Windows and Stone

By Nadia Barghout Brown

The thrum of the mountain entered through the cut-stone window; through my skin. Beyond the patio of my grandparents’ home in Tirol, past Omi waiting with a cigarette, a dirt path curled like a ribbon toward the grey-blue peaks. Sheep grazed under its massive stone sentinels, flowers danced in its shadows, long streaks of sun toyed with clay dust on the path. Everything in the valley exhaled mountain.

I squeezed the handle of the pocketknife, slid the small blade along the stick. Opa’s hand hovered over mine. The knife caught in small whorls, jerking awkwardly as strips of bark coiled upwards, revealing irregular grooves of white wood-flesh below. I pushed Opa’s hand away and continued whittling until the walking stick was covered in shapes: diamonds, crosses, haphazard squiggles. It was more beautiful, even, than Opa’s. His chin jiggled his approval.

“Also, los!” said Opa. Let’s go!

We marched, my brother, grandparents, and I. Up, up, always up. My newly adorned stick scuffed the ground with each step, the patterns glowing white in the sun, the tip of the stick tossing bits of gold dust into the air. We were spazieren—a hike, an adventure, a march steeped in playfulness and flung back out through the teeth. Spazieren for the last time before Mummy took Hosni and me back home to Toronto, six weeks after Daddy dropped us off. The sun flittered along the path, diving between daisies and bluebells, chasing errant long grasses. We strode past the mossy log where snails, ladybugs, and iridescent-shelled beetles found refuge. The mountain enfolded us. 

When Daddy had delivered us to our grandparents, he’d climbed right back on the plane without leaving the airport. Six weeks we’d been in Tirol with Omi and Opa. Long enough to know that the wooden bowl on our windowsill would be filled with sugary cookies each morning. Long enough to have tasted cream still warm from the cows next door, to feel the airy sourness melt in my mouth and make my stomach heave. A treat my mother had loved as a child, Omi said. When Omi wasn’t looking, Hosni slid the bowl to the open window and tipped the contents to the stones below, where they were devoured immediately by the neighbourhood cats.

I waited for Mummy that evening, skipping from one room to another, unable to sit still. When she arrived from Toronto, her blonde hair was curled neatly at her shoulders, a leather purse clutched against her dress. Her movements seemed sharp—I had forgotten that—her voice high and tight, so unlike the comfortable rumble of her parents. Momentarily shy, I hid behind Opa. He placed a hand on my shoulder, jostled me toward Mummy. When she hugged me—angular, hesitant—the folds of her dress released small puffs of coffee, airplane, home. 

I placed my walking stick in her hand. “Schau’ mal,” I said. Look!

“Oh,” Mummy nodded, her eyes flickering over the stick. She opened her hand for me to take it back, returned to talking with her parents: long words, rushed, uninteresting and monotone. Hosni and I retreated to the patio. We sipped fizzy water from a bottle, reminisced about spotting land that afternoon: Robinson Crusoe times two, hunched over a rock on the sloping meadow. We wondered if we’d spot Canada from the plane, then listened for a while to the mountain in the dark. 

Through the plane window the next day, I watched silver-white mountains tilt and shrink, then disappear. How fragile they looked, like delicate folds pinched into fabric. I thought of my dolls waiting at home in their flowery dresses. They had waited six weeks for me. Had they been lonely, in the silence of my room?  

The house was dark when we arrived home. Mummy sighed deeply. She opened a window—strange, to see it sealed with glass. Humid beads of air paused on the windowsill, shimmered, then dissolved into the paint. In Tirol, the outside world had flowed readily through stone windows unencumbered by glass: a constant conversation. Here, the windows let in tiny slivers at a time, or shut out the world completely. Mummy asked for quiet. Her voice, normal again, forced my movements smaller. I sat down beside her, tucked my hands under my legs so they would not fly accidentally as I talked. I started to tell her about The Parade in the village, the one with no apparent reason. But talking about Tirol gave her a headache, she said. Bitte nicht. I wanted to tell her that I rode on Opa’s shoulders, bouncing as the oompa-oompa-oompa-swish of accordions reverberated in my chest. From Opa’s shoulders, I’d waved as the band marched by in a blur of orange neckties, loose white blouses, and Lederhosen. They played in the Square long past dark and we danced with the crowd, surrounded by open doors and clinking glass. Opa gave me a sip of his beer, laughed as I spit out the thick, bitter liquid. 

I wanted to tell her that one morning, on the road, I found the flattened shape of a frog, its limbs splayed and its skin the colour of dust. A two-dimensional cut-out, like a paper doll. Don’t touch it, Omi had said. I turned the carcass over with a stick to see its open mouth—wide and flat and grey, extending almost the length of its body. An uncomfortable weight pulled at my chest as I remembered the incessant croaking of frogs, rising and falling through the window, like waves in the dark. But I didn’t tell Mummy any of this.

A year passed. The beat of the mountain waned, dispersed into the empty Ontario sky. Our house retreated into a silence that was never truly still. It heaved under the surface, erupting, recoiling and then sparking again: clattering squalls and relentless shoulds. Daddy should get a job—any job. Mummy should mind her own business. Daddy should explain why he can’t get along with people. Mummy should realize that those people are idiots, starting his own business will be great. Daddy should remember that he failed last time, Mummy should be quiet or go to her room. 

Hosni and I held our breath amidst the outbursts, then exhaled steeply from behind closed doors. From the safety of his room, we copied the battles, held imaginary machine guns high, waited, splattered bullets at the walls with noise effects each time their voices rose. Once we tired of this, we dulled the sounds with card games, books, or make-believe. 

One afternoon, Hosni’s door pulled tight, we draped a sheet over his bunkbeds, enclosed the cabin of our ship, set sail to Tirol. The upper deck was lined with pillows, but it remained empty as we rode out a storm below. First, we imitated our parents as the argument swelled in waves from the kitchen. We pretend-yelled, contorting our mouths and flapping our arms emphatically, silently. Until I giggled and Hosni pointed sharply at the door.

Shhh!” he commanded, then placed his hands around his neck in an exaggerated choke-hold. Smothering my laughter, I followed him onto our boat. We sat cross-legged on the bunk, drew a map on the wall with our fingers, collected our passengers Fuzzy and Rabbit, and lifted anchor.

The storm raged, but immediately we were far from shore, too far to turn back and listing dangerously in the waves. Hosni gripped the steering wheel and threw himself hard right. I pulled Fuzzy and Rabbit from the edge—just in time. Hosni whistled with relief, reached for Fuzzy, then clamped his bear’s paw to the wheel. 

“Here Fuzzy, you steer for a while.” 

I stared at my brother, stunned. Only Hosni had ever been allowed to man the ship. My triumph at surviving the storm disappeared, swallowed by this new, great injustice. Rabbit, propped against the make-shift anchor, glared silent fury. Hosni’s self-appointed authority, the special treatment of his bear roiled stronger than the waves. I snatched Fuzzy from the wheel, surprising my brother. Hosni froze for an instant before yanking the bear from my arms.

“What are you doing?” he snapped.

I want to steer! Let me steer!” I reached again for the bear.

Hosni blocked my arm and his expression shifted to one of amusement. “No,” he sneered, “little sisters and rabbits can’t steer.” 

Storm precautions abandoned, I lunged at my brother, only vaguely aware of the staccato shrieks—firecrackers, that exited my mouth in a torrent. 

I can steer better than Fuzzy!” I wailed, punching and slapping, quickly withdrawing, attacking again. Fuzzy remained out of reach. Hosni laughed, plucked my hands from the air, and squeezed them over my head like a vice, rendering me helpless. And then, as though in a single motion, the sheet was flung to one side, and Mummy, red-faced and silent, pulled us by the arms out of the bunk, out of his room, and into the kitchen. Daddy was gone. Mummy pulled a wooden spoon from the drawer. 

Idiot!” Hosni hissed. My foot stomped, almost involuntarily, against the floor. 

It was not the thwack! of the spoon against my backside that sent me outside afterward, but the uneasy silence that followed, like glowing ash from a fire. In the backyard, I pulled myself on the swing until the posts lifted and dropped in the ground: creak-thump, creak-thump. But the uneasiness persisted. I was not supposed to leave the yard, but what did it matter; I was already in trouble. Cautiously, I opened and closed the garden gate and walked to the abandoned lot around the corner. There, where the hulking shell of a greenhouse stood with steel bones open to the sky, the breezes sighed freely. Plates of glass leaned against the building as though placed carefully at the end of a shift. Large shards, some the size of a tire, glinted like diamonds in waist-high grass. Rope-thick rose vines clambered over them, clinging to seedlings—birches and maples—that reached to my shoulders. 

From behind the greenhouse, in a tangle of trees, came a slow, insistent trickle. I had never explored that far. Maybe no one had. Smiling at the thought, I parted branches and half-crawled into the thicket. Almost immediately, I found myself ankle-deep in water in an ice-cold narrow creek, its edges smothered in vines and plastic, decades-old remnants of destruction. I crouched and squinted at the trail of water. The current formed ridges and hollows in the surface, cleaving around stones before disappearing under a blanket of debris. I wanted to follow it, to find where it ended. I thought of Narnia—Hosni had told me all about the books—and felt a rush. Like the wardrobe in the books, somewhere under this debris, in this stream, there was magic. Hovering. Here. I was sure of it. Maybe later, I’d ask Hosni, perhaps he’d know where.  

I removed my shoes and investigated the hard-ridged bottom with my feet, letting the water shift around my ankles. A twig spun along the surface. It caught briefly on a rock before launching free. In its wake, a small eddy danced as the thrum of the current seeped through my skin.

About the author

Nadia is a mum, physician, and easily-inspired human who writes (memoir, fiction, and poetry) because she must. Her work appears in various online and print journals including most recently Red Noise Collective and Beyond Words Literary Magazine (forthcoming). One of her short stories was a finalist in the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. She is a generally optimistic and well-caffeinated soul who lives in southern Ontario with her children and many pets.

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