Mazes

Uncle Petrovic came home from the foundry today waving a scrap of paper that the District Administrator had handed him with a grave look on half his face. A childhood accident involving strong glue had left the Administrator’s face with nerve damage in the left side; he couldn’t move the muscles there at all, and every expression seemed to betray an underlying apathy. His mother blamed herself for the accident, and each day she spent over the kitchen sink, making beet soup and rethreading used twine, was a day of atonement for an accident she could never have hoped to prevent. Her husband, the old cobblesmith, used to joke that by her ceaseless domestic labour she was mortifying her flesh in the style of Dominican monks. He himself lived a life of relative comfort having retired early with painful insteps, the inevitable lot of the cobblesmith, and was pursuing an interest in chess. He played regular games against the postman who was generally recognised to be the finest chess player in the village- apart from the village chess-smith, who cared little for the game since the death of his only son. The son, though a fine man and an outstanding tooth-grinder, had been a poor chess player, and had died in battle during the most recent war, struck down by a relatively minor soldier. His secret sweetheart was consequently engaged in a frantic search for a husband before her bump became too obvious and her unborn child was branded by the other villagers. Her front-runner was a pragmatic bank manager who understood the situation and who was still weighing the problematic ignominy of raising another man’s child against the acquisition of the beautiful young pregnant woman. Having known affection only once before, and briefly, in the arms of the dowager of the house upon the hill, he craved a woman as surely as the dowager herself craved the young gardener’s apprentice who worked her lesser shrubs with such fumbling care. The apprentice had not reached such an age to have had many thoughts on the subject, and the head gardener, with a cultivator’s instinct for husbandry, was keeping the boy as far away from the old spinster as seemed necessary. It was among his principal concerns, the foremost being the health of his ailing wife, a woman who, for forty-five years had formed the better half of his nature, and who was now visibly diminishing. Every evening he returned to her bedside, the dirt of the day crusted deep down in the lines of his hands, and fed her thin broths and milk. She was lucid a great deal of the time, and when she was not, he would hold her hand and quietly repeat her name until she returned. She shivered in any heat and told him, her voice cracked, that he led her back to the light. It took a little longer each time.

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