Best Short Story: First Place
The Statue by Kerry Sloan
Editors Note: Each year, the Catholic Press Association puts out a call for entries of books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications to its Catholic Press Awards program. The Statue” won first-place for Best Short Story! The awards honor the accomplishments of Catholic journalists and publishers and affirm their commitment to spreading the Good News. For Liguori, they affirm our commitment to the mission of the Redemptorists. Judges comments: Very well written story that tackles a complex subject of human interaction with skill, without over writing. Subtle use of metaphor and description elicits emotional response
The sun had just risen, but John was already awake. He’d always been an early bird, but today was different. He was nervous. He was an elderly man with thinning white hair, and sharp features—almost stern, but his eyes, a dark blue, sparkled when he smiled and softened his appearance.
He pulled his tall, spare frame out of bed with a deep sigh and began fiddling with the radio, looking for a station with the latest weather report. Nothing he’d heard so far sounded good. There had already been too much rain this spring, and the river was high. If more rain fell, all signs indicated flooding.
“Just like forty years ago,” said John.
Four decades earlier, John and his wife, Mary, were newlyweds. They had just purchased their first home…then the flood came. They were evacuated and much of the small town they lived in destroyed. It was a scary and difficult time.
“But that’s why they built the levies,” said John, “to protect us.” John looked around, as if to confirm to himself that his beloved home was still safe and sound. Despite the reassuring and familiar sight that met his eyes, John felt a small knot of fear in his stomach. He didn’t want to go through another flood.
Mary had died five years ago, and John found it increasingly difficult to stay in the house alone. John still looked and felt healthy, but, as much as he hated to admit it, he was having trouble getting around the way he used to. The house was large and a lot to take care of on his own. But more importantly, John was lonely. He missed his Mary terribly—the house was empty and sad without her.
John wasn’t sure what to do, until his son, Jason, suggested what seemed to be the ideal solution. Jason and his wife, Rashni, had been considering moving out of New York City for some time. They wanted relief from the noise and stress that dominated their lives. Moving in with his father would solve everything. John almost laughed as he thought about it. He’d assumed everything would be easier once his son and daughter-in-law joined him. And some things did get easier. But new problems, problems that John could never foresee, seeped into his home life.
John sighed. Everything had changed so much since Jason was a child! At eighteen, Jason left home. He became a lawyer and lived and worked in the city, occasionally finding a spare weekend to visit his father. Sometimes, John felt he didn’t know his son any more, and he certainly didn’t know his son’s wife. John had hoped that Jason would marry one of the neighborhood girls, just as he had, but Rashni had dashed those hopes. John couldn’t help but see her as an outsider…a foreigner…and, despite trying, he couldn’t accept her as family.
John was only half listening to the latest news on the radio. He was lost in thought…ruminating on all of the changes since Jason and Rashni moved in.
At first it seemed the new living arrangements worked perfectly. Jason and Rashni took the second floor, and John moved his bedroom to the TV room on the first floor. The other rooms on the first floor were used as common areas. John wouldn’t admit it, but at first he didn’t mind—he was actually glad not to have to climb the stairs every night.
Unfortunately, the ideal arrangement didn’t last long. John’s first clue that things might become difficult came before they moved in, when Jason and Rashni told John that it was silly to keep all of his old furniture—they had brand-new furniture in their apartment in the city. John knew his furniture was old, even outdated and shabby, but it was comfortable and it made him feel at home. By comparison, Jason and Rashni had very modern tastes, and in John’s opinion, their furniture looked like it belonged in a 1970s airport terminal. But John wanted to be amenable and reluctantly agreed they could replace some of his things with theirs.
The changes took place so gradually that John wasn’t even aware anything out of the ordinary was happening until one day he went to sit in the living room, and, to his surprise, found the faded brown recliner and old, chipped coffee table were gone. Instead, molded black plastic chairs with no arms, a hard, flat leather couch, and glass-and-steel tables filled the room. It all felt very cold to him.
Little by little, John gave up more and more of the house. He expected some changes and tried to be agreeable. It certainly beat moving into elderly apartments, or worse, a nursing home. However, about six months into the new living arrangement, John’s flexible spirit gave out…at least in one room of the house. John decided to make his stand in the kitchen, regardless of the consequences.
Before Jason and Rashni’s arrival, the kitchen received little use. John always hated cooking and, since Mary’s death, he subsisted almost entirely on TV dinners and takeout. According to Jason, Rashni’s cooking was incredible, and John eagerly looked forward to having a cook in the house again.
John’s high expectations were quickly dashed. Rashni was a vegetarian and, as if that wasn’t enough, everything she cooked reflected her Indian heritage! Within a few months she had completely transformed his kitchen. Strange-smelling and unfamiliar spices like coriander, cumin, cardamom, and turmeric displaced his trusty salt and pepper. His ketchup and mustard were crowded out by chutneys and masalas, whatever those were!
Jason urged his father to at least try Rashni’s cooking. But at his age, John wasn’t open to trying anything different—his meat-and-potatoes diet served him well. He had no desire to sample any of the mixtures Rashni concocted. Half the time he didn’t even want to see what she made, let alone taste or smell it. The entire situation was impossible!
John decided the solution was simple. He’d start using the kitchen, especially when Rashni was cooking. John knew that Rashni didn’t like meat in the kitchen. So it might just happen that he craved a burger or a steak. And although he would attempt to remember which pots and pans he wasn’t supposed to use for meat, it was difficult to keep everything straight. After all, he was an old man and certain to get things mixed up.
John chuckled to himself as he thought about his manipulation. He actually began to enjoy cooking, and it seemed he was gaining the upper hand. He had overheard Jason and Rashni talking one night, and their conversation made him believe that he may soon have the kitchen to himself.
“I really think he does it on purpose,” said Rashni.
“What do you mean?” asked Jason in surprise.
“In the kitchen! He’s always doing something to get under my skin.”
“I can’t imagine Dad would be that crazy,” said Jason. “I know he doesn’t want to try your cooking, but I think most of what’s been happening is really accidental.”
Rashni looked at him incredulously. “You can’t really believe that!”
“Well, even if Dad is being a little nutty and doing some things on purpose, we knew it might be like this…at least at first. It’s a transition for all of us, and Dad is dealing with it as best he can.”
Rashni sighed. “I know,” she said. “But he’s certainly wearing me down. I’m beginning to think eating out all the time might make life easier.”
After this, John assumed he’d won the battle. However, Rashni wasn’t so easily beaten. To his surprise, she opened up a second front in a completely unexpected place.
From the time he and Mary bought the house, John had always tended a garden. Each year, he planted a few tomato plants, green peppers, and a couple of cucumber vines—vegetables he and Mary had both loved.
When Jason and Rashni arrived, John never suspected his yearly planting rituals would be disturbed. Jason didn’t like gardening, and Rashni was too busy with work—or so John thought. However, after John gained the upper hand in the kitchen war, Rashni began to take a decided interest in the back yard.
By the second summer of their stay, Rashni somehow managed to completely transform his backyard garden. Strange vegetables grew where his traditional plants had once flourished—who needed striped tomatoes or purple peppers? And all of Mary’s favorite flowers that he planted each year—zinnias, marigolds, and dahlias —were soon crowded out by exotic perennials.
The last straw came when Rashni destroyed the crowning glory of his garden—a statue of the Virgin Mary, his wife’s namesake, with a sheltering arch over her head. The arch was formed
by an old porcelain bathtub turned upright that kept Mary safe and dry throughout the year. The statue was unique. It depicted the Virgin as “Our Lady, Star of the Sea,” the guide and protector of seafarers. His wife had treasured the statue. She believed that her prayers to “Our Lady, Star of the Sea” had kept John safe during his time in the Navy, and every time John saw it he thought of his Mary. He couldn’t imagine the yard without it.
That was, until Rashni’s garden interests took over. She decided she wanted a fountain in the yard. Of course, the only place for it was right where the blessed statue had stood for so many years. Jason tried to reason with his father. There were other places in the yard where Mary and the bathtub could reside. Why couldn’t he compromise? The fountain was important to Rashni, and Jason didn’t want to disappoint her.
In the end, John gave in. It just seemed wrong to put Mary anywhere else in the yard. Instead, he moved the entire ensemble into the garage and tried, unsuccessfully, to forget about it.
John awoke from his reverie to hear the radio announcer confirming his worst fears. The flood was certainly coming, and towns all along the river were being evacuated. Most people thought the levies would hold, but they’d never been tested, so no one knew for sure. John tried to swallow his fear. He would have to leave his beloved home.
A few hours after the evacuation notice was given, John, Jason, and Rashni were almost ready to leave. John was taking a quick look through the garage when he ran into Rashni in the yard. She was scared.
“Do you think it will be bad?” she asked John. Since the two had barely spoken to one another for months, John was surprised to be addressed so directly. Rashni had seen flooding in India as a child, and the devastation it had caused was appalling. She had hoped never to see anything like it again.
John began to reassure her, trying to think of the appropriate words. Suddenly he paused for a moment, lost in thought. “Well, there is one thing we could do…” he began slowly.
“What?” said Rashni eagerly. “If there’s anything we can do to protect our house we need to do it.”
“Well,” said John slowly. “When the last flood was threatening, I put Mary out as a gift for my wife right before we had to evacuate. The waters came up, right to the end of our street, but that’s as far as they came. We always thought it was Mary who protected us.”
Rashni’s eyes grew wide. She looked as if she wanted to scoff at his story, but something stopped her. She thought for a moment and looked straight at John.
“Let’s put her back before we go.”
Afew weeks later, John sat on the front porch waiting for Ed, his neighbor from down the road. The two had the same summer-evening ritual. They’d catch up over a beer and sometimes play cards. The past few weeks had been quite eventful. The levies had held, the flood waters were kept back, and his house was safe.
John smiled to himself and enjoyed the summer breeze. Rashni came out and stood shyly in the doorway. John looked at her curiously. She made it clear to John when she first arrived that she wasn’t interested in drinking beer or playing cards.
“You mind if I sit down?” she asked him suddenly.
“No, go right ahead,” said John, in surprise.
“It’s a nice night out,” she said somewhat stiffly.
“It certainly is,” said John. “I’d offer you a beer, but I know you.…”
Rashni interrupted him. “It wouldn’t kill me to try one,” she said, with a slight smile.
Rashni began walking into the house. “Hey,” John began, tentatively. “While you’re in there, would you mind getting me some of that dessert you made today? It smelled really good while you were making it.”
Rashni looked at him in disbelief. “I didn’t think you.…”
John interrupted her. “It wouldn’t kill me to try it,” he said.
Rashni’s face slowly transformed as a large smile spread over her features. “Sure, I’ll be right back.”
While Rashni was gone, Ed walked onto the porch.
The two exchanged their usual greetings before Ed lowered his voice and whispered to John.
“I noticed you managed to get Mary out in the back yard again,” he said.
“I did,” said John, with a smile. “Right before we were evacuated.”
“How did you manage it? I thought your daughter-in-law was dead set against it.”
“Well,” said John, clearing his throat meaningfully. “I told her how it protected our house from the first flood, and she readily agreed to put it back.”
Ed looked curiously at John and spoke slowly. “I don’t think I remember you putting that Mary out there until a few years after the flood.” John looked confused, but his eyes twinkled. “Is that right Ed?” he questioned. “You may be right, but it’s hard for me to remember these things…we are getting older, you know….”