Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ship of Dreams

Ship of Dreams
Author: Fred Miller

She sat slouched in a granny rocker, her hands in her lap, the chair stirring in a gentle sway. Her head turned, her ears alert to what she thought might be footsteps in the hallway. And for a moment a haunting stillness filled the room.

“Why, Alison, what a delight to see you, my dear! And just in time for tea.”

“Bertha, set out another cup for my niece…thank you. That will be all, Bertha.”

“What a splendid surprise. Let me look at you, child. Why, you’ve grown into such a lovely young lady. And I just adore that dress. You know, your auntie wore dresses such as that when she was young. Can you just imagine?”

“Your mother and father, they are well, I trust?… Good. You know, Alison, afternoon tea has been a tradition in our family for generations. Indeed, my mother often entertained at high tea. And a number of socials took place in this grand parlor when I was your age. Ah, I remember the hats—cloches, toques, peek-a-boo brims. And bonnets and boaters in the warmer months. And, oh yes, perfumes wafting from porcelain necks and delicate wrists. Lilac and lavender were my favorites. Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for these events. Mother had a weakness for social news shared, if you will. Had no qualms in vetting the suitability of available young men for my matrimonial review, regardless of how far into the future that might be, and what shortcomings would eliminate most.”

The old woman paused and pursed her lips. “Many memories have been pirated away by time, my dear; some forever. And others reappear at the oddest moments. Oh dear, they do come in clusters, you know. Never evenly spread like the hours on that clock you’re admiring. Want to know more about auntie’s clock?”

“Well, of course. How often does one see a fine timepiece set in the hull of an antique model ship? Many dreams may have vanished, my dear, but none relating to that unique clock.” The old woman smiled, her eyes lost in a world of memories.

“After guests had departed from mother’s teas and the servants had cleared the china from the parlor, I was allowed to play with this ship on the very rug beneath your feet. What? Oh, yes, of course it’s Persian. And the colors and designs were just perfect for my schemes, you see…the soft blues fused with jagged indigo waves that appear out of nowhere and plunge toward unseen threads. Can you see this, dear?”

The textures in her cheeks seemed to melt as she smiled, her eyes swimming with excitement. “I navigated that ship over untold distances, steering toward mysterious islands with mountains rising into billowing mists. Such was the imagination of my youth,” she sighed, “and I took the revelations of those voyages along with me once the time had come for suitors to call.”

“Well,” she touched her lips with a boney finger, and the runners on the rocker came to a rest. A glimmer in her eye suggested forgotten scenes aborning, “Never quite arrived at any of those islands. Searched for ages.”

“Mother continued to extol the virtues of patience and perseverance. I listened. I tried. Oh, how I tried and I knew what life lesson was being taught. My hands and heart propelled that ship of dreams across uncharted latitudes from every compass point imaginable…on courses to unfettered adventure, innocence abandoned,” she giggled. “Well, as time bore down, I found my compass missing as it were, set adrift, I suppose. Deviations found no safe harbor as I’d hoped. Castor and Pollex, elusive to your auntie, my dear, hidden in the fogs of heaven. Your mother, my sister…she understood the game, understood it well…knew just how to play the men.” Her eyes followed a dust bunny of uncertain origin as it frolicked across the floor, first hesitating, then jerking to and fro in a metronomic pattern between light and shadow.

Her eyes brightened. “I coveted that vessel and the mysteries it wrought. And I should imagine it’s not quite proper to admit this, but ’tis the truth. Steered in a mad sense of urgency, it rolled over tempestuous seas in a delirium of expectation.” Her voice began to soften into whispers. “Those gales frequently subsided with sighs…oh, the rapture of those brief encounters…against the rules, you know. Mother would have just died if she’d known. But I recall the tunes I hummed thereafter and the thrills accompanying those voyages through dreamy fogs.” She was silent for a moment, her eyes attempting to gain purchase on an idea. “Allowed those boys explorations I was sure would bring one closer…abiding…my dreams fulfilled.” Lost in thought she gazed across the room, then blinked.

“You know, Alison, a girl’s dreams are her life, her resolve fortified by potentials yet imagined.” She stared down at her small feet, her brow wrinkled. Then with a twinkle, “Alison, have you turned your attentions toward men? Well, of course you have. You needn’t blush for your old auntie…sweet Alison, so like your mother. Well, your auntie wishes to share a few truths about men with you. They’re no mystery, my dear, no mystery at all.

“Hmm, let’s see. How shall I put this…oh, yes! Much like efforts in the kitchen. You’ve seen water boil? Well, of course you have. Then you know you cannot be too eager or it will never boil. Nor can you even pretend a passing interest or it will never reach the desired state. Men are much like that, my dear, yes indeed.”

“And you’ve seen your mother prepare meringues? First comes the heated task of beating egg whites, mixing the ingredients and such…a fervent affair, perspiring at times, but, oh, what results are in store: delicate milky caps. Oh, men just love the touch of the delicate…positively sends them into frenzy. And they do become ravenous. Oh yes, passionate romances can be much like the preparation of meringues, my dear.”

“Let’s see. Well, silly me. How could I forget? And much like cookies. You’ve baked cookies, have you not?…Good. Then you know if you pull them out of the oven prematurely, the consistency expected is quickly lost, and if you allow them to tarry too long…oh, horrors, dangerous if one does not mind the time.” The old woman narrowed her eyes and mumbled to herself, “…can’t afford to get discouraged, just can’t.” Her eyes widened as if some distant object she’d waited ages to see had appeared. Then her eyelids eased shut, her head gently drooped forward, her lips moving, “A mystery, such a mystery, but your mother, she understood…knew just what to do.” The rocker awakened with a quickened pace.

“Why, my dear Alison, your tea has grown cold while Auntie just prattled away. Bertha! More tea for my niece please…thank you. Alison, won’t you try one of these lemon teacakes? They’ve a divine tartness I so treasure. No? Well, a young lady must watch her waist, I suppose. But you, you shouldn’t be concerned…not with your hourglass figure.”

“Well, I wondered what lay beyond those distant horizons. There’s something mystical, about the fear and excitement of the undiscovered, like searching for clues that accompany expectation, promises that color a young girl’s imagination…promises to be kept.” She hesitated, shaking her head, “My plans seemed to have gone adrift, lost in untold mazes…my, my.”

“Hmm, never noticed this before, Alison. The colors of the seasons are in this rug, all of them. Why I’ve never seen this before is beyond me: the autumn foliage here, winter’s barren scape there. How could I have missed this? Ah, a rainbow…or is it a late season flower? You see this, too, my dear? Are you quite sure?”

The door behind her opened, and a woman in starched white stood rigid on the polished tile floor with a hand on the doorknob, the other holding a small tray. “Time for our meds, Miss Emma.”

The old woman, seemingly lifeless, stared blankly at a small vanity just beyond her reach. The fruition of her life lay spread on an embroidered linen: a sepia photograph of a young girl in a confirmation dress, a model ship alist with a broken clock, and a single votive candle reduced to a puddle. And on the wall hung a faded print of a beach scene with two young girls waving at the camera, their hair astir in the breeze.

She sat very still, unaware of the nurse’s voice echoing from the bleached walls of her nine-by-ten world. Her eyes appeared fixed on unknown vistas, her thoughts frozen in solitary isolation. A single tear slipped down her cheek, hesitating on the edge of her chin as the nurse held out a cup of water.


Fred Miller was born and raised in Mississippi and currently lives in South Carolina. He is a retired Wall Street executive who holds two university degrees. His first short story was published in 2003 and he has been published in Puckerbrush Review, Oxford Town, and ScarlettRosebud. His short story, "Executions," has been accepted for the forthcoming edition of Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and "The Parade" will appear in an upcoming edition of Cantaraville.