Penelope, a short story

woman wearing green top reading book
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

I do not know your name. But you remind me of someone I knew.

The natural curls on your auburn hair flow gently in the slightest breeze. Your head hangs low, eyes keenly fixated on the novel on your lap. Your eyes are stormy, a heart-wrenching grey which reminds me of my runaway wife. There is beauty in my wife’s eyes, a sparkle that spurs men, like me and that rich lawyer, longing and lost trying to find it. I cannot tell what you are reading but I can make up the crescent of your lips, pursed and a hint of camellia pink. I cannot tell if you are smiling but I can imagine a blush forming when you do just like a burst of sunshine on a cold winter morning.

You breathe slowly. And your elegance is intoxicating. You remind me of a ballerina who strides across the stage, legs ready for a pirouette. In many ways, you are poised, refined, and yet sophisticated. The way you sit with your legs stretched out and book in lap, on that grass plain in your frilly blue pinafore, reminds me of Georges Seurat’s painting of people resting in a park along the Seine River. To compare you to the subjects in Seurat’s masterpiece is to do you a great disservice. But it seems surreal. Too surreal.

I do not know your name. I suppose you could be Victoria or Eleanor. But I think not. You are more than that. You the epitome of loyalty, intelligence and beauty. You are Penelope, named after the faithful wife of Odysseus, the symbol of connubial fidelity.

And dear Penelope, I pray you are happily married and have kids of your own. I pray you like Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue“. I pray you cook well. Most importantly, I pray you are happy.

You are Penelope, named after my daughter. My daughter who passed on in my embrace on an agonising Autumn morning twenty years ago. We were huddled in the comfort of her room, just the two of us – father and daughter. For some reason, we were both looking out of the window. It was red, like your auburn hair, a lighter shade of scarlet quite unlike a normal fall. The branches lay bare, the ground and pavements filled with red leaf litter, the roads deserted. She cradled in my arms and I hummed to Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”.

Early one morning the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough

Leukaemia. That was what Dr Gillian told us. Strangely my daughter was unfazed when the news broke. She thanked Dr Gillian for everything and requested a discharge. Dr Gillian refused and of course, my daughter put up a fight. I could do nothing but watch the whole exchange. My daughter had leukaemia and she refused treatment. Of course, I was to blame. I had no money. I could not give her hope. It was gone the day her mother decided to walk away with everything from us. The journey home that day was quiet, it was her and her Walkman filled with Bob Dylan, and me with my eyes on the road.

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you.

My daughter liked Bob Dylan. Not because I liked him, nor because “Tangled up in Blue” was my wedding theme. She just liked him. She has a whole Walkman dedicated to him. In the five years she battled against leukaemia, that was her most prized weapon and possession. Whenever I sing Bob Dylan’s, she would sometimes hum along. But that autumn morning, she did not. She kept quiet in my embrace and looked out the window. In a way, I think she knew.

In a way, I think she was ready.

 “All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint”

I should have known. But I chose not to acknowledge it. And I think that was what she wanted. So, I hummed along to the tune of “Tangled Up in Blue” while her breathing became shallower and her body colder. She was so smart, so talented, so brave – so vulnerable. Someone once told me a saying, “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy, physiology and biology. But in examining people with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”

My dear Penelope, you need not move away the moment our eyes meet. True, I have been staring at you for the past hour. But, this old man means you no harm. He just misses his daughter. You reminded him of her and he yearns to reach out and hug you. But he cannot, not with his cane, not in his condition. You see, Penelope, this old man was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and he has slightly less than a year left to live. So, Penelope, will you grant this old man a favour?

Will you stay? Please.

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