BY LIISA KOVALA
Copyright is held by the author.
HELENA SAT at the open kitchen window, the early spring breeze a refreshing change from the stifling heat of the little house, and gazed across the snow-covered backyard. Her mother, Ingrid, always kept the furnace turned up too high. Her joints ached, she complained. Helena yearned for the long winter to be over so she could let out the stale air and breathe in the possibilities that spring always promised. She glanced around the small kitchen, cluttered with last night’s dishes. She’d had been too tired to clean up after tending to her mother’s evening demands: tea, cards, chatter, slippers, blanket, pills. By the time her mother was settled, she was too exhausted to do anything else.
Outside, she could just see the green bud of a crocus poking through the late spring snow. She imagined the work she would be expected to do in the back garden when it slowly emerged from under its oppressive weight. Not this time. Someone else would need to tend to it, she thought. Her phone buzzed against the laminate countertop. She glanced at the text and smiled.
“Helena?” Ingrid called out from her upstairs room in a high-pitched, sing-song style. “Helena! Are you coming up with my tea, dear?”
Helena sighed. She dumped the contents of her own mug into the sink and placed it on the pile of grimy plates. A fishy stench from the garbage greeted her nostrils. She had missed last week’s garbage pick-up. She must tell Mr. Fischer, the neighbour, to take care of it this week.
“Helena? Are you there, dear?”
“Coming, mother!” Helena cranked the handle of the kitchen window, closing the external world, with its cheerful chirping of the chickadees and the scampering of squirrels across the bare branches, from the stale interior of the house.
She poured some tea into Ingrid’s favourite china cup, the one with little flowers chains along the edge. It was slightly chipped, but her mother still insisted on using it, despite the new set Helena had bought her last Christmas from the box store downtown. It was the last one from her grandmother’s set, Helena knew, and family was important, Ingrid always reminded her.
Helena held the tea cup gingerly as she walked down the hall. She glanced at the suitcase by the front door, its handle pulled up as if waiting to be wheeled away. She smiled before turning to look up the gloomy staircase. Helena sighed. The treads creaked below her feet. A faint medicinal smell wafted down the stairwell. She pushed open the heavy wooden door to the dim bedroom. Her petite mother was almost encased under several layers of patchwork quilts on the heavy mahogany bed that dominated the room.
“Here you are, mom,” she said, as cheerfully as she could muster, and placed the teacup on the bedside table.
“Now, Helena. We must speak to Mr. Fischer about that garden. Once the snow melts, we’ll need to think about what to do with the patch of ground beside that old shed. Terribly unattractive. No doubt we also have creatures nesting there all winter. The Pattersons had those vile black squirrels last year. Do you remember? What a shame.”
Helena helped her mother sit up, fluffing the pillow behind her. She picked up one of the quilts, folding it neatly in long quarters and placing it lengthwise at the end of the bed.
“They made an absolute mess. We can’t have that. And what about the rosebushes? They will need lots of work this year. I don’t think Jimmy tended to them properly last fall. Do you, dear? If he would only pay more attention. He’s a good boy, but sometimes I wonder how he ever gets along.” Ingrid sipped her tea before reaching for a magazine.
“He’s not a boy, mother. He only tries to help.” Helena walked around the massive bed to the window covered in weighty lined curtains. They were shut tight with only a narrow stream of light managing to fight its way into the claustrophobic space. She took the edges and drew them open.
“Don’t blind me, dear. Close that one up a little,” Ingrid said, squinting against the bright sun. “Are you listening, dear? I was just saying the other day to Mrs. Appleby that the cobblestone path will need to be reset. Never has looked right since that boy tried to level it. What a mess he made of things. Maybe Mr. Fischer can help Jimmy get it right. Details, I always say. So lacking in young people today. They just don’t seem to care, and with me so helpless, you’d think he’d pay extra attention.”
Helena stared at the yard. From this height she could see well past the blanket of white covering the garden and frosting the shed. Her eyes wandered past the picket fence and over the narrow back lane to the houses on the next street, rose up over the rooftops on the horizon to settle on the pink and yellow morning sky. She smiled. She took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders.
“Helena, dear, please give me my pills. And don’t forget to call Mrs. Appleby. She’ll need to tidy those closets next time she’s in and shake out the mats in the front. I suspect they’re an absolute disaster with all of the sand and salt from those trucks. This house could do with a little spring cleaning, even if the snow refuses to admit its time has passed.”
Helena turned to face her mother. She had felt a fleeting sense of confidence before, but this time was different. This time she would not change her mind.
“Be a dear and give me my glasses, Helena. There is an article in this month’s issue of Garden that you simply must read. It’s about those nasty little creatures that eat up the leaves on the trees. What are they called again? Oh dear. I suppose Mr. Fischer will remember. We must get them under control before they destroy all of the new buds.”
I’m going away, mother,” Helena said. Her voice was so soft, she wondered if she had spoken aloud or only imagined saying the words.
“What? Today? Just remember to pick up some of that herbal tea Mrs. Appleby was speaking of last time. And don’t be late. I’d like my dinner early tonight. My program is on, you know.”
“I’m going to Toronto. I’m planning to find some work and take night classes. I’d like to go back to school, maybe get a degree. Do something useful with my life.” Helena folded a crocheted blanket as she spoke, placed it on the chair beside the bed and smoothed it out.
“Perhaps the pharmacy has filled my prescription. Do pick it up on your way home, dear.” Ingrid barely raised her head from her gardening magazine.
“I have a suitcase packed, mom. I’m leaving on the 11 o’clock bus. Mrs. Appleby will be here for your lunch. You won’t need to worry. I’ll call you when I get there.”
“Once the snow starts to melt, you can help me out on the deck. The warm air will do my aching joints some good. By summer, we’ll have a pretty garden to tend to and this endless winter will be a distant memory. I think I’ll pot a few seeds for the planters next week. They’ll do well inside until the frost ends. What do you think, Helena?”
“I really mean it, mother. I’m going to go and find my life. I’ve made arrangements for Mrs. Appleby to help you. She’ll stay in my room. Mr. Fischer will take care of the garden and anything that needs fixing. He’ll stop in to visit whenever he can. I’ll call every week.”
Ingrid put down her magazine. “What are you saying, Helena? Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t know a soul in Toronto. And why would a 35-year-old girl want to go to school? Nonsense. You would never leave your old mother to fend for herself. Now, do bring me my slippers, dear. That’s a girl. It was far too chilly last night. We must see to the thermostat. Perhaps Mr. Fischer can check if it’s working properly. My slippers, dear?”
Helena took her mother’s felt slippers from the foot of the bed and pulled them over her knitted socks. Ingrid flipped the pages of her magazine, murmuring once in a while, but Helena no longer heard her. She took the empty tea cup and left the room, closing the door gently behind her. A sudden heaviness entered her body as she trudged down the stairs, past her suitcase sitting expectantly on the landing.
The hours dragged as Helena washed and dried the dishes, swept the hall and folded the last load of laundry, occasionally glancing at the suitcase facing the front door. At 10:30, just on time, she heard the honk of the cab’s horn. Already dressed in her black winter coat and long boots, she rose from the hall bench, checked her reflection in the mirror and tucked a piece of stray hair behind her ear. She took one last look up the narrow staircase to the dim light seeping from under her mother’s bedroom door before turning the handle. She caught her breath as a cool gust of wind sprinkled her with a fine dust of snow from the rooftop. She paused in the doorway, allowing the sun to warm her face.
“Don’t forget my prescription, dear!” Ingrid called down the stairs.
Without turning, Helena breathed in the fresh air, lifted the suitcase over the sill and waved. Jimmy waved back, reached down to open the cab door and opened it with a flourish. Stepping into the spring morning, Helena beamed and closed the door behind her.