Hayley has read at Story Shop 2014, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can find the short story she read on Fri 15th August 2014 below.
Hayley Swinson likes feta cheese and baked goods. Things that make her nervous include caffeine after 2pm and snow after March. Originally from the US, she has lived everywhere from Paris to Montreal to North Carolina and is currently finishing up her MSc in Creative Writing/Prose at the University of Edinburgh.
The Short Story she read on the day
a short story by Hayley Swinson
It was mid-December, but Mary drove with the windows half-down. Winter in the south rarely cracked freezing, but when it did, the roads and schools closed for days. She slowed as she turned down a long dirt driveway lined with Bradford pears; a few brown leaves stuck out at odd angles on their branches. She glanced at her daughter—quiet in the backseat—smiled, then looked ahead. She rolled the window all the way down, closed her eyes against the crisp air, felt it sting her nostrils as she breathed in the smell of dirt and grass and manure. Opening her eyes, she felt her heart settle comfortably in her chest, its beat resonating through her stomach and each of her limbs. Tellie will be happy here, she thought.
When Mary was nine, Mother drove her down a driveway that snaked through a forest of pines, tall and spindly, swaying in the wind. In the passenger seat, Mary clutched her knees to her chest, staring wide-eyed at the trees passing by her window. They looked unstable.
Mother didn’t notice Mary trembling. “I have a surprise for you,” she said, reaching out to run a hand down Mary’s ponytail. Mother’s smile was tinged with the haze of faulty memory. Mary couldn’t remember her eyes. She knew they were blue, but couldn’t recall their shape or glow. Almond-shaped eyes, she’d been told.
Mother kept her head turned a moment too long, and the car bumped into a shallow ditch on the shoulder of the dirt road, jerking to a premature halt. Her smile faltered only a second as she whipped back into her seat, hit the breaks, and then laughed. Her laughter pealed like the bells in a church choir, dropped like the notes of a wind chime. Mother got out of the car and inspected the situation, hands on her hips. Her auburn hair was tied back in a kerchief and curled around the edges. She smiled, opened the side door where Mary sat frowning. A giggle bubbled up from her chest as she leaned in the car and took the girl’s hand. “Let’s walk.”
Mary, dark-haired and pale-skinned, wrinkled her overgrown eyebrows, walked next to Mother, who hummed and clutched the girl’s pinky finger with her own, preceding her down the drive.
In the living room, Mary picked up a black and white photograph of her mother. The woman wore a high-waisted bathing suit and sat on a towel on the beach. Her hair was pulled back and her eyes obscured by sunglasses. Mary saw again how Tellie resembled her in the heart-shaped face, the hairline that ended in a slight widow’s peak, the childish sense of mirth around the edges of her smile. She traced her mother’s outline with one thin finger then set it back on the shelf and collapsed in an armchair, twisting the spot on her ring finger where her wedding band used to be. After a minute, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
She sensed movement, heard a shuffle across the floor. She cracked open her eyes to see Tellie lingering in the doorway, grazing her feet across the top of the carpet.
She met Mary’s eyes and sauntered towards her, playing with the hem of her shirt, passing it between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Mary put her hands out, and her daughter crawled onto her lap to let her stroke her long auburn hair, twirling its curled edges around her fingers.
The next day, Mary loafed along the office hallway, playing with the binder clip on a stack of papers, squeezing it between the muscles of her palm.
The nameplate on her boss’s door read “Mrs. Roberta Calvin,” and her certifications seemed to stretch on longer than the alphabet. She imagined tracing the letters with the tip of her finger, but instead curled her hand into a fist and rapped on the door.
Mrs. Calvin’s skirt was snug around her stomach, and her ankles bulged out of her low black heels. She sat on Mary’s side of the desk, motioned to the chair next to her. Plucking at her hose, she crossed her legs at the ankles and looked at Mary, who shifted in her loafers and loose pants.
“Do you know why you’re here, Mrs.— ” she consulted the pad in her hands, “—Ms. Douglas?” She peered over her glasses. “You haven’t been billing enough hours.”
Mary felt a wave of anger, which she suppressed. She couldn’t get angry, not here. “It’s my daughter. She has…a disability.” Ten years and she still couldn’t say it.
Mrs. Calvin pressed her lips together, plucked at her hose.
“Ms. Douglas,” Mrs. Calvin said, leaning forward, “I sympathize with you, but I cannot afford to be lenient. Either you bill more hours, or we can discuss a severance package. Do you understand?”
Mary gritted her teeth and rose from her chair, a little too quickly. “I understand.”
“His name is Simeron,” Mother said. She placed her hand over Mary’s fingers and held them up to Simeron’s velvety nose. Mary’s dark eyes focused on the horse, on the feel of his whiskers against her fingertips. She didn’t notice when Mother dropped her hand, but continued petting his nose, then stroking his cheek, his neck, between his ears as he leaned in to nuzzle her stomach, eliciting a squeak from her chest. He wiggled his lip against her cheek, and his tongue peeked out to lick her forehead. Surprised, Mary stepped back, laughing. She looked up at Mother. Mother smiled at her, pleased. Simeron snorted, blowing snot into both of their faces.
Mary jumped back, wiping her cheeks and shirt. Her smile faded, her nose wrinkled. When she looked up, Mother was gripping the metal bars on the grid-like stall door. She hadn’t wiped the snot from her face. She hadn’t moved. She glared at the horse over the door as her grip on the bars tightened and her face grew red. Mary backed away from the stall. She could see the conflicting emotions playing across her mother’s face as she struggled to regain control.
“Mary, where are you going?” Mother snapped. “Come here.”
Mary ducked her head obediently and returned to her mother, who put an arm around the girl and squeezed her to her side. “It’s time to go,” she said.
“Tellie, come say hello to your Uncle John,” Mary said. She beckoned her daughter into the living room.
Tellie stepped into the room, hands behind her back, chin tucked toward her collarbone. She stared, unblinking, at the man on the sofa. He rose when she entered, seemed unsure what to do with his hands. Tellie lifted her face toward him.
“You remember Uncle John, don’t you?” Mary asked. She gestured to the auburn-haired man who had already removed his coat and hung it over the back of the sofa.
“Hi Tellie,” John said. He crouched towards her. “I am going to be spending a lot more time with you and your mom now.”
“Why?” Tellie asked.
John looked at Mary. She forced her lips into a smile. “I have to be at work longer now—”
“Why?” Tellie said again, shifting her gaze to Mary.
“Your dad is busy. He can’t pay for your riding lessons.”
“OK,” Tellie said. She looked down at a glittery bracelet on her wrist, twisted it with her hand. She walked over to the couch and sat down next to John, eyes focused on the bracelet.
Mary watched her daughter shift on the couch. She felt old. She looked at John, and suddenly wanted him to leave. He was staring at Tellie. “She really does look like Mama,” he said.
The next morning, for the first time in five years, it was snowing. Mary pulled on her bathrobe and stepped into her loafers. She walked to Tellie’s room to wake her, but found an empty bed. The sheets were pulled up and tucked under the mattress, as if she’d never slept in them. “Tellie?” she said, voice screeching. She gripped her bathrobe around her as she scrambled down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Tellie?” she said again. Her breath was coming faster.
“Mama?” she heard from the living room.
Mary found her kneeling on the sofa, fingers gripping its back, peering out of the window.
“Snow,” she said, without turning.
Tears pricked Mary’s eyes, and she swiped at them. She put a hand on her daughter’s back in an attempt to stop shaking. “Do you want to go outside?”
Tellie looked at her. “OK,” she said. Her nose twitched. She wore her sparkly bracelet on her wrist.
Outside, the flakes swirled and eddied from the gray sky, leaping in the breeze like figure skaters, landing in clusters on Mary’s upturned face. She clasped her daughter’s hand. The two of them were a pair of mutes, standing in the parking lot staring up at the sky, pretending not to shiver.
Tellie had her mouth open, extending and retracting her tongue like a lizard, eyes staring unblinking skyward as the snowflakes glanced off her cheeks and settled on her shoulders. Mary could sense their lightness in the depths of her ears, stiff, dry pings like ice unsticking from wet hands.
Across the parking lot, cars gathered layers of snow like protective covers. It was still fresh, loose; the individual flakes still distinguishable. There would be no school for Tellie today, and therefore no work for
Mary, either. How long before the snow melts, Mary wondered.
The morning after the snow, Mary felt the wind coming in through the small open window over the sink, watched it play with the gauzy drapes. John sipped at his coffee, glancing at Mary from the corner of his eye.
Mary looked at Tellie. She had a piece of toast clutched in one fist; the jam smeared on her fingers.
She looked at the clock. John looked at the clock. Tellie stuffed the jammy toast into her mouth. Mary got up from the table. “I’m off to work, then,” she said to the room in general. Tellie didn’t look up. John stood, collected the plates from the table and stacked them next to the sink. Mary looked at John. “Tellie needs to be at school at 9:30. Lunch in the fridge, backpack by the door. Call me if you have any issues.”
“We’ll be fine, Mary. Just try to have a good day,” John smiled, creasing the corners around his blue eyes.
“If you’re sure…” Mary looked down, twining her fingers together.
“Yes, Mama,” Tellie said, staring at her reflection in a spoon.
Mary leaned over to squeeze Tellie’s shoulders and kiss the top of her head, then she grabbed her jacket from the peg by the door and walked outside.
Mother was still in bed. Mary and John took the school bus by themselves that morning and came home to find her bedroom door locked. “Mama is in time-out,” she said, voice croaking through the closed door. At dinnertime, Mary poured cereal for her little brother then sat outside Mother’s door, chin resting on her bent knees, fingers twirling the end of her dark, thin ponytail.
In the afternoon, Mary drove Tellie in contented silence to the stable and parked under a large tree with hanging branches. She left the windows down. Maybe the farm air will find its way into the fabric of the seats, root out the sticky clumps of food and the stale coffee stains accumulating down the sides of the center console. She opened the door on Tellie’s side, unbuckled her, and hugged her to her chest, surprising herself. Then she pulled her daughter from the car and, linking their pinky fingers, let Tellie lead down the drive to the familiar green and white barn standing like an oasis at the end.
(c) Hayley Swinson, 2014
Other places to find her stories
- her home page: hayleyswinson.com