12 May 2013

A Fabric Owl and a Broody Dragon

I often wonder what became of the broody dragon who didn’t seem to like her job as our art teacher in secondary college. A shame really – we were a lively lot of girls keen to follow our dreams as budding artists but Miss Bongiorno’s art classes  only inspired dread.

Three decades later, I read the guidelines for a short story competition where entrants were invited to write a brief memoir, a reminiscence of their early life and so, I submitted a story about the incident in the art room.

I was thrilled to learn that my story, His Emerald Eyes won equal first place with ten other writers and was published in Fifty Plus News last December.


Short Story Competition Winners’ Series

His emerald eyes

 At fifteen, I couldn’t wait for the new school year to begin. It was art class I pined for, the creative space where fellow alchemists played with facets of light, and the colour spectrum to create magic upon paper or canvas. The art studio that spilled over with quirky pieces of art.

But this year, we had a temperamental art teacher – Miss Bongiorno. Welcome to the new art class, ruled by her critical tongue and evil eye. Nothing seemed to please her, least of all, our art projects. I often sat by the bay window, carrying out her orders as quietly as possible, avoiding her stares. Students whisper around me, wondering whether she could be this scarey at home. Maybe she was having relationship problems – did she even have a boyfriend? Maybe she was a lesbian? God help her, or him. Empathy swirls around our gossipy group for Miss Bongiorno’s mystery lover as none of us dare to make eye contact with the broody dragon tapping her ghostly-white claws on the teacher’s desk.

On one particular day, we had been commanded to bring our sewing project to class for marking. It was a matter of do it or brave Miss Bongiorno’s detention. Sewing with thin needle and thread had become a difficult task for me: I had been prescribed glasses as sight was fading rapidly due to a mystery eye disease. At home, it was natural for Mum to show me how to blanket stitch the emerald eyes of my felt-toy because she was a gifted seamstress. Without mum’s help to thread fine needles and secure cottons, I would not have completed my art assignment in time.

Perched proudly on Miss Bongiorno’s scratched mahogany desk, sits my fabric owl, among the menagerie of other students’ toys. Dipping a camel-hair brush into acrylic paints on the newspaper-covered table, I feel relieved to have met her deadline and focus on my new painting.

‘She’s looking at your owl,’ tugs my friend in a warning whisper. Sudden panic.

‘Come here please.’ Miss Bongiorno’s stern voice penetrates my fearful heart. The class shifts with restless interest. I place the long brush to one side, wipe my hands on an old rag, mouth uncomfortably dry. Coming out into the light,  I step towards the stirring dragon. 

'Did you sew this owl by yourself?' She speaks in a low tone, rising a little taller in her gnarled chair: eyes as green as ivy. Scrambled thoughts bubble in the intense heat rising from her inquiry. Stomach juices churn. My legs feel like they are about to crumble from underneath me. Standing uncomfortably close to her chair, my hands cannot help but fidget with a crease in my white art smock. I stare just above her gaze, fixing upon her long blonde fringe. I notice as if for the first time, her hair obscures thin rimmed-glasses and an unattractively narrow nose. What should I say? Surely she knows I am having trouble seeing these days? She too wears glasses, she of all people will understand.

'No, Miss Bongiorno. My mother helped me.’

‘R-e-a-l-l-y.’ Her face burns bright. Miss Bongiorno twists around in her chair, holding my soft toy in a tight grip, and as if there is an invisible net hanging from the ceiling, she hurls him high across the room, hissing,

‘Unpick it NOW. I’m not here to mark your mother’s work. Sit in that corner and do it again by yourself!’

I feel a deep tremor of shame. Fighting back needles of tears, I dash away to rescue the crumpled owl lying face downwards on the grey cement, his sweet orange beak bent and his stuffed wings split at the seams. I want to flee from her sight, to never, ever return, to fly home with my owl and ask mum to mend my broken heart, his broken wings. But instead, I do as commanded, holding the owl close to my chest, as if this will stop me from falling apart. In the darkest of corners, I let tears flow while fingertips glide over the soft toy, tracing the cotton stiches that outline his emerald eyes and I wait. I cannot unstitch my mother’s love. I wait for the sound of the school bell to herald home time.

‘The mother's heart is the child's school-room.’

Henry Ward Beecher

©2013 Maribel Steel

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