The Potato Thief
Short Fiction ~ Katherine Koller
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Mavis could not sleep, so she wandered her yard at night, soundlessly, to not disturb the nocturnal creatures. Already this summer she’d watched a porcupine munch fallen apples, a skunk wave through the daylilies, an escaped chinchilla nibble her sweet peas, a coyote strut down the alley, and deer posing in the pocket park. Alive and moving, they consoled her. Tonight, she heard the gate creak open, and followed the stone path to the back. A boy quietly upturned a hill of potatoes, set her pitchfork back against the fence, pocketed the spuds and folded the dried plant top into the compost bin. When the gate clicked shut, he met Mavis’s gaze. Even in the dark, she could see hunger in his hollow eyes. He ran down the alley, long-limbed and swift.
By the time Mavis limped down her driveway, she saw nothing under the lane lights. He must have ducked into another yard. A few nights later, he didn’t notice her until nine potatoes bulged in his pockets. “You can have more,” Mavis said, guarding the gate. “Squash, tomatoes, carrots.”
“Let me out,” he said, voice thick with panic.
She opened the gate. “Come back in the daytime,” she called after him.
A few days later, he did. He was maybe fifteen, but very stringy. Her own son, at that age, needed food every hour. He was retired now, and wanted her to live with him and his family in Australia, a land of no winter.
The boy stood still. “You said, carrots.”
She invited him to her patio, but he wouldn’t move from the gate, so she went back for her tin of carrot muffins, then opened it to offer him one. He took the container, grabbed the lid from her hand, and ran with it out the gate.
The next time he came by, it was dusk. He appeared more comfortable in the near-dark, or maybe his belly was a little less empty.
Mavis waited for a response, or thanks, for the muffins, but realized that returning the tin to her hand said what he meant. She asked, “Do you have a way of cooking your potatoes?”
He nodded. “Microwave.”
“You can do squash in there, too. Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, put some butter in the cavity, and cook until soft.”
He concentrated on her next instructions.
“Decide which one you want, and twist it until the stem breaks off,” she said. He slowly freed a medium-sized kabocha.
She said, “If you keep the seeds, and dry them, you can plant them next year.”
His eyes flashed at her.
“Next time I see you, I’ll have soup.” His eyes scanned the ground now. “You can warm it up. Are you alone?”
He nodded. And then he left, the squash under his arm, running, as usual.
As dark fell three days later, he came once again, and waited at the gate. Mavis, in the kitchen, took her time gathering the soup, her sweater, her cane. She flicked on the garage outside light. He flinched, but stayed put, looking all about him.
“Every space is planted,” he said.
“My husband,” she said. “He put it all in.”
She wondered how to survive without her Max. He was hauling home mulch for the flower beds in their Volkswagen van. The accident did not give her any time to prepare or say goodbye, and so his garden, as old as their marriage, contained both comfort and hurt. His presence, in the jaunty slant of the duck decoy on a stump and the fine pruning of the lilac. His absence, most keen night after night, and so she wandered the yard, which attracted all the others, including this boy. She held up the soup.
“Could you dig the rest of the spuds?”
He took the pitchfork and began at the row farthest from the gate. She brought boxes, and a glass of water. After, he carried a box of potatoes to her garage. Another full box of potatoes, with the tub of tomato soup, went in her red wagon, and he walked home with it. This gave her a chance to get down to the alley in time to see which yard he entered. Four doors away, the house that belonged to an old bachelor. He and Max used to trade perennials, raspberry varieties. When the man died, his tidy little house went to rentals, but Mavis hadn’t noticed anyone in it lately. Until the boy.
After two weeks, and no sign of him again, Mavis picked and washed some carrots and apples and baked a loaf of bread. She filled a bag and, with her cane, strolled down the alley in a scented wind that recalled a mountain holiday with Max. Disturbed by the urgent bang of hammer on metal, the memory faded away. Workers erected a construction fence. She asked permission to view her old neighbor’s yard, and they let her in.
Wrecked furniture and waist-high weeds. The prized raspberry canes, overtaken by Manitoba maple trees. The heirloom apple tree, diseased, almost dead. Glass knocked out of a basement window. Crumbling steps. No sound from the doorbell.
She stepped through fluffing dandelions to touch the trunk of the apple tree in the way of goodbye, and found her red wagon under it. The box of potatoes, one-quarter full. The soup tub, washed, laid on top. She added her bag to the wagon, and the workers parted the fence for her, then pinned and banged it closed. Leaves blew from every tree on her way home. She wondered if she could harvest the garden that Max made in time. She worried about the dark winter ahead, unsure she could enter that tunnel without him. Her next thought was for the boy, the hope he was safe.
She emptied the wagon, and in the potato box she found a jar of squash seeds.
Katherine Koller writes for stage, screen and page. Her first plays, Cowboy Boots and a Corsage and Magpie, were for CBC radio. Her full-length stage plays include her Alberta LandWorks Trilogy: Coal Valley, The Seed Savers and Alberta Playwriting Competition winner, Last Chance Leduc. Her web series, about Edmonton youth changing their world, is at sustainablemeyeg.ca. Art Lessons, her novel, was a Finalist for the Edmonton Book Prize and the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. Winning Chance, her story collection, won a 2020 High Plains Book Award and the Exporting Alberta Award. Her stories have appeared in Grain, Epiphany, Room and Alberta Views.
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