by Erik Koht
"You seem so distant today, Grandma, have you been dreaming again?" Ellie seated herself next to her grandmother on the sofa with the flower patterned covers.
Yes, Martha had been napping and woke at the sound of Ellie's voice. With loving eyes she beheld the young woman next to her, her short dark hair, that funny little turned-up nose and high cheek-bones. It reminded her of Manfred in a way, in other ways not. Manfred had been as clear as day in her dream. Awake, his features became elusive, just a memory of memories. No matter, soon she would sleep again and her lovely dream would return, she could count on it.
She did so enjoy Ellie peeking in from time to time during the day, bringing news and gossip, or just wanting to discuss the story. Ellie and her husband, Paul, had the upper floor of this house, a house that was much too big for just her. In the evening she could hear them moving about upstairs, going about their daily lives. Good sounds, she thought.
Ellie scrutinised the older woman. Grandma was frail now, looking small and skinny. Little remained of the formidable woman who used to have no trouble at all laying down the law for her excessively exuberant grandchild. Ellie had spent her childhood summers right here, playing in the fields and woods all day and being put to bed by Grandma at night. Grandma had always been there for her, as far back as Ellie could recall. Each autumn there had been tears on parting, she had wished she could have stayed with Grandma in her fairy-tale house forever. Now her wish had come true. Last year, when Grandma asked if she and Paul wanted to move in, she said yes without a moment's hesitation.
Ellie returned to the story line: "I love the mood this writer is trying to create, I'm sure the readers love it, too." Martha nodded her consent. Life was good. It was good no longer having to be the heroine. That responsibility was on Ellie's shoulders now, she had to bear the brunt of it.
"I don't trust this hack," Ellie continued, "The story doesn't seem consistent. If I love this place so much, why would I be picking quarrels with Paul every night? He is living his part well and he hardly ever has to work nights." She dearly wished the editor would find a real craftsman to spin the rest of the story. There had to be some consistency in the details.
"Now-now, my sweet child, you take it easy, this is not a crime story you know, just a family saga, you'll be all right in the end," Martha had been through them all, doctor-nurse romances, French chateau romances, office intrigues and other things, too, that she'd rather not think about. She had even been in a horrible student play, a night to forget. She had known sorrow and joy, good times and hardship. Writers could treat peripheral figures callously. This one had been good to her. "I met my Manfred here, you know. I still recall how we first met..."
"Yes, please tell me again, Grandma," Ellie loved reliving the story with her grandmother. "Tell me about those huge white swans, gliding silently. How absolutely majestic they must have looked in the moonlight!"
"Yes, it was a powerful image, a perfect setting for true romance." A wistful smile flickered briefly on the old woman's lips. "But it's all over now, readers don't care for such theatrical settings any more."
While she was talking, they heard the garden gate squeaking open, then banging shut on its spring hinges, followed by the familiar sound of boots hitting the flagstone path making a short-cut to the side entrance. Coming home from work, Paul would leave his muddy boots there on the porch. This time he didn't. The two woman exchanged worried glances. The boots kept up their steadfast strides all through the kitchen, the hallway and into Martha's living room.
Ellie rushed to her husband's side: "Darling, you're still working!" They hugged briefly. Paul dropped his ten gallon hat on a cushioned mahogany chair, acknowledging Martha with a nod and a grin. "Yeah, you got that right. We're still at it, third day running."
"How much are you having to redo?" asked Ellie. She guessed this would be a repeat of last night's discussion. He'd been exhausted even then.
"The whole cattle rustling chapter." He sounded exasperated. "This hack writer knows darn all about cattle and even less about how to steal them. He's not letting us eat and not letting us rest, and he couldn't make up his mind which one of us got shot in the leg. This whole episode is a write-off. And Ellie," he stopped for breath, "you better help me cover up these windows, he may just stage an Indian attack tonight."
"Well, all right, Paul, but I don't think we need to worry. Like you said, he has to work on this episode tonight. Look, he even forgot to mention that you are deeply tanned and six feet four inches tall. He's got to add that and put in some sleep and some food, you are not supposed to be super human in this tale, just good stock. Why don't you just rest your feet first and I'll go fix dinner."
"You're right, Sweetheart," When Paul sat down you could hear the chair creak "I should have thought of that. He'll be tired just like us cow pokes. He'll be having some noodles and a beer, then snooze on the couch for an hour. Guess we can rest easy a while. What this guy really needs is read up on his bovines."
Meanwhile the sun was setting and gradually the room turned dark. Nature grew still. Yet the three stock characters did not rise to switch on lights. There was a fourth persona joining them and Ellie and Paul knew it meant the world to Martha. Sure enough, a chill came into the room, they felt it like cold fingers touching the nape of their necks. Then they could see him, translucent, but growing in detail as darkness descended. An elderly man appeared, seated at the oak desk near the window, as if he was making note of the bills and bank statements strewn across the leather covered surface. Then he straightened and looked at Martha, lifting his right hand in silent greeting. It was Manfred getting ready for work. Being invisible in the daytime, he was bound forever to the graveyard shift. In ghost stories, someone had to be the ghost.
"I'll see you in my dreams," whispered Martha.
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