Collector of Souvenirs ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Winter was going to hit hard. The woman had been preparing for weeks. The root cellar and larder were full to overflowing with everything she would need until spring. Firewood was stacked to the ceiling. She wouldn’t have to set foot outside the house unless of her own choosing.
She didn’t mind being alone, even if her solitude lasted for months, and she would have plenty to do to pass the time. She had her books, her sewing and her music. She was mastering some difficult pieces for piano that she had never had the concentration for before. She planned on making some dresses and fancy goods that she would sell in her cousin’s shop in the village in the spring to earn some money. When she grew tired of these pursuits, she would nap and look out at the winter landscape, or else daydream and jot down notes for a book she had been planning to write since she was twelve years old.
On Thursday, the first day of December, the snow began to fall. At first it fell lightly but after a while it was like a curtain of gauze. It accumulated very fast, rendering the scene out the window all but unrecognizable. There was not a sound to be heard except the wind blowing the snow around the little house and rattling the bare branches on the trees. Far off in the valley the houses looked like playthings on a blanket of cotton with the thin streams of smoke coming from their chimneys. It reminded her of a beautiful scene she had once seen in a store window at Christmastime of a miniature village with a tiny electric train going in and out of tunnels in the mountain.
In late afternoon on the second day of snowfall, she had just taken some bread out of the oven when she heard a scraping sound at the back door. She thought it was her cat wanting to be let in, but he was asleep in his box in the corner. When she went to the door and opened it a little to see who or what was there, she saw a man standing there, bent over from the waist as if to catch his breath.
“Are you lost?” she asked, not thinking for a moment to be alarmed. She would allow him to come in and sit at the table and warm himself and she would help to set him on the right course.
When the man looked at her in the half-dark, she almost, but not quite, recognized him. It couldn’t be who she thought it was. That person was dead and deserved to be so.
“They’re after me,” he said.
“Who is?” she asked, but instead of answering he burst through the door, pushing her back against the wall.
“Just a minute,” she said. “You’ve got the wrong house!”
“Don’t you recognize me?” he asked, taking off his hat and letting her see his face in the light.
“Yes, it is I,” he said. “It’s Michael.”
“No,” she said.
“Give me something to eat. I’m starving.”
She moved around to the other side of the table away from him. She saw her cat scuttle off into the next room, afraid of a stranger being admitted to the house.
“All right,” she said, trying to think. “I’ll feed you but then you’ll have to leave.”
He laughed and pulled out a chair from the table and sat down and began to take off his boots. “You’re not going to get rid of me that easily, my pet.”
“You can’t stay here.”
“Why not? We’re man and wife.”
“They told me you were dead.”
“A man thought to be dead can get away with so much more than a man known to be alive.”
“You can’t stay here. I have someone coming.”
“My aunt and uncle are coming. And my cousin. My aunt and my cousin are coming tomorrow to spend a few days with me.”
“In this weather? I don’t believe you. Nobody is coming here and you know it.” He took hold of her arm by the wrist and twisted it a little. “After I’ve eaten we’ll have a good long lie-in.”
“You can stay the night. I’ll make a pallet for you on the floor near the fire, but in the morning you have to leave.”
“You don’t seem to be hearing me,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m going to hide out here for a while. What wife wouldn’t offer refuge to her husband?”
“We’re no longer man and wife. The marriage is invalid.”
“Not according to my book of rules, it’s not.”
She set the steaming plate of food in front of him. “I have a little money in the house. You can have it as long as you promise me I won’t ever see you again.”
He laughed as he began eating. “I don’t think your pin money would do me a lot of good right now.”
“Why do you want to torment me?”
“I’m your husband. Isn’t that what husbands do?”
“I despise you. I was happy when your father came and told me you were dead. It meant I was free of you.”
“You always knew how to be cruel, didn’t you?”
“If you don’t leave, I’m going to put on my boots and walk down the mountain to the village. I know people there. I’ll be back in no time at all with three or four men carrying shotguns.”
“You’d never make it. The snow is too deep but even if it wasn’t you wouldn’t be able to see two feet in front of you. You’d freeze to death and they wouldn’t find your body until spring.”
She sat down at the table across from him. “All right,” she said. “Suppose you stay here for a few days. A week or two. What then?”
“After the snow settles, I’m going to send word to some friends to join me here.”
“You don’t know them.”
“After that, what then?”
“Well, we wait here—all winter if need be—until the little spot of trouble we’re in dies down.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Now, that’s not a fair question without knowing the circumstances. All will be revealed in time.”
“What if I said I don’t want any part of this? What if I said this is my house and you and your friends are not welcome here?”
“Then, I’m afraid your husband would be bound to overrule you.” He took a small gun out of his pocket and set it on the table in front of him. “I’m sure you’ll come around to my way of thinking after you’ve had time to get over the shock of seeing me again.”
She stood up and walked around the table to stand behind him, putting her hand on his shoulder. He slumped in the chair as if melting under her touch.
“I never stopped thinking of you,” he said. “There were so many times I wanted to let you know I was alive and would be coming back to you.”
“What would you have done if I had married again?”
“I guess I would have had to kill him,” he said with a small laugh.
“You’re tired, now, dear,” she said. “You just need to rest.”
“Yes, we’ll talk more in the morning.”
“No one knows you’re here?” she asked. “No one at all?”
“Not a living soul on God’s green earth,” he said. “We’re safe and it’s so good to be home.”
She picked up a small, razor-sharp knife that she kept handy to cut up poultry and game and plunged it into his neck a couple of inches below his ear. Blood gushed like a fountain from the severed artery in his neck. He fell off the chair onto the floor, writhing in pain and rage. He tried to speak but only made gurgling sounds. She stood back several feet and watched him as he reached feebly for the table as if to try to pull himself up. After a couple of minutes he bled to death.
She fed his body into the fire. How he sputtered and crackled as the fire consumed him! How quickly and easily he burned! She had to smile to herself as she imagined the particles of him going out the chimney in smoke, spreading out into the frigid winter night.
When the fire cooled and she saw there were fragments of bone among the ashes, she ground them into a fine dust with a mortar and pestle that had belonged to her father. She poured the dust into a glass jar with a lid and placed the jar on a shelf, alongside her glass pig from a county fair she had attended when she was fifteen years old and other souvenirs that she kept from significant events in her life.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp