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Short Fiction Contest: Elinor, who could not kneel

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Emanuela Franchini
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For our 50th Anniversary Short Fiction Contest, we asked you to send a 700-word, or less, story in which Montana Public Radio is mentioned in some way. We'll be accepting entries until March 15, 2015. Winners will be announced in April. This story is by Joanna Pocock.

Hard bone against hard stone was intolerable to Elinor. Whether it be her kneecaps, the ball of her foot, or her heel. Even as a child in church, it made her sick to feel the crunch of her knees against the wooden prie-dieu. It reminded her that she was closer to dust than she liked. But she no longer went to church and the only time this nausea surfaced was when she got out of the bath: her bare feet against the cold clay tiles.

Before stepping into her bath this morning, Elinor had forgotten to turn off the radio. Every now and then disembodied words entered the bathroom: Montana Public Radio News … Jihadi John … West London …. Safety over vaccination …. Money … public lands …. The food on our plates … And he was terribly afraid of mushrooms and hats …

She must have misheard this last one.  She thought about going into the bedroom and turning it off or at least changing the channel, but she couldn’t be bothered. She would open the book John had given her in preparation for their upcoming adventure as her way of escape.

The book fell open at a chapter called ‘The Lotus Walk: Peculiarities of Chinese Culture’. A black and white photo of a woman reclining on an embroidered ottoman held her gaze. The woman’s feet, like tiny pigs’ hooves, peeked out from under the hem of her gown. Elinor’s eyes swept across the page to another photograph showing bullet-like knobs of bone, toes curled under like the folds of a root vegetable. These tiny appendages were their dowries, guaranteeing safety and happiness, as long as their husbands never saw the naked, deformed feet or smelled the rotting flesh.

She threw the book onto the bathroom floor as far from the tub as possible and held her breath. Down she went, the water cresting her forehead. Eyes closed, Elinor stayed under as long as her breath held out. There was no bad news down here until she imagined how those women would have walked. Small steps like a Geisha or the stop-start of an unsteady toddler. Then she was up again to take air. She couldn’t shake the images from her head. Perhaps binding her feet would have allowed her more freedom: the freedom to walk without feeling any ground.

…. Concern over oil trains. … unsafe water ….

Down she went again. This time she counted to twenty-five.

Why were they even going to China? It had been a dream of theirs twenty years ago. But while the world had changed, their dream had not. It was too late to cancel. Flights were booked and John was excited. He talked about their trip to anyone who would listen. He described to the guy in the corner store what congee was in great detail. And thousand-year-old eggs. He was looking forward to the food, he said.

The bathwater had gone cold. John would be home from the office soon. Now that he was semi-retired, he didn’t need to go in. But he did anyway.

Supper had to be made. Elinor prepared herself for the feeling of her bony feet against hardened tiles. They were once soft. They were once clay dug from the ground. How she would have liked to walk on these tiles before they had been fired and glazed. Daily she prepared herself for this. There was nothing to be done but submit, bone to stone. It was simple gravity and anatomy and she had no choice but to accept.

… we need to protect nest eggs.

Elinor walked into the bedroom and turned the radio off. 

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Enter your story in the MTPR 50th Anniversary Short Fiction Contest.

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at PRX.org and MTPR.org.
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