• Short Story: Sekhmet



    Harold O. Wilson

    Ellen was a little awkward now. Tall, straight black hair then iron-gray, pulled back but not severe, gray suits, white blouse, all business, she had been rather stately. She moved with purpose, but still Harry could not predict her intent. She lived only in his head. It was a month after her death that she took up residence there. Where she had been in the interregnum, what she had done, Harry had no idea. She simply appeared one day and assumed the same role she had played in life: coming and going at will, ordering his thoughts around her own, demanding logical consideration of her opinions. It was not an unhappy circumstance, Harry found her good company. True, she could be a bit obstinate; dominating personal conversations, or quietly observing Harry as he tried to organize his affairs. But she did keep his mind occupied and was only occasionally an inconvenience. And even though she did absent herself from time to time, and Harry did find himself more relaxed during those moments of release he could never tell her to go away, that would betray a rudeness and a lack of consideration Harry could not support. After all, he had lived with her for forty years and had no problem supporting her existence now. At the same time, she was a presence that asserted itself, demanded recognition, and stood in Harry’s mind, an entity entirely separate from himself.The line at the checkout counter wasn’t moving. Harry’s few purchases sat immobile on a small section of the conveyor belt. Ellen was not with him. The woman behind Harry leaned forward and placed a separator between his groceries and her own. Her hand entered Harry’s field of vision and he turned to look at her.

    “The Berlin Wall,” the woman said. “It makes it easier for the girl.”

    The “girl” Harry noted was in fact a boy scanning items and punching keys. So young, his face still carried the red splotches of adolescence. How times have changed, Harry thought, the generic checkout girl was a boy now with rings through his nose, ears, lips and yes, even one eyebrow.

    “Maginot Line,” Harry replied and looking at the woman reached forward and placed another separator next to the one she had installed. She smiled and fingered the separators that cordoned off her purchases: an apple-red, a peach, a single banana, a pineapple, and three large purple plums.

    “Fruit salad,” Harry asked, waving a finger at her items.

    “Still life first,” she said, “then fruit salad.”

    “Food for the soul and for the body,” Harry said. “You know, all of these are symbolic of something.”

    “Isn’t everything,” the woman said.

    The conveyor moved six inches and stopped.

    “You paint, I take it.”

    “Some, but pottery is my medium.”

    Harry looked at her hands: flecks of her work showed around her nails, no rings.

    The man in front of Harry paid his bill and was gone. Now face to face with the splotchy boy and his face of rings. Harry turned again to the woman, “Do you come here often?” he said sliding his credit card.  Then, “Just kidding… just kidding,” and he held up his hands in mock surrender, the credit card a flag of submission in his right hand.

    The woman smiled, “Are you trying to pick me up…here… in the grocery store no less…and without even buying me a drink?… The Maginot Line,” she said gently waving the separators.

    Harry took up his bags and turned again to the woman. “Yes,” he said, “But keep in mind they both failed.”

    “Well,… what was that all about?” Ellen said.

    Harry turned the key in the ignition. “Just being friendly, Ellen.”

    “Were you trying to pick her up?”

    “Don’t be silly.”

    “I wouldn’t mind, you know. It is time you found someone… moved on. Isn’t that what they say?”

    “Ellen, I’m sixty-five, I don’t go around picking up young women at the grocery store.”

    “Young!… She’s sixty if she’s a day,” Ellen said. “Still, it would be nice for you…I wouldn’t mind,… really.”

    The car was moving through traffic now, home, the route fixed, familiar. Harry imagined the potter woman; her hands, particularly her hands, those strong hands with bits of dried clay around her nails, and he gently rotated his own hands on the steering wheel.

    Ellen had been a beautiful woman. An attorney, a litigator for an insurance company; she had been ruthless. No quarter given and none expected. True to her character, she had been possessive, particularly with Harry. What others saw as covetous, however, Harry saw as protective. He knew that she loved him and wanted nothing to hurt him, especially not another woman. As a result, she guarded him as closely and as relentlessly as she did the insurance company for which she worked.  At the same time, Harry saw her embrace as gentle, a kindness that nurtured and sustained him and he accepted her possessive nature as a benefit now.

    Aisle nine, dairy, Harry was searching for Pepper Jack cheese. Hidden among their slight differences, the packages all looked alike to Harry. Pizza tonight, he thought and when he glanced up, her cart was right in front of him. Intentionally blocking the aisle, Harry imagined. He gave her cart a slight bump. “Well,” he said, “you do come here often.”

    “I do now, Mr.….?”

    “Harry, just call me Harry. And you are?

    “Caroline… Caroline will do.”

    Harry pointed to Caroline’s cart, “Milk, butter, and eggs, your next still life? I can see it now: the Middle Ages, a farm-wife table, a straw hat and a clay pipe to set the era, add a little chiaroscuro, and it could be a Van Gogh.”

    “Not this time, Mr. Harry. It’ll be a cake when I’m through. I do have a straw hat, though. Lemon cake, do you like lemon cake, Mr. Harry.”

    “Please, it’s just Harry. Is that an invitation, Ms. Caroline Will Do?”

    “We’ll see. You still haven’t bought me that drink, have you? See you at the checkout counter.”

    But she wasn’t in any of the checkout lines when Harry arrived.

    “You ran into that woman again, didn’t you?” Ellen said. The car was hot. Harry lowered the windows and sat for a moment. Then he saw her pushing her cart across the parking lot. “Is that her? Harry really, not exactly your type, is she? Looks kind of masculine to me. Is she married? Does she have children? Why are you staring at her?”

    “Ellen, please, not now. Go…go visit your mother or something.”

    “You know my mother is dead, Harry.”

    “So are you, Ellen… remember? Go find her. Have a little chat.”

    Harry was no fool; even though he did treat Ellen like she was real, he knew she was a figment of his imagination now. A conversation he was having with himself. But still, there were times he could hear her voice clearly, feel her touch, sense the warmth of her body, her dark, enticing smell, and know the otherness of her personality. At those times, he was not quite sure. It was all memory of course. He knew that. But still, if it was all memory, why was she so present? And what did she want, hanging around in his head? And what did he want? Not the woman in the grocery store, Caroline. He was no flirt; he was not interested in a relationship…was he? It was nice to think of the possibilities though, that someone might still find him interesting, and at his age. Harry watched Caroline load her groceries, back out of her space and then she was gone.

    “It’s not that easy, Harry,” Ellen said. Are you going to sit here all day? What were you thinking about? Dreaming about that woman were you? Start the car, Harry.”

    Caroline was not thinking about Harry as she pushed her cart across the parking lot. Her mind was on her pottery business, the pot she had been working on all day now broken. It was really nothing but dirt and a little water. Sixty years and here she was playing in the mud like a child. They were the basic elements though, weren’t they: earth, air, fire, and water? Who was it said that… some Greek? Well he got it right, didn’t he? Take some dirt, add water, form it, mold it, invest energy, time, imagination, hope your hands don’t tremble, that your eye is good, then slide it into the fire. And if the shape tells a story and the colors excite the imagination, elicit emotion, then it’s declared art and people pay money. And if not; if the hand shakes, if the form collapses, if the symmetry is off, the eye fails and the arc doesn’t sweep and complement, then it is put in the back room to be crushed back to earth.

    The pot had been beautiful; full, round, graceful, perfect symmetry, ready for the glaze; then, shards on the floor, pieces to tell the future, pieces to bring luck, and not a wedding in sight, pieces to be pounded back into dirt. But it was not even the pot. She had broken pieces before.  Long hours of work crumpled to dust. Why should this one be different?  What do you do? Start again. Keep starting again until finally you are ground to dirt like the pots.  The pot maker, even this master pot maker is no more than the substance of her labor. Genesis isn’t it? God formed man, and all the other animals for that matter, from the dust of the earth. Water? It doesn’t say, but there had to be water. Nothing sticks without water. Air? God breathed in this creature’s face and there was being. Fire? Ah, here is the greatest irony of all; the fire, the kiln; to harden, to bake, to bring out beauty, to dry and make brittle, the kiln Caroline discovered, is life itself.

    The groceries long ago packed in the car; the car sitting now in the driveway, Caroline was alone, depressed and angry. And that was the crux of the issue: it wasn’t all that existential hoo-hah about pots and dirt. It was the simple fact that she was growing old alone. Men had come and gone in her life – mostly gone. Her few friends were vacuous, and her mother was in a nursing home or somewhere else altogether. And it had all happened without her really noticing: life had been full of work, friends, men, her mother, and then one day she turned and turned again and found that the waltz had long ended, the dance floor empty. Just like that, Caroline discovered herself alone. And then she thought of Harry.

    “Every day, Harry” Ellen said. “You go to that grocery store every day now. My god, you’re like a French housewife; marketing, always marketing. Coming home with your little packages, bread and cheese one day, milk and butter the next, then a little something for dinner. Looking for that woman aren’t you? Caroline, that pottery lady.  Hoping you’ll run into her. You should be ashamed of yourself, stalking the frozen foods aisle like some deranged old fogey. You’ll probably have better luck finding her in the geriatric section; vitamins, laxatives, energy shakes.”

    “Stop it, Ellen. Stay in the car. I’m going to do this.” And then she was there; and it was in the frozen foods aisle.

    “Mr. Harry,” Caroline said, “how surprising to find you here.”

    “Oh, hello, Ms. Caroline Will Do, frozen dinner tonight, I see? No cooking?”

    “Not tonight. Orders to fill. I’m afraid I’ll be throwing pots for most of the night. You do still owe me that drink, though.”

    Harry looked through the heavy glass windows toward the parking lot. “I’m at your disposal, My Lady. My time is my own so please name the time and place.”

    “How about tomorrow, at ten, Maronies; we’ll have coffee and see if we can stand each other.”

    Caroline’s strategy was transparent: a sane hour, easy escape if things were unbearable.

    Caroline arrived early and chose a table on the patio next to the sidewalk. A lot of distractions available so she wouldn’t have to focus on Mr. Harry, if she didn’t want to. She had chosen flats, Levi’s, and a simple white starched blouse with a small tea pot embroidered on the left lapel. She had considered the Preen Navy Hope Pants and blue Teacup Print Darjeeling blouse by Bregazzi, classy, but decided quickly against them. They both said money and she wasn’t ready to betray that information.

    Harry, in the uniform of the day, khakis and a blue blazer, pushed through the bustle in the patio and sat across from her. He ordered espresso and Caroline ordered tea. In the difference, Harry felt a slight note of discord. Then he looked at her hands. Those hands again, scrubbed, but small stains of clay showed in the cracks and creases of the knuckles. They were hands that made things, hands that were not tentative, hands that were sure of themselves. They belied the delicate femininity of their owner. Harry loved those hands. He looked up to her face: Caroline smiled and Harry lost all the composure he had managed to assemble.

    Their conversation was inquisitive, information gathering. Who did what and when, marriages, children, grandchildren, until all the gathering had been done. Harry: a retired owner of a company he had built up over the years then sold; one marriage, to Ellen an attorney; two children, a boy and a girl, miles away now; all quite simple, quite ordinary. Caroline: potter, artist, businesswoman, maker of original dinnerware for one client, Neiman Marcus, three employees, throws pots for individual clients on occasion and on request, exhibits her work from time to time; not retired, never married, devoted to her mother; a little more complex, a little more aggressive. Neither mentioned health issues. Harry was asked, and did talk about Ellen. In fact, he said a little more than he had intended and he thought of her waiting in the car.

    They talked for more than two hours. The different preferences for strong coffee and for plain tea that had worried Harry turned out to be simply a matter of taste and metabolism and not reflective of any personality quirks. As they were preparing to leave, Caroline took a small figurine from her purse and placed it on the table. “It’s a little trinket I made,” she said. “I thought you might like it.”

    Harry picked up the figure and turned it over in his fingers. “A sort of lion’s head?” he said.

    “It’s Sekhmet,” Caroline said, “a lion Goddess… Egyptian.  My characterization.”

    The sculpture was a black glaze of a lion’s head placed on the thin torso of a woman, her breasts prominent. It was about two inches in height and unmistakably Egyptian in style. A circular collar framed the face with straight lines of hair dropping on either side. The face itself was almost human with the eyes the most striking feature. Set off by high cheekbones, they were at the same time sympathetic and penetrating and along with the strong leonine nose, demanded attention.  It was an impressive figure, somewhat impenetrable and Harry wasn’t sure what to expect of it.

    “Sekhmet is both dangerous and destructive as well as protective and healing,” Caroline said. “She’s the daughter of Ra and is also known as the mistress of life. Set her somewhere in your house where she can see you and perhaps she’ll protect you, or not.”

    Harry had brought nothing and he was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t expect…”

    “Think nothing of it, Harry,” Caroline said, rising from the table.

    “Let me at least buy you dinner,” Harry said. “Tomorrow night? Something more substantial than tea.”

    Harry knew Ellen would be waiting when he got back to the car. He dropped the figurine into his coat pocket and slid behind the wheel. “So that was the girlfriend?” Ellen said. “That thing she gave you, let’s have a look at it.”

    Harry took the statue from his pocket, studied it for a moment and placed it on the dashboard. “Not a bad likeness,” Ellen said. “Please put it away now.”

    And that was the beginning of things and that was the ending of things. Harry’s relationship with Caroline grew and deepened in affection. Ellen became less of a presence and more and more of a memory until she was thought of with glancing affection.  In Harry’s mind, there was never a comparison; Ellen was then and Caroline was now. The two lives marked off by a mental separator as time carried them both forward.

    A year on, Harry and Caroline talked of marriage. They decided to have the honeymoon first. If they were really compatible, could actually bear each other in close proximity for extended periods of time, they would marry and care for each other in their advancing years. They decided on a river cruise in the Loire Valley of France. What better than cramped life on a small boat, a river barge really, isolated by language, with only two other couples, to test the endurance of a relationship.

    The wedding took place in May. Harry had long since put the settlement of his house and furnishings in the hands of his children and moved in with Caroline. It was a large two and a half story blue Victorian house with white trim. On a small hill, it was almost gothic in appearance. It had been her mother’s house. The full basement had its own access and was dedicated to Caroline’s pottery business. When they returned from the wedding reception Caroline and Harry were met in the entry hall by a strange odor.  It was a heavy, pungent animal odor, like musk but with a sicky, sweet tint as well. The smell was contained, its dimensions identifiable. For a moment it followed them down the hallway and then seemed to lose interest and disappeared.

    A week later, Harry was at his desk on the third floor writing thank you notes for their wedding gifts when the odor appeared again. Strong, dense, a mixture of animal and human scent, it came up behind him, embraced his body, and seemed to be looking over his shoulder. Harry glanced at the lion’s head figurine looking at him, black, shining. He sat up and looked back over his shoulder.

    “Ellen,” he said.


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