Thursday, June 7, 2018

Nice to Meet You, Valerie, by Silvia Divékyová

Ella has never attended a funeral before and now she is supposed to mourn her scary grandmother, but she does not know how to mourn her. Instead, she wanders off following a cat and finds herself in a forest, where she meets beautiful Valerie.

Ella thought it was very odd. Why would they showcase a dead person like a cake in a bakery? Her grandmother had never been sweet nor she had she had the looks to be displayed like a sugar doll Ella wanted on her birthday cake. Studying the stiff face of the wax-like old lady in the coffin, she realized there was something strange about it. Grandma was certainly scarier when alive, but now, her skin was somehow shrunken around her cheekbones and her mouth. Ella finally realized what was amiss and started crying. The funeral home had forgot to put grandma’s teeth back in. Her dad tried to hush Ella, but he himself was so distressed by the situation that he let her go outside to calm down.

Ella walked from the cold hallway to the sunlit cemetery and wandered along a path between the graves. She did not care much where she was heading and soon, she lost herself in the labyrinth of fake limestone, plastic flowers and comforting words. A white cat was laying on one of the warm graves, enjoying the sunshine. The cat noticed Ella, but was way too comfortable to move a paw. Ella was caught up in a memory of another day at the cemetery.

Grandmother had taken her there some time ago to light a candle at grandfather’s grave. He had passed away before Ella was born, so she never got a chance to meet him. There was a picture of him glued to the gravestone, his hair tangled and fuzzy like Ella’s.
“I bought my place next to your grandfather the day he died. Death has parted us and it will join us once more.” Ella could not understand what her grandma was trying to say and she did not ask more. Maybe grandma had been a warmer person before grandpa died, maybe she had tried to brush his stubborn hair as she did with Ella’s. She hated brushing her hair.

Ella was hot in the black dress and stockings her mother had made her wear. She tried to find some shade and came to a fence where a huge oak tree grew. She decided this was the spot to rest before the burial songs sounded off. The white cat walked past her, carelessly swishing its tail from side to side, and disappeared through the fence. This caught Ella’s attention.
Crouching down, she spotted a hole in the fence. It was not big enough for an adult person to squeeze through, but it would be enough for her. She had just turned eleven, but was rather tiny for her age. And although she was small in size, she had the itchy feet of an adventurer. She did not have to think twice (not that she ever did) before crawling through the hole, cutting her stockings on the sharp wires. Standing up, she found herself next to a creek which wound into a wood. The cat was nowhere to be seen.

She took off her shoes and the torn stockings and laid them on the grass. Carefully, she stepped into the ice-cold water and watched the stream embrace her ankles. Maybe they should bring her grandma here. Take her out of the coffin and put her into the electrifying water. But her grandma is an angel now, although probably not a very popular angel. But other angels do not judge, or at least that was what Ella hoped. 

She caught a glimpse of something in front of her. At first, she thought it was the cat or a shadow, but then she realized shadows are grey and this was way too colourful to be a shadow. Not thinking even once, she started after the sudden movement, water splashing around her. Before she knew it, she was deep in the wood and the creek was becoming thinner and thinner until she reached its source – a tree from which the water spouted like fireworks. She could not see anyone anywhere and so she sat down and drank from the spring.

“Hello. Have you seen a white cat?” a voice startled Ella and she started coughing. In front of her stood a tall, beautiful girl in a plain white summer dress with black braided hair. She looked sixteen, but Ella could never guess ages right. Her feet, bare like Ella’s, looked hard and dirty.
“Yes…I mean, no!” Ella blurted out feeling intimidated by this encounter. Talking to strangers scared her, maybe because her parents told her not to talk to any. “I saw a cat going this way, but it’s gone now.”
“Oh, I see.” The girl gave a sigh and fixed her eyes on Ella. “Who are you?”
“I…I’m…I’m not supposed to tell.” Ella blushed.
The girl frowned, puzzled. “Why?”
“Because bad people are out there. Out here, I mean. You’re probably nice, but I shouldn’t be talking to strangers.”
“Okay then. I’m Valerie. There. Not a stranger anymore.” Valerie gave Ella an amused grin. “Now help me look for Bianca.” Valerie did not wait for Ella to give a sign of understanding, she just set off deeper into the forest, her feet touching the ground lightly, naturally avoiding branches and sharp stones. Ella watched her with amazement and then stumbled forward to catch up to her.
“I’m…Ella,” she panted, trying to keep up with her longer strides. “I’m not from here.”
“So why are you here?” Valerie asked.
“My grandma died. She lived here. Maybe we will move to her house for the summer.” Valerie nodded, but said nothing. She stopped dead in her tracks and listened for a moment, then choose to go left. Ella followed.

After walking a few minutes, they emerged from the thick forest onto a meadow. It was full of thistle flowers and among them was the white cat Bianca, jumping around, trying to catch one of the thistles swaying in the soft wind. Ella chuckled. Bianca noticed them standing on the edge of the forest and stopped playing around. Obediently, she walked towards Valerie and then jumped onto her, using her claws to climb up Valerie’s dress and onto her shoulders. The cat buried its head in Valerie’s hair and purred.
“Apology accepted,” nodded Valerie. Ella watched them fascinated by the connection.
“I always wanted a pet, but we live in a flat and my parents won’t allow me one. They bought me a neon tetra fish Peter, but he jumped out of his aquarium when we weren’t home and dried to death.”
“I hear you’ve had many loses in you’re family,” mused Valerie. “Are you sad?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” Valerie tilted her head to one side, puzzled. There was a clap of thunder in the distance and the skies were turning dark grey.
“Well. Peter didn’t talk much so…”
“And your grandma?”
“She was scary and very quiet, but she made herself clear if she didn’t like something I did. She didn’t like happy songs. She said they weren’t real. She said I had to be tough to survive in this world.” There was another thunder clap, and the strong wind swished through the thistles.
“She is right, your grandma,” said Valerie indifferently, but then she smiled. “Are you hungry?” Ella nodded, realizing she was starving. “Come with me, Ella.”

They walked through the meadow to the other end of the forest where a wooden shack stood. It looked new and sturdy, made of the forest wood and leaves. Ella loved it at first sight. It had no door but a piece of cloth covering the main entrance. Droplets of water started falling on Ella’s face. She imagined her cheeks are a sizzling pan and closed her eyes.

“Come on in.” Valerie urged her inside and let the cloth fall behind them. A strong herbal scent filled Ella’s nose. Thunder shook the earth underneath. Inside the shack it was almost pitch black. Ella heard a match struck, and faint candlelight filled the room.
There was an old wooden table and three stools, shelves filled with herbs and flowers lined the walls. The scent was so strong Ella sneezed.
“Here you go.” Valerie took some apples from a wooden barrel and put them on the table. Ella loved apples. She took a bite and tried to chew silently. “Did you make this fort yourself?”
“A fort?” Valeria frowned. “No. My future husband built it for me. I helped. I made the door,” she nodded in the direction of the cloth. Only now did Ella realize there were thistles embroidered on the cloth. Another thunder clap sounded, closer and louder and Bianca recoiled in terror, jumped off Valerie’s shoulders and hid under a sheep skin on a wooden box next to the barrel. The sound of rain filled the room.
“You have a future husband?” Ella felt her face blushing again. Valerie’s beautiful face smiled.
“Of course I do, don’t you?”
“I haven’t thought of it…yet.” Ella felt a little embarrassed for not having a future husband. Maybe if she was as beautiful as Valerie…
“You’ve got time, I suppose.”
“Can you make my hair look like yours?” asked Ella quietly, touching her own fuzzy hair. Her mom kept it short to make it easier to brush.
“I can’t make it look like mine, because it’s yours. But I can make it pretty,” she nodded and pushed the bundle holding Bianca off the box. She opened the box and pulled out a hairbrush and a wooden framed mirror. She put it on the table, mirror side down. “You can look later. Be patient. Beauty takes time.”
Valerie started brushing Ella’s hair, untangling the knots gently. Ella began to nod off, but managed to keep her eyes open. “So you live here?”
“Here? No,” laughed Valerie. “This is just my hide-out. I live down in the village.”
“Great! Can I come and play with you when we move here?”
“Sure, my family lives in a house across from the church.”
“Really? So you must be neighbours with grandma!” Ella jumped up excitedly.
“Maybe. What’s her name?”
Ella became silent, thinking. “I don’t know…” she whispered. “She’s always been just grandma. I mean, she was. I mean, is.”
Valerie finished her work and turned the mirror to Ella. Her hair was braided from her temples to the back of her head, creating a tiara-like shape. “See? You don’t have to look like me to be pretty,” Valerie smiled.

Ella’s shoulders started trembling. “I don’t know her name,” she sobbed. “I don’t know grandma’s name.” Bianca jumped on the table and nuzzled up against Ella’s cheeks. Valerie sat down next to Ella.
“You’ll find out, don’t worry. And then we can spend as much time together as you want,” Ella lay down in her lap and let Valerie stroke her hair.
“You’ll have to help me find a husband. And teach me how to make my hair look pretty.” And then the rhythm of the rain and soft hum of Valerie’s voice put her to sleep.

Ella was woken up by a loud “meow”. It was Bianca, playing with a strand of her hair. When Ella took the wooden framed mirror from the table and the frame fell apart in her hands.
“I’ll have to fix that,” she thought and noticed her hair was a mess again. With a sigh she stood up and looked around. Valerie was nowhere to be found and the storm was over. Bianca jumped off the table and looked back at Ella. Ella followed the cat, thinking Bianca would bring her to Valerie again. After walking back through the wet grass and the damp forest, she found herself by the cemetery fence.
“Oh, maybe she went home,” she said to herself. Her stockings and shoes were where she had left them. Bianca disappeared through the fence and Ella followed hesitantly. Why did Valerie leave without a word?

The rain-washed gravestones were shining in the sunlight. Bianca led Ella out of the labyrinth and back to the funeral home. Ella’s parents were standing outside, shaking hands with other black-clad family members. Ella’s father walked over to her and looked at the white cat. “Where have you been all this time?” Ella wanted to explain all of what had happened, but her dad did not listen. His eyes were fixed on Bianca and Bianca stared back at him. After a moment, the cat gave a sudden meow and left.

“Grandma used to have a cat like that. When I was a boy. But I can’t remember its name,” remarked Ella’s dad, matter-of-factly.
“This is Bianca. She belongs to my friend Valerie!” smiled Ella, happy to announce that she had a new friend.
“Oh, really? That’s great…” Her dad spaced out again.
“Dad?” Ella tugged at his sleeve.
“Yes, sweetie?”
“What’s grandma’s name?” Ella looked at him with her huge, pale-green eyes, as if she was about to discover something amazing.
“Anna. Her name was Anna.” All of a sudden, Ella felt a pinch of disappointment. The name was so common. She thought something would change if she knew her name. But it did not.

Then they went to grandma’s old home to have the burial-feast. Ella wandered among the mourning family and then hid in the room she used to sleep in when staying at grandma’s. Through the window, she tried to find Valerie’s house. She could not wait to meet here again. She noticed Bianca walking in circles under the window and let her in. Bianca jumped inside and sat on a wooden chest next to the window. It was just like the one in Valerie’s shack, but bigger and fancier, with beautiful metal clasps and ornaments. Ella had never thought of looking inside, but now she felt a wave of curiosity washing over her. Bianca jumped off the lid and stared at her. Ella sighed and then pushed the heavy lid up. Neatly folded, there were table cloths, old curtains and bed sheets. Nothing interesting. She browsed through the rough textiles until her fingers brushed over something smooth and cold. Ella traced the edge of the object and then pulled it out. It was a black-and-white wedding photo of her grandparents. They both looked happy, grandpa with fuzzy hair around his face and grandma with a beautiful smile and a thistle flower in her hair. In the corner of the picture, there was a short inscription.
Steven Choleva and Anna V. Choleva, June 3rd 1958. Her grandma did not look scary at all. Ella felt her body relaxing, not only because she realized her grandma had not always been an awful lady, but also because her name had not been just Anna. And her popularity with the angels had just skyrocketed, in a sense. Ella smiled and scratched Bianca’s back. The cat purred and nuzzled up against Ella’s knees.
“It was nice meeting you, Valerie.”

1 comment:

  1. plastic flowers
    artificial flowers
    fake flowers for wedding
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