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Eight of Ellen Wilbur’s stories have appeared in The Yale Review. Others have been published by Ploughshares, New Letters, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her work has has twice been chosen for The Pushcart Prize.
From WTP Vol. VIII #7
The kitchen was orderly and quiet. You could hear the steady hum of the refrigerator, and for a while there was no other sound. In the morning light the empty sinks and painted cupboards were intensely white. At nine a.m. the sun shone on the copper pot that hung above the stove and flashed in the metal toaster on the counter.
Four chairs were pushed up neatly to the round kitchen table at the center of which sat a red glass bowl. The only piece of fruit left in the bowl was a banana. It was a brilliant yellow with no black spots on it, still firm although it had been two days on the sunny table and three nights in the dark. Another day would turn it soft.
Outside the window was a winter scene. The square back yard was deep in snow. Birds came and went from the bird feeder. Wind swayed the pine trees, and the shadows of the waving trees moved back and forth over the shining surface of the kitchen floor. The window rattled sometimes in the wind, and when the wind blew hard, a draft came in over the table, till the skin of the banana grew quite chilled. Then the wind died out, and the dust motes slowed and settled in the lighted air.
At ten a.m. a black cat padded across the floor, making no noise at all until it stopped by its dishes to lap at the water and nibble the remaining food. Soon there were sounds outside, the cat’s head jerked up, and it ran from the room just as the kitchen door flew open. A woman entered, and a burst of cold that whipped the kitchen air into a frenzy. The woman kicked the door shut with her toe. The table shuddered and the copper pot shook on the wall as she stomped across the floor, snow falling from her boots, carrying a grocery bag in each arm. She nearly dropped both heavy bags onto the table. “WHAH!” was the sound she made as she released the bags. Her purse slipped from her arm and fell to the floor with a small thud, but she swept down, grabbed the purse up, and hurried from the room, leaving a trail of snow across the floor. In a moment she was back with loafers on her feet. She’d taken off her gloves and coat. Now she began to put away the groceries. Many items went into the refrigerator and the rest into the cupboards she yanked open and snapped shut.
She piled the fresh fruits by the sink to wash. Then set a pan of water on the stove to boil. She switched the radio on, moved the dial from sound to sound until she found a marching band and let this stay. She turned the volume up, then crossed the room, picked up the glass bowl from the kitchen table, carried it over to the sink, removing the banana, which she placed with the other fruit. She scrubbed the bowl with soap and rinsed it with hot water. She dried it till it shone, and held it up to the light, so the deep red of the glass darkened her face. She washed two oranges, two apples, and two pears, and arranged them in the bowl, all glistening with water. The banana she didn’t wash, but placed it on top of the other fruit. She wiped the kitchen table with a sponge, and put the fruit bowl, like a centerpiece, upon it.
The water on the stove was heating up, starting to steam. The radio band marched on. The woman disappeared out of the room, but came back in a flash carrying two coffee mugs and two wine glasses balanced on a large, crumb-covered plate. She set the dishes in the sink. Rinsing the plate first, she put a stopper over the drain, squirted out some dish soap, and turned both faucets on so that the water poured out slowly. She paused for an instant, staring down past her white blouse and the glint of her gold bracelet at the kitchen floor, which was puddled with melted snow. She reached into a tall closet, pulled out a mop, and moved with heavy steps across the room. Holding the mop in one hand, she opened the refrigerator with the other, retrieved a slice of white bread, and let the door swing shut. She peered at the steaming water in the pan, then popped the bread into the toaster, and pushed the lever down as far as it would go.
Both faucets were still running, foaming up the soap and water in the sink. The woman mopped the floor. She hummed with the marching radio and then began to sing the melody in a high voice, bumping the chairs as she passed by, butting the table with her thigh in such a way that shook the water drops poised on the fruit so that they broke loose and rolled off the apples and pears down into the red bowl. The shadows of the pine trees reared and swayed over the shining floor and shimmered up and down the back of her white blouse, like a wild massage that she could neither see nor feel as she leaned forward, mopping the melted snow with rhythmic strokes.
Quite suddenly the woman stopped. She jerked upright. Her eyes had become wide and staring. Her mouth dropped open, and she let out a small cry. The braceleted arm flew to her forehead as she lurched sideways, still holding the mop, and fell hard against one of the kitchen windows. The glass broke with a shattering sound that made all of the birds in the back yard fly up together from the ground and feeder. The woman groaned. She raised herself, and managed to stand straight before she toppled forward and collapsed with her arms outstretched across the table, knocking two chairs onto their sides, sending the fruit bowl skidding off the edge, its red glass smashing into bits.
The woman’s body sank back on itself, like liquid streaming off the table, and hit the floor with a loud thud that made the copper pot up on the wall hop off its nail and clatter down onto the counter. There was a short click as the bread popped in the toaster, and the sharp smell of the toast was instantly dispersed and whipped away to nothing by the cold air that poured through the broken window. The woman lay on her left side. She was completely still. Only her hair was moved and gently lifted by the outdoor air that blew and circled past her.
The band ended its march, and in the room there was the sound of water furiously boiling, hissing at the sides of the hot pan, and dishes shifting in the sink, floating up or falling through the rising level of soap-covered water as it reached the top and poured from one sink over to the other.
By one p.m. the sky was cloudy. There were no shadows on the kitchen floor. The cat stood in the doorway, sniffing the cold air that filled the room. The water on the stove had boiled away completely, and the blackened pan gave off a burnt, metallic smell. Outdoors, the birds were back, filling the yard and crowding to the feeder. Their cries came loudly through the broken window. The cat moved into the room warily. She kept her body low to the floor as she moved forward with crouched, furtive steps. Sometimes she stopped abruptly, nervous and staring, as she wove her way across the strew of glass, pieces of fruit, and fallen chairs until she reached the woman. With a quick, bobbing motion the cat sniffed the woman’s face, moving her nose across the woman’s cheek up to her forehead and into her hair. She sniffed carefully and deeply, as though she had become oblivious to the cold room, the sizzle on the stove, and the water overflowing in the sink. Then the kitchen telephone began to ring, the red hot pan upon the stove let out a loud, explosive CRACK, and the cat leapt up and bounded from the room.
A man was speaking on the radio. Out in the yard it had begun to snow. Some jarring sound or unexpected sight made all the birds fly up together from the ground in a dark crowd, and in an instant they had disappeared from view.