The window was open.
Salma knew she had not left it open. Today she remembered shutting it, locking it, right before she made breakfast. She had not slept well, but at least her hunger remained. She wanted to have eggs on toast, garlic and jam, everything that would assuage her hunger when she heard the sound in the other room.
It wasn’t the first time that a sound meant nothing. This house made a lot of sounds. Salma checked anyway, unable to stop herself. In her old place, an apartment in the city, one could assume that if a sound came from the other room something had actually moved, fallen over, for some reason. Here? Certainly something could have fallen, but it would have been replaced by the time she arrived. The cottage wanted her to move from the kitchen and had tricked her once more.
This time the house’s goal was to get her out of the way. To open the window and set her food on the sill for the birds, who picked the grains off her crust and out of her jam. Salma stared in horror, before rushing over to shoo them off.
The cottage moving fast she had started getting used to, but the birds? It was as if they knew. She startled a couple into the house and there went the rest of her morning. She tried to direct them all back out the window. Even if wild animals hadn’t trekked all over her food, it was cold by the time she returned to it.
Salma let out a wordless sound of anger and slammed her fist into the wall. Nothing responded.
She arrived here a month ago. As far as she was concerned, that was one month too long. Laundry couldn’t be ruined, could it? Salma hadn’t had a problem doing it before, the cottage and it’s limited electricity allowed for a washing machine and the cottage had yet to do anything terrible to the cycle.
Salma pulled her clothes out, wet yet clean. At the very least she had that. Salma left the miserable confines of the house and went to where she had set up the laundry line, hanging everything up to dry. Happy with that attempt, she went back inside and dared to eat a few granola bars. The cottage couldn’t ruin those.
Salma was a city girl. From living with her parents to alone as an adult, she’d lived only in the city. The notice that her grandfather died came out of nowhere, because Salma could not remember the last time she had seen him. A long time ago. She hadn’t remembered the cottage he had lived in for most of his life. She had been here once before. It was brighter then, but it might have been in the height of summer.
She remembered her grandfather as grumpy. But he had also been strong. She had always reached upward and he had given up his frown to bend down, pick her up, and raise her up into the air. She remembered him holding her up for a long time, much to her childish delight.
Everything else was too vague. Her memory gave her flashes, nothing more. Salma didn’t find the point of thinking back on it too much. He had given her, out of everything, his cottage and all the belongings that were not specified as going to others. After a week, asking officials to help find where on the map the address might actually be, she found this place once more.
Then came the part which made her remember she couldn’t treat this like any piece of property.
The door slammed in her face. Tears sprang to Salma’s eyes, hand over her left arm. Fortunately, hitting her arm saved the nose on her face from being flattened. Like it had the last time. Salma had been counting the occurrences of this particular transgression (it was now five).
Why had she remained for so long? She hadn’t wanted to live here in the first place. But what else could she do with this building that now stood in her name? Considering its attitude, Salma doubted she could sell it. Staying here was impossible. Perhaps the cottage wanted to be left alone. She could return to the city.
Cities had electricity enough for a dryer, which meant her clothes wouldn’t all end up in the dirt outside. Salma opened and closed her fists a few time before returning outside to pick up her dirtied laundry.
Her grandfather had lived in this cottage most of his life. That much she knew. This cottage was much older than he ever was and he had added the limited wiring there was by himself. The shack nearby (no errant personality) with a generator helped with things like clothes washing, the stove, and giving her warm baths. He’d lived all on his own until he reached ninety nine years old.
He had passed away a couple miles down the road, visiting the grave of his wife. He fell asleep in front of her grave and never woke up again. Salma figured he must have lived a full life. He’d gone full circle.
A book fell off the shelf and hit her on the head. Salma saw bright lights for a few moments, managing to stumble into one of the armchairs. She blinked away tears, refusing to sob no matter how much she felt like it. It felt so stupid, not wanting to give a house satisfaction.
But Salma was tired, hungry, frustrated. She was done with this place.
As soon as she had herself as collected as she could be, Salma stomped off to the bedroom, pulling out her suitcase. Everything she had brought, well, even if it didn’t all fit into this, she would take what she most wanted and figure out when to pick up the rest later. She wiped her nose off on the back of her sleeve, not even bothering to fold her clothes, throwing a lot of them into a trash bag as they were still wet, jamming her other belongings around that.
Throwing her weight down on the top of it, she managed to shut the bag. Salma dragged it to the front of the house, reaching out to open the door and escape her prison.
The door would not open. Staring in disbelief, Salma jiggled the handle, trying to force it. This could not be happening. The cottage had done all this to her, because it had to want her to leave. This door should open and let her out.
It did not.
There was nothing she could do but cry, but if there was anything Salma couldn’t let herself do it was cry. Even now that she didn’t care if the cottage had her where she wouldn’t be able to hide her tears. Her vision remained blurry, the waterworks were there. She left the suitcase at the front door, wandering back over to the armchair. She nearly tripped over the book that had hit her earlier. Absently, she picked it up, setting it in her lap as she sat down.
Salma sat there for some time until the tears finally spilled down her cheeks. Her shoulders didn’t move, sinking into the back of the armchair, more comfortable than it had any right to be. She was tired, that was it. She had slept poorly, after all. And there was the hunger gnawing at her again – those granola bars hadn’t lasted long. Pulling her feet up into the chair with her, Salma nearly drifted off.
The cottage couldn’t hold her here forever. Her plan was simple. The cottage would eventually drop its guard and all she had to do was run for the door. The moment she could get the front door open, she would slide her luggage into the doorway to keep it from shutting. Then she could get out. She’d pull her things out after her. She was willing to leave the rest of her things behind forever as collateral. It didn’t matter.
The light from the window moved to stream into her eyes and Salma shifted to lower her face from the sight. She opened the book, still uncertain if standing up might bring the cottage to attention once more.
It was a journal, she realized. Written by her grandfather. She recognized the handwriting, though she couldn’t remember why she knew it was his handwriting. Was there a card he had sent her that she had kept? There were not a lot of other options for her to have been exposed to it. It had been a long time since she had read cursive though and the lack of dots above the lowercase Is and Js was distinctive enough as it made the already hard to read small writing even more difficult to interpret.
Deciphering became easier when she reached the pages with the sketches on them. The pictures were of birds and what was written by them were explanations about the different species. Occasionally he had added in a background, where they stood perched. Never on a branch it seemed. The more and more Salma looked at it, the more familiar it became.
It came to her. It was the kitchen.
The sentence came to her eventually – her grandfather wrote about how he fed the birds every morning. He left the food out on the windowsill in the kitchen. They hopped inside, every morning. Things she had never considered… such as her grandfather’s interest in birds.
Salma hadn’t paid too much attention to everything on the shelves of the few bookshelves in the house. There were only three of them, two in the main room that reached from the floor near the top and a shorter one in a different room that only reached her hip, with figurines of dancers, a grass green twisted vase and an oil lantern on the top of it. Salma had removed the oil lantern very quickly when she saw it there – the danger to her plain. She found the lantern returned to where it had been set after waking up the next day. It had taken her removing it to the shed to make sure that nothing would happen.
Her grandfather had a lot of books about aviation. She had never heard anything about him being an aviator, or of him having any interest in such things. She looked up at the tracks on the ceiling, trying to remember what had once been there.
Eventually Salma found the answer in a closet. Plane models, wound up to propel themselves along the track built into the ceiling. One of them came with a similar magnet, where she could push it along the ceiling with the repulsion. Salma set them all up above, finding where each of them fit and staring in wonder.
Then, without her having to do anything, the planes began to move. The cottage pushed them along. Salma watched, enthralled in the mini display.
He must have liked aeroplanes, her grandfather. No one had told her. It was amazing and such a shame she had never known.
There was a collection by Bulawaye on the smaller shelf, the books all a part of the same collection, completely level to each other. They were in various level of wear, obviously not all bought at the same time. Similar covers, but spines so varied she wondered if they were bought at such different times or if her grandfather liked some more than others.
The next time she walked by the shelf, two of the volumes had been pushed forward to stick out. She pulled them out to look them over later.
The dancer figurines had openings in the bottom, where small curls of yellowed paper were stashed. She carefully pried each of them out with her fingernails, slowly flattening them to see what they were. Autographs, she decided, seeing only a single signature on each. Studying the figurines once more, Salma was struck by the fact these were models of real dancers, not simply renditions of anything generic. Every single one had an autograph inside. Salma didn’t recognize any of the names, any of the faces.
But she did remember these figures, up on a shelf higher than her eyes when she was little. Reaching up to play with them, her mother would scold her and bat her hands away. Later in the day, her grandfather brought one down for her to look at. He didn’t let her hold it, though he let her put her tiny hands all over it. Her hands were clean, she remembered, someone had made her wash up before. Her small fingers reached into each crevasse, taking delight in the texture and the colours more than anything about what those two things had come together to create.
Until this moment, she wouldn’t have been able to describe any of these dancers at any point in her life, not even the day after the night her grandfather held them before her. Salma had been here an entire month and she wouldn’t have been able to describe these people. For they were people, captured in motion, sought out by her grandfather and immortalized within renditions of their own bodies. An entire month and she hadn’t looked into her grandfather’s things?
That was untrue, she had looked into some of it. Yet she felt as though she had missed all the important things. She had spent that time glancing up at the marks on the ceiling, not even guessing what they were, half the time on her back because lack of sleep or because of a door slammed in her face. The books on the shelf had meant nothing, not during the amount of times she had had to put them back.
The skies had turned dark and Salma remembered her hunger. Without much energy, she returned to the kitchen. She looked at what she had and decided upon a simple meal of soup, as she already had a can. She found the pot and while she opened the can up, she realized the stove was already warming. Pouring in her meal, she watched it closely for some time, smelling as the food prepared itself. She added in a few things, stirring all the while.
The cupboard wouldn’t open, not allowing her a bowl. Before Salma could become upset, she looked up to the table in the other room. Everything had already been set up. Bowl, spoon, napkin.
Salma blinked back her tears. Did the cottage miss him? she asked aloud of the abode around her.
Serving herself with what had been set out for her, Salma ate her dinner in the place where her grandfather must have taken most of his meals. The cottage took care of the stove, putting the fire in the fireplace instead to warm the chilling air. The fire was weak until Salma went to feed a bit more fuel to it. Settling back in her seat, she finished the bread she had dipped into her soup. A simple meal, but the best one she had had in weeks.
“I’m not my grandfather. I’m never going to be. He was wonderful, wasn’t he? I never knew. I wish I had known him better while he was alive. It isn’t making up for it, but I will have to get to know him better now, with what there is left of him. You miss him, don’t you? You must, I guess. I won’t ignore what’s here. Still, you have to understand. I’m not him. I will not be doing the same things as him. Some of those traditions are not me. Can we try together? I want to know him better and you can show me. If I learn about it, even if I don’t continue it… it won’t be lost. Not between the two of us.”
The cottage did nothing to reply that Salma could tell. Then again, that meant nothing. The cottage did many thing that meant something Salma hadn’t been able to interpret. Partially her fault. Just as much the fault of a grieving cottage.
The next morning was the first morning that Salma felt like sleeping in. The bed was comfortable, no cool morning draft assault her toes. She took comfort in the laziness for a half and hour before getting dressed. She made her way to the kitchen and, first things first, put the rest of the bread out on a tray on the windowsill for the birds.
After that, she made her own breakfast. More complex than her dinner, Salma enjoyed it more than any meal she had had in a long time. She opened up her luggage and put things back where she had wanted them. Her laundry had to be done again, but that was all right. More laundry detergent would be on her grocery list. This afternoon she would go into town. The cottage would let her, right?
Nothing stopped Salma from hanging her clothes to dry again, fairly certain nothing would get in her way. Nothing had happened at all this morning to upset her. She began to pin up her pants when the line hit the ground. Irritation welled up within her once more. Reaching for the line, birdsong caught her attention. Salma looked in that direction, not seeing the birds who chirped along in the sunlight caught branches, but definitely seeing the sunlight which shone brightly at the other corner of the house.
An option, certainly. Salma moved her set up to that corner of the house, putting her wash upon the line once more. There was no problem and in a few hours it was dry.
Not the best way of letting her know, but Salma decided they both had a ways to go.