by Eliza Kelley
She sleeps propped on a pillow, her bed slightly elevated, her eyes closed but not fluttering as they say happens during a dream. I hesitate in the doorway, concentrating against the weight of my face, my expression guarded and locked like those bars on either side of her skeletal forearms and shins that are draped with light cotton blankets, the kind used for swaddling newborns. I look at the rails and wish they were steel, polished with the hospital smell that is invisible but everywhere, like the tension keeping my head from falling into my hands. But the rails are plastic. Molded forms with icon buttons and no words.
I’ve been in this room all my life, inside that something final, that vein where saline drips unseen, that biohazard bin full of her urine pads and the IVs she ripped out when no one was looking. Restraints encircle her waist. Velcro braces straddle each of her forearms, their padding attached to long cotton laces tied behind the bed to keep her hands apart. Her skin is mottled with burgundy hemorrhages seeping through parchment. Her breath fills the room with the sour warmth of bread dough left to rise too long.
Now I am too close; she seizes my hand. One eye opens and I stand on the hump of a back seat floor, my chin resting between the driver and passenger seats on the way to a funeral I can’t remember except for her face turned suddenly to mine, these yellow fingernails, the forefinger that digs into my soft skin, a crescent of blood dug into my hand for whatever it was I did wrong. My jaw tingles now, expecting the same gasp of pain but her grasp softens. She draws my hand closer, lays her cheek in my palm. A tear falls on the moon scar. Take me home now, she says, and another tear waits in the corner of the closed eye. She sleeps for a moment long enough for me to back away and fall into a chair against the window. I watch the new tear gather to a droplet. The one eye opens again, loiters on roses embroidered at the neckline of my dress. Paper-white lines in her face press closer together. Ashes of roses, Annie, don’t make him touch me, she says, and then drifts away again.
I follow the map of gray base lines pushing up raised flakes of dead skin on her tiny calves. The sheet is littered with flecks of dry skin. Narcissus petals on a linen table cloth. Over the table edge my fingers sweep the dry Christmas blooms into a pile. The house is quiet and cold in January. It is time for jonquils but nothing surges under the white except the watermark left by a serving dish. No one changed the linen after no one came to dinner. The stain seeps through the bandage on her elbow and into an ochre outline around an open wound where they said she must have taken a razor blade to a cancerous skin growth the same morning she collapsed.
She moves again. The sheets slough off her shoulders into folds across her lap, covering the fists on either side that rock her into a sitting position. From under that unmoving eye the blank side of her face sashays downward, hangs below her chin. I see layers of living room sheers across the picture window where I hide behind pinch-pleated draperies. I smell the lavender oil Annie dabs on each wrist and combs through her white hair at morning. I think I’m getting a teensy bit too old, she says, and Annie’s rose-print hem lifts almost to her knees as it does when she reaches for flour from the pantry shelf. The window shakes at the blast and the white sheers are splattered now, strips of raw pink to gray wet slick papier-mâché; I peel one strip away from my arm. It stretches, glistens mucous, sticks to my fingers and it won’t shake off. My father lifts me up, pushes my face down to kiss her forehead. The lavender is formaldehyde, and black stitches pinch together a crazy quilt under her white hair. The dark lid closes.
My mother smiles half the smile she kept for him, reaches out, takes the cigarette he offers and holds it between her lips. She asks him for a light. I stand and walk to the white wall, to the blackboard where someone wrote the day, month, and year in blue chalk. I point and read the blue words to her and look to see if she understands, but she sees him through me, spits anger, says she’ll just ask a stranger for a light. I sit back down next to the oxygen tank. Maybe he is here. Maybe her taunting made him jealous after all. Or maybe I’m seeing things because she does. My father says I do that. He says no matter the sickness in someone else, I think I have it too. I imitate. I emulate. I become. Hypochondriac, he murmurs at me from the ash.
At least I know what year it is, I say to the urn on a buffet shelf. I talk back, still under my breath, still afraid of his hands, but tempted to pour his gray powder down the toilet. I pull him from the shower stall. He lands on the toilet seat, screams at the water snakes, shivers as I shave his neck, threatens to vomit after I dress him and threatens the same all the way to the airport. But he never turns to look back at me while the flight attendants lead him down the hallway to his plane, steadying him against their shoulders, this poor father of mine who cannot speak clearly because of a recent stroke. They would not board him if they knew. So much depends on the lie. At the wall of windows I stop to tie my sneakers and watch his plane back away. Go ahead and puke now, I say, and the eyes of a dark-suited man move up from his newspaper to sting my back as I walk down the terminal corridor.
But my mother doesn’t see cottonmouths cutting across shower stall tiles. There are spiders here, traveling florescent walls. They devour each other until only one is left to watch from the web of shadow. There, she says, In the corner—Red—Red Eyes. Christ. And I don’t even know what “DT’s” stands for. But I know the black spider belly will grow taut and burst, spew newborn demons, fanged and ravenous. Soon there will be entire worlds colliding within these white partition walls. The sound of approach becomes a vibration so intense I expect an angry nurse to peer through the observation window, then storm into the room and demand an immediate explanation for all the commotion.
They like it quiet here, you know. It’s part of the prescription, part of the game, the first and last chapter in the book I grew up with. A book not bound in burgundy velvet, its gilded family tree laid open on the parlor table, but a tome covered in skin, tanned with a code of silence etched on each vellum page. I imagine the nurses on this ward must take some noble oath, like: Don’t ever tell anyone about these mad utterances, this human spillage, this atrophy. But I know they like to listen, the way the neighbors did. Then one of them will say oh, poor soul, and I will imagine weaving my fingers through a handful of her hair, twisting her head around to make her look. I want to kick the side of my mother’s ribs until she rattles; I want to show everyone there’s nothing left in that body. Leftover ice in an empty glass.
But the worlds. I almost forgot. They are not the kind of worlds with moons and rings of colorful atmospheres, not the kind that define a universe or hang on posters in classrooms or from fishing line suspended inside science project cardboard boxes spray-painted black. Planets don’t collide, and there are too many of them here to count, and they are shape-changers, forms without form or liquid or gas, like eyes and red. Like the moment before the first word is spoken at our turn to speak, the word that waits too long because we can’t assemble any sound between lips trembling before a consonant. The word that fills a bladder unable to hold its weight, warms thighs, drenches knee socks and overflows saddle shoe arches. Are you just going to stand there in that puddle? Spell water, I said, say it! Now spell the word and say it again!
I need to wash my hands, my face. I walk to the sink, lean toward the water, and the pontoon boat dips under lake waves. They toss the anchor into weedy shallows. He pushes me from the edge. Wade through to shore, he says. In thunder and water thigh-high to them, I wrench each bare footstep out of the muck, choke and gag at each murky splash down my throat. Lightning splits a pine crying out from the embankment as my father and his brother hold me down, pick leeches from my legs, search the crevices of my body. My teeth chatter and cut through muffled screams and I bleed in the rain. The woman next to me looks up at the mark around my throat. My god, what happened to you, the woman says. Another world. Don’t be afraid, I tell her, and I brush the wet strands of hair from her face. You are safe now. The mark is a halo, the circle that shines around a moon after a storm.
But in the mirror, outdoor light brightens behind us through the window blinds, streams to the tangled ash blond hair around my mother’s face. I turn around to an impact that knocks the wind away, expands and explodes into every color. This is the final presence, the chance taken, the ache underneath the place where my right hand flies up as if to make a pledge or to keep one, or at least to try to remember the words. But the breath, the exhale, the entire prophecy, is nothing more than a whispered name.
I sit down on the edge of the bed. Tremors flutter my mother’s eyelashes like wind in a feather. I stare at her downcast eyelids while she gathers quarters, millions of them, she says, spilled in a silver lake bordered by these rigid hills, the sharp rise of a blanketed femur and tibia landscape. The tire rope unravels mid-swing. For three days I cannot walk, cannot make my way to the table for supper. He laughs and says you’ll cut out the crap when you get hungry enough. She drives me to the hospital after we’re sure he is passed out. The doctor reaches up, clips an x-ray to the light cabinet. Too late now, he says, unless you want to re-break the leg. My arms are tied down. They stretch the length of side arm table appendages swung out and locked in position. My heart is a line of mountains, a tone sounded at each peak. These are not bells. I am not looking down at gargoyles guarding a stone cross. I want to go home. I want to see the painted rainbow, the colored lights strung across the rooftop garden. I can’t feel my legs but I hear the fracture, the glass inkbottle burst on a brick step.
The bones of her legs move like cliffs crossed by swift sunlight between clouds. She leans right then left, her arms pull at their restraints, alternating sides like a mechanical thing, its pincer hands taking precise turns retrieving coins from the sheet. I want to help her with the ones in the center, just out of her reach.
But I can’t. Even my fingertips are numb. Cold plaster gauze wrapping on my leg stretched strait hardens under fluorescent light. Here’s a nickel, the doctor says through his green mask, it’s shiny, see. He flips the coin into the air. It lands on the instrument tray, spins on the edge of a stainless steel reflection.
ELIZA KELLEY is a Dakota portrait artist, writer and teacher in Buffalo, NY. Her work centers on the voices of the nameless, dead or alive, the ones who invent new street dances, play guitar at the metro, and sing vodka lullabies to donated tombstones. Recent fiction, poetry, and essay publications appear in RKVRY, Yellow Medicine Review, Pedestal, CONTE, Origami Condom, and Trillium, among other magazines, journals and anthologies.