Sheelagh Russell-Brown; Time Was

Time Was

            A lilac bush still grows upon the spot, its roots dug deep into the rubble.  If you look closely, you’ll see some tiny cogs and wheels, some bits of gilt and glass.  Look closer still and fluttering in the breeze but pinned down by the stone are ivory pages, covered with words in crimson ink.  It seems this is not fertile soil, and yet the purple blossoms scent the air.     

            The purple blossoms scent the air where once the builders worked, placing stone on stone until a house grew from the ground, its roots deep in the soil.  They worked each day from rising sun until the sun had set, and yet they did not know for whom they worked.  Only that each Saturday there was their pay in envelopes of ivory with their names in crimson ink. 

            Stories grew up as well with each layer of stone that was laid.  Stories of its beginning and of its predicted end.  Of who had been the first to clear the spot, the first to build up a city round it.  Of why this little piece of barren land had since then stood empty all those years until the builders came there with their tools.  Of how a pile of stones had then appeared, a pile that seemed to grow no smaller till the last stone had been placed.

            But no one knew how long it had been there.  No one knew when it had begun.  They had no “once upon a time” with which to start their tales, nor any “happily ever after” for their endings.  The stories grew like the lilac bush whose first budding no one could recall.  As if the stones had waited in the earth for the first to fit their edges side by side, to fill the seams with caulking that would hold them all together, to make a tale that grew so seamlessly no one could see the builder in the end.  The stories piled upon each other as if digging down into the earth and reaching for the sky.  The days passed into nights and nights to days, but time stood still while the stories were being told.

            It grew tall as a tower.  A clock was placed upon its top. Then it was done.

            When it was done, they came.  The people who wished to live inside though no word had gone abroad outside the little corner of the town in which it had grown.  Grown like the lilac bush that suddenly appeared beside it in full spring bloom though it was almost winter.  Two people took the rooms that day, one to move in and one whose story awaited her leaving, and all the floors above stood empty.  Empty like hours waiting to be filled with inspiration. They were not to be let, it seemed, but just to stand as if in expectation.

            Two people came and took the rooms.  A woman with skin like ivory parchment, the veins beneath showing like crimson ink.  Her eyes, though wide and seeming open on the world seemed also not to see what was all about her, no flicker of awareness in them.  No sign of noticing until she was inside and sat herself at the desk that had suddenly appeared, growing from the floor as though rooted there.  There were some notebooks on the desk, a set of pens, a well of crimson ink.  No one knew just when they had appeared or who had put them there. She sat and then she wrote.  But the stories stayed inside the earth and floated in the sky that changed from day to night and then to day again.  They waited in the purple blossoms outside the glass.  The branches of the lilac bush tapped against the window above the desk as if asking for admission.  And still she wrote.  Her eyes were fixed upon the pages that filled the books, the books that then were set aside, another in their place, waiting for stories that would not come.  Only the names, the seeds of stories.

            She sat and wrote through all the seasons, the lilac tapping at the glass as blossoms and then leaves fell to the ground outside, as rain and sleet and snow traced paths upon the glass and winds rattled the panes within their frames.  And then the door stood open, and she was gone.  Some leaves of ivory rose upon the wind, with crimson tracings on them.

            A little man appeared a few days later, a little man round as an egg, whose spindly legs could hardly hold him as he toddled through the door.  He carried a clock in his chubby fingers, along with a bag of tiny tools for working with tiny gears and cogs.  Inside, some shelves were set, growing from the walls like lichen on a tree.  The windows had been shuttered, the only light from lamps set about and their reflection in the glass of all the clocks that were brought into the room and then were carried out again as men and women, and children too, would come and go and take their stories with them.  The lilac still tapped against the glass, asking for the shutters to be opened.  The shutters remained closed, the tapping competing with the sound of ticking and of chimes, of chains being pulled up, of wooden cuckoos calling to wooden mates.  Like the sound of a death watch beetle, it persisted in its pleading for admission.  Until the door stood open once again.  

            The birds made nests inside the branches, inside the cracks between the stones, above the clock set in the roof.  They lined the nests with bits of ivory paper, traces of crimson words upon the scraps.  They picked up tiny shining cogs and decorated the nests that sparkled in the sun with all their glitter.  And springs and summers, falls and winters passed, till loosened by the wind and rain, the stones that held the room within had fallen one by one.  The only sound the ticking of the death-watch, the scratching of the lilac branches against the glass.  The stories that rose upon the wind as it whispered among the stones.



After having taught at an international high school in the Czech Republic for seven years, Sheelagh Russell-Brown is now a lecturer in English literature and a writing tutor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Her research interests are in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and European literature, the portrayal of the Roma in art and literature, and the foregrounding of marginalized female roles in neo-Victorian literature.  She has been published in The Fem e-magazine, in Abridged poetry and art magazine, and in Tales from the Forest e-magazine, and will have a short story published by TSS in November of this year.  She has also won second prize in the first Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Short Story Contest, and was shortlisted for the second Irish Imbas contest, as well as for the 2016 Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition.  She is a contributor to Backstory e-magazine, to Understorey e-magazine, and to Historical Honey.

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