Phillip Sterling

The Red Skates

Will he reach for them, or her?

He arrives in the spring, near enough to Easter that perhaps a gift is involved and the pond still frozen, where the geese walk awkwardly, un-Christ-like. Up the hill, the Greyhound has come and gone, and the man that stepped down from the bus, the man walking briskly to the other side of town, where work is rumored to be found, pulls up abruptly when he sees the woman with the red skates. Such fine figures! Such fumbling with the key—such loose hair and fur-trimmed coat in the way!

A hint of silk stocking.

Her name is Rowena, though he doesn’t know that at the time. (He will learn it later, from the newspaper.) At the time, he doesn’t know anything about her, beyond her fussing with the skates, and the geese standing doubtfully on the pond, and her wool hat—too small for keeping all that hair in—the ruddy color of a song bird.

The geese stand equidistant between them, triangular, with the answer, like much of the landscape, merely black or white, as in a word problem in geometry.

Yet her hat is rust-colored, thrush-like, like the birds from back home, which the man had left two days before, when he’d gotten on the bus and rode the y-axis of his country’s map for two days to get to this northern town, where there was work to be had and where he has paused for just a moment to watch a young woman—his age approximately, he’d guess—adjust her skates with deliberation worthy of a song (as if optioned for screenplay in some distant animation).       

—Two days from spring well advanced and the dogwood trees bright with song, the birds well-nested and brooding.

—Two days on a bus heading north, sixty cents in his pocket, and the rumor of jobs in a welcoming town, with no preconceived notion of stopping to watch a young woman preparing to skate on the thin spring ice of a pond that many Northerners would be certain could not support anything more than the weight of migratory birds—colorless in their winter coats—nor any thought of the skates, it must be said, that even from a distance one could see were uncommonly elegant, of foreign craftsmanship no doubt, the most beautiful red skates the man has ever seen.

Skates worthy of the silk stockings he’d glimpsed, and, he’d like to think, her elegantly thin ankles.

So the man—intrigued—stops and watches, and shivers against the cold of a spring that’s yet to arrive. This Southerner seeking work.

And the woman rises in a motion more graceful than the man could believe—to a height more than elegant—and steps onto the ice and glides for the briefest moment toward him, as if she knew.         

Phillip Sterling’s books include two collections of short fiction, In Which Brief Stories Are Told (Wayne State U Press 2011) and Amateur Husbandry (Mayapple 2019), two full-length collections of poetry (And Then SnowMutual Shores), and five chapbook-length series of poems, the most recent of which, Short on Days, was released from Main Street Rag in June 2020, after several months of quarantine.