The Angel of the Stories by John…
About this Feature
John Simmons has contributed two stories, Angel Wings and The Lady of the Plates, to Shortbread. We're delighted to announce that we will be featuring the collection, The Angel of the Stories, which will be published in book form in summer 2011. You can read them here first in an exclusive 20-week serialisation. The book will be illustrated by the internationally acclaimed Anita Klein, in a unique collaboration between writer and artist.
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The Angel of the Stories by John Simmons: Episode 14
2 years ago
Julia returned home, carrying her jar of olive oil. She entered the courtyard, where the smell of Rosa’s cooking made her feel hungry. Julia and Rosa often spoke to each other now that they shared the watering of the pomegranate and the memory of the rose plate. Calling through the doorway, Julia offered Rosa some of the olive oil. They talked for a while about the harvest that had been so much better than expectations.
Julia climbed the steep stairs to her rooftop rooms. Having carried the jar from the farm, it felt heavier with every upward step even though she had poured out some of the oil for Rosa. When she set the jar onto her kitchen table and took off the cork stopper, she saw that the oil was still close to the mouth of the jar.
She used a little of the oil to cook an omelette, and then she knew it was time to write. She had seen and heard so much. The stories had flowed as easily as the oil. Now she needed to store them in her notebook.
The evening had come down darkly and quickly like a safety curtain. There was never much time here between bright day and black night, and Julia disliked the harshness of sudden artificial light. She poured a measure of the oil into a storm lamp, wondering what light it might give. She pinched the wick between her fingers, struck a match and placed the glass back over the flame that was sputtering in the breeze from the window.
The light was soft and fuzzy, golden with a tinge of green. It spread out from the table where the lamp stood but didn’t reach into the furthest corners of the room. Julia sat in the glow, took up her pen, opened her notebook and began to write.
* * *
At that time of year, the people of the town relaxed at the thought that winter was passing. Even though it was a short winter, the coming of spring meant so much: warmer, longer days and the spreading embrace of daylight. The differences in winter and summer hours were small but people still noticed them, counting the minutes from day to day as if moving grains from one scale to another. In the wintertime they yearned for more light. Slowly, pushing aside the days one by one, their wishes became visible in the earlier sunrise and the later dusk.
Each year the town celebrated this season, this distinctive winter spring, with the Night of Lights. This had begun within the living memory of the oldest townspeople who recalled over late-night drinks how the priests had at first resisted the festival. The priests argued that it was pagan, that there was no reason for such a festival. Where was it recorded in the scriptures? People shrugged. In answer they lit a candle. Soon the churches were twinkling with lit candles. The priests found it hard to argue.
Now the evening time on this same day every year was marked by lights and by a religious procession from one side of town to another, stopping at each of the churches. Men and women and children carried torches, candles, lamps, rushlights, lanterns, even embers of coal that were blown to a glow every few seconds. The people walked behind a statue of the Virgin Mary that the strongest men carried, and the statue was hung with lights. The priests blessed the statue at each church. The Mayor beamed at the front, as if lit internally by the glow of his pride.
Laughter bubbled in every part of the town, up and down streets that had lights burning in every doorway and every window, in every nook and every alcove. Later in the evening, in the town square, fireworks shot high and bright into the sky.
Julia watched all this from her rooftop. The fireworks whizzed past and exploded into the black sky in bursting flowers of every colour. Sleep that night was impossible. There was no covering of darkness, no pulling of blinds, no sinking beneath the blankets of night. Everybody stayed up and stayed awake, talking and drinking and singing till the first rays of the new day appeared in the west.
Then suddenly, as if in the fairy tale tableau, doors were shut, windows shuttered, eyes closed, and the town sank swiftly into a deep slumber. Only Julia walked in the dawn, through the now-empty streets until she came to the deserted square. There she sat in the middle, by the fountain, watching the light of the lone candle that still burned. Until it guttered, wax falling like teardrops down its sides, and the flame went out in a wisp of grey smoke.
* * *
Julia made her way home through eerily quiet streets, and she slipped into bed and sleep. The whole town fell into the deepest of sleeps, a sleep that lasted for twenty-four hours. When everyone awoke to bright morning sunlight, no one had memories of the day lost in dreams. But in their heads they all had vivid stories of the previous night.