[This is the first of seven short installments of the story Crone: a Fairy Tale.
If you would prefer to read the entire story at one sitting, wait seven days until I post the entire thing.]
Spring is what I yearned for that winter day.
But I was trying hard to avoid taking a tumble on the slick sidewalk. My eyes were fixed downwards at the ruts and ridges of frozen snow. I picked my way tentatively amid the ice to find level surfaces to plant my feet on. A shawl wrapped around my face to keep out the bite of a nasty January further prevented me from seeing other wretches who were passing me in either direction and similarly preoccupied.
I was heading carefully into the wind towards the post office. A slashing cold cut into my flesh from all sides.
I had to cross two major thoroughfares, and each was guarded by stoplights. At the first one I had to wait, the government brick of the post office visible in the frigid distance. Begrimed semis and window-fogged cars streamed slowly past in vaporous clouds and exhaust, cautiously wary of icy islands on the street. But it was an unending, noisy flow, and it would be rank insanity to attempt cutting through the interstices on slippery asphalt.
I prudently decided to bide my time until the light should change to red.
Jumping up and down and around to keep my extremities from freezing, a few feet away I noticed an old woman trying to cross the street in the direction of moving traffic and the green light. Because the weather had been bitter for over a week, snow had piled up high along the sidewalks as the street crews worked hard to keep arteries navigable. The crusty mix of snow and ice would pile up into ridges that rimmed the street.
She was having trouble finding a defile through this slick topography of layered hills and valleys thrown up by the yellow plow trucks. Like most old people, she would be terrified of slipping and falling, and breaking brittle bones. She was hunched over, a cane in one hand and a netted shopping bag hanging in the crook of her elbow. She had on a thick black coat whose grandest hour in the sun had passed some time ago. She made little hopping, bird-like movements back and forth, as if undecided where to commit herself for the crossing.
“They do too good a job of plowing here,” I said.
She turned a face rugose with age into my question. Once upon a time it had held great beauty, a glimmer of which was still observable in the surprising clarity of the wide-set large brown eyes and the filigreed tracery around her mouth. “Oh, dear,” she said, almost as if she were amused by her predicament. “I can’t seem to find my way over this snow bank.” A small smile played about her lips. It was in her eyes, too. “Isn’t it silly of me?”
“Here, walk with me to the other side of the street.” I held out my arm for her to grab.
She took it wordlessly.
The light was still green. I found a stable path around the obstacles of snow, and we set out across the street. She was holding me tightly and leaning into my side for support. Incongruously, my nose almost anesthetized by the cold of this bitter January day, I could still catch the faint vernal scent of lilacs from her perfume. We got to the other side well before the yellow came on.
Safely on the sidewalk, she let go of my arm. She looked at me, a gentle glint in her eyes. Perhaps it was imagination.
“Thank you, young man,” she said. “My name is May.” She held out her gloved hand, and I took it. She squeezed with a gentle firmness, and her eyes locked a beat too long on mine. She disengaged our hands, nodded, and — I could not be certain – seemed to crinkle her eyes in a smile as she was swallowed up in the steaming crowd before I could tell her my name.
At this point it was my great misfortune, on this most horrible day of all days, to be run into by Professor Schädling of the Romance Languages department. I simply had no chance to see her coming and take the normal evasive maneuvers.
She was a notorious pest, impervious alike to the dry cold of winter and the dripping heat of summer. As usual she was wearing no head gear. Where others would rush indoors to escape the rigors of our hideous climate in either season, this self-anointed ‘campus character’ had made a minor career playing the rôle of un-amusing eccentric. Among her favorite ploys was waylaying innocent victims outdoors in the worst possible weather to bore them with a prolix lecture. Until a few months ago this had invariably been a recitation of her latest misconceptions about the German Aufklärung (“I am half German, after all!”) but these days, straying even farther afield from her ‘area’, she would pour forth her febrile musing on the origins of the folktale in eighteenth-century Bavaria, a new ‘specialty’ in which she was reported recently to have taken a keen interest and already come to be considered (in her own mind, that is) an ‘expert’.