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Fireplace Mantel

by Jonathan Arena


My husband’s business trip lasts all week. They usually do. He expects me to stay home, alone, except for groceries and errands. He expects the chores to be done, the house to be without dust, and the laundry to be washed and dried and folded away.

            I expect I’ll do it all too. I always do.

            I locate the feather duster exactly where I left it. I wonder if the duster is made from real feathers. A bird was slaughtered, bled, and plucked so we can dust our material goods and impress guests with a clean home. I pour a gin and tonic.

            Perhaps multiple birds died for this duster. I take a long sip.

            I work my way around the house and eventually to the fireplace mantel. It’s the easiest part to dust because it’s empty. I never noticed until this exact moment how much of an eye-sore it is. It looks barren, unused, forgotten.

            My mother had all sorts of items atop hers. She cherished the fireplace mantel. She said it was like a display of the family. The centerpiece of values, traditions, and memories. It was her favorite part of the whole house.

            I remember the mantel so well. An old clock sat at the center. Its tick was loud and distracting. You could almost feel time passing you by. Family photos, flowers, candles, and a small basket of pine cones were there too. Even the wooden butterfly I painted when I was six years old made the grade of the prestigious mantel. I painted it purple and pink and yellow and blue. My mother said it was beautiful, like me.

            But our mantel is empty.

            I pour a second glass. More gin than tonic this time, but I savor the taste of London Dry. He’s a warm friend that accompanies me downstairs into the basement. We may not have an ornate clock to sit at the center, but we do have a cuckoo clock. I bought it at a thrift store early in our marriage. I loved birds, still do. But my husband hated it, still does, so down in the basement it survived for years.

            Blood feathers from the duster gave it new life. I wind the mechanism in the back and place it on the mantel. It fits perfectly.

            I search for family photos, but we don’t have many. My husband never likes to smile and it’s only the two of us. No kids. No pets.

            I find an old photo of our honeymoon. The sandy beaches of Mexico. I look so happy. We look so happy. I didn’t drink back then. Time passes fast but slow at the same time. I position the photo next to the clock and wipe away a single tear.

            Now flowers. I remember we don’t have any. I gaze out into the backyard. Yellow dots are scattered in the browning grass. Dandelions.

            My husband hates them, insists I buy poison at the store this week to kill them. He wants to kill them all. He always wants to kill things.

            A third glass of gin and tonic. Almost no tonic.

            I add dirt to my husband’s two favorite coffee mugs. I carefully dig out two dandelions and place them inside and pack the dirt until my fingers stain with soil. They slump a little but look beautiful. I add water and allow them a chance.

            I arrange two blue candles on either side of the pots. Ocean Blue Mist. I light them and take in the aroma. It feels like I’m on the beach. The sandy beaches of Mexico with a wide, ignorant smile.

            The mantel looks almost complete, but there’s still room. I need to add something that a member of the family has created, like the butterfly.

            I wander from room to room with my eyes alert. I make my way to the closet and open the door and there it is. Stashed behind some clutter but poking out as if it wanted to be seen in this very moment. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on it for years.

            A ceramic bluebird.

            I crafted it in a ceramics class early in our marriage. I loved birds, still do. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is. My husband was quick to point out its flaws when I brought it home. The left side droops, and one of the eyes is bigger than the other. Its fat legs look a bit awkward too. But I created it with my own hands. Painted it with my own hands.

            I place it opposite the honeymoon photo and take a couple steps back. I admire the mantel. The cuckoo clock, the photo of happiness, the potted dandelions, the burning candles and the glorious bluebird. It looks full now.

            It looks like home. No, it feels like home.

            I drink from my glass and a few drops escape the edges of my lips and spill onto the hardwood floor. I hesitate to wipe the mess up. Maybe I’ll leave it for my husband to clean. He’ll search for hours where we keep the towels, perhaps days, all while tonic seeps into the wood and stains deeply. I smile. I spill a little more on the floor. I laugh. I spill a lot more. He’ll have to clean it all up. The rest slides down my throat.

            I step forward to delicately shift the position of the ceramic bird. I think I’m satisfied with the adjustment. Everything looks perfectly spaced now.

            My smile strengthens but another tear rolls down my cheek and collects under my chin where it hangs for a moment until falling. I want to cry more, but I don’t, I hold it in. I hold it all in, like I’ve always done.

            The clock strikes noon. The wooden bird jumps out of the tiny door and breaks from its mount. The detached model flies and hits me on the nose.

            I stumble back and slip on the spilled gin and tonic, mostly gin.

            My arms wave frantically until balance is inevitably lost. My head smacks against the mantel with resounding impact but there is no pain. My empty glass smashes on the floor and the cuckoo lands next to the broken pieces as if it belonged. I love birds, always have. Blood rushes down my face. More for my husband to clean. I feel woozy, dizzy.

            I close my eyes and dream my old dreams.

From Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue & Vice

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