The Old Woman and the Muscle
by Rick Magers
The purse-like muscle was stronger than the muscles in her son, Mikor Yakow's huge arms. It was stronger than any other muscle in him or any of his lumbering, peasant friends who loved nothing better than to flex their biceps in the summer when the heavy coats were not necessary.
This grand muscle required neither arm to display it, nor brain impulses to make it perform; it was totally self-sufficient. It now performed one of it's millions of routine, yet complex tasks. It stretched itself ever so slightly, and then contracted to squeeze the blood through the heart it encompassed.
It repeated this exact maneuver several times, then paused a fraction of a second before continuing it's genetically assigned duty. It was created over seven decades earlier to keep Olyaghia Yakow alive, and had done it's job quite well, but was now almost worn out; much the same as the old woman herself.
Mikor ladled the potato concoction into the gaping, toothless, fifty-five year old cavern that had assisted the diminutive pile of gray matter between his ears in having him labeled the town dummy: he spoke without thought.
"You shouldn't be doing that old woman," he said as he watched his mother sweeping the floor of the kitchen, "you aint been getting enough air lately."
She stopped abruptly and stared at her only son. Totally unaware of her gaze he continued ladling the thick broth into the gaping maw. "It's all right for me to stand grating potatoes for an hour and stirring that pot for you to eat huh? But I shouldn't sweep this filthy floor eh? Why is that Mikor? Do you plan to take the broom and finish it for me when you have finished eating?"
"It would make my back worse," he replied through slobbering lips, with liquid saturated words as he continued gulping the broth. "You know I haven't been able to do anything like that for many years."
Olyaghia mumbled, then returned to sweeping the hard packed dirt floor. To herself she thought, He is my only son, and I love him, but a lazier man never walked these roads of Krykzonia.
"Where is Otto?" Mikor asked as he ladled more from the huge pot simmering on the coal stove.
She stopped sweeping to look directly into her son's eyes. "Why do you call your father Otto? Do you have no respect for the man who not only gave you life, but also brought you into this world directly from my loins." His disrespect for his father irritated her; it always did. As she stood staring at his gluttony, the muscle surrounding her worn out heart contracted and squeezed the blood on it's way, then paused momentarily as it had done for quite some time. The pause caused her to shudder slightly, then wobble as she clung to the fieldstraw broom. The episodes never lasted long, only enough to worry the old woman.
"I never worry about myself dying," she said to Yalya Pyutzka, her one true lifelong friend, and the only person she had confided in about the strange things happening in her chest. "I worry," she continued, "about Otto. He is ten years older than me, and getting more feeble every day." She shook her head slowly from side to side, then sipped the soothing sassafras tea Yalya made whenever she visited. "I don't know what would become of him if I should die before he does."
"It is a worry for certain," Yalya commented, "but you must recall, dear Olyaghia, that my mother had the contrary heart for many years before she died at ninety-one." She smiled, hoping to relax her friend as she rose to get them more tea.
"Hmmm," came quietly from Olyaghia's mouth, then she smiled up at her friend who was now pouring the tea, "I must confess that I haven't thought about sweet old Putya for a long, long time. Hmmm," she mumbled again, "yes, she did have the odd heartbeat didn't she."
Awhile later she left her friend's house to go to the pub to assist Otto home. As she limped slowly along she thought, I had forgotten all about old Putya. . . . . .yes! I could live many more years.
Three times the muscle faltered during the mile walk to the pub. Each time, the old woman stopped and leaned on her long walking stick; worn smooth by rough hands. Each time was the same as the time before. The muscle would relax a moment before squeezing the heart, her body would shudder slightly, and she would squeeze her eyes tightly closed and wait for it to pass.
The mile back to the house was always more difficult because of Otto's feeble condition; made worse after a few hours of drinking potatoes. By the time the two old people arrived home she was always exhausted. The muscle, in defiance of this unwanted abuse always rebelled by making the pauses longer than usual. Otto seldom remembered the trip.
Each morning began the same, with the exception of Sunday, which was the old woman's church day. She slowly moved her sleep stiffened legs to the floor, then sat on the edge of the straw filled mattress until she was certain they were ready to carry her to the stove. Once there she shook the iron grate to rid the smoldering coals of ash, then placed new coal on top. As the new coal received life from the old, she filled the teapot and placed it on top of the ancient stove. She picked up Otto's pipe from the table where he always lay it after eating, and tapped out the ashes. Olyaghia then began grating potatoes for the morning pancakes. When the huge iron skillet was beside the teapot heating, she placed three plates on the table, then a time-tarnished fork beside each. With a little flour added to the grated potatoes, a thick pasty dough resulted.
The muscle did not like all of this activity so early in the morning now that it was becoming weak. It waited until the old woman had the teapot in her gnarled, arthritic hands, then paused a little longer than usual.
Olyaghia shuddered when she felt her heart flutter, but was able to sit the pot on the wooden table, then grasp the edge to support her shaking legs. When she felt the beat return to normal she shuffled to the curtain covering Otto's sleeping cubicle. After pulling it back she said, "Come old man, the tea is ready and I will light your pipe."
Otto was awakened earlier by her noise, and had been lying quietly listening to the sounds of morning. He smiled up at the old woman he had loved since he was a boy, "Would you not enjoy a few moments in the bed with me old woman?"
She smiled back and said, "And what would we do? Lay and listen to Mikor eating all of the pancakes?"
"Would it not be worth missing breakfast?" He replied with a sly, sagging smile.
"Half a lifetime ago it was," she said then leaned down and kissed him on his radish-red nose. "Come old man, I hear the eating machine stirring in there."
As she began ladling the mixture onto the iron griddle, passed down from three generations, she heard movement behind. She recognized the heavy klunk of boots with soles replaced with wood, and said without turning, "You've brought a small appetite with you this morning eh?"
"Never once in my lifetime old mother. I am a large man that does everything in a very large way. When I open my business it will be the largest ever seen in Krykzonia."
After the eighth pancake was ladled onto the griddle she replaced the ladle into the mix, but before she could turn toward her son she felt the muscle pause. She grasped the edge of the counter next to the stove to await the regular rhythm, but this time the muscle was not going to let her off so easy. She gasp as her heart gave only a small beat, then succumbed to the muscles demand to pause again before regaining it's regular beat.
"Hey," the huge Mikor yelled, "I can see from here that the pancakes must be turned or they will burn."
"Yes, yes," Olyaghia said; now recovered, "over they go."
Mikor was shaking his huge head as Otto came shuffling toward the table saying, "What is all of this commotion about?"
Olyaghia had just finished piling the pancakes on the platter next to the stove, and was ladling more onto the griddle when the muscle decided it was finally time. It shuddered violently, then squeezed the old heart one last time and quit. Her movements were frozen in time for a brief moment. The ladle full of potato mixture fell from the lifeless hand.
"Oh my God," Mikor screamed when he witnessed the events at the stove. Otto was almost to his chair when Mikor lunged past, nearly knocking the frail old man down. Mikor was at the floor beneath the stove; a short distance from the old woman lying prone. He was almost crying as he frantically scooped the mixture back into the ladle, "There is a full pancake here," he whined. He was careful not to step in the mixture that he couldn't rescue, then began ladling pancakes onto the griddle.
"Why doesn't Olyaghia get up and do that?" Otto yelled in his feeble voice.
"I don't know," Mikor answered, "I will ask her when I have removed these pancakes."
* * *
It was an extremely hot summer, and there were no means to care for a body in the tiny town, so the funeral was held the next day. Mikor walked home beside his father who had been mumbling all day, "Who will come to the pub for me? Who will cook my food? Who will make the fire in the stove?
Otto sat at the table trying to fill his pipe when Mikor came from his sleeping cubicle with his bag of clothes. "I am going to Kherozia to live with aunt Zannia."
Otto watched as his son closed the door. He sat alone in the darkened room trying to fill his pipe.
About the author:
Rick Magers was a commercial lobsterman in the Caribbean. He's a licensed pilot, boat captain, diver, and now author. Several of his short stories have been published in national magazines. He is nominated for the 2002 Pushcart Award by Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.