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Song and Story....a collection of short stories

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Breath of a Town

The Window Kisser
Letting Go
Out of Montana
Sweet Release (Review)
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Breath of a Town
By: Michele ClenDening

Art By: Frank Stock
Art By: Frank Stock

The glorious beginnings of the young town unfolded in an army-green canvas tent that dominated the room. A yellowed card stated, "The life of a pioneer." The beautiful brave faces of original founders plastered the walls; they beamed with pride for the establishment of a community of utility and excellence. I looked closer at one bronze medal of commendation and the accompanying photo. "Outstanding Soviet Citizen--Alosha Petrovich Ivanof, 1958. One of our first pioneers." The youthful Ivanof stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his hopeful eyes fixed on the future.

    Outside the museum I pulled my fur collar tight around me. I stood on dirty tundra the same color as the looming buildings fencing it in. Turning to the right, I could see the corpses of once-bustling factories silently hovering. They sat on the only road that granted leave from the town, the road that was marked by a tarnished monument of bundled smokestacks and a flag.

    Steaming water gushed out from a taped-up crack in a pipe that was supposed to deliver (and often did not) hot water to every apartment building. I walked next to the mothers pulling their tightly-bundled, immobile children on rickety wooden sleds. The children wore expressions of resignation under the sweaters, coats, blankets and security straps. Men dragged sacks of potatoes under similar restrictions. Two boys skied past me, one trying to maneuver himself with a single ski pole.

    The door slammed behind me as I rushed into the warmth of the indoor market. I immediately pulled off the fogged-up glasses, de-gloved my pink fingers and found the fresh bread. The unsteady, shriveled woman in front of me pointed at a browned loaf.

    "Give me a loaf of that bread," she croaked.

    "Two rubles thirty." The bare hand of the red lipsticked saleswoman thrust the bread at the woman.

    "Do you know how much I get for pension? My husband only gave me two rubles." Her withered hand produced the coins. "How can I buy bread?" Her sunken eyes pleaded with me; I bit my lip and tentatively shrugged my shoulders. "I can't even buy the medicine I need. We never had problems before. . ." I held the extra copeks ready for her, but as she recounted the familiar story, the saleswoman cut the loaf, took the two rubles and handed the woman half of the bread and a few copeks in return. I bought some mandarins and whatever else I could, this being a sparse season, then left the stale odor of raw meat and thawing fish. I squeezed past a man in the entryway with his wares on a box--four rolls of toilet paper, three boxes of matches and a pair of wool boots.

    The post office sat opposite the market, so I walked to the cross-walk, deftly avoiding the newer, more slippery ice. The road lay ahead of me, a dry black contrast to the surrounding drab. I wondered how they could afford the luxury of ice trucks as I set my left foot on the secure pavement. My step was interrupted, though, by a solemnly frantic man rushing into the street, ignoring oncoming traffic. Other pedestrians continued on, but I stopped. A car swerved and sped on. This gray figure waved his arm, encircled by a white band, back and forth. His face pleaded with us to stop, to look. I heeded his call without knowing why. His head turned sharply, and a farm truck emerged from a side street.

    The dented, weather-worn black truck pulled sluggishly into the abandoned lane. The back of the truck carried four men. One man firmly clutched a gray, homemade tombstone with a colorless photo affixed to the front; he glared at us with sharp, dark eyes. Although the bouncing truck compromised his balance, the tombstone bearer held his head and his stare steady. The man on his left grasped the side of the truck with a coarse calfskin glove and swayed, his shallow face haggard with the wind. Frozen tears clung to his cheeks, and his eyes refused to focus. On the right stood a slight figure whose gaze lay in the far-off mountains. He held nothing, carried nothing; his body was tossed alternately against the long pinewood box that carried the fourth man, and then the side of the truck. That fourth man was Alosha Petrovich Ivanof. He wore a hardened, tired expression in his photograph, and was tossed up and down as his hearse ambled across the pits and mounds of the winter road.

    The dutiful arm-banded man continued his succinct but disjointed gestures like a poorly animated cartoon figure. His frenzied movements only occupied my peripheral vision, though. Ivanof held my attention, begging me to listen to his story. His deep windy whisper entered my open ears and lingered. "I. . .am. . .free. I am. . .free. . .from this dying town. I gave it birth. It gave me. . ." The traffic director ran to the next intersection as the truck rumbled on, leaving black smoke in its wake.

    I blinked. Cars were racing past me, and ladies were clip-clopping to the stores and kiosks. The weight of mandarins tugged at my arm, so with a groggy shake of my head, I turned toward house number three. Four smoking ten-year-olds lurked in the empty stairwell and watched me as I unlocked my door. Inside I shed extra layers, lit a match, turned the knob on the stove and retrieved a mug. While unpacking the plastic bag, I uncovered the two forgotten, stamped airmail envelopes.

    "Whirl, whIRL, WHIRRLLL," screamed the teapot. I sank into the orange-cushioned chair and cautiously sipped from the cup, the hot tea seeping down my throat into my stomach, warming every part of my body. Head tilted on hand, elbow leaning on table, I idly peered into the life of the next five-story building. Televisions were glowing, women were tossing their heads in laughter, a family was slurping borscht. A small blond boy grinned knowingly; I nodded my head in recognition. He waved a sly hand, but our view of each other was gradually obscured by the descent of clean white.

    The flakes comforted the weary ground, erasing the drabness and concealing blemishes. The bright coating was transforming concrete monsters into pearlized palaces upon blanketed courtyards. The wind hummed through the cracks and drew me to the winterized window. When I pried it open, snow tickled my face and pools of water began to collect in the palms of my cupped hands. The new air expanded my chest and revived my senses. In a sudden gust, the swirling white circled my uplifted head, stroked my hair and quietly breathed, "I. . .am. . .free. . ."


Author's Bio

Michele ClenDening is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Now she is a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Far East Russia, teaching English and Spanish as well as American culture to middle school and high school students. She hopes to write a book about her experiences in the Russian Far East and the people and culture of this region.


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Song & Story Articles

|| The Breath of a Town || || The Window Kisser ||
|| Letting Go || || Out of Montana ||
|| PLEASE--REJECT ME! || || Sweet Release(Review) ||
|| The Results || || In Transition ||



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