There was so much to do yet, too much. Every corner needed swept, every cobweb dusted away. But first all the drapes had to come down and be washed of an entire year’s worth of soot; once clean, they’d flap cheerfully in the wind on the clothes line at the side of the house; a passerby might observe the gauzy sheers cavorting with loud florals and lacy panels on this one annual occasion when they’d rub shoulders, like peasants with royalty. She would start in the little front living area and work her way to the rear of the cottage. The bookcase in the room was a source of pride and would be emptied of every volume; she’d flip through all the pages and in so doing relieve them of an entire biosphere of creatures disturbed from their year-long industry but indiscernible to her. Hands accustomed to hard labor agitated a cotton rag in the bucket of soapy water; wringing it brought foamy bubbles to the surface, and a few escaped to the floor. Saturday morning sunlight shone through the bare-naked window and made rainbows in the bubbles but they escaped her notice, engrossed as she was in her task. After washing every shelf clean, she continued to the modest coffee table and the few objects arranged on it: a spotless ashtray in amber glass; a porcelain figurine of a cherub-cheeked child wearing lederhosen and standing on a patch of grass; a careworn leather-bound Holy Bible, King James version, with a psalm bookmarked in red satin ribbon; and an empty bud vase she’d later fill with wildflowers growing near the hedgerow among the wild blackberries. She would continue on in this way in each room, changing bed linens, fluffing pillows, beating rugs, and washing every window, an action which would render the paint inside the cottage a full shade lighter.
Next came the bigger work of the kitchen and lone wash room in the house. For these she tied her hair back in a bandana and pulled on a beleaguered pair of rubber gloves before her knees found the tiles underfoot and she began the thankless task of scrubbing. The disinfectant’s pungent odor made her eyes water and would endear these rooms to no one, but she satisfied herself with the notion one could eat off the floor if they so desired, and anyway the house would air out in plenty of time to welcome guests inside. Satisfied with the floor and the bathroom plumbing fixtures, she applied a mixture of ammonia and soap to the vanity mirror, where the silver had worn off here and there over time, resulting in a somewhat comedic abstract of the human form gazing into it. Like the drapes elsewhere in the house, the shower curtain had come down for washing and flapped lazily outside in the breeze. In the kitchen, every appurtenance, such as they were, she removed from the modest countertop and placed upon the small dinette table, while she applied the same muscle there as she had in the bathroom. The acrylic had worn through in some areas and was chipped off entirely in others, and so however much effort she unleashed on it had only a negligible effect. It would look better with the canisters neatly arranged, from tallest to shortest: flour, sugar, tea, and coffee, said the bright red letters in the white enamel finish, even though the smaller of the two held neither tea nor coffee, but instead chicory in one and little mints wrapped in cellophane in the other. And she would fill Mason jars with flowers and set them on the ends of the counter to serve as another distraction.
On Sunday after church, cousins, aunts and uncles, even great aunts and uncles (not many because most were long gone), and a few other obscure relatives that reeked of mothballs would come inside to drop their covered dish in the kitchen, but finding the space altogether too cramped would hurry back outside onto the porch or climb down into the front yard to visit. Later on when she invited everybody back inside to help their plates, she would listen as they gathered around and dished out casserole and congealed salad, plunked fried chicken drumsticks down next to their yeast role, and decided maybe they’d try a little egg-with-olive after all, cooing about how good it was, just taste of it and see.
The one person she longed to see would be missing, as he always was, but hope springs eternal went the saying, so she never stopped hoping and would draw energy from that until the last cousin bade her farewell and until next time, and disappeared down the road, leaving a patchy trail of dust in the fading daylight. Then she would curl her legs up under her on the small settee in the front room and open her bible and read, noticing how the single teardrop that fell from her face, for a fleeting instant, magnified the typeface before the page absorbed it like a sponge. An aged tabby who had made himself scarce for hours now materialized silently upon her lap and in short order insinuated himself between reader and book, demanding her full attention the way you can always count on a cat to do.