Short Fiction by Thom Willis
You develop favourites. This is my favourite wooden spoon. It has a short handle that sits well in my dry, ancient hand. The surface is worn smooth, except for that one patch of rough, knotted wood where the tree shows wild in our domestic life.
Bread is baked fresh every other day and we become adept in washing the mixing bowl—see how the scraps of dough shrink from cold water, grow stringy and unruly in hot.
Nails are kept short, in part because the handwashing routine causes them to scrape on sore skin, in part because nervous energy would compel us to bite them and this is a forbidden act. Touching your face is bad enough, to touch inside it unthinkable. I consider resuming my old habit of sucking my thumb. It has never been cleaner. My knuckles are worn grey and sore. Small tears in my skin; the most insignificant stigmata, martyr’s wounds for one who has sacrificed little but comfort.
Tea is slow, leaf-made and pot-bound. Small rituals fill spaces where time would otherwise rush in. Domestic gods are paid obeisance where before they were thrown a hurried Hail Mary as life charged forward, full of promise.
That promise hangs, paused, in the air; air that is Springtime cold, the sunlight teasing life from the ground and the wind shocking it awake. The birds have returned—for weeks our feeders sat full, the birds growing fat on some fruit coming ripe, now they flutter with life. Part bullying confidence, part nervous, darting eyes, they jab their beaks to find one perfect seed. Woodpeckers trill one-note scales. Soon we shall welcome back the swifts, one by one until the blue skies teem with squealing black darts, filling the spaces left by the absent aircraft.
Foxes run bolder, quicker, sleek red shapes trot unconcerned around stilled cars, wheels no longer threats. We cross the street if we see them. We cross the street if we see anything. We, who built this place human-size for human lives are now inside, in our dens, in our noisy lives.
School uniform is washed, folded, put away and never comes out of the drawer. When they can next wear them, they will have outgrown them. We usher them to the homeschool that draws our energy. They have decided that this school has no uniform; by mid-afternoon clothes have been almost entirely abandoned. Dressing gown drawn close, a small pink leg blurs past in the sun. Cooking is a lesson, now, wash your hands wash your hands watch for the pot mind your fingers.
I sing, to no-one, to myself. For myself, loudly and badly. For others, quietly, so they do not have to hear how bad I am. We all sing, we hear it through the walls and the floors, little bursts of sugar like grapes in the mouth. Touching my face is a reflex, self-comforting, and I only realise that now as I stand by cupboards stocked with exactly what we need and no more. I hold my face like I have a toothache. Every so often I buy a packet of wine gums, so we can discover their absurd gift of sweetness tucked behind jars of coffee, boxes of tea, packs of icing sugar.
Everyone must have considered how God feels about this, once or twice. I cannot say I have spoken to God. I have thought they may be having one of their turns. Perhaps I will pray. I have always understood the impulse to trust in a higher power, I have always envied faith; its comforts, yes, but its questions, too, that keep the conscience on its toes. I talk to myself. In the absence of God, it is good enough. Easter comes and goes—we eat chocolate and He is not risen here. The soft golden dough of afternoon’s bread springs up in its tin, offering salvation.
This piece was written in response to your Stories in the Time of Covid 19 project.