Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: DAYDREAM (12/08/16)
By Ann Grover
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“Would you like your bread thickly sliced?” she murmurs.
“Of course, with plenty of butter.”
Anna laughs. “Naturally. And gooseberry jam. Or would you like apple jelly today?”
I can’t decide. “Perhaps both.”
Our coffee is strong and rich with cream, and we settle back to speak of other things. The cost of good knitting wool and whether lace curtains are a practical choice.
“Far better to have a simple cotton. Much easier to care for,” Anna insists, and I must agree with her, although I do love the charms of lace. “Besides, lace is costly,” she continues. “There are more important things. Food, for example.”
We share recipes for apple cake. Roast lamb, with rosemary and thyme and fresh mint. We fall silent, satiated by our words.
None of it is real. There is no bread. Or butter or jam or coffee. There’s only a drafty barracks, brimming with hungry, hollow-eyed women reeking of sweat and despair. But each night, as tired and cold as the other women, Anna and I share our fantasies, huddled together under our ragged blanket on the hard bunk. I hold her close, clasping her thin body to me. The beating of her heart thrums tremulously against my chest.
Anna works in the textile building, mending and sewing, sorting and folding clothing. The tedious work in the unheated shed pains her hands. My hands are rough, too, and my nails split and dirt-rimmed, for I work in the vegetable gardens. It is strenuous work, digging and planting and hoeing in the rain or the blistering sun. My legs and back are covered with bruises and scrapes.
One day, I have a treat for Anna. An ancient, shrivelled carrot I’d hidden inside my shirt.
“See what I’ve brought for your tea, dear!” I whisper as I give her the wilted treasure.
“A macaroon! How lovely.” She gnaws away slivers of the carrot, until her loosened teeth can bear no more, and she gives me the rest.
Helga, a once robust woman who’s dwindled to a gaunt and grey shadow, scolds us for our foolishness. “Why do you torture yourselves in this way? It’s silly imaginings. You know the way it is.”
“We must live as though we will go on living. Or we shall surely die,” I say.
Helga grunts in response.
Often though, in spite of her ruthless words, Helga entertains us, encouraging everyone to join her, singing, dancing, playing parts in simple dramas, and reciting poetry. We have a merry time, until the warden halts our impromptu concerts. Then it’s black silence, but I lay in the dark, drifting away from the stench and cold until sleep overtakes me, thinking only of my life as it was, as it could be, as it might one day be, not daring to think of the nightmarish horrors beyond the plank door. Or beyond this moment.
My wandering thoughts are my anchor and my solace. For Anna, it is more.
She coughs constantly, a dry cough that grates in her chest, leaving her weak and trembling, droplets of bright blood poised on her lips. She will not survive this hell. Whatever comfort our hopeless imaginings offer her are worthwhile.
She grows thin as a wisp of grass.
One evening, I ask her to imagine her wedding day. Her voice sparkles as she describes the Gibson style sleeves, a delicately scalloped neckline, the Cornelli lace fingertip veil. Satin-covered buttons. An armful of Arum lilies.
A glow radiates from her, a fever that both warms and chills me.
Her voice fades and she sleeps while I envision her in her finery, a portrait of joy and delight. The groom is but a nebulous figure beside her, a dim shape emanating kindness and love. Only the gentlest of men will do for Anna, a man who will cherish her.
The next morning, Anna lies cold and still in my arms. In the snowy dawn, we carry her out to the hand cart and lay her on the heap. I close my eyes and see not her emaciated nakedness, but Anna cloaked in a long coat with a fur collar, a leather valise clutched in her gloved hand as she steps into a carriage. In my reverie, she waves to me, laughing. “Godspeed, Anna,” I whisper.
Very soon, I shall join her on her journey.
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