Valya Dudycz Lupescu
Snow falls on the grave, and she leaves them standing in their circle, pickaxes on rounded shoulders, shovels at their feet. They hold their hats patched and faded, cheeks wet, mouths full of an ancient hymn, and boots stomping slowly in time.
She remembers when she was lying under glass, under snow, under their watchful gaze. They sang for her the same song in younger voices, the same boots with heels unworn. She cannot bear to hear it again, would rather grieve in her own way, and so she goes, their voices heavy on the wind as she walks to the place where they took her in and became family. She never told them she heard everything, never told them she would rather have stayed asleep, rather have stayed with them, merrier unmarried.
After unlocking the cottage with the key she wears beside the ring on a chain around her neck, she lights candles and starts a fire. She sets the chairs in their spots, seven plus one they made for her the summer after she broke in, tasted their bread, and tested their beds. They saw her there, saw who she was beneath the rags and royalty, saw something in her they recognized as kindred, and they let her stay.
When she woke to seven pairs of eyes—curious and irritated and kind—he was the first among them to offer his hand. He would always be first, and so she was not truly surprised to get the note that called her home, just two weeks shy of the date they always gathered together, their annual congregation to eat and drink, to sing and share stories. Two weeks—too long to wait for death. She still has not cried.
Once a year is not enough to keep it clean, not enough for proper hospitality, and so she sweeps cobwebs from corners, carries ale from the cellar, and bakes the pies she brought (always apple).
Pacing, she pulls her hair, at one time ebony, into a bun, stray silver strands slipping. No longer fairest but still fine, she thinks of all that fades, of younger beauties hungry for superlatives, and she hopes they can escape the mirror.
She doesn’t turn with the familiar creak, pretending for a moment that he is there, that he is first, that there are seven.
Then in they trudge, without their whistling, hats and coats missing their hooks to cover boots tossed aside in piles and puddles. She smiles at their socks, one lesson learned, and each one comes to her in turn for hugs of welcome home.
They take their mugs, then their seats, and fill the room; the empty chair holding everything they do not say. Until she speaks to raise a mug and, in remembering, cracks the silence, spills everything, and takes them back with, “I remember when” and “He always” and “I will miss” and “If only.”
Soon they are laughing, chairs closer, knees touching, elbows bumping, and mugs lifted again and again, with eyes wet and cheeks aching from unpracticed grins.
The truth is together they are home, and a loss leaves a hole nothing can fill, and in the end, the only thing to do is grow around the hole, a bigger heart. The old men doze with heads on laps and shoulders, and the flames flicker. What if she fed them all and kept them here, herself included, forever frozen?
She rocks in her chair and the apple glows in her hand, the one missing a bite, the one they saved and then forgot, the one she found that never rots.