Monday, October 19, 2015

Third Monday with Bob Boldt

Vagaries (a short story)

By Bob Boldt

The photograph, by French director Chris Marker (1921-2012), was the inspiration for my short story. The image begins Marker’s 1983 documentary, Sans Soleil [Sunless]:
The first image he told me about is an image of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness – and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images but it never worked. He wrote me, “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
Three sisters play in an open field. The time is spring. The place is a farm in rural Kentucky. Their names are Madeline, 13, Karin, 9, and Zoe, 6. All are blonde and could be mirror images of each other at their respective ages. There is no school for them right now, this being the Easter recess. The play continues apace with the usual games of hand-holding dances and hide and seek. It is during one of these games of hide and seek that Zoe becomes lost. Her sisters look for her, first with the delighted giggles and mock chagrin consistent with their play and later with a concern that grows with the afternoon shadows. The sisters know that the farm is part of an ancient geologic history that includes the entrance to numerous limestone caves, for which their state has an international reputation.
    “I just know she wouldn’t hide in the cave.” Madeline tries to reassure Karin and herself.
    “Yes, but don’t you remember how yesterday she kept asking Papa about Oldman’s cave at dinner?”
    The girls decide to go again to the entrance.
    “Zoe! Zoooeeee!” The girls cry out in unison, cupping hands around their small mouths to direct the sound into the opening of the cave, barely larger than a rabbit hole in the ground. Nothing answers their cries except a cool and sinister dampness rising from the depths.

The sun is low in the sky when Papa is joined by men from the town with ropes, ladders, and lanterns, and the search begins in earnest. By now the two remaining sisters, overcome with guilt and worry, are tearfully retired to mother’s kitchen and the small warm comfort of hot chocolate.
    “Why didn’t you keep an eye on her better?” Madeline reproaches Karin.
    “Me! You are the eldest. You were supposed to watch both of us.”
    Their mother, whose eyes are as red and swollen as her daughters, enters the kitchen to make a large pot of coffee in anticipation of an extended search. No words pass between the three as if somehow the silence is an offering to the fates whose good offices are required for a propitious outcome. Across the kitchen table reproachful glances continue to be exchanged between the two sisters regretfully sipping hot chocolate.

The destiny of time and the world sometimes turns on the smallest action, often on the tiniest decision, the most seemingly insignificant misstep. How is the moment of realized disaster different from the moment that preceded it, or the moment that followed, when already there was no hope of redemption? If one could isolate the moment and shave it down to the decision to turn the face one way and not the other, to say the words “Be careful” or “I love you,” would anything be any the less lost for all time?
    The disappearance of Zoe, youngest daughter of Sean and Martha Burnham, destroyed a marriage that might have gone on until the parting at Death‘s door. It separated the surviving sister Madeline from her sister Karin. Alienated siblings are older than the Book of Genesis and are often caused by events as inscrutable as the whim and disfavor of an irrational God. In the case of the two sisters, however, the animosity seemed to be justified by a concrete moment of judgment made at a certain moment in time. As if scattered by the unseasonably rawboned gusts of that inhospitable spring, the family was blown to the four winds. Madeline moved to Louisville with Papa, who secured the foreman’s job at a printing plant, while Karin and her mother went to live with her relatives in Seattle. That might have been the end of it were it not for a chance meeting at the St Louis airport twenty years later.

At the airport coffee shop, Karin stared intently at the large mural celebrating the Heroes of Aeronautics that covered the expanse of wall above the utilitarian machines for the brewing of coffee and the glass towers of crème pies and cakes. She found herself thinking of Zoe while staring into the face of Amelia Earhart, who looked out apprehensively from the mural. Her thoughts returned to the depressing feelings of disappearance, loss, and pain she had successfully banished in the intervening years. Had she not been looking upward toward the mural at quite that moment thinking of Zoe, she might not have noticed the waitress who suddenly eclipsed the face on the wall.
    “Madeline!” exclaimed Karin in astonishment. The waitress had moved into position to fill her customer’s coffee cup and inadvertently replaced the image on the mural with her own.
    Madeline’s eyes darted up from the filled cup to those of her astonished sister’s. “Karin? How are you?”
    “I’m fine,” Karin said. She quickly recovered her surprise with a seeming reproach. “I thought I might see you at Papa’s funeral last year.”
    “No, I didn’t want to see any of those people,” she said, leaving a more precise definition of “those people” open.
    “I’ve got a layover on my flight to New York. Do you want to talk a bit? Can you take a break?”
    “I’ll see if Alice can cover for me. My break is in an hour.”
    Madeline went behind the back counter into the small kitchen and returned with Alice smiling at Karin. “Well, let’s take a booth,” she said, stuffing her apron under the counter.”

How often does one pass such a scene: two women sitting in a booth in an airport coffee shop? It is hardly worth notice, certainly nothing that might cause the turn of world events or even change the course of personal lives. One should never mistake the commonplace or the seemingly banal, for often just such small, insignificant meetings can govern the coming together of people painfully separated by fear and recrimination and reunited by tears and the bonds of a long-ago denied love.

Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

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