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Eastern Sunset 

The day Suzanna fell in love was the same day the sun rose in the west and set in the east.  It quite disconcerted her as she ate her breakfast cereal.  Every day of her life she had seen, or half-seen through clouds, or imagined through rain, the light radiate from behind the cement factory in the morning and retreat over the foothills beyond her back yard.  But today, the factory was flat and heavy, while the hills were shimmering with promise.

She set off to work wondering if anyone else had noticed.  But no one said anything, not on the radio, nor at the corner store where she stopped to buy a paper cup of coffee, nor in the squat red building which was the school.  She sat in the staff room at recess, under the skylight in a space with no windows, and waited for someone to speak.  Meanwhile, the light traveled slowly across the skylight from right to left, instead of left to right.

Suzanna had once seen a black crow flying upside down.  That was the day Sweaty Mike first made love to her, lying on the hard floor of his flat bed truck, a sharp object in the small of her back as she looked up at the sky.  She thought of interrupting him to point it out, but then she let the moment pass.  Later, as she picked tiny bits of hayseed off her skirt, she tried to tell him about the crow. ‘You had your eyes open?” he asked, incredulous.  And that was as far as their conversation went.

Mr Aitcheson, the history teacher, got up from his usual chair.  A little stiff in his bones, it took him a moment to straighten himself.  The morning sun, from its new and unexpected location, shone onto his cheekbones and glinted on the steel rims of his spectacles.   For the first time, she noticed that his eyes were the color of gooseberries.   Suzanna loved gooseberries.  Her mother made the best pie crusts in the county, her father always said, and a gooseberry pie with its buttery sweet pastry and the tart pale fruit beneath filled them all up with airy, unquestioning happiness.

“Do you care for gooseberry pie, Mr Aitcheson?” she asked.

Mr Aitcheson paused as he gathered up his belongings.  “Why, Miss Granger, I don’t believe I’ve tasted gooseberry pie since my wife passed”, he said.

There and then she resolved to bake Mr Aitcheson a pie.  She would bring it to school tomorrow, golden and redolent with sunshine, an unexpected gift.  All day, as the sun journeyed on its hazardous backwards course, and her students coughed and nudged and whispered, and the startling change in the universal order of things went unremarked, Suzanna pictured the pie in its white fluted dish, aromatic and warm, waiting for her touch.

That evening, with the sun flushing the eastern skyline, Suzanna took a pat of butter from her fridge and put it in a warm pool of light to soften.  She measured out flour, sifting it high in the air, and salt, throwing the last grains over her left shoulder to keep the devil at bay.  Then she cut the butter with a heated knife blade that slipped through it like silk.  Lastly, she rubbed the mixture lightly between her fingers, making crumbs out of fat and flour and salt until it was ready to be melded with water into a smooth, shining ball of dough.

The gooseberries were frozen.  She had picked them last summer from Mike’s mother’s garden.  Mike’s mother said she didn’t know what to do with them all, there was only so much jam a family could eat.  So Suzanna took a basket and filled it to the top with the shy, prickly fruit, looking under the leaves for the ones that were just turning yellow.  Now she put them in a pan with sugar and orange peel.  Mr Aitcheson’s wife might not have known about the orange peel.  Perhaps she had just made the pie plain, or put in a commonplace pinch of cinnamon.  Perhaps she had never looked into his eyes and thought ‘gooseberries’.

While the berries simmered and bubbled with joy, Suzanna unhooked her grandmother’s rolling-pin, wooden and smooth, worn down by years of handling.  She ran her finger along it, remembering her grandmother’s face, floury and glowing, as she pummeled dough with her large red hands.  Suzanna had the same oversized hands; she bought men’s gloves in the winter to stop them becoming raw with cold.  But they were practical, alright; not dainty hands for rings, but strong hands for baking.

Patting flour onto the table, she began lovingly to bend the pastry to her will, pushing and turning it into shape.  She cut a strip and pressed it firmly around the edge of the dish, imprinting the whorl of her thumb into the pie, over and over.  Then she poured in the soft, sweetened berries and fitted the circle of pastry above them, sliding it over the chipped black china crow which pierced the crust in the middle, its wings tight against its sides, its mouth open to let the steam sing out.

As the pie grew golden and fragrant in the oven, she watched the sky turn from pink to red to magenta over the cement factory, and thought of Mr Aitcheson and his straightened back and the fine lines around his eyes.

The next morning, the sun resumed its normal place.  In the staff room, Mr Aitcheson stood up from his customary chair with startled thanks, the light no longer glinting on his spectacles from the right side of the skylight, but on the back of his graying head from the left.  Even so, when he took the pie in his steady hands, she could see that his eyes were indeed the color of gooseberries, because this time they were looking directly at her, lit up from within by an extraordinary delight.

Finalist, Short Story Contest, IN THE SNAKE magazine, January 2012

 

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