A bouquet of white, thin pillar candles, slid against the blade of a pocketknife. In repeated motions, an old woman trims the candles, from their sides to the wick, till they inch closer to the dented hole in the centre.
The ringing of church bells startles her and she pauses to look around. There is a heavily infested lime tree, around it a sea of eyes that are both resentful and sympathizing. Layers of dirt are caked on her palms.
It is midday and the dogs are waiting at a respectful distance. She places two candles each in the lanterns of one of the mausoleums, prays at the black and white photograph of the interred couple, young freckled faces contrasting her graying, greasy hair. Remaining family members and other strangers often gave her some change, not that she would stop looking after gravestones if they didn’t. Maintaining a clean home has always been something she took pride in. She sees no difference between dusting windowsills and ironing her husband’s vests and lighting candles and watering flowers at a cemetery.
She produces a plastic yogurt cup out of her bag, opens the lid and starts to break the bread from her sweater pocket into bite-sized pieces. The cup contains leftover chicken broth from the kiosk, where she helps out. She found the bread in a trashcan near the mall. Pieces of bread fall into the cup, while dogs form a half-moon around her, grinding their teeth in response to the smell of the nutritious paste. It is a quiet meal, only a few visitors passing now and then. Faithful and defeated, the dogs scatter to find a peaceful place to eat, though not too far away, in case there is more food.
Today there isn’t any more food. She slides her index finger into the cup, hooks the last piece of bread with her fingernail. The taste of chicken takes her back to wheat fields and thick cherry trees, many woes ago when there was goat milk and a family around the kitchen table. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, she thought, everyone was united in equality, if only due to the reminder of an unavoidable demise. Smog-filled urban air has flayed the best of her. The violence of the open streets gutted what was left of a once unbreakable spirit.
The car-wash around the corner lets her clean their toilet and throw away the trash. She can keep the expired food. A customer hands her a bill she hasn’t seen in a long while. With the money she buys dog food, matches and duct tape to seal the holes in her shoes. Then she sells newspapers at the kiosk, in return for a cup of tea and a bag of apples.
The kiosk owner is worried about the future. What can she say about the future, he asks. Only this: As long as the powerful continue to be self-seeking, there couldn’t be much of a future for people like him or her. Those who contribute and endure being called lazy, or burdens, because they may or may not have a permanent roof over their head, a shower to call their own, or spare change to give to those who were worse off. Not to mention the fate of dogs and cats that give comfort and show compassion, often living under an ethical code, far more advanced than their two-legged compatriots that poisoned or shot them.
She walks to the church and asks if they need any help weeping the grounds. The priest says someone else beat her to it today. Good for him, she says and lights up a candle for her husband. She is tired by the time she sits down on the mausoleum stairs. The dogs approach and she pets and feeds them, before resting her head on the plastic bag.
Later a bang shakes her awake. A police officer chases her off, clapping his hands and kicking holes into the plastic bag, her belongings splattering across the muddy grounds. “Don’t you know you aren’t supposed to be here at night? Have some respect!” He says, looking down at her and turning his nose up at the smell of sweat and broth.
She wants to ask: “Where am I supposed to be?” Instead, the old woman gathers her belongings and hurries to the exit. She has no time to claim the bag of apples, which glows orange-blue in candlelight, just beneath the black and white photograph of a smiling couple.
A few dogs trail behind, recognizing the despair sprouting inside her as she is swallowed into godless streets. They leave red dusted marks on cement, blood and dirt that is soon to be washed away by the rain. Not long and they turn back to sleep in front of the closed gate. Too tired to keep up with her, the last dog – one she liked to call Caesar, due in part to his proud demeanor – stops and watches as her thick stockings and the pencil skirt that bounces around her bones become a curve and then a faint shadow. Caesar trots back, desolate with his nose dropped on asphalt. She walks on, clearing her eyes. Don’t forget us, the dogs seemed to say. And she walks on, destination unknown.
Ana Prundaru is a visual artist, writer, and translator, who lives a stone's throw away from the birthplace of milk chocolate. Her work is forthcoming in Litro Magazine, 3 AM Magazine and Rattle. She has a photo blog at www.socksinflipflops.wordpress.com/.