(fiction repost from December 2009)

Old woman in a parking lot, two puppies sleeping at her feet, opens her arms, faces the darkening sky and feels a shift in the weight of it. Ragman rides by on his black bicycle, says, "Howdy," asks, "What have you heard today? What's the word?"

Her eyes graze the concrete horizon then lower and linger on the pups. "Everything will be all right," she says.

Ragman looks down, smiles. "No worries today, then?" he asks.

"Everything all right," she says.

"Well, whatever you say, so it is, eh?" says Ragman.

"A good, fine evening, yes, yes," she says.

Almost too cold for snow yet snow falls, sparse crystals squeezed out of the dry, miserly air.

Ragman reaches out, touches the old woman's sleeve. "Maybe it's time you come in. Maybe it's time," says Ragman. He lifts his hand up, waves it in front of his face. "The snow," he says and flakes touch down on his fingertips, hold for a moment, melt.

Her eyes are still on the pups.

"Just a while longer. There's a third, maybe a fourth," she says. "Two boys here. I saw four yesterday. This morning I saw them beside their mother near the bridge. She was dead. Car I guess."

"That's sorrowful," says Ragman. "But it happens," he almost added but didn't.

"They can't stay out this night. Not without their mother," she says.

"Mm hmm," says Ragman. "And you can't stay out this night either."

Their talk wakes the pups. One sniffs at Ragman, skips over and finds a lace to chew. The other watches, sniffs and watches, then paws at the old woman's loose pant hem, tries to entice his brother back.

"Don't wait too long. The cold, it's hard and falling," Ragman says then gently lifts away the pup attached to his lace and rides off, black tire tracks arcing, slipping through the snow. The pup chases five steps then returns and finds his brother's ear to chew on.

Snowflakes land upon the old woman. They are like seeds, she thinks, like those dandelion seeds that used to tickle her nose. Someone she knew used to pluck them, blow them in her face, make her giggle and sneeze. That was who? That was when? That was when she was ... and he showed her how to make links from the stems by pushing one end into the other. A necklace he made for her. That was ages ago. That was her story, she's sure, but when?

The pups are settling down again, cuddling her shoes. She picks them up, cradles them inside her coat. Quickly they calm and then quick to sleep. They are warm.

The old woman stands in the parking lot, waits among yellow barricades, oil slicks, exhaust and the smell of old vehicles. She lifts her eyes, looks into the haze of snow. Her mouth moves but no sounds come out. She speaks to Him in unheard words and He responds with silence. Her feet stand cold upon the asphalt surface. Her face is red and raw from the dirty city wind. But the pups are warm.

She closes her eyes, lets their warmth seep in. She is not held by her hardships. She is not held by her grounded, decrepit body. She closes her eyes and she is rising. She is rising above the cars and barricades. She is rising above the soot chimneys and grimy rooftops. She rises above the concrete towers and glass skyscrapers, above the corporate helicopters and beer logo dirigibles, above the cloud layer, above the night and into the sun and she is warm. She is rising and she is warm.

"The other two, you think they're still around?" Ragman is back.

The old woman slowly opens her eyes, momentarily uncertain where she is but then understands.

"They're around. Hiding," she says.

"Round here?"

"These two came when I held out food and called. The other two ... Maybe underside a car."

Ragman swings his leg over his bike, sets the bike on the kickstand. "How's bout I help look?"

"No good chasing them. Waiting's the thing. They're scared. Let them be. Maybe they'll come out. The third one wanted to come over but there was a noise. The fourth ... it just ran."

"I brought some crackers from the bin - okay ones, unopened ... if they're hungry," Ragman says, gesturing to the two in the woman's coat then he pulls out some packets of crackers from his pocket, gives them to her.

She opens a packet and puts a cracker in her mouth, chews it, spits it out into her hand and brings it close to the puppies' noses. She nudges them. They wake, start to eat. They finish and she chews and spits and feeds another and another until she's gone through two packets. It's not enough but it'll have to do. She saves the remaining to tempt the other two pups.

Ragman watches.

Ragman starts to get cold. He'll have to go in soon. He wants to bring the old woman in with him but knows how stubborn she can be. She'll be near frostbitten before she'll budge if she's set her mind to waiting on something.

"Whatcha gonna do with them? 'member what Stan said? Last time was the last time he told you," Ragman says, though he knows it's futile to argue.

"Last time was last time. This time is this time. Next time is next time. Stan talks. Never mind his talk. There are four. I have two. I wait for the other two. Everything will be alright," she says.

"Alright, but, well, if you get tired holding them, I can take them."

She doesn't know if she can trust him. She doesn't remember. "You're too kind," she says but hangs onto the pups.

A memory. Snow's falling but it's a different time, different place, when things were more ... when things were better. She's walking through a snowfield. Her dog, yes, it is her dog she's sure of it, a Husky, is just ahead. And beside her, someone she ... she holds his hand as they take big, high steps through the deep snow. The Husky gets excited and sticks its nose into the snow and when it looks up again, its muzzle is covered with powder and she laughs at it and she points and she says, "Look, look at her," and he says, "Silly dog," and she says, "Very silly dog," and the Husky face dives into the snow again and stays down for a few seconds and comes up again. This time its muzzle is completely covered except around the eyes. "She's got a white mask," the woman says and he asks, "What's she doing over there?" and then they are beside the Husky and it continues to face dive into the snow. "There must be something under the snow," she says and the two of them watch as their dog hunts after something hidden below then suddenly, out of one of the poked holes in the snow, a shrew pops out and starts to run awkwardly along the snow surface. The woman points and says, "Look!" and the Husky lifts its face out of the snow and looks up and sees the shrew and jumps on it and then frantically searches about for it but can't find it. The woman grabs her dog's collar and pulls it back while the man searches carefully through the compressed snow. A moment later, he finds the shrew. It's not moving. "I think it got crushed," he says. They look down at the small, still creature lying on its side in a bed of snow. It doesn't look visibly injured but it's not moving. "Poor thing," the woman says. "I shouldn't have yelled out." The man takes her hand and squeezes it. "C'mon, there's nothing we can do," he says. He points up to the falling snow. "Let's get back," he says.

One of the pups stirs under her jacket. It stretches one front leg out and opens its mouth for a yawn exposing its small pointy white teeth and delicate tongue. It pushes its head up and out of the jacket but it feels the cold air on its nose and settles back into the warmth.

"Sometimes I have these memories," she says. "I used to have a Husky. She was a beautiful dog, she was. She was always smiling. You know what I mean? They have a way of doing that. And she always made me smile."

"That was a long time ago," Ragman says and he already knows what she'll say next because they've had this same conversation dozens of times before.

"We used to walk, you know, very far, through the snow but it was no big thing back then when we were young. My Husky and I and there was someone else but I can't remember ..." she says and then, "Oh, was that ... you?"

"Yes, my love," he says. "That was you and me and Casey a long time ago."

"Oh yes, that's right. Casey! How could I forget? Casey." The old woman is delighted, like having found her way back to a long lost friend. "Were we young?" she asks.

"Yes, we were young," he says.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I don't remember it too well. I'm sorry."

The black puppy walks out from under the car, white tail tucked and head lowered to the ground, cautious. "Look," Ragman says and "Shh," the old woman says, gentle, and she lowers her hand, gentle, slowly.

The pup raises its head, nose first, sniffs then stops and stares at the man and woman and then sniffs again. The old woman crouches down then kneels then sits in the snow. She opens her coat to show the pup its sleeping siblings. The pup looks and sniffs, sniffs and looks. The woman reaches into her pocket and takes out a packet of crackers. She shows it to the pup then she turns slightly away from the pup, hiding the packet from its view, and opens it slowly so that it doesn't make too much of a crinkling noise.

The pup is curious. The pup takes a step forward.

The old woman takes out a cracker and puts it in her mouth, making sure the pup can see her do this then she chews it and spits it out into her hand. She puts the morsel onto the ground beside her then she pushes herself away from it.

The pup takes another step forward, nose up in the air, trying to catch a scent. His hunger and curiosity finally overcome his fear and he takes another step and another until he reaches the warm pile of mush which smells like food and also smells like the big creature looking down at him. He gobbles up the mouthful of crackers and looks up at the creature wondering if there might be more. And there is.

***

They don't see the fourth pup.

Three of out four isn't bad, Ragman says, says maybe someone else found the fourth, says they must go, before the gates are locked and then they would cause a fuss and there would be no way Stan would let the old woman take her pups inside.

Ragman gently takes the old woman's arm and leads them away from the parking lot.

The old woman keeps looking back just in case.

The fourth pup watches them from beneath a car. He cries for his siblings who are leaving. He curls up against the tire, his body reflexively trying to stay warm though he no longer feels the cold and he closes his eyes and dreams about his mother.



2 Comments to “The old woman”

  1. nk says:

    Fred, the more I read your stories, the more I see Rohinton Mistry's philosophy -that life is a fine balance between hope and despair! Just when I thought the story ended on a upbeat note, you brought the fourth puppy into the scene and dashed my hopes!

  2. Make her go back for the puppy!!!! Please!!!!

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