienced to detect. “Come in. I have something of yours.” He stepped aside and gestured to the space occupying the doorway. Elianna gazed up at him, studying his face, and then stepped forward; his hand on her back guided her in the direction she was already going. The door banged shut. It was dark in the shadow of the huge door but the vast windows either side of it let in light that bounced off crystals hanging from the ceiling, each one a different length; it was impossible to see the thread that attached the crystals to the ceiling and they appeared to hover there, unhampered by physics. The green velvets, brocades and silks of the furniture, all individual and unusual pieces, reflected the greens of the gardens. Books lined the walls on shelves that ran from floor to ceiling; piles of books littered the floor expectantly as if they were waiting for a space on the shelves. The man crouched in front of Elianna and presented her with a handkerchief; beautiful and white, it seemed sinful to wrap it around her finger, as he seemed to be insinuating. His presence at her feet allowed her the opportunity to observe his face more closely: tanned skin that stretched across high cheekbones gave an impression of fine porcelain covered by calfskin; tiny hairs softened the angles of his face. Elianna sighed. He reached out and closed his fingers around her wrist; his touch was soft and she hesitated before yielding to his gentle pull. A slight frown knitted his eyebrows while a smile played on his lips; she watched the incongruency of his expression while he tied the handkerchief to her. A crystal moved in a draught; light momentarily blinded her. He was no longer in front of her when she could see again. Her finger, wrapped in the pristine handkerchief, was big and dull; her palm was softly pink – no trace of blood remained. “My finger.” “Yes, a wonderful contribution. Thank you.” Standing by an open door, he watched her, his head slightly cocked to his left shoulder. Behind him was darkness and as she stepped towards him the darkness gave way to a dimly lit passage; a metal object on the floor of the passage glinted with occasional light from the crystals. “Would you like to press this button, my dear?” His hand stroked a large red button on the wall next to the door. She took a tiny step towards it then stopped and shook her head. He sighed. “Yes, I can understand why you hesitate but it’s also very tempting isn’t it? Everyone likes to press buttons, especially when there’s a sign saying ‘don’t press this button’!” A short staccato burst of laughter peppered his statement. “However, there is no need to worry. I have what I need from you. Whatever you do here now is safe. I can press it if you like. I thought you might enjoy it.” He smiled unkindly at her. She looked away from him, her eyes searched the walls, the rows of books and finally rested on the floor; her cheeks glowed hotly. “Never mind. I’ll push it!” He did so; a shrill whistle pierced the air and a rumbling carriage arrived. “In you go,” his voice, now clipped and cold, pushed her away. “But where does it go? And what about my finger?” “Your finger will be fine!” He lifted a rounded metal bar very quickly; his hand on her back gave her an impatient shove. She climbed into the circular carriage and he brought the metal bar down over her lap just as her bottom touched the padded leather seat; a flash of recall: a fair ground; fast shouts and smells whizzing by. “Have fun, my dear!” He laughed unpleasantly and the carriage began to jerkily move forward. She faced front, a frown creasing her brow, and clutched the metal bar tightly. The carriage picked up speed. A wall approached and in the gloom she could make out the shapes of metal tracks on it. The carriage heaved itself up the wall, clanking its way along the tracks, and gravity dictated she lay on her back. The carriage slowed and entered a place with no light. She felt her centre of gravity shift; she was coming upright. She gripped the metal bar, her shoulders and chest tight. The movements of the carriage accelerated; down into the darkness she rode; her hair streamed behind her; no way of knowing how fast, how deep she was going. No scream escaped her lips; instead she gritted her teeth. The air smashed against her face. She opened one eye a tiny sliver and wrenched it shut again. The carriage stopped. For a moment she sat still with her eyes closed; her chest heaved and air exchanged noisily through her flared nostrils. Holding her breath, she opened her left eye rapidly five or six times. She was in a vast kitchen. Both eyes opened and took in the huge fireplace where a big black cooking pot sat on its metal throne above white coals, gurgling and belching steam. A massive table filled the centre of the room, its thick wooden legs squarely securing its position. Surrounding the edges of the room, cupboards and drawers stood sentry, guarding their contents. On either side of the fireplace was a door; the one on the right was open and a song, sung low and lustily, drifted through it. A woman’s voice. Elianna gingerly stepped out of the carriage and slid her feet a few small steps in the direction of the voice. The carriage withdrew immediately. Taking a deep breath, she focussed her gaze on the floor; brown, like the outside walls of the house, it contained small particles that glittered in the homely light of gas lamps hanging on hooks protruding from the ceiling.  “Most likely you’ll want the top ‘o your finger, eh dearie?” In the doorway stood a plump woman wearing an apron; flowers, faded from many washes, scattered themselves in pinks, lemons and blues across the expanse of her belly, framed by frills. The beige glazed mixing bowl she held looked heavy. She moved quickly to the table, plonked her bowl there and stuffed the wisps of hair that tickled her cheek back under the slightly skewed hat; it was held on with elastic that skirted the perimeter, causing a frill in the white cotton that framed her head, and more hair escaped as she patted it. Drawing out a chair she sighed, “‘ave a seat, angel. I’ll get you a cup o’ ‘ot chocolate. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Elianna nodded. “They all do,” she muttered, as she banged the milk pan on the table. The woman pursed her lips as she whisked the milk and cocoa powder; her cheeks glowed and perspiration prickled her brow. It didn’t take long for the milk to heat; she poured the mixture into a mug and slid it across the table to Elianna. “Wait there, dearie.” Elianna nodded solemnly and reached for the hot chocolate. She watched the woman stomp across the floor to the other door; it closed behind her quickly, sending a flurry of feathers and a rotten smell into the room. Slobbering sounds slid under the door. Elianna shivered and sipped at her hot chocolate; warm and thick, it coated the inside of her mouth and she counted each time she swallowed. The woman appeared in the open doorway at the other side of the fireplace, coughed and brushed herself down; a feather, small and fluffy, perched on her shoulder then flew behind her as she marched to the table. “Well, that’s that done. Now, ‘ave you finished your ‘ot chocolate, missy?” Elianna nodded slowly. “I s’pect you’re sleepy now. Come with me. Come on.” She nodded her head at the open doorway and turned towards it; Elianna climbed down from her oasis and followed the woman. The room behind the fireplace was sleepily warm; long and rectangular, at the far end of it rested a small bed complete with overstuffed pillow, turned down sheet and a small threadbare teddy. Stray feathers peeked out from under the bed. “Go on, dearie,” the woman nudged her towards the bed, “‘ave a lie down. Do you no end of good.” A small tear crept down the side of Elianna’s nose and she sniffed. “No cryin’! No need for cryin’! Come on, now!” A brisk rub delivered the force behind the woman’s words to Elianna’s shoulder and she moved, as if sleepwalking, toward the bed, shucked off her shoes and climbed in. Before her head touched the pillow she raised her hand and examined the handkerchief wrapped finger. Looking the woman directly in the eye she asked, “will my finger be all right?” “Don’t you worry about that, dearie! Sleep well!” Bustling out of the room, she muttered under her breath, shaking her head. The pillow’s soft down embraced Elianna’s head and she closed her eyes.   Tiny circles of sunlight pierced the shadow on the ceiling above the curtain rail. Elianna’s eyes flicked open and traced a path across the peaks of Artex above her head. She sat up and gazed around her room; her richly brown chest of drawers waited for her to choose the day’s underwear; yesterday’s clothes lay crumpled where they landed when she’d kicked them across the floor. Very slowly, she pulled her right arm free of the duvet and drew in her breath quickly at the sight of the stark, white handkerchief, still neatly held in place around her finger by an expert bow. Shaking her head, her body caught the fever and shook too. “No…. no, no, no, noooo… NOOOOOOOOO!” Her bedroom door crashed open. “What on earth is going on in here?” Her mother’s voice held a stern note and her words punctuated the steps she took into Elianna’s bedroom; she stood still, hands on narrow hips, demanding an answer from her daughter with her stare. Her father, hastily wrapping his pot belly into a navy and maroon striped dressing gown, strolled past her mother and sat on the edge of the bed. Long strings of unravelled towelling decorated his dressing gown, reminding her of Christmas early mornings falling asleep on his lap, as he sipped coffee with Baileys and stroked her hair. “What is it, Elianna?” he spoke quietly, his lips moving gently and a small crease concerned his brow. She lifted her hand, staring at the handkerchief wrapped finger, then raised her eyes to his helplessly. “Where did you get that handkerchief?” Her mother had drawn closer to the bed and peered at the handkerchief, her lips parted in concentration. “What happened to your finger?” Again, her father’s gentle voice caressed her and tears formed at the corners of her eyes, spilling over onto her cheeks. “M- my f-f-finger!” She howled, an animal sound, full of pain she had not felt in the night. With one hand clasped over her heart, her body rocked as she cried and her breath burst in and out of her lungs; each sob came quieter than the last. Her father rubbed her leg, “what happened, sweetheart? Can you tell me?” “Us!” At the sound of her mother’s voice both Elianna and her father started and they turned their heads to look at her. Lips pursed, she came forward suddenly. “Let me undo that for you, Elianna,” her mother reached for the handkerchief. Twisting her body around to face her mother, she presented her finger and looked into her blue eyes; beautifully cold, they now shone with a brief recognition. Averting her gaze to the handkerchief, her mother untied the bow easily, her elegant fingers nimbly working the knot; she shook her head gently, “it really is a beautiful handkerchief.” Elianna stared at her mother, watching her eyes appreciate the close weave of the white cotton as she unwound it. The handkerchief released itself and Elianna’s finger appeared, small and naked; beautifully flat skin ended her index finger abruptly, glowing white and freshly healed. Three gasps filled the room and dissipated quickly. An astonished silence, heavy with questions, reigned in the space where the end of Elianna’s finger used to be.

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2 thoughts on “Short Story: A Beautiful Handkerchief

  1. Pingback: What’s left | everything is art

  2. Pingback: Selected elements | everything is art

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