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The fig trees in the back yard are growing old.  Last winter the tallest
of the trees died during the ice storms and this summer the leafing of
the others is thinning.  My farming neighbor tells me my trees have been
winter killed.

I remember when I would tie tiny presents to the tree branches for Cora
to find.  A lot of water has run under the wooden bridge of the brook
since the gift trees.  The stony shores of the lake where Cora and I
swam have been paved for the launching of boats, but the unending
pattern of seasons through our rural farming community continues to
comfort me.

In the early seventies there was one theater, one Laundromat, and one
gas station in Lavonia Georgia.  Every couple of years the town lost, as
though careless or indifferent, family owned businesses till there were
very few enterprises left.  So, the inhabitants set their sights on one
another.  And in the fall of 1972, Cora and I became the object of
everyone's attention.

Cora Baudelaire was sixty-seven when I fell in love with her.  She was
in appearance tiny, wispy and sinewy, and her countenance was full of
mischief.  Members of the local Woman's Missionary Union commented often
on her wardrobe, which is the kind that might have been used as costumes
in a stage play.  She wore purple, long necklaces, feathers, and gave
the impression of a great actress of silent film.

Having dared to live free, Cora was not like the town's folk,
unconsciously imprisoned by the commonplace.  To be in her presence was
to have the sense that it was your birthday and to want adventure and to
do things that can't be done.  Even Reverend Guster was rumored to have
said, "Ms. Baudelaire's company is better than a month of Sundays."

I first saw Cora in my backyard plucking figs from the lowest branches.
I watched her move from one limb to another as if dancing - something in
her gestures moved me profoundly.  I remember she was singing "la ling,
la ling, rosa ling a ling" as I approached her.

"What are you doing?"

"I happen to love figs," she replied.  And in that moment, I was the
only living boy in Lavonia.

"Join me?" she asked extending her arm toward my mouth, a fig held
loosely in her fingertips.  I took a bite and swallowed the pulp of the
fig, smelling its sweetness on my own breath.

My hands circled her wrist and I immediately understood how she would
feel in my arms.  Each time she stopped speaking, I tightened my grip
and I felt her lean toward me - the gravity of curiosity pulling her
into my orbit.

Looking back, our first meeting seems preposterous, but in that moment
it was as if an unreasonable happiness sprang up in me making all things
possible.  I became the freest version of myself, dizzy with creativity
and confidence.  I felt as if I wanted to express myself, not with my
mouth, but with my arms and legs and my body.  Electricity ran the
length of the cables of tendons in my legs and I danced without the
labor of thought.

Those days, Cora did precisely what made her happy: she ate figs in my
backyard, danced with the breeze-blown shirts on the clothesline,
skinny-dipped in the freezing intoxication of the lake, and loved me - a
twenty-six year old boy.  We spent the fall of '72 under heaven's
awning, the stars full of mythology and the firmament full of the gods.
During the day we watched the ludicrous shapes of clouds pass silently.
We lashed our days and nights to adoration and made every moment a
honeymoon.

Our love was discovered the last day of September by Timmy Buskin, a fat
fourteen year old scamp who peeked in my windows and pinched spiders,
smearing their innards on the glass.  He spied us in the gazebo by the
brook one evening pulling leaves from raspberries and kissing the juice
off one another's fingers.  It was dark and the candle between us
flickered, was extinguished by its own wax.  When my eyes adjusted, I
saw the Buskin boy peering at us from behind the trunk of a tree.  I
gasped.  The boy ran.  Cora laughed.

Members of the Woman's Missionary Union were scandalized by the news of
a clandestine relationship between a man and a woman forty-one years his
senior.  The widow Etta May Boffard was the first to share the news.

"Let us pray for Ms. Baudelaire and the boy who lives on the Dunton
estate; I've just learned there's been an 'indiscretion.'  Timmy Buskin
put the matter beyond doubt."

"I thought as much," declared Mrs. Warner, "Cora is insanely happy."

"'Insanity is incurable" replied the widow Boffard.

"So is sanity," quipped Mrs. Podhaskie the church organist.

"It's a shame to joke about such matters" replied the widow Boffard with
a generous urgency.

The fresh eruption of the town's atmosphere had thrown everyone off
balance.  Citizens of Lavonia tripped on sidewalk cracks and collided
with conspicuous corners when passing us, but Cora didn't notice.  I,
however, saw every dark look hiding behind beige faces and lacquered
smiles.  And it infuriated me.  Once, I sent an empty claret bottle
flying, a wheel of glass, into the street where, in the profound
afternoon silence, every inhabitant of Lavonia could hear it shatter on
the tarmac.

October brought its one day when people said that it felt like winter.
The sky was ragged grey and the town's streets breathed a faint odor of
decay.  I woke and Cora had gone leaving a simple note on an empty,
opened envelope:

"The fig trees are dying - winter killed.  Cora."

Today, I sit in the gazebo among my dead and dying fig trees,
reflecting.  I've long since stopped feeling guilty about spending so
much time here.  In fact, I've stopped feeling guilty about a number of
things, including my love for Cora.  I learned when I was a boy that our
eyes see upside-down, and then our brain has to turn things
right-side-up, maybe there's a message in that.  And now that I'm
sixty-three and Cora is long gone, I remind myself that no one has been
able to make a camera that doesn't see upside-down.

 

Eric Bennett lives in New York with his wife and four children.  He loves the scratchy silence between songs on a
vinyl record and the silence between movie previews.  His work appears in several online literary and art journals
including Bartleby Snopes, LITnIMAGE, Ghoti Magazine, Bewildering Stories, and PANK.




Winter Killed has been without a home since May of 2009.  Rejected more than any story I've written, I'm grateful the editors at Foundling Review adopted the little bastard. It was, however, not a  straightforward adoption. Originally, Cora Baudelaire was discovered in the backyard eating figs stark naked.  And the editors at the Foundling rejected the story finding it "too unrealistic."  I suspect the numerous rebuffs at other publications were for the same reason but the editors at the Foundling Review were kind enough to actually let me know.  So, after donning some clothes, Cora was finally accepted.
 
While the version published here is less jarring than the original, I have an affinity for the original story.  Surely someone somewhere would wander nude in a neighbor's orchard.  Right?

  


Copyright 2009