Billie M. Koffman
Years of Change
Seventh & Eighth Grade Prose Winner
Gray clouds scuttled across a lonely sky. Not a creature stirred, save a disheveled man struggling up a long, dark, winding path. Overgrown with grass and heather, the path was one of the few things that looked as it had seventy years before or at least that the woman gazing out at the mottled sky remembered. She was used to people walking along the road; in summer visitors strolled leisurely down it wearing fancy hats and surrounded by their multitude of children. But Summer was over now, cold rain fell almost every day and visitors were scarce. Through the window the woman had seen over sixty years of change. It was no surprise to her when the man pulled a paintbrush from deep inside his coat and then a piece of canvas and began to paint the house across from hers.
The woman whose name was Kate had seen many artists come to paint the house. There was a sort of quiet dignity about it even she could see. The old stone chimneys, white washed walls and clusters of whispering pines seemed to hold secrets. Artists felt the house’s magic. No artist stayed long though. They left as soon as they could. There was a sort of strange familiarity about the house. “It was not that it was not beautiful, no that was not it” Kate had long ago decided for herself, “it was just that the house looked like it should be full of laughter and children the way it once was.”
The house, after so many years, still made her sad. The memories she wanted to forget haunted her though that she hadn’t forgotten them was a good thing. She was eighty-seven years old and still remembered almost her entire life. Her mind was slipping, that she knew. Ten years ago she could have remembered her wedding perfectly. Today it was hazy, half forgotten and the man she had married, dead. But that was life she thought looking down at her wrinkled hands. Her hair was no longer reddish gold but white and wispy with age. Her children were either dead or far away and her husband buried behind the house under the old poplar tree.
Kate stared at the white house with a slight smile. She had been a maid for the last family who had lived there. A sudden image of her as the timid seventeen-year-old girl she had been so long ago sent her laughing. “A maid like none she had ever had,” her mistress had said so many a time. Her mistress was the most selfless person she had ever met. As a widow with one child she adored, her old mistress had inherited the house from a distant relative, and though she had complained endlessly about it, Kate knew the woman had cherished it. Kate allowed herself to sink back into her memories, closing her eyes and letting go.
Golden clouds descended through the sky, bringing with them the chilly wind of a late November twilight. A thin layer of cold snow lay over the ground and bare branches. A young woman aged seventeen years and named Kathryn Strim marched up a small hill following a tiny set of footprints leading to a day dreaming boy sitting under an icy bush.
“Nathaniel!” she called.
The boy looked up. “Kate,” he smiled. “What are you doing here?”
“I’d like to know the same of you, young man,” demanded Kate.“Oh,” said the boy looking sad. “I wanted to ask the squirrels if they had seen papa. You know, some animals see things you and I don’t, but there were no squirrels.”
“Nathaniel,” said Kate, tucking him in a blanket and hurrying down the hill, “Don’t talk such nonsense. Your mother was heartbroken. This is the fourth time you’ve run away. You must not do it again, understand?”
“I like being alone,” said Nathaniel “but if it will please you, I won’t do it again.” He wriggled out of her arms. Dropping to the icy ground, he smiled up at her, slid his chubby hand into hers, and led her down the hill.
Days turned to weeks. Snow fell harder every day and Kate’s memory, no longer sharp, blurred together like the view out of a moving car. It was December, Kate gave birth to twins. Their dimpled smiles were the only light for Kate in the dark stormy winter that seemed endless. That month Kate, her husband and the twins moved into the house across the street from the white house. But every morning after feeding her own children, Kate, dressed in red woolen flannels, would hurry across the dark road and into the warm white house where her mistress and Nathaniel waited. The white house was always filled with maids and cooks, stable boys and occasionally the old lighthouse keeper. Merry talk and old stories were passed around the fireside. But the talk could not distract them for long from the cold. It seeped in from the floor cracks; crept through the heavily bolted shutters and bit its way through even the warmest room. Germs spread like wild fire and before the first of January over a quarter of the staff was sick with pneumonia as was Kate’s mistress and little Nathaniel.
The winter of 1947-1948 was a cold one. Many people died, most from pneumonia. Some people went outside and were lost in blizzards; others too poor to be able to afford heat froze. As winter progressed though Nathaniel and his mother slowly grew stronger. Early in February, Nathaniel begged the old lighthouse keeper to take him to the sea. Nathaniel’s mother forbade him.
“I won’t let the sea have you and your father,” she mumbled to herself holding his golden head in her hands. But Nathaniel was determined. Every day he begged his mother, Kate or the old lighthouse keeper.
“I want to see the frozen waves,” he would say.
One night Kate’s mistress dismissed her early; “It’s going to get quite stormy. Why don’t you get home?” she had said. So Kate had said goodbye to Nathaniel and went home. She had eaten dinner with her family, tucked her sons into bed and sat peacefully with her husband by the fire. That night the rain fell in torrents turning the path into mud and making the ocean froth in the wind. Inside her house Kate heard the ocean waves roaring. Suddenly there was a pounding upon the door. Kate’s husband rose from his chair and opened the door. Outside stood the cook. The big woman’s face, usually so jolly, was swollen with tears.
“Oh, Kate,” she said “something’s happened at the house.”
Kate’s face went as white as chalk; she grabbed her shawl from the wooden rocker and hurried after the cook.
Inside the white house, Kate ran into the living room. Dozens of people were gathered around the lighthouse keeper and in his arms he carried Nathaniel. The old man then told them the story—the story that would change Kate’s life forever.
“It had been a normal night. The winds were strong, that was true, but the lighthouse built high above the tossing waves was sturdy. He had just finished his dinner when he thought he saw a little figure walking down the path to the sea. The old man’s eyes were going and lately he had been seeing things that were not there. But nevertheless, he slipped his wooden chair out from the table, took up the glowing lantern and strode to the door. Outside, the old man, bent against the wind, made the perilous journey down the steep rocky cliff path to a stony outcrop below. There he saw the boy he loved so much reach out to touch the waves. Even before Nathaniel fell, the old man had known what was to happen. Nathaniel had leaned out too far and like a stone he dropped off the cliff and into the fury of waves below. When the old man had found him, it had been too late.”
Nathaniel was buried behind the old house in a small silver box. “Ashes,” Kate had thought. That was all that was left of the little boy she had loved. Her mistress moved away and the rest of the staff left for other cities and other towns, far away from the sorrow of a boy’s life cut short. Kate did smile after the funeral but there was something in her smile that was gone and never replaced. Kate had other children. She grew older and her hair turned gray. Her children grew up and moved away. When Kate was seventy, her husband died but she survived in her little green house. She did not need the cities where her children lived. She simply lived.
As Kate awoke with tears dried on her face, she turned to look across the street, the artist rose to his feet and before the first drops of rain, he was over the hill and gone.