Editors' Choice

The Ring

by Sophia Tellen

A symbol of long-ago dreams surfaces, and finds a home.

Shadowy brooding possesses my soul. Clouds hover over the rose garden. Where does promise dwell? A story overshadows me, invades. I move aside uneasily. What will this story tell? Tightness grips my stomach. It spreads upwards, hits between the ribs. I am back in constriction. Back behind the Iron Curtain, back in my hometown. I have just returned alone from the mountain village to which my father packed us off in such haste this summer. I am back from the Mountain of Wolves.

It was there one winter, when the village was covered with snow, that my father was out with his first two daughters. It was there, when the Berg was white with snow, that the rabid wolf came racing towards them, gnarling with foam. And it was there that winter that my father simply turned to face him, and with his good left arm tightly fisted, bashed him on the nose. (The story was told and retold in our family, of his courageous act, and how he had made the wolf turn and slink away, but how, thereafter, my father had to have twenty injections, straight into the belly).

In the town below the foreign soldiers had moved in and were looking for girls. I, child, am six or so.

One does not get to this village by car; the train goes part of the way. But one gets there in an open horse-drawn carriage that also serves to carry hay. (Three hours are long on the rickety plank that is the seat). The village is primitive; open drains run alongside the cottages down the rough stone street. The peasants wash their vegetables and their feet in the kitchen sink (so my mother used to complain) and the water trickles out lazily to the side of the road. Bread is baked in an oval outdoor oven. Cows are hand-milked. Down in the coolness of the cellar the peasants leave some of the rich full milk to curdle slowly in deep earthenware pots. Later it becomes Sauermilch, chunky with soft iceberg cubes that float in whey. (There is a long ladle for this). Eating is simple; we get a soup plate full of this curdled milk and a chunk of black bread. I love this. When we’re extra lucky we get a slice of bread thickly spread with goose fat, crystal-topped with sugar. In those days, I think this is wonderful.

There are several small children; we make a little band, in fact. We run around barefoot like mountain goats. Town-child, I step gingerly at first, as on jagged glass. But by the end of the summer I skip along tough-soled, and agile as the others over the rough, sharp stones of road. The village children are clever, I think. Especially Peter. He teaches me how to make a boat. We send the paper boats with their straw masts down the open drains. They have shorn my hair that summer and put me in rough-cloth shorts. The boys are lucky in that outdoor way; a tree is all they need. But I have to lag behind and hide. I am the only girl.

Something has happened between us up in that mountain village; something deep and true.

“Papa,” I tell him excitedly, back in my hometown. “Papa, I am going to marry Peter. But he has no shoes. Will you buy him a pair, from me?”

My father is very thin and tense. He looks at the floor; then says something or other.

But something has happened deep inside me that summer; something for which I have—as yet—no name. In the shadowy past of a little girl’s knowing resides a memory that now bolts out of my esophagus, too long held captive. A memory that now wants to be owned.

Outside, the soldiers trampled the streets, hungry for something. The World was then in War II.

Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum!

But where had all the lasses gone?

Inside, I followed my own dream.

“Mama, I need a ring,” I told her urgently, back home alone.

Mama was very beautiful and had many necklaces and rings in those days, a whole box full of them. Surely she could give me one?

“I need a ring, for me, my Mama,” I repeated, and did not think this was a problem.

“So you want a ring?” had said my scraggy middle sister back there in the village, when I first dared to put it into words.

Then, in those war days, she was just fifteen.

“A ring, you say? Just come with me!”

And she took me out to the road where the homecoming cows were crossing. A few paces behind them walked a peasant leading a thickset bull with a long pole. The clip on the end was hooked into a ring in the bull’s nose.

“See that bull?” said my sister sharply, while I stared at her, unable to grasp the point. She glared at me from above her too-thin neck, while her forehead puckered into a desperate frown.

“See that bull?” she insisted. “See his nose? Right? Well, you can have a ring just like his!”

Her jibe sank down my esophagus as I drew in my breath sharply, and slipped deep down inside me like an icy, king-sized marble, that has lain there ever since.

When I got back home, I bothered my mother and I bothered my father, till despite those jibes, I got my ring. We went to the big polished jewel-box and my mother and my father and I bent over it. Mama’s fingers pushed the rings this way and that, till they rustled and clinked against each other. At last, she picked one up—too big for me by far—and held it up to the light.

“You can have this one,” she said.

It was Papa who had the ring remounted, little-girl finger sized. It took what seemed a long, long time, but then, at last, it homed proudly on my left fourth finger.

But no sooner was it given, than again it was taken: for the time had come to leave, with only a suitcase or two.

Papa said,

“Nonsense! You can’t take that ring with you. It’s out of the question!”

And that little-girl’s embodiment of dream was left behind, though the icy, king-sized marble slipped out with her.

***

Fifty years passed. Inhabited again one day by that strange, uneasy brooding, I set out on foot along the tramlines into the center, dreaming of a ring, without knowing why. It was not my birthday, not an anniversary, not even Christmas, but something was simmering inside me. The sun shone brilliantly as I, woman, followed the solitary trail, heart set on a fire opal.

I had pursued that trail tentatively ten years before, then too, without knowing why. It had led me to a wholesale jewelery shop whose large showcase displayed a rich array of rubies and sapphires straight from the owner’s own private mine in South America. But that was where my adventure ended, then.

Now, a decade later, I wanted to go back there. A faint memory drove me to the wrong passage and up two flights of stairs, only to bring me to a halt in front of a closed door with a drab sign: MOVED. But the scrappy, hand-written address beneath it led me to another jeweler’s shop altogether, one I had never seen before: small and discreet, with very little on display. There was just enough room for one man behind the counter, and a leather chair in front. I lingered outside long, looking in. Two heads were bent over a necklace; then the client left.

I entered, slow motion, as in a dream. Timidly, at last,

“Do you have a fire opal to show me?”

“No, but what do you want it for?”

I could not say, really. I did not know. But he began to talk to me about gemstones and their powers, most passionately so. “I believe that each stone has its own vibration and its own power. Some gems can even heal. Don’t you think so, too?”

I only smiled in response. He stared at me, then added: “But you know about vibrations, I see.”

He fished under his collar. “Look,” he continued, “here on this chain I wear a square of jade and an amber dragon. They protect me, keep me healthy, and bring love and victory.”

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“Italy,” he replied proudly. Then he looked at me intently. “So you’re after an opale de feu! Is it for a pendant? No! For a ring?”

It echoed: “For a ring.”

“What do you want to pay for it?”

“I don’t know.”

The Italian in him rose to the occasion: “Just leave this to me.”

***

Seven weeks passed and I forgot that trip into town. Then one day, at the office, my phone rang.

“The opals you ordered are here.”

“The opals I ordered? But I only asked for one!”

“Well, I got you three.”

Three?”

“A young woman brought them in for you today. They’re free.”

Free? This is Geneva! What do you mean by free?”

He laughed. “I mean,” he said emphatically, “you don’t have to pay for them!”

I couldn’t wait to get to the jeweler’s shop after work. The Italian looked exceedingly pleased with himself and welcomed me with a broad smile. He unwrapped three rough fire opals, like orange shards. The summer sun lit them fiercely, revealing flashes of color that played and changed. Their orange glow filled me with warmth, brimful. But I felt perplexed.

What young woman came in?”

“Actually,” he began, “a young man came in first. You know, the traveler kind with a rucksack. Laid his grubby handkerchief on the counter and unwrapped a fire opal. Brought it back from Mexico or somewhere. These kids come in here all the time. But I told him I had a client for whom I need three, and turned him away. He must have talked about it. Half an hour later a young woman walked in. Same kind; long dress and rucksack. ‘I’m giving you these,’ she said, ‘for the lady who needs them for their vibrations or something.’”

The jeweler grinned boyishly.

“So you see, I wouldn’t dare to make you pay for them!”

I picked the most beautiful stone for the ring. Suddenly there was a lot to discuss: the shape, the cut, the setting, to polish it or not. Then it went to the workshops: first the lapidary, genuine artisan of the old school (now not many left, he said); then the setter for mounting.

“Keep these for earrings,” he concluded, handing me the other two fire opals.

***

It took seven weeks before he summoned me: the ring had arrived. Oval now and translucent, orange fire danced in the sun as I held it up to the light. Its burnished glow suffused me. Then I, half-century woman, slipped it on my finger, and instantly turned six.

“What did you really want the ring for?” the jeweler asked quietly.

But I had already slipped out.

There had been no promise, but what life had once taken, it now restored. And the memory was made beautiful.


Sophia Tellen, educated in the English language, is a psychologist and free-lance writer (Geneva Writers’ Group) and a permanent resident of Geneva, Switzerland.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Sophia Tellen

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