with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Sparrow, An Exercise in Rewriting (fiction by Lorelle VanFossen)

During the summer of 1999, while we were still living and working temporarily in Greensboro, North Carolina, clueless of the whirlwinds that were about to strike us down and lift us up and deposit us in Israel, we took a writing course. Of course, not your average writing course. This one was for writing and selling science fiction presented by Simon Hawke, author of more than 50 science fiction books, including various book series such as Shakespeare and Smythe, Time Wars, and The Wizard of 4th St, and various Star Trek novels.

One assignment was to learn how to rewrite – to edit someone else’s work by rewriting their story. A novel story idea was presented by one of the students, but unfortunately while it was a great idea, it was horribly written. We were to take the idea and rewrite it, keeping to the story idea but making it better. I don’t remember the story specifics but there was something about the story of a woman who dreamed of living her dream and having it backfire in her face with a vengeance. I thought about how chasing our dream affects the people around us, often unwittingly, and before I had even driven the twenty minutes back to the trailer from the college, I had written the story in my head. Two hours later the following story was written.

I feel obliged to tell you that while I am a prolific writer, fiction just ain’t my thing. I dream stories, I fantasize about writing fiction, but when it comes down to the doing, I stick to the facts of life and find that much more entertaining. So this is my first, and possibly only, fiction ever published. The teacher was so spellbound by it, he made me read it in front of the whole class, much to my embarrassment. After all, I know my limitations. Brent was so proud for me when the teacher’s only comments and criticism was “That had better be in the mail to the New Yorker tomorrow. It’s wonderful. Don’t change a thing.”

Two days later Brent informed me of the job offer in Israel and our life went flip flop. In the mayhem, I printed out extra copies and put one in our stuff to go to Israel, gave one to Brent’s parents when we arrived in Oklahoma, and emailed one to my mother. Months after our arrival in Israel, I still couldn’t find my version and my mother hadn’t saved the email I sent her. I asked Brent’s parents to look around for their copy, having wiped out two hard drives within a day or two of our arrival in Israel, including our backups. Three years later we visited them in Oklahoma and I went through their papers and found the story. Amazing. After three years, it is still good. And no, I haven’t sent it out, but I am publishing it here, just for you. Let me know what you think.

The Sparrow,
An Exercise in Rewriting
by Lorelle VanFossen

The thunk of dirt hitting the coffin was the signal for the keening. Tio Jaime hadn’t much money left, but he had come up with enough to pay four old women to keen for his dead wife. The high pitched whines crawled up my neck, and my shoulders rose to block the sound. I couldn’t look in the hole. I didn’t want to look in the coffin earlier that day, but Mama had insisted. One look from Mama and I knew my orders. I followed my brothers and sisters to pay tribute to the dead body in the box. I had walked the line but Mama didn’t see how I had kept my eyes closed or adverted, blocking out the body in the box. I glanced at Mama now and her head was tilted to one side, looking out over the lawn of tombstones. She wasn’t looking in the hole either.

Oh, the sound of the women. Dressed in shabby black dresses, hats and veils covering their faces, they had come in late, in time for the lowering of the body into the ground. I wanted to challenge them on their lateness and disrespect. After all, this was a job and there were certain standards to be kept. But how do you criticize keeners at a funeral? Tía Elvira deserved better. I could see her now, sniffing her delicate nose in the air with a slight roll of her eyes at their shoddy attire.

“These women have no respect for their position,” she would sigh with a slight shake of her head and a tug on her white lace gloves. “Angelica, you must learn from their example. Always dress the part and play the role with class, no matter what the part. After all, you certainly couldn’t imagine Queen Isabela washing dishes,” she would softly snort with a smile. “A queen must look and act like a queen and a dishwasher should look and act the part as well. We are what we look like. Never forget that, mi niña.”

So I lived by her words, her many words of advice to me as I grew up. Today I dressed the part of the grieving teenager at a funeral, complete with black lace on my hat and dress, black gloves, black stockings, and even black shoes. She would be proud of me, though irritated, as the keening drifted off key.

The crying sounds changed from high pitched whines falling up and down the scale to gargling sobs. Oh, Tía Elvira, how you would hate this funeral. I can’t even hear the priest as he is mumbling. You would raise one gloved hand and call out, “Speak up, my good man!” No one would question you or be embarrassed by your request, since you usually said what everyone was thinking anyway. “Why do people think one thing and say and do another? Mira mé, Angelica! Make me this vow: You will always speak your mind, but do so not just from your brain but from your heart.”

Beside me, Mama fumbled with her purse, her black gloved hands slipping on the catch. I reached for it with one hand and unsnapped it. The delicate onyx beading gave a sparkle in the afternoon sunlight against the fine black silk. Oh, Mama! I couldn’t believe Mama had chosen that purse to bring to the funeral. I looked up into her eyes, weary from making all the arrangements, up all night cooking the meal we would soon go home to eat, the house filled with family, friends, and strangers. She pulled a handkerchief from the fragile purse and dabbed a cheek under her veil.

The first time I had seen the purse it was dangling from the delicate gloved wrist of a woman standing beside Tío Jaime as he made his announcement to the family, but my eyes were absorbed with the glitter of the dark bag dangling between their two bodies as they stood close together. I leaned sideways from my chair at the dinner table to peek through my two sisters’ bodies. The bag caught the light of the candles on the table like the eyes of an animal caught in the light at night, its golden dark glow made the bag seem alive.

When Tío Jaime had finished his announcement to the family, I heard gasps all around. Not paying attention, I looked at Mama.

“Your wife?” Eyes wide, one hand slapped against her immense chest and the other flew to her mouth, tight with anger. “What is this!”

Tía Elvira would explain later to me how each person in my family had their role in life. She proclaimed that Mama was The Echo. She would always repeat the last thing said, then pounce on it with many exclamation pointed comments. “What is this!” “What do you mean by this!” “What are you thinking!” “How could you!” All questions but never questions, just pronouncements of guilt, leaving the recipient to immediately defend themselves. As the largest person in the house, she didn’t need many words to intimidate. One look from Mama could command an army. You obeyed instantly when The Look caught you reaching for the cookie jar or taking that one fatal step into the kitchen with wet clay stuck to your shoes.

Papa was pacifier in the family. He hated to upset Mama. He was the one to step into all of our sibling squabbles, hushing our loud voices or rushing to the baby’s side to calm his whimpering cries in the night. While Mama guided us toward clean bodies and souls with the Look, Papa read long stories and told amusing tales at bedtime, filling our minds with magic and adventure. Elvira called him the “Now, Mama” man.

“Now, Mama, I’m sure Jaime can explain all this after we’ve all had some tea and gotten to know this fine young woman.” Ever the gentleman, he stood up to offer his chair to the woman with the black beaded bag.

Stepping forward into the candle light, I finally noticed the woman behind the bag. Slightly long and as thin of face as body, she glided over to the chair and floated down onto the cushion. Papa slid her chair in closer to the table and I watched in amazement as she slowly and gently tugged each finger of her glove straight out from each finger, one at a time, and after the fifth finger, she grasped the middle finger of the glove and slid it ever so gracefully off her hand. Until I met her, I thought everyone just peeled gloves off as I did, turning them inside out. As she spoke to each person in turn, she would arch her long neck, leaning closer to the speaker. Her voice was soft and musical, riding the scale in a light manner, never harsh or too deep. Her long fingered hands brushed the air as she spoke, conducting an airy concert.

“My wife was an opera singer,” Jaime’s deep baritone announced to the family.

For a moment, I was sure I saw her eyes widen with fear, but when I looked again she was smiling and laughing a breathy crescendo of notes from high to low. “Why, amanté, I am still an opera singer.”

“Would you sing for us now?” Mama’s Look took aim at the side of my head, but my eagerness danced myself out of its path.

“Oh, yes!” Little Betina clapped her pudgy hands with glee. “Musicá, musicá, musicá!” I wanted to yank the lacy baby cap off her head and tug on her dark curls for her silliness, but held back, wanting to make a good impression for this fine lady in our unruly midst.

“But mí pajarocita, you are my wife now. You don’t need to sing.”

I will never forget that moment. The elegant and charming swan shrank in her seat. Her graceful hand motions became awkward angles, stiff and forced. Her head bowed, eyes on the beaded purse before her, fingers picking at the beading. She became a pretty little bird, as my uncle called her later, her wings clipped inside the cage.

The only moments I saw her regain her proud bird posture was when she was alone with me, explaining the ways of the world. When Mama would bustle into the room, Elvira would become a small flighty bird, a caged sparrow, her eyes darting here and there with quick movements, the grace gone.

“You must live your dreams,” she would instruct me softly but insistently in the rare moments of free flight. “Don’t let anyone catch you and clip your wings. Life is too short, it must be lived. A moment lost is a moment never replaced. Remember, each day lived is a day lost, so treasure each one before it is gone.”

I asked her frequently about her singing. While her eyes held shadows beyond the glitter, she would tell me about her mother’s many luncheons for her women friends. She told of charming them with her little arias. “She would dress me all in lace and finery for my shows. And they would clap and clap when I finished. Ah, the applause. I will hear that again someday, mi niña, someday when I go to Italy for training.”

“To Italy for training! Whatever for!” As she cringed, so did I. I sounded just like Mama.

Thankfully, Elvira ignored my slip and recovered quickly, her hope stronger than mine. “Yes, Italy. That is where all the great opera singers must go to train and perform at La Scala. It is where I must go.”

She would weave magical stories for me about the wonderful voices in the famous Opera House. Once I mentioned Elvira’s dreams to Mama.

“Italy to sing! Whatever for! What a fool that parajocita is. A greater fool is your tío for marrying such a frail and silly creature. Enough said!” She proclaimed, driving her thick fist into the white clump of bread dough. Her whole body quaked with the impact of the punch, and I backed up, awaiting the Look. But she put all of her Look and energy into the kneading of the bread, her mouth tightly pierced against any more discussion. I and the subject of Elvira’s pending voyage to Italy to study opera were singularly dismissed.

Elvira’s hopes and dreams became mine. Tío Jaime got promoted at work as lead salesman, spending days which turned into weeks away from home. Elvira filled the time during his long absences with much vocal practice, directing my fumbles at the piano as she stood alongside, tall and straight, chanting out her ah, aaeehs, eees, oohs, and ooos. After several scales she would add an “m”, “p”, “n”, and even a harsher “k” to the beginnings of her vowel tones and repeat the scales. Up and down, up and down, then up here and down there with some dancing in the middle. I loved the ways she would twist her voice around the notes to make them come alive. I often imagined our small salon was actually the grand La Scala opera theater. I could see Elvira gowned in the finest lace and hoops, gliding across the stage, arms outstretched as she called out in song to her lover who was abandoning her, then falling to her knees, disconsolate at the loss.

Elvira had a way of making all our fantasies real. “Imagination is only limited by your reality. If you believe it is real, it is. If you believe in it enough, it becomes real.”

I wanted to believe in her and her dream of Italy. I knew she could do it. With her lovely delicate voice, she could have thousands of people cheering and screaming for more, tossing bright red roses up onto the stage, shouting “Brava, bellisima, brava!”

Tío Jaime found her a few months ago, our parajcita had not only fallen, her wings were broken beyond repair. Draped in meters of the white lacy froths Tío Jaime loved to dress her in, the ghost of the Elvira I knew lay dying upon her old bed in our home. Her wings were stilled. Jaime reported that his hired detective finally tracked her down in the theater district of Madrid, a seedy part of town not known for its compassionate residents. Even Mama dared not give him any of her famous Looks when he explained how Elvira had not made it to the stage but for one walk-on bit part as a dead person in the Elysian Fields of Orpheus and Euridyce. He had found her cleaning up after the dance hall entertainers. Elvira had never made it to Italy, running out of money in Madrid, unable to even get to Valencia for her boat passage to Italy.

“Why did you leave us?” I had to ask the frail white bird. I was three years older than when she had last seen me, but I had remembered her lessons well. “Always ask the hard questions first, mí Angelica. Then the rest of the questions will all fall into place and seem easier.”

The voice that answered wasn’t the musical lilt I remembered. Her voice was harsh and breathy, hopeless and defeated. “I didn’t leave you, Angelica. I traveled to find myself, not lose you.”

“That makes no sense!”

“Ah, but it does, young one. I needed to try. I needed to escape the gilded cage.”

And so she had finally escaped. The keening women had now quieted, with only a whimper or two for show. Their ten minutes were almost up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them shifting in their chairs, anxious for the funeral party to move to our home for the feasting. They would gobble up the food Mama and the other ladies of the neighborhood had worked so hard on, then sneak more into their huge thread-worn bags to take home to their pitiful families.

Mama started rocking back and forth beside me. I knew this was the clue that she was about to stand up, needing the rocking motion to propel her up, over and onto her bad knees. Automatically, my body rose with her and my hand shot out to stabilize her.

The priest faced us with solemn gestures in the air to accompany his mumbling. Heads bowed and I stared at the beaded purse clutched tightly in Mama’s hands as if to balance her over her thick legs.

One of the few possessions Tía Elvira had taken with her and brought back was the beaded bag. I had seen it on her dressing table many times over the last few weeks as I came and went with food and water, watching the beads, only slightly dulled with use, sparkle in the candle light as I would lift a spoonful of soup towards the crushed bird in the white lace. She would usually turn her head from the food and from me, except for those rare occasions when the sparkle would return fleetingly.

On one such occasion, she noticed me eyeing the purse. “Before I met your uncle, I was engaged to be married to another man.”

I was too stunned to speak. This was such amazing news. I had so many questions boiling around in my head. She only answered a few of them, her voice so soft and weak. “He was very rich. He bought me that purse after I spotted it in a window at Che Andres. It is a small exclusive shop on the Gran Via in Madrid. Only the very richest of our people go there. The purse was made in Italy.” She coughed softly, pain etching her face. “His wife returned from the south a week later.”

My eyes blinked from the purse to the frail sparrow in front of me, her dark hair spread out against her lace covered pillow, her skin the color of a winter’s dawn, pale, cold yellow with tinges of gray from the fleeing night. How could she have been engaged to a married man? Did things like this really happen? I thought they were only tales in books, the kind Mama forbade me to read. How did she find out he was married? Why didn’t she give the purse back? How did she even meet him in the first place? It isn’t proper for a young woman to be seen out and about with a married man while his wife is away. How did – I held my tongue as I watched her eye lashes flutter to her cheeks. Her small mouth, once heart shaped and always smiling, now tight and pale, sagged open slightly as she drifted off to sleep. So many questions I had.

A couple days later I paused in the hallway outside of Tía Elvira’s room. Through the slightly open door, I could see Mama sitting in my usual spot on the edge of the bed. She held the purse in her thick hands. I stepped back, startled, spilling a drop or two of hot soup onto my hands. I bit my tongue.

“How wonderful to have an admirer who gives such gifts to you.” My mother was trying not to sound snide. She’s not a mean woman, she just acts that way.

“But Angelina, you have had many admirers, too.” I could hardly make out Elvira’s words. I leaned in closer to the door.

“Don’t be foolish. I have no admirers. Well, maybe once.” Mama’s voice got softer.

“See, you were once young and beautiful.”

“No, I was once young and skinny. Now I am fat and old. But I was never beautiful.” Mama once skinny? I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine her thin, young, and I certainly couldn’t visualize her as pretty.

I watched Elvira reach out a frail hand. Against Mama’s thick arms and fingers, Elvira’s fingers looked like toothpicks. “I bet you were beautiful. I am sure you had at least one great admirer.”

“You are a silly thing, Elvira. Okay. If I strain my head, I might remember a time – a time when I was desired. But I never had an admirer who would give me such lovely gifts. Why did you not go with him? What a fine catch he must have been.”

Elvira retracted her hand back into the layers of lace. “It was not meant to be.”

“Ah, such things happen. Jaime is not so bad a catch. You could do worse.” Mama moved to replace the beaded bag but Elvira stopped her.

“Please, Angelina, keep the bag. It will look lovely with that black dress you have with the lace around the collar. Keep it to remember me and to remember when you were young and admired. It is a good memory to hang onto.”

I watched Mama look down at the bag on her lap. She smiled. I blinked. Sure enough, she smiled. The corners of her lips lifted and I actually could see the tips of her teeth. I couldn’t remember ever seeing Mama smile.

“Yes,” she sighed, a weary sound from deep in her soul. “It is a good memory to hang onto. You rest now. The child will be in to bother you soon.” I stepped back from the doorway and made a coughing sound. “See, here she is now.”

When I stepped into the room, Mama’s smile was gone and the purse was hidden within her thick skirts.

Now, the purse was on display in Mama’s hands. Even with the sadness of the funeral, I wondered if it did remind her even a little of when she was young. “You are only as young as you feel, mí niña. If you live your life without anticipating growing old and dying, death will hold off and wait for you.” Elvira’s words rang in my head as I watched the sparkles dance around the beads.

Elvira, you grew old while you were still young. Why did you give up? Why did you not stay young? “Angelica, remember to live your dreams. Have dreams worth living, and live them to their fullest. Then you will stay young.” You gave up on your dreams, didn’t you, mí tía? You took your chance to fly free and someone shot you down. But not me, mí tía. I will not allow my wings to be clipped. I will not be put in a cage. You taught me well and I will live my dreams.

As the priest began his final words, I raised a gloved hand and called out, “Do speak up, my dear sir!”

© Lorelle VanFossen, Greensboro, NC

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