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, 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.
been in this room all my life, inside that something final, that vein where
saline drips in 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 dough left to rise too long.
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 canít 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 sour 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, donít
make him touch me, she says, and then drifts away again.
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 growth
the same morning she collapsed.
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 Iím getting
a teensy bit too old, she says, and Annieís 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-m‚chť; I peel one strip away from my arm. It
stretches, glistens mucous, sticks to my fingers and it wonít 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.
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 sheíll 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 Iím 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.
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 a lie. At the wall of windows I stop to tie
my sneakers and watch his plane back away. Go ahead and puke 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.
mother doesnít 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 corneróRedóRed
Eyes. Christ. And I donít even know what ďDTísĒ 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.
like it quiet here, you know. Itís 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 nurses on this ward must take some noble oath, like: Donít 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 motherís
ribs until she rattles; I want to show everyone thereís nothing left in that
body. Leftover ice in an empty glass.
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 donít 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 canít 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!
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. Donít 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
the mirror, outdoor light brightens behind us through the window blinds, streams
to the tangled ash blond hair around my motherís 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 name in a whisper.
down on the edge of the bed. Tremors flutter my motherís 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 youíll cut out the crap when you get
hungry enough. She drives me to the hospital after weíre 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 canít feel my legs but I hear the fracture, the glass
inkbottle burst on a brick step.
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
canít. Even my fingertips are numb. Hereís a nickel, he says through his
green mask, itís shiny, see. He flips the coin into the air. It lands on the
instrument tray, spins on the edge of a stainless steel reflection.