A Taster

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A Sample Story from “Poisoned Petals”

A Taster of what is inside...

Winner of the 2006 International Story Writing Competition in English 'Anthology of Short Stories - Torrevieja, Another Look 2006'

It always amazes me to unearth the source of my stories. This one came from a gentleman, Ben Mol, who lived in Malawi. He used to keep a caged bird on his desk in Blantyre, and occasionally wild birds would come in through his open door and eat stray seeds. One in particular………

Duet for Contralto and Tenor

High in the hills, among the hillsides of thyme and rosemary, there is a small, white cottage, so white that it stuns the beholder. It is not big. It does not have to be - it is only big enough for two old people, a large but useless dog, a battle-weary cat and a canary.

Santos Martín Olivera had been born in the cottage some eighty years before and had lived in it with Inmaculada, once a glowing bride some fifty years previously, but now an old lady with the usual circulation and rheumatic problems. He, on the other hand, was robust enough for an eighty-year-old but confessed to being a little short of breath when heaving firewood or cultivating the land.

They lived in permanently peaceful harmony, seldom if ever arguing, even then only gently, always respectful of each other, each with specific tasks in the household. They had no television, no washing machine, no microwave and no car. But they did have a huge double bed, agéd armchairs, a fireplace big enough to roast a pig, scrubbed antique floor tiles, low beams, a well with a never-ending supply of crystal water and ten acres of land, on which Santos grew artichokes, chard, onions like footballs, some precious roses, almonds, oranges, olives and a few lemons.

Inmaculada kept chickens and two cows which gave them eggs and milk, and raised rabbits which she fed on comfrey. They lived sparsely, but well, and never starved.

When things were severe in winter, they merely tightened their belts, took solace in each others’ company and were the happiest couple on the whole planet. They needed nothing. For who needs anything at the age of eighty if he or she is still in love?

The passing of the years had given them the blessing of mutual love and respect - a love that would never perish or weaken, a love that would grow stronger and endure until, and after, one of them died. Their most fervent hope was that in the event of one of them dying, the other would pass on soon after, and not be left to aching solitude.

Santos had one special gift, fading now, but still glorious: he was a singer, a singer of cante jondo, the gypsy singing of Andalusia, the songs of love and passion, of beauty, of young men, and priests, of jealousy and death. When Santos was a young man, he would take a few glasses of prime sherry, and sing, one hand cupped under his heart, the other held out from his body, palm up, as if to say, “Here, God! This is my song! Take it!” He was a beautiful singer and when impassioned he could make audiences weep or roar. He could conjure up a range of notes from the depths of his soul and make them fly to the top of the skies.

But sadly, his lungs were not so flexible as they were before, his diaphragm had lost its elasticity, his vocal chords were feeble and harsh, and the singing muscles round his neck were weaker, far weaker than they were forty years before.

The dog was nameless, brainless, useless, affectionate, old and ugly. He was simply known as Perro and seemed to be part of the furniture. What he lacked in looks he made up for in good nature, and like his master and mistress, he was slow to anger. He had walked in to the cottage some years before, wet and cold, and “sort of just stayed”.

The cat was a thin hunter, with a fairly evil disposition and the scars of a hundred cat fights to prove it. He had been given to them by Inmaculada’s sister with the assurance that he would turn out to be a sleek, gentle addition to the household, but it was not to be. The dreadful creature was aloof and disdainful, hated strangers and caught rats and mice in the little granary. He would disappear for a couple of days every now and then and return looking as if he had been dragged through a car-wash. Inmaculada would have to comb the protesting creature and remove the thistles and burrs that had accumulated during his rovings.

The canary lived in a little cage in the kitchen. It sang from morning until night, hopping from bar to bar, bringing music and sunshine into the little room where Inmaculada made her casseroles, and cocidos, her tortillas and her farmhouse soups. It was a glorious singer, with a repertoire to delight an opera diva and a swooping range of notes and trills, with falling and rising cadences.
It was the special friend of Inmaculada. She would talk constantly to it when she cooked and pass it little bits of farm bread or a little scrap of food.

“How’s my little friend today? Can you see the sunshine? And look, there’s Santos on the hillside. He’s a good man, that. And are you a good bird? Would you like to try a little of my pastry? There we are! Oh, so you like it? Would you like another little bit? All right then, but don’t be greedy!”

The bird and the old lady were inseparable: she carried its cage from kitchen to dining room, and from dining room to bedroom, and from bedroom to kitchen. Its song would wake them in the morning and entertain them throughout the day. It was a delight and a joy to both of them.

And then one dreadful night in May, when the smell of the orange blossoms settled like a thick blanket over the land, Inmaculada died. With great dignity, no suffering, no shortness of breath, she just quietly died in her sleep. Amid the tears of grief that Santos shed were tears of joy that she had been spared the ravages of cancer or senility or any of the other afflictions that are the curse of the very old. He praised the Lord for taking her so easily and then retired into his personal torment, the torment of being alone without Inmaculada.

And then the canary stopped singing. With nobody to talk to it, no old lady to feed him tiny scraps, it lost its lustre and spent all day flitting uneasily from one little perch to another. The house was silent.

After a week of misery, Santos opened the door of its cage, allowing the bird to fly free if it so wished. It showed no signs of doing so, resolutely remaining in its little shelter, unwilling to leave the house it knew so well.

So Santos put its cage on the roof of the little shed, where the cat could not get it, and hoped that it would fly away to some sort of canary-based freedom. When he checked the cage the next day, the bird had gone.

Two more weeks passed, and Santos had reached the lowest point, the most miserable point in his whole life. He lived in a silent house, with an indifferent cat, a stupid dog and the spectre of silent loneliness stretching away until the Lord chose to take him. Feeding his wife’s rabbits and trying to cook were chores he hated, since every vestige of the rabbit-keeping and everything in the kitchen reminded him of his wife. He was haunted by pictures of her in her wedding dress, her in her farming dress, her in her Sunday dress, and her in her coffin. He could not come to terms that the partner of his life had slipped away, leaving him to wander aimlessly through the cottage, without direction, purpose or company.

He decided to write to his younger brother who lived outside Granada, to see if he would take him in as a guest for a week before returning home once more to the silence of the cottage. To this end he took out a bottle of ink, a fountain pen, some writing paper, an envelope and a stamp.

My dear Brother, he wrote. And then stopped as he suddenly heard a flutter behind him. A flutter of wings.

The canary, the non-singing canary, had returned. It looked at Santos through one beady little eye and then hopped closer until it was under the table. Then with a hop and a flutter it flew up and perched on the handle of the old wooden box where Santos kept his writing materials. Then, bold as brass, it went hoppity-hop and perched on the first knuckle of Santos’ forefinger.

The bird was not in prime condition and looked a trifle drab, but when it opened its beak and sang, Santos could hear that it was well. It sang as it had never sung before: it sang to Santos of waterfalls in Galicia, of the flat red plains of Extremadura, the snow caps of the Sierra Nevada and the sun on the sails of the fishing boats. It sang of hillsides of gorse, of the smell of fennel, of the wild garlic, and the hot dawns of summer. It sang of wine, and the sun shining through the sherry glass, of the blossom on the almond tree, and the candles of Semana Santa. It sang of whitewashed buildings, and oxen, and red wine, of youth and love and laughter. It sang as if every note was a diamond or a sunbeam, and Santos’ heart overflowed.

His lower lip trembled, and huge tears flowed from his eyes and down his chin and dropped onto the letter that he was writing. And still the bird continued to sing, finishing its beautiful concert with the characteristic call that it always used first thing in the morning. As it finished, it put its little head to one side, and fixed Santos with one beady eye, as if to say, “Beat that!”

Santos began slowly at fist, with his high-pitched cracked voice, but took strength from the fact that he could still remember the words, and breathed deeper. As he breathed deeper, his singing became stronger until it filled the room. He sang to the Virgin, he sang to his wife, he sang to the world. His shoulders straightened, his back stiffened and his stomach tightened as he took himself back fifty years into the world of gypsy music of the soul.

I am the little lizard sitting on the rock,
And you are my sunshine.
I am the little frog sitting on the river bank
And you are the rain.
I am a field of wheat ready to harvest.
You are the black grapes and I am the green.
You are all the colours of my rainbow.

Song after song burst from his lips, until he grew exhausted and stopped. The little bird remained perched on his finger and watched as the old man fell asleep in the chair.

That is how they found him the next day. The villagers thought it strange that Santos had not gone down to the village for Sunday church and had come up to investigate, only to find the old man, peaceful in death, still sitting bolt upright in his chair, a tear-stained letter in front of him, and the little canary lying on its back, its eyes closed, having sung its last song.
But Santos was still smiling…

Poison Petals Synopsis