I’m stuck. I wiggle my arm. Then yank it. But I’m well and truly stuck. I sit down and look around. The wire has tightened around the fleshy part of my arm and the fence stretches out endlessly. Someone will come along. I know it. So, I lay back as far as my short arm allows me, alternately leaning on my unencumbered elbow or sitting on my bottom, cross legged and face propped on my chin.
Old Smithy comes along the lane, whistling.
“What are you doing there, missy,” he asks, peering at my face.
“Well then, let’s get you unstuck, shall we?”
“That would be nice, thanks.”
Smithy wiggles the wire, shakes his head, mutters something and then pulls my arm out. So easy. I smile my thanks and run along.
“See that you don’t go around poking your arm in places you have no business,” he shouts after me, a smile in his voice.
I hear his whistle down the lane as I scamper off--its jolly and shrill but brimming with summer. I can whistle better than him. My throat swells with my own ditty, sweet and joyful, a perfect crescent of sunlight slanting over the mulberry bushes, reaching out to the larks. And calling and responding they sing with me. I laugh. It’s bright and beautiful this morning. This is mine, this summer.
Many years later, whenever I think of that long summer and Smithy, I remember his smile, gap toothed and wide. A friendly teddy bear with crinkled beady eyes.
Some hours later, I hurtle into the back courtyard, past the stone archway and burst through the kitchen door. My stomach rolls and aches.
“The gremlins inside are throwing rocks. They’re mad,” I tell Cookie.
“They’re hungry is what they are,” Cookie guffaws.
She hands me a damp towel and stands over me with fat fists on generous hips, ignoring my pleading look until my face is wiped clean of all the fairy dust of the forest and lark song of the lane. She marches me to the sink and thrusts my sticky hands under the tap, chilling and scouring my skin until all vestiges of summer are gone from them.
“Here now,” she smiles sitting me at the huge wooden table that takes up almost all the space in the gigantic kitchen.
She lays a plate full of freshly made bread and cheese before me. I pounce on it like a cat on a terrified mouse. The bread is hurriedly choked down, and the cheese follows suit. A large tumbler of milk materializes and gratefully I down the liquid, washing away the sandpaper in my throat. I hold the glass to her again demanding more.
“How about some lemonade,” Cookie says.
“Now eat slowly, missy. You don’t want the bread to go down the wrong way, do you?”
Too late! I choke and cough and my back’s nearly broken as Cookie smacks the last piece of bread into its proper place.
“Where are you off to now?” Cookie cries, grabbing my arm as I scrape back my chair, readying myself to join summer again.
“There is so much to do!” I reply looking at her in bemusement.
“Oh no you don’t,” she says firmly.
Yanking me forward, I’m smothered into her huge bosom. The comforting scent of flour and cinnamon assail my nostrils. I struggle but I’m held down too firmly. Cookie tugs at my hair and suddenly the long black tresses are free. I sigh and stand moodily in place as she braids it into decency. All the while she clucks and mumbles words I don’t understand or care to understand.
“There now,” she says holding me away by my thin shoulders. “Such a pretty girl you are and such pretty hair. Why must you go tying it up wild-like as if you were a gypsy child, I’ll never know.”
I glare at her, hoping the heat of THE LOOK would make her release me forthwith. She ignores THE LOOK.
“Now your papa wants a word with you in the library, missy. Can’t have you looking like a fright, can we? Maybe you ought to change your dress. Now there’s a thought.”
I wrench away and race through the door and down the hallway before she forces clean garments on me. I skid to a halt in front of Papa’s library, hesitating and unsure. Papa does not like to be disturbed when he is working. He doesn’t like wild children either. He really doesn’t like dirty children. I look at my filthy smock and wonder if Cookie is right. I should have worn my pants. It's easier to climb trees in pants and the scrapes and cuts don’t show so much. I step back from the door preparing to go up to my room to change. But the slight squeak of my rubber soled shoes on the wooden floor alerts the occupant in the room beyond.
“Who’s there?” a deep voice calls out.
“It’s me Papa,” I cringe inwardly.
“Well, child, come in. Don’t lurk outside like a common thief!”
I enter. As usual the room is darker than the rest of the house. Papa does not like the sunlight, like Mama and I do. The curtains are always closed in the library. I hate being in here. It takes my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dimly lit room. I’m only alerted to the presence of a third person when I see a slight movement in the periphery of my vision. A beautiful young woman is seated on the huge comfy sofa at the far end of the library, her eyes demurely cast down. She glances at me and then looks away.
“Come here, darling,” says Papa, smiling.
I scramble into his open arms. When he isn’t busy, Papa is very sweet and loving. I wish he didn’t work so much. But Mama says he must because he can't bear it otherwise. He presses my head to his shoulder and gathers me into his lap. A soft kiss lands against my hairline and I smile with happiness.
“My, my Jessie,” he chuckles, tugging gently at my frock. “Have you been playing with the pigs again?”
“No Papa!” I cry out indignantly, jerking back against his arms. “I don’t smell. I’m just a little bit dirty. I was going to clean up when you called me in!”
“It’s alright little monkey,” he says smiling. He runs his fingers soothingly over my flushed cheek. “First, there is someone I want you to meet. Won’t you say hello to Miss Helena Crankshaw?”
The young lady on the sofa finally stands up and walks to me. There is a smile on her face, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. She looks a bit fearful. Her face is pretty but sad. It’s like Cookie's face whenever she thinks of Mr. Cookie who died in the war.
“Hello,” she says softly. She extends her hand to me and smiles again. “I’m very pleased to finally meet you, Jessie.”
“My name is Jessica,” I say stiffly.
I don’t like her, but I don’t know why I don’t. Maybe it’s because of the way Papa is looking at her. I’ve never seen him look at Mama that way. So soft. So gentle.
“Jessie,” my father says warningly.
I scramble off his lap and stand proudly in front of the strange woman. I shake hands. Mama says I must always display good manners with strangers.
“Miss Crankshaw is a very special friend Jessie,” Papa is still talking gently, turning me to face him.
There is a mixture of apprehension, gladness and pride on his face. How does a person have so much feeling on their face all at once? I wonder. Dread, like a sickness, envelops me. My stomach lurches and aches. Mama says it happens when I’m anxious. I feel anxious. Mama says if I breathe deeply the ache will ease. I breathe deeply. Papa frowns. I stop breathing.
“Jessie,” Papa says sighing softly. He walks to Miss Crankshaw and takes her hand. “Miss Crankshaw and I are in love. We will be getting married soon.”
I stare. My facing is going red with the effort of holding my breath.
“We would love for you to be the flower girl at the wedding Jessie,” Miss Crankshaw says softly.
My face is getting hotter and redder and my chest is beginning to hurt.
“Jessie,” Papa says sharply. “Why are you holding your breath?”
I let it out in a whoosh and lingering sob.
“Papa,” I whisper. “Can you marry two women at the same time?”
“What do you mean, girl? I’m not marrying two women.”
Miss Crankshaw looks sadly at me. Her mouth moves like she wants to say something. But I don’t let her.
“What about Mama,” I ask loudly.
Papa looks away for a moment. His shoulders are broad and block out the little light that peeks in between the curtains.
“Jessie,” Papa says quietly. He looks so tired now. “You know your mama and I are divorced. You do know what divorced means, don’t you?”
My eyes are beginning to sting.
“For god’s sake girl, you’re almost eight! You’re not a baby anymore.”
I know what divorced means. It means Mama remains in the city while I spend summer in the country with Papa. It means that they no longer love each other. But I think that’s a lie. Why wouldn’t they love each other? Mama says it means they no longer have anything in common. But they have me, don’t they? That’s something in common. They also share their last name. Like me. Cookie thinks I shouldn’t ask questions about divorce because it makes my stomach ache.
“I’m sorry Jessie. I was hoping that you would be more understanding,” Papa speaks in that disappointed voice I hate. He looks angry now. He puts his arm around Miss Crankshaw and whispers something to her. Miss Crankshaw wipes her eyes and says something back. I am forgotten.
There is no more to be said so I race to the door. No one stops me. No one calls my name. I look back at the couple standing in the dappled light that had fought and escaped the cage of the heavy curtains. It was an eerie sight. They looked as if they were the only light in a vale of darkness, luminous and so alone. Alone in their thoughts, in themselves, and in love. They have a lot in common. That’s why they will marry.
The private driveway in front of the crumbling manor house is huge and winding. I stand there looking down at the white pebbly surface, realizing for the first time how imposing and starkly beautiful it is. I tip my head back. The sun is sliding to the west, heading into afternoon. The stones underneath my feet are hot. If I stand here long enough, they will soften the rubber soles of my shoes. Overhead, a flock of finches’ arc in a tremendous wave, then in sync veer to the left, then to the right, then shoot up to the heavens. A strange beautiful dance. Their high sweet melody fades with distance. Soon the only sound left will be the soft call of the lark in the hedgerow.
I look up again to the sky overhead and shield my eyes against the sun’s bright glare. Clouds are drifting in slowly but surely. It will rain today. And my summer, it is over.
Nirvana Chetty is a 5th generation Fijian-Indian, and a descendent of indentured laborers brought to Fiji by the British colonial government. She was born in Fiji but moved to Australia with her family in her early teens. She lived in a small village in Fiji, very close to the ocean. It was a somewhat an idyllic upbringing but frankly there wasn’t much to do once you hit a certain age as a girl but read books, daydream, and write. She's been writing since she was able to—her mum mentioned exercise books full of her writings. She writes mostly for herself as a hobby but have often wondered if she could be a real writer. After university, she worked in the Aust financial services sector until she returned to university to complete her masters. It is where she met her now husband, an American from Atlanta, who moved to DC for work. After a year of long distance, she moved to the states to be with him. she now works in the non-profit sector as an internal consultant and writes when she can catch a moment between work and a young family.