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“Curio” a Short Story by Austin Smith

Austin Smith, BEI Fellow, had his short story, “Curio”, published by On the Seawall. On the Seawall published poems, short stories, and other works by many authors. For the original article.

And then there it was, what the boy had been looking for. He hadn’t known what it would be, only that it would be there, where he was digging. Of all the places on the farm where he could have dug, he had chosen that spot, in what had once been a flowerbed but was now just a weedy berm marked with flat limestone slabs, ringing the trunk of a maple he loved for the helicopter seeds it spun down in the fall. It was early spring now. He could see, beyond the hill, an emerald mistiness in the upper story of the woods. He was using one of the rusted garden trowels, this one missing its handle, which his mother had bought several springs ago. The only time the trowel found its way out of the garden shed was when it was in his hand. It seemed that through yet another year the garden would lie fallow. The ground his father had opened for her one day by drawing the plow across the yard in one pass like the lash of a branch had healed closed in herbs that perennially went to seed and sowed themselves. It was up to the boy to open the earth, even this smallest patch of it, in order to find…

This. A black cat the size of his thumb. Where the front right leg had broken off the porcelain shone as if it were wet. Of course it was this that he had found. He’d never seen it before, never imagined it, but here it undeniably was, balanced in a crippled way on his palm. Despite its tininess, its weight surprised him. It was as if it wanted to return to the earth he had pulled it from. He let drop from his mouth a long glistening strand of drool in which he cleaned the dirt off it to make it his.

There were dozens of cats on the farm, and this one felt like the distillation of their felinity, the Ur-cat to whom they all bowed before commencing to lap at their pan of milk outside the milk house door. He thought that this object must be to the cats what the crucifix in the kitchen drawer was to him. Had he found a cow he would have had the same thought about its relationship to the herd. Maybe it was a cow. But, no, it couldn’t be. The ears were unmistakable, tiny tents pitched on the hillock of the head. No one trying to make a cow would have given it ears like that.

He stood up with the black cat standing cupped in his palm. The brilliance it had briefly assumed, slathered in his drool, had dulled. He started up towards the house to rinse it in the sink. He wanted to show his mother but it was one of those days when she went back upstairs after breakfast and made of her bed a kind of nest, descending only to bring the kettle back to boil and replenish her tea.

By the steam the kettle was still exhaling he knew she had just been down. He held the cat under the faucet, careful not to drop it down the drain. He dried it with a kitchen rag and pushed one corner of the tablecloth back and set it on the table, but the fact that its front right leg was missing combined with the weight of its head made it tip forward, so that the back left leg rose like a urinating dog’s. He tried setting it in various positions, on its side, then on its back. It balanced perfectly on the points of its ears and its nose, as if this was how it was intended to stand. When he had exhausted all its possibilities he climbed the steps to show her.

On these mornings when she went back upstairs after breakfast, she was not inaccessible. If he wanted to he could crawl into bed with her where she lay reading one of those books that smelled faintly of the library, a yellow smell that reminded him of the old ladies who worked there. Sometimes his mother would read softly to him, but what happened in the books was boring: people with strange names standing up and sitting down and walking into one room and then into another. His little sister would be in the crib next to the window, but he took as much interest in her as he did in the books his mother read to him. She was just a lumpen shape that cried out every so often, demanding his mother’s attention. From time to time he would be invited to come close and see his little sister, to talk to her, but there was no person to talk to: just a pinched, reddish face, and eyes that never quite met his.

Today when he entered the room to show his mother the cat, she was sitting at the roll-top desk by the window, writing, her tea still steaming and steeping, the cup resting on the book she wasn’t reading, and which she would return to the library covered in the faintest rings.

He knew she had heard him by the way she turned her head slightly as if to acknowledge him, but she was trying to finish the sentence she was struggling to write when he walked in. She was writing a letter to a man who had once lived in this house, many years before she had. It was a letter of sympathy. She had seen, in the Pearl City Standard, an obituary for the man’s wife. He had been a hired hand on this farm, long ago, in the 60s. Her father-in-law had been a young man then. She wasn’t even sure her husband had been born yet. The evening before, when he came in from the barn, she met him at the door and said, “John? Mrs. Mickelson died.”

Her husband looked at her blankly for a moment before it registered. Then he nodded respectfully and bent down to untie his boots.

“I’m going to write to Mr. Mickelson tomorrow,” she said. “I assume he’s still in St. Vincent’s.”

She stood there a moment, waiting for him to say something, but he was as quiet as he had been the evening she told him that the Mickelson’s had dropped by for a visit. John wasn’t a sentimental man. Even at his father’s funeral he had been stoic, approaching the burial the way he approached fieldwork. As far as she knew the Mickelson’s hadn’t had any children. She wasn’t sure they had any family at all still living, which meant that she might be the only one left to mourn the death of the old woman, and to offer sympathies to the old man. Hence this letter she had been struggling to finish for the past hour. She had already abandoned three attempts. They lay at her feet, crinkled tight as brains, her blue writing delving into and out of the fissures.

Before embarking on this latest attempt to write the letter, she had gone to the crib to check on Tessa and ended up watching Aden digging in the old bed that rang the maple round, the bed in which she had fully intended to plant some tulip bulbs by now. She had seen him rest back on his ankles, studying something balanced on his palm, and had assumed it was a potsherd, or a shotgun shell. There were lots of those littered around, though they had never owned a gun.

Now he was standing behind her, waiting for her to turn her attention upon him, but she was intent upon finishing this sentence before allowing him to show her what commonplace thing he had found.

      I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet your wife when the two of you came out to the farm that day, and I only wish…

What was it she only wished for? The sentence had been perfectly formed in her mind before Aden walked in. Now she feared that it might be impossible to finish it, which would mean starting the letter over yet again. She took a sip of tea, and upon burning her lips it struck her what was wrong with the sentence. She had intended to say that she only wished that she and Mrs. Mickelson had had more time to get to know one another. But nothing had stopped her from going to town and visiting her at St. Vincent’s Home for the Elderly. Mrs. Mickelson had invited her to come see her so she could show her some old photographs of the house. But Claire had never taken her up on the invitation. Whatever sympathies she offered Mr. Mickelson only threw into relief the fact that she had never gone to town to visit his wife.

She tried to remember which summer it was that the Mickelson’s had visited. It must have been two summers ago, because Tessa hadn’t been born yet. Yes, she thought, because that was the summer it was so hot, and the drought so bad that John had actually started driving to the church in the middle of the week to sit in the pew alone. She would never have known this if, one morning when they were eating breakfast at Two Eagles, a man she didn’t know hadn’t stopped by their table and said, “Well, John, I hear you’ve been sitting in Our Lady of the Farmer praying for rain. You might try a different language,” and she had watched John’s face out-redden the catsup.

The Mickelson’s had come out right in the worst of the heat, when it was most miserable. Only after the heat broke did John agree to run to Sears and pick up an air conditioner, precisely when they no longer needed it. It was so hot that day the oscillating fans that stood in the corners of the rooms, shaking their heads, were doing nothing but pushing the heat around, so she had dragged the blue kiddy pool into the shade and filled it from the hose that ran out from the limestone foundation of the house and sat Aden up in the water while she dangled her feet in and tried to read. The book was Ethan Frome. She wouldn’t have remembered which book it was if not for the fact that the snow and the cold of the novel had provided such a contrast to the heat of the day.

No one ever came up that lane, so she was surprised when she heard the crunch of gravel under tires. Most visitors came up the lane tentatively, afraid to bottom out on the grassy median that rose as the ruts washed out, but a small silver Buick pulled in with the authority of people who’d lived there once, and who would never cease considering the place as much theirs as anyone else’s. The Mickelson’s were a long time getting out of the car, like a young couple with a child in the backseat, and came shuffling along the walk as calmly as if they’d been invited. Their eyes were fixed on the front door, which gave her time to observe them. Their body types couldn’t have been more different. Mrs. Mickelson was a short, pudgy woman, wearing a pink dress and flesh-colored stockings, carrying a casserole dish covered with tinfoil. Her husband was tall and lanky, dressed nicely in black slacks and a white dress shirt, and walked with his hands clasped behind his back, looking at the ground like a man considering whether or not to purchase the land he walked upon.

Not wanting to spook them, she called hello as sweetly as she could, but they both jumped anyway.

“We didn’t see you over here,” Mrs. Mickelson said, making a sudden correction and crossing the yard towards her. “We used to sit under this tree on hot days like this, didn’t we, Mick?”

“It was that one, wasn’t it?” her husband muttered, pointing to the maple that Aden had been digging under earlier.

“Nice to meet you,” the woman said, balancing the casserole dish on one palm and offering her other hand, as if Claire ought to know who they were. When it became clear to the woman that she didn’t, she said, “We’re the Mickelson’s. Mick here worked as a hired hand for Bob. We lived here from 1963 to 1967.”

“’68,” Mr. Mickelson said, in the tone of a man who’s spent his whole life taking umbrage with his wife. He hadn’t yet raised his eyes to meet hers. His whole demeanor was that of a man who’d been dragged along against his will.

“Of course! I’ve heard so much about you,” Claire said, though this wasn’t necessarily true. She knew that there had been several hired hands over the years, before her husband grew old enough to make hiring help an unnecessary expense. Their names were scrawled in carpenter pencil on the door frames of the closets, and with pocketknives under the mantle of the fireplace. She couldn’t remember seeing the name Mick, but she thought perhaps he’d used his first name.

“John’s over the hill at the main farm,” she said, though she had the sense that Mrs. Mickelson was more interested in seeing the house than in seeing her husband.

“We figured he’d be in the barn at this hour. And who’s this?” Mrs. Mickelson said.

“Tell them your name, Aden.”

Aden had just learned that this name was who he was, but he wouldn’t say it, made too shy by the way Mrs. Mickelson was leaning down, staring at him.

“That’s a good way to stay cool, isn’t it?” Mrs. Mickelson said, touching the water with the sole of her shoe. Aden was naked, and Claire hadn’t bothered to bring a towel outside, not expecting any company.

“Would you watch him a moment while I run inside and get a towel?” she asked Mrs. Mickelson. “I think he’s been in here long enough. He’s starting to wrinkle up like a raisin.”

“You’ll watch him, won’t you Mick?” Mrs. Mickelson said. “I should put this peach cobbler in the fridge so it doesn’t bake twice in this heat.”

Claire was going to offer to bring it inside herself but she could tell that Mrs. Mickelson was using the excuse of keeping the cobbler cool to get into the house. As they walked towards the porch, Mrs. Mickelson surprised her by taking her arm, as if they were old friends. She glanced back at Mr. Mickelson, standing where they’d left him, staring down at Aden, who was looking up, transfixed by the gemlike sunlight in the leaves.

“It’s incredible how everything looks the same, and yet so different, at the same time.”

“Yes, I know what you mean.”

“My dear, I think you’re too young to know what I mean,” Mrs. Mickelson said. “When you’re as old and slow as I am you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

When they reached the porch she turned back again. Assured that Mr. Mickelson was keeping an eye on him, she said, “I’m just going to run upstairs and get that towel. You know where the kitchen is,” to which Mrs. Mickelson replied, “Oh I do. I most certainly do know where the kitchen is. Most of the time we lived here I spent in that kitchen.”

In her bedroom, the room where she lay now, remembering, she took a towel down from her closet shelf, scanning the doorframe for the name Mick. When she came back downstairs and stepped out onto the porch Mr. Mickelson was walking towards the house, carrying Aden, holding the naked dripping boy out from him at arms’ length as if not wanting to get his shoes wet.

“He just kind of toppled over,” he yelled out, in a strangled voice, like a boy whose voice is on the brink of changing. His dress shirt was wet from lifting him out of the water, and where it stuck to his skin the pale color of his flesh shone through.

“It’s all right,” she said to them both, wrapping Aden in the towel and swaying with him to calm him down. Mrs. Mickelson appeared and said, “What happened?”

“Time to get out,” Mr. Mickelson said simply.

“Looks like it,” Mrs. Mickelson said. “I love what you’ve done with the house. You’ve made some lovely improvements without changing its essential character. Don’t you want to take a tour, Mick?”

“Go ahead and look around,” Claire said, granting permission that Mrs. Mickelson already believed she had.

She sat on the porch with Aden, who was still crying, though in that silent, sullen way of children who’ve forgotten why they started crying in the first place. His skin was as cold as a fish, covered in grass clippings. When the Mickelson’s left she’d give him a warm bath, despite the heat. She sat there in the porch swing, rocking him, waiting for the Mickelson’s to return, as if they lived there and she was the one visiting. Just when she was just about to go inside and check on them they came out onto the porch carrying plates of cobbler with forks and napkins. She offered to make a pot of coffee but Mrs. Mickelson said that coffee after noon kept them up all night.

“We kick at each other like a pair of old donkeys, don’t we Mick?”

As they ate their cobbler, Mrs. Mickelson talked about what the house had looked like when they lived there, and it was then that she offered to show Claire the photographs if she felt like stopping by St. Vincent’s for a visit and a game of euchre. And it was then that she had promised her she would.

“Look, Mick,” Mrs. Mickelson said when they had finished their cobbler. “The foundation is still standing. Let’s take a walk over and look at it.”

“Too hot for me,” he said. “Think I’ll just sit right here and close my eyes.”

“A walk, Claire?”

She agreed, thinking that going outside with Mrs. Mickelson might be the first step in coaxing them to leave. She didn’t really want to carry Aden around in the heat, but nor did she want to leave him with Mr. Mickelson again. And so, wrapping him up in the towel, she followed Mrs. Mickelson outside and across the yard to the site of the old barn.

It was one of those ruins from the farm’s past that she had often wondered about, but that John had no interest in whatsoever, being too busy with the farm’s present. Sometimes, in the evenings, she would walk into the foundation just to enjoy the sensation of being surrounded by the old limestone walls. She had known that it was the footprint of a massive barn that had once stood there, bigger than the barn over the hill at the main farm, but before Mrs. Mickelson mentioned the fire she had never known that it had burned. She’d figured it had just fallen down.

The foundation was tucked into a hill that seemed manmade. There was a gap in the wall where the doorway had been. Before walking through it she turned to see Mr. Mickelson sitting on the porch, his long legs kicked out straight like the legs of a clothespin. He was too far away for her to see whether his eyes were closed or open, but she had the feeling he was watching them.

Once they were inside Mrs. Mickelson said, “I’ll never forget the night it burned. I woke up to the light of it. It was as bright as day. I remember touching the windowpane and the glass was hot to the touch. Mick was already out here trying to fight it, pail by pail.”

She was going to say that it couldn’t have been any hotter that night than it was that afternoon. At that hour there was no shade. You would have had to lie down against the foundation to find any. The weeds that had grown up within the walls of the foundation were shriveled, the heads of the Queen Anne’s lace hanging off their stalks like wedding gowns you see in consignment stores. Claire couldn’t understand how Mrs. Mickelson was bearing it. She covered Aden’s head with the towel, trying both to keep the sun off him and to signal to Mrs. Mickelson that it was too hot to stand out there with a toddler, but Mrs. Mickelson seemed to still be recalling the night of the fire.

“How did it start?” Claire asked, in the interest of moving Mrs. Mickelson’s reverie along to some conclusion.

“Oh, how fires always start. Some kids were playing in the mow with matches. Mick saw them running up that waterway there. He tried chasing them but ran himself out of breath. Between you and me I think Bob always thought it was Mick who started it. He was careless with cigarettes back then.”

She’d never heard Bob or Mary say anything about a hired hand starting a barn fire. She would have thought it would have come up in one of the marathon sessions of porch talk her mother-in-law presided over.

“Yep, after the fire Bob and Mick never did get along the same,” Mrs. Mickelson said. “I don’t think Bob ever went so far as to accuse Mick of starting it, but it was in the air. We moved out while the rubble was still smoking.”

“And where did you two move to then?”

“Then we went to work for Eberhardts, over by the nature preserve there. But that only lasted a year. Mick got a job as a night watchman at Microswitch and we moved to town.”

“Mrs. Mickelson, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go inside.”

“It is a little warm, isn’t it?”

When the porch came into view through a gap in the foundation, she saw that Mr. Mickelson was gone. She assumed he’d gone into the house for some water, or to pee. But he wasn’t in the house. He was walking around the maple tree, his hands were clasped behind his back, searching for the very thing Aden would grow up to find. He was sure the little cat must be there somewhere. He distinctly remembered the way it had hit the trunk and ricocheted off, though he couldn’t recall in which direction. He’d thrown it as hard as he could, with the intention of shattering it against the bark, which meant it might have gone pretty far. He’d hated it for being the thing his boy had gone into the water tank after. He could never prove this, of course. When he found it he knew it was possible that it had been in the boy’s pocket when he’d fallen in, and that it had fallen out while he was in the water, the cows in the barnyard watching him disinterestedly, chewing their cud. But in his mind Mr. Mickelson had always seen the cat prancing along the edge of the tank and falling in and the boy leaning down from the fence to try to grasp at it before it disappeared.

Upon finding the cat on the ground where they had tipped the tank over, he’d carried it in his fist towards the house, intending to show it to her, to blame her for letting him play with one of her stupid curios in the first place, but to keep himself from wielding it against her he had stopped just before reaching the porch steps and thrown it against the tree. And a few weeks later, when he found himself taking his anger out on his wife, he turned his attention to the barn itself. He’d grown sick of walking out in the predawn dark to see it standing there, blacking out the stars. He’d invented the boys running up the waterway, their matchboxes, the light of the flame in their faces, the myriad wicks of straw, and then grown to believe in his invention, so that, when he told the story, he himself was convinced by it, if no one else was.

He glanced over towards where the barn had stood but couldn’t see his wife or that irresponsible woman who’d left her only child sitting in water plenty deep to drown in with a complete stranger. The boy hadn’t fallen over as he’d claimed. He just hadn’t been able to bear the expectation that at any moment he would, and so had pulled him out.

Figuring they’d be back soon, hot as it was, he got down on his hands and knees and started raking the dirt and dead leaves with his fingers, feeling for its shape. He had dug and framed this bed himself, encouraging bluebells, his favorite flower, but it had been let go wild. This fallowness made it both more likely that the porcelain cat was still there, and harder to find it. His fingers brought up acorns, shards of limestone, shotgun shells from when he used to shoot targets nailed to the trees. He’d thought it would be easy enough to find, but he knew now, on his hands and knees, how hopeless it was. When he glanced up again they were coming back. He walked over and washed his hands in the kiddy pool, dirtying the unnatural bluishness of the water.

When they got back in the small silver Buick, Mrs. Mickelson said, “Did you find it?”

“No,” her husband said, crossing his arms.

Claire crumpled up the piece of paper and dropped it to the floor with the others. She turned to Aden, prepared now to pay him her full attention. He was holding out his hand, dirty from his digging. She picked the thing he held out to her between her finger and thumb as if it were a blackberry hidden deep amidst thorns.

“Where did you find this?” she asked, though she knew the answer.

He shrugged. Now that he’d found it, he’d lost interest in it. He walked over to the crib to look in at his sister.

“Be sure to wash your hands before you touch her.”

He held his hands behind him.

She held the thing up to the late afternoon light. At first she thought it was a stone, or a piece of glass, but then she realized that it had a shape. It was a cat of black porcelain. She looked over at Aden again, as if he could tell her more about it, but he was gone. She tried to set it on the desk but it kept tipping over. She laid it on its side.

She started a new draft of her letter to Mr. Mickelson, and this time it went smoothly. She wrote that she had been sorry to learn of Mrs. Mickelson’s death, then wrote about the day the Mickelson’s had visited, the heat, how good the cobbler had been (though she couldn’t remember enjoying it), the walk she and Mrs. Mickelson had taken. She thanked Mr. Mickelson for coming out to visit them, and apologized for never having taken up Mrs. Mickelson on her kind offer to show her old photographs of the house.

She folded the letter and slipped it into an envelope. After running her tongue along the gummy strip, she tucked the little porcelain cat in with the letter, but she didn’t like how it made the envelope lumpy. Who knew what thoughts a lump like that might conjure. So she took the cat back out and laid it on its side on top of the desk, oriented, like all cats, to look out the window.