Zoe Gilbert (University of Chichester, UK)
I am preserving the sun in jars. Such a gift this year, after drifts of snow and frozen mud; a winter that wouldn’t make room for spring. This golden apple, summer sun, I am preserving like quince marmalade. I scoop it straight into jars and carry them, warm, glowing into the house. I have filled one cupboard already. The gold will turn to pink as the clocks go back, then russet come November. I’ll have no need for Guy Fawkes fires of flaming autumn leaves with my cupboard full of sunshine jelly, golden apple jam.
Last night I could not sleep, my skin prickling in the heat. I made out the cupboard in the dark hall, edged in gold where sun leaked through the cracks. I checked inside. Two jars had blown their lids. The dark cupboard shelves were streaked with yellow dust, like pollen. I licked my finger and dabbed. It fizzed on my tongue, not sherbet but the stale flavour of turmeric. I’d been so sure that preserved sunshine would taste sweet – sticky like honey.It grew hotter and hotter, stifling in the house. The garden the following day was 33 degrees in the shade. The jars I had left I took outside to fill at intervals; so I would have midday sun, afternoon haze, evening glow, all preserved. I arranged them in rows in the cupboard according to colour: bleached blond, desert sand, rose-gold, saffron.
I was not sleeping, only drifting in the sultry night, when I heard a clatter from the hall. Three more jars had popped off their gold tops. I decided to move the rest of them to the cellar to keep cool. The orange dust from the opened ones burned my fingers. When I put them in my mouth I tasted chilli, cinnamon smoke. It surprised me again, this spice in place of sweetness, dry heat that made my mouth water, made me forget my dreams of sunshine marmalade on winter toast.
Next morning the mercury showed 38 degrees. I emptied out the flour jar, the spaghetti jar, every jar I had, and spread them on the patio to collect the strongest sun so far.
The thunder cracked at 3am. As lightning lit the room the telephone rang.
“There’s someone in your cellar,” whispered my next door neighbour’s voice. Thunder boomed. “Call the police.” She began to ramble about leaving windows open. Rain was flickering again the curtains.
In the hallway I could hear the rumbles and bangs, not from the sky but from beneath my feet. Light seeped from under the cellar door, ochre motes spinning in the beam. My toe glowed red when I poked it close.
I put on my sunglasses, held a tea towel over my mouth, and opened the door. Yellow plumed like smoke into the hall, eddying, glittering. Down the creaking steps I went, into the space that should be damp and dark. Light spun in Catherine wheels. Exploding jars sent silver shards shooting up to lodge in the beams like circus knives and the air fizzled, thick with the dust, lily pollen.
The cellar walls were singed. My hair crackled, but the aroma through the tea towel was a spicy heaven: paprika, mace, ginger, smoky chipotle, mustard seed. I stood in the dusty golden tempest, dodging glass, jumping at the firecracker pops and watching the jars send out the plumes like spice-filled puffballs.
Soon I tingled with unbearable heat and retreated back up the stairs. Rain hammered at the kitchen door. I flew out into the garden and let giant raindrops sluice me while the last crashes from below rattled the house.
As water soaked into my charred night dress it disintegrated and fell to the ground in a mess of burnt tatters. Lightning flickered and made a strobe light of the sky. I looked down. My skin was golden. I was a gilded woman, spotted here and there with bronze freckles. The glow from my skin cast a yellow halo on the patio, like a buttercup held under the chin.
That was a week ago. It has not stopped raining, luckily, for the cellar is still smouldering. And so am I. Even in this grey, rainy light my skin – and all around me – is washed with gold. I tinge the things I touch; my sheets are smudged with gold dust. I heat the rooms I sit in as I marvel at myself. Wherever I go, I leave a trace of spice in the sparkling air.
Zoe Gilbert lives in London, UK, and is a part time PhD student at the University of Chichester. Her research focuses on folk tales and the fantastic in contemporary short stories, and so she is obsessed with both reading and writing fiction that departs from reality. Her creative work has been published in journals and anthologies in the US, UK and Ireland, and she is working on her first short story collection as part of her PhD.