Anna is growing her hair out.
It is not very long yet, it barely touches her shoulders, but she wants to put it up for tonight’s going out, and she has asked her granddaughter to lend her a spare comb or a barrette. John is taking her to see a performance at the Odeon Theatre, the same play they saw on their first anniversary some forty years ago.
On the bedroom dresser, there is a photograph of them in front of the same theater, taken when the theater was new and they were young. Anna wears a black dress patterned with small leaves. Her hair is up. John, straight as an arrow, seems very much aware of what a handsome couple they make. The photograph is black-and-white when no one looks closely at it. It is full of color and noise, however, if one stares at it for a few moments.
John’s eyes are bright blue, the little leaves on Anna’s dress are green, and her hair shines, dark brown with some red brought out by daily rinsing with hibiscus brew. Ancient looking motorcars rattle the cobbles of the pavement, the roasted chestnuts merchant cries over his wares, and Anna’s laughter can be heard clearly over the din.
John is already dressed and is waiting in the living room, reading today’s paper, which he had saved for that purpose. He is not allowed into the bedroom until Anna calls him; she has a surprise for him. She is going to wear the very same dress she wore back then.
They both have kept most of the good clothes they have ever owned—the quality of the materials is just not the same anymore—so she has on the black dress patterned with pale green leaves. The dress had needed only a slight alternation around the waist, and the silk hugs Anna’s figure quite nicely.
Anna turns to one side and studies her profile in the mirror. She doesn’t like her elbows and tries to cover them with the sleeves, but they are too short for that. The combs and barrettes her granddaughter brought are spread out on the dresser. Among the cheap plastic ones, there are two that may work. One is made of silver wire. It has a large twirl in the middle and two smaller ones on both sides. The other is enamel-covered copper, dark green and glossy. It is shaped like a dragonfly. Anna reaches for it. It will go well with her dress and with her half-gray, half-brown hair.
“Growing out my hair has nothing to do with the incident,” she assures her granddaughter all of a sudden. She is not reading the girl’s thoughts— her granddaughter isn’t thinking about that. Anna is not even addressing her. She is saying it aloud so she can believe in its truthfulness herself, even though she knows that her hair has everything to do with the incident, no matter how hard she has tried to persuade the neighbors that it is nothing but a caprice. The incident still burns brightly like a candle on a shelf in her mind where she keeps her troublesome memories.
Anna and John have an exemplary marriage that was tarnished only once, and by no fault of theirs. It hadn’t been exactly personal, either, since all the men from the neighborhood were guilty of the same transgression. Half of the neighborhood still blames it on the Russian; the other half, on Mara the Deaf.
No one knows how the other women reacted to the common threat, but Anna stopped talking to John for three days, and only after he developed big, red blisters all over his skin from anxiety and fret did she break her silence: “So, you’ve been thinking about Mara the Deaf.”
He knew instantly what she meant. She was accusing him that in her intimate presence he was thinking about another woman.
Mara the Deaf was a tall, willowy woman who smiled all the time, even when alone. Since she was deaf, she was left outside the daily gossip, and that afforded her an aura of sainthood that was impossible to achieve otherwise.
Her innocence gave her a youthful look, and she was the only woman in her age group who still wore her hair long. She usually braided it tightly, but when seen loose, it was beautiful hair indeed, falling around her shoulders in honey-colored waves, the gray frothing on them as they went down. The rest of the women had terrible haircuts and chemical perms, coiling and uncoiling semiannually as they visited Leelah, the local hairdresser.
John didn’t fail to grasp the gravity of the accusation. There was a long, tortured silence. Anna even felt a little sorry for him and wondered what was on his mind. Possibly, he wished he had skipped his visit to the Senior Citizens’ Club that night. But he hadn’t. He had been there, along with the rest of them, having a peaceful game of tabla with his best friend, the Russian, when Mara’s husband had drawn the winning ticket for the raffle. He had won a bottle of twelve-year-old cab and a five-pound bag of last year’s crop of almonds.
bastard,” the Russian said in a casual manner. “And this on top of having a
“What’s so good about having a deaf wife?” someone asked.
“Well,” the Russian said, taking a long draw from his cigarette, a Chesterfield, no filter, “He could talk dirty to her, and she would never know it.”
The old gents laughed, as this was a good joke, but the thought of whispering dirty words in Mara’s ear had already started making its way into their minds like whirls of honey-colored smoke, frosted just a little with gray, and soon they found themselves thinking of nothing else.
For the next two weeks one could see John and the rest of them strolling around the neighborhood, buying the daily newspaper, or waiting for time to pass over a cup of coffee, with the dreamy expression of teenagers in love. If one met their eyes, one could see Mara’s face there, smiling her innocent smile.
How could they possibly think they would get away with that?
John had paid his reparations, one small token after the other, throughout the whole winter. He fixed everything that needed fixing in the house, and more than once he drove to the neighboring town to buy the best persimmons there were, for Anna was very fond of persimmons.
In the spring, he prepared her vegetable garden with utmost care. He attacked the soil with such vigor that the night crawlers ran from under his spade and sought shelter in the roots of the cassis bushes. He turned the soil over twice and fluffed it with a hoe until it started foaming like rich cream. It rained the next day, and the soil seemed to boil with impatience, effervescent with desire for the seeds and the small plants started indoors three months earlier and now wilting in the kitchen window.
Anna took pity on the seedlings. She planted them in the late afternoon so they could sleep in their new beds before meeting the sun for the first time. The soil was so ready to receive them that all Anna needed to do was to take the seedlings out of the plastic cups and place them in rows. With a distinct fizzing sound, the soil sucked them in, tightened around them, and settled still. Anna gathered the plastic cups and went in to start dinner, giving John, who had observed the scene from the back porch, only a small nod.
The memory of his expression back then—half hopeful, half forlorn—makes Anna smile. Her granddaughter wants to know why, but the evening sound of church bells comes through the open window, colliding with her words and changing their meaning, until it seems to Anna that the girl is answering a question, not asking one.
John walks into the room. “The taxi is waiting,” he says. He wears a double-breasted brown suit, a cream shirt and a silk tie, clipped with a silver, hand-made clasp.
Anna looks at him, hands the green comb to her granddaughter and takes the silver one instead. She pulls her hair back, twisting it in a knot, and pins it with the comb. With a little shake of her head, she makes sure the knot is stable, then she pulls John next to her and makes him look in the mirror. In the twilight, they look almost like they do in the old photograph. He, tall and straight as an arrow. She, slight and shapely.
The blue has faded from John’s eyes, and Anna’s skin has lost its translucent olive color, but in a way that doesn’t make them look old, just interminable.
They study their reflection for a long time, having forgotten the waiting taxi and their granddaughter’s presence in the room. The girl gets up to leave. On her way out, she reaches to turn the lights on, but Anna stops her. “Please, don’t,” she says. “We are going any moment now.”
A horn sounds outside. DSS
Stefani Christova, 54, of Longmont Colo., was born and educated in Bulgaria. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Big Bridge, Brutarian, Connecticut Review, DFI, Grasslimb, Raven Chronicles and others in the USA and Europe. She also has done a podcast, “The House with Twelve Rooms” by Jack Straw Studio in Seattle.
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