Little Girl

By Matti Linke

“old iron gate” by Core­Force is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The day start­ed with a cold waft from a freez­ing night in the mid­dle of March, as the warm light from the slow­ly ris­ing sun filled the old but well-kept house of Mr. Par­nell with bright­ness. It crawled from the kitchen sink over every cup­board to the emp­ty wood­en din­ing table and the flow­ered arm­chair in the lounge, paved its way to the frayed car­pet in the small hall­way and revealed the out­lines of the main door, an incon­spic­u­ous iron gate, cov­ered with branch­es and tendrils.

Although the house includ­ed a few more rooms, you could nev­er see through the heavy drapes behind the win­dows, falling grave­ly from the cur­tain rods. Nei­ther Mr. Par­nell nor his lit­tle girl ever used the rooms, which were filled with antique fur­ni­ture, old paint­ings, sculp­tures, and var­i­ous col­lec­tables. Every lit­tle piece had its prop­er place, well ordered but in their sheer mul­ti­tude sim­ply unfath­omable. The nar­row base­ment, which was most­ly used as a stor­age room for gro­ceries, had anoth­er tiny win­dow, but it was noth­ing more than a vent and way too small to let any light in or out.

Occa­sion­al­ly, you could see Mr. Par­nell mov­ing sedate­ly out­side the front door. Some might say an aging man like him, who has lived and seen enough, would not need to lock his door three times when gro­cery shop­ping, but he did. He always bought enough sup­plies for a few days; at times, his neigh­bors wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of him for over a week. Some of them were ask­ing them­selves what he spent his time on, all alone in a house that was way too spacious.

Mere­lyn had con­stant­ly giv­en him more rea­sons to par­tic­i­pate in what the neigh­bors call “the local day­overs,” includ­ing sev­er­al out­door activ­i­ties in var­i­ous loca­tions for peo­ple of their kind. But Mr. Par­nell had grown tired of the rou­tine of see­ing the same old people’s skin get­ting more and more wrin­kled, just like his own. He was even more fed up with the same old sto­ries of grand­chil­dren and fam­i­ly meet­ings – they were too much, like the ones he’s always dreamed of telling. “There is no beau­ty in an old man’s face,” was what he used to shout at Mere­lyn on a very moody day, mark­ing the point for her to give up any ambi­tion of get­ting him out­side the house. On those days, there was no hope in his eyes for any spindly flower to flour­ish and wave its blos­soms in the wind. Just his aging skin with no youth or fresh­ness at all.

“Do you want some more peas and carrots?”

She just stared at her plate on the table in front of her, hold­ing the fork tight­ly in her right hand, form­ing a fist.

“Hey, are you deaf?”

“Says the old man,” she replied with­out even look­ing up.

“Oh, don’t be like that. Not now, not today. I real­ly tried my best, ya know.” He pulled over his chair and sat down at the small table. “Don’t you think a lit­tle sign of grat­i­tude would be… appropriate?”

There was no reply, so he placed anoth­er por­tion of peas and car­rots on her plate. They wait­ed a few sec­onds, and as the clock struck one, she start­ed to pick up the peas mechan­i­cal­ly, one at a time, like there was noth­ing else to do.

After a long peri­od of silence, he sliced anoth­er part of his steak, shoved it behind his lips and start­ed to chew. He looked at her, scru­ti­nized her long brown hair, falling flat­ly from the top of her pale fore­head over her thin but grace­ful upper arms, lead­ing to those frail shoul­ders. She noticed his pierc­ing glance from the oth­er side, but just kept on pick­ing her peas from the plate, accom­pa­nied by the smack­ing sound of his false teeth mas­ti­cat­ing the meat.

“Mere­lyn used to love this dish, ya know. She always cleaned her whole plate when I cooked for her. Till the very last smudge. She said I was a great cook, bet­ter than most of them in these run­down shacks in town, claim­ing to be restau­rants. They’re using too much salt there,” he said deri­sive­ly, slic­ing anoth­er piece of meat and start­ing to chew again, “com­ing from  school, forced into line, just heat­ing up frozen junk all day long. It’s a shame. They’re just los­ing touch, the sense for fresh­ness. You ain’t find­in’ no meal like this nowhere, I tell ya it’s…”

“I like it.” She inter­rupt­ed him in whis­pers, know­ing it would make him stop talk­ing, won­der­ing why he would jab­ber so much at all.

After lunch, his lit­tle girl was grant­ed per­mis­sion to leave her seat. Just like any oth­er day, Mr. Par­nell cleared the table and car­ried the dish­es upstairs into the kitchen. He filled the sink with hot water, scrubbed the plates and cut­lery and rinsed the cups. He cleaned the fry­ing pan and the oth­er bowls last, then dried and stowed them above the fridge. There were nev­er any left­overs because the old man knew pre­cise­ly how much to pre­pare for his lit­tle girl and him­self. The oth­er dish­es had their exact place next to the cost­ly table­ware in the old crock­ery cup­board, right beneath the emp­ty din­ing table in the lounge. He stored three pairs of knives and forks, as well as three plates and cups in the shelf and closed the cab­i­net door with­out tak­ing his hand from the grip.

Sud­den­ly, he lost every urge to walk away or even move, and so he just stood there, star­ing at his blur­ry reflec­tion in the yel­lowed cab­i­net win­dow. What was there left to do today? His lit­tle girl had eat­en her lunch – the one Mere­lyn always loved the most. The kitchen work was done. Every­thing else had been tak­en care of in the last cou­ple of weeks. Is there real­ly no oth­er task to complete?

The old man tried to grasp the out­lines of his face in the win­dow, but his tired eyes kept los­ing focus. He felt a great weari­ness com­ing over him, set­tling on his eye­lids and shoul­ders, weak­en­ing his limbs and enclos­ing his mind. No thought ran through his head, and he could not feel his fin­gers or feet any­more. Nei­ther a warm nor a dark veil embraced him, just a white cloud made him hov­er above the floor­boards, tran­scend­ing the ground with every dusty lit­tle thing hid­den some­where in box­es, con­nect­ed to a fixed place in his slow­ly dis­solv­ing mem­o­ry. Time became a word and lost its mean­ing, and so he stood there like a stat­ue, frozen and pet­ri­fied. “I can’t let her go,” he mum­bled, “I want her to be hap­py…  hap­py… I can’t…”

Abrupt­ly, his breath start­ed to speed up, and the sen­sa­tions in his head com­pressed to a van­ish­ing point. He opened his eyes and stared into the dis­tort­ed face of a ghost, look­ing right through him from behind the cab­i­net win­dow. Shocked and filled with pan­ic, he stum­bled across the liv­ing room and col­lapsed into the old arm­chair, where he rest­ed almost par­a­lyzed before falling into a deep and bot­tom­less sleep.

As the sun slow­ly went down, the old house was cov­ered in dark­ness. A long peri­od of silence filled the liv­ing room, and not the slight­est sound could be heard. A dog barked in the dis­tance as Mr. Par­nell winced and opened his eyes again. He did not know where he was and could not see the end of the room. With­out think­ing about it, he reached out to the tele­phone next to his arm­chair and dialed.

Years lat­er, on the morn­ing of her 19th birth­day, she walks towards one of the large win­dows and opens it wide. Her medi­um-length curly brown hair waves gen­tly in the morn­ing breeze as it fills her bed­room with cold, fresh air. She could stay there for hours, just watch­ing the tree­tops bend with the wind while the clouds first con­ceal and then reveal the sun again. No cur­tains cov­er the win­dows of her room in the house she now lives in. Noth­ing should keep the light from float­ing around. It is allowed to stay or leave the house as it pleas­es, know­ing that it will always be welcomed.

She turns around and walks down­stairs into the kitchen where all of her fam­i­ly wait to sing for her. Blow­ing out the can­dles on the cake, she thinks of noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, sim­ply look­ing for­ward to the days and years ahead, no longer a lit­tle girl. As the clock strikes one, all of a sud­den a cold shiv­er runs down her back as she lifts her head, only to look into the car­ing eyes of the peo­ple she loves the most.

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Mat­ti Linke stud­ies cul­tur­al stud­ies at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. He has always loved to write poems and short sto­ries, and today he per­forms his texts at poet­ry slams and oth­er lit­er­ary events all over Ger­many. Cre­at­ing a text in Eng­lish still feels unusu­al, but he’s eager to try it out more often.