WEDNESDAY: The Pineapple Lady

BY SUZANNE BURCHELL

Copyright is held by the author.

“CRAZY PINEAPPLE Lady come out to play, leave your pineapples you hoard all day. How many pineapples does she have? 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . .”shrieked the young girls as they skipped madly near the great house with the widow’s walk atop the upper storey. The girls would laugh and taunt the pineapple lady with their skipping game on their way home from the local school. Hiding behind a lace curtain high above in the window of the widow’s walk, the Pineapple Lady, whose real name was Elizabeth, watched them. She had never had children, but she knew that they meant no harm. Long ago she too had played these skipping games.

Children of the fishing village sang and taunted Elizabeth every opportunity they had. The Pineapple Lady was the wife of Captain James. She lived alone in the stately Victorian house overlooking the harbour. The top room was known as a widow walk because it’s where sea captains’ wives went to watch for the return of the ships. Elizabeth would watch the skipping girls and listen to their taunts, while longing for the return of James. If the children saw her they would scream and run away.

Everyone in the village knew Elizabeth kept one fresh pineapple by the door to welcome Captain James home should he ever return. As well, the children had heard their mothers speak about the house being jammed with pineapple figurines of every kind, including porcelain, wood and marble. There were thousands of pineapples now on window sills, in cupboards, on tables and on the furniture. There was no room for anyone to sit or even stand should they visit. But then no one visited Elizabeth anymore for they feared her mental condition was not stable. Such a sad and sick hoarder, the gossiping mothers would say. The mothers added that Elizabeth was crazed with grief. They spoke in hushed voices fearing for themselves when referring to the dead husband.

Elizabeth and James had once been the envy of all who knew them in this coastal town. Elizabeth was a beauty beyond words and James was a young successful sea captain wealthy and staggeringly handsome. They were a couple that fairy tales were made from. Elizabeth’s Aunt Florence had introduced the two at a summer church supper. Captain James had been in port unloading exotic spices he had brought back from far away. He named his schooner From Away.

The courtship of Elizabeth and James was short for upon the first meeting they knew they were meant to be together forever. For the next 10 years James and Elizabeth lived in a marriage of the deepest love. James had purchased the grandest house in town for Elizabeth — a gift befitting a prosperous captain to present to his bride.

Whenever James left port Elizabeth would run to the widow’s walk and watch until his ship disappeared over the horizon. She always kept a fresh pineapple in the house to give to him upon his return. James would return with a trunk of fine exotic gifts for Elizabeth from wherever he had travelled. Elizabeth would delight in silks, printed books, perfumes, fans, spices and fine china. Elizabeth never used these treasures. She kept the precious trunks in the widow’s walk. There were ten trunks in total. On foggy days Elizabeth would sit packing and unpacking the trunks slowly touching each gift James had brought her. She imagined James choosing theses perfect exotic presents. She tried on soft leather gloves, smelled the spice jars and teas and let her mind travel to these destinations that James had sailed to. She fanned herself with delicately painted rice paper fans from away. Always she carefully repacked the trunks exactly as they had been when James had brought them into their home. Some day she knew he would return with another trunk just for her.

It was 15 years since James had last sailed back to Elizabeth. The first year Elizabeth kept herself busy and accepted the absence as just part of the life of a captain’s wife. By the end of the second year Elizabeth feared the worst and began frantically collecting pineapples hoping these talismans would bring back her dear James. She passed the time packing and unpacking the trunks and touching each gift that had been touched by James. She spent hours and whole days sitting on the window sill of the widow’s walk room looking out to sea expecting to see his schooner. She refused to believe he would not return. She believed their undying love would never allow him to leave her a widow. Their love could not possibly end in her life time.

The collection of pineapples became an obsession. Boxes of pineapples came to her by mail and special courier. She travelled to the nearby cities for she had bought every pineapple figurine in her little town. Elizabeth even sailed herself to Boston to collect rare pineapples shipped from the far east. She hoped the exotic pineapples would have a special power to bring James back. Each week she had a fresh, real pineapple delivered to her regardless of the cost. The fresh pineapple waited on a small table by the front door to welcome James home. This had been their ritual since his first return from the sea.

At the beginning of the 16th year of James’ absence Aunt Florence called on Elizabeth for afternoon tea. In the cramped room, Aunt Florence came straight to the point.

“James is gone for good and that is that my dear. A woman of your breeding moves on. You must accept that.”

Elizabeth remained silent. The door bell rang. It was a parcel. Elizabeth opened the parcel straight way. Inside was a small porcelain pineapple. She smiled.

Aunt Florence grabbed the pineapple and hurled it across the room and smashed it.

“This too must stop. You are crazed Elizabeth,” Aunt Florence had screamed these words as she threw the fragile object.

Elizabeth rose quietly and began to pick up the pieces of the porcelain pineapple placing each piece back gently in the wooden box the pineapple had arrived in.

All the while Elizabeth picked up the pieces she smiled and whispered, “He is coming back I know now.”

Elizabeth did not see her Aunt leave. Aunt Florence could not bear to see her niece in such state of denial. Florence would see the doctor and look to having her niece committed.

For the next month Elizabeth ordered new dresses. She began to give away all the pineapples much to the dismay of all who knew her. She kept but two pineapples — the one that had been smashed to bits and the fresh pineapple by the front door.

Sixty days to the day the small parcel had arrived the front door opened as Elizabeth knew it would. There in the front hallway by the fresh pineapple stood a frail man with one arm missing, heavily bearded and leaning on a cane. Without a word Elizabeth ran to her husband. James had sent the package and she had known this despite the fact here was no note or explanation. James had been a prisoner in a far off country. A kind guard who could not read or write had secretly mailed the parcel after James’s escape.

After Captain James’s return the children of the town played a new skipping game, “Pineapple Lady your captain came home never never never more to roam , how many kisses does he have 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . .”

Elizabeth filled the house again, not with pineapples but with seven children who often played with the treasures in the trunks in the room atop the house. James never sailed away again. There was no need of a fresh pineapple.

18 comments

  1. Charles

    The plural of ‘talisman’ is talismans—something the author could’ve used during the writing of this woefully inadequate and hackneyed story.

  2. JAZZ

    Details, Details, pesky details: beside the fact this was not a compelling story, by my reckoning she was in her mid-50’s when she had her last child.

  3. Georgia Dayley

    Yes, it is improbable (particularly having seven children after waiting for him for 16 years), and yes it is a bit clichéd, but there is a lovely fairy tale, story-telling vibe to the story that I enjoyed. I was willing to go along with it.

  4. Michael Joll

    My turn to be kind. It would be easy to dismiss this story as hackneyed, cliched and most other words to say ‘inconsequential ‘, but I think that would be to miss the point. This, I think, is a folk tale designed to demonstrate the power of faith and perseverance in the face of long odds and public perception. Moreover, it is told in the style and tradition of an oral story teller, keeping it simple and to the point. Not everyone’s cuppa tea, but within this context I found it to be a good example of what it sets out to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

    It brings to mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s very short poem, “Requiem”, and the lines, “Home is the sailor, home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill.”

  5. JAZZ

    Michael: I agree with Charles on this one — it is woefully inadequate. I doubt if either one of us missed the point.
    And I’m not quite sure why you felt it necessary to tack on a quote from Stevenson, or was this just an opportunity to use it?

  6. Suzanne Burchell

    Thank you Michael for your kind comments. I am an oral tradition story teller using my East Coast background in most of my stories. I am member of Story Tellers of Canada. I have told this story to audiences — it has been very well received when performed. I understand this form of story is not everyone’s taste :).

  7. Charles

    A folk tale has its own peculiar style and form, somewhere between the fable and Magic Realism, a good contemporary example being Paolo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’. I don’t see anything like that here. Oral story telling is even more rigorously conventionalized, and, as a literary form, isn’t quite the same thing as ‘just telling a tale’, around the kitchen table. As to missing the point of this story, as I see it, there’s none to miss. Sometimes ‘it just don’t work, buddy,’ and this is one of those times. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t be saved or improved, but it read more like a draft than a finished piece and judicious revision would certainly be required to bring it up to standard.

    Kind or unkind, Michael, is not really the issue. This is a literary forum and we are here, hopefully, to discuss and debate the merits and/or shortcomings of the works posted. As I think I’ve said in the past, none of it is personal — at least on my part — but at the same time, you should be able to make your call. This isn’t a question of just liking or disliking a story so much as an opportunity to explore the nature of the writer’s craft. Why does a story fail? Why does the dialogue not ring true? Why do we not see the character as a real person, or at least, a character we can believe in? Can the story be told more effectively from a different POV? How is it structured? What stylistic mechanisms are at play? Is the ‘voice’ authentic or contrived? And in a buoyant forum, we can all learn from these exchanges, you, me and the next guy. I am always learning. I’m learning that writing is hard; good writing is harder and great writing will sometimes drive you to drink. There’s a cost to everything.

    And finally, please don’t compare Stevenson’s ‘Requiem’ in the same breath with ‘The Pineapple Lady’ — I respect you, Mr. Joll and want to keep on doing so.

  8. Sheila Horne

    I didn’t find the story cliched or hackneyed. It’s a beautiful story of love, faith and hope. However, I felt a few of the ‘Elizabeths’ could have been replaced with a pronoun. I also found the first paragraph confusing. I fumbled over it and had to read in three times. Maybe start with the second parargraph and add some of the first into it. In the sentence: All the while Elizabeth she picked up the pieces she smiled and whispered, “He is coming back I know now.” Either Elizabeth or she needs to be removed.

  9. Suzanne Burchell

    Hello Sheila – thank you for your kind and thoughtful feedback. I am so happy you enjoyed the intent of the story — the love faith and hope in the story. I will definitely change a few of the Elizabeth’s and rework the introduction and I will add the whispering “I know he is coming back” ! I am telling this story in a few weeks at a public gathering. Your suggestions will help improve the story. I am grateful you took the time to make these comments. My writing teacher and great mentor, Brian Henry, encourages us to accept all criticism positive and negative. 🙂 Suzanne

  10. Debbie Scott

    What a sweet story Suzanne. Anyone who has experienced deep love would appreciate this poor women’s plight. I enjoyed it . . . we will continue to improve with Brian as our mentor : )

  11. Suzanne Burchell

    Thanks Debbie I am so glad the story touched you — Brian is surely the best sage. The woman in the story is based on the tale of my Mother and many women who waited while their husbands sailed — I remember waiting for my Father who sailed the great lakes to come home. In my home town in Nova Scotia there are houses on top of the hill over looking the harbour with the widow’s walk clearly visible.

  12. Gloria Jean Hansen

    I have just returned from your lovely NS, and saw many of those lovely old homes with the widow’s walks — that fact alone helped me appreciate this tale for what it was — a tale about lost love returned from the sea, nothing more nothing less, and the ‘skipping’ side story for punctuation. Maybe babies don’t arrive to women in their 50s, but I didn’t even think about that as I read this sweet story with all its frailties. Not a critique here, Suzanne, simply “I liked it”. Our favourite mentor and teacher Brian will help you deal positively with the very constructive critiques above.

  13. JAZZ

    Gloria:
    In a fairy tale, science fiction and other such genres you can as a writer, talented or not, get away with pretty much anything — it’s your tale to spin. In serious prose, which I assume this is meant to be, you have to make some attempt to honour the reader: A woman having babies in her 50s takes away from any thought of taking the story seriously. It then becomes spoof-like.

  14. Frank T. Sikora

    Jazz: as a lover of genre, especially sf, I disagree, albeit slightly. Logic, a story’s internal logic, must be consistent and believable regardless of genre.

  15. Suzanne Burchell

    Thank you for the heads up re her age regarding having 7 children – an oversight on my part. My Grandmother had her 7th child when she was 45. All responses to writing are useful but I am so glad when story touches the heart. If you were just in NS Gloria you might enjoy A Bucket of Clams which is posted on Cummuterlit. Brian Henry has coached us in receiving criticism. 🙂 I accept that I am very much an “amateur” writer — I write for the love of writing mostly.

  16. JAZZ

    Let us all concentrate today on fireworks, a barbecue, maybe a drink or two to toast our amazing country where it’s ok to have your own opinion on everything.
    Happy Victotia Day to all.
    Regards,
    Jazz

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>