Mrs. Thornby looked up to the sky to assess the state of the weather, and since it seemed to be cooperating, she continued, at a speed that defied her age, dragging her feet a little like a bratty child, to kick up the dust. Her sensible demeanor made it look like she had somewhere very important to be, somewhere she was obviously late, and she grinned quietly at the thought, picking up the pace to maintain the illusion of purpose.
That day Mrs. Thornby had sorted her prized collection, which had taken her a whole lifetime to accumulate, boxes and boxes of it, stacked on top of each other, and noticed that there was a slot left in one of them, and if there was something she couldn’t stand it was an empty slot in one of her boxes. Hers was a collection unlike many others, and she was very proud of it, despite the fact that she was otherwise the modest kind of woman who would never let pride show.
Other people collected porcelain figurines, commemorative plates, stamps, or thimbles. Mrs. Thornby gathered dust. Most people laughed at her, they couldn’t understand why she called hers a collection, her little box of tiny dust bins. It wasn’t any regular dust, either, she only gathered it from her shoes, a testimony to her travels.
At the top of the lattice was a little container of fine gravel from a hike through the Rockies she took when she was only fourteen. Her parents had devised the trip as a reward for ending the school year with nothing but the best of grades. The weather didn’t cooperate, sadly; it rained most of the time, and through the entire trip glorious thunderbolts, thick as a forearm, whipped through the sky to find their way to the ground. Her parents were distraught, because what they had thought would be a reward turned into something more like punishment. All of them were cold, wet, and covered in dirt the entire time, and the rain was so thick they could barely see two feet in front of their faces. They had nothing to gaze at but the thunderbolts slicing through the wet sky.
Mrs. Thornby had never seen thunderbolts like that, and when they arrived home she scraped the mud off her shoes, allowed it to dry and kept it in a little box as a reminder of nature’s glorious power. This was the start of her collection, she really didn’t mean to start one, but she made a point from then on to shake her shoes over a white sheet of paper whenever she came back from one of her exciting trips and put the dust in a box, fastidiously labeled with the place and the date.
It was of course a lot less dust from her travels to large cities, and more of it from her walks through the parks and the countryside, but she was proud to say that she had dust almost as old as she was, and, honestly, she was quite old.
Mrs. Thornby opened her little box of samples and picked one at random: it said Lisbon, 1949. The dust was a fine loess, the kind that gets windblown over cobblestones in the dead of summer, baked by the sun and dried until it turns to powder, slightly yellowish on the bottom of the tiny black box it was stored in. She remembered that day, with bright sunshine gleaming over the hills and the sea, and the cheers of her vacation buddies, who had had a little more sangria than they should have. She wasn’t supposed to go on that trip, but the opportunity presented itself at the last minute, so now she had the dust of Lisbon in her precious collection, almost seventy year old dust, light gray-yellow, and finer than powder. She smiled to the memory, which included the heart melting dimples of the boyfriend she had at the time, what was his name, Estevao, Eusebio, she couldn’t remember exactly, but she did remember the dimples.
She had to buy a cheap toothbrush when she arrived at the hostel late in the afternoon, to gather all that precious dust that coated her black shoes after a whole day of wandering through the city. She was tired and thirsty and dreaming of a tub of cold water to sink her blistered feet in. She was almost sad to disturb the light veil of powder, translucent like a cobweb. The toothbrush’s first touch was brash and stroke a discordant note on the perfect coating, but tired as she was, she wanted to make sure it was stored safely before it had a chance to scatter on the floor.
She closed the box carefully and placed it in the lattice of black containers, all the same, with only the labels different: San Francisco, 1969, New York, 1934, Sydney, 1986, Oslo, 1992, Reykjavik, 2006, New Delhi, 1956.
There was one space left in the box and she had thought long and hard what to fill it with. She walked the streets for an hour or so, thinking, until the sun went down and she got tired.
Upon arriving home she took off her shoes and placed them on a white sheet of paper, brushed the dust carefully into the last bin, labeled it “Home, Now” and placed it carefully in the empty slot, to complete her collection.