Among the Widows

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Set your story in an unlikely sanctuary.... view prompt

37 comments

Historical Fiction Sad



“I call this piece, Among the Widows.” 


Viktor hands his sketch done in black charcoal to Professor Grabski. The teacher scrutinizes the lines of apron strings wrapped twice around the body of a fatigued looking woman opening a shoddy door. The angles of her face are heavy, especially at the edges of her eyes.


A memory floods Viktor’s mind as if he’d just sketched the woman’s fingers wrapped around the doorknob yesterday. He imagines what it’s like to view the piece before him through the professor’s eyes. The door opens to nothingness. Viktor knows what waits on the other side of the plank of wood that acts as a flimsy refuge for the woman. 


The whites of his eyes burn as he presses them together to slow the trauma that prepares to ooze from his tear ducts. Viktor is a man now, and men do not cry in front of their college professors, at least he’s yet to see any of his classmates do such a thing.


The flashbangs come like this, all bright and deafening when he least expects it.


Viktor taps his fingers on his ribcage with the staccato of a machine gun while he waits. His throat is a trench barricaded with barbed wire that he dare not pass through unless necessary. The fear that his words will be torn apart like flesh inhibits his ability to speak. 


Viktor stands at attention, with his arms rigid by his sides awaiting his critique and further orders from Mr. Grabski. The professor mumbles under his breath, audible only to Viktor. 


He is not a stranger to silence, but hearing the noises leave the professor’s mouth shakes his concentration. Moments like this where he cannot tell the difference between past and present rattle Viktor’s sense of consciousness. Once, he went without speaking for nine months straight, only communicating through art and hand gestures. Speaking freely has been an adjustment for him and so he relies on the strokes of his pencil and the brittle shards of his charcoal to communicate because it is a familiar haven.


Viktor’s mother once told him that silence could be mistaken for weakness. It's an adage he struggles to let go of now. He doesn't want his classmates or professor to find him weak because of the sanctuary of quietude he once lived in. It was this place in his life where he survived simply because of his silence. It's impossible for him to not connect the two.


Viktor gasps as Mr. Grabski’s hand smudges the drawing.


“Please, sir! It blurs easily if you’re not careful.”


Panic covers Viktor’s face in crimson for talking out of turn. 

“I’m so sorry. Sir, forgive me for my harsh tone.”


The professor is too wrapped up in the strokes and lines of the intricate image. It’s as if he’s reading a story where each blending of charcoal is a sonnet made up of life and death. Viktor watches Mr. Grabski as he translates what’s being said on the heavy piece of paper.


“Your use of lines is impressive, that’s difficult to accomplish with charcoal. The way that the architecture forks here, at the hinges of the door– it’s heavy. I see the weight of what’s on the other side. It alludes to something pressing in on the woman, and yet there’s nothing there, just white space. What’s below her tells an entirely different story.”


Viktor has been careful with his words since the day he drew his mother’s hands.


“If only mother hadn’t opened the door… ”


Professor Grabski nods. Many came to Poland with mouths full of secrets, tight-lipped, as if they’d been chased from Russia with pitchforks. The professor knows this and so he does not press the interpretation of what is beyond the door.


“Where’s your papa, Viktor?”


Parts of his latibule was in shambles before he and his mother even took the women in. His art supplies came in the form of smokey pieces of scorched wood that the bombings left behind. Between the makeshift charcoal and his imagination, his mother slid pieces of used parchment paper down through the floorboards so that he and the others could communicate through written word. 


*****

Viktor begged his mother to send the refugees to the church. 


“They can seek asylum there. What can we do for them now that papa is gone?”


He watched as his mother loosened and re-tied her apron strings, her face firm and indignant. She wasn’t the kind of mother to use her tongue to cut others up, but the kind that would use her words to lap up any sadness as if it were her last meal. She’d consume their hurt and harbor it within her so that it couldn’t damage another ever again


“Viktor, if a church can be a sanctuary, why not a home? We pray here do we not? We love one another without judgment. We made a vow to protect one another through sickness and health and that goes for these women. They have no one but you and I, my boy. We don’t need your father, you’re here.”


He relinquished the argument that by taking in a dozen women to hide from the enemy they’d be putting themselves at risk. His mama was right, the room under the floorboards was as much a sanctuary from the war as any church in the town.


*****


When his papa was captured by the enemy Viktor knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d be found too. He was just a boy then. He and the widows developed a love for the darkness and accepted that silence was what it would take to survive. 


They were nyctophiliacs, hidden away, forced into finding comfort in the obsidian shadows. They were left to rely on faith that the other wouldn’t dare make a sound.


He gestures to the bottom of the sketch where women stand huddled under the floorboard beneath his mother’s feet. Grime and dust appear heavy on the wool of their smocks from months of hiding. His own face is a self-portrait that he doesn’t recall sketching. The jerky lines around him show that he is on edge, ready to barter with his mother’s urge to be the tutelary for them. 


“He was killed for being a traitor to our country. Hiding the enemy was one of his crimes, leaving my mother a widow was the other.”


Professor Grabski heightens the clarity of his words and delivers them like a sermon on a bleak Sunday morning.


“The war cost us everything.”


Viktor stares at the mix of grief and stoicism in his mother’s eyes. If he could draw her again, she’d be among the widows with a smile of pride. He’d be at the door barricading the sanctuary where they remained safe, together.


“What happened to your mother and the widows?”


A flashback of the last words Viktor’s mother spoke to him lodge themselves into his windpipe.


She told him, “To do nothing in the face of oppression is the least humane thing one can choose, Viktor. To show love to those who need it the most is the true revolution, and my boy, there would be no ‘we’ without ‘you and I’. That is the true meaning of providing sanctuary, whether we live or die, it doesn't matter. It matters how we rise, even if it’s in silence.”


“The soldiers killed my mother. But the widows... I helped them escape.”


Of all the times he’d wished to had broken their vow of silence, it was when his mother opened that door. It should have been him, but she wasn’t afraid of the enemy the way that he was. 


The professor nods as if it’s a story he’s heard a million times over. For the first time he looks up at Viktor with condolences tucked into the folds of his weathered face.


“My home is gone, and so is my mother. A home– that can be replaced. But my mother, she was my last sanctuary.”


Viktor allows the roaring sound of grief to erupt from his body. He prays that the noises his body makes will travel far so that all will know that his mother was loved.


“No my boy, you still have your mind and your art. You don’t have to speak. You can tell the whole world with pencil strokes about how a mother loved her son. How a neighbor became a revolutionist by allowing you to stand among the widows.”


Viktor knows that dead air is easy enough to breathe if he wants to continue to live. He tucks the sketch into his portfolio and thinks of the other pictures and stories he’ll tell about his mother and the widows. Even if he never speaks another word his soft strokes of charcoal will provide refuge to those coming out of the dark.


May 19, 2022 17:46

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37 comments

Amiah Jared
20:33 May 19, 2022

This was great. I loved how sanctuary seemed to be something small at first (silence) and it turned into something way more impactful (a literal war sanctuary). It was a little hard to read, mostly just in the beginning, and I'm not sure whether that was because of all the heavily detailed sentences or because I just don't know much about art and was getting lost with the art terms (I assume you know what you're talking about and it showed!) but overall this story had a great theme and I loved the way the heavy topic was introduced with a pa...

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Shea West
22:17 May 19, 2022

Thanks for reading.

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A.G. Scott
20:58 May 19, 2022

I like the idea, turning grief into art, making sure none of that trauma happened for nothing. That said this one was a little tough for me to get into--don't want to come off as harsh, but there are a number of confusing run-on descriptions (as Antigone mentioned, especially at the beginning). e.g., "The angles of her face are heavy at the edges of her eyes and hollow in her cheekbones from what could be from a life that has scooped away her flesh just so it could take from her." I have absolutely no idea what this means. Or "Feeling diso...

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Shea West
22:16 May 19, 2022

Thanks for reading. I did my best to be a gardener and edited it some more. Can't win em all.

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Shea West
18:33 May 19, 2022

Sometimes you just have to put words up even if they're not great...

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20:55 May 20, 2022

Hell yeah!

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18:12 May 19, 2022

I loved this piece. The love of the son showed in his regret, emphasised by the beauty of the language you used. It's a story I truly admire. The way you never stated bluntly that he loved her and let the luster of mystery breath throughout the story. But this is something else "In the face of oppression to do nothing is the least humane thing one can do, Viktor. To show love to those who need it the most is the true revolution, and my boy, there would be no ‘we’ without ‘you and I’. That is the true meaning of providing sanctuary, whether w...

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Shea West
18:33 May 19, 2022

Ismail, You're very kind! He loved her, idolized her, was in awe etc. She was a good mom! Not a revolutionist, no. Simply a person with a low threshold for bullshit or terrible people. Thank you endlessly for reading 🥰🥰

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Marty B
00:01 May 27, 2022

I like the juxtaposition of crimes, but to different people" 'Hiding the enemy was one of his crimes, leaving my mother a widow was the other'

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Shea West
00:06 May 27, 2022

Right, and it wasn't even an intentional crime. Just that as a child he felt like it was😔

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Deidra Lovegren
14:47 May 26, 2022

Shea! You painted this story to life like one of the Old Masters! Totally googled this: "nyctophiliacs" Boy, you can spin an other worldly setting. Rich, nuanced. You are so good at this.

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Shea West
17:07 May 26, 2022

I've been in a mood lately and my regular use of words hasn't been cutting it! So I'm learning new words.. and I just loved that one in particular! Thanks for the love, I needed it <3

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Deidra Lovegren
17:17 May 26, 2022

Same. Collective hugs all around.

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Thom Brodkin
15:07 May 24, 2022

Shea I know I say this over and over but I’m always impressed by people who can write things I can’t. I mean I could have told this story but not like you. You found a way to write a charcoal sketch. I feel like the whole story was actually visual art in word form. I hope that makes sense. One line that really grabbed me was when you wrote, “ Viktor taps his fingers on his ribcage with the staccato of a machine gun”. There is so much depth there. Such vivid imagery. Even the use of a weapon was masterful. Just great writing. As always I am y...

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Shea West
18:02 May 26, 2022

What you're saying does make sense and it's a compliment that I will happily take! I hoped that moment of him tapping with machine gun staccato was a callback to the war he lived through. Like something he will always carry with him. Thanks for you kindness always, Thom! I'm grateful for this community.

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Michał Przywara
18:46 May 23, 2022

What a lovely dark and heavy read. The idea of trauma leaving people silent, and of using art to manage that or to communicate, is very real and done believably here. The story matter is also sadly very relevant to real world events happening right now. The thing that struck me most about this story is the image itself. I love that we don't get to see the whole thing all at once, but we get parts of it as the characters' attention shifts around. I could almost see the lines, the old woman, the ominous door. What parts were stressed, what w...

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Shea West
20:27 May 23, 2022

Michal, I'm not sure if you're aware but we've dubbed you the very, very wise uncle/godfather of comments here on Reedsy. Shit, I think your comments alone should get shortlisted! You always make us writers feel like a million bucks, so thank you for this. Deidra is right, you usually tell us exactly what our stories are about and we're like "Yes! What he said!!" You're appreciated!! Thanks for always reading

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Michał Przywara
22:19 May 24, 2022

Ha, thanks! It's always nice to know it's appreciated. I figure since I'm reading stories here anyway, I might as well speak up when I see something that strikes me. Writing is lonely, but it doesn't have to be.

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Riel Rosehill
17:21 May 23, 2022

Hi Shea! I finally made it over to your story... Sorry it took a while! You have my respect for picking historical fiction, it is the hardest thing to write. Your description and the story about the art piece was so vivid I could see it in front of me getting completed as you've added more detail. This may be an artist/introvert thing, but silence is sanctuary, art is sanctuary, so you really capitalised on the essence of the prompt, not only with the floorboard and Poland. Beautifully written as always and I love that I always learn a new ...

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Shea West
20:25 May 23, 2022

I love your interpretation of my story. I was hopeful that my metaphor of art and silence as sanctuaries was clear! I'm thrilled I could teach you some new words LOL!

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Chris Campbell
03:40 May 23, 2022

Beautifully written, Shea. You painted the words like the sketch in your story. It was full of emotion, pain, and fond remembrance. My Ukraine war stories mainly stay in the present, but you weaved through time effortlessly. Well done!

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Shea West
18:00 May 26, 2022

Hey Chris! Thanks for stopping by to read this. I appreciate your comment.

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Zelda C. Thorne
19:40 May 22, 2022

Hey! I loved this. Check you out doing some historical fiction! Really great. I know someone who has an art degree and is training to work with trauma victims - using art to help them express themselves. Powerful piece. Well done.

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Shea West
19:59 May 22, 2022

❤️❤️❤️

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Andrea Doig
14:55 May 21, 2022

Hi Shea - what a very sad story indeed. Not just a story though - a very true reflection I think of the most terrible time. It makes me want to write a happy story now!!! Thank you for sharing. A nicely written evocative story. x

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Shea West
02:39 May 22, 2022

I hope you write the HAPPIEST STORY to offset my sadness LOL. I'm in my feels this week. Thanks for reading :)

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Andrea Doig
14:48 May 21, 2022

That really is a sad story. And not just a story. A true reflection of such a terrible time that words cannot even describe - though you did a magnificent job of doing so. Excellent story. It makes me want to write a happy story next though!!! :) Thank you for sharing x

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Drew Andrews
01:36 May 21, 2022

Once again .... Nicely done.

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Shea West
02:47 May 22, 2022

Thanks for dropping by and giving a read

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Beth Connor
20:20 May 20, 2022

I found this one to be beautifully poignant. I really loved the blending of art and words- it fits, like pb&j. I almost wonder how it would flow if you moved the beginning part and spread it throughout the story. and have “I call this piece, Among the Widows.” as the first line. It's a beautiful story, and I may or may not have shed a tear...

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Shea West
20:49 May 20, 2022

I did have it in the middle to begin with🤦🤦🤦

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Beth Connor
21:01 May 20, 2022

HAHAHA - well, I would go with your gut, I only read through twice lol

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Shea West
21:07 May 20, 2022

I switched it back.. I trust you lol

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Rebecca Miles
08:52 May 26, 2022

Many different sorts of sanctuary here so I really enjoyed that. I'm sure with editing you can navigate the flashabcks so the complex back story is easier for a reader. For me, I would like at times simpler over complex and unusual vocabulary to capture the trauma but also to help bring the story- the plot- to the fore. The imagery used to foreshadow early on is brilliant. There was that lovely "ah-ha!" moment when I got to the Ukraine context. Moving.

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Shea West
17:09 May 26, 2022

What can I say? I love trying things on for size. It's like when you buy some new art or furniture for your home, and you want to see where it works best. I feel the same way about words. I hear words that are new to me and I wanna see if they make a better end table or if they need to be tucked away in a closet. I suppose for me, it's about pushing myself a little. Words are fun like that! Thanks for reading

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Rebecca Miles
18:38 May 26, 2022

Interesting analogy. And yes, trying words out can be fun, moving them about to find the best or simply a new fit. I very rarely get new furniture; moving words about is cheaper and easier 😂

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Shea West
18:39 May 26, 2022

Preach🤣🤣🤣

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