The Morning Room

by Erika Byrne-Ludwig

SHE put her suitcase on his threshold and pulled the old bell. He opened the door:

"Mariline ..."

"Father ..."

She had met him at her mother's funeral some months before. Holding his frail and docile arm, she had confined all thoughts within a wreath in an effort to keep her memories out of bounds.

"You'll find your room much changed," he said, picking up her suitcase and leading her inside. "Emma's turned it into an insect sanctuary."

"I know ... Mum told me before she ... It's the morning room now .... I'll go up later."

She walked to the fireplace. The muffled sound her shoes made on the carpet echoed that of her childhood steps. Slowly she took off her gloves.

"It's winter," her father said.

"Cold indeed."

"Made some soup ..."

"Nice ... That and the fire ...."

The table was near the fire. She sat and drew her knees together to gain warmth and strength.

"Five only this morning. Will have to chop more wood."

He put his pipe down on the ashtray. It had a hairline crack. She thought she might buy him a new one.

"Your own barley bread?"

He nodded quietly. In his rolled-up collar, his neck seemed longer, thinner, his hair white with a golden rim.

"Strange ... I've been away so long ... This place hasn't really changed much and yet so many pages have turned."

"True. We moved the furniture around a bit ... her whim? my whim? ... added one or two, some pieces are in the attic, waiting for you maybe, otherwise it's as before." 

She noticed her two old dolls sitting on the mantel piece and some coloured school drawings hanging above the tallboy. "And each piece has a story to tell," she commented, looking around. The fire was crackling tamely with the feathery brushing of butterfly wings. Mariline could see red, green and mauve tongues feebly stretch up. She remembered the church, their three seats, the rose-window.

Her eyes filled up: "A broken up family ... a daughter sent away ..." she said with bitterness. "Lots of photos missed ..."

"We missed you ..." He cut a slice of bread and handed it to her, looking at her sternly. "It seemed the right thing to do at the time... You had to leave the village."

Her father could never forget her "questionable" (as he described it) love affair. It was against his nature to accept any deviation to the conventions. Still now. But Mariline had believed then that things would take their normal course, that he wouldn't have to meddle with her life.

The evening shadows filtered in and dispersed throughout the room. The conversation continued along the same lines. Stubborness from his part, anger from hers. He put the plates away, made some coffee and opened the biscuit tin. It slowly, slowly, got warmer; her bitterness and resentment began to mellow, and hurtful memories of the past took on a better turn when he mentioned her daughters. There was so much to say about them. She showed a dozen photos. He had some questions; she had all the answers. He even commented timidly about her place and asked if he could visit her one day in spring.

All those years, he had never done so. Her mother had travelled regularly alone carrying with her his best thoughts for her.

"You could come back with me," she suggested tentatively.

"No ... I'll wait for spring. It's still winter ..." He shivered and stood up to rekindle the fire. "My first winter without her ... It's a bit odd ... the silence ... no footsteps ... Just me."

"The cold ... Keeping indoors doesn't help." Mariline looked at him with worried eyes, moved by his frailty.

"In spring, the butterflies will come back. Emma loved butterflies. Let's go upstairs after the coffee and watch her murals."

Upstairs, his eyes wandered about the room: "I've grown to like it here. Do you recognise it?"

"Like you said, it is a sanctuary .... An array of wings, antennaes and legs ... with a rainforest mix of smells."

He turned on the lamp and lifted it up to the glass insect collection above the dresser. "Insects from all over the world," he said. "Look, this one is from Hawaii."

"They're so finely arranged these beetles. Brilliant thoraxes and abdomens! Where did they get those colours?"

At the back of the room stood a dead ornamental tree. On its branches hung crickets, ants and flies made of wire; hornets and wasps made of painted tin. Near the trunk, a carved beehive with enamel bees like small brooches pinned around it. The other wall was covered with framed photos, drawings and water colours of invertebrates. A termite mound carved like a cathedral divided the wall into two sections. He put the lamp down again.

"Look, her earrings here .... silver dragonflies ... She was a bit of a silversmith too."

From the ceiling a number of butterfly mobiles hung and brushed Mariline's hair as she wound her way through a variety of indoor plants. Her mother's hand touching her, she mused. In the alcove was her bedroom. Some insects had escaped the sanctuary and flown there on the quilt and the ceiling. Mariline smiled at her mother's obsession.

"Such a captivating place ..." she remarked. "The girls would love it here."

"Emma spent most mornings in this room. It catches the early sun. She read and sketched. Life cycles fascinated her. One day she came downstairs and said: 'If I ever come back to life, it' ll be as a butterfly. I promise to pay you a visit.' Her eyes were so dark, Mariline, darker than yours."

"Has she come back yet?" Mariline asked in a far-off voice that seemed to pave a path through the faintly lit room.

 "Well, I found this book yesterday on her bookshelf. Look at the cover. A butterfly on a window pane."

"Such a soft green ..." Mariline said dreamingly.

"A soft what?"

"The colours blend in so well. That's a green birdwing."

"She blended in too. Sometimes she reminded me of an insect — some sort of grasshopper."

Mariline smiled. "Was it fun to live with an insect?"

"You could call it fun ... but disciplined fun. I still take off my boots when I come in, set the table at the right time ... Anyway, I'd call it love."

"The bees' eyes have so many lenses ..." A thought more than a reply.

"Don't start with riddles, like her," for the first time touching her hand. "Let's sit here a while to take it all in."

They sat on the twin chairs, facing the back wall. His smile smocked his bony face. His eyes in the subdued light had a tinge of mauve. "Tell me more about your daughters ... Are they a bit odd like their grandma?"

"A bit like both of you ..."

"I suppose once you have children, you always have them. Even if you let them go, they remain yours," he added in a solemn voice.

Mariline looked at his many wrinkles curving into broken brackets on each side of his mouth. She recognised in them some of hers. "Yes, they're always ours ... and our parents always ours too."

"It's family ... I'm looking forward to seeing the girls. What about your husband? Any recent photos?" He looked at her inquiringly at first; then puzzled at her silence, suddenly a little suspicious, or worried perhaps.

"I'm alone now," she almost whispered, looking before her to the dead ornamental tree.

She could feel him scrutinising her. She faced him with a strong determined stare and paused for a moment: "Allan has remarried," she then said calmly.

He stayed silent, blew out small puffs, staring away. Mariline looked at his old, shrivelled hand, his age, his loneliness, his humble life. But she decided to let all that go, and focus instead on what promises the future had in stall for them.

She pressed his shoulder: "Let's no longer fight ... We'll talk tomorrow. I'll go through some of Mum's books now," she said, looking at the pile and then with a smile added: "They might reveal something to me ... you know ... what sort of insect I might look like."