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Starving

With a Heaping Bowl of Dreams

By ROCK Published 11 days ago Updated 11 days ago 13 min read
Top Story - April 2024
31
Starving
Photo by Paul Volkmer on Unsplash

Without a doubt, Isabella had an eye for beauty. In the early morning frost, she would set out to walk with Dilly through the thicket behind her grandfather's half standing barn. Dilly scouted for critters in the woods while she carefully etched the ice laden branches dangling from the naked birch and maple trees. Her breath formed a haze around her pale, young, yet serious, face. Dilly leapt abruptly out of the dense wood with wet, forthright paws then pounced jovially upon her drawing. With his own signature upon her pallet, color rose in her cheeks with fury as she scolded the cowering hound; he fell by her feet like a pouty child. Being an easy, forgiving soul, she scratched the back of his neck. "It's alright boy, silly pup."

Grandpa had his ways, he didn't think drawing things, especially trees, would get her anywhere. He also didn't like music, church, ice cream, and getting dressed, that is, in anything but his well worn blue, plaid house coat. He kept his pockets full of random items; matches, toothpicks, tissues, his dentures, cotton balls and raisins to name a few. When his housecoat was washed, which was not often, Isabella had to thoroughly search through the endless depths of mire to avoid stopping up the thirty year old washing machine. He always suspected that she'd stolen perfectly useful necessaries and did on occasion swear at her. He'd given the washing machine to his wife, Michelle, for her fiftieth birthday. Grandma Michelle had been Québécois, her English was enough to get by as a housewife devoted to her duties. A quiet, whisp of a woman who swept up the floorboards after dinner, darned holes in her husband and daughter's socks, a fragile beauty who'd licked her lips until they were chafed from old memories and the casualties' of living. Her father was a sculptor and Isabella liked to believe that her artistic whims were passed down through their shared DNA. Around the barn, in old chests in the attic were small pieces of her great-grandfather's mystical hands. Smooth clay formed into subtle figurines, some human like, others more practical such as deep fire glazed bowls, small cups and the like. Michelle had lost a lot before she died, not only her daughter Emilia, but her granddaughter's father Marc. They had been out, "on the town", celebrating the new year in Montpelier, dancing, meeting their own childhood friends, playing pool, watching the ball drop from a big screen TV; big kids having fun. Michelle had cradled Isabella by the woodstove, listening to the radio with her beloved husband and at midnight they always kissed. Not many words were needed after all the love they'd shared. The snow was deep, the sky was endless, the stars burning brilliantly when she'd placed her granddaughter into the small, hand-carved, cradle her husband had made for their own babies. She'd leave the light on, just in case, stoked the fire one more time, blew out the candles then lied in the arms of the only man she'd known to steady her wandering mind. The news would come to the door on the first morning of the broken new year. The details flew around her, English spoken in whispers heavier than her heart could bare. As if struck by an axe she fell like seasoned timber while baby Isabella cried for her milk. Her husband lifted his small wife, carried her to their bed, one they'd shared for decades, the same where their daughter's had been conceived. Their first, Maria had died of a pneumonia, she'd been under weight and frail; Michelle never forgave herself for taking her small wonder for granted. Maria would roll about in her walker with rubber wheels, babbling cheerfully as she'd prepared venison stews, waited for her dough to rise, baked sweet tortes stuffed with blackberry jam. She had dusted, sifted, scrubbed their small wooden house raw. For, in her dream, Maria was to be the first of many more.

*~*

Grandpa tolerated his granddaughter's whims, he stared at her artwork with shrugs and well, as for her love of music, that's where his cotton balls came in handy. He was dependent after all since his stroke left his right arm lame, his mind less sharp, his proud frame altogether weaker. Isabella brought in the fire wood, kept the woodstove going, ran his errands and dropped out of school at fifteen without a complaint. That's family for you.

She drove, albeit without a license, an old suburban which had never been to a proper inspection. He respected the way she turned her head after helping him onto the toilet and how gentle she was when washing his old man body donning thin, bruised skin. That's why he let her keep her mutt of a dog. Isabella was a dreamer, often staring out the window, her Grandpa worried how she'd get along when he died. She had what he would refer to as episodes of complete nonsense; she would ramble on excessively about Paris, as in Paris, France, of finding a way to come up with money to buy a piano or a guitar, and for awhile she was stuck on having a horse, a party with polo, all sorts of things that Grandpa himself had never thought about in eighty-four years. Deep in the mountainous crevasse in which they lived, folks stuck to themselves, made maple syrup and grew their own food, they used their heads for surviving. It was nearly two hours to Montpelier and to go there one needed good reason. Perhaps it was selfish of him to allow her to leave school, on the other hand, she'd never made any friends or done well with her grading.

Dilly, nestled by the woodstove gave her a sense of happiness perhaps, or was it companionship? His tail was long and black, dipped in white on the very end like one of Isabella's paint brushes her Grandma had given her the Christmas before she died. Dilly would thump, thump, thump that tail whenever she walked in the room. Isabella loved classical music saying it gave her boring life an exciting background, her dreams hope.

Grandpa had earned a name in town long before he'd become the husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather with Michelle, Maria, Emelia, Marc and Isabella. He didn't care for it much but it had humoured his family and that was good enough for him. "Mustard". As a boy he was a big fan of the greasy hotdogs kept warm behind the glass display; when young, his folks couldn't afford much, he got caught stealing a jar of Johnny's Mustard yet the owner's wife of the only market in town let him go. In fact, the sweet, plump, red cheeked woman, long gone by now, had a soft spot for him and sometimes when he stopped to pick up the mail which was kept behind the counter, she'd warm him up a hot dog and slather it in his favourite yellow topping. He was shy, kept his head down but always offered a "thank you ma'am" in return.

At night, after she had tucked Grandpa Mustard into bed Isabella would take Dilly outside and allow herself to dream while gazing up at the silver studded sky. She'd envision being rescued, discovered, believed in. Often she wandered into her dreams, always to a similar place, -what would it feel like to fall into the arms of someone who cared.-

*~*

Deep in the darkness of a her sixteenth winter, Isabella tugged on her Grandpa's housecoat, encouraging him to take another bite of his oatmeal sweetened with maple syrup. He'd become despondent, she found herself missing his wry criticism. In the afternoons while he dozed in his worn leather armchair she began to draw his changing face, his loss of expression propelling her to sketch him for hours, as if, time was against them; her flitting dreams meshed with uncertainties, the kind that bind loved ones together while tearing at our hearts endlessly. In a somewhat manic state she began to draw him in every room, in every state, asleep with the bright winter sun burrowing into his withering face, propped up with a flurry of pillows on the olive-green sofa covered in mismatched crocheted blankets, in his special chair with a belt to keep him from falling while upright at the round kitchen table, and so on she promised him to her canvas. Determined, Isabella set up a make-shift easel using three short planks pulled up from the long ago dilapidated screened in porch; satisfied enough, she fed him tiny spoons of applesauce, held warm coffee to his lips. She'd lost herself in her muse and the pantry was growing bare. Dreaming is natural for a teenager, yet hers visions were obsessions now. She needed Grandpa, he couldn't die, she had no idea where to begin her life without him. The days were gone when Grandma had stocked their world with jars with jam, pickled beets, bags of beans, rice and salty canned hams.

Isabella had not been a long term planner, they'd always been low on money, truth is, she barely ate. Her weight had dropped so that her jeans slipped down to her hips, her sweaters swallowing her thinning frame. Dilly was eating whatever canned food she gave him and when Grandpa was suddenly out of oatmeal, maple syrup, coffee and his aspirin he swore he needed for his arthritic feet, she had no choice but to start digging her way out to the suburban. How did it become so dire? The radio had been her way of listening to the world, she'd never missed having a telephone, for whom would she call?

Three hours of shovelling led her to the road which was still unploughed; neighbours had long since forgotten about them which she considered partly her fault. She insisted she could take care of her grandfather herself; they'd always stopped by when Grandma was alive, left casseroles when she'd succumbed to Alzheimer's, brought eggs from their flock, milk from their cows, even flowers from their gardens. They were nice enough, perhaps about two miles further into the forest where they once had made money from their apple orchards. Isabella was more like her Grandpa than she wanted to acknowledge, that is, proud, keeping to herself, seemingly capable. Family. That's what family is.

*~*

Dusk was nearing as Isabella tried to get the suburban to start with no luck. The battery was dead, cold as a corpse and she knew she nor Dilly could be out in the dropping temperatures more. Returning inside, she pulled off her snow covered boots, unzipped her mother's old down coat, and with numbed fingers she fed the barely crackling red embers from the sooty, hungry woodstove. She knew she would need the neighbors help to get the old jalopy started.

Grandpa was sleeping more and more, eating less and less which made her forget for that night her desperation. Dilly devoured the remnants from a half eaten can of beef stew which Grandpa refused to eat. Satisfied, he fell into his own dogged slumber, in his usual spot by the wood stove. Isabella sharpened pencils, drank weak tea using the same bag for hours, and like a golden egg, she found a forgotten sketch book under stacks of unfolded laundry piled upon her bed. She faced the night like a stranger, with an unravelling spirit that possessed her as she stood staring at her reflection in a mirror on the back of her bedroom door. She began to draw her dark, almond shaped eyes with undeniable finesse; almost frantically she sketched in russet wisps of hair which fell around her classically pronounced cheekbones, rubbed in with her fingers a slight rose color to her pencil perfected thin lips. As soon as she finished one drawing she would toss it to the floor with dissatisfaction; she drew herself over and over again until she grew so weary, she began to cry. It was not a soft cry, but a long-jagged sob; heaving, gasping, clutching her hungry stomach she made her way to Dilly whose tail was thump, thump, thumping as she neared. She pulled one of her Grandma's crocheted wool blankets from the sofa, and allowing herself to collapse on the floor nestled it around her, snuggling close to Dilly.

*~*

It had snowed all night, and despite her weakening, she dressed, plodded through the snowdrifts with Dilly by her side and made it to the wood shack. The door was impossible to open, hidden behind feet upon feet of hardening snow. She went back to the suburban and tried again, aware that it was pointless. Taking the shovel from the old screened in porch she stabbed at the icy, unrelenting blockade which kept her from the warmth they needed. Her head was spinning, she knew she must eat, that Dilly and Grandpa needed her to use her noggin'. The planks! She began to pull up more from the rotting porch which had been somewhat protected from the storm; with an axe once swung by her Grandpa she hacked away and feeling briefly triumphant carried in armfuls, dropping them to the floor in no order. She got the woodstove going, then went to check on her Grandpa. His eyes were slightly open as she tried to lift him to go to the toilet. She couldn't. He looked at her in a way she understood, his yellowing eyes saying stop, please, stop. Carefully rolling him on his side, she removed his soiled long johns and placed a clean towel under his bony rump. She carefully washed away the urine with a warm washcloth, powdered his rash that had grown rampant seemingly overnight. She tried to prop him up with pillows, yet he sunk deeper into the stained covered mattress, in one tough winter he became one with his bed. It wasn't just any bed he'd remember, it was where his own dreams once bloomed, his wife had died in his arms, his children had been coddled; a bed where he, too had silently cried.

*~*

Isabella thinned the last of the applesauce with warm water allowing only one finger to taste it's sweetness before feeding him tiny spoonful's slowly until his eyes said no more. She kissed his cheek and tucked him in as always then turned to Dilly who was circling her hungrily. She placed a large bowl of warm water on the kitchen floor and cracked the last egg into it for Dilly. With nine dollars and some change found stuffed in one of Grandpa's housecoat pockets she would venture out, leaving Dilly behind to watch over Grandpa. She dressed as warmly as she could, covering her face, allowing only her eyes to face the storm. Her steps were calculated as she made her way to the nearest neighbour's long standing farmhouse. It took her perhaps one hour to discover the windows boarded up, the shutter's hanging on their last nail as if they too, were tired. Despite her disappointment she made her way toward the door. It was frozen of course, locked or open she couldn't get in. She needed to think yet her mind, too left her abandoned with unclear thoughts. She wanted to sit, to find shelter from the wind and made her way to one side of the house facing the sun. To her surprise a window was shattered, the old thin paned windows of such thrifty old farmers allowed her a way inside. With all her might she pulled herself up, her gloved hands clutching it's grey, rotting sill. Once inside she was still in snow, for this winter had no boundaries. Kicking through she made her way to the kitchen, began rifling through all the cupboards and discovering long out-dated cans of chicken soup, a burlap sack full of wrinkled, frozen potatoes and jar upon jars of pickles and jam. She sat in the pantry to rest, fighting to stay awake. THINK. She needed to think. Her dreams were bigger though and with a sigh, somewhat relieved, she gave them space. She imagined how it would feel to be held in the arms of someone who loved her, how it might feel to lie on tufts of clover covered grass on a summer's night under a silver studded sky. She danced in her heart to a favourite classic she had grown fond of on Grandpa's radio; Tchaikovsky's, "Waltz of the Flowers", sketching endlessly her someday lover's face behind her closing eyes.

*~*

By jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

familyShort StoryPsychological
31

About the Creator

ROCK

Writing truth or fiction, feels as if I am stroking across a canvas, painting colourful words straight from my heart. I write from my old farmhouse in Sweden. *BLOGLINK

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  4. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (27)

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  • Esala Gunathilake4 days ago

    Congratulations on your top story.

  • Gloria Penelope6 days ago

    Congrats on TS Rock!

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  • Anna 10 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!

  • Christy Munson10 days ago

    Don't know whether your story is universally compelling, or finite and tremendously personal, or both, but I think it's both. I relate on an intimate, personal level with nearly every line in this wonderful story. Even the Mustard is a parallel to my own grandpa. (He loved it so much that we goofy youngsters bought him a 10 gallon jar for Christmas... took him forever to make it through, but that sweet man never said a word of complaint!) There are scores of lines I could quote. Nearly all of them, in fact. But instead I'll say that this story brought me back to countless beautiful spaces, heart-wrenching places, hauntingly familiar faces, and left such bittersweet traces I feel I've just danced with a ghost, leaving footprints in the snow. I'm gently crying, and remembering, which is a gift. Congratulations on one of the best Top Stories I've read in my time at Vocal.

  • Gerard DiLeo10 days ago

    You are a wonderful talent. Besides the sheer grandiosity of a simple tale, the part, "... yet the owner's wife of the only market in town let him go...the sweet, plump, red cheeked woman, long gone by now, had a soft spot for him..." resonated with me. I wrote a piece a while ago about pain being irrelevant after the time of the pain has passed...or is it? The same thing here. She is "long gone by now," but isn't that love still somewhere? Beautiful story, ROCK.

  • Asad Message11 days ago

    never give up

  • Joyce Kane11 days ago

    yet beautiful and yet sad all at once. The things that some people are willing to part up in order to assist others. really beautifully written and please sometime play https://geometrydash-lite.io with me

  • Andrea Corwin 11 days ago

    OMG ROCK, your writing is so beautiful This story is heartbreaking. The line: "Once inside she was still in snow, for this winter had no boundaries." is fantastic really showing the snow. Her love of Mustard was wonderful and touching. Congrats on TS. You need to write screenplays.

  • Ameer Bibi11 days ago

    Congratulations for top story 🎊🎊🎉Your pursuit of excellence sets a high standard for everyone. Keep aiming for the stars.

  • Reminiscent of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" but lacking food rather than dry clothes. A tragedy born of dreams.

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Congratulations on top story, this is so well written I will have to read it again! Beautiful!

  • Christy Munson11 days ago

    Congratulations on Top Story. Will add to Comments when I have a bit more time.

  • Kageno Hoshino11 days ago

    Greatly writen!

  • “M”11 days ago

    Congratulations 🥳

  • samrin mohammadi11 days ago

    Well done!

  • angela hepworth11 days ago

    I’m an awe. This was absolutely amazing, I felt so viscerally for Isabella.

  • “M”11 days ago

    Great job 🫶🏻

  • D. J. Reddall11 days ago

    Congratulations for a well deserved top story!

  • Romano Meyer11 days ago

    Amazing

  • Awww, you have touched on so many emotions here....I agree whole heartedly with Colleen. WOW!

  • Colleen Walters11 days ago

    Wow. Just wow..🤩

  • Novel Allen11 days ago

    True to life struggles of many...lots of people of all ages have rough beginnings, it takes strength and fortitude to weather the storms of life. We never know what other people have to endure to survive.

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