The cottage was small, with warped wooden walls and windows bearded with draping moss. On that particular day it rained, and the rhythmic plonk, plonk on the tin roof was the only sound. Not even the birds were out that day.
Her neighbors were the trees nearby, and she’d been alone for so long that sometimes she found people in them, imagined them coming to life. The pale birches were old ladies huddled together, sipping tea and gossiping. The ancient oak groaned and creaked in the wind, like a war veteran. The chinese maple was a young child, sniffling under her umbrella, having lost her mother in a busy village market.
Perhaps, in times gone by, such people — real ones — had visited her little hutch. She had a vague recollection of children running, of laughter and of smiles. A little blond boy tugging on her tabby cat’s tail, a sister who’d grown old alongside her with laughter lines in her eyes and a hunched back. A man with gnarled bones, coughing up blood and yellow pus, like sap draining from the old faded maple.
Then again, perhaps things were best left in the past.
She rose from her chair, a wooden thing worn down until it didn’t need a cushion to be comfortable, and set her saucer of tea in the sink. She moved to clean up, grasping the soap, but her eyes caught a flicker of red outside — nothing much, just a fox.
The flicker didn’t come back that day. She stood at the window, slowly washing all her good china. The teacups, stored upside-down, collected dust in the tiny rim at the bottom, and usually she got the urge to clean them right before she needed to use them. Her two prides in life were serendipity and preservation — and she sought to maximize both.
For an old woman, days go by extremely fast and incredibly slow. The simple things become epics, the long contemplations become haikus. She cleaned her teacups. Some of them were footed, and had small blue designs of vines and leaves on them. Of her four teacups, two had long since lost their golden accents on the insides of the handles; it had been rubbed off from use. Two still shone.
She dusted the mantlepiece and straightened the portrait of a man in long breeches, a military-type uniform, with bronze buttons and a triangular hat. She waltzed with her coatrack, an old thing carved from a branch of the maple tree. She made her bed and her dinner, then ate one and slept in the other. Preservation.
The next day the door knocked. Perhaps it was not entirely the door, but in the woman’s mind there couldn’t possibly be a person behind it. (There was.)
He had fiery red hair and sparkling hazel eyes and ruddy cheeks and a grin that tried to be toothy, but he was missing a few and talked with a lisp, and as soon as the woman opened the door she couldn’t help but gasp slightly. How long had it been?
“How old are you?” She demanded. He was her height, but she’d shrunk a good deal in old age, and her back was not as straight as it used to be.
“I’m eleven and a half.” He chirruped. “I think.”
She ushered him inside, and brought him a blanket. The mornings in the forest were crisp, the grass crunched like fresh green beans and the air carried the scent of earth and mud and sunshine. Sometimes, there were snowflakes, but usually not.
The boy was wearing a linen shirt with no sleeves, but good thick trousers. His boots were the softest of leather and must have belonged to his father in the past. He plopped down on the rocking chair; it dwarfed him.
“My husband built that chair.” Explained the woman as she gathered her shining china and prepared some tea. “Or perhaps he wasn’t my husband, I’m never entirely sure.”
The boy kicked the rocking chair back and tipped it precariously, then swung vehemently. The rocking chair gave a squeal of protest and the old woman smiled wryly.
“I’m Emmanuel.” The boy explained, sucking on his knuckles. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not sure yet,” replied the woman. “Perhaps that’s why I’m still here.”
“Are you very old?” Asked the boy.
“Oh yes.” Sighed the woman. “You can call me the Granny, if you’d like. Some people used to call me that, I think.”
“But I already have a Granny, I think.”
“If you have a Granny, where is she? Why aren’t you with her? Here, come to the table.”
Granny put the tea set down on the table and handed him the small cup. She poured the tea and added a lump of sugar.
“Yes, please, Granny.” So she added milk. They sipped their tea quietly.
“Emmanuel,” Granny began. “Would you like to stay with me?”
He pondered this, sucking on his reddened knuckles some more.
“Will you give me a lump of sugar to eat?”
“Certainly not,” Said she. “That’s terrible for your teeth, and you already have so few.”
He thought for another minute.
“Alright. Can I play in the garden now?”
The cottage was small, with warped wooden walls and windows bearded with moss that had grown to touch the ground. On that particular day it rained, and the rhythmic plonk, plonk on the tin roof was the only sound.
After so long, it was quiet once again. It had been many years since the last quiet.
The birches were still standing, although one had been cut down to make way for a small dog house some years ago. A dogwood grew up in its place. The oak had lost a few branches but was sturdy and strong, bent under the weight of a tree house. The chinese maple had grown older but was still small and beautiful. Laugher anew built upon the old.
People had visited her, in times gone by. She had a vague recollection of a child running, of laughter and of smiles. A little redheaded boy tugging on her dress and hammering into that dog house, growing up to slave over that treehouse. An adult man in too-small leather boots, nearly worn to the bone, red hair tucked under a cap, leaving for some time.
A redwood, the thickest and sturdiest of all her trees, growing stronger every day. The bark was dull and world-worn, but little drops of sap glistened like hazel eyes. She placed the small leather boots beneath it. Preservation.
The next morning, she cleaned her teacups. Serendipity.