Sandra Arnold

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She is the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell, Mākaro Press, NZ, Soul Etchings, Retreat West Books, UK and Sing no Sad Songs, Canterbury University Press, NZ.  Her short fiction has been widely published and anthologised internationally. Her novella-in-flash The Bones of the Storywill be published n the UK by Impspired Books in mid-2023. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize.  She has a PhD in Creative Writing from  Central Queensland University, Australia.

All doors lead to Aunty May

Home for the holidays and I’m back from the library with an armful of books. My father eyes Origin of Species by Charles Darwin at the top of the pile.

            “Is this what I’m paying your university fees for,” he says, in the ominously quiet voice I know so well. “For this blasphemous bullshit?”

            “What’s your evidence for refuting it,” I say, ignoring my mother’s warning headshake.

            “All the evidence you need is in the Bible,” he says, his words straining against his clamped teeth. “God created Adam and then created Eve.”

            “That’s not evidence,” I say. “Believe in as many myths as you want, but don’t expect me to.”

            His face turns purple. He opens and closes his mouth. Finally, “If that’s your attitude, if that’s the thanks I get for my years of paying school fees, now university fees, all those years of giving you opportunities I was never lucky enough to have, then I’m done with you. From now on you can pay your own way.”

My aunt is delighted I go to stay with her for the remainder of the holidays. She doesn’t ask why. On the first Sunday morning she tells me we’re going to Church.

            “Not me,” I say. “I don’t believe in God anymore.”

            Aunty May’s mouth drops open. Her eyes pop. Her hair is electrified. The earth cracks. Lightning flashes across the sky. Tsunamis rise from the sea. “You can’t say a thing like that,” she gasps.

            “I can.”  

            Aunty May collapses into her armchair, clapping both hands over her heart. “That’s blasphemous. Don’t you know the meaning of blasphemous?”

            “I’m eighteen,” I say. “Of course I know what blasphemous means.”         

            “If you know the meaning then how can you say such a thing?” She inhales and exhales loudly. “I would never ever say such a thing. Your mother would be appalled if she heard you say that..”

            “She wouldn’t,” I say. “We’ve talked about it. She doesn’t believe in God either.”

            The colour drains from Aunty May’s face. “And does your father know what his wife and daughter say they don’t believe?”

            “My mother hides it from him,” I say. “But I didn’t and that’s why he threw me out.”

            “Threw you out? You’re telling me my sainted brother…? No! I don’t believe you. He would never do such a thing.”

            “He did. My mother told me not to tell you.”

On my 21st birthday Aunty May invites me along to her Spiritist meeting. She says she finds it aligns more to her current beliefs than her former church. She adds that I mustn’t tell my father this now that we’ve established a truce after my graduation. She tells me that even though I devastated him with my blasphemous beliefs I’ve earned his respect by working at a waitressing job to pay my own fees. “Despite your opinions,” she says. “He acknowledges your determination to succeed and that makes him proud.”

            I look at her and raise one eyebrow.   

            In the packed hall the lights dim and the medium walks on stage in a flowing white gown. She closes her eyes then opens them wide and points to someone in the audience. In a sing-song voice she delivers a message from the person’s long-dead father. The woman she delivers it to starts sobbing. I sigh and look at my watch.

            “Stop fidgeting!” Aunty May hisses. “It’s disrespectful.” Then she nudges me. “Look! She’s pointing at you now!”

            The medium tells me that she sees a row of doors in front of me. Each door represents a different path to my future and it’s up to me to choose which doors to open and enter.

            “How original,” I mutter under my breath.

            Aunty May glares at me. “Just keep an open mind.”

Twenty years later, at Aunty May’s graveside, I reflect on her words. The first door I opened resulted in marriage to a clone of my father. I stayed with him for ten years believing I could change him. One day Aunty May whispered that I should leave before I turned into my mother. The second door led to working with a control freak boss where I wasted more years trying to please until Aunty May asked me what in Heaven’s name I thought I was doing. After my parents died she advised me to close all doors to my past and use my brains to open doors to my future. I told her I didn’t believe in doors, open or closed, but I took her advice.

            In the churchyard the other mourners walk back to their cars after telling me how pleased they are that Aunty May “returned to the Church in the end”. I watch them depart. The crows in the trees break the silence with their harsh cawing. “A murder of crows” Aunty May used to say after every church service we attended here. When I showed her the story I’d written about crows in my school essay she smiled from ear to ear and took me to the library to find collective nouns for other birds.

            Some of those bird words surface in my memory, the ones I loved to say out loud to Aunty May. I say them now under my breath. A stare of owls. A watch of nightingales. An exalting of larks. A cast of hawks. A charm of goldfinches. A congress of eagles. A dole of doves. In my head I hear Aunty May laughing and chanting along with me. I’ve forgotten the names for all the other birds we looked up in the library, but I do remember the library is just across the road from the church.

            The carved oak door of the library is closed. I remember how I used to love running my hands over it as I pushed it open, listening to its welcoming creak. I push it open now and breathe in the smell of old books, old memories, new stories.  


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