The Canisters

JB & BJ Grim

The seven years of exile were over. Speaking out against the government had exacted a heavy toll on Dmitri and Galina. Not only were they sent away to do hard labor, they now had to begin all over again and with poor health and no money. At least they had their village to return to where friends and their cottage waited for them.

They watched the familiar scenery come into view. A passing farmer had given them a ride on his hay wagon, not even realizing who they were or what they had suffered. He might have been interested to know had not their disheveled appearance made him suspicious. He flicked his reins and kept his senses alert.

When Dmitri had last been in this region, he was strong and robust. His face had been full as well as his hair. It was no wonder that this neighborly farmer failed to recognize the man beneath the sunken cheeks and thinning hair. The same was true of Galina. Before the exile she had been radiant with the knowledge that she was soon to become a mother, and her figure was rounded and rosy. On this, her return, she was waxen and frail. The child had died at birth and there hadn’t been another.

Yet, both were thrilled to be returning. Wasn’t this the very day they had dreamed of all the days of their exile? For seven years in their daily brief time to speak to each other, “We’ll soon be home” were the last words they whispered as the guards forced them to part at the fence separating the men from the women. Their lives had been built upon convictions about fairness and justice and equality, and when they had been singled out from their village as troublemakers and dissidents, they were glad to stand up for their beliefs. No one could dissuade them from pointing out the injustices. They knew there was a better way. But it had earned them exile.

Before the mock trail, some friends from their village had secretly expressed their sorrow and even privately pledged their support, but they hoped Dmitri and Galina would understand that they themselves had to lay low to avoid the risk of also being sent off to do hard labor. Galina and Dmitri had large hearts that could accept another’s lack of courage and still believe they were true friends. In light of this, they asked their friends to keep certain household treasures for them while they were gone. They said it would be a long time until they returned and so their belongings might as well be used by others.

To one friend had been given bedding and rugs which, at the moment of Dmitri’s and Galina’s arrest, the friend had sorely needed. A leak in his roof had destroyed his own. To another friend whose old parents were coming to live with him and his wife was given a table and four wooden chairs that Dmitri had made himself.

To yet another comrade they had given three favorite canisters. These canisters had sat on their kitchen shelf in previous times holding the makings of bread — yeast, flour, and salt. They were airtight with the lids on, but their larger value lay in their decorative appearance. Sitting side by side they formed a complete scene of pastoral repose worked in a mosaic of miniature tiles.

As Dmitri and Galina neared their home, their hearts were filled with emotion. Here was their little cottage in their own home village, and it was the fulfillment of a long-desired dream to be coming up to the door. Curtains in other cottages were gently pulled aside as Dmitri and Galina approached the front of their cottage. No one rushed out to meet them as they had imagined, but their large hearts, which were undiminished by their years of hard labor, also forgave this display of timidness. They knew that first moments were always awkward even among good friends and they were prepared to wait for their welcoming, though in their oft-repeated dream it had been otherwise.

Their little cottage was barer than they had remembered, but it was their own private home where they could be together. The curtains still covered the windows but all other furnishings were gone. It appeared that the rest of the village had also borrowed from them in their absence. The little plot of ground in the back was just as they had left it so many summers ago. The tomato stalks had withered and then frozen, as had the weeds that had grown up around them.

The first hesitant knock came. Dmitri and Galina exchanged hopeful looks of being received back into their village. It was an old lady at the door. Her terse words explained the bareness of their cottage and the reticence of their neighbors, “We didn’t think you’d ever come back so we helped ourselves. Here are the things I borrowed.” With that, she left a wheelbarrow of odds and ends, all showing much use and not very much care.

The friend who had borrowed the bedding and the rugs rapped confidently at the door. He welcomed them back as if they had been only on a vacation. Between chuckles and with loud words he recognized that they would be needing blankets, but since the ones they had loaned him were still in use upon his beds and he was quite attached to them now, he returned in their place the ones that had been damaged by water so long ago. They were now dried stiff and carried a bad smell and not a few holes. But he offered that these would serve royally after what they had just come from. “My wife is all in a stir,” he added, “afraid that you’ll want your rug back, and she doesn’t know how our little Junior will be able to play if he doesn’t have the rug to crawl on. I told her not to worry, that you don’t have a child, so you won’t be needing your rug.” With that he left and promised to come again after they were settled in.

The friend who had been loaned the four chairs and table trundled up to the door with a cart, but on the cart were stools and a low table. Without a word, he unloaded the shabby pieces and set them up as if they were fine furniture.

“I would like to return your own pieces, but my old parents have grown quite attached to them and besides, they are too old to sit on stools which have no backs. And as you are only two, you can eat on a small table. We are four and need more space.” The man wished them a happy homecoming and left.

They saw no other neighbors that day, although every now and then something would be left outside their door that had been borrowed during their period of exile. Slowly their house began to be filled with the material goods of a home, all of it having once been theirs or a substitution for what had been theirs. Most noticeably, however, Dmitri and Galina missed the sounds and feelings of being welcomed home. The poor condition of the returned belongings only accentuated the poor quality of the village’s acceptance of them.

It wasn’t until the second day that the friend and neighbor who had borrowed the three canisters came by their cottage. Both Dmitri and Galina were working in the garden and didn’t hear his knocking until it became pounding. He carried a bag into their cottage and set it down casually onto the low table. Without any reference to the contents of the bag, he plied them with questions about their exile, and begged them to forgive the aloofness of the other neighbors. “Everyone thought you were strangers when you came into town. Lucky for you that I recognized you. Some of the folks were going to come at you with pitchforks. Your appearance is a bit of a shock, but the villagers will come around to believe it’s really you.” Pledging his unwavering friendship and promising to stand up for them until the rest of the village could accept them, he left.

Dmitri and Galina were sobered to realize their appearance raised suspicion among the villagers. It truly felt like their exile was not over. At least they had the presence of each other which, except for one short conversation each day, they had not had during their seven years away.

They both turned toward the bag on the table expecting to find their treasured canisters that would redeem the drab appearance their cottage now had. Opening the bag, Dmitri put in his hand and lifted out a common pottery vessel with a piece of warped wood for a lid. He reached for the next one, hoping that only one of the beautiful canisters had been replaced. The second container was like the first, only with a large chip missing at the lip. Still with anticipation that the third might be one of the works of art, he pulled out another common brown pottery container, and this one with a crack running down the side. It couldn’t be denied that the three canisters before them, cracked and chipped and only one with a lid, a warped lid, reflected their own alteration from being healthy, vibrant, respectable people, to being sallow, sober, and shunned. The more their things were returned to them, the more they understood their pathetic position.

They summoned their courage to rebuild their life and their place in the village. It appeared more difficult now than when they had done it before. All their resolve was required to not become embittered, especially as they had survived the exile without being broken. However, their former jobs would not be given back to them and they were faced with the need to survive, yet without the means to do it.

One bleak evening when the fullness of being ostracized settled heavily upon them, they sat staring at the empty broken canisters. Of all their unreturned possessions, they mourned the loss of the three beautiful canisters the most, for they felt their beauty would have given them hope that they too could become beautiful again. But at the moment, nothing but tears would fall over the empty broken canisters, and the tears turned to deep sobs as the full weight of being broken themselves was realized.

When their grieving had abated with the flow of tears, they stared in wonder at the three canisters. Assuming they were seeing something that wasn’t there, they blinked and rubbed at their eyes. Finally, they touched with their fingers and verified the presence of yeast in one canister, flour in the second canister, and in the third, a spice which appeared to be sugar or salt, but was different from either. How they came to be filled was unexplainable, a mystery.

Mystery or not, Dmitri and Galina decided to make a loaf of bread to console their hearts and assuage their hunger. When it was made they ate it in awe. No bread had ever tasted so light and airy, and the spice seemed to build a fire in their veins. Even the smell of it baking had been unusual. While they ate it, they became aware of people passing to and fro outside their kitchen window.

A neighbor with the most pluck knocked on the door with some lame excuse, and then asked what made that unusual smell. With no shame, he even asked to taste a piece of bread, and further, if he could take a bit home to his wife. Dmitri and Galina discovered that their hearts were still large and that they could forgive the wavering of friends and neighbors. To anyone who came that evening they gave a taste of bread until the whole loaf was gone.

The next day, however, much to their surprise, the canisters were not as they had left them the night before. They were full to the brim of yeast, flour, and spice. So, much as people who are making their way out of a dark tunnel following only the pin prick of light, Galina and Dmitri began to make bread. The aroma wafting on the breeze was the only advertisement needed. Before the first loaf was out of the oven, a group was gathered outside of the door. When they began to ask if they could have a taste, Dmitri answered, “Of course. We sell it by the loaf. Who’s buying today?”

From that day onward, the canisters never went empty and Dmitri and Galina were known for their large hearts and their bread.