The Cigar Box

The Cigar Box



It was barely midnight and Mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a cigar box between her hands. She was alone. The cottage was dark and cold––it was barely December and the winter draft eddied around her knees. Her creased hands moved gently, like paper leaves, as she set the box on the table, traced the outline of the words––Flor Fina––with her thumb, opened the latch. The breath of old paper felt, to Mother, like the past sighing into the present: from the open box radiated the green light of June, the biting smell of acrylic paint, a whisper of breathless questions. From across the room, one could see Mother leaning forward and washed in warm light, as if leaning over a casket, or facing her haloed reflection, or looking into the eyes of love. She lifted three paintings, paper-clipped, from the box.




She sat in a corner of the sun as she chewed her toast with jam. Her knees were raised and tucked in front of her chest, barely filling the seat of the chair, and her gaze was lifted somewhere beyond the kitchen table, beyond the easel that waited by the wall, and perhaps beyond the cottage itself. Her dark brown curls were tousled like the dunes of a windswept beach, and it seemed as though her crouch on the chair was much like the one of someone bracing for a cold wave to wash over bare feet. Mother thought this as she stirred a pot of rosehip jam, her forearm catching a narrow shaft of sunlight, watching the sharp gaze of her daughter: Noa, she mused, is about to say something very important.

Her daughter began to speak with a mouthful of toast, her right hand poised thoughtfully in the air as she held her next bite, her eyes still turned towards the place that Mother couldn’t find. For a moment, Mother imagined Noa’s thoughts as a landscape that haloed her mind, as if she could reach towards her daughter’s tousled head and touch here, a desert on her right temple; here, a forest of daydreams on her rosy cheek; here, the quiet stretch of sea across her forehead. Her frizzed hair were the wispy clouds that watched over this secret world, her expressions the wake of a thousand vessels of thoughts that seemed to be hurtling through Noa’s mind at any given moment. I should draw this, Mother thought, gently placing the wooden spoon on the counter with a paint-streaked hand.




The salty wind wove through the aster flowers and made it seem as though they were dancing. The waves, from the point of view of Mother, who leaned against a mossy rock with a sketchbook in her lap, were breathing, and Noa with them as she bobbed. Moments ago, her dark brown curls, stark against the blue and gray and green of the ocean and sky, had curved into the wind as she’d waded to her chest, then dipped below the waves. She’d reemerged a few yards offshore, shouting about something she’d seen below the surface, Mother couldn’t catch what, she was too busy finding the right shade of gray. Next to her was a row of Noa’s treasures: a fish bone, three cockle shells of slightly different shapes, a carpet of moss the size of her thumb, an old orange peel. 

Mother and the beach seemed to be moving, up and down and up and down as Noa bobbed in the waves. She’d just opened her eyes underwater to a glinting silver veil of minnows. Her toes couldn’t reach the sand now and she kicked her legs to stay afloat. The cottage seemed small against the green mountains and deepening gray clouds that rose above the rocky outcrop where it sat, and Mother, too, was a lonely blue speck. She had not answered when Noa had called, and she could see why now: Mother’s pale forearm was moving furiously across something in her lap, which Noa knew at once was her paint palette, and every now and then she glanced up to find the place where the sky and the sea were the same shade of gray.

Mother noticed Noa watching her, her small head framed by the vast silver world––too small. Several familiar images materialized on the page of her sketchbook as her brush moved delicately: the distant gray line of horizon, a small flame receding into the night, a jam-smeared butter knife forgotten on the kitchen table, an old stuffed bear in the closet.




“Why are you my Mother?”


Noa’s eyes turned to Mother: she was leaning against the counter with one hand, the other hand in the pocket of her overalls. She imagined her tousled red hair as a tangled spool of yarn. Mother shifted onto her right foot, her eyes uncrinkling and widening until they were open and afraid, the corners of her mouth flattening, her brow softening.

Noa, to Mother, looked like a sparrow as she sat folded into the wooden chair with a mouthful of toast. She seemed to be watching her intently, her robin eyes like arrows. Mother had been thinking of sparrows nine years ago in her drafty Dublin apartment. She remembered: she’d placed down her pencil on the drawing table when she heard chirping outside the window, opened the screen and leaned out into the damp spring air, watched a sparrow dart into the still-bare branches of the rowan tree that was barely two arms-reaches away. There were young down-gray sparrows there, their eyes still glazed and closed, their yellow beaks like tulips, wide open and chirping. Mother had been unnerved by it all: the quick and darting desperation of the mother bird, the hatchlings that sent shrill arcs of sound into the early morning air. 

And then there was the accident: the cold December night, the skeletons of trees raking across the bed, the dark curls of hair in the moonlight, the love that was forgotten and tucked away in the corner, like an unused canning jar, like the glint of an old tin of tea in the back of the cupboard.

Mother found the handle of the mug on the counter. Noa seemed to be standing on the edge of a cliff, her toes curled over the seat of the chair, her body poised in waiting. She knew her daughter was watching––knew she would, someday, have questions more breathless than this. She crossed the room, sat facing her daughter, and imagined painting her expression onto a canvas.




Mother had taken the paintings out of the cigar box and taped them to the wall behind her easel. The first of Noa in the sunlight and haloed by her imaginary world, the second a collage of forgotten things, the third a portrait of her face, delicate and curved into a question. The room was illuminated by three candles and remembered more than Mother could: Noa’s first morning as a bundle of blanket, the sounds of her gurgling laughter and the wind that sighed around the corners of the cottage the next stormy autumn, the improvised dances and scattered drawings, her whispered stories and the slamming of doors, the opening of windows into soft spring mornings and the last goodbye in May, seventeen and a half years after her arrival, as Noa and Mother folded into each other and wept like charcoal silhouettes against a bleak world, before Noa left for the place where the sea meets the sky.

Mother leaned forward and blew out the candles, brushed her gray hair from her damp cheeks, and floated out of the room and into the dark hallway. It was barely after midnight, and the moonlight flickered through the bare branches of the rowan trees and sent swaying shadows against the far wall.

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